Liam wakes up because Louis' yelling, several rooms away, but still loud and distinct. He's yelling about Harry. It's not unusual, and with a sigh, Liam pulls himself out of bed, prepared to start the day.
" - fucking curls!" he's bellowing when Liam finally trudges into the kitchen, barefoot and shrugging into a gray sweater - Harry's, judging by how expensive it feels, probably left behind last time he visited. Louis is standing on the table in a pair of purple boxers and one wool sock, his hair sticking up like a porcupine from where he slept on it, gesticulating wildly at Zayn, who looks mostly unimpressed, slouched despondently over his eggs and orange juice.
"Off the table," Liam says, tapping Louis on the calf as he slides into his seat, muffling a yawn in the crook of his arm. Louis cuts himself off mid-sentence - something about the indecency of Harry's shoulders - and turns fully around to peer down at Liam, face coming far too close for comfort.
He says, "What?" finally, like he doesn't understand.
"Get off the table," Liam directs again. "No one wants your feet on the table, this is where we eat."
Louis rolls his eyes but obliges, daintily stepping from the table onto Zayn, who grunts in distaste, onto the floor, giving a grandiose and entirely unnecessary spin as he flounces to the chair at the head of the table, throwing himself into it with a mighty sigh.
"You'll clean the table anyway," he says. "I don't see why it matters what I put on it."
"You already put everything on it," Zayn interjects darkly. "And it's always gross, why can't you just keep that - that stuff contained in your own room, that's what it's for, right, your stuff. You should keep your stuff to yourself." He casts a hunted look at the clutter surrounding them, potion bottles and bowls caked in grime and who knows what else. The counters are all buried in spell books and loose leafs of paper with Louis' unintelligible, spidery scrawl covering them.
Liam blinks around him, taking in the state of the kitchen for the first time, and then turns an accusatory glare at Louis, who shifts in his seat, looking suddenly uncomfortable. "What've you done to this place? I just cleaned yesterday, how did you do this all over night?" Liam demands helplessly.
Louis just pouts, shrugging one shoulder obstinately and picking at the woodwork. "It's my house," he says eventually, sounding petulant. "I can do what I want, it's mine, isn't it?"
"You aren't the only one who lives here, ass," Zayn grumps. "We all live here, don't we, not just you."
"Yes," Louis persists, "but it's mine, I bought it, I lived here first!"
"We could leave if it means that much to you," Liam says, ignoring the way Louis starts to protest, his eyes getting very wide. "If you want us to stay, then probably you should start being a little more respectful of our shared space." He calmly sets about dishing himself some breakfast, only to be waylaid by Louis suddenly crashing into him, very nearly in his lap as he clings to Liam, mashing their cheeks together.
"Oh, Christ," Zayn mutters quietly in the background.
"Don't leave, Liam, if it weren't for you, this place would be an absolute sty, it'd be awful! You have to stay or I will just die," Louis bemoans, nudging closer every time Liam tries to dislodge himself from his grip.
"Oh my God, get away from me," Liam says, cringing when Louis' tongue gets too close to his face.
Louis' grip just gets tighter and he orders, "You have to say you'll stay or I won't let go. I can stay here forever, I've nothing better to do." He sounds very serious about it, hanging like a limpet around Liam's neck. It's hard to believe that Louis' the oldest of them, the most powerful - the wizard, and Liam's just normal. It seems quite backward, that Louis should be the way he is and still such a child and Liam has to be so serious, and isn't even the strong one. It's strange.
"I'll stay, you tit," Liam snaps, finally, trying in vain to dislodge Louis from his lap.
"Say you forgive me, now," Louis orders.
Liam rolls his eyes but obliges, "I forgive you for being a great messy bastard, yes, okay, now get off."
Louis slips right off, tumbling to the floor with a self-satisfied look on his face. "You are such an idiot," Zayn marvels, squawking when moments later a gust of wind blows a loose stack of paper straight at his face. Louis laughs, still laid out on the floor, spread eagle, half under the table and mostly in the middle of absolutely everything. He stays there the rest of the morning, grabbing tauntingly at Liam's ankles every time he walks by while he's cleaning the kitchen.
By lunchtime, Liam still hasn't reacted and Louis gives up, retreating upstairs for a nap.
"How could he be tired?" Zayn huffs, nearly buried under the stack of books he's taking back upstairs to the study. "He's not done a thing all day, besides check the post."
"Being beautiful is a job in and of itself, and it is exhausting!" Louis bellows from upstairs. "Don't talk about me, Malik!"
"Thought you were sleeping," Liam remarks placidly, not looking up from where he's on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor under the table, where there's some suspicious purple slime dried in the cracks of the floorboards. Louis doesn't respond, and after a moment, he hears his bedroom door slam.
Zayn returns, red-faced and puffing from exertion, collapsing into the settee in the corner and rifling through the stack of mail on the end table. "Did you happen to see the post?" he asks, brow furrowing. "There's a letter from the palace in here."
"From Harry?" Liam asks, even though it's unlikely, sitting up on his haunches and mopping at his face with his sleeve. The slime's still not even close to gone. Its remnants are encrusted around the nails. Liam feels like he might have to throw in the towel soon, and move onto the counters.
"No," Zayn says, scanning the letter. "It's a formal request from the king. He wants Louis to attend some meeting in a week. Seems pretty insistent, too."
Liam stands, bringing his scrubber and bucket with him. "Will Louis go, do you think?"
