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Soft Forever

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The first month of school passes like all the others.

By now Liam’s expected the worst of the marks, the knee scrapes that get more creative explanations each month. If his father knows where they come from, he doesn’t say.

It gets worse when he has to switch medication and gains weight. Then his boyish appearance fades, doesn’t gain much pity from onlookers, even when the sounds of the boys’ hands cutting in the air are too loud to ignore. No one says anything.

He goes to the office, gets bandaged, goes home.

This is the third move in four months. Liam crosses the days off with a red X, keeps tally of the worry lines that crease the corners of his mother’s face.

But Liam’s happy. His sister doesn’t get bullied at this school and he can hear the cicadas outside his window as soon as it’s dusk. He isn’t as pale, isn’t as sick as he used to be.

It’s the hottest September in twenty years.

 

 

*

Liam swings his legs over the pier and sits, bottom of his tennis shoes just grazing the water. He turns over his shoulder to watch his mother put water wings on Cecilia’s arms, her knees red and splotchy from the wood.

On the water, a few boys sun bathe on a moderately-sized boat. It’s brilliant white like morning with a blue stripe run across its middle.

“Mum,” Liam calls. Her eyes do not move from where they are trained on Cecilia’s form, walking towards the edge of the pier. “Who are those boys?”

“No idea, love,” she stands. “Why don’t you go say hi?”

“What’s the point,” Liam mutters, petulant. “We’re just gonna move again.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t make friends.” She sits next to him, folding her rubbery legs together. “You still keep in touch with Zayn, don’t you?”

“I guess.”

Her arms around him are patient, brimming with maternal understanding. She looks at him and sees straight through. “I know it’s difficult. We might not even have to move this time.”

“You always say that,” Liam frowns, but leans into her warmth.

“Suppose I do.” She tucks her chin over his head. “I do want things to turn out alright here. I quite like the local parks.”

“Me, too,” Liam murmurs.

There’s a boy standing up on the boat. He’s tanned beyond belief, swim trunks low on his hips—lower than his tanline can reach, so a white band frames where the dark hairs disappear beneath the fabric.

Liam tenses, fingernails curling into the skin of his palm. He thinks about waving. Instead they look at each other—that is, he’s sure the boy is looking at where he and his mum are, but then the sun hits just behind his back and it hurts to keep looking at him.

Swallowing down the dust of an expired summer, Liam stands and walks back to the base of the pier.

There is no name yet to the lurch in his stomach.

 

 

*

 

 

That night he dreams about the pier. The boys are all ghosts and they want Liam to come onto the boat. It’s not the way the golden boy stares at him, or the way he returns that stare, that settles in his blood. It’s the fact that when he steps onto the boat, he doesn’t look back once, not for anything.

 

 

*

 

 

After that, it rains for a week.

Wednesday he’s waiting to be picked up by his mum underneath the school’s mint green roof and the water comes down all at once, like sleep. He hears them screaming before he sees them—a group of boys running in the rain, shirts discarded along with their shoes, the summertime trailing their elegant necks.

The gold boy is there, louder than any of them. Liam lets his mouth quirk just a little, pictures what it would feel like to run with them.

What it would feel like to belong somewhere.

 

 

*

 

 

Z
hey ! aha whats good man? thought id check in on my favorite friend :)

Liam
youre only friend Z … jk what up?!!

Z
nothin much lol might come and visit soon hows the new neighborhd

Liam
its alright people r nice i guess. i made the track team actually

Z
what !!!!!!! li thats sick congrats

Liam
thanks :) ive gta get up early tomorow text u then?

Z
for sure talk to you soon bro

 

 

*

 

Strangely, it’s the thought of those golden boys, their image just like his, that allows him to withstand another month of those cyclical, behind-the-school initiation rituals. Just one month, though—because by winter hols, he’s learned how to fight back, and his frame is less soft, less vulnerable than it was.

He doesn’t mean to hit so hard, but it’s nice to see a black eye on someone else besides himself this time.

The group of boys don’t seem as keen on fucking with him after that. They stay by the trash cans, on opposite sides of the lunchroom, far enough across the field at track practice that they can’t touch him.

 

 

*

 

 

Liam wriggles his toes in his fuzzy snowflake-patterned socks. Zayn sits at the foot of the bed, fresh pack of cigarettes opened. Tobacco and cinnamon fill the space around them.

“I like the red ones,” Liam smiles. “They’re quite strong, aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” Zayn grins. He looks Liam up and down again, for the third time since he arrived early that morning to stay with his family for the weekend. “You know, if it weren’t for that teddy bear on the bed, I’d swear it wasn’t you in front of me.”

“Do I really look that different?”

“You do,” Zayn nods. “But I guess a lot’s happened, yeah? For both of us.”

Liam quiets. He grabs at his blue toes with his fingertips. “What’s gonna happen next, then?”

Zayn lights a cigarette. “Suppose they let me back home, I’d have to go back denying it. Denying myself. Lying some more.” He inhales. “That’s best case scenario.”

“But Z,” Liam reasons, reaching for the cigarette, “if it means you get to—if it means homelessness or a home, I mean, it’s—it’s not even a question, innit?”

“I’ve been working for a while now,” Zayn watches him suck on the cigarette. He lights his own and goes to crack the window. “I have enough money to get a place. Guess then I’d have to keep saving, like, if I wanted to get to uni someday.”

“You know we’d,” Liam swallows. “I’d let you stay with us. You’re family, Z.”

The snow’s fallen in thick tufts all day, soft and unassuming. It never makes a sound, never tries to. Zayn seems impossibly thin, the rings under his eyes darker than the worried cuts on his bottom lip. He smiles at Liam, “I know. Think I’ll stay with Harry, though. For a bit.”

“Harry’s your—he’s, you’re with him, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Zayn ducks his head. He ashes the cigarette and turns back to watch the snow outside.

“Well,” Liam says, with a curious lilt, “what’s he like, then?”

“Solid,” Zayn says. His smile is evident. “Solid as a tree trunk. Prettiest eyes. Nice mouth.”

“Is he nice?”

Zayn’s profile comes into view, his eyes barely regarding Liam, “He’s been nicer to me than anyone. Especially since you left.”

“I’m sorry,” Liam whispers.

“Don’t be.” Zayn’s head turns back to the window. “You couldn’t protect me from those wankers forever, yeah? There’s always gonna be racist shits.”

Liam watches his shoulders move, slight, on every inhale. He murmurs, “I’ve missed you loads, you know.”

“We might not be able to see each other for a while,” Zayn responds, just as quietly.

“I know,” Liam stands. Their breath is visible now in the quickening cold of the room. It should seem sad, the knowledge that this is the way another boyhood ends. He thinks how old they already seem at sixteen, unsure of everything except the way their bodies move in the dark.

Sunday Liam sees Zayn off at the train station, a new address hastily scribbled onto a gum wrapper and safe in his jean pocket.

 

 

*

 

 

He writes him through to the end of March, because Zayn writes back, and for some time this is where happiness decides to stick. At his fingertips while he reads of Harry’s new job, their new flat, the galleries Zayn visits in the evenings with his arms wound tight around Harry’s waist.

Flashes of domesticity, of a love Liam’s never prodded at with his own mouth. Just heard about.

I think I want to paint, Zayn writes in February. I think I want to paint more than anything. He attaches drawings, doodles of tattoos he’s thinking about getting.

Then Liam has to prepare for the meets, has to learn how to drive, has to get a job, and it slips his mind more often than it should to write Zayn, ask how he’s doing.

Nothing before then seemed finite. No one he knew had died and he never listened much to the news—if there were bad things, they were only the private ones he knew, the bruises. And it had been a long time since the last bruise.

It’s the beginning of May before he realizes a month has passed between their correspondence. He hasn’t written him in so long, and it’s inconsiderate, but then, Liam thinks—Zayn hasn’t written him either.

 

 

*

 

 

He places first in the track meet, his teammates granting their shoulders as a temporary throne, the joy in his gums and teeth and finally, Jesus, Liam can actually touch a happiness. It’s real.

His fingers fiddle with the medal on the drive home, his father chatting pleasantly along to the sports broadcast on the radio. Their family favorite team is losing, but the tone is only dipped slightly into disappointed, his mother and sister smiling at each remark.

Liam doesn’t have to hear the sounds out loud to know his father is proud of him.

They don’t move. Cecilia bleaches her hair and he makes friends. Niall comes springing on doorsteps and they almost always eat crisps early in the morning, his laugh spiraling into the night, and things are good, you know.

Middle of May he receives a letter. He reads it outside while it rains and the sweat from a run curves into his mouth, and it’s an invitation.

