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Harry never liked Liam Payne.

 

The first time he saw him, he dismissed him. Too sweet, he thought, and then, he needs thicker skin. Like a crocodile.

 

But Liam Payne's teeth wouldn't be sharp enough for him to be a crocodile. He doesn't even have that – sharp teeth, that can cut through meat and draw blood.

 

Harry watched him from the sidelines (because Harry always watches from the sidelines, even when he's a major player – girls may be fawning over him, but he's always apart, he doesn't mind), watched him move, stiff and slow, graceless. He thought, what a shame, because there was something to be made, right there, waiting to be twisted and torn.

 

He came back to Louis, melting into the heat of his body – whispered something against his skin that made him laugh, and he felt whole, and he forgot about everything else.

 

*

 

The second time he saw Liam Payne, he dismissed him too. Too bland, he thought, with his nice piano and his nice hair and his lack of edginess, his lack of fragility. He thought, he's like concrete, no subtlety and no charm, only the strength and the certitude. Some people like that, but Harry doesn't. Harry likes his things broken in half, so he can put them together – or break them further.

 

He can understand why Liam plays the piano. He's got the hands for it, except not really, broad, sun-kissed hands and long fingers. But the piano – the piano's like him, neatly manichean, never a note that sounds quite wrong, a broad, wooden back. Watching Liam play piano is like watching him say, here, that's who I am. Harry doesn't judge. He just prefers secrets.

 

(That's why he plays the violin, too. He plays the violin because it's hard and complicated and he messes the notes and makes his violin screech, and it's like a scream. He plays the violin because he can be a virtuoso but say nothing about himself, and then let his bow slip and lay himself bare for everyone to see.)

 

Maybe he's shallow, but if he wants to be caught when he sees someone, drawn and quartered by the attraction, like he was with Louis, his steps instinctively leading towards him to bury his body in his warmth, his laugh washing over him, who can blame him? He wasn't with Liam. (Is anyone?)

 

But Harry has more facets than a polygonal mirror, and there's nothing he likes more than a challenge. Liam is one of these mysteries than don't look interesting until they catch a sharp ray of light and suddenly there's something about them, indescribable, something to dig up and shatter.

 

He listens to Liam play. Louis takes his hand, heavy, delicate, strong, his devil face open and warm, he says, Come here, he's not interesting. Harry lets himself be taken away the first time, he chokes a moan in Louis's shoulder and he lets him sing a Vivaldi aria in his ear, Vedro con mio diletto, raspy and jealous in his breathy counter-tenor. Harry breaks at sospirero penando, spills and sighs and moans.

 

Louis mumbles, "It's the pain that gets you off, isn't it, Haz?" in his neck, but Harry doesn't answer.

 

He stays at Liam's recital until the end the next time, eyes trained on him, on his hands, on his chest that stutters with the music, and he looks for the cracks.

 

*

 

People call him names sometimes, but Harry doesn't care. Sometimes he hears a whispered 'slut' when he walks down the halls, but he just looks at them, his eyes lazy beneath his eyelashes, and he says, "You have no idea." He licks his lips, too, for the effect, just to watch them stutter and fall apart. He deserves all that he's got, and he's happy to have it, his red lips and his curls and his hands down someone else's pants, fumbling to reach bliss. He isn't complaining.

 

And when Louis and him walk side by side, he feels unbreakable, he feels unbeatable, powerful and strong and everything he never thought he would be, slinking on this floor like it's his kingdom. Louis slips a hand around his waist or his shoulders – they smile at each other, teeth bared. (Harry never trusts Louis, except in the afterglow, limbs slippery with sweat and come, Louis's gaze burning holes in his skin, dark like a night that won't end.)

 

And maybe he's a slut, but he couldn't care less, really, he couldn't. What if he likes a bit of flesh to sink his teeth into, and skin beneath his nails? What of it? He watches Liam Payne blush when his piano gets a little too sensual, he wonders if it's a game and he finds himself thinking maybe, maybe it is.

 

He talks to him for the first time on a Sunday, in April. The halls are empty and hot, smelling of outside. Harry is alone – Louis has gone home for once, left him with a kiss and a nip at his bottom lip, his voice tucked neatly in his throat, precious, golden. Harry wanders.

 

There is a door that's half-open and shows a slice of Liam Payne's profile to the voyeurs that walk past. He's playing, laborious arpeggios that feel untalented and stiff. Harry doesn't know piano (he knows music), but he winces at the brutality, wants to caress the wood and whisper, sorry, sorry, sorry.

 

He steps in without really thinking about it, maybe just to talk, say something and make it stop. Mercy, for once – Harry doesn't like it, feels young and weak when it clings to his skin, but he thinks of the wood paneling, golden and musical, and he walks in without knocking.

 

The music stops. Harry sighs a sigh of relief and leans against the doorjamb, his body sliding into its natural position, lazy and alert, feline.

 

"Hi," he says, voice laced with honey.

 

"Hi," Liam Payne answers, an interrogative tilt to his voice, polite and perfunctory. Harry hates him with a passion, already.

 

"Play something," Harry demands.

 

Liam Payne looks up at him. His eyes are a dull brown. "Why?" he asks.

 

"Play something," Harry repeats. No one ever resists him, and this time won't be different.

 

It isn't.

 

Liam plays for a few minutes, a Ravel piece that ought to be delicate and joyous and full of intricacies but under his fingers turns mechanical and expected.

 

"Stop."

 

Harry shakes his head. His curls catch the sun, and they should look like a halo, but they don't – they look like his head is on fire.

 

He whispers, "Why are you here?" and he slides out of the room silently, leaving the door half-open, as though he were never here.

 

*

 

When he comes back, Louis meets Zayn. Zayn is the tall-dark-handsome-broody type, lithe body with long eyelashes and tanned skin. Harry leers at him a bit when Louis introduces them (or at least, Louis's crazy brand of introducing, which mostly means him jumping Harry and mumbling 'Zayn' in his mouth as he kisses him like they haven't seen each other for months). Zayn plays the harp. Harry laughs a bit at that, but his breath catches in his throat when he sees Zayn's dark fingers splayed on the chords, stroking them like Harry imagines they would a lover's skin. Louis smirks at him.

 

After that, they meet Niall. It's this time of the year when everyone is easy-going and genuinely nice, maybe even happy, the april air flowery and sharp. Niall is blond and Irish. He plays the guitar. He's a very simple riddle, that flows between Harry's fingers and unravels easily. Harry doesn't mind.

 

He still doesn't like Liam Payne, but Liam Payne is Zayn's friend and maybe more sometimes when they whisper in each other's ear, foreheads bent to touch. Liam looks at Harry like he would a predator, scared and confused. Harry likes it. Louis doesn't understand, but he's amused. Everything amuses Louis.

 

Time passes by.

 

Harry and Louis improvise together to Purcell's Sound the trumpet. Harry doesn't have a half-bad voice, but he sings like he plays his violin, with his hands on the strings, close and intimate, lower than Louis and with less technique. He smiles when Louis curls his voice around the words and makes them sound dirty when they aren't, and they end the song singing in each other's faces, rubbing against each other between the catcalls and the quiet gasps. Harry locks eyes with Liam and smiles at him. That is what music is, he tries to convey as his eyes fall closed. (Because Harry's motto is play life like you play music, fast and dirty, torturous, drawn-out, the pads of his fingers cut by the sharp strings.)

 

Harry meets one of Niall's teachers. Her name is Caroline, and she has sun-kissed skin and a curvaceous body, and eyes sprinkling like a fizzy drink. Harry takes her hand and bows to kiss it. She doesn't giggle – he looks at her from beneath his eyelashes and she smirks, wide and predatory.

 

"A woman after my own heart," he says to Louis, who laughs against his teeth and bites his tongue.

 

"Bite your tongue, Hazza," he says, and maybe he's jealous, maybe he isn't. Harry never knows but he never really cares either, so it's okay.

 

He eats Caroline out in the dance practice room, her head banging against the mirror and the wooden barre digging into her back. He fucks her with her wrists pinned above her head and she fights it but she likes it, loudly whispering filthy, filthy things into his ear as he slams into her, beautiful and shameless.

 

He thinks about Liam Payne walking by and comes, hips stuttering, Caroline boneless and blissed-out beneath him.

 

*

 

There's a contest this year. They all have to play a piece by Mozart, each with their own instrument. The teachers say, There will be a winner , and any other time Harry would have been crazy to win, crazy to play like he's never played, but not this time.

 

Louis sings something from Don Giovanni . Harry goes slack-jawed, like every time Louis sings. He thinks, these sounds are the same that when he moans, only in a different order , and he can hear them, hidden behind his controlled breathing. He decides to take Louis away after the recital and drag him back to their dorm, make him fuck him into the mattress and scream.

 

There's a lot of good music – it's Mozart, after all – and a lot of people butchering him too. When Liam goes on stage, he plays a string of perfect notes, cold and feelingless. Harry hates him for doing that to Mozart, and to music. He knows he shouldn't feel so angry, but he does. It's a good anger; burning through his veins and electrifying him, making him want to grab someone by the collar and kiss them, dirty and open-mouthed.

 

Liam Payne wins.

 

Harry doesn't make Louis fuck him. He goes to the student party with the others, drowns in the heavy beat of the music that is nothing like Mozart's elegant curlicues. He drinks like he always does, with his lips and his throat and laughing people plastered against his back. He lets his head fall back like a pornstar, and someone whispers, whore , but he doesn't care.

 

He can't say he isn't surprised when Liam Payne walks to him (he doesn't slink , Liam Payne – he doesn't slide or glide or slither). He sits down next to him. His drink appears to be non-alcoholic, and Harry would laugh, he would, if he didn't feel nauseous all of a sudden. Liam Payne's eyes are as dull as ever. Harry has catalogued three emotions for them: surprise, confusion, blindness.

 

(His drink is cherry-flavored, he realizes suddenly as he catches a whiff of it, and they must be too close, but Liam Payne's lips are red, too red, too red to be his lips.)

 

"I'm sorry I won," he says, but he doesn't sound sorry, he sounds revengeful and glorious and Harry wants to whisper, finally , but he doesn't.

 

(His eyes haven't changed. For a second, Harry entertains the idea that it's a dream, that he hasn't said that – but he has. He's a master of masks, of course, of course he is. He probably doesn't even realize.)

 

But Harry – Harry isn't new at this game, you see, he may be young but he's old, older than the sky and the pianos and the red-lipped boys, so he leans in to catch sweatcherryvictory, and he says:

 

"I'm sorry you didn't."

 

He leaves, after that. He lets the heavy beat carry him wherever he may go, and he doesn't turn back, because he's Harry Styles and he never does.

 

*

 

The summer is hot and clammy. Harry has somewhere to get back to, but he's never been one to do what he's told. He comes home just long enough to kiss his mother and press an "I love you" against the shell of her ear, and leaves with Louis, whisked away to new adventures. They go to Greece together, spend their days in lazy fucking and laughter, caressed by the Greek sun like the golden children they are. They switch their phones off and go dancing in town, drown together in the glitter, their fingers loosely tangled as they grind down against strangers.

 

They passed with honors, both of them, even if Louis's voice broke on the counter-E during his last performance and Harry's playing was a bit off. The knowledge that they'll be together for at least one more year makes Harry feel light and free, his head blessedly empty from the worry he's used to permanently feeling simmering under his skin (because life without Louis is alone, has been for a long time). There's nothing but certainty when he looks at Louis now, a persistent thrum of he'll be here, unlimited but infinite.

 

They aren't friends and they aren't lovers – aren't much else than HarryandLouis, this strange entity that puzzles everyone that isn't them, and that even they don't try to understand. They laugh crudely at their own cruelty (Harry fucked a girl on the beach yesterday night, honey skin and wide blue eyes, and left her half-buried in the sand, this step nearer to the disappearance that threatens them all), children before everything else, their teeth shiny and white like pretend predators.

 

They lean into each other with matching smiles, their sweaty foreheads bent together. Harry presses the pads of his fingers to the inside of Louis's wrist and listens to the blood stutter. How easy, he thinks (how easy they are, how easy it would be if this was the endgame, if there wasn't the further and the more branded under Harry's eyelids).

 

"I love you," says Louis, Harry's body lithe and hot between his thighs, on the deck of a boat that's taking them somewhere new.

 

"I love you too," Harry answers, the back of his head pressed against Louis's chest, and he breathes in the salt-tinged air, lulled to sleep by Louis's heartbeat that doesn't accelerate.

 

Their life together is a lazy dream – they don't think of anyone but themselves, ignore the phone calls and the emails and the letters, jerk each other off with nonchalant wrists, far from the franticness that sometimes seizes them when they're at school with a hot body pressed between them and the toilet stall. Harry likes it, the deep, heavy cedar scent of it, pushing into his nostrils and making him dizzy. No one told him that life could be this simple.

 

He doesn't take his violin out of its case for the first ten days. Sometimes, when he looks at it, the shiny leather leering at him, he swears he can hear it scream that it wants to sing in the thunder-charged air. But everything is too fresh, and Harry wants to party until he drops to his knees and only take his violin out when he'll have forgotten what it feels like to hold it against his neck, pressing against his carotid.

 

Louis doesn't sing either, a few bars here and there when he's feeling showy or ridiculous, but nothing full-blown. Harry is thankful – but they know each other so well, it's a little bit criminal, to be honest. (The one time they make an exception, Louis sings Frema pur, ottone in villa around Harry's cock. Harry comes on the spot – and when they lie next to each other, blissed-out and sated, Harry tells Louis, "Vivaldi is my favorite." Louis laughs.)

 

The summer ends on a Monday. That night, Harry sighs quiet sobs in Louis's skin for no reason at all, and Louis holds him, strokes his hair and lets the last minute of the summer slip away, unnoticed.

 

*

 

Harry still doesn't like Liam Payne when he comes back.

 

Liam is tanned and golden; his hair still looks slightly ridiculous, longer than it should be, little tufts of it sticking out when he shakes his head. His notes are the same as last year – a perfect D gets stuck in Harry's throat, vicious like a blade.

 

He watches Zayn and Louis look at each other with new eyes, unpleasantly dark, and he wanders alone, feeling old. He cradles his violin against his chest like a cantankerous sister, forgetting about everything when he plays. He's praised – he smiles at the sky. It doesn't answer.

 

Liam Payne is always there in the corridors, his eyes downcast, whispering to himself with tight lips (boring, Harry thinks, probably assignments or homework, rows and rows of straight black staves with their tiny G key in the corner, proper and posh). Harry wants to draw symphonies on his skin until he understands music.

 

Niall looks at a girl from drama with a wider smile than usual. She's pretty, dark-haired with floral dresses, and Harry thinks that she'll never play Ophelia, because she doesn't have the shoulders or the neck for it. He feels a bit sorry for her in his usual, unconcerned way.

 

Niall comes to ask him for advice, and there's a minute where Harry wants to ask him why he doesn't go to someone else, someone who understands girls with long lashes and pretty dresses. Then he thinks about Caroline, and he wants to tell him to just fuck her and leave her exhausted in a practice room, her lips bitten-bruised, looking ravaged.

 

Instad he says, "Talk to her. Be nice, be charming," and watches him do just that.

 

He fucks a girl that night. She doesn't have black hair and her dress is tight, a trashy red – she looks at him, her lips stained with alcohol and lipgloss, and he knows she's one of his kin.

 

Later, when they share a fag, slumped against the wall behind the club, she doesn't ask for his number.

 

She says, "Trish," and when he says he'll forget, too tired to be apologetic, she says, "I know" and leaves him to finish the cigarette in the cool September air, the night seeping into his skin like an old friend.

 

*

 

Louis is more broken than usual. Harry sees the beginning of a love story in his eyes and he wants to say, stop, you'll hurt yourself, but he knows Louis won't listen, is as charming and funny as he is destructive, gloriously. He lets Zayn and him gravitate around each other, and doesn't close his eyes when they collide. They sink into winter, and everything goes still and white – Louis looks like a statue, beautiful and feelingless. Harry doesn't console him. He doesn't say, I told you so either, so he figures he's being fair. Louis looks at him like he isn't sure if he's been betrayed.

 

Liam Payne is hovering in the background, straight shoulders and judgmental mouth. It's like the seasons don't affect him – he dresses the same, and his smile doesn't change like Louis's does (summer, wide and insensitive; spring, sharp and cruel; autumn, maybe-gentle, sugary). Harry's hatred for him doesn't recess.

 

He goes to the theater alone to see Lorenzaccio. He doesn't cry, because he's Harry Styles and he doesn't, he doesn't do this kind of things, but at some point his breath escapes him and he's left clutching at his chest, lungs crushed. Here it is, he thinks, and he wonders when he broke and he didn't notice, and he wonders if someone like Liam Payne ever breaks.

 

The duke tells everyone he loves Lorenzo, and Lorenzo kills him. They die in the night, behind the falling red curtain, their last sigh lost under the thunder of applaud. Someone says to Harry, "It was good, wasn't it?" as though it's a question and Harry knows better, he knows better than to answer, but he never knows better, so he says, "Fuck off," sneers really, lips curled in an ugly snarl, and he leaves.

 

Louis and Zayn aren't in the room, but there are traces of them, books and messy blankets where Harry can see the imprint of their tangled limbs. Their love sickens Harry. He thinks, why not me and never and how did it all go so wrong, but really, this is just the beginning of his life and there's still so much to do, so much to learn, and he doesn't know fuck-all.

 

Harry is beautiful. Everyone told him at some point or another, and he sees it in Liam Payne's eyes, glassy like a doll's, his curls and the feline green of his eyes, the tantalizing charm that curls in his smile, lodged between his teeth. Sometimes he lets a collarbone slip from beneath his collar just to see what power he has over them, them, and he's so satisfied when he sees them stutter and open up wide for him to rob and steal that he almost chokes on it.