Zayn shrugs and leans back into the cushions, eyes closing as he says, "I doubt it. It'd be rather risky, wouldn't it, for him to be around the palace? Especially with Harry there. I don't trust those two not to muck everything up. It's a miracle they've gotten away with it for so long as it is."
It'll take him all day to get the counters clean again, he realizes as he surveys the mess with a sinking feeling. "Zayn," he starts, turning. Zayn's slumped over, snoring softly in his sleep, hugging a pillow to his chest, scrunched up awkwardly in order to fit his entire body on the settee. Liam sighs and begins to scrub in silence.
Harry shows up before dinnertime, hustling through the backdoor with Niall hot on his heels, curls hidden by a fur hat mashed onto his head, face obscured by the popped collar of what looks like an old army jacket. It's clear that he thinks he's being quite incognito, Niall as well, even though the royal insignia is still visible emblazoned on his shirt sleeve.
"Liam!" Harry greets loudly, shuffling over to essentially face-plant into Liam's shoulder, arms hanging loosely by his sides as Liam obliging wraps him into a hug, tugging the hat off of his head and tossing it to the side as Harry shakes his curls free. "Hi," Harry snuffles into Liam's neck. His nose is like ice and Liam shoves him away, rolling his eyes when Harry cackles, his typical serial killer bark of laughter, dancing away from Liam's spatula and up the stairs.
Niall sidles up to him to inspect the stove, where Liam's making hamburgers. "Smells good," he intones, accepting the half-hug Liam pulls him into. "You mind if Harry and I stick around? I know we just kind of dropped in, but Harry says it's been three days since we were here last, and you know His Royal Whiny-ness, had to get his way, as usual."
"It's fine," Liam says, as Harry stomps back down the stairs with a sleepy but delighted Louis in tow, their fingers entangled even as Louis attempts to trip Harry on the last step.
Harry doesn't even notice, loudly complaining, "Oi! You can't call me that, that's treason! You're not supposed to call me names."
Niall rolls his eyes, unconcerned, as Louis pulls a petulant Harry towards him, pressing his face into Harry's neck and murmuring about whether he can call Harry names, like Curly and Lovekitten and Pumpkin, while Harry reluctantly giggles, squirming when Louis loudly smacks a kiss to his cheek.
"You two are disgusting," Zayn complains, appearing behind them. "Just completely teeth-rotting levels of gross, God, I can't handle how saccharine you are." He exchanges faces with Niall as Louis and Harry just ignore him, wrapped up in each other as usual, oblivious to everything other than themselves. "Need any help?" he asks Liam, who's pulling out the two extra patties he'd made in case Harry and Niall did show up.
"Set the table," Liam directs, "and Niall, get out some cheese, if you want it on your burger. Louis, Harry, honestly, that can wait, go wash your hands." Everyone does as told, if a little sulkily, and ten minutes later, they're all seated around the table, Louis at the head with Harry's chair scooted so close to him that they're practically sharing a plate, one hand each suspiciously hidden under the table.
"We received a letter from your father today," Zayn announces. "An invitation to some meeting."
"Oh," Harry says, looking mostly uninterested as he pops a piece of his hamburger into his mouth. There's a smear of ketchup at the corner of his mouth and his hair's absolutely wild. "Cool."
"Do you know what the meeting's for?" Zayn continues, patient like he never is with anyone else, and receives a head shake, because Harry's attention is already elsewhere, clever fingers sneaking toward Louis' plate and stealing a chip before Louis pretends to finally notice and exclaims, liberating a chip from Harry's plate in return.
"It's probably a war meeting," Niall supplies with his mouth full, practically inhaling his food. "There's been that tension with one of the neighboring kingdoms, and the king just wants to make sure he's got all of his bases covered. Louis' the most powerful warlock in the country after all - the king will want to make sure he's got him on our side, if war does break out."
"I don't really think there's any chance of Louis changing sides," Liam intones wryly, watching Harry and Louis as they toss bits of food to each other, catching maybe one out of every ten they throw because they're both laughing so hard. He's never seen two people more in love, really.
Niall hums, looking uncertain. "Allegiance to Harry is different than allegiance to the country," he says.
"Doesn't really matter what the meeting's for," Louis announces. "I won't be attending either way, might as well forget we ever got the letter at all. There's no need to sit and angst about it, you ninnies, when there's more fun to be had." With a wave of his hand, all of their plates are whisked away, piling haphazardly in the sink.
"Hey!" Niall protests. "I wasn't done, you prick!"
Louis rolls his eyes. "You aren't going to starve, Niall, Christ, calm down. I've other things to do, I don't have time for you all to sit around stuffing yourselves all night. Liam, off you go to clean, let's get a move on. The boys will help you. Oh, don't pout, Harry, darling, you can come help me." With the promise that he doesn't have to clean, Harry's satisfied, letting himself be tugged upstairs by Louis' fingers tangled in his.
By dessert, Louis and Harry are in the middle of their routine spat, standing on opposite sides of the kitchen and hurling insults at each other. In Harry's case, there's hurling actual objects as well. Louis doesn't even flinch, waving aside any projectile that gets too close - and there aren't many - with an impatient flick of his hand. Niall ends up having to duck more than once when an errant plate gets redirected toward him, yelping loudly when he gets clipped by a rusting dessert spoon.
"You're a selfish, lazy - " Harry spits poisonously, his next weapon readied.
" - please, could you two take it upstairs - " Liam pleads, standing off to the side with his hands raised, as though that could stop either of them when they really got going, petulant hurricanes that they are.