There’s no way to register the words. Like everything else, he lets them pass through his head.

His body, at this point, is a vacancy only available for grief.

 

 

*

 

 

The day of Zayn’s funeral, he downs a half bottle of cough syrup and ignores the knock of his mother’s knuckles at the door.

The last thread of childhood, severed.

 

 

*

 

 

He misses a week of school, the week before exams, but no one questions his absence and after Wednesday Niall doesn’t show up with an open mouth. Instead he brings a bottle of vodka and snickers bars and they spend the whole night marathoning Marvel movies until Liam falls asleep and stays asleep into the next afternoon.

Sometimes Niall asks about what Zayn was like, but Liam never knows how to answer.

He takes his exams, which he knows he’ll pass, and starts up boxing in the evenings. Every so often he doesn’t tape his knuckles quite right and the skin breaks open, easy, clean. Cuts that bleed for hours afterwards.

It’s meant to chase those dreams away, but it doesn’t happen. In the morning Liam wakes with fever dreams of Zayn’s bloody face, his empty eyes—his mouth hung open like the Surrealist paintings he loved so much, like a martyr that makes the front page of papers.

This is when Liam puts the letters in a box in a drawer and keeps a bottle of vodka by the bed.

 

 

*

 

 

Strangers took to pausing outside Liam’s house, as if they sensed the suffering. Then they’d continue walking, eyes lilting about to see if anyone saw.

Liam always saw everything. But that wasn’t important.

 

 

*

 

 

It’s a Saturday when he parks in the driveway and Niall is sitting on his doorstep, weighed down by some white cloud.

Liam fiddles with his keys. “Alright?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Niall nods, not quite meeting his eyes. He’d given Liam a proper amount of space after he found out about Zayn’s death. It’s exactly what he asked for, but not necessarily what he needed. “I have a favor t’ask.”

“‘Course,” Liam promises, light. “Let’s hear it, then.”

“Well,” Niall stands. “Me best mate, Louis? Y’know of him, right?”

Liam furrows his eyebrows. “No, don’t think so.”

“Well, he’s having kind of a hard time at school, you know. People callin’ him names, messin’ with him. I was jus’ wondering, if…” Niall trails off, eyes blue and expectant.

“If I’d give ‘em a right scare? Look out for him?”

“Yeah,” Niall stuffs his hands in his pockets. “I know you get what it’s like, um—having t’deal with that shite.”

“Yeah,” Liam nods. He tries not to think about Zayn. “Sure, Nialler. What’s he look like? I’ll keep an eye out.”

“I’ll invite him over tomorrow,” Niall waves his hand. “Feel like you two’d get on real well, anyways.”

“Cool,” Liam smiles. He unlocks the front door. “Come on in, then.”

Niall pauses. “Are y’sure?” His face is open, traces of hesitance around his mouth. Liam claps a hand down on his shoulder, reassuring only in the way he lets his fingers squeeze onto his muscle.

“Make yourself at home,” Liam smiles.

“Thanks,” Niall grins, toothy. Relief pools in Liam’s gut at the sight, having forgotten what that feels like—love that returns back to him alive.

 

 

*

 

 

As it turns out, Louis spends all of June visiting extended family in London. Liam’s not sure why he doesn’t think of it, when he’s down at the pier, and doesn’t see the gold boy on the boat.

Niall calls out a hello to him from the white mass, his brown hair brassy at the ends. Liam boards the boat and meets the rest of the lads, Oli who burns as red as his hair, and Luke whose eyes remind him of Zayn’s and he has to spend the whole afternoon avoiding his smile.

They drink beer and play cards. He bums them a few smokes and Niall ruffles a hand in his hair, a gesture of encouragement, a sense of belonging.

 

 

*

The grass is wet. It catches yellow from the light. Liam rubs his hands down his thighs, aware of how the mud will stain his khakis.

It’s mid-day, the humidity too thick to breathe. Liam hears a branch crackle.

“I was watching you earlier,” a kid appears next to him and sits. His hair is swooped over a fair forehead. He’s swimming in his t-shirt and isn’t wearing shoes.

Liam shifts to look at the boy properly. His eyes are grey-blue, blunted. There’s nothing in them but curiosity, which is hushed by his downturned mouth and sloped shoulders.

In an instant Liam knows him and is overwhelmed by the waiting he’s had to do to talk to him—the boy on the boat that never seemed real except when Liam dreamt about him.

“S’a bit creepy, innit? Admitting to watching someone?”

The boy laughs. “But if I admit it then I’m aware of how creepy it is—which is understandably less creepy.”

“If you say so,” Liam smiles.

A cricket. Liam looks down between them. His skin is milky, rough in all the places boyhood has slowly drained dry, but this kid is polished and gold-dusted. He is always immediately striking. The boy catches his eye.

“Are you doing anything after school today?”

Liam spreads his legs out, leaning back into his hands.

“Nope,” he exhales. “Figured I’d go for a run, help my mum with some errands.”

“Sounds like a proper good time,” the boy sits beside him, looks up at him through his eyelashes. “Why don’t you come back with me today, hm? We can walk home together.”

Liam raises his eyebrow. “You’re not going to kill me, are you,” he asks, tone dripping with boredom. “Because I’d rather you let me sort out my will before it happens.”

The boy blinks at him. “Interesting. If I were going to kill you, d’you really think that little request would keep me from doing so?”

“Well,” Liam retorts, “maybe I’ll kill you before you kill me.”

“Maybe,” the boy smiles, its crookedness somehow warm. His eyes crinkle deeply at the corners.

He looks like someone that laughs. Liam trusts people who laugh.

“I’m Louis,” the boy says.

“I didn’t ask,” Liam smiles.

“What cheek!” Louis’ eyes are wide, the curiosity replaced by genuine thrill. “I like it,” he concludes, something about it drawing Liam in. His legs stretch out again over the grass.

“It’s nice to finally meet you,” Liam holds out his hand to shake. “I’m a friend of Niall’s.” Louis regards it with eyebrows high into his hairline.

“And your name is?”

“Liam. I’m sure Niall’s only mentioned me as ‘Payno.’”

“Now that you mention it,” Louis smiles, “it does sound vaguely familiar.” He takes Liam’s hand at last. “Pleasure t’meet you, little Liam.”

He stands up into the daytime. The shade from the tree darkened the spot beneath Louis’ brow bone and now his lashes look thicker.

“I’m going inside,” Louis announces.

Liam casts a casual gaze over the grass. “I’ll stay out here.”

“Okay.”

“You’ve got summer class?”

“Guided study,” Louis admits. Liam wrinkles his nose, a piece of dandelion cotton falling off the tip.

“Should I meet you somewhere?”

Louis eyes him. “Sure you want to hang with me, being a potential murderer and all?”

“I don’t think you’d do that,” Liam says. Spit gets caught in his throat. He coughs.

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“Good answer,” Louis laughs. His hands hang in the air, an aborted gesture, “‘I don’t have any evidence, your honor, but I just know he’s innocent.’” His head flicks to the side in amusement.

“Well,” Liam shrugs, “that’s my answer.”

“Alright,” Louis accepts. “My locker’s on the second floor. Three-two-five. Twenty minutes.”

“Okay.”

“Outside the lab.”

“Okay.” Liam breaks on a smile, unintended. He understands, suddenly, how exhausting an experience it is to look at Louis.

“I’ll see you, then.”

“Yeah. Don’t leave before I get there.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

“Think you’ll still recognize me?,” Liam calls, his own sudden playfulness surprising.

“Of course. I’ll just keep an eye out for the lad with grass-stained trousers.” Louis smiles, wrapped in that eternity of youth and summer so rarely afforded anybody. Then he turns abruptly on his heels and waves, absent, over his shoulder.

Liam all at once is relieved to see him go but then he looks down at his hands. They shake down to his skinny, boyish wrists. He wonders if Louis had noticed.

 

 

*

 

 

Their footsteps carry on the concrete.

Louis, backpack slung over his shoulder, is barefoot again as he walks in front of Liam. There’s nothing to the silence, to the way the gilded and impossible boy steps on stray stones and never winces once.

“Can y’dig round me backpack? Think I left a water bottle in there.”

“Uh, sure.”

Louis pauses. Liam moves slowly into his space, tips of his cheeks dotted with warmth from the wind, the humidity as it sticks. His hand reaches in and fumbles around loose pencils, a notebook, until it closes around a bottle still unopened.

“Here,” he hands it Louis.

“Thanks.” The plastic bottle cap cracks apart.