 

But it's never enough – he never gets enough of anything, the power or the flesh or even his music. It isn't ambition, not really, not what most would call ambition, anyway – not the burning desire to burn higher, to fly –; it's another desire, darker, that thrums under his skin and calls for more intensity, more, more. His desire is for something limitless, that spills over and floods him – and he doesn't care if it's dirt and glitter and half-awake strangers in the cold gray morning. He always gets what he wants, and he'll get this all the same, he's sure of it, as sure of it as he is of the taut strings of his violin and the patient boiling of his blood, this shaky certainty that only belongs to kings.

 

The winter catches up with him and he falls ill. Louis cares as much as Louis can care, a suffused worry in his eyes when he looks at Harry that he forgets as soon as Zayn walks into the room and curls possessive fingers around his hip. Liam passes by their dorm an afternoon and sees him lying down, wheezing. He should smile, one of these lightning smiles that Harry knows so well because he has learned to master them perfectly, that say here we are and another war won, but he doesn't.

 

Instead he walks into the room and asks, "Are you okay?" Harry doesn't have the voice to tell him to go away, so he doesn't, he nestles his rage in his right lung to let it burn there quietly and nods at Liam.

 

"Did you take something?" Liam asks.

 

Harry barely sees his contours, blurred in the haze of his illness. He's always been a sick child, a fragile, delicate flower – his mother used to bring him tea with lemon and a dash of honey in his bed, sweet voice saying "Don't spill it", sugary lips pressing kisses to his feverish forehead. He wears illness as he wears everything, well, cheeks prettily flushed and mouth redder than ever, screaming blood.

 

He nods again – he took something, he must have, he has meds stashed in one of his drawers and he remembers feeling the dry little sphere slide in his throat. Liam sighs. Harry hates him with dizzying unclarity, faded like an old painting.

 

"I'll stay," Liam says, and the words resonate in Harry's skull, i'llstayi'llstayi'llstay. He doesn't want him to stay, he wants him to leave him alone and he wants to tell him, but he doesn't. He fixes his eyes on a patch of Liam's skin, tanned-brown near his collarbone, and passes out.

 

When he wakes up, Liam is still here. He has a book open on his knees, and Harry gets the absurd thought (delirium, the word floats in mind, pretty and whimsical) that he should wear glasses, square and fuck-ugly. He stays until sundown, makes Harry take meds and cooks him chicken soup like the perfect boy he is, sits quietly beside him, sometimes mumbling about toccatas and scales.

 

When Harry wakes up for the second time, unrested from the sleep he managed to get half into the afternoon, Liam isn't here anymore. Harry hears the distant, muffled noise coming from Louis's room, hushed voices. He tries to hurt but can't, and he falls asleep again, dreamless.

 

*

 

Harry isn't angry. He wouldn't, not for something like that, Louis's lips (he knows them by heart, there's a drawer in his brain where they're stacked like the map to some kind of Eldorado) branded now, bitten and bruised, and Zayn's presence ghosting over him, overpowering. Harry saw (his skin, and he knows it too, better than anyone, the scars and the freckles and the memory of his swollen foot from this time with the sea-urchin, Greece, the two of them, young, young, together) the faint trace of a bruise on his left hip, fingers that have maybe squeezed a little too hard.

 

Louis's voice is better than ever, soaring and powerful. Harry hates that he can do nothing by halves, and especially not fall – Harry never falls like that, face first, hands tucked behind his back, eyes screwed shut, even the first time he met Louis, this day he can't decide if he should curse or bless. Zayn plays the harp like some pretense of fragility, but in reality he's anything but fragile (Harry looks at his knuckles and wonders what he could break, but there's so much, so much, so much). Harry watches them look at each other and he wants to hold Louis in his arms and keep him safe because he loves him, but he doesn't. Watching them love each other just aches – there's nothing else there.

 

He thinks, everyone should make their own mistakes. It must be something someone told him, one of these pieces of advice thrown carelessly by people on an everyday basis, like it's nothing, but it stuck with him, a burning ember in his memory.

 

He sees Liam Payne in the corridors and feels forced to acknowledge him, two fingers pressed to his temple in a mock-salute. Liam smiles. Harry doesn't like being forced to do anything, especially not that.

 

Niall gets the girl and parades with her on his arm. They don't really match – for a second Harry wonders why all his friends are so ill-fitting, un-color-coordinated (Louis's smile against Zayn's forearm, a sickening shade of pink mixed with bronze, Niall's hand on the small of his girlfriend's back, reeking of wrong).

 

He goes to a concert (sticky beer stains, wooden stools, a quiet sort of paradise) with them and Liam Payne and friends of theirs, Matt and Aiden. Aiden is a tortured-looking philosophy major, frail and wiry, and Matt's older, a man, even, who looks at Aiden with honey-warm eyes. The music is good but Harry feels himself suffocate amidst all these repressed feelings and aborted touches. He pretends to feel sick (but he does, he does). Liam Payne offers to share a cab. Harry thinks, god, no, and says, "Of course."

 

(Liam Payne may have smiled at him in the half-darkness, but maybe that's wishful thinking. Harry's never been good at making the difference between fantasy and reality. He's never understood why it mattered, anyway.)

 

They get into the cab, movements heavy and slurred because of the alcohol. Liam Payne hasn't drunk much but he never drinks, sticks to some kind of water diet. He doesn't hold his liquor well – Harry isn't surprised.

 

The leather-clad interior of the cab doesn't feel any better to Harry than the sweat-drenched throng. Everything is black and sticks to his skin, the leather hot under his thighs. He decides he hates it. Liam Payne (he wouldn't be himself without his annoying surname, wouldn't be as straight and irritating, surely) is breathing quietly next to him.

 

"Why do you hate me?" he asks, and Harry doesn't like it, hates it to be honest, hates that he states the obvious and doesn't let any place for the unsure and the ambiguous, that he wants to know everything.

 

"I don't hate you," he lies through his teeth. It feels good – he's grown unaccustomed to lying like that, so blatantly. The lies he tells Louis always have a sparse air of truth about them – and Louis reads him too easily for it to count, anyway.

 

"You do," Liam insists.

 

Harry wants to scream, shut up. Liam Payne will probably obey, shrink back into the shell his only martini has distracted him out of.

 

He doesn't. He slips a finger into Liam's collar (thinking Liam is overwhelming, and not the good kind – he feels nauseous to his bones, his marrow soaked and damp) and pulls roughly. Their mouths crash together, there's no god, there isn't, and Liam Payne isn't a good kisser, doesn't kiss but Harry knows just from the feeling of his unmoving lips. Silence, he thinks, his ears full of labored breathing, blessed silence. He wants to be in another country, floating amongst a sea of people who speak a language he doesn't know, doesn't grasp, wants to recline in the emptiness and the absence of meaning.

 

He pries Liam's mouth open with his tongue, and it is this that makes him pull back. A lock has fallen on his forehead, liquid golden in the lying darkness, and his lips are a bit redder than before.

 

"What are you –," he starts.

 

Harry knows he wants to find words, terms, wants to draw a contract for them to follow by the letter, personal boundaries must be respected and kiss only with thy gentle lips. He's the type that doesn't know how to let go of his control. He wants to know everything beforehand. Harry isn't like that. Harry kisses like thunder, and Liam Payne isn't going to change that.

 

He gestures to the driver and the cab slows down to a halt in the night. Harry isn't a coward, but he doesn't care about looking like one. He slides out of the cab, feet first, heels pressing against the asphalt.

 

"Good night, Liam Payne," he says, and holds back everything else he could have said, you won't always be able to control everything and stop and I hate you.

 

Liam says something – his words get lost in the red-stained dawn. Harry wanders, feeling empty and quiet.

 

*

 

Harry doesn't ask Louis if he loves Zayn. It doesn't matter, and it's such a simple question for something so gloriously complicated. It would be ridiculous – Harry isn't ridiculous. He doesn't ask the question. It floats in the air, unasked, tantalizing.

 

But Louis could say I do and I don't and it would mean the same thing, wouldn't make the look in his eyes less burning and his laughter less strained. Answering the question wouldn't erase the mornings they spend together, punctuated by Louis's boisterous jokes and Zayn's silent presence, Harry's teasing charm. Words can't tell the colors and the broken mugs and the suffused joy – everything gets helplessly lost between the semi-colons and the commas.

 

Louis and Zayn play a bit together, behind closed doors. Their sound (Zayn's lace-thin harp and Louis's powerful counter-tenor) travels to Harry, muffled by the walls and their kisses that Harry can imagine as if he were there, moist lips pressed against each other, tongue, teeth, spit.

 

Harry's violin doesn't like him anymore. They sound wrong together – it's as if Harry had outgrown him, had gotten too imperfect for the slick, golden wood, and he struggles to hold the sharp angle against his neck, afraid it might hurt him. He feels like an orphan, loveless.

 

He's practicing one day and everything feels so wrong, so unshakably wrong, that Harry throws his violin against the wall. He's never been as unthinking as Louis, as unguarded, as prompt to open himself wide, but he doesn't think much either (the difference, he thinks as he scrambles to his knees, is that the only person that can hurt Harry is himself, and Louis lets himself be hurt by everyone). He does things like that, too. He throws his violin at walls.

 

Of course, Liam Payne is walking in the corridors. (Harry wonders if his profile is the same, too soft, low and studious for everyone to see. He hopes not, fervently.)

 

He's not invited, but he walks in.

 

"Get out," Harry snarls. Everything can hurt Liam Payne, too. He needs thicker skin, Harry thinks, a thought that resurfaces from what seems like an eternity ago, like a crocodile.

 

Liam Payne doesn't hear. The violin is still on the floor – one intact string holds the broken spine together. Liam's eyes widen. (But he doesn't know, it isn't murder to him, it's just a broken violin, not a lover he killed, not a bruised sister he pushed against the wall and slaughtered.)

 

"You can't do that!" he shouts. He's so proper, so infuriatingly straight and narrow, never a hair out of place. Harry hates him, hates him, hates him – it's dizzying.

 

"Can't I?" but he can, Harry can do everything, that's the beauty of him, he has no boundaries, and especially not these, not the boundaries a scared little self-righteous twat thinks he should have.

 

Liam doesn't understand that, couldn't, because he wakes up at seven and a half and gets to class by eight, never late, eats lunch at twelve and diner at seven, and maybe it's better, maybe it's what Harry should do too but it drives him crazy. Harry may be childish and naive and everything you want to call him, but he needs passion, he needs blood and glitter and fair Verona.

 

He can do everything, and it's not Liam Payne who will convince him otherwise.

 

"You can't do that!" Liam Payne repeats. His eyes are wide, maybe a bit darker than usual by a shade or two, but not much.

 

Harry is seething. "Watch me," he says, and he throws his heel into the wooden belly. Here for you, he thinks revengefully, hot pain bursting in his stomach as the instrument gives way under his foot, moaning brokenly.

 

Liam Payne hides his eyes behind his palms. Harry isn't composed, and he isn't winning – distantly, he thinks about the control he's lost, and he can't find it in himself to regret it.

 

*

 

He doesn't tell anyone about his violin (his mother would have looked at him with wide disappointed eyes, she would have held him and said, my child and violins are not made for breaking. It's true. In Harry's life, they've always been the only immortal thing). He goes into town to buy another one, and he can almost feel Liam Payne's judgmental brown eyes boring through the skin of his back as he wanders between the shelves, lightly caressing the instruments as he goes. The flimsy golden dust seeps into his skin, welcome. The clerk watches him with wide-eyed wonder (a kid with curls, he'll tell someone later, lips like sin, the face of an angel; he bought the little one I'd hidden on the top shelf, and when he left, he was cradling it like a bride).

 

Louis wants to ask, but he doesn't, and for once Harry wishes he had. For once they aren't really on the same wavelength – Harry looks at Louis's face and can't read him, finds nothing but a blank canvas, a locked door he used to have the key to but doesn't, not anymore.

 

He's happy with his new violin. It's not perfect but it's better than it could've been, and he knows that it takes time to warm up to a new instrument, to find the perfect way to position their necks together, to press the bow lightly on the strings and make them give the sounds he wants. His teachers aren't particularly happy but they deal with it, don't have any other choice. It's like that with him.

 

Sometimes, Harry hears Liam Payne's quietly angry voice scold Zayn somewhere in their strange maze of half-closed doors and not-quite-soundproof walls. He thinks about what he's saying, sees Louis and thinks, they must be crumbling, but can't find it in himself to care. Maybe he thinks that crumbling is the best way to die, the best way to be in love. You can't not hurt, or it isn't love.

 

But Liam Payne probably doesn't think that. He probably thinks that love is a dead encephalogram, a straight line that goes on and on and on until you can't tell the end from the beginning, a uniform happiness that never stutters.

 

He doesn't say, leave them alone. He understands, and he doesn't want anything to do with Liam, really.

 

Maybe it's just a bit strange to see them make each other miserable, and it hurts, and Harry can't breathe when he's in a room with them, but whatever, he goes to see Niall and his pretty girlfriend Juliette and they laugh together, or he goes bowling with Matt and Aiden, and maybe it's fleeting but he doesn't care. It's enough. It's not good, and it won't be enough for long, but it is for now, and that's all Harry's asking for.

 

Louis comes to see him one night, when he's plucking the strings of his violin aimlessly, Music Theory IV open before him. He doesn't really understand what Liam Payne finds so rapturous about it – it's just boring, to be honest. He wonders how two people can read the same book so differently, and if the people who read the books he loves found them boring or closed them after twenty pages. It's a terrifying thought.

 

"Hey," Louis says quietly. It's not like Louis to be quiet, but it's okay – it's his particular brand of it, dark-eyed and slim, sliding wordlessly into the room.

 

"Hey," Harry answers, shifting to let him sit next to him on the bed. He has a love-bite on his neck, and he touches it absently, caressing it with light fingers. Harry wonders if he realizes.

 

"You okay?" Louis asks. Harry thinks, I could ask you the same question, but come to think of it maybe it deserves to be here, to be said.

 

He shrugs. He doesn't know. Is he okay? He's broken a violin and lost a best friend. Not his best time, no, not really. Not his worst either.

 

"I'm sorry," Louis says, and Harry wants to ask, what are you sorry for? It had to happen – Louis would never be in love another way than this, painful and intense and true.

 

"Don't be," he says. He misses Louis's kisses, for the heat and the way they'd laugh and mock each other, the way their bodies knew each other and relaxed as soon as they touched. It wasn't love – or maybe it was, but love is too wide a word to mean only one thing. It's not a good word, Harry thinks. Too vague.

 

"You have a fag?" Louis asks. It's been a long time since Harry last smoked. He hadn't realized he missed it, too, until now.

 

"Sure," he says easily, and goes to dig up a forgotten pack in his bag, drawing two out and handing Louis one. He has a lighter that he loves – silver, his mother gave it to him for his tenth birthday, with his initials and an e.e. cummings quote on the back that has faded to be almost unreadable. He wonders if he'll forget it completely one day. If he'll forget her.

 

"Thanks," Louis breathes. Harry's room will smell like smoke for days. The tiny flame flickers between them. Harry reminisces.

 

"Are you happy?" he asks suddenly, but he regrets the words as soon as they come out of his mouth and he sees Louis flinch. He wonders if there are words to say what he wants to say.

 

"Maybe," Louis says (these words, Harry thinks again, they're so inadequate). "I don't know."

 

Of course he doesn't know. Even if he knew, if he thought he knew – but it doesn't matter.

 

Louis leans in to kiss him. He tastes like Zayn and smoke and Louis, like laughter and desperation, light blue eyes and long, lean limbs. Harry hums into the kiss. Okay then, he thinks. Goodbye.

 

It isn't goodbye, not really; it's the beginning of something new, different, and there are things to let go of, but Harry doesn't mind.

 

*

 

Liam Payne is growing up. There's talk in the corridors of him being approached by someone from the London Philarmonic Orchestra, and it makes a quiet kind of jealousy course in Harry's veins. It's stupid, really, because he has had offers too and he won't be out of a job when he leaves school (the idea of playing to live scares him sometimes. He wants to keep the lightness in his strokes, the sparkle, the imponderable joy of playing, and he's afraid he'll lose that). It's a big deal, growing up – it's exactly the kind of thing Liam Payne would do.

 

Zayn is asked to play for a school event, a ball of some sort, with a boring banquet and pressed suits. Harry wears a bowtie and charms everyone, waltzing between the bodies and the colorful dresses, never stopping long enough to let anyone see the cracks. He lets his hands flutter, press touches against hips, moist skin, closed lips and blushing cheeks – he hadn't realized he missed it so much either. Maybe all isn't lost after all, he thinks, and he feels a bit stupid for having thought it was.

 

Seeing Zayn play is new and breath-taking. He understands the music as perfectly as you'd except from someone like him, but Harry knew that already, because Louis wouldn't fall in love with someone who doesn't understand music (Harry decidedly doesn't think about Liam Payne, politely shaking hands, his fingers large and frank). The piece is crisp like a new shirt, an academic piece without quirks or crazy turns, but Zayn puts something in there that makes Harry stop before him for a bit, letting the music sink in and seep into his skin.

 

They're like remote cousins, really, the harp and the violin; and of course it isn't the same thing at all, the long, feminine wood pressed against the entire length of Zayn's torso and his own violin pushing against his carotid, wavering between affectionate and threatening, but there is something refreshingly familiar about the long strings and the way Zayn's fingers stretch over them.

 

Zayn is beautiful – it dawns on Harry like a revelation, the stunning grace of his face, long eyelashes inking a shadow on his cheekbones, silent, unblinking eyes fixing the horizon as his hands run over his instrument. It's a beauty that aches, he realizes, the air around him still and filled with storm, and maybe the love that comes with it must ache too. A weight settles low on his stomach, maybe relief and maybe resignation.