" - self-absorbed twat, and I'm leaving, and I am never coming back - " Harry continues.
"Oh, is that a promise?" Louis snarls, and the cookbook Harry has goes soaring straight for his head. Harry's aim is truer than usual and the book ends up suspended in midair mere centimeters from Louis' skull, crashing to the floor when Louis has to stop the next set of silverware from gouging out his eyeballs.
"I fucking hate you!" Harry bellows with the stamp of his foot.
Louis snorts, eyes slitted and glittering as he surveys Harry like a god would a peasant, "Oh, princess, but I hate you as well, I hate every little bit of you, I hate you more than I could ever hate anyone else, don't you see?"
Harry's next projectile ends up being the cake sat in the middle of the table, still waiting to be eaten. Liam steps forward to save it but by the time he does, the cake's already gone flying, hurtling like a discus at Louis, who simply sidesteps, letting the dessert slam into the wall and slide slowly down, leaving a chocolatey trail behind.
"That is enough!" Liam thunders, stepping forward and physically stopping Louis' approach toward Harry. Louis lets him, even though, Liam knows, he could wave Liam aside like an irritating but truly powerless fly. Harry's surveying the both of them from beneath his fringe, pink-cheeked and breathing heavily. "That's enough," Liam repeats more quietly. "You'll stop this at once, and clean up this kitchen, because I am certainly not doing it. Dessert's ruined now, so we'll all just go without, won't we." He feels petulant and has the absurd desire to flounce off to his room like a child.
They both just stand there, looking at him, until he snaps, "Well?"
Louis, he knows, could just snap and the whole place would be spotless again, but he kneels on the ground and starts picking up pieces of glass by hand. When Harry joins him a moment later, Louis just shifts a little to the side, giving Harry more room to work. "Careful, darling," he murmurs when Harry nicks himself on a particularly sharp piece of broken china. "Why don't you go clean up the cake?"
Harry does as he's told, leaning close to Liam to brush his nose against his neck, muttering, "Sorry," quickly, as he walks by.
"What was that about, even?" Zayn asks, emerging slowly from the stairs where he and Niall took refuge during the fray. He looks about as rumpled as Zayn ever gets; Niall isn't terribly more kempt, blond hair mussed and sticking up in every direction. Zayn's question goes ignored as Liam sinks onto the settee, closing his eyes as he listens to Harry and Louis murmur indistinctly to each other while they clean. Some minutes later, he feels fingertips brush his arm, and he opens his eyes only to see Niall peering worriedly at him, his thumbnail locked between his teeth.
"Don't chew," Liam admonishes softly, standing. His knees creak with the effort.
The kitchen looks more or less the way it was before, and Louis and Harry have disappeared upstairs.
Sitting in the center of the table is the cake; it's smushed on one side and the top is missing, but otherwise, it still looks edible, and Liam collects three forks silently, passing them out as he flops back into his chair.
"Louis' mad that Harry and I can't stay very long, I think," Niall says in an undertone, morosely forking half of his cake into his mouth. "We'll probably leave before sunrise tomorrow. Got to get back to the palace for breakfast or Harry's dad'll think he's gone missing. With everything so uncertain, the rules have gotten tighter. I think he's worried that Harry'll get assassinated or abducted or something if he spends too much time out of the palace."
"Are things really that bad?" Zayn asks, eyes wide.
Niall sighs heavily, poking a few times at the rest of his cake before he pushes it away from him. "I'm telling you, boys. We're on the brink of something bad. I'm sure of it."
Love is hard to keep a secret, Liam knows, especially when it's a love like Harry and Louis' love. He saves two pieces of cake, wrapping them individually and leaving them in the front of the icebox for Harry and Louis to take tomorrow.
Niall and Harry are gone by the time Liam wakes up, and Louis slumps about gloomily all morning, eye bags stark on his face. He waves off any offer of food, intoning that life isn't worth it anymore, until Liam gets fed up and says, "He isn't dead, Louis, honestly. You'll see him again in a day or two!"
It's no use. The whole house seems to crumble under the weight of Louis' mood. The water won't heat up no matter how long Liam runs it and by mid-morning, the temperature has dropped into sub-arctic levels. "This is absurd," Zayn complains through his chattering teeth. "I'm wearing three sweaters right now and I still feel like I'm about to freeze to my chair."
Liam knows the feeling; he's wearing two pairs of woolen socks on both feet and his toes are still numb. If the house gets any colder, the pipes will start freezing, and Liam doesn't want to deal with that. He kneels next to Louis, who's in the fetal position on the hearth, a blanket tucked around him courtesy of Zayn and Liam, and cards a hand through his hair. Louis doesn't even react, his face tinged blue, icicles forming at the point of his nose.
"Louis," Liam tries, gently. "Louis, please. Harry's going to be back. I promise."
"You don't know that," Louis says. His voice is deeper than normal, darker, just the barest hint of a growl lurking there. He sounds like he's losing himself, and Liam's reminded again of exactly how dangerous Louis can be. He acts like a toddler most of the time, but there's power there. There's undeniable power there.
He asks, "What do you think's going to happen?"
Louis just curls up tighter into himself, his eyes betraying that he's far elsewhere. Liam doesn't get his answer, and sure enough, two days later, Harry shows up again with Niall, loudly complaining about the temperature and the ice frosting every surface in the house, which is so thrilled to have him back it practically crawls into his lap and asks for a belly rub. The whole house seems to swell with life, walls arching toward him when he walks by, the dead flowers blooming in his presence.