Liam watches him swallow. Louis notices, offers the bottle to him, “Want some?”

“No, thanks,” Liam replies low in his throat. “Where are your shoes?”

“I was running late this morning,” Louis explains. “Couldn’t be arsed to wear them, honestly.”

“How’d you get away with that?”

“Well—” Louis exhales a laugh, “the teachers here don’t like me anyways,” licks his lips. “I’d have gotten written up for something else if it weren’t the shoes. I can be a bit wild.”

“But doesn’t it hurt,” Liam presses, “like—walking round, stepping on twigs and stones and such?”

Louis looks at him with a sharp turn of the head. His mouth quirks. “Gotta be tough to survive school, little Liam. A few twigs should hardly hurt my stamina.”

“I’m not little, Louis, honestly.”

“Yes, you are,” Louis smiles. “So am I, though.”

They pass a private grade school. Liam’s sister was going to attend here, but the possibility of private school students being the same as they were at the last district was too great. He didn’t mind the insults he received himself, but nothing was worth his sister’s tears or locked doors.

“D’you have any siblings,” Liam asks. Louis is looking through the iron fence, at the candy-orange and pink swing sets.

“Loads,” Louis punctuates with both eyebrows risen. “Four little sisters.”

“Four?”

“Yes. What do you think of the color pink, little Liam?”

“Please don’t call me that.” Liam hums. “Pink is nice.”

“Pink is nice,” Louis wonders aloud. He’s glancing at the sky. “Depends what kind of pink, though.”

“Not the playground pink,” Liam adds. “Too bright.”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees. “My favorite color is when the sun goes down and everything is pink. That pink is nice.”

“Never noticed it,” Liam admits. Everything in front of them is anointed in gold, anticipating their touch, their taking.

Louis hums. “You’ll have to stay and watch it with me today, then.”

It knocks the wind out of Liam’s throat. He reaches for Louis’ elbow with careful fingers, hovers just above the skin. “You want me to?”

“I want to be friends,” Louis mumbles, shrugs. Then, somewhat self-consciously, “You don’t have to be my friend if you don’t want to.”

“I’m just not,” Liam starts. Then exhales. He tugs at his shirt, suddenly vulnerable. “I’m not really used to this, I guess.”

Louis’ face softens considerably. “Well, get used to it. I’m relentless.”

“What if you don’t end up liking me?”

“Nonsense,” Louis’ teeth, neon in the dimming dusk, “I like you best already.”

 

 

*

 

 

They lie on exhausted backs, knees cracking, bodies parallel. Liam sits up on his elbows, shoulders high without tension, and looks in the direction of the sun where it dips. Liam squints at it. “Looks like an egg yolk.”

Louis drums his fingers on his t-shirt, still barefoot. Liam itches in his socks. “Or maybe a lollipop,” Liam offers further.

He hears Louis exhale through his nose. “You’re making me hungry, Liam.”

Liam says through a smile, “Sorry.” He holds out his thumb and covers the sun, briefly.

After a moment Louis hums something low in his mouth. Liam recognizes the melody but only barely. “What’s that,” Liam regards him.

“It’s a song,” Louis breaks his tune to respond.

“Obviously,” Liam says.

When he turns to look at the sky again, the sun is at the tip of the horizon. It carefully edges itself down and flushes deeper pink as it goes. Liam nudges Louis, “Look.”

Louis mirrors Liam, sitting up on his elbows before shifting back on his palms.

“There it is.” Louis grins. His mouth a firm line, eyes tight.

“Your favorite.”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees. He huffs, content, Liam watching him.

“D'you think there’re aliens out there?”

“Sometimes,” Louis admits. He opens one eye and turns his head to smile at Liam.

“I think so sometimes too,” Liam pauses. “We look so small. If they were looking right now.”

“Like two little bugs,” Louis murmurs.

“Yeah.”

“We should wave to them,” Louis yawns. Liam lies back down, “What?” He scrubs the side of his face with the heel of an up-turned palm.

“If they’re watching us right now,” Louis says, “we should wave to them.”

“They'd probably appreciate it,” Liam agrees.

They wave. Liam, tentative at first, then with an energetic shake, encouraged to be bold when following Louis’ lead. It wouldn’t be the last time.

 

 

*

 

 

Liam walks home whistling, making it up as he rounds corners, hops off the sidewalk.

In the daytime, the roads are always busy. There is something so strange about walking in the middle of the road past midnight, everything still, otherworldly.

He thinks about Louis while he brushes his teeth—how his face blushed beside the sunset. He gets into bed, plugging his phone into his charger into the wall and texts Niall.

 

Liam
met ur best mate today. u were right about us getting on! great lad

Niall
haaha i knew t !! start of a beautiful friendship

 

 

*

 

 

Really, it was the start of many things.

Their junior year begins in Niall’s basement, lighting up a joint and sipping on the last cases of summer shandy. They complain Liam’s cigarettes smell something awful but they always end up bumming him for cigs, anyways.

Liam comes home often smelling like weed, and as per usual if anyone in his house notices, they say nothing. Except Cecilia, who smiles knowingly behind freshly pink hair, her own eyes too glassy for Liam’s liking.

There’s a girl named Sophia in economics club that borrows pens from him, a bit too often, and Liam learns to like the way her eyelashes curve, the soft line of her lips. She’s nice to him, and it’s innocent, when he walks her to her car in the parking lot and kisses her in front of everyone.

Louis gives him shit for a whole week, starting team chants at after school practice, the soccer team making lewd comments across the field while Liam runs cross country.

It smells, all the time, like the ground after rain, like someone he loves.

He and Niall drink pumpkin spice lattes, dirty their jeans on the side of the road.

 

 

*

 

 

Lou
U up

Liam
Yea just barely

Liam
What do u need

Lou
Idk

Liam
What

Lou
this Gna sOUnd weird

Liam
Ok

Lou
Feels like i know u forever

Lou
U know>?

Liam
Are you drunk

Lou
YES

Liam
Ok lou Time for bed

Lou
:-(

Liam
Goodnight Lou

Lou
Fine goodnight

Lou
But it rly does feel like tha

Lou
T.u know ?

Lou
I know U know it ok

Lou
Ok goodnight Liam

 

 

*

 

 

They’re on their backs. Blue bleeds on for miles. Dandelion cotton dots all across the sky.

“Fifty-six,” Liam counts.

“Where,” Louis asks and moves close, their arms connected to the wrist.

“There,” Liam points.

“Fifty-seven, fifty-eight,” Louis smiles. “Where are they all going, anyways?”

“Somewhere they can grow.”

“Hm,” Louis hums. “Seems like an easy life.”

“Yeah,” Liam agrees. “You’re quite like that, you know.”

“Like what? Dandelion fuzz?”

“Yeah,” Liam laughs. “You never touch the ground unless you have to.”

“There’s so many,” Louis whispers. “Couldn’t possibly count them all.”

They carry themselves through the air, little stars of white dust. Liam links his pinky into Louis’, feeling all at once shy. “They’re nice,” he looks at Louis, “aren’t they?”

Louis keeps his gaze fixed on the sky. “Yeah,” he rasps. “They really are.”

 

 

*

 

 

Niall had asked Liam in June to keep an eye on Louis, but up until October, there never seemed to be any overt trouble. Maybe it was because the three of them had been practically inseparable that Liam never noticed—maybe he’d been too caught up in that golden boy himself. But at lunch Liam sneaks out to the dumpsters for a smoke and he sees it.

Having felt those hands, grasped at those shoulders, Liam knows it’s the lads from the football team that circle Louis, who sits on the ground, knees bent, one hand up over his face. Move, he begs himself, get to him.

It doesn’t come quick enough. He hears the crack of a fist meeting the blunt edge of Louis’ jaw, sees his head knock back onto the pavement. That sound—his head hitting so precisely like some painting of a saint’s martyrdom—sends Liam’s body careening forward.

He’s not sure how his hands find their way around someone’s throat, but then Niall is pulling him off, so still, cigarette perched perfectly behind his ear. There are adults shouting at him, and Louis is still there on the pavement, not moving.

It’s every nightmare about Zayn come to life. It’s just one long, copper nightmare.

 

 

*

 

 

He’s suspended for a week, only, due to his typically high marks and Niall’s vouching for his reputation. The boys that beat Louis, however, are suspended for a month. Not even the blood in his mouth tastes as good as that.

 

 

*

 

 

Liam's halfway through learning a new piece on the keyboard, volume turned almost all the way down, when a jolted knock sounds at the front door.

He pauses. It comes again, this time heavier, thud dull with the weight of someone's body. Standing, joints locked in apprehension, Liam peers out the window.