 

Louis comes up behind him and breathes in his skin, wraps his arms around Harry's middle and presses his torso against his back, his fingers tiny pads of pressure just below Harry's ribs. He could talk, but he doesn't.

 

The fading day melts into night – Harry watches Zayn climb off stage and fall into Louis' open arms, tiny blue veins covering his eyelids when he closes his eyes. It feels too intimate – like breathing too near would break a wall of glass and shatter their fragile equilibrium. Harry leaves. He doesn't feel like he has much a choice, but he doesn't really mind.

 

He spends the night at Caroline's, in the heart of the buzzing town. He laughs with her; they share a bottle of wine and fuck lazily on her couch, his hands pressed low on her hips, pushing slow bruises into her skin. Harry decides he likes her, and she chuckles when he tells her, murmurs a lullaby against his sweaty skin and a quiet "Good night" in his ear.

 

Harry feels more peaceful than he has in weeks. He drifts into sleep just as the sun peeks from below Caroline's window-frame.

 

*

 

It seems like the practice room are only here to reveal half-hidden profiles and silhouettes and let stray notes float into the corridors. Harry cannot bear that he almost knows Liam Payne's face by heart, round jaw, ears invisible under the hair. (Harry doesn't like it – his profile is like butter and dough, and he prefers the sharp, scissors-cut angles of a face that lies).

 

Harry slips inside without warning. He wonders for a brief moment if he would slip into the emptiness so unthinkingly, a long, swift movement that would erase him completely, and he thinks, maybe.

 

"Hello," he says when he's inside. It's spring again. It seems to Harry that it was spring just yesterday, the raw-green buds, unopened, Zayn's face that he saw for the first time, sweet and sugary like chocolate (and new, too, new and exciting to him and Louis, fresh off the boat, skin still prickly with sand and salt and Greek sun).

 

But time has passed since. He sees it in Zayn and Louis's linked fingers, Niall's gaze that quietly drifts away from them, Liam that maybe grasped one or two notes that sounded like music at his last performance, but not enough. He'll never be enough, Harry thinks in a lightning flash of lucidity, and an acidic bile flows into his stomach, not really his (he can see it, though – Liam Payne trying and trying and never being a genius, being calm and composed and good and on the edge of the beautiful, but never quite so).

 

"What do you want?" Liam Payne asks, teeth first, biting his words cleanly separate.

 

It's as though he'd heard Harry's thoughts and was trying to protect himself (but he even does that wrong, protecting himself – it's all words and no arms, pointy elbows and the back of his hands, surely they're big enough to break something). Harry thinks about a wounded deer, flank smeared with blood.

 

"Do you want to insult me, is that it?" he asks. His voice is loud – Harry watches his pupils dilate, their dull brown suddenly more interesting, tattered with golden sparks and stormy patches of heavy black. "Tell me that 'I don't know music'?"

 

He attempts to make fun of Harry's voice, but it comes out as a sort of strangled squeak. Harry doesn't say anything. He could, but he doesn't.

 

"Not really," he answers instead. His heartache is floating in his chest, stringless.

 

Liam seems to calm down. It doesn't take much, Harry thinks, but it's no wonder. "What do you want, then?"

 

What does he want? Isn't that a good question. He wishes he knew – Liam Payne probably knows what he wants, probably has a bullet-point list with items color-coded by importance and practicability. Does he want crazy things, too? Does he want to go the Niagara falls and open his arms to fly in the white, sizzling water?

 

"I don't know," Harry says. The truth feels sour in his mouth, like it's been kept in there too long without coming out.

 

Liam Payne has questions, but he doesn't ask them. They dissolve in the air and prickle their eyes like dust.

 

"Do you like music?" Harry asks, and curses language once more for being so wrong. Asking that feels like asking a question full of air when he meant it to be condensed, intense and golden. Does he like music – who doesn't?

 

"I do," Liam Payne answers. Hard as he tries, Harry can't blame him for his empty eyes.

 

"Who taught you?"

 

(It was Harry's mother who taught him. If she were still alive, people would probably think they were siblings, with their golden curls and green green eyes. She had a violin. It was her mother who had taught her. Anne repeated the words, "The violin is your lover." In his house, they taught everything by flesh.)

 

"I taught myself."

 

No wonder , Harry thinks, and then, there's a story here , but he doesn't ask and Liam Payne doesn't say.

 

"You know any Gould?"

 

"I don't like him," Liam Payne says. Harry wonders what he would've said to someone else. There is a truthfulness to Liam when they are together that bothers him. He wants him to stop, wants to say, tell me your lies . He imagines what Liam Payne would say. Those aren't lies , he would say. They're just another kind of truth .

 

But Harry doesn't believe that there are several kinds of truth.

 

"I know," he says. "Do you know any, though?"

 

"I do," Liam Payne answers. Even when he's angry, he can't help being the good boy that he is. A smile curls at the edge of Harry's mouth.

 

"Which one?"

 

" Toccata in E minor ," he answers.

 

"It's a beautiful piece," Harry says, thinking, did you trample over this one too?

 

Liam Payne doesn't say anything. He probably doesn't like the piece. It probably bothers him that there's Gould singing in the background, off-key – that it isn't proper and clean like everything he likes.

 

"Play it for me," Harry asks. He doubts Liam Payne plays music for people; and even if he did, this piece wouldn't be the one. (What would it be? Maybe Vivaldi or Wagner, he thinks – something furious he can't play, that would convey all the rage and the confusion, but it's a blind guess. Maybe it's what he wants, and Liam would only play old-school Bach, with a dash of Fauré when he feels daring.)

 

"No," Liam Payne says.

 

Harry would insist, say, it's the anniversary of my mother's death in seven days and Liam Payne would play, but suddenly exhaustion washes over him, his knees buckle, and he flees.

 

*

 

They're all paired off in tentative tandems, Harry remarks idly one afternoon as they're sprawled on the grass in the back yard. Spring is lingering on; it seems to enjoy their company, for some reason, and it graces them with the sweet freshness of months that don't exist, slotted between March and April.

 

There's Louis and Zayn, because he can't not see them. Zayn's arms are curled around Louis's shoulders, holding him back; Louis's fingers circle Zayn's ankle. Harry wonders if they realize what they're doing, how they look. Their kisses must taste sour, he thinks, and it's really more of a certainty than anything else. There's Louis and Zayn, breaking each other in tiny increments, teeth and nails and the erosion of their skins.

 

There's Niall and his little freshman, Juliette, who's bright-eyed and funny, little fingers laced with Niall's; and then there's Matt and Aiden, and it's sort of ironic that they should be the only ones that fit, out of all of them, the scruffy thirty-years-old and the dark-eyed barely-adult, so unlike each other but so perfectly tuned, with their private smiles and quiet jabs, voice heavy with the tenderness they don't bother hiding.

 

There's Harry and Liam, too, maybe, looking at each other from opposite ends of their little group. But everything is wobbly and unsure – nothing will last. Harry watches with lazy eyes as Louis and Zayn whisper furiously to each other, on the verge of breaking. A jealous satisfaction settles low in his stomach. Louis stalks off with an angry shout that Harry doesn't try to decipher.

 

He thinks about his mother (he always thinks about her at this time of the year, maybe the only routine thing he does). He comes back to the dorm feeling a little nauseous, half from the heat that has simmered on his skin all afternoon and half from the memories, pale and sweet with an after-taste of regret, dull red.

 

He wakes up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. Thoughts are twirling in his head and he reaches before him with his hands to touch her and hold her but she isn't here, she isn't here and it kills him. He loves her so much that sometimes he thinks that he loves the ghost of her more than he loves himself, the soft arch of her eyebrows and her French name and her thin wrists and her perfume. He thinks about how life would've been if she were still here, but he can't find it in him and it makes him so mad.

 

"Come back," he moans.

 

His voice is broken – he takes his violin out of its case, walks to the the lake barefoot with gravel hurting his feet and he plays something aching and beautiful that cries come back, come back, come back. The surface of the lake stays the same, smooth and inexpressive, shining silver under the hard moonlight.

 

*

 

The truth is, Harry never really understood the notion of family. What is it, family? he would ask when he was a child, running around with wide green eyes and endless questions. What does it mean? And everyone would answer, but their answers were always different and not really precise, so Harry decided he would have to define it himself, since no one seemed to be able to.

 

One of them said, it's the ones you love. Harry nodded. He loved his toys and his friends and his parents and his grand-dad and grand-mum. Okay, then, he thought, and pasted the label 'family' on them. Then someone told him, it's your mum and your dad and your sister. And Harry wanted to say, is it? but it was during a wedding and everyone shushed him when he tried to ask. After the reception, when he asked again, someone else said to him, it's everyone you have blood in common with, darling – that means your mum and dad but also your uncles and aunts and your grandparents. Harry didn't get what blood had to with it, but he said thank you and he walked away.

 

He decided, i'll see when I get one, and then, it'll be beautiful. And he collected family like a treasure, people he put in the same drawer in his heart, tumbling when he walked, golden stones from a sun-kissed shore. Anne. Louis. Des. Robin. Gemma. Louis. The others, tentative, golden-brown dust. And he didn't think they were all equally important, or precious, or beautiful, but he felt they all deserved to be called family, whatever that meant. They were the ones he'd never leave, he thought at ten; the ones he shared blood with, at thirteen; the ones he'd miss if (when) he left, at seventeen.

 

"Gemma?" he asks.

 

They don't talk often. He should call her more, but it's the kind of thing he forgets. Sometimes he even forgets her birthday, but she knows it doesn't mean he doesn't love her, so she just smiles and asks that he come and have lunch with her on this tiny beach in Northumberland where they used to go on holiday, and he drives all the way there, once a year, if he can make it.

 

She laughs in his ear. She reminds him of Anne, but different, younger. Alive. "How are you, darling?" she asks.

 

"You sound happy," he says. He can hear noise behind her, but it's muffled, and he can't quite determine what it is.

 

"I am," she says.

 

It floors him and for a second he doesn't know what to say, what to do, just stands there frozen with the phone in his hand and thoughts running crazy in his head.

 

She laughs again. He wants to say, never stop, that's the stuff music is made of. He think about Lizst and Chopin, and the pieces they wrote for each other, and love, and Shakespeare.

 

"I'm glad," he says quietly. He doesn't know if he is, but he should be, and she deserves it. Gemma, beautiful Gemma. He wonders who made her so happy and he wants to thank them, a phantom ache in his arms, like a hug that's waiting to be wrapped around someone.

 

"I know," she answers.

 

Suddenly, as she says that, he realizes that he is, he really is. Happiness bubbles in his chest; it's not his, but it's good.

 

"Are you coming on Friday, then?" he asks. They've been doing this for nearly eight years now. She always brings the flowers because he forgets, pale yellow roses wrapped in crisp plastic.

 

There's a silence, and he knows what she's going to say before she says it, but he isn't mad at her.

 

"No," she finally says.

 

He hears, I've grown past this, and you haven't, but it's okay, but he always hears things that aren't there, so maybe this isn't there either and it's just the easy flowing joy that softens the pain.

 

They talk for a few more minutes; she doesn't ask him how he is again, and he doesn't push her to further the explanation of her happiness. When he hangs up, he feels drained of all his energy. He undresses and slips in the fresh sheets – as soon as he closes his eyes, he's asleep.

 

*

 

Harry likes Caroline. She's easy – she's not what he imagines when he thinks about dancing, because he's a boy who thinks about broken toes and the burning stretch in your muscles, and when she talks about it it's waves of sunshine rolling off your shoulders and energy sparkling in your fingers. It doesn't matter. Harry can deal with difference, unless it's Liam Payne and his stiff upper lip.

 

They don't really go out, when they're together. It would be weird, of course, her, thirty years old with high heels and a purse and a life in her lipstick, half-consumed, and him, fresh off the earth, all smooth creamy skin and hurt like foam on his lips, but most of all they don't belong together in the real world. Their union in the golden pallor of her bedroom, clean perfume sticking to the sheets, is merely an indulgence to their bodies. They're people who like feeling good, and they feel good with each other. They don't really search past that.

 

And there's no future between them, no moving in and no love, no love lost, but maybe that's what makes it so good, so wonderfully easy. Go figure.

 

Harry likes Caroline. He likes pressing her into the mattress and looking up at her when she's got her thighs squeezing his hips, and she likes him, the adolescent kisses and the tales and the youth that got away too fast. They don't ask questions. They don't judge. They're good together, good like rising bread and flushed skin and strangled moaning gasps in the soft dawn.

 

They eat together, sometimes. She lets him cook – he puts on her apron and she mocks him and she looks at him while he makes all these wonderful scents fill the kitchen she never uses, except when she has someone over and all-ready meals that she can pretend she cooked herself. Sometimes he takes her on the kitchen counter and sometimes they just eat; they tell crass jokes and drink more wine than they should, and then they smoke a joint together on the balcony with the traffic roaring like a sea somewhere remote in the horizon.

 

"It's like we're alone," he says, eyes glazed over, "but not really."

 

She laughs at him, a gaudy white laugh, brash with color, gums showing. She's had her poetic phase too.

 

"It's like we're the only ones in the world," he says, and her wishful thinking, love dies on the roof of her mouth when he leans over and kisses her throat, gently, lips barely brushing the skin.

 

It doesn't lead anywhere, but it doesn't need to – he tucks his head in her lap and she smokes a little more, thinking about sitting in this office in London signing away her marriage and teaching fifty kids about dancing, reading the hope naked on their little faces. She doesn't say, "I like you." He doesn't need her to.

 

It's ten when they wake up with cricks in their necks, the joint cold and smelly on the ground, shivering from the cold air. He curses that he's late for his classes, fuck, fuck, shit, kisses her quickly on the mouth and chuckles when she pulls away, saying that he should brush his teeth because he has morning breath and tastes like shit.

 

She's late for class too, but she doesn't move for a while, sitting cross-legged on her balcony with her bra strap low on her arm, breathing.

 

*

 

The teachers know by now that he's never there on the sixth of May. They don't say anything, but those who know shoot him sorry glances. He shrugs them off – their pity doesn't interest him. He's not that rebellious, fiercely defensive child anymore, but there are remnants of him in his body, his round cheeks, the soft flesh of his wrists.

 

He opens the door to Louis's room early in the morning only to be greeted by the painful sight of his and Zayn's tangled bodies, tan legs softened by the milky skin of Louis's calves. Harry wonders if they can breathe. Probably not.

 

"Louis," he says softly. He doesn't feel guilty – they should already be up anyway (but he heard the noises, the cries and moans and frantic whispers late into the night).

 

Louis doesn't stir, and Harry can't bring himself to disrupt their peace. He pads to the kitchen, his sock-clad feet sliding softly on the floor, and leaves a hastily scribbled note on the fridge. gone for the day. left waffles in the oven, jam is in the fridge and chocolate on the shelf. let zayn do everything. love x.

 

He doesn't add anything. They've been doing that for years, and each time Louis sends him twice more messages on this particular day, silly little things like gossip girl is actually quite good and did you ever notice mr gunther looks like a sloth when he closes his eyes with horrendous orthography and even more horrendous grammar. It's the way they work, and it's fine by Harry. He wouldn't trade it for the world.

 

He walks to the train station in the careful silence of the near-dawn, the pink sky stretched above him as he quietly hums a pop song. He likes the morning when it's like that, still, not fully awakened yet; when the dew is still fresh on the flowers and the sun rays timid in the sky. He knows the way this day goes by heart, and he savors this, because this is the best part. Music trickles in his ears.

 

He almost doesn't hear when someone shouts his name as the train station comes into view. When he turns around, the person, whoever it is, has probably been screaming for a while – their voice is hoarse.

 

"Liam Payne," he says. It sounds weird like that, the full name unleashed in the air, hanging there, a little random. "What are you doing here?"

 

Liam Payne shrugs. It could be anything, Harry thinks – he could have been already up and jogging or buying croissants or whatever it is Liam Payne does at six on a Tuesday morning, or he could have followed him here to find out something, whatever it is about him that puzzles Liam Payne so much.

 

"Where are you going?" Liam Payne asks. Harry keeps walking; he doesn't want to miss his train. Liam Payne falls into step with him.

 

"Holmes Chapel," Harry answers. Hiding it is no use, and he doesn't want to.

 

"What is there?" Liam Payne asks.

 

"My mother's grave."

 

"Oh," Liam Payne says, and he falls silent. Harry would smile; it's like him, to be shushed by something like that, forced back into his shell of politeness.

 

"Do you want me to leave?" he asks. He seems to have realized that he shouldn't be here, and they fall out of step, awkwardly.

 

Harry shrugs. He doesn't – not particularly. "Do what you want, I don't care."

 

They walk for another few minutes. The sun is starting to rise higher in the sky and the world seems to be waking up slowly, softly growing abuzz.

 

Liam Payne buys a ticket alongside Harry, and when Harry climbs into the train, he follows him, wordless.

 

*

 

Harry had forgotten about the flowers but Liam reminds him as they step out of the train, pressing a light hand to his shoulder. They aren't close, but their little group is, and unusually physical, so it isn't really surprising. A little weird, maybe, but on the good side of weird.

 

"Don't you have flowers?" he asks.

 

"Oh, right. We'll make a detour, then. There's a florist not far."

 

To his credit, Liam doesn't talk much. The whole train ride was spent reading for him (there is something amazing about the fact that he always carries a book everywhere, even if this time it didn't seem like something for class – Esmée, with love and squalor, a book of short stories by Salinger) and staring into space for Harry. He loves these landscapes, could name every mountain, every valley – he has learnt them one by one, something new for every train ride.

 

They fall silent again as they walk towards the shop, and Liam helps Harry choose the best-looking roses. They're lucky – it seems like a good season for roses, or so the florist tells them, but they really are beautiful, more so than usual. Liam heaves a sigh when they leave the shop, as though it was absolutely primordial that they have good flowers to do that and they have successfully completed their task. Harry hesitates between feeling softened and irritated.