Harry's obviously delighted by it all, flopping full-bodied on top of Louis, who is feigning nonchalance. "You've certainly let things go while I've been gone," Harry says, reaching up to poke Louis in the ear with a spit-wet finger. "What've you even been doing, Louis?"
"Certainly not missing you," Louis returns. "I didn't even notice you were gone at all." He strokes a hand down the knobs of Harry's spine with a look of such reverence on his face that Liam feels as though he's intruding on something by seeing it.
Later, Liam goes to the market with Zayn in tow. It's more crowded than normal, the streets overrun by people with overstuffed baskets. He tries to keep the visit quick, marching through the crowds with single-minded determination and leaving Zayn to hurry along in his wake.
"It's not normally like this," Zayn exclaims in a shout when he finally manages to catch up, hooking a hand through the crook of Liam's elbow and forcing them into step with each other.
"I know," Liam says grimly, catching sight of a group of protesters off to the side of them, near the docks. They're handing out flyers with huge red Xs slashed across them and a man standing on top of a crate is shouting through a megaphone. It's clear they're against the inevitable, looming war, against the regime, against Harry's father himself, Harry, his whole family.
"Liam," Zayn says, sounding cautious. "Liam, look." He's come across one of the flyers and he's holding it loosely between two fingers, away from his body like it might bite if he lets it too close. It's supposed to look like a wanted poster, Harry's likeness staring out at them with an expression of menace that Liam can't even imagine on its real life counterpart. The slash of red across his face looks too much like blood, and Liam snatches it from Zayn and holds it with shaking hands, he's so angry.
"What should we do?" Zayn asks in a hushed tone, casting a hunted look around them, like someone will scent Harry on them and set the mob after them. "Liam."
"I'm thinking," Liam snaps, still staring down at the flyer in his hands. "We should show this to Louis. But we can't let Harry see it. Harry can't know."
"Do you really think he doesn't know already?" Zayn asks. "Surely his father knows."
"I'm sure his father knows. But Harry doesn't care about politics, you know that. He's not been paying attention. He wouldn't even know about the conflict if it weren't for us, probably. There's no reason for us to let him see this…this - " He can't even think of a word strong enough to describe how disgusting he finds this flyer, this monstrosity. Harry's a fucking kid. Liam wants to tear it into bitty pieces and cast it into the wind, but there are too many people around, too many people who might object to that, and plus he needs to show Louis, so he just painstakingly folds it and slips it into his trousers' pocket for safe-keeping.
They end up going home without the tomatoes that he went out for in the first place, and Liam doesn't even notice they didn't get anything until Niall accosts him as they come through the front door, asking, "Are we still having pizza? You don't have tomatoes."
He trails off, confused, and Liam says shortly, "They ran out."
Louis arches an eyebrow from where he's watching, fiddling with something in a pot by the fire. "Ran out of tomatoes?" he asks. "Is that even possible?"
"Obviously," Liam snaps, flinging the shopping basket at the table, "I've just said that they ran out, obviously it's possible." He pushes past Niall toward the stairs, taking them two at a time, as quickly as he can.
"So," he can hear Niall venture, slowly, as he rounds the corner into his room, "we're not having pizza?"
In a house with so many people running rampant all the time, almost nowhere is safe, bar Louis' study, which is so disgusting and filled with potential deathtraps that no one but Louis himself will go rooting around through it. Even Liam only gives it a very brisk surface clean, when he cleans it at all. It would be the safest place to keep something hidden, but he doesn't want to chance it.
The next best option is Liam's room. They've all seemed to have decided that he's pretty boring and excepting for occasionally when they'll burst in on him when they think he might be getting himself off, his room is more or less left alone. He paces for a moment, scanning every available nook. Not behind his books, that's where Zayn hides things, and every naughty magazine he's ever stowed away has been found and passed around for everyone to laugh at. Inside a shoe or a jacket pocket is out of the question as well, because Harry, who disregards all notion of ownership except his own, is constantly stealing clothes. He ends up shoving the folded up flyer into his wardrobe, tucked between the shelf and the drawer. Unless anyone has a hankering to completely pull out his underwear drawer, it should stay safe.
When Liam finally ambles back downstairs, Zayn's at the stove making grilled cheeses. "Hey," he says when he notices Liam, "I've saved you a sandwich. I know we were supposed to have the pizza, but that'll keep until tomorrow, won't it? Harry wanted grilled cheese." He slants a significant look at Liam that says Harry's going to get what he wants for a while at least.
"Pizza without tomato sauce is gross," Harry complains loudly through a mouthful of food, spraying crumbs all over the table and Niall, who's sitting across from him. "You're alright with grilled cheese, aren't you, Liam?" He blinks guilelessly up at him, practically purring when Liam runs an affectionate hand over his head, scratching near his ears.
"It's fine," Liam says. "I like grilled cheese." After a second, he bends down to press his mouth lightly at the crown of Harry's head, tugging him back into a hug with an arm around his chest, ignoring Harry's protests that he can't eat anymore, that his hair's getting messed up, that he doesn't want Liam's germs all over him. Liam's overcome with fondness. Looking at Harry, with his furrowed brow and crumbs all over his face, he can't understand why anyone could hate him, could want to kill him.
When he finally releases Harry with one last hair tousle, Louis' watching him from behind his fringe, thoughtful. Liam ignores him, sliding into his chair and accepting the plate that Zayn slides across the table. Niall puts his bare feet up on Liam's chair, pressing his toes into Liam's thighs and smiling when he gets a half-hearted scowl.