Louis is on the grass looking up at him. His eyes widen, lit up with the lamps below.

"Liam!" Louis yells, and Liam scrambles to open the window, pressing his finger to his mouth. Louis abruptly pries his lips closed.

"The fuck’re you doing, mate? You'll wake up the whole house!"

Louis fumbles, a step forward clearly requiring all of his effort. "Liam," he shout-whispers, "please let me in."

He'd never deny him anything, this impossible boy. No one ever did.

Liam nods and disappears from the window, padding down the carpeted staircase and groping in the dark for the locks at the front door. When he opens it, Louis is still on the grass, though on his knees now.

Up close he can see the state of him. The red-rimmed eyes. The sadness that winds tight inside of them. "Come on, then," Liam murmurs. "Let's get you inside."

They put their arms around each other, the door shutting much too sweetly.

 

 

*

 

 

Louis cradles the tea in his hands. "This tastes abysmal."

"Is that your word of the day?"

"I'm going to study literature, Liam, my vocabulary has t’be advanced as a result.” Louis sniffs, tilting his nose high up in the air.

“Right,” Liam smirks, “literature. When did you decide on that?"

"Last night.” Louis sips the tea loudly. “I was out on a date."

Liam shifts in bed, resting his tea on the nightstand. "How'd it go?"

"Good. She's a nice girl, likes to read. I sort of realized that's all I know how to do. Read.”

"That's a crock of shit," Liam squints at him. "You can do loads of things."

"Not like you can," Louis smiles. "You're a smart boy, you are."

Their shoulders brush. Liam tries to think about anything else. The sound of the sprinklers trickling on in the nighttime, the branch that hits his window every odd wind.

“Well,” Liam laughs, “you sure know how to talk.”

“Fuck off,” Louis says, but he’s smiling.

"You've been with Sophia for a while now," Louis rubs his thumb over the ceramic. It makes a disturbing sound. "Think it'll last into uni?"

"I don't really think about it," Liam admits. "We're still so young."

"Yeah."

Liam inhales sharply. When he flits his eyes up to Louis, he’s staring at his hands, and the cicadas keep singing through it all. ”You gonna tell me what tonight was all about?"

He feels Louis deflate, hears the thickness of his swallow. Louis places his own tea on the floor next to Liam's bed, then shuffles under the covers. "Okay," he agrees. "But we have to talk under the covers."

"Why there?"

"It's a safe zone," Louis explains. "No one can hear us."

Liam nods. He shuts off the light. "No one can see us either."

"It's just us," Louis whispers.

It was always just them. Liam dreamt about that world they shared, their boat and bare feet on the pier. He wonders if he should tell Louis now, about when he first saw him, but it's not the right time.

Even after Louis cries, and they fall asleep holding each other, it's still not the right time. There is no name for the warmth of Louis' mouth where it presses at his neck.

Not yet.

 

 

*

 

 

In December, Louis' father is moved into hospice, and Louis spends more and more time away from home.

Niall, who is usually the peacekeeper of their group, forfeits that right to Liam.

"I'm sick of cleanin' up his vomit. He should be at home, wit his family," Niall grunts, dumping the yellow, spit-soaked paper towels in the bin.

"I know that, Ni," Liam sighs, almost gagging on the smell, "but what am I supposed to do? Turn him away?"

"When somebody dies, it's hard for everyone," Niall sits on the edge of the tub. "I saw his mum at the shops, she looks miserable. There's no one there for her except her kids. Louis' the only man in that house now."

Liam stills. Then continues to mop up the mess that missed the toilet. "It's not his responsibility to be the man of the house."

"Are you kiddin," Niall's voice cuts. "He's got t’get a job, he's got to take care of his family. That's all we've got in this world, is family.”

There's blood on the rim of the toilet seat from where Louis cut his hands on glass. Liam touches his fingers to it. He doesn't know if he'll ever stop smelling blood.

"Not everyone feels about family the way you do," Liam sits back on his knees. "Louis isn't handling it well."

"Clearly," Niall snorts.

Liam ignores it, anger sat dead in his chest. ”He's not heartless. He'll come back around. He won't be like this forever."

"I hope you're right," Niall mutters.

"I know I am," Liam says. I know Louis. "Now stop slacking and spray some bleach, will ya? Me mum's gonna pitch a fit if she wakes up to this."

 

 

*

 

 

It's at the end of January, their junior year, that Louis' father goes. He's drunk at his bedside, and for the sake of a proper goodbye, everyone pretends they can't smell the stench of vodka between his sobs.

Jay pulls Liam outside an hour afterwards, the girls falling asleep underneath Louis' lanky arms. He is pale now, rough around the edges of his eyes like Liam was when he was sick, when he and Louis had first met beneath the willow tree.

"How is he, Liam?" He can't really bear to look at her, her eyelids swollen from continual hard crying, her lips chapped from all the kisses she granted her daughters.

"He's not doing well, Mrs. T. He cares, a lot," Liam says, feeling stupid, "I think he's just scared."

"I know," her voice dips. She's trying not to cry again. "I'm scared, too." He follows her gaze back into the room, Niall listening to Lottie tell a story, Louis with his eyes closed.

"Every time I look at him," Jay exhales, shaky, "I see how full of love he is."

Liam swallows. "He's got a rather big heart."

Jay smiles at him, fingers pressed up into her mouth. "Yes. And he loves you very much." She turns her head to the room. "Loves all of us."

"Right," Liam whispers.

"Just. He's at that age now," Jay grins, eyes watery, "he won't listen to a word I say, unless it's just jokes. Make sure he..." She trails off and her smile falters for a moment. "Make sure he gets through this term."

"I will," Liam nods, not quite understanding. "I promise."

"That's a good lad," she pats his shoulder.

They watch Louis' chest rise and fall through the window in the door.

 

 

*

 

 

Niall plays guitar sets at Paddy's on the weekends, which is where he meets Jen. She's short, as fresh-faced and Irish as the rest of the men who work there. Her dark hair is tied back tight into a ponytail.

Liam looks at them as they chat, the bar getting more crowded after Niall's set.

"Think it's in poor taste to make a ‘Jenny from the block’ joke?"

"I don't know why you still ask me whether or not you can make jokes," Liam drones. “It’s not like you listen to me anyways.”

"You're my minder, Liam, who else am I gonna ask?" Louis pops a chip in his mouth, ketchup caught at the corner. He wipes it away. "She's got huge tits!"

"Don't let Niall catch you saying that," Liam warns. Then he looks at Louis. "Since when do you talk like that, anyway?"

"Oh, come off it, Li," Louis rolls his eyes. His fingers fidget nervously. ”I talk like that all the time."

"Not with me."

“Well, with Calvin and Oli, yeah."

"That's cause they're total wankers."

"Watch it!" Louis throws a ketchup-slathered chip to Liam. It lands on top of his hand. He wipes it off, looking up to meet Louis' eyes.

Out of the corner of his eye he can see Niall make his way over. His voice lowers, the ghost of a cruel comment present in Louis' teeth.

"You're being a twat," Liam chides.

"I'm being meself, Liam," Louis narrows his eyes. "If you can't handle that then maybe you should just leave."

"Hey," Niall taps on the table with his palm. "How'd you like the set?"

Louis turns to Niall, Liam raising his eyebrows across from him. "It was lovely, Ni. You've got talent, you do."

"Thanks very much," he grins.

"It was awesome, Nialler," Liam smiles, politely. "Think we'll make a habit of this, yeah?"

"That'd be sick!" Niall's eyes burst with light. "Jen's just grabbing her things, then we can hit up another bar or something?"

Liam frowns, confused. "Isn't she working tonight?"

"She worked the earlier shift," Niall colors, "she just stayed later to catch my gig."

Louis puts his hand over his heart. "True love at its finest hour."

"Motherfucker," Niall ruffles his hair, ruining the perfectly layered hairstyle Louis spent almost a half-hour fiddling with.

"Wow, the betrayal," Louis flatlines. "Don't think I’m above wreaking humor havoc on your girlfriend in retaliation."

Niall smiles. "I'm betting on it. She's funnier than you."

"That's what he says, anyways," a higher voice rings out next to Liam. Jen is brown-eyed, with a particularly large, charming nose. Her hijab is powder blue and frames a delicate chin.

She smiles into her dimples and thrusts out a confident hand, "I'm Jenny. I've heard loads about you lads."

Liam takes her hand first. "Likewise. It's all good things, promise."

"Oh dear," she laughs, "can't say the same about you." Liam likes her already.