 

The cemetery is a small thing, perfunctory, with white graves and less delicacies than usual. It always seemed fitting to Harry that she rest here, she who was beautiful without make-up and tender without pretend. His feet take the path of her grave out of habit. He notices it because Liam is here, making him more aware of everything, the wind in the bushes, the sand and gravel beneath his feet.

 

"It's here," he says when they reach her grave, and they stop.

 

"Do you want me to…," Liam Payne hesitates, "wait further, or something?"

 

It's been eight years, Harry thinks, ears and skull full of white noise, eight years or a little more or a little less, and yet. He sees the signs that her memory is fading, he sees it everyday, when he can't remember what color her jumper was that time she took him to the National Gallery, when entire weeks pass and he doesn't think of her once. It scares him more than anything. He doesn't want to lose her, and he doesn't want to keep her like that (he hears Gemma's voice in his head, she wouldn't want you to, either), but he doesn't know what the middle ground is, too afraid to tip over and fall.

 

He falls to his knees. He isn't weak. Liam Payne has shrunk into a corner and keeps his eyes downcast, a quiet, caring presence.

 

"I don't want to lose you," Harry says – whispers – murmurs.

 

I don't want you to lose me , says the silent grave.

 

He sobs – chokes on the tears he isn't used to shed. It's messy and it doesn't feel good, but it feels necessary , somehow.

 

I know you do , the grave answers. I miss you too.

 

His head is thrumming with unrelated memories, images and smells and the feeling of her pearls against his fingers, the ones she wore this night she and Robin went to a jazz club. He closes his eyes and thinks, it's okay, you're allowed because today is the day he's allowed to mourn, the day it's okay to cry and fall to his knees and rest his forehead against the cold marble of the grave, heaving a shaking sigh.

 

He thinks about the dreams she used to have, a boat in the Pacific ocean, the wind whipping the sails, salt on sunburnt skin. He wants to take the trip for her, in her memory, but he remembers Gemma and thinks, let it go and do what you want to do , but it's so hard to leave and not think that he's abandoning her, a grave that no one will visit once a year on the sixth of May, the anniversary of her death.

 

Time passes, maybe one hour and maybe five.

 

He clutches the bouquet against his chest because he doesn't know what else to do. He never understood why they should bring flowers, anyway – but she would have liked the color. Crazily, because Gemma isn't here to wrap her arms around him and whisper words of reassurance, he thinks he'll buy peach-colored roses next year. She'd have liked them too, and it would've gone well with her pearls. Besides, she always said change is good for you . What she said hasn't always proved to be true, but he has a feeling this will.

 

He can't really imagine changing, but he is, without realizing it. He looks at Liam Payne, eyes on his hands, where Gemma should've been, and that is change already, bringing along this oddity of a boy on a trip that shouldn't be anyone else's but his and Gemma's.

 

"It's okay," he calls out. "I'm finished."

 

He's not, though – he never will be, but it's close enough, and it's the only thing Liam Payne will understand, the neat closure of "I'm okay", not maybe .

 

It's all for the others , really – so that they can feel like they're honoring her when they come here with a few flowers and a sorry word. But they don't get it. Grief – it's not that. It's not flowers and an hour out of your day. It's a life's work.

 

(But he won't pretend like he knows grief, because he doesn't – if he knew he would've learned to deal with it, but each year the pain soars and threatens to overwhelm him, waves rising high and acid in his stomach, waking up the tears.)

 

"Are you okay?" Liam Payne asks, useless as ever, trying to reassure himself.

 

Harry doesn't respond, and they walk side by side, away from the neatly aligned rows of graves, away from the flowers and the stench of death but not from death itself. Something flows into Harry's chest that feels strangely like peace. He breathes out a shaky sigh.

 

"Let's go," he says.

 

He doesn't look back. She isn't there.

 

*

 

"You hungry?"

 

He knows the town like the back of his hand, and it's always weird to come here on this particular day, because the town feels strange and alien, a dispassionate monster chewing with empty eyes, white belly rumbling with fire.

 

Liam Payne shrugs. Harry wonders if he gets urges, too, like the rest of them – if he ever rushed to a bathroom to vomit or exclaimed loudly when presented with chocolate-topped strawberries. Sometimes the idea that there could be people that don't, that don't crave and yearn and ache feels absurd to him. He wishes he were God so that he could feel like everyone, not trapped in the prison of his own body.

 

"I know a place," he says.

 

They won't go to his house. It feels strange to know that it's here, somewhere (but he knows the way, every shortcut and bump on the road), Robin living alone with the same swing, the same floorboards, the same everything except that she isn't here. They never go to his house when they come here to see her – each time he pretends that he discovers the city, and each time it gets a little truer. (Sometimes he gets afraid that he's forgetting her, but he can't help it.)

 

They walk to the bakery in silence. When they reach it, Harry instantly gets swarmed by old friends and regulars that recognize him. He lets himself be hugged from all sides, crushed in a sea of flesh – he feels good nested in this swarm of bodies, protected by the old ladies's bird noises in his neck, blocking the thoughts before they get to his brain. He doesn't feel guilty about leaving Liam Payne in the back, arms crossed, looking at him with indecipherable eyes. He rarely feels guilty for anything – it's no use, really.

 

When he's satisfied everyone's hunger for answers (howareyouwhatareyoudoingareyouokayareyouokaydoyouneedsomethingdoyouhaveagirlfriendaboyfriendthendearboydearboywemissedyou), responded to every last question, his stomach suffused with a warm happiness, he joins Liam who's snatched a table at the back.

 

"You're loved," Liam says without preamble, and Harry looks at him with blank eyes.

 

He remembers a necklace his mother gave him when he was a child, silver and simple with the letters of beloved tumbling and clinking against each other. He remembers – he laughed, and he said, "I'm not a girl!", a little embarrassed because he was already taunted at school for his too-red lips and girly curls and because motherly affection was the most embarrassing thing ever, anyway. But she pressed it into his hands, she kissed his forehead and she said, "Keep it."

 

He kept it. He still has it in a little jewelry box, and some days he wears it under his collar and touches it under the cloth with superstitious fingers.

 

You're loved . What does that even mean?

 

They eat in silence. The pastries are good, and sometimes they look at each other over the brim of their mugs, surprised for a second to find out that they want to lick the sugar off each other's lips. How strange, Harry thinks as he sees something stutter on Liam's face, how extraordinary…

 

He doesn't know what pulls him in, what makes him cross that final line and reach out to cup Liam Payne's jaw, kiss him square and sugary. Maybe it's the same thing that makes him sit for hours in front of a painting and break his violin, maybe not. Liam makes a surprised noise at the back of his throat but he doesn't pull away.They kiss during a few minutes, lazy and oblivious. It feels strangely good with the sun dripping on their shoulders, and beloved, beloved, beloved ringing in Harry's mind like a lullaby.

 

*

 

Liam Payne seems determined not to contradict Harry today. Harry doesn't know if he should be annoyed or thankful, so he settles for a bit of both, taking pleasure in making Liam do things he wouldn't normally do, but that he accepts without hesitation, his eyes quiet and grieving. Harry wants to do something that'll make him scream and startle and burn, but he settles for this.

 

They kiss without future, bodies neatly separated, fingers barely brushing. Harry isn't sure if they're kissing each other , but it doesn't really matter, not right now, not for him anyway. He relishes that Liam doesn't try to put boundaries (but he sees them anyway – in the I'm not thinking of you that's on the tip of his darting tongue). It's not about love, it really isn't, not love between them and not love for someone else, not this kind of love anyway.

 

It's about Anne, and Louis, and Zayn, and Niall and everyone else, and what if the way time stills and drags along languorously when they kiss feels like a clearing sky? Everything doesn't have to have a label. This never will. Liam Payne and Harry Styles – never united, but never truly apart (the truth is, Harry feels stupid saying 'never' and 'always' when his mother's ashes burn like embers under his feet, as young and foolish as he probably is).

 

And yes, for one day he can't quite bring himself to hate. He feels exhausted, tired to the bone with grief and unshed tears. He feels like his eyelashes are made of lead, pulling him down. He just wants to sleep. He just wants to sleep, and this is the next best thing, because sleep is nightmares or the shimmering ghost of a woman in a night gown, caressing him with gentle eyes.

 

Liam Payne kisses like Harry would've expected him to kiss. The last time was really too quick and drunken for any of them to remember anything, but nothing Harry deciphers now really surprises him. Harry's tongue is furious and forceful; Liam kisses like an autumn day, a lazy stroll kicking at stray gold-red leaves, precise, focused, unhurried.

 

It's okay.

 

It's okay. Harry isn't asking for anything more. He's happy with letting time flow, out of reach, let them live in the corner for a while, quiet and unscathed. He's not claiming he doesn't like the franticness (because it isn't true – why would he have chosen violin if it wasn't for the ecstasy of trying to rip the sky apart with a bow?), but today is a day for grief. Today he can let go of everything that isn't her, and if Liam Payne is there, well, he's there and that's all there is to it (he can't pretend he doesn't miss Gemma either; she always knows the words to reassure him).

 

Suddenly, he regrets not having brought his violin with him. He never did, but he was always with Gemma, and Harry can only be alone or with someone, never something in between (but the truth is, he can never be alone at all – it isn't a curse or a blessing, it just is). Liam isn't really here. A question is burning the tip of his tongue, but he doesn't know what it is.

 

"When do you want to leave?" Liam Payne asks, and suddenly a wave of exhaustion crashes over Harry.

 

Never , he wants to say. I never want to leave . Coming back seems like such a hassle – coming back to seeing Louis and Zayn destroy each other without being able to stop, coming back to fighting with his violin, to watching Niall be happy… How much more simple would it be to stay here? Stop being doesn't really bother him, to be honest – he was never whole without her.

 

Why – why can't he stay here until he disassembles, until he falls apart and lets himself be scattered to the changing winds, as she was? Is she the only one who gets to rest in peace?

 

But Liam Payne wants real answers, answers like today or tomorrow or at three p.m. on platform 2 , so Harry says, "I'll stay for the night."

 

It's the best he can do, really.

 

Liam Payne doesn't say if he'll stay too – they just keep walking in the streets of this town with its silence full of ghosts, sometimes stopping to kiss furtively, dry lips and tear-stained cheeks.

 

*

 

The truth is, it feels weird to see Liam without his piano. It's as if he were less of a Liam Payne and more of a Liam end of without his furrowed brows and giant hands on the keys, legs neatly tucked under the instrument's gigantic body. Harry loves pianos (he loves every instrument, really – together they're like some sort of boundless, dysfunctional family), but maybe they scare him a little, always right , incapable of being mean.

 

Liam Payne could almost pass as a regular young man right now, with his big hands tucked in his pockets and his shoes scrapping against the gravel. He follows Harry to the hotel, and Harry doesn't ask, but they book a room together anyway, two queens. Harry doesn't particularly want to sleep in the same room as Liam Payne, but this day screams for closeness. It just works out . Harry feels relieved.

 

It's only later, when he comes out of the shower, followed by billowing clouds of steam, clean of the stench of death, that something drops off of his shoulders, sliding on the length of his arms to form a translucent puddle on the floor, maybe his pain and maybe something else, darker, harder to understand and to name. He doesn't really feel better, but he feels – that's something already.

 

Liam Payne is propped against cushions on his bed, idly flipping the channels from a ball game to a cooking show to a singing competition sort of thing to a TV show that looks like Glee to the news to a silent jungle. It's a bit maddening, but Harry doesn't tell him to stop. He wonders if there's a heaven.

 

He doesn't know how much time it's been when Liam finally switches the TV off. The silence floods the room. Harry silently chokes on it for a second.

 

"The other day," Liam Payne starts. Harry watches him, his eyes suddenly very green.

 

The air is still in the room, waiting for them to continue.

 

"You asked me who taught me music, right?"

 

He looks right before him, right in the middle of the black TV. Harry wonders if the blackness could surge forward and eat them whole.

 

"When I was ten, I moved to Wolverhampton," Liam says, precise and maybe a little fast. "There was this boy in our neighborhood, the house next to mine – it was Niall – and he played piano."

 

He could've guessed that this would be the way Liam Payne would tell his stories – no unnecessary words, fact without colors and without flesh.

 

"I took up piano too."

 

Harry reads everything behind these words – I liked him and I wanted him to like me and I was young and I was new. He tries to imagine little Liam sitting at a piano bigger than him with serious eyes and minuscule hands. Walking up to a bright sun-haired blue-eyed child and saying, "Hi. I'm Liam Payne."

 

"Did it work?"

 

Did he like you? Their conversations aren't really conversations – there's Liam Payne trying to say things as they are and Harry trying to read more into them, sometimes being right and sometimes not, asking questions out of the way, a foray into the unsaid. Seeing them like this, not looking at each other, one would probably think that they aren't even speaking to each other. Harry isn't sure if they are.

 

Liam Payne shrugs. "I guess."

 

A beat. Their silence too is music; it's the only music that fits them both, heavy drops of nothingness hitting their world of glass.

 

Liam Payne takes a breath. It seems shaky, but Liam Payne doesn't shake, and he doesn't triumph.

 

"He changed, though. Instruments, I mean. About two months after I'd moved there, he changed to trumpet."

 

Child Niall, laughing with an open throat, incapable to hold onto anything. Liam Payne in the background, intact knees, looking at a butterfly and seeing him. (Harry can't really believe that Liam Payne was ever a child, to be honest. He hasn't thought about it, but if he had, he would have imagined him come out of the womb fully formed, his lips set in a straight line, with quiet, distant eyes.)

 

"He went through fourteen instruments before he chose the guitar," Liam Payne says. Something that looks oddly like a grin blooms on his face – at his own silliness or Niall's, who knows.

 

Harry laughs. "Come on, then," he says.

 

Liam Payne understands. He inhales. "Trumpet, then there was oboe, harmonica, drums, bongo," (at Harry's incredulous look, "I'm not kidding!"), "triangle, flute, cello, saxophone, ukelele, slide trombone, and then he took up the guitar," he counts on his hand, his grin getting bigger and bigger. Harry watches the transformation. The words form a pretty necklace of distant relatives brought together in a chaotic reunion.

 

"I stuck with piano," says Liam Payne.

 

It's not a surprise – nothing with Liam Payne ever is. Liam Payne isn't volatile. Maybe he fell in love with piano, maybe he didn't, but Harry feels a little reassured that it started because of something as silly and inconsequential as a childhood crush.

 

He makes a humming sound, maybe to say okay and maybe to say thank you. Liam Payne rubs his eyes, looking very tired all of a sudden, and for a second Harry get a glimpse of him as a child, trying to hold back tears. He blinks, and it's gone.

 

"I'm gonna take a shower, okay?" Liam Payne says with a smile.

 

He doesn't wait for an answer. Harry pretends to be asleep when he comes back, smelling of linen and soap. Liam doesn't ask. At two a.m., Harry is woken by his phone buzzing. The text reads, I need help, and Harry doesn't need to check the sender to know.

 

He turns his phone off and slips back into Morpheus's forgetful arms, his eyes red.

 

*

 

Harry comes back to his dorm only to find the living-room trashed, empty bottles and crumpled scores and La Traviatia blasting at full volume. His cries of "Is there someone here?" go unanswered. He feels like the marrow has been sucked out of his bones; his skin is prickly – he turns off the music, runs to his bed, miraculously unscathed, and sleeps another ten hours.

 

When he wakes up, the state of the living-room hasn't changed much, but he feels better. Maybe the sun streaming into the room helps, or maybe it's just that it's not yesterday anymore, and not the day before, and that the weight of his grief sits less heavily in his chest, forced by habit to recess down into the trenches of his heart.

 

"Louis?"

 

He doesn't need to ask anything else. Louis is sitting in the middle of the living-room, a bottle of vodka in hand. He's rocking, as though to a silent tune, and his mouth seems to be forming words. He's fiddling with a lighter – the little flame darts in the air every few seconds with a metallic sound, and dies just as abruptly, shrinking back into Louis's magician hand.

 

"Louis, are you okay?"

 

He's not listening.

 

"Harry, Hazza, you're back?" he stutters after a few minutes, his eyes blank and unseeing.

 

He crawls towards Harry on his hands and knees. Louis never looked pathetic to Harry before, only beautiful and flamboyant and glorious, but God, does he now.

 

"What happened?"

 

He can guess – he just doesn't want to. Harry doesn't like star-crossed lovers, never has. Louis winds himself around him, his hands trying to grasp but slipping, sluggish and slow.

 

"You're back, you're back… I missed you, Hazza. Why didn't you answer my calls?"

 

He tries to imagine Louis calling him with trembling hands, and a momentary pang of guilt tears his stomach as he thinks, maybe I was the only one he could call. But he isn't – he knows. Louis isn't alone, ever.

 

"I was busy." It's maybe curter than he intended, but he doesn't really care anymore at this point. The lighter stops tittering.

 

"Oh, right," Louis mopes the sweat off his brow with his palm, "right, it was – the anniversary of your mother's death, right?"

 

Hearing it like that, so trivial in the mouth of a drunken teenager wrecked by love, sends anger racing through Harry's veins. No, he wants to say, it wasn't. You can't – and stutter like him, shaking with unchecked rage. (It wasn't an anniversary, he wants to say too. Death isn't a celebration.)

 

But Louis pulls him down, sends him tumbling on his knees and wraps his arms around him, whispering salty apologies into the skin of his neck. Harry remembers a lover he had who looked just like him.

 

"Come," he says, pulling Louis up. Forgiveness isn't what he's best at, but that's his best friend, above all, the boy who held him without question every time another house of cards collapsed in his ribcage.

 

He drags Louis to the bathroom and forces him to wash his face. Their framed faces in the mirror look aghast, sunken cheeks and deep, violent eyes.

 

"What happened to us?" Louis whispers, his eyes wide and blue, blue, blue. Harry wants to come back to the days when drowning in this blue was the only thing that made him happy.