"So how was everyone's day?" Zayn asks, affecting his stupid high-pitched accent as he slides into his own chair. "Louis, that war meeting's tomorrow night. Do you plan on going?"
Louis finally looks away from Liam, blinking vacantly. "What war meeting?"
"That's boring!" Harry interrupts loudly, looking very much put upon. "Let's do something fun tomorrow!"
Just like that, Louis' attention is diverted again, giving Harry an irrepressibly fond look. "And what does our princess want to do?"
Harry glowers at the nickname. "I want to go swimming," he demands, and then amends it with a "please" directed at Liam.
"I'm not your mother. You can do what you want," Liam says, ignoring Zayn when he crows, "Daddy Liam!"
Harry looks satisfied. "Good. We'll go swimming then."
Liam's almost asleep when he hears something thud downstairs. He lies there for a moment, almost convinced it was just his imagination when he hears it again, the distinct sound of wood on wood. Zayn's bedroom door doesn't open and after a second, Liam gets up, padding downstairs in his pants and nothing else. He's not sure what he's expecting but it's surely not what he sees.
Louis' sitting in the settee with Harry straddling his lap, bracing himself with his hands on Louis' shoulders. From the stairs, Liam can see the look of reverence Louis has on his face, the hand he has cupping the back of Harry's head, fingers stroking gently through his curls, and the other hand braced on Harry's thigh. Harry's face is hidden from him, just a mass of dark curls and undulating body set against the dim lamp in the window behind them.
"Love you," Harry murmurs, kissing over Louis' hairline, his cheek, his jaw, his neck, down to his shoulder. Louis' eyes fall slowly shut, head tipping back as he groans out something incomprehensible to Liam, who feels frozen, foot still hovering over the next step. He feels like he should retreat but what if they notice him, notice that he's been watching them like some sort of freakish pervert? He can't go forward, clearly, but it becomes obvious that he has to do something, soon, when Harry moans, dirty, and rolls his hips hard down into Louis'.
"Love you, too," he thinks he hears, but he can't be sure, not with the way Louis and Harry are plastered together, exchanging wet, messy kisses like it's the last chance they'll get. "Want you," someone murmurs, "take off your shirt, there, good," and Harry's shirt's rucked up to his armpits until Louis impatiently tugs it off him, running a fond hand over his rumpled curls.
"Want you," Harry huffs again, reaching down between them, his hand disappearing into the darkness between their bodies. It's not like Liam doesn't know what he's doing, judging by the groan Louis lets loose.
"I want to break you apart," Louis confesses in a harsh whisper. His voice sounds wrecked, dangerous, and Liam wants nothing more than to slink back to his room but he's too scared to move now, too scared to be caught out. He's not sure what Louis would do. "I want to break you apart and I want to take all your pieces and remake you, I want to touch your soul, Harry," Louis continues.
"Anything," Harry promises, "anything, anything, please."
"Yeah, baby," Louis murmurs, "okay."
Liam stays there, hears them come in quick succession, and then when they're curled together, panting, he tiptoes back to his room as quietly as he possibly can, closing the door with a click that sounds like a gunshot in the silence. He lies awake for a long time after, long enough to hear Harry and Louis stumble upstairs to Louis' room, speaking in low tones. Louis closes his door a lot harder than Liam closed his.
The next morning, while Zayn and Niall make sandwiches for lunch at the beach with Harry looking on, Liam takes Louis upstairs to show him the flyer. "They were handing them out when Zayn and I went to the market yesterday," he says as he roots around for it. "I didn't want to say anything in front of Harry or Niall, for obvious reasons, but I thought you should know."
Louis unfolds it with a frown, the look on his face growing more and more apoplectic by the second. "There were flyers like this for the whole family?" he asks, and Liam nods. "We might have to go further than the local beach, then," he says. "Do you think they'll try something? At the palace, I mean."
Liam shrugs, helpless. "I've no idea. I don't know what they'll do. Should we tell Harry, do you think?" He doesn't want Harry to go unprepared into something he won't be able to handle.
But Louis just shakes his head, the flyer crumpling in his fist. "No, we're not going to tell Harry. I don't want him to be frightened."
"What if they try something, though? Shouldn't he be prepared?" Liam insists.
"No one will hurt Harry," Louis promises grimly. The room around them crackles with energy before Louis seems to shake himself, getting back under control before Liam can so much as start to panic. "I'll make sure of that." With that, he spins on his heel and stomps back downstairs, Liam trailing along behind. The flyer he folds and sticks back into his pocket, to throw in the bin later on.
"Bacon lettuce tomato," Harry's reciting, sitting on the kitchen table with his legs swinging back and forth. "And chicken salad. Not together. Separately. Two different kinds."
"Have you even had either of those before?" Niall asks. "I've never seen you eat any kind of sandwich." He's helping Zayn make the food, wrapping each sandwich in cellophane and lining them up in the wicker picnic basket.
"I've read about them," Harry insists. "I want to try, it sounds good. I like sandwiches."
"You've never had a sandwich!" Niall exclaims. "You can't like them yet!"
They trade glowers until Zayn gets annoyed and says, "Oi, Haz, either start helping out or you aren't getting a single sandwich today. You'll starve and I'll just laugh at you, I swear." Harry sighs heavily but hops off the table and ambles over, letting Zayn instruct him until he notices Louis and Liam, surging toward them.
"Look," he exclaims, "we're making sandwiches!" There's a half made chicken salad sandwich sitting on the counter, the chicken salad spread unevenly, thumb holes pressed in the bread. Louis examines it very closely and then gives an approving nod.