"Jenny," Niall winds an arm around her waist, "this is Louis. He's the funny one."

"Is that my title now," Louis grins, eyes crinkled. "Lovely to meet you. By any chance, are you still Jenny from the block?"

 

 

*

 

 

They're at the piers when it happens. Oli snaps open a beer, the crisp and clean scent of it making Liam immediately thirsty. He stands, wobbly on his knees and high, looking for the cooler.

"S'inside, mate," Oli mumbles.

"Thanks," Liam half-smiles.

He steps back onto the boat, careful of slipping on the wet surface. The floor is absolutely filthy what with none of them being responsible enough to clean it in the off months. Rain usually washes it up to standard condition.

There's a muddled sound—one he places easily. The slickness of it sticks in his ears.

It's not really a surprise when he rounds the corner in the small boat room and sees Louis and Luke with their hands on each other. Not kissing. Just the imprint of Luke's hands on Louis' hip, up over the T-shirt, and Louis' arm moving so fast.

Liam feels the pricks up his neck, the cold recognition of shame. He manages to walk backwards, disappearing around the same corner and out of view. Still transfixed, he waits until he hears what must be Louis' orgasm, soft and stilted as the rest of him.

Then he walks back onto to the pier, unaffected. Oli is still sprawled on his back, though he seems asleep now in the declining sunlight. Niall lowers his sunglasses. "No more beer?"

"I didn't," Liam pauses, shakes his head. "Louis and Luke were having some serious sort of chat. I just—figured I'd get it later."

“Yeah,” Niall nods. “Luke’s been having trouble wit his girl lately."

"Oh." Liam says politely, still hazy. "Who's he with right now?"

Niall sits back, head resting against the side of the boat. "Dunno. Some blonde bird. She seems nice."

"Oh," Liam nods. The thought of Louis’ tongue sits silver at the back of his throat.

"Speaking of girls, how's Sophia?"

"Fine," Liam pats his hands on his thighs. He looks back at the entrance of the room, where a short, loud laugh echoes. Louis comes ambling out first, loose-legged and warm.

"Little Liam," Louis plants himself next to his side, eyes red. "There you are. Give us a kiss."

“No.” Liam shifts slightly away from him, his eyes black as apple-cores. He’s high and wants attention, and Liam wants to give it to him more than anything.

"Just a little one, then?" Louis angles up his chin to smile at Luke, then looks at Niall, getting everyone on his side of the joke.

"Louis," Liam warns.

"What's a kiss between best mates!" He sticks out his jaw, opening up the side of his face. "I'm waiting."

In any other circumstance Liam wouldn't hesitate to smack a disgusting, wet kiss on his face. Make a show out of it. But it won't do now.

Tentatively Liam leads his mouth to the higher point of Louis' cheekbone. He brushes a small, honeyed kiss there. He's certain everyone saw it.

But when he looks up, Niall and Luke are engaged in loud, lazy conversation and Oli is still asleep. Even along the ochre shore, no one stopped to see it, and it’s almost sad how the world continues along so easily. Liam figures something should have changed, and—maybe something has.

He pretends not to notice Louis staring at him.

 

 

*

 

 

With the lights off, Liam slides into bed, laptop positioned carefully on his thighs. He dims the screen, checks the window for any sight of any person, skin itching.

He's watched porn before, with Oli and Calvin, but it was only because Liam had said he'd never seen it and they couldn't quite wrap their minds around it.

"You have fucked a girl though, haven't ya?"

"Sure," Liam lied, "course. When I was twelve actually."

"Twelve!"

They'd looked at each other with carnal grins, and he hated the way it made him feel good, their ragged acceptance.

Now he half wonders what they'd think if they caught him tonight. Louis' very quiet moans settling on his shoulders, the film in his eyes. Liam takes a breath and presses play.

He watches the men get their hands on other men, his own wetness pooling at the corner of his briefs. The movie finishes without him climaxing, and he shuts his laptop quickly, burrowing under the covers.

The window is open. His fingers, on their own accord, walk themselves down the length of his body until they meet the tip of his cock. He rubs it lightly, biting his bottom lip at the feeling, and there's a brief moment where he reprimands himself—not Louis, think of anyone but Louis.

Then his hand grips himself fully, and he realizes, there isn't anyone but Louis.

He works himself over, places himself in the boat room with Louis, his large hands covering them both. Even on the cusp of orgasm he can feel Louis' teeth in his shoulder, his white shaking, the way he says Liam's name.

He comes, a gasp that folds into itself, stays tight in his mouth. The bed frame had been shaking only lightly, and when he blinks there is no sound, save for the rush of blood and his breathing.

Sleep takes him sweetly after that.

 

 

*

 

 

Louis finds Liam at the edge of the dock, one day, elbows caked with sand and lakewater. Liam’s carving his initials into a post. That was the week he thought of how fast life goes, the dreams about Zayn now including Louis’ father, and Liam wanted something to last forever. Some part of him.

It’s of course Louis’ idea to take it further, snatching the knife from him and carving his own message as soon as Liam’s finished. It takes him ages, rain beginning to soak them both, through their clothes, chilling the skin.

I get what I wanted. Soft forever. Diligent records. Love.

“What does that mean,” Liam looks at him, at his long, bony arms. He wants to cover him whole.

“It’s from a poem,” Louis rubs at his neck. He walks ahead, teasing out their distance. Liam catches up to him and watches the water slide down the side of his face.

“But, what does it mean?”

“When I figure it out, Liam,” Louis murmurs, “I’ll let you know.”

 

 

*

 

 

Windows open, faces flushed from the heat, Liam watches Louis take a long inhale off the blunt. It’s late afternoon and Louis is on his way to being drunk. There’s a steady chorus of cicadas just outside, their bare chests covered in a sheen of sweat.

Liam eyes Louis, casually, ”Given much thought into uni, yet?"

It elicits a soft, buttery laugh from Louis. He licks his lips off his exhale, passing the blunt back to Liam. "Not a chance."

"Applications are due in a few months," Liam adds.

"What are you, me mum? I've already got one, you know, position's been filled," he grins. "You can apply to be Daddy Tomlinson though."

Liam stills. It was the exact reaction Louis was hoping for, because he starts to laugh, deep in his chest. He wipes under his nose, "I'm just fucking with you, yeah? You're little Liam first and last."

"I think I'm going to look in London," Liam blurts out.

The air is all pollen. Louis sits up to regard him closely. He's always serious where it matters. "For what? Thought you wanted to get a business degree?"

"Changed my mind," Liam shrugs. "I might go for...for medical school, or apply to be a Physician's Assistant."

Louis looks at his lap. "Where will you go?"

"Dunno yet," Liam laughs, "just thinking about it."

"Is it far?" His eyes are blue and childish. They stir something like anger in Liam's throat, send it into a spiral on his tongue.

"No," he smiles, falsely. "As if I'd ever go too far from you, Tommo!" Liam stands and ruffles his hair, crossing to the window to open it wider. He sits on his desk and gets about rolling another blunt.

"I'll probably stay here," Louis says. "So I can be close to the girls."

"Where are you looking at?"

"Well," Louis' tone of voice very odd, "nowhere, really."

"Nowhere?" Liam looks up at him, fingers quiet as they roll the paper back-and-forth. "Are you..." he tries to search for the answer in Louis' face but his hair has fallen into his eyes. "You're not going to uni?"

"Doesn't look like it," Louis murmurs.

"But I thought," Liam pauses. He licks the paper closed, sits back down on the floor next to him. His fingers close around Louis' ankle. "You just seemed so excited to go."

"That was before me dad died."

"Louis, that's not your fault."

"I know."

"It's not your responsibility either."

Louis narrows his eyes. "It is, Liam. My job right now means the girls can have a fuller life. D'you know what I get to do for them? Lottie, she—wanted a nice dress, right, she got asked to some dance, and I, you know. I get to buy her that dress."

"She would understand," Liam tightens his hand, "if you couldn't. It's just a dress."

"It's not just a dress," Louis shouts. He sighs, his chest heaving. Liam can tell he's trying not to cry. "It's quality of life."

"None of that makes for a life with quality, Lou. She'd be happy with anything."

"Liam," Louis tilts his head to him, "you don't know anything about it."

"What, like my family's had it so good?" Liam lights the end of the blunt, not eager to have this conversation unless he's high.

"Money-wise, yeah," Louis mutters. "We're not so lucky. It's not a charity case, I'm just saying, you wouldn't know how big of a deal a dress can be."

"I guess I never thought about it," Liam passes the blunt. "Cee hates dresses."