 

But he can't – and because those days are long gone, lost in the careless warmth of their shared adolescence, because there's nothing else he can do to ease the pain, he bends down and presses a kiss to Louis's mouth. It's reassurance, comfort, body heat – their love is the only one that doesn't hurt as acutely as the others.

 

He thinks of the things he could say, I love you, it's going to be okay, don't worry, but he doesn't say anything. He puts Louis to bed and falls asleep next to him, a hand pressed to his chest, letting the slow heartbeat spread in both their bodies as he drifts back to black.

 

*

 

He wakes up to the smell of burnt pancakes.

 

The reaction is knee-jerk. "Louis, step away from the pan!"

 

Louis's apologetic face peeks out from behind the doorjamb. He stifles a cough in his hand as he tries to dismiss the smoke with the other one.

 

"I just wanted to…" he starts, but has to cough again. Harry can't help but smile.

 

He pretend-sighs. "Let me put on some pants, okay? I'll cook you something."

 

If it weren't for the traces of disaster in the living-room (but Louis seems to have cleaned, so it's mostly okay), it would seem as though nothing had happened yesterday, and this was just another day, easy and cheerful. Harry lets the peace seep into his skin. (He's never been one for re-opening injuries. If he can not hurt – why would he want to?).

 

Louis laughs. There are bags under his eyes, but he looks better, sounds better. They don't comment on Zayn's absence. "Being naked with me never bothered you before," he leers.

 

(That was before, Harry doesn't think.)

 

"Yeah, well, I don't want to have my dick burned by accident, thank you very much," he answers cheekily.

 

They end up eating the relatively unburnt pancakes (stress on the 'relatively'), which Louis claims are "tasty" even though he grimaces at every bite, and the ones Harry made who are much more palatable ("You're a genius, Hazza." "Pancakes – a summit of culinary art.").

 

"I'm sorry," Louis says quietly during a lull in the conversation.

 

Harry waves his hand. It could mean it's okay or let's not talk about it. He doesn't really know which one it is. Louis half-smiles and doesn't talk about it again.

 

"I have a class to get to," Harry eventually says, wiping the jam on his mouth, and they part with a kiss, leaving behind them the hidden remnants of the disaster, quietly happy despite everything.

 

This day seems to hang in a spot of light. No swarm of cloudy darkness approaches him; his violin seems to mold itself in the crook of his neck and chants in harmony with him. He meets Caroline in the corridors and she smiles. He smiles back; she grabs the lapels of his coat and they make out for ten minutes in a deserted classroom, her legs wrapped around his waist, balanced against a desk.

 

Liam Payne blessedly doesn't appear all day. Harry spares a thought to wonder why, but he doesn't linger on it. His life is better without Liam Payne confusing and enraging him. He even hangs out with Aiden and Matt and Juliette and Niall and watches them be sickeningly in love, gushing at each other as though they were alone, whispering and giggling. It's like a lullaby, he tells himself – he doesn't want to be in love but this soothes him, sends gentle waves rippling through his body.

 

His teacher tells him that he'll do a piece with a piano student. Harry isn't sure if it pleases him or not – playing with someone else is always frustrating and difficult, but it's a challenge, and the piano player is supposed to be good. He lets the decision roll on his tongue and out of his mouth like a pearl, easy, "Sure." His teacher smiles.

 

He learns a piece that is witty and quick, something sprightly that buzzes in his throat as he bobs his head. His teacher laughs and praises him. Music is merciful today, takes him in with open arms. Happiness was never out of grasp, after all – it all depends on silly little things, and maybe yesterday seemed like a dead-end but today the path is endless and almost smooth, paved by giants – Debussy and Bach and Mozart and Ravel hand in hand.

 

Gemma calls him to ask him how it went. He tells her it was okay. In truth he remembers this day as remote and unclear, tattered and faded like a T-shirt that has been washed too many times. It's probably better – he revels in the acuity of his pain but probably couldn't withstand it any longer that he already does, this one day that wears him down, carving new scars into his bones.

 

"I'm glad," says Gemma.

 

Harry asks about love, and she laughs. He says he'll come see her and the new guy, whoever he is. She answers that he's welcome to. It makes a shiver run down his spine, for some reason, that someone's arms will always be open for him – this kind of unconditional love, that doesn't ask questions, scares him to no end.

 

The day fades into another, a week, a month – he keeps being happy. He goes out with Caroline and they laugh in ball glasses of Shiraz, their laughter tinging with the crystal, lips stained with something that isn't blood.

 

*

 

Of course, Liam Payne is the piano player. Harry could've guessed he would be – he feels a bit angry to have dared hope that for once, he be spared the confusion and nausea. He tries to backtrack, but it's too late. Liam Payne looks at him like they may have something, but they don't. Harry wants to tell him right now but maybe it's too late for that too. Kisses mean nothing to Harry. The only intimate things he has are those that no one is allowed to see – everyone can have the rest. Liam Payne doesn't get that. He thinks that death and flesh, because they hurt, are privates gems, but to Harry they aren't.

 

Working with him is unsurprisingly and unbelievably frustrating. Harry can't shake the feeling that they won't ever get anywhere, that they aren't moving, only stalling and drowning quietly in their lack of connection. But Harry is reckless (sometimes), and his music is the only thing he can't let go of. He won't give up. Liam Payne can go to hell.

 

It's an afternoon but there isn't sun anymore. It should be like any other day, the air vibrant with the new green, but instead a morose grey light filters through the windows, making them look like the prisoners that they maybe are.

 

"Stop that," says Harry as Liam Payne dries the piece of its emotion, drop by drop. He didn't look like a torturer.

 

Liam Payne throws his arms in the air, looking incensed. "What do you want?"

 

"It's not about what I want, you jackass," Harry sneers. "Can't you try to play this piece and sound like you're not a complete robot?"

 

A few months ago, Liam Payne would have jumped (Harry knows the look – as though someone had slapped him, face contorted in this sort of would-be noble pain), but he seems to have grown used to Harry's particular brand of cruelty. Harry doesn't know to feel satisfied or annoyed.

 

"Fuck you," Liam Payne says. (It's only with him that he's this violent, and Harry likes it, likes that he can make his darkness surface and his facade crackle.)

 

"If it can help you play better…"

 

Harry just doesn't have any control. The words he wants to say always tumble off his lips, and he never takes them back, even when he wants to.

 

"Go on, then," Liam Payne says, challenging.

 

It's a new side of him, the burning brown of his eyes, his legs that he spreads wantonly, the open hands that don't quite reach out to touch, but it's not really new – it's his patience driven mad with want, and for a second Harry feels a spike of victory hit his stomach and tear him in two. This isn't about the music.

 

"Yeah?" he murmurs as he sets his violin down. The sun seems to have taken a new interest in them, and tries to strip them of their shadows. Harry feels oddly exposed. "That's what you want?"

 

The answer – yes – hangs at Liam Payne's lips for a second. "It's not about what I want," he spits. His foot is tapping the floor but he doesn't realize, drawing them into his own kind of music, the restlessness of his good-boy flesh.

 

"Isn't it, though?" Harry asks, but he takes a step further until he's standing between Liam Payne's legs, back to the piano, a devilish cherub towering above him. Still no shadows, he notices absently, and stashes it at the back of his mind. He sees skin trembling beneath Liam's tentatively arrogant chin.

 

"Stop that," he croaks. Harry hears the end of the sentence that he doesn't say, if you're not going to go through with it. Harry has been where he is before, skin burning, body taut with the need to jump forward and grab him by the collar, smash their mouths together. Harry would snap. Liam Payne doesn't.

 

"No," he says. Maybe their music will be better. Maybe not. It doesn't really seem worth it, but it's tempting, tantalizing even, and Harry's never been one to deny himself.

 

He drops to his knees and smiles when Liam Payne heaves a desperate sigh. He won't ask for permission. He doesn't need to.

 

"Wait," Liam Payne starts to say, but Harry doesn't want to wait. He presses his mouth against Liam's crotch and mouths hotly against the fabric. His eyes are entirely green, blown to the point of only leaving a thin circle of white around them, washed of darkness. Liam Payne whimpers.

 

"Play," Harry says as he unzips Liam's trousers, his fingers deft and quick, brushing against the fabric of his boxers. Liam Payne looks down at him, eyes empty of understanding, blackblackblack.

 

"What do you mean?" he says, his words mashed and unclear.

 

"Play," Harry repeats, stilling.

 

"The piano?"

 

Harry laughs, a little bit cruel. Liam's eyes flicker madly between him, the piano and the fingers tugging at the waistband of his boxers. "Yes."

 

"I-" he starts.

 

Harry knows what he wants to say, I can't, but it isn't true, so he shoves a hand down Liam's boxers and takes his dick in hand, squeezing lightly. Liam surges forward in shock – his hand lands on the piano and draw a jumble of messy notes out of it. Harry smirks.

 

"See," he says conversationally as he starts slowly stroking Liam's cock, enjoying the sight of his flushed face, cheeks red and teeth tugging at his bottom lip. "Easy as pie."

 

He gets Liam's dick out of his boxers with a smooth wrist. It's flushed, an angry red, and bigger than Harry would've imagined. He feels an absurd urge to lick his lips, so he does.

 

"You remember the beginning?" he asks, and Liam looks at him for a second, dazed, before nodding frantically. He probably doesn't, so Harry hums the first few bars. The sound hangs in the air like a foreboding.

 

Liam sets his fingers on the keys, breathing heavily. He starts playing wordlessly, his notes a little shaky but better already, more forceful. Harry ducks down and licks a stripe up his dick, tip to root, fondling Liam's balls in his hand. The music accelerates. Harry slows down.

 

It's a game or push and pull after that, Harry teasing and slowing each time Liam's playing gets too fast or too careless, smiling at the odd moan that sometimes flies out of his mouth and pierces the air like a death sentence.

 

When he eventually takes it all in, hot mouth closing around the salty skin, an angry shout slips out of Liam's lips and his fingers still on the piano. Harry stills too. One of his hands curls around Liam's thigh, tight enough that his nails dig into the flesh. Liam's hips stutter. He wants to thrust up, but he's good, and he does what he's told. Harry laughs a little – he feels Liam's shiver reverberate in his own dick, straining against the flyer of his jeans.

 

He waits until Liam starts playing again to resume sucking, head bobbing obscenely between Liam's legs, dragging his teeth slightly around the shaft from time to time. Liam sometimes forgets himself and attempts to thrust into Harry's mouth, but Harry holds him in place with a strong hand, clawing at the skin because he wants to, and he can.

 

The music swirls around them and seeps into their skin. It still isn't perfect, but it's so much better already, Harry thinks, these notes tumbling against each other, sharp and mellow in turns, slammed into the wood, so much better than the careful neutrality Liam Payne always affects. Liam starts talking as Harry picks up speed, sliding his lips around Liam's cock with mewling noises, reveling in his own obscenity. It sounds like lyrics to the piece, as strange and nonrhythmic as it's become under Liam Payne's hands.

 

"Fuck, Harry – I -," he stutters.

 

His right hand leaves the keys for a second to try and grab at Harry's hair, but Harry groans threateningly and pushes it back up. Liam bites his lip. Harry hopes he bleeds.

 

"I'm gonna -"

 

It's nothing but the usual words, but in Liam's mouth they sound positively filthy, low and gravelly, full of anger. Hearing them is like hearing a secret (but it's because Liam wants them to be). Harry revels in the feeling. The grey light washes over them and shows all the cracks. They aren't looking; it retreats. The piece stutters to an end.

 

"Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck," Liam Payne mutters like a litany, and spills hotly in Harry's throat. Harry smiles before wincing at the taste, hesitating between spitting somewhere (he thinks there's a bin in one of the corners of the room) or swallowing. He swallows – it's easier.

 

Liam is slumped on the piano stool. His spine looks broken and he hangs there like a rag doll, red high on his cheeks, looking wrecked. His eyes are shut. Harry slips a hand under his chin and kisses him just to make him taste himself, out of some twisted sort of revenge.

 

"Much better," he whispers against his lips, and leaves.

 

There's nothing more to say, anyway.

 

*

 

The days stutter on. Spring is in full bloom, and the halls flutter with the excitement of the end of the year, stressed students frantically learning in the corridors and strumming frustratedly at their various instruments. It's the strange blend of the finishing school-year, mellowness and joy mixed with an edge of rush, a foreboding of June.

 

It's the time of the year that Harry likes best. He likes the uncertainty of the fall that won't quite morph into spring and give in to the tenderness of the nascent buds, the scents that overwhelm him and make schoolgirls sneeze, the blooming colors. He feels like these blessed weeks are the point of acme of the giant orchestration of nature, a pagan celebration in the honor of which she has commandeered a modern painter to decorate her skin in vibrant patches of blue sky and violently pink bushes.

 

Everything is muted, here, of course – because they're so close to town, and the gray buildings won't quite let the greenery step onto their territory, probably for fear that they won't get it back after the onslaught – but there are still hints, the grass of the park that's turned a vivid green, the bronze sky tinged with vermillion when Harry goes to sleep. Liam Payne probably hates it, he thinks – too uncertain, too speculative.

 

Just like the other students, Harry can't quite bring himself to study even though he should, instead choosing to stare longingly at the outside from the school chairs, dreaming of clear water streams and the caress of the sun on his skin. He doesn't tan well, always turns red as a tomato after a few hours spent in the baking heat, but there's nothing he loves more than this complete immersion in the jubilation of nature, the closeness he feels with her soulless magnificence.

 

He tries not to pay too much attention to everything that's going on around him, the background chaos of Louis and Zayn's tumultuous affair, but he can't keep pieces of their sadness from filtering under his bedroom door and creeping under his skin. He doesn't really mind (but he does) – he always thought that a bit of sadness was necessary in every situation, be it only to understand just how profound and precious beauty is.

 

(But sometimes it's too much, and he closes his eyes, screws them shut as hard as he can, as though the black before his eyes, marred by the painful dots of color, could stop their pain from touching him, could stop the yelling from filtering through the walls and the breaking from breaking him too.)

 

From the hesitant stories he heard from Louis, the words crushed between his lips like pomegranate, and what he guesses or half-sees, Zayn is just the sort of beautiful wreck that Harry always hoped Louis would steer clear of. He's distantly aware that he's one of these himself (and what would have happened if they'd fallen in love? It was so close, for a moment – they would have combusted and left nothing but ashes) and the realization wakes up something fervent in his breast, a fierce need to protect. But he can't do anything, or maybe he doesn't want to, who knows, so he opts for living in periphery, far enough that he can't be touched by the stones and nails that fly off their construction disaster.

 

Something in the way they kiss, sometimes with gentle lips, brushing and soft, and sometimes with the bruising hurtfulness of young, desperate love, makes something twist in his gut. He read Romeo & Juliette in school too, with the dutiful seriousness of a hidden literature aficionado, and he has a cavity in his chest that he can't ignore and that yearns for the ecstasy that comes with being a star-crossed lover. But he loves his life too much to sacrifice everything he has – and he suspects he couldn't do that, devote himself so completely, selflessly give away the entirety of his being with no promises that he'll get it back. He loves himself too much – it isn't a default, maybe even a lifeguard.

 

And so he wanders in the corridors, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips, searching for entertainment where he can, in the profiles of the students that he glances at through half-open doors, in the changing strings of his beloved violin, in Niall and Juliette's company or, more rarely, Matt and Aiden's. They fill him with a doubt that he wouldn't know how to describe, and that is the exact opposite of his aching for passion – the need of a connection that doesn't destroy but builds, the gentle simmer of shared love.

 

Caroline brings him a kind of sweaty peace that he likes too. He likes her unapologetic bluntness, the way she kisses him with unbrushed teeth, her raucous laughter and the tales she tells with humor and a bit of cynicism. He likes that he can be with her without fearing for the potential future or having to keep on his toes, afraid to be caught unaware. He likes her – she's easy.

 

For some reason Niall, as oblivious as ever, decides that they need to have diner – all of them together, as if they were a group and not random bits and pieces too worn to even try to fit together. Harry accepts mostly out of boredom, not wanting to get back to fiddling with his violin on the off chance of it actually feeling like he's learning, and curiosity. Zayn and Louis say yes too, absent-mindedly, their avid gazes fixed on each other. Harry is mildly irritated.

 

He goes anyway, hands thrust deep in his pockets. His thoughts flutter wildly in his head, and he doesn't try to stop them, lets them swirl until he gets a bit queasy. He kind of likes the feeling.

 

They go to a restaurant near uni, a quiet little thing. Laughter filters from under the front door, coupled with this kind of clever light that makes everyone feel welcome, a bronze, englobing warmth that smells of Italy. Niall and Juliette laugh at a private joke, heads bent, bodies turned towards each other. Niall darts a glance at the rest of them, maybe feeling guilty for excluding them from their little bubble, but not enough that he doesn't smile when Juliette grabs his hand and pulls their entangled fingers against her knit sweater, a small, intimate smile that makes Harry look away, feeling burned.

 

He's too bored or too mellow to feel anything with true acuity. He notices Louis and Zayn's hesitant shadows against the wall with a sort of remote aesthetic interest. Matt and Aiden attempt to talk with Niall and Juliette, the conversation drying each time one of the couples gets too wrapped in each other and starting back up on regular intervals, probably spurned by a feeling of social adequacy that they feel they need to conform to.

 

Only the sight of Liam Payne's long and lonely silhouette, leaning against the brick wall, looking glumly at his plate, startles something out of him – surprise at his presence, maybe, at his perseverance in existing around Harry, and contentment at his looking so uncomfortable when he himself feels so mellow, settled deep into his seat.