"You've surpassed my wildest dreams," he says, ghosting a kiss across Harry's lips. "I want to eat that sandwich. It's mine." Harry giggles, delighted.
"You can have it," Niall mutters, cautiously wrapping the sandwich with a look of abject disgust on his face and throwing it into the basket with the others.
"Can we go now?" Zayn asks, impatient. "By the time we get there, there'll be no good beach left."
Louis rolls his eyes, settling onto the hearth where his travel potion is waiting, readymade, pulling Harry comfortably into his lap. "You won't have to worry about that, where we're going." He just winks when Zayn demands to know where. "It's a surprise, you'll see when we get there."
The surprise is that they end up on some sort of tropical island. The beach is deserted whichever way Liam turns, the sand white and glittering under the sun, the ocean a clear, effervescent blue. Harry's off like a rocket, tackling Niall into the surf with a warrior cry. When they surface again, Harry's hair is plastered to his face in long, dark ringlets, curling all down his shoulders.
"Looks like a girl," Zayn notes, loudly enough for Harry to overhear.
"Christ, I hope not," Louis mutters, making a face. He's distracted, fiddling with his fringe, like he's not about to get it wet and ruin it anyway. Liam sits shoulder to shoulder with him in the sand, burying his toes until they're a dusty pale. They sit there and they don't speak, just watching Niall and Harry frolic in the surf like children, squealing as they dunk each other in turn. Zayn wades into the water until it's up to his waist and then he stands there, skin bronzing in the heat even as they watch.
"Come here!" Harry demands, surging up the beach until he's standing over Liam and Louis. "Come on, come into the water."
Louis arches one eyebrow and says, "No."
Harry blinks at him once, twice. Their only warning for what comes next is the twitch in the corner of his mouth, and then he's leaning over and shaking his head like a wet dog, flinging beads of water in an assault neither of them were ready for. Liam recoils and Louis jumps up, grabbing a squealing Harry around the waist and picking him up. He's shorter than Harry but more solid, bulges of muscle contrasting the wiry, sinewy litheness of Harry's body. He can carry Harry with ease, slung over his shoulder while Harry screams, hands fisting in the back of Louis' t-shirt. They crash into the waves, Harry's last cry cut short as he disappears into the water with a flail of limbs, tangled up in Louis like they're part of the same body, like they're the same thing.
"Liam!" Niall yells, standing in the ocean with his hands on his hips. "Come the fuck on already!"
So Liam does, rolling into the waves with Niall attaching himself to his back and Harry at his legs, Louis standing over him looking satisfied and Zayn behind him hollering with laughter.
The good times can't last and with a potion to erase the new freckles from his nose and the flush on his shoulders, Harry disappears again into the night with Niall in tow. Louis stands in the back garden and watches the darkness for a long time, long after they're gone.
For three days, everything's fine.
Louis' quieter than usual, more withdrawn, but he goes about his day just the same, Liam and Zayn cleaning up in his wake.
On day four, everything changes. Seemingly overnight, Louis gives up on everything, staying in his bed with the covers pulled all the way up to his chin, making him look more like a child than Liam had ever seen before. In contrast, when he moves around, it's like he's eighty years old, hunched over and creaking and stiff.
"Louis," Liam tentatively tries one night, armed with a bowl of lukewarm fish chowder, "Louis, what are you so scared of?"
Louis says, his voice older than Liam's ever heard, "What I am, it attracts enemies. I've a lot of enemies, Liam, people that want to hurt me just because they can or because they think I deserve it. If anyone knows my weakness, if anyone knows about Harry - they'll hurt him. To hurt me. And I - " his voice breaks and Liam's shocked to find him crying.
"Louis," he breathes.
"I don't know what I'd do, if they hurt him. If he's hurt, Liam…I don't know what I'll do."
Every time he says it, it sounds more and more like a threat.
A week passes.
Harry's still gone and Liam and Zayn have retreated, sleeping in the backyard in a tiny, threadbare tent they found in the attic because it's too miserable inside the house to bear.
Louis' mood is like a disease, covering every surface with a darkness that's almost tangible. The food's all turned to dust, the drink dried up into nothing, the air sucked out of everything until it's like climbing a mountain just going up the stairs.
"Do you think Harry's alright?" Zayn asks him when they're alone, surrounded by mismatched quilts and lumpy pillows like a bird's nest. It's something neither of them have allowed themselves to mention so far, and even as Zayn says it, Liam feels something like dread crawl up his spine.
"He has to be," he says. He doesn't want to think of the alternative. He doesn't think of rebels storming the castle, slaughtering the entire royal family while they sleep; he doesn't think of those enemies Louis dreams of, pulling Harry from his bed and whisking him off to new horrors, horrors Liam can't even imagine; he doesn't think of anything at all, except for that he wants Harry and Niall to come back.
When Harry shows up again, it's in a whirlwind of tears. He's been missing for a week and a half, and the house is a deathtrap. Zayn stopped going inside after his foot went through a floorboard in the downstairs bathroom. He still has the scratches on his calf and ankle, and neither of them are willing to go upstairs to check on Louis anymore.
Zayn and Niall wait outside while Liam takes Harry in the house to get Louis. Harry's face is still streaky and he keeps sniffling as he picks his way around the rotting wood. Even broken to shit, sapped of almost all its magic, the house still seems to recognize Harry, still tries to care for him the best that it can. Liam tiptoes softly in his footsteps.
"Is he okay?" Harry asks in a tremulous voice.