Louis smiles, all brown sugar, and Liam feels at once he can breathe again. "Lottie goes to that posh private school right now. Everyone has more than her," he inhales. Liam sits, captivated at the sight of the smoke passing through his lips. "She used to ask mum why we couldn't get her the new handbag everyone else had at school. Then she figured it out."

"And it would," Liam swallows, "it'd take too much out of savings to go to uni."

"Yeah," Louis nods. "It doesn't mean never," he exhales a long stream of white smoke. "It just means not right now."

"I'm sorry," Liam rubs his thumb against his ankle bone.

"Don't be,” Louis grins. His fingers cover Liam’s, stay there. “I’m happy if my girls are happy.”

 

 

*

 

 

Liam gets a job for the summer working on the pier, which means he gets tanner than Louis and sees him almost every afternoon. When his shift is up at the office he walks down the expanse of the pier, Liam already in his sight, shoulders square as though on display for the world.

That's how he always seemed, except in private.

They walk home together, Louis barefoot and Liam carrying his dirty tennies all the way. Sometimes Louis will wave where their streets branch off, but most of the time he continues confidently onto Liam's street, only looking back as if to say, "Well?"

Liam tries not to read into it.

 

 

*

 

 

August allows them to wind down. The boats disappear from the lake and eventually Liam stops seeing Calvin's, the white with blue stripe something he misses without really realizing it.

Louis sneaks over at night and they walk along the piers, joint lit and pocket knife snug in Liam's jacket.

"What are we leaving tonight," Liam asks, hushed, Louis' arm tangled around his own.

"I've been reading lots of queer literature," Louis announces. He looks to Liam for a reaction. "Is that alright?"

Liam isn't sure how to say it best. He just nods.

"Poetry, specifically," Louis continues. "Which is what I'd like to teach someday, if I'm honest."

"Do you write any?" Liam feels Louis move away, towards a dock with a few wooden posts they've saved for the end of the summer.

"Yeah," Louis pats the top of a post, "but they're rubbish. I much prefer reading. Hand me the knife, Sir Liam."

Liam fished it out of his pocket. "You know," he murmurs, "I've been reading a lot too."

"Congratulations," Louis drawls.

"A lot of—"

"I think I want to do something from that book Eleanor lent me. Prelude to a Bruise."

"I like that one," Liam agrees.

Louis bends down, hands resting briefly on his knees. "You've taken to reading poetry, then?”

His teeth glint in the starlight, coiling a tight burn in Liam’s chest. It always felt that way to be near him, the hotness making him delirious. Liam toes the dirt. “I like to read what you read. So we can talk about it.”

“That’s sweet,” Louis smiles. “Think I’m blushing, actually.”

“Sod off,” Liam shoves playfully at his shoulder. Louis grips his wrist, tight, “Careful! Artist at work, here.”

Liam snorts. “Get a move on, then.” He pulls his jacket tighter. “It’s a bit cold.”

“Can’t control the weather, Liam. Now stop complaining.”

While Louis works, Liam smokes, the lights strung along a boat house only partially lit up. This is how it feels to want someone electric like Louis. It’s too much. It burns him inside-out.

“All done,” Louis murmurs, unnaturally quiet. He starts up the path, sliding the knife into his pocket and leaving Liam to observe on his own. Liam peers down at the engraving.

It owned me, that hunger. Tendriled its way into my name for you.

 

 

*

 

 

Liam watches Louis bite into a piece of honeydew melon, the thunderstorm shrieking loud above them, the walls moaning with wind. It’s frightening, and Louis sits on the couch, unaffected. Calm, sure of himself.

By the time Louis is reaching for another piece, Liam is in love.

 

 

*

 

 

There are many men who want to taste for themselves the salt off Louis’ skin. It’s not like Liam can blame them, since he is one of them, if only privately.

Each new boy Louis introduces to him he doesn’t take well to. Niall seems to notice, Niall who never notices anything, and Liam tries from then on to keep the lies in his teeth. He’s not sure if love is supposed to feel that selfish, that possessive, but it’s how he feels.

 

 

*

 

 

Louis slides into bed. All Liam can see is the outline of his skin, a pale blue line that dips along his back. He wants to touch, because Liam likes beautiful things, and it seems so clear in this light that Louis is a beautiful thing.

“How was it, then,” Liam whispers. Louis faces him, small hands curled by his mouth.

The smile is tentative at first, then the force of it comes bounding out of him, and before Liam can react, Louis is laughing, infectious, drawing Liam into it even though part of him wanted the date to fail.

“He snogged my face off. Not kidding.”

“Just now?”

“Yeah,” Louis exhales, breathless, his face wet with tears. Liam can see the swollen traces of the other man’s kiss on his upper lip.

“But how was it,” Liam presses.

“Felt like—. For the first time,” Louis licks his mouth, “I actually felt, you know, something.”

Liam's finger etches a line on Louis’ forearm. He tries to keep his breathing even, the sting of each touch almost pleasant, “Felt something—like, about love?”

“No,” Louis shakes his head. “Not like that.”

“Then what?” The ceiling fan hums.

“I don’t know,” Louis admits. He looks away. “Hard to explain, I guess.”

Liam swallows. “Well, that’s good,” he carefully tucks Louis’ hair behind his ear, a noncommittal gesture, nothing he has to think so hard about. He closes his eyes and turns on his back. A few moments pass in the shared solitude—like so many nights before this one, Louis under the covers and ankles close to touching.

But now it’s different. Liam hates that anything could be different about them but it’s already happened and he can feel it, coming off Louis in a giant wave, where it crests and engulfs the both of them.

He tries to think about how Louis is still here, still his, in a small way. That man never saw Louis at the pier, barefoot and brilliant with sun spots on his shoulders. That one is Liam’s. That Louis is always going to be Liam’s.

With a yawn, he asks in the darkness, “Gonna see him again, then?”

Louis doesn’t answer.

 

 

*

 

 

For a while, it’s enough.

They duck between alleyways, hands dripping with ice cream, the smell of everything thick with promise and Louis beams beneath Liam’s touch. It's then that something inside starts—very small, a quiver, just a struggling breath.

Liam learns how to lick his own salt from someone else’s throat and how to tell Louis about it afterwards without his hands shaking. And, Louis—he’s never alone for long.

 

 

*

 

 

Now the feeling has a name. It freed him until he began to realize that love runs stale, that love can tether even as it frees.

They’re on their backs in the grass. The last hot nights before summer starts to cool.

“You were really my first close friend,” Louis whispers.

Liam turns his head to catch his soft expression. "Really?" Every star lives in his iris.

“Yeah,” Louis ducks in close, says it to Liam’s ear.

Liam winds his arm around Louis’ neck, pulling him in even tighter until their chests align. Their cheeks press in a friendly, familiar way. Liam closes his eyes.

“Thank you,” he murmurs. “For everything.” It’s the closest he can get to what he wants to say.

“Anytime, little Liam.”

It felt like something big. It did. It did.

 

 

*

 

 

Liam was the first boy to carve into the wood, but as it goes anything Liam enjoyed he eventually shared with Louis. It was exciting to dip four feet into the lake instead of two. To share a silence shrunk it somehow, until silence was a very private happiness that he left reserved for Louis.

There was only one nightclub and everyone knew everyone, but where that fact used to make his ears hot, it made him feel human. Watching Louis dance with a friend-of-a-friend, courageous and untouchable. No one would raise a hand to Louis’ face, not even to see what it feels like, not even to be gentle.

The most ridiculous thing to come out of August was the morning Louis got out of bed and accompanied Liam to the pier to watch the morning turn pink in sunrise.

He was sleepy, rubbing at his eyes with the sweater sleeve tucked over his knuckles, and all the rubbing he did left behind an eyelash. Liam was too scared to touch it, too cautious. In the light Louis looked more impossible than ever. Like every storybook prince that stood at the edges of worlds.

They watched the sun crawl up. And Louis knocked his head into Liam’s chest. And then they left, Liam letting the wind brush the lash away.

 

 

*

 

 

Louis gets his first proper boyfriend in January. It lasts two weeks, but it’s the happiest Liam has ever seen him.

They break up the night before the lad—his name is Josh—goes back to Dublin. Long-distance isn’t worth the work.

Liam tries to stay rooted in what he knows, but where there used to be a sense of ease, there comes instead a fly buzzing, a faucet drip. Louis biting into the flesh of a peach, Louis on his doorstep when he comes home from practice.

The habituation only makes it worse. So when Louis lets himself into Liam’s room, rain-soaked and sad, Liam lets himself live.