 

Harry can't help but find that there is something oddly fascinating about Louis and Zayn – the stray tenderness in the smile tugging at the corner of Zayn's mouth, Louis's hand squeezing his thigh under the table... Their relationship is as disproportionate as it's curiously well-balanced; the push and pull of a careless equilibrium, draining the remaining chubbiness of their quickly fading youth. They seem to subsist merely on love, as stupid as that sounds, probably as much to Louis as to himself; there's no denying that the love-handles have been replaced on Louis's body (Harry loved the child-like quality of it – more to cherish, he used to say at the time, and he meant it; he does love this good-natured flesh, free from the worry that he sees slowly wearing Zayn and Louis down) by a feral spark that gleams in their black-circled eyes.

 

Harry doesn't know if he envies them. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Liam Payne's fingers drumming clumsily on the table, as though he were a kid that hasn't learnt to play the piano but is aching to. It takes him a minute to recognize the regular pattern of the Pachelbell canon, but once he does, it's almost hypnotic, the trickle of the notes that he can hear so very clearly coordinating with the idle movement of Liam Payne's hands. He stashes the image away for later.

 

Harry finds it interesting to study the shades that love can take, presented before him in such blatant display – the early stages of puppy love; the already mature, more profound affection; and the explosive destructiveness of passion. Harry likes standing there in placid spectatorship – he feels like he holds some sort of power over them by understanding the ins and outs of their respective relationships so well.

 

He looks over at Liam Payne and wonders – does he feel the same way? Does he feel included in their so-called 'unity', or is that look on his face (as inscrutable as ever, Harry reflects – he remembers a distant whisper of master of masks) only a sign of boredom? Is his brain as blank, empty of thoughts, as it seems to Harry? Harry can't help but feel disbelieving when he hears things like that – how could someone not think? He sometimes wishes he were able to be thoughtless, to stop the sizzling flood of things that rush towards his neuroses at every minute, unstoppable.

 

For some reason, he can't tear his thoughts away from him. Maybe it's his position, sitting at the other end of the table, his soft features sharpened by the shadows, or maybe the fact that they seem to be so often associated of late. The learning of their piece is going at a snail's pace (Harry wouldn't be so presumptuous as to believe that a blowjob, as fantastic as he doesn't doubt it was for Liam, unlocked some kind of musical genius potential in him). They do seem to be making some sort of progress, though – but it's as small as it is slow, and Harry isn't a patient person by nature.

 

"Pass the salt, please?"

 

The voice is small and sweet – Juliette's – but it startles them nonetheless, shocking them back into awareness. They aren't united.

 

"Sure."

 

Aiden gives her the shaker with a small smile, and it makes Harry's sharp gaze skim over his features for a second. He's maybe the best of them (he thinks about a French play and something about crowning a king amongst thieves and liars) in that he doesn't seem to care about any of it, unbothered by the crippling awkwardness that makes the rest them mute.

 

Someone told Harry that he used to be an intense, reserved kid, and that he only came out of his shell after meeting Matt. It makes sense now – he seems to swim in the silence with a kind of alien grace, his cool eyes always trained on Matt, like he's relying on him for the warmth and the politeness, following in his footsteps with a hand slotted in Matt's. It's an infuriating kind of beautiful.

 

It's a strange night for everyone, but it isn't as bad as it could've been. Even if they aren't anything together, they manage to be something separately, and the intersections can be surprising, in a good way. Juliette will never play Ophelia, but she doesn't really care; Harry discovers in her something sparkling and a profound love of the way words sound in her mouth when she plays, the strangeness of being someone else, what she calls 'the safest way to be schizophrenic', laughing.

 

Strange and tentative alliances are formed. Even Louis and Zayn disentangle from each other for a moment, their lips still stained with bruising kisses, and smile brightly, as though they weren't hurting. Harry's gaze darts to Liam Payne from time to time, but he's not as interesting now that he has fallen into the easy pattern of conversation, his face open and careful and polite and everything Harry hates.

 

They come back to their respective dorms when yawns start to stretch their faces. Niall is smiling with the satisfaction of a job well-done in the moonlight, and for a second Harry wonders if he knows more than he seems to, if he's more perceptive or deeper, but the feeling fades as quick as it's come, and Harry forgets about it. Forgetfulness comes easily to him.

 

They exchange flying kisses and 'see you later's that Harry watches like a stranger, lazy eyes hooded with something that might be tiredness and might be boredom. Zayn and Louis and Liam Payne join him to walk back to their dorms, and they walk in a line, unconsciously, like soldiers, as the others fade in the night in the other direction.

 

Louis slips an arm around Harry's waist. Harry's too tired to think about it, so he leans into the embrace, breathing deep the familiar smell of skin and sweat and salmon pasta with this after-taste of Zayn that he's had to learn to tolerate.

 

The night is easy. Liam Payne is walking alongside them, sometimes saying a quick word to Zayn who nods, looking at them with something hovering between tenderness and jealousy.

 

They leave him at his dorm with a farewell and walk into theirs with a common sigh. Harry flops on his bed almost immediately, and falls asleep to the sound of Louis's laughing voice, "Sleep well, sweetums." He doesn't dream; it's just as well, really.

 

*

 

It's three weeks later, and he's awakened by a yell.

 

It isn't the best way to wake up. The sheets stick to his skin with sweat, and he's tired, a heavy weariness that sits deep in his bones. He's worried that he's almost growing used to it by now. He wants to split them up, or forget it never happened. He's tired of picking Louis up only to watch him hurl himself at the wall again.

 

He can never tell when they're having sex and when they're fighting, which is disturbing in itself. But he can relate to a passion that throws you against the furniture and wants to devour you, so he doesn't say anything, lets Louis wince when he sits at the breakfast table and doesn't comment on the teeth marks on Zayn's wrist.

 

The problem with Harry is that he doesn't know too far for himself – how would he know it for others? It's only too far when you're dead, someone told him once, and it's stupid but it stuck with him, nestled in some nasty little place in his brain. He doesn't say anything. It's their problem. They'll get over it.

 

(The worst is that he doesn't even get what's wrong with them, if there is something at the core of their inability to function together, commitment issues or something stupid like that, or if it's just that they don't work, simple as that. It's impossible to decipher – Harry suspects the truth is tangled somewhere in their lies, but when he asks and Louis can't answer he thinks that maybe there isn't one.)

 

He wants to shake Louis and tell him, you're so beautiful and you'll break your voice, because if there is something that can make him stop it can only be that, the fear that his voice will wilt and die. He wants to tell Zayn, get out of here, not because he's the bad guy or because it's his fault but because there's still something in him that can be saved, too, even if there are scars that he'll keep, that won't ever disappear. Harry doesn't have anything against scars. (He has some himself, that he keeps hidden – he likes the way they feel under his fingers and remind him of the wounds, what he'll do again and what he isn't ready to sacrifice.)

 

But he doesn't do any of that, and one day he wakes to a yell – he hears the muffled moans and then a loud thump, a strangled cry, something breaking, maybe china or that little doll Phoebe gave Louis when he turned seventeen or maybe Zayn and Louis. And Harry screws his eyes shut, tighter – he won't rush there, he won't, it's just not his love to carry and he has enough on his plate.

 

He can't fall asleep, so he just lies there with open eyes, trying not to listen to the groans and the thuds but listening anyway. He tries to imagine them on a stave, tiny and precise on the black thread, curled on the sheet, looking harmless. He'd like to say that music doesn't break ribs and draw blood, but it does.

 

There must be some flavor of wrong in the way he falls asleep to their heavy, labored breathing, but it's too late to care. He doesn't even startle when something lands heavily against the opposite wall, only lets out a small sigh and closes his eyes, tiny dancers fighting with unfurled fingers beneath his eyelids.

 

He wakes up again at four with a dry throat and to the smell of blood. Panic fills his chest like a sea, choking him.

 

"Louis?" he asks to his empty room, but of course Louis isn't there, so he puts on sweatpants and scrambles outside. Everything is eerily silent. Harry can't breathe.

 

When he finally finds Louis, he's lying on the floor, whimpering slowly, his head cradled in his hands, and it's the most terrifying thing Harry's ever seen, his cheek open and bleeding, his mouth curled in something that's somewhere between human and animal, sadness and grief, anger and pain.

 

"Louis?"

 

He drops to his knees next to Louis but he doesn't even seem to notice him. His fingers are moving in his lap, tugging at the hem of his ripped T-shirt; sometimes they still in the air, flicking on and off an invisible lighter or maybe stroking an invisible harp.

 

It's only then that he notices Zayn on the floor next to Louis, unmoving. His breath hitches in his throat, and the pounding in his head increases, this isn't happening, this isn't happening, this can't be happening. Louis looks at him with a blank stare when he lets out something that might be a squeal, and for a second Harry hates him with all his heart.

 

"What happened?" he asks as he scrambles up and searches his jeans for his phone, frantically punching Liam's number on the keys.

 

"Don't leave me," Louis says with wide bloodshot eyes, and he pulls Harry back down to the floor, kisses his jaw. "Don'tleavemedon'tleavemdon'tleaveme I swear I didn't want to it wasn't my fault don't leave me," he stutters, wrecked and pathetic and everything Harry never wants to become.

 

He's so angry – the panic soars in his chest and tries to strangle him with ropes of fire.

 

"Hello?" says Liam on the other end of the phone. His voice is raw and throaty, and for a stray second Harry almost regrets that they'll never love each other, because there's a tiny, microscopic chance that it would have been good and maybe even more than that.

 

"You need to come here. It's Zayn," Harry says, struggling to keep his voice steady. He tries to push Louis away, but he's murmuring in his chest, his hands fisted in Harry's T-shirt, staining the cloth with tears and slobber.

 

"Don't move," Liam says. "I'll be here in ten."

 

Harry breathes out a sigh. He tries to coat the blood that's flowing from Louis's cheek but Louis keeps flailing, smearing blood all over his face like warpaint.

 

Harry thinks he's forgotten how to breathe when Liam finally knocks, and he leaps into his arms, tugging at his hair and trying to hurt him too, sobbing hysterically in his neck, "It's Zayn, he's..."

 

But he doesn't know what Zayn is, so he lets Liam hug him and wills the embrace to crush his bones.

 

They kneel next to Zayn's body. Liam has called 911 and they can't do anything but wait – Zayn is breathing but it's so tiny and fluttering and his heartbeat is like a baby's and it's so fucking terrifying and Harry never wants to have to do that ever again ever again.

 

Liam hooks an arm around his shoulders and Harry doesn't shrug him off but doesn't relax into the embrace either, because there's Zayn face in front of him and his eyes are shut and Louis did this, for god's sake, what happened to them?

 

They're silent when the ambulance gets there. People drag Louis away, clinging to Zayn's body and spluttering incoherently; Harry looks at them, at Liam who's answering their questions, and he closes his eyes and tries to drown.

 

*

 

It's a long night full of hiccups and tears. Harry refuses to make phone calls, and a pang of guilt seizes him when he sees Liam Payne's eyes well up with tears as he holds the phone away from his ear in a poor attempt to shield himself from Jay's tears. She asks for Harry, but he refuses to talk to her, doesn't want to explain that he saw her son fall apart and crumble in front of his eyes and did nothing to save him.

 

The families trickle in, Zayn's sisters, bare faces devoid of make-up, looking tiny and scared. They hug him like he's a lifeguard and not a culprit, and they plant kisses on Liam's cheeks – he hugs them too tight but they don't seem to mind, muffle choked sobs in his neck before straightening their shoulders and breathing in deeply. "Let's go in," they say with a tiny voice, and always startle when they see Zayn, pale and ugly in the harsh hospital light.

 

Harry knows he should go check on Louis – Jay isn't there yet – but he can't quite bring himself to do it, can't shake the anger off his skin and go sit next to him, take his hand and wait for him to wake up. He can't be quiet and caring, not now, this isn't him, and the white walls and the thick, metallic scent aren't either, the blood coating his fingers.

 

"I want to leave," he says to Liam Payne.

 

Liam Payne looks down at him with broken eyes, and for one second Harry thinks he's going to say no, but he nods. "Okay," he says, his voice small.

 

They slip through the doors and into the night, unnoticed. Jay's car drives by them, and Harry sees Lottie and Phoebe leaning against each other, wide eyes red with tears, hissing what he can imagine are little strangled cries, small and kittenish.

 

"Faster," he urges, and Liam Payne obeys, his foot crushing the accelerator. The nightlights flash on the side of the road, trying to blind them. Harry tries to fight back the tears and the fragmented whimpers. There's a tinge of bronze dawn at the edge of the sky.

 

The silence descends on them like a blanket made of lead.

 

Harry feels drained when they reach his dorm. He thinks about his cold bed and the remnants of Louis and Zayn's pathetic tragedy on his carpet, the blood and everything that they broke, and he thinks about making tea in his kitchen tomorrow morning and breaking down in tears, because he knows himself and he knows he can't take it. The noise of the engine dies quietly. The night floods them. Harry doesn't get out of the car.

 

Despite everything Harry says, Liam Payne isn't an idiot, and he doesn't ask anything, doesn't do anything, lets the silence drag on, only broken by their labored breathing. Harry feels like the night is strangling him, a quiet, terrifying agony. His lungs are filling with molten steel.

 

And it's really the only thing he can do with all this slimy mess in his chest – the sadness and the tears and the anger and everything else, everything else that brews and never gets out, his mother's fingers on his forehead and the grief that doesn't go away and will I save them and will I save him and I could have saved her and will I save myself –; he doesn't think about it, just hooks his fingers at the base of Liam Payne's neck, grip tight enough to make it hurt, and pulls him in. It's the only way he can deal.

 

And he knows he isn't the only one who's angry when Liam's tongue thrusts into his mouth, and he feels absurdly elated by it, suddenly turned on to the point of bursting. Liam Payne – he isn't as much of a good boy as he likes to make people think he is, Harry knew that, but there's nothing quite as satisfying as having the proof right there, hot beneath his palm.

 

Liam doesn't need to be asked when Harry pulls away and starts the car almost instantly, knuckles white from gripping the wheel too hard. The only thing Harry can think when he catches sight of his clenched teeth is, glorious. He doesn't feel guilty. He doesn't want to feel guilty ever again.

 

He lets his hand slip on the seat and slide across Liam's thigh. His shiver makes the car veer with a screech, and a sort of bubbly elation – danger and recklessness – soars in Harry's chest. Yes, he thinks, this is it. But this isn't it – the two of them, it will never be it, at best a pale parody or the frantic desperation of the not enough. Harry decides that he doesn't care.

 

He drags the zipper down very slowly, his dick already straining against the material of his trousers, rough and painful. He sucks his bottom lip into his mouth as he slips his hand inside Liam's boxers and seizes his cock, making Liam groan, something low and rumbling at the back of his throat, that Harry's never heard before. It sounds like music.

 

"Fuck," Liam Payne says, and for once he sounds unapologetic.

 

The night is aflame in front of them, red and blazing. Harry wonders how it would look if they crashed into a wall, the long flames lapping at the asphalt and dragging them into nothingness.

 

But he isn't crazy, not yet, so he settles for leaning against Liam's tense shoulder and whispering in his ear, filthy nothings he doesn't think about, that slip out of his mouth before he even has the time to check if they're true. "You want me to suck you off, don't you, Liam Payne... you want me to suck you off so hard that you won't even be able to think, and then you want to fuck me into the mattress and make me beg, is that right, don't you, Liam Payne..."

 

He isn't so clumsy usually, but Liam makes these noises, high and desperate, and it sounds like he's enjoying this, so Harry doesn't search further. He doesn't care. Tonight he doesn't care. Caring exhausts him. He's through with it. He's through with everything.

 

(He spares a fleeting thought for his violin that he's left in the dorm, lying forgotten on the floor of his room, the scent of blood and pain sinking into the golden wood.)

 

"Are we there yet?" he asks in Liam's neck as he pulls over, and Liam grunts something that must be a yes since Harry sees his dorm, looking gloomy and sinister in the half-moonlight.

 

He gets his fingers out of Liam's jeans and doesn't smile when Liam makes some sort of desperate noise, embarrassingly hard. He doesn't even have the time to close the door that Liam is all over him, pressing him against the hood of the car and rubbing their crotches together like an over-enthusiastic teenager. Harry can't help but buck up into it, and he bites at Liam's shoulder, hard, letting a small smile spread on his lips when Liam visibly winces.

 

The cold is seeping into his skin and Harry could easily use something more comfortable to be crushed against than this, especially if he's going to bottom, which by the looks of it is definitely happening, so he bites down on Liam's bottom lip to get his attention, not bothering to be gentle. This isn't about gentle.

 

"Inside," he orders, and Liam nods mutely, his pupils blown almost entirely. He's hotter than he's ever been, at least to Harry, with his rumpled clothes and set jaw, dark eyes burning with determination and something else that Harry doesn't want to get into.

 

They clamber up the stairs blindly, groping at each other, desperate for flesh under their fingers and heat beneath their mouths, nails raking backs and hair. Harry is being eaten alive by the hunger, but it isn't painful, it just feels like the best ending he could ever get, consumed by this fire that doesn't belong to him. He hurls himself at Liam while he tries to insert the key into the keyhole, and Liam falls against the door with a thud, hissing a loud groan when his head connects with the hard surface. Harry doesn't even pretend to be apologetic.

 

When Liam finally manages to open the door, he hooks his fingers into the collar of Harry's shirt and drags him in, sniggering under his breath when Harry's foot catches in the rug and he stumbles, bones clinking when one of his knees hits the floor. Harry doesn't like being here, kneeling, his skin scraped and hurting, but the low thrum in his stomach says otherwise. Resistance is futile, he thinks, and he wants to laugh but it's not funny. He gives in.

 

Liam seems surprised by the fingers curling around his hip, and a strangled noise escapes his lips as he stumbles forward, pelvis almost hitting Harry's nose. Harry's fingers are shaking as he pulls Liam's trousers down along his thighs, not from nervousness, more from something like anticipation. Liam has goosebumps, Harry realizes as he drags his fingers along a vein on his calf. Time stutters to a halt; Liam sighs softly – everything seems to be forgiven.