"I don't know," Liam says.
Louis' bedroom is nearly barricaded closed, but between the two of them, they manage to shoulder it open enough to slip inside. The bedroom is dark, smells like dust and sadness and death. "Louis?" Harry ventures. His eyes are moony and as Liam watches, he starts crying again. "Louis?"
The lump in Louis' bed twitches and a tousled head appears, peeking out from under the covers like a scared child. Louis is almost unrecognizable with gaunt, sallow cheeks and gnarled hair, the bags under his eyes glowing stark and purple even in the blackness.
"Harry?" he whispers.
That's all it takes for Harry to fall on him, sobbing in earnest. Liam retreats into the hallway, carefully sliding down the wall until he can pull his knees into his chest.
Harry's father wants him to get married. "There's a girl," Harry tells them in a thick voice, "some girl from a nearby kingdom. He wants to ally with them so he's marrying me off like cattle. I don't want to marry a girl!" he announces in a wail, practically face planting into Louis' shoulder. Louis' still small, still tired and little and weak, but he pulls Harry in, arms tight and trembling around his waist.
Niall says, "We've run away." He looks vaguely ill. "I'm going to get fucking executed for this, they'll say I've kidnapped him, fucking Christ."
They have bags with them, full of Harry's clothes and Harry's childhood treasures and Harry's father's money. "I'm not going back," Harry promises, his voice muffled in Louis' shirt. "You can't make me, I'm not going."
Louis' grip is so tight his knuckles are white. "No one's making you go anywhere."
"I don't really think the house can be saved at this point," Zayn remarks. "We should just…start over again. Somewhere new."
So they do. They pack up all of their clothes and Louis' potions and Zayn's hair products and Liam's turtles. The dilapidated furniture is left behind, the food stays to rot. Louis whisks them all off, cupping a proprietary hand at the back of Harry's head, fingers entangled in his curls.
They settle into their new life.
Louis won't really tell any of them where they are, just that they're safe, and it's enough for Harry, which means it's enough for Niall. Liam's the only one who really cares, and when he finally gets around to finding out, he doesn't recognize the town's name.
"Does it matter?" Zayn asks.
Liam lets it go. The new house is bigger with a room for all of them, even though Harry sleeps in Louis' bed every single night, both of them brimming with newfound domesticity; there's no more sneaking around, no more slipping out in the early morning, no more pouting for days. Louis and Harry float around like newlyweds, swept up in each other and the freedom.
It's warmer, here, and Zayn feels at home instantly, sprawling about in the sun like a particularly lazy cat, with Liam on his knees in the garden, getting dirt caked under his fingernails as he plants all the flowers they used to have in their old garden. Niall sits cross-legged next to him, hands him tools when he asks for them. He doesn't seem to know what to do with himself anymore, now that he's not at the palace, not working. He trails Liam, constantly asking if he can help.
"God, Niall," Harry says, stretched all out over the sofa, taking up more room than he needs, "just relax. This isn't like my - the castle. You can do what you want."
"I want to help," Niall says obstinately.
Harry rolls his eyes and Louis leans over to whisper something in his ear. It's dirty, no doubt, because Harry's attention is diverted instantly, craning his head back to leer at Louis.
As if by agreement, none of them mention the war. They don't mention how there's no newspaper delivery, how they rarely see anyone outside themselves. Louis' kept them deliberately secluded and they don't question it.
Liam can't help but to be curious, though.
The next time he goes to town, he goes alone, waving off Niall's repeated offers of help, and he buys the next paper he sees. He sits on a bench in a park and skims it. There's no mention of the war, nothing about Harry's dad or Harry's dad's country, nothing but economics reports and advertisements for women's clothing. It's as if their entire past's been erased completely, like they came here and were born anew.
The knot of worry in his stomach grows bigger by the second. He can't help but sense danger, and it's heading straight toward them.
In a sudden fit of responsibility, Harry offers to help Liam with the laundry. Liam's sorting piles when Harry says, his voice strange and far away, "What's this?"
Liam glances up and freezes. Standing there, in his shaking hand, Harry has the flyer, staring down at the cruel rendition of his own face like he doesn't recognize himself in it. "What is this," he says again, flat, like it's not a question at all.
The rage he flies into is like nothing Liam's ever seen before, and he's been living with Louis for five years. He's known Harry for almost four. He's seen some powerful strops.
Louis stands in the living room, standing with his feet set apart, his hands braced on the back of the couch like he's steadying himself for what's coming. Harry charges around the house, grabbing at anything, everything, launching handfuls of seashells, books, cushions, plates - everything. Everything he touches goes flying straight for Louis' head. It's all useless, of course, because even when his aim's perfect, it just glances right off Louis like it never touched him at all, crashing to the floor around him until he's surrounded by a ring of the shards and bits and pieces of their lives.
This is the same fight as always, but Harry's fury has never been so mottled and so well deserved. His moral high ground gives him strength he's never had before.
"I swear to fucking God, Harry - " Louis finally says, after hours, his patience worn tissue paper thin. "I swear to fuck, if you don't shut the fuck up and sit down and let me talk, I will - " and he raises his hand.
Harry doesn't so much as flinch. "Do what?" he shouts. "Lie to me, again? How long have you been hiding this? I'm not some scared little princess, Louis, I'm not pathetic, I'm not weak. I don't need you to protect me, I don't - "
Louis' on him then, shoving him up against the wall and holding him there with his fists clutching at Harry's thin, white t-shirt. "You're so fucking stupid, Harry," Louis tells him in a low, dangerous voice. "Do you even know what that flyer means? Do you know what they would've done to you, if they got the chance? Do you know what could've happen to you, what could still happen to you?"