They run out into the deluge, feet smacking on the concrete, stopping only when they’ve reached the muddy shore of the lake. His heart stutters, the two of them doused in kerosene and begging for a match. Louis gets him to the ground first, the mud thick and watery beneath them.

It’s breathless laughter, Liam on top of him, pinning his wrists down. They stay like that, smiles fading into placid mouths.

“You’re not so little anymore,” Louis exhales, quiet, “are you, Liam?”

 

 

*

 

 

It takes Louis only one ring before he answers the phone. Five minutes before Liam hears his tentative knock at the front door, his arms full of a handle of vodka and shit rom-coms. Liam’s not exactly sad to be broken up with, considering it was amicable, his friendship with Sophia still intact—but he’s not going to turn down a night of Louis’ close attention.

Louis drapes his legs over Liam’s lap, and they fit, Liam thinks. They’ve always fit.

 

 

*

 

 

Liam graduates with honors, as does Niall and Sophia. They’re spread thin across the ocean, the distance starting to feel very real. Calvin is leaving in a week to study in Morocco for the summer, and Niall’s sister is sick, so he’s off to Mulinger until August—where he’ll join Liam in London for uni.

Which means besides Oli, who isn’t going to continue to uni, Louis is alone.

They’re walking along the lake, as they always do (always did), Louis with the pocket knife in his palm.

“Why so early,” Louis mutters.

“They want me to take some introductory courses, since I didn’t really take a lot of medical-centered stuff in school.”

“That’s shit.”

“I’m excited,” Liam counters. “London’s gonna be so sick.”

Louis’ padded footsteps fall away. Liam turns to see him inspecting a large branch that broke off from the oak trees.

“Let’s carve this one up,” Louis says.

“And then what? Throw it into the lake?”

“Precisely,” Louis grins. “We’ll both do this one.”

“You’ve gone mad,” Liam teases. “I almost never get to do it.”

“Well, it’s a special occasion, innit? You’re leaving.”

Liam’s hand pauses at the thick of the bark. “I’ll come visit. Even you can come take the train in.” He grins, “We’ll get into all sorts of trouble.”

“You were always too big for this place,” Louis says, playful. Liam prefers to steer Louis clear of these moods. They always end in him drinking too much.

“Hey now,” Liam touches Louis’ neck. He feels the pulse thud beneath the thin skin. “None of that. You and I, we’re mates for life.”

Louis ducks his head and mumbles, “Promise?”

It comes back to him suddenly, the first time they met, not more than three years ago. “Remember what you said to me? When we walked to your house, watched the sunset?”

“Jesus,” Louis laughs, “sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud.”

“Do you remember, though?” Liam tilts his chin up to look him in the eyes.

“Course,” Louis says, softly.

“I’m relentless,” Liam smiles. “If you’re relentless and I’m relentless then that’s relentlessness squared!”

Louis frowns. “Liam, you know I got a C in Maths.”

“This isn’t Maths, you git, this is our friendship. Times infinity. Goes on forever and ever.”

“Our friendship is pi?”

“Yes, a blueberry pie,” Liam snatches the knife.

“That was horrendous.”

“Not as horrendous as your mug.”

“You’re going to miss this mug, and you know it.” Liam thinks of his small bedroom, Louis on his floor cross-legged, the window. He carves, taking his time,

Birds singing,
in the dark
—Rainy Dawn

Louis adds,

Love sets you going like a fat gold watch.

They walk home, quiet. The night plays along, hushed, in on some secret Liam hasn't figured out yet.

 

 

*

 

 

There is no going-away party or any parties, really. Liam goes out to dinner with his family, leaves behind his copy of Ariel (which is Louis’ copy, originally) for Cecelia. Louis jets off to Paris that weekend with Luke, who he’s seeing but not-seeing, and Liam keeps the sickness down with a rum & coke.

Louis was never any good at goodbyes, not when they’re particularly painful. At least this is how Liam knows he cares.

He and Sophia take the train into London with their families, rapeseed dotting the countryside. For the first time in a few months, he finds himself thinking of Zayn.

Zayn had sent him a small oil painting once of the English countryside. He and Harry were looking at summer cottages, before—

“I’ll be right back,” he tells Sophia. His feet carry him to the bathroom, sliding it shut quietly, just barely able to breathe before the first rush of vomit crawls out of his mouth and spills over.

Half of it is shame, for not keeping Zayn close, even in memory. The other half is his realization, hot and sudden, that Harry lives in London.

 

 

*

 

 

Lou
lil Liam answer ur phone !!!

Liam
can’t im in lecture. Alright ?

Lou
i think

Lou
well idk honestly

Lou
see i think jake is gonna propose i was looking thru his texts (yes i know u can yell at me later) and he told his mum he mightve met “the one” ??? thats me ??

Liam
congratulations

Lou
arent u at all interested how he’l do it ??

Liam
im sure u’ll tell me when he does

Lou
i wonder what colors we should pick for the wedding

Lou
do u think mum’d let me wear a dress

Lou
id look fantastic in white lace

Lou
if u keep ignoring me im just gonna keep sending texts

Lou
LIAM pay attention to me :-(

Liam
listen lou this is a bad time ill call u later this week ok. congrats again

Lou
Ok

Lou
Thanks i guess

 

 

*

 

 

Zayn was never a secret. He deserved to be known by everyone, especially everyone in Liam’s life, but he’d forgotten. He’d wanted to forget.

Standing on Harry’s doorstep he can feel it. A hand wrapped around his shoulders. Noticeable only if he thinks to notice it.

It wasn’t easy to get his address. Mrs. Malik was cold on the phone at first. Hours later, with promises to visit tucked into apologies, her tone shifted. It’s nobody’s fault, the worse deaths. Love for the deceased is the only thing left that’s worth grappling onto.

Liam’s not sure what he expects to see when Harry opens the door. A grief-weathered boy, maybe. Someone that might remind him of Zayn. Lovers often look like each other.

So when the door is peeled back, Liam is paralyzed.

Harry is tall, broad, and exactly as Zayn had said in his small bedroom two years ago—solid as an oak tree. Zayn always wanted someone sturdy, that if he ran to them and collided at their chest they would be able to handle his impact.

“I know you,” Harry murmurs. “You’re late.”

Liam steels his jaw, exhales just as hard. “I know. Can I come in?”

Harry nods. “Okay. Leave your shoes by the door.”

 

 

*

 

 

“I never got used to it. I still, you know, hear him in the kitchen," Harry glances at the front door. "Think it's him, knocking. All the time.”

Liam touches his fingers to the scrapbook page, filled with meticulous, small handwriting he knows is Harry’s. “Where did they find him?”

“Sidewalk. Collapsed,” Harry says, perfectly flat, rehearsed. “Just collapsed right there."

Liam swallows. “Was there any—did he—"

“Doctors said it was instant. Painless,” Harry stands. He pours himself another cup of coffee, then holds the pot in the air. “Want some?”

Liam regards his full cup, now gone cold. “No, thank you.”

“We didn't know how to deal with it,” Harry continues. “It was, like. There was no way to say goodbye. We were all," Liam watches his knuckles whiten. "We were all so angry.”

“I read about it in news,” Liam says, “online. Brain aneurysm. That’s what they said.”

Harry nods and sits, knees cracking, “That’s what they said.”

“Jesus,” Liam sighs. “Fuck. I should’ve. I really should’ve been there. At the funeral.”

“It wouldn’t have made a difference." Harry shrugs, sadness palpable. "None of us had what we needed to get through something like that. Cause what we needed was Zayn.”

“Is it--are you still angry, then?" Liam blinks back tears.

Harry smiles to himself, “Hm.”

“I am,” Liam picks at the soft wood of the table. “I just don’t know where to put it. I dream about him all the time.”

“What do you dream about,” Harry lets go of his cup, plants both pink elbows on the table.

“His death,” Liam spills out, eyes watery, “I see it all of these different ways, and in every single way he’s just looking at me. He does that thing with his mouth, when he wanted to say something bad but didn’t know how to start.”

“Yeah,” Harry grins, wistful. “He was pretty transparent.”

“Always!” Liam laughs, “Always obvious. But he thought he was subtle.”

“Part of looking like a cool, unaffected artist,” Harry flips his hand in the air. He quiets after a moment, body drawn tight together. “I dream about one thing,” Harry murmurs. “The night before he died, they’d run a piece on the telly about gardening tips. I remember so clearly him turning to me, his face was all lit up from the telly, and he said, 'we should grow roses this year.’”

“Shit,” Liam says, the image passing right through him.