 

But of course it doesn't last (they're never forgiven) and it all starts back in earnest, the blood thumping in their ears, their hearts pounding as though they were going to explode, any moment now, time bombs firmly rooted in their chests, doing more damage than anything else.

 

Harry looks up at Liam (the rug is drawing tiny symbols in the skin of his knees, maybe Arabic characters), his pupils blown. "You owe me one," he says.

 

Liam stares back at him, hard and unblinking. He doesn't answer, instead threads his fingers in the wisps of hair at Harry's nape and pulls him in, pressing his face against his crotch. Harry struggles against the iron grip, half for show.

 

"Come on," Liam growls. Harry wants to praise him and shake him and hurt him. He should be like that all the time, he thinks, but he's not sure it's what he wants.

 

He obeys anyway, pulls Liam's dick out of his boxers, red and swollen, and gives a nasty lick at the head. He doesn't want it to be good – he wants it to hurt. He always wants it to hurt. He's just lucky that tonight it's what Liam Payne wants too. (That's the taste of luck – the sick green of the hospital walls and the bitter, salty stench of precome.)

 

He wastes no time in taking him whole in his mouth, and Liam releases an angry sigh, teeth clanging from above. The crimson dawn is filtering through the blinds, leaking blood. It's not even a good blowjob, messy and sloppy and too angry, too rushed to be good, but Liam thrusts into Harry's mouth like there's no tomorrow, holding him down with clenched fingers, his nails sinking into Harry's flesh, and it's something. It's something.

 

This time Harry doesn't hesitate before swallowing when Liam comes with an aborted shout, hips stuttering that Harry holds in place with long, claw-like fingers, but possibly it's just for the unpleasant taste and the wince that he can't suppress, another way of hurting them both in the process. He feels like he'll have failed if any of this is anything more than painful.

 

Liam hauls him up, his hands curled on Harry's biceps, and suddenly they're face to face, panting heavily at each other. For a second it's like Liam's surprised to see him, as though he expected someone else to have been down there all along, sucking his cock with desperate franticness, and Harry can't find it in him to be hurt. It's how it is. It's enough – or it isn't, but he'll take it anyway, because it's better than anything else he could have had right now, better than his tear-stained pillows or than Louis's bedside, crying and angry and wishing he were somewhere else.

 

Liam kisses him, and Harry can't discern if he's doing it out of a twisted sense of obligation or if he really wants to feel the taste of his own come on Harry's tongue, possibly just to make sure that it really was him. There is something odd about this being the two of them – maybe Harry's not the only one to feel that anyone else would've made more sense than them. But they don't need to make sense for that.

 

He tells himself to stop thinking and dives into the kiss headfirst, trying to map every corner and nook of Liam's mouth. Suddenly it feels like an entire universe, like there are so many things to discover in this damp heat (there aren't), and Harry gladly forgets everything that isn't it to immerse himself in feeling. He's tired of thinking, to be honest.

 

They're both panting when they break the kiss, and Harry feels against his hip that Liam's hard again, his erection digging painfully in Harry's skin. Liam flushes. Harry smirks. His hands are up under Liam's T-shirt that he for some reason hasn't taken off, splayed against the hot skin of his back. They're both sweating. It isn't entirely bad.

 

If it were anyone else, Harry would probably ask what they want. (He asked Caroline, and she laughed against his neck, said, "You'll figure it out," with sparkling eyes, wet and hot against his thigh.) He doesn't ask Liam. Liam wouldn't know what he wanted even if Harry asked. He probably never asks – probably only takes when he's like that, lost between dusk and dawn and tired and unhappy.

 

If he had to say something, it would probably be, "Take," but he doesn't say that either. Instead he digs his nails into Liam's flesh and claws at his back as though he were trying to tear him in two, to open him and rummage inside, in the dark and wet redness of his alien body. Liam's breath catches in his throat. Harry smiles and moves closer, pressing until there isn't any closer, only a more.

 

"More," Liam says in his ear, tight and furious.

 

"No," Harry answers.

 

He gives more, and he will give more, and he says that just to be contrary, but it feels good and Liam leans in again to kiss him, scraping his teeth against his bottom lip with something that feels like intent. Harry claws harder, and catches the hem of the T-shirt to pull it off, suddenly frantic. They stand face to face with bare chests, feeling strangely vulnerable. Harry still doesn't know what the room looks like (he can imagine it – tidy tame furniture and a perfectly-made bed, with a clock somewhere in a corner and lots of books, maybe a picture of his parents and something that suggest piano, an edge of flair that isn't his and the memory of talentless love), but he isn't sure if he really cares.

 

"Strip," he says, his eyes probably wider than they should be.

 

Liam doesn't say anything, doesn't say no but doesn't strip either. They look at each other like enemies, ready to lunge.

 

It seems to take an eternity before Liam finally slips a finger between his shirt and his chest. The first button unhooks with a deafening plop that makes Harry's eardrums shake. Liam shimmies his hips and his pants fall on the ground with a rustle. He steps cleanly out of them, sending them a forlorn look that suggests that he wants to pick them up and fold them. His boxers are tented. Harry looks at him with something that's half hunger and half something else.

 

"Your turn," says Liam. His voice isn't as steady as Harry's, probably because he couldn't be commanding even if he tried, and especially not like that, now, with open eyes and a clear moonlight hitting his shoulder-blades.

 

Harry complies anyway. He wants this, for some reason. It's done in a few seconds, and he sheds his underwear too, and then they're face to face again, naked as though in mirror. Liam's boxers are on the floor. Harry sends them under the bed with agile toenails as he steps forward to kiss Liam again, one hand on his neck and the other splayed on his stomach, nails scraping to collect the sweat.

 

Harry pushes him in the general direction of the bed with both hands on his naked chest. He's more muscled that Harry expected – it's a good surprise. He holds back a chuckle between his teeth; Liam loses his balance and falls half against the hard edge of the bed. He lets out a loud "Ow" but Harry swallows it as he straddles him, elbows on each side of his head. He knows what he wants, and he wants it now. He'll get it. Harry always gets what he wants. (It's always like that in moments like these, too – the crazy desire that races through his veins and the need for egoistical satisfaction, the low thrum of mineminemine that doesn't apply to the person but only to the feeling.)

 

He spits in his hand and wraps it around both their dicks in a lightning moment, making Liam's hips buck up. Their teeth clang noisily, and Harry laughs into it with an edge of cruel. Liam hisses. Harry jerks them both off, roughly, not entirely pleasurable. It's probably too much to be good, but it's okay for tonight – somehow it feels like the perfect reminder of exactly how much there's at stake, even though there's nothing, not really.

 

"You have lube?" he asks, and Liam nods jerkily. Harry lets go of their dicks to let him scramble over to his bedside drawer, and he groans a bit at the loss of sensation, his angry-red dick bumping against Harry's stomach as he wriggles ridiculously.

 

"So," Harry says, voice steady as though he weren't announcing the menu of the night's festivities, "here's what we're gonna do. You're going to finger me, right? And then you're going to stay like this, on your back, and I'll ride you until we both come so hard we won't remember our names."

 

A beat.

 

"We'll figure out the rest tomorrow morning. Okay?" he asks, his lips obscenely red in the half light. His eyes are gleaming with something strangely machiavellian.

 

Liam blinks.

 

"I'll take that as a yes," Harry says, and for some reason it seems to unleash a frenzy in Liam's body. He tugs Harry down brusquely and crashes their lips together as he somehow manages to squirt lube on his fingers one-handed, which is a skill that Harry will have to ask him about sometime when a finger isn't being pushed into his hole.

 

He swears. It feels halfway to good, but Liam doesn't really seem to care, only pushes another one, too soon, and kisses Harry again and again, probably to shut him up. He bites his lip hard enough that it seems like he wants to draw blood, but Harry's lip doesn't split. Liam draws back, looking strangely guilty, as though his wanting to hurt Harry was only a spur-of-the-moment thing, which Harry knows it wasn't, and crooks his fingers in apology, making Harry hiss and writhe against them wantonly.

 

"Third," he says, voice tight, body rocking.

 

Liam obeys.

 

It all goes marginally better after that, with less thoughts flashing through Harry's skull and more blinding sparks of pleasure, making his toes curl and his thighs squeeze Liam's hips tighter, his hands trapped between them. Harry's moans echo crudely in the empty room; there's just enough light that Liam must be able to see him, his no doubt red-faced desperation. Harry is past caring.

 

"Now," he says when he feels open and exposed, grabbing blindly for the condom he's seen Liam retrieve from the bedside drawer. He wants it so bad that he's almost shaking, and Liam's mouth is obstinately clamped shut, as though he was determined not to let one sound cross the barrier of his lips. Of course, it immediately makes Harry want to make him scream. He shoves the resolution at the back of his mind as he tears the wrap open with his teeth. Here we go, he thinks, and he's done this before, enough so that he couldn't count them he tried, but there's always this edge of expectation and wonder mixed with fear that curls at the base of his stomach. It's part of what makes it good.

 

Liam looks up at him, and for a strange little moment their eyes are locked, no distinguishable colors in the dusk, only the mirrored fierceness of dark, liquid lust. They breathe rhythmically for ten seconds. Harmony, Harry thinks, and he doesn't have time to berate himself for the cheesiness of that thought before he slides on Liam's dick and everything breaks.

 

They stay still for a moment, panting loudly in the silence that amplifies everything and makes it outrageously obscene. Harry hums tightly through his teeth. A thought flies in one of his ears and out the other, Louis being glorious and golden and happy with salty skin and blood pulsing in the veins of his wrist. He could've thought of anyone else, except not really – but it's gone as soon as it came, and suddenly it doesn't really matter anymore.

 

He takes a second to adjust to the feeling of being so full before he starts moving. It's slow at first, the torturous slide of skin on skin, and Harry brings his arms up to hook them around Liam's shoulders, pulling him close. There's sweat glistening on the skin at the junction of his neck and jaw, and Harry licks it absent-mindedly, drawing a tiny, broken moan out of Liam. Harry's cock is trapped between their stomachs, leaking and somewhat beautiful in its out-of-place profanity.

 

He picks up the pace, and soon everything is amplified, the slide and slap and the grunts as Harry digs his teeth into Liam's shoulder and Liam's blunt nails scrap at his back, squeezing a surprised moan out of him. He didn't expect this – but Liam isn't as bad a lover as he could've been, knows how to move his hips in this way that's just the right kind of maddening, knows how to make it good without making it personal. Harry is grateful. He wasn't sure, coming here. It was one of these wild guesses that could've turned awful just as well. He's lucky. It isn't really unusual.

 

There is a moment when Liam looks up at him at their eyes lock, still moving against each other, lost in the reckless bliss. Liam says, "God, you're beautiful," like it's slipped out of his lips, and looks half-horrified a second after. Harry knows he's beautiful, but it's always something to hear someone say it like that, looking genuinely amazed by it, as though it were a complete discovery now that they have him with flushed cheeks and errant curls grazing his cheeks. He hides a ferocious smile against Liam's ear and gives it a playful nip. He doesn't return the compliment, even if it's true. It would mean something else that he doesn't want to say and that Liam doesn't want to hear.

 

He knows that Liam won't last a lot longer from the congested look on his face, so he grabs his own dick and starts jerking himself off, trying to coordinate his movements. Liam's hand quickly moves to cover his own – Harry's strangely grateful for the firm press of his fingers and his sweaty palm against his knuckles. He feels a tiny bit glorious like that, wanton and open, sliding up and down with wet sounds. Each time Liam's cock slides back inside him he can't help but look down and watch, and it's obscene but it's also sort of beautiful, Harry's vision clouding every time it hits his prostate and sends sparks fuzzing all over his body.

 

The air smells like laundry detergent. It makes Harry want to sneeze, but he doesn't, he holds on, his head white-hot, Liam's hand curled around his limp one. Liam bites his shoulder when he comes, hard, like he wants it to leave an imprint, and it probably will. Harry wonders if there's blood, but it's a little hard to decipher in the jumble of sensations and then he's coming too, jerking in hot white spurts on both their stomachs. He feels boneless and limp, ready to slip into oblivion. Liam is breathing heavily in his shoulder, leaving wet patches on his skin. Harry doesn't mind too much. He takes a second to wonder if he'll stay for the night, but he remembers the apartment, cold and reeking of death, and Liam is too polite to throw him out, even though he probably wants to.

 

He vaguely feels Liam get up and clean them both up. He thinks to apologize for a second, but his mouth feels slow, and he doesn't really want to. Later, he thinks, and he falls asleep, limbs haphazard and with a fleeting thought for what he looks like, naked and exhausted, spread on Liam Payne's bed.

 

*

 

Life doesn't really change after that.

 

Harry hadn't expected it to, but he was probably the only one – and that's not because he's special, if for the fact that he's already had something turn his world upside down and leave the others blissfully unaffected. He remembers at his mother's death, when he shrugged off his suit after the funeral (it's one of his most vivid memories about clothes – the way this suit didn't fit him at all, and how he didn't feel old enough to wear it and bear the pain that came with it) – he was so certain that if he came out of his house, he would find the world frozen, black shawls over hunched shoulders, waiting for him to be through with his grief before they resumed with their lives.

 

But life kept going. It only took a few weeks for people to stop being careful with him, and he hadn't liked it then, their pity and their nauseating goodwill, but he liked it even less now that they pretended that nothing had happened. He wanted to stomp and cry that there wasn't an expiration date for grief – for God's sake, that was his mother in this casket, how could he be expected to get on with his life after that? But he did. He had to, and he did.

 

Harry observes Liam for a few days after they sleep together. He doesn't suggest a repeat performance, because it was great and Liam would probably say yes but it's not a good idea and it wouldn't do anyone any good. At first, Liam looks like he's waiting for something to blow up, head permanently bent over his books as though he were trying to hide behind them. If Harry were a good person, he would probably go up to him and tell him that it's going to be okay, but he's not, so he doesn't.

 

The only things about him that have changed are the way he looks at Niall (darker, more feral – but Harry's not even sure he realizes) and that he somehow seems more cruel, less naive. Harry isn't sure if he should feel proud for toughening him or ashamed for spoiling him, whatever there was there for him to spoil. But he's never ashamed and he's too tired to feel proud, so he settles for not feeling anything at all. He's getting pretty good at that.

 

Zayn and Louis get out of the hospital. It's a hot day when Harry goes to get them, the hesitant beginning of the summer, but they're huddled together as though it were freezing, Louis's head tucked safely in the crook of Zayn's neck, Zayn's hand tight around his waist. Harry is too far to see, but his grip on the wheel tightens, knuckles paling. He wonders if Louis will have finger-shaped bruises on his side tomorrow. He won't look, he swears to himself, but he knows he will.

For a second he wants to steer the wheel of Matt's car and leave, run as far away as possible from this trainwreck, but he's Harry Styles and there's nothing he's more attracted to than trainwrecks, so he stops in front of them and gestures for them to get inside.

 

"Hi," Louis says, half-defiantly and half-apologetically.

 

"Hello," Harry answers curtly. He doesn't want to forgive this – and his anger feels strangely good, simmering in his loins, on beat with the tight heat that makes the sky low and heavy. Zayn doesn't say anything, breathing slowly like he has to focus to remember how to, in, out and trying not to die in between.

 

The ride home is silent and uneventful. The tension floats between them, not really uncomfortable but not really comfortable either. Louis fidgets guiltily and bites his lip. Harry feels mean, satisfied – he wants to soothe the red swell on Louis's lip with his own, just for the feeling, and it feels strange to say to himself that he can't, because it's not even that Louis is with someone, it's that he belongs, whole-heartedly. Harry is surprised he even finds time to worry about being guilty.

 

He drives them home but doesn't stay with them, because it's just too much, too much to see them look at each other like that, and share a kiss with dry lips, and hold hands but it all seems wrong – even the way their fingers are laced, too tightly, feels like a fraud. He retreats in his room and tries to ignore Louis's hurt look when he whispers a quick, "Good night". He closes his door and stays there for a second, back straight against the hard surface, just breathing and trying not to think about how they even managed to get back together after what happened.

 

He tries not to think about life, because he doesn't know what to think. He's not exactly alone, and not exactly empty, skirting at the edges, staring at the outline of what happens. It's not excruciatingly painful, but it doesn't satisfy the hunger nestled in his stomach either. Harry's always been extreme, but in moments like this he feels like just giving up and letting himself be carried by the flow. It can't be that hard – everyone does it, don't they?

 

He's feeling trapped in his room, knowing that Zayn and Louis are here, a wall away, probably speaking in hushed tones about whatever it is they talk about when they aren't fighting, so he grabs his coat and walks out of his room.

 

He finds Louis and Zayn in the kitchen, kissing. They're standing a bit apart from each other, their hands reached to touch, Zayn's curled at Louis's nape and at the small of his back, and Louis's cradling his face. It's slow and tender, a kiss that feels like it's two sick men kissing, that feels like convalescence and doctors' blank faces. Harry steps back as though the intimacy had slapped him right across the face.

 

He runs away.

 

He thinks indistinctly as he calms down that he should look for another place to live, but he doesn't really want to – maybe he's afraid that he'll lose Louis if he lets him out of his sight, now that he barely looks at him anymore. For some reason he wants to keep breaking with them, hold onto their hushed pain and go down with them. Who knew he was like that, he thinks as he wanders down the halls, feeling numb. The harsh lights blind him. He passes by someone that looks like Liam Payne but really doesn't, with glasses and nothing in his eyes and a book under his arm. Spit gathers in his mouth. He feels sick.

 

Liam Payne finds him some time after that, still dizzy with images of Zayn and Louis and bare skin brushing, white with old scars, quietly suffocating. He isn't really sure how long he's been here, but a sharp disgust rolls over his tongue as Liam Payne kneels before him – why does he always find him? Can't he have a fucking second alone, without Liam hovering over him, trying to find reasons to everything?