Harry's trembling, holding onto Louis' forearms with strong fingers, his grasp so tight he must be leaving bruises. "And you thought letting me go on oblivious was the way to help me, yeah? You thought letting me, what, Louis, run away was going to solve anything? What about - " and he cuts himself off, the color draining from his face so suddenly that Louis steps back, lets him go.
"Harry?" Liam starts, because he doesn't look good. He looks like he might faint.
"Were these for my whole family?" Harry asks in a thin voice. "Is my family - are they okay, Louis, fuck. What've they done to my family!"
"I think he might pass out," Zayn says, half-hidden in the doorway of the kitchen.
Niall peers out from his own hiding place, tucked near the potted plants in the front window with dried leaves dropping into his hair. "Harry?" he calls in a cautious tone. "Y'okay, mate?"
"Harry, your family's fine, nothing's happened to them," Louis says, rubbing his hands swiftly up and down the goosebumps on Harry's arms.
"I have to go back," Harry says, almost to himself. "I have to go back, I need to, fuck, I need to help them, I'm a prince, what have I done?" He collapses down the wall, falling into a graceless, boneless pile at Louis' feet, Louis's hands dropping to cup at his head, stroke gently, helplessly at his hair.
"You're okay," Louis promises him in a low voice. "It's okay, Harry, breathe, it's okay. You're alright."
"My family!" Harry wails.
"They're okay, too, sweetheart, calm down, hush, Harry," Louis murmurs to him, over and over, until his breathing slows and he leans forward, just minutely, until he can press his forehead into Louis' leg, closing his eyes. He looks asleep.
Louis turns his head to meet Liam's eyes, looking dark and helpless and so lost that Liam pipes up, "We'll go back, Harry, it's okay."
"They won't want me," Harry says plaintively. "I'm selfish and bad, they won't want me. I ran away."
"They want you," Zayn assures him, creeping closer until he can reach out and take Harry's hand, stroking his thumb over his wrist gently.
"Everyone wants you," Louis agrees with a tiny, wry smile, sinking down until he's face to face with Harry. "Everybody, even me, cold, heartless bastard that I am. If you want to go back, I'll take you back, and if you want me to fight this war, I will. I'll take you anywhere, Harry, you know that. You just have to ask."
Harry reaches out his free hand to brush shaking fingers over Louis' brow, his cheekbones, the line of his jaw, his lips, and Louis stays still and lets him, soft and watching Harry like he's the only thing he's ever seen.
"And you'll come?" Harry asks in a muzzy voice, eyes round and terrified. He looks in that moment like the child he was when Liam first met him, fifteen with a mop of ridiculous hair and dimples like craters, cocky and self-assured in the way only a lifetime of privilege can teach.
Liam didn't like him, is the thing. Liam thought he was petty and selfish and cruel for stringing Louis along, couldn't believe that the little prince could really feel for Louis the way that Louis so obviously felt for him. He held onto that for weeks, long after Zayn had warmed up to Harry, letting him sit too close when he played the piano, giving him the spoon to lick when he was baking. It wasn't until he'd seen Harry cry because of Louis for the first time that Liam thought, okay.
It's that Harry, wet-eyed Harry, trembly-lipped Harry, thin and soft and tiny Harry that Liam is reminded of now, watching Harry watch Louis with a world of trepidation on his face, like he's expecting Louis to refuse, to tell him, finally, that a weak little prince isn't what he wants after all.
Louis gives him a tiny, weary smile, the lines around his mouth that suggest eons of knowledge, and says, "Anywhere." Harry finally sags bonelessly forward, into Louis arms, burying his crumpling face into Louis' neck, and starts to cry out of sheer relief. Liam's the only one watching Louis' face, and he's the only one that sees the look that crosses his face, quick like blinking.
It's terror, Liam thinks. Louis' terrified.
They take an airship back, Louis insisting that he's too exhausted for their normal mode of travel. Privately, Liam thinks that Louis just wants to extend this trip as long as he can, wants to spend as much time with Harry as he can before the real world surges back to get in their way all over again.
"It was nice while it lasted," Zayn says wistfully. "Whole week and a half we spent there."
Niall nods, pillowing his head in his arms, crossed over the table. "Yeah. Like a little vacation. I liked that place, where was that? We should go back one day. To visit again."
"We'll be back to stay when we go back," Louis interrupts. He's standing in the front window, overlooking where they're going, the steering wheel gently turning itself under his watch. "All five of us, together."
"One day," Niall echoes, looking thoughtful and a little happy, in spite of everything.
Harry's off by the old radio, fiddling around with it, grousing loudly about bad music. "Oh Christ, this is the worst," he moans finally, settling on some beachy anthem, some high-pitched boys wailing about surfing and the sun. He sulks over to throw himself down next to Niall. "This is the worst traveling music, I feel like we need something inspiring! A song to go to war to. This isn't it."
Liam leaves them to their debate about music to go up and stand by Louis, who is staring out the window at Harry's father's kingdom looming mightily in the distance and only crawling closer. "Are you sure about this?" he asks him, watching the way Louis' face is tight and dark and more serious than he's ever really seen it.
"About what?" Louis asks after a moment. He still sounds like himself. The darkness lurking inside of him still hasn't surfaced. Liam's relieved.
"Going back," Liam says.
"No," Louis confesses, honest. "But we'll get through it."