“It was like he just knew something'd happen. The way he was the next morning. He made pancakes,” Harry presses his fingers into his mouth, his throat constricting. He doesn’t cry. After a moment he looks back up at Liam, both of them alone, less of what they were without Zayn.

“Do you want to see his paintings,” Harry asks. “There’s one for you. He meant to send it. I should have sent it. But I hoped you’d, um, come visit sometime. And we’d get to…talk.”

“Yeah,” Liam nods. “I—I would really like that.”

 

 

*

 

 

Zayn’s last piece is unfinished. It’s a mural, eclectic in style and theme. In the center is a giant squid, the ink-black eyes layered with oil paint. It’s the only part of the piece that looks like it was attended to closely.

“He was going through a phase,” Harry grins. “Loved the ocean.”

“I knew he was talented,” Liam’s shoulders sag, eyelids lidded, “but I never knew he could make something like this.” He steps forward and runs his fingers along the curve of the squid’s eye, feeling the texture of it.

Harry scratches under his chin. “I wasn’t…sure if I should invite you. Didn’t know if you’d respond,” he bites his lip, “but. Me and Doniya are gonna showcase his work next weekend. The fifteenth. At seven.”

Liam feels Harry’s eyes on his profile. “You should come.”

“Okay,” Liam nods.

 

 

*

 

 

It won’t stop raining. It’s rained for days. Liam’s smoked down his last pack from the carton, the tray almost as caked with ash as the inside of his mouth.

His thumb hovers, as it always does, over Louis’ contact information.

 

 

*

 

 

The gallery opens, and Liam goes on the last night. Harry catches him immediately at the front, something like affection in his eyes. Liam only stays for ten minutes, touching everything despite the offended gazes of the upper-class attendants. He doesn’t see Zayn’s family, and it’s just as well—he’s not important enough to be remembered, and he doesn't want to be, not at this point.

Harry promises to have the painting sent to Liam’s residence hall, and he gives Harry his number. It’s then that Liam recognizes Zayn--in Harry’s relieved, patient smile, even in the way he runs his hand through his hair, and Liam leaves before it can tear him apart.

After the gallery incident, Liam moves into the safe house of his body, especially in dreams, where Louis hangs from his heels on the candy-pink playground.

They’ve talked only briefly since Louis texted him about Jake and his possible wedding plans. It’s not that Liam isn’t happy for Louis, it’s that he’s seen him hurt enough times that he’s apprehensive about any newcomer. And Jake came into his life much too quickly.

Each of Louis’ broken hearts took a light out of him. Liam planned a trip home before he could think twice about it, to surprise him, see with his hands that Louis could still laugh.

He flicks a cigarette onto the tracks, thinking about when he met Louis beneath the tree, in the middle of a green-gold, impatient spring. Everything was in a hurry to be back then. They were no different, no better.

 

 

*

 

 

Louis phones him on the train, breath ragged from crying. “Li,” he gasps, “Can you—do you have a mo’?” He always asks for a moment when he wants a lifetime.

“Um,” Liam hesitates. He looks about the train, families playing board games, solo travelers with their head phones and soggy eyes. “Sure, Lou,” he turns out of his seat, into the aisle, carrying himself to the bathroom for privacy.

Once the door is locked, he leans against it, eyelids shut tight. “Everything alright?”

“Yeah,” Louis says. Then, “No. Not at all.”

“What happened?”

Static. Louis’ moving, swallowing into the receiver. Liam can almost hear the snap of the liquor cabinet. “Jake, he. He broke up with me.”

Liam’s gut lurches. “Shit. Lou. I’m sorry.”

“Did you ever notice,” Louis slurs, “that I’ve never been the one to end a relationship? They always end it first.” He laughs. “Did you notice? ‘Cause I noticed.”

“Lou,” Liam shakes his head, eyes welling with hot tears, “please don’t—”

“I wish you were here,” Louis breathes, and now he’s crying, Liam can hear it. “I wish you’d never left. Nothing’s going right.”

“Everything is gonna be okay,” Liam promises, level. “Everything is going to be fine.”

“Can you just—” Louis hiccups. “Can you please just keep saying that. Just. Please?”

“It’s gonna be okay,” Liam repeats, over and over, waiting for either of them to believe it.

 

 

*

 

 

The nerves are relentless. Liam supposes that by now he’s done enough waiting on doorsteps to fill a lifetime.

Louis emerges in the doorframe, small, disappeared within Liam’s old track sweatshirt. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Liam blinks. “Looks good on you.”

“Thanks.” Louis steps to the side. “I already drank most of the rum. But there’s some Pabst if you want it.” He gestures, sloppy, to where the kitchen is.

“S’alright,” Liam shrugs. “Let’s just—is anyone home?”

“No,” Louis wipes snot on the edge of his sleeve. “Bedroom?”

“Yeah,” Liam nods.

Louis’ bedroom is different. The walls are covered in torn-out pages from novels, anthologies, and the odd portrait of his favorite footie players. There’s a drawing of Louis that Niall sketched the first time they all tripped on acid together. His teeth are blue, his eyes like centipedes with all the long leg-lashes.

Liam sits on the bed and kicks off his shoes. Then he gets under the covers, the only light streaming in from the lamp on Louis’ desk.

After a few moments, Louis joins him. They’re safe again under the blankets.

“When,” Liam asks.

“Last night,” Louis exhales. “After dinner. Twat couldn’t even give me some idea anything had even changed. And I went mental, obviously. Brought up the text he’d sent to his mum.”

Liam shifts closer, unconsciously. Louis’ lips are swollen from biting. “What did he say?”

“That it wasn’t about me,” Louis’ mouth twists. “He’d met someone else.”

“So what,” Liam narrows his eyes, “he had you. He had anything he could want.”

“He said it was too much. Which means I was too much.”

“That’s such shit,” Liam mutters. “Shit excuse.”

“I don’t know, Li,” Louis whispers, “I feel ruined for anyone—”

“Don’t say that,” Liam urges. He wraps his arms around Louis’ waist and guides his head to rest carefully on his chest.

“It’s how it feels,” Louis buries his nose in Liam’s neck. “It’s just obvious, innit? I’m the problem.”

“You’re not. It’s not your fault.”

“I’m,” Louis sighs, shaky. His fingers tighten around Liam’s wrists. “I’m too much for anyone to handle. I know.”

“But,” Liam tilts his chin up, willing him to look, “anyone would be so…lucky to have you, Lou. To know you like that.”

“I’m a handful,” Louis mumbles, eyes flitting down to their hands, which slipped together unnoticed.

“You’re a handful,” Liam smiles. Then he laughs, “God, I know it. But,” he grips onto Louis tighter. “I’ve got hands big enough to hold it all, Lou.”

Louis snaps his gaze back to Liam and nothing moves.

He can see confusion evident in the folds of Louis’ eyelids. “Liam.”

“I love you,” Liam murmurs. “It’s a lousy time to say it, I know.”

They look at each other. “For—for how long?”

“Always?” Liam’s heart jackrabbits in his chest. His skin shakes from the force of it. Louis traces his thumb over Liam’s hand all the while. “I don’t even remember a time I didn’t love you. In some way.”

Louis smirks. “When I saw you sitting at the tree…”

“Probably even then,” Liam laughs, trembling, relishing in the wide curve of Louis’ smile, the tenderness he mistook a million times as familial. He can see it so clearly now, can feel it, how much Louis loves him.

Liam’s eyes lose focus for a moment, staring unwaveringly at the golden boy in front of him, real and touching him. Real and sending love back to him. He says it before he can think twice.

“I’d seen you before we met, you know. On the pier.”

“I remember,” is all Louis says, just above a whisper, before Louis opens his mouth against Liam’s, his breath boyish and hot. Liam keeps Louis’ small hand framed by his own, the two of them the sum of all their private, hidden wars.

Liam tucks his ankles between Louis’ and licks just once into his mouth, pulling away slowly. When he opens his eyes, Louis is already looking at him, face blushed from alcohol and Liam’s proximity.

The smallest, light smile flashes briefly across Louis’ lips. Like he can’t help it. Liam finds himself smiling the same, but it keeps growing, until the both of them are laughing against each other’s mouths.

Night falls. So do they.

 

 

*

 

 

When they get to the pier, it’s starless, silent. Liam holds the flashlight steady as Louis kneels to carve into the last remaining space on the wood post.

After Louis finishes, Liam reads it to himself. He smiles, fingers skimming over its indent.

“I don’t recognize this one,” he whispers. “Whose is it?”

Louis smiles. “It’s mine.”

 

 

*

 

 

When I close my eyes,
all the stars align
and you are by my side.
You are by my side.