 

"Are you okay?" Liam asks.

 

Harry can't really control the way his hands ball into fists.

 

"No," he spits, saying can't you see and why are you so blind. He wishes Liam Payne would feel things like he does, just for a day, just so that he knows how it feels.

 

"What's going on?"

 

And Harry knows that it isn't his fault, but these words aren't the good ones, they're not the words he should say, and it makes Harry so angry – he's not asking for much, but these words are so blatantly wrong, you see? And he knows too, distantly, that Liam has never done anything knowingly, but wasn't he the one who brought Zayn in, who wrecked everything – isn't he the silent, serious-faced devil of this story?

 

"It's all your fault," he sneers, and it isn't, but it feels good to say it. Why is he even here? What does he want? What is he looking for? Harry despises him for not taking what he wants – he has a lightning thought for Niall, an arm looped around his girlfriend's waist, and he thinks meanly that they deserve each other, Niall with his sunny eyes and Liam with his empty words.

 

Liam Payne recoils, looking confused but not angry. Harry hurts all over.

 

"Did something happen?" he asks again, pragmaticality dripping from his words, and Harry wants to say, no, nothing happened – or did it? He doesn't know.

 

He scrambles to his feet, hating himself when he stumbles; "Go away," he breathes, despising the way his voice is so close to quiet, hoarse and wheezing. Liam Payne looks at him with brown eyes, unremarkable, useless.

 

"Go away," he says, louder, and when Liam doesn't, he yells, "leave me alone!"

 

Liam Payne leaves.

 

Harry cries until his cheeks are fields of salt. He goes back to the apartment to pick his violin up and he sleeps at Aiden's, cheek buried deep in the borrowed pillow, the wood pressing bruises into his chest. He wonders briefly how he can be so unhappy from other people's problems, but then he thinks that he isn't unhappy, and there's tomorrow floating at the surface of his brain, and he's asleep.

 

*

 

Piano, first, a hesitant, growing shiver – and then the violin, quiet, joining in (they took weeks to manage that part – because Liam Payne's piano said I'm here instead of I don't know, and Harry can't help being too ardent, but he must only explode a few seconds later, when the low murmur of the piano trails into silence).


It's a jittery piece, bursts of nervous anxiety. The piano is brooding, dark and low, looks like a man's voice when you listen to it the right way, when you bend to listen to it thrumming in the ground like a quiet earthquake – and the violin is a high-pitched woman, shrill, with explosions that feel like hysterics or bursts of laughter. She's not always on key, on beat, on rhythm, perfectly aligned with the more stable piano, but Harry loves her and his bow slides effortlessly through her bipolar moods, one moment shy and tender like a mother putting her child to bed and then, abruptly, high and flaming. (But what he prefers is when she turns melancholic – there's always the flowing, plaintive hum of distant unhappiness, that fades into bursting joy.)

 

He feels like he can trace an itinerary, like in every melody, in every piece, every instrument that tunes to another – and maybe this one is a little harder, because there's so much, and you have to lend an ear to really get it, and Harry isn't sure if he even can, if he's old enough or wise enough or whatever it is you have to be to understand music, but it's worth it to understand the story. God, is it worth it.

 

He'll sit down in front of Liam, put down his violin and sit cross-legged on the floor before him; he'll look up at Liam who's stopped playing too, his arms hanging useless at his sides, and he'll try to explain. He'll say, you see, this – and point at the score, but Liam sees nothing in it, nothing but the dark smudge of his thumb over the instructions, staccato, piano as though it didn't mean agitatedly, tenderly – this is a story, right?

 

And Liam Payne will look back at him blankly, and Harry will shrug but he'll explain, because he wants him to get it too, because he can't play one half of a love story with the other one not knowing they're in love. He'll say – right, so, there's this man (and mean you), and he loves this woman (me). But she isn't sure, and – (he points, listen) she's restless like a hummingbird, tiny wings flapping at one hundred miles an hour – and he wants to follow her, he wants to love her (you want to love me) but he can't and sometimes she slides out of his grasp and (a violin solo, high notes flying in the air, tearing the skies apart) then she remembers.

 

(Do you know what remembering is? he wants to ask, but doesn't. Liam Payne looks like someone that doesn't have memories, a slate that cleans itself after every few seconds, blank again, and never really fills, whose remedy for the vicious chalk isn't a slow healing but the low thrum of delete, delete, delete. Harry wants to say, she remembers like London rain – but Liam Payne wouldn't understand.)

 

And he looks at Liam Payne, jittery, feverish, eyes shining with the frustration of him not understanding, and continues – she wants to be happy, they try to be happy together, but – (have you ever tried being happy, Liam Payne? Do you know just how hard it is?). And there's quiet pain, and quiet joy, and he's there for her, reassuring, the touches light like a slow piano in the background, but sometimes she has nightmares and he struggles to catch up with her.

 

Almost no time left. They're happy, two bursts of laughter, coordinated, almost identical but not really. Think flowers in gardens and children and sun when you touch your piano, Liam Payne. Then – doubts, maybe, or happiness so hot it burns (he shrugs – he can't always say, but he's an optimist, for him it's a celebration) and something fervent and ecstatic, uncontainable, spilling from all sides in boiling, bubbling flows – a happy ending or the last scene of Moulin Rouge, passion, a curtain falling, and here. It's over.

 

He looks up at Liam Payne, saying, look. A love story.

 

But he doesn't really want to see if Liam's understood, so he doesn't look too hard, gathers his violin and leaves, caressing with shaking hands the indents in the wood that are like reminders of all the idylls he drew with his bow, sliding up and down, easy like breathing.

*

 

One morning Louis walks into the kitchen with a silver necklace, tiny little circles of steel against his neck. A ring dangles in the crease of his collarbones.

 

"What's that?" Harry asks, and he regrets the words as soon as they're out of his mouth. He doesn't want to know.

 

Louis shrugs and pours himself a glass of orange juice. It's a good day, remarks Harry off-handedly, and wonders when he began thinking of good days as the days when ZaynandLouis don't stumble into the kitchen with teeth marks on their arms and their eyes red from crying.

 

"Zayn," Louis says, as if that were an answer in itself. It sort of is.

 

Harry doesn't say anything. The silver gleams mockingly in the sunlight, looking like another scar.

 

*

 

Harry inhales. His collar smells like laundry detergent, and it makes him think of Liam Payne's room for a second, bared teeth pressed against the skin at the small of his back. The shirt is crisp, white, rustles with a papery sound when he moves. Sweat is dampening his brow. The light is low, but Harry knows that it's blinding out there, and for a second he thinks about running away, running until his lungs are on fire and he doesn't feel this void threatening to devour him.

 

But Liam Payne walks over to him, slow and steady (Liam isn't someone that just appears, like Louis sometimes did, when there was a Louis that wasn't LouisandZayn, that wasn't broken beyond repair – he's someone that you can see coming from afar, walking in even strides, always at the same pace), and it's over – suddenly he can't escape, he has to go out there, and maybe it's pride but it doesn't matter.

 

"Are you ready?" Liam asks, eyes soft and concerned. Harry hates that Liam can still be soft to him, despite all the pain they've caused each other.

 

No , he thinks. He isn't ready. He'll never be ready.

 

"No," he says.

 

Liam Payne doesn't startle, doesn't look surprised, doesn't say, you'll never be ready.

 

"Take your time," he says instead, even though Harry can't take his time, because everyone is already clapping on the other side of the curtain and this means something , it does. He can't breathe.

 

(Important people are going to be coming, his teacher said with this sort of half-smile that only teachers can carry off, like I know something that I'm not telling you , and all Harry could think about was Gemma , her face when he'd come off stage and fall into her arms, dried of all his liquor. He looked at Liam and saw recruiters on his face. Does he even have a family?)

 

But this Liam Payne is still another one ( masks , something chants in his skull), and he takes a step forward, slowly, as if to say, stop me if you want . Harry doesn't stop him. He's always been one to see the story unfold, even if he knows that the end will hurt him (and this one will). Closer , his eyes say instead, closer . (Harry can't bear the in-betweens – it's either too close or far away .)

 

"All right, then," says Liam Payne somewhere in a reality where people clap behind a curtain that'll lift too soon, his words not sounding like words.

 

Another step forward. Harry's heart beats like a drum in his chest, and collects every memory to paint them on the walls of his lungs. It isn't for Liam, but Liam isn't looking at him either. Harry thinks about a sun-haired boy on one of the plush red seats in the room, holding his girlfriend's hand over the arm.

 

He isn't surprised when their lips connect, but he doesn't move, and for a moment they just breathe like that, mouth to mouth, like CPR, trying to revive each other.

 

(They part lips at some point, and Liam slips his tongue inside Harry's mouth, almost guiltily, a hand cradling his nape and the other hanging limply at his side. It tastes like Harry's fear and Liam's impassibility, and it's interrupted by someone who doesn't care, doesn't gasp, has probably seen this a million times over, and tells them, you're on like it's nothing. It isn't nothing.)

 

They don't step on stage together. It's Liam first (everyone claps politely and thinks with an internal shrug, another one – another one of these perfect child musicians, that will impress us but won't enchant us – except the six teenagers in the back, but maybe they're too wrapped up in themselves to think about it), walking to his piano and sitting, looking over at the crowd with a dull smile; and Harry then (more clapping, maybe, at least brighter, more enthusiastic – oh , but this one will entertain us, he looks like a prodigy in training, and look at those curls), who all but wobbles – the one who has to stay standing –, his violin flush against his heart.

 

Silence (not really. Intakes of breath, the whispered end of conversations, the nervous babbling of the next performer, muffled by the curtain).

 

The music, then.

 

*

 

Music – writing it would feel redundant, like writing a painting, and you can't write a painting, but you can't write music either, can you?

 

*

 

Harry's eyes, flashing (anger? Something else? His default switch seems to be anger these days, so Liam Payne doesn't wonder) as he tears a cry out of his strings.

 

*

 

Liam Payne, head bent over his piano like it had been over his books, trying .

 

*

 

The audience not caring, not seeing , only those who listen. Those ones see.

 

*

 

(The man and the woman, drawing away, butterfly touches, reuniting, blurry in the background, fading to reveal two boys, one next to a piano and the other melted with his violin.)

 

*

 

Harry's wrists, flying like every stroke breaks the bone, tiny indents. (Liam Payne waits for them to snap.)

 

*

 

Harry's eyes, again (Liam Payne's fingers thick like a butcher's on the keys, and this thought, murder, murder, bloody murder ).

 

*

 

Debussy – the sharp melancholy, liquid mercury, acid rain.

 

*

 

Harry and Liam (but not HarryandLiam, not LiamandHarry either, barely held together by this tiny 'and') standing close, dancing with the music, flesh wound tight around their ribcages. Close, but not too close. Not closer .

 

*

 

A tan boy in the back, hungry eyes hidden, whispering, "This feels important," with something like wonder, lips still raw and branded.

 

*

 

They don't want it to end – the music. It doesn't deserve to be stretched, but they're the faded, washed-out end of teenagers and they want it to last.

 

It's selfish , thinks Liam Payne, and he's never been selfish, but he presses his fingers to the keys and rumbles a breathy it's going to be okay .

 

She's too far gone (high high high in the sky with the clouds and the stars) to listen to him.

 

*

 

But it ends.

 

Harry looks at Liam Payne who doesn't look at him, stands up with steady legs and bows lightly, as though nothing has happened, with future and career written on his shoulders.

 

Whatever this was, it's over , he thinks over the applaud, too loud.

 

*

 

Then: the summer punches them in the stomach, a flurry of declarations, diplomas, teary promises to call, girlfriends with waterproof mascara running down their cheeks.

 

Harry watches. Louis's embrace takes him by surprise and crushes his bones. Harry understands, goodbye. Louis is leaving with Zayn, traveling. Zayn looks like he'd be a good traveller. Harry is past hoping they'll disentangle, so he settles for hoping they won't break further.

 

He watches out of the corner of his eye as Liam and Niall embrace too, for too long – the last beat feels desperate, reeks of never-said I love you s. Harry doesn't intervene.

 

Aiden and Matt don't look like they're leaving. Their faces are calm, lit with quiet elation. They don't hug, because they aren't parting.

 

They trickle out of the door one by one – Liam off to London, a pianist in training, Niall leaving for somewhere and Juliette for somewhere else, maybe-broken-up. Zayn and Louis slide out of the room when Harry isn't looking. It could feel like a betrayal.

 

Harry is the last to leave, lock the door, pick up his violin case with light fingers. He doesn't look back, but he doesn't really look forward, either.

 

 

 

 

Then

 

The room is bigger, filled with strangers like the other one had been. The seats are red, plush – some things never change. Excited chatter is buzzing in his ears, "I've heard that -", "The best pianist in a while", "You'll see", "Have fun", "How much did they cost you?", "Am I -".

 

Harry thinks back of Liam Payne at seventeen, eighteen, with not-quite-red lips and dull brown eyes. He looks down at the photograph, crumpled in his fist. His eyes are green. Probably enhanced, he thinks, but maybe he wears colored contacts. Liam Payne wouldn't have been the type to wear colored contacts, but this isn't Liam Payne. Only their name is similar, and it's small, almost ineffective.

 

The chatter dies down. Harry can't stop thinking. This time it's Zayn sitting on a stool in front of a gigantic, ornate harp, his hands sharp like blades, bespoke suit keeping his heart into his chest.

 

Liam Payne walks in. He crosses the stage the same way he did eight years ago, long, determined strides. Harry misses the familiar heat of Louis's body against his side, insinuating himself between his ribs.

 

Harry glances down at the paper when he starts playing, startled (you know any Gould? I don't like him. But do you know any?) – but here it is, printed in mocking black, loopy lettering, Bach, Toccata in E minor.

 

(In the seconds (one, two, three, ten) between Liam's appearance and the first pressed key, hanging in the air, already wrong, Harry thinks about his family. He thinks about them methodically, like Liam Payne would have done if he were still alive, one after the other, in alphabetical order.

 

Anne, first – her grave that doesn't look the same, but he still goes, and he wonders each time if it means that he'll never not be broken, and he touches the necklace and pushes it against his flesh, tries to imprint the crescent shape of it (beloved) into his skin. The world still hasn't stopped turning to let her fade away, and he still goes to see her, each year, the sixth of May, not always alone. Once he brought peach-colored roses and sweet liquor chocolates on Valentine's day and spent the day with her, his violin and Suskind.

 

(Robin comes soon after, but he's slotted in the empty space between Anne and the rest, always there, older each time Harry visits him, gentle and fatherly.)

 

Gemma – the order is perfect, he thinks, lightning-quick – holding him ten years ago when he slid off-stage like he'd imagined she would, and holding Louis too, his body light and hollow in her arms, ready to be blown away by the wind. Gemma who's still happy, a steady happiness that seeps into Harry's skin when he visits her and Derek, a quiet hum. (Gemma, pressing her lips to his temple and loving him deeply, unfailingly, through everything, his only anchor, his only pillar.)

 

And Louis. Louis doesn't fit into this countdown, amongst the tidy numbers and names. He doesn't fit between the 'she's happy' and 'he's not'. He never fit anywhere in Harry's life, and maybe that was what made him so interesting, this inability he had to be stashed in a drawer and fondly forgotten, Louis, because he was always too bright and garish and cheerful and blinding.

 

(But Louis, Louis isn't like that anymore. When they came back eight years ago Louis already wasn't this boy, and he watered down with the years and the abuse and the unhappiness. Harry would hate Zayn for breaking him if he didn't see that Zayn's broken too, completely, utterly wrecked beneath his share-holder smile and slender fingers. Harry remembers the years of seeing them fall apart in periphery as if it were yesterday, the distant, muffled sounds of their brittle bones bending and breaking.

 

Now Louis is here, with Harry, and it's almost ironic but it isn't. He's here with empty eyes and a blanket tight around his chest and at night he has nightmares that he wakes up shaking from, damp with sweat and angry tears.)

 

Niall is in Canada somewhere, busy with being happy. Sometimes when Harry sees him he whips out his guitar and smiles with too much white, white teeth.)

 

- - Liam Payne on the stage, sitting down in front of this piano, too big for him, of course, a real grand piano because he is a professional now - -

 

(Aiden and Matt belong with Niall in this alphabet, and they all belong under 'e', easy, or 'h', happy. Harry doesn't even feel jealous, but sometimes he sees them, Aiden and Matt, bickering over what to get for dinner in a supermarket, and he turns on his heels and tells Louis that they're going shopping elsewhere.

 

Zayn is with Louis in the middle, between the 'k' and the 'm', broken in two, their bodies hanging limp and empty and apart, dry sand ingrained in their skins with the scars not to let them forget. Harry wants to cry for them and he wants to run away – it's always been that.)

 

Liam Payne looks at the keys like they hold some kind of answer, and he starts playing. Harry doesn't know what he's expecting. He thinks he came to reassure himself that he hadn't missed on anything, but now he's not so sure.

 

He aches to leave as soon as he hears the first note, as crudely and blatantly wrong as it always was. He half-wonders if he's still hearing eighteen-years-old Liam Payne, with his stiff fingers and rigid back.

 

He claps with everyone when Liam finishes, until his fingers are numb and red. He tries not to listen to what everyone says, but it's kind of hard, and he catches parts of conversation that feel in turn too intimate and too trivial.

 

He puts his coat on slowly. He doesn't like his new body, thin and wiry – and he doesn't like the balance it has with Louis's either (the hard shoulders and scarred wrists, hesitant chin, twisted fingers). He wishes he could take his violin and walk to the lake, barefoot. He wishes he were still seventeen.

 

But he isn't, so he walks along the Thames, hoping that his feet won't remember the way home, and he doesn't think about that trick of light that made it look like Liam Payne may have been looking at him when he bowed, one hand behind his back, with something in his eyes that said, I'm sorry or I won.