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Louis is laughing when he walks into the flat, can feel his eyes crinkled up with the force of it. “I’m home, mum,” he says into the phone, swinging the door shut behind him and shucking off his coat. He drops the mail on the table, figures he’ll look at it after dinner. “I’ll talk to you later, okay? Send the girls my love.”

“Bye, darling,” she responds, and it sounds like she’s smiling, too. “Say hi to Harry for me.”

They ring off soon after with promises to talk tomorrow, and Louis feels light.

The sun is setting, and the shadows it trails through the rooms are long and winding and prettier than they ought to be. “Harry?” calls Louis, peeking his head around the corner. The only sound in the entire flat is the hum of the radiator, low beneath everything. “Harry, I’m home.” He wanders around the flat, but the only traces of Harry are his things, scattered everywhere the way they always are.

Of course it turns out that Harry is in the last place Louis checks, passed out on the bed and snoring lightly. His eyelashes fan out across his cheekbones, and the bags under his eyes are puffy - it’s been a long week for the both of them, work getting hectic and wedding plans finally starting to take shape, and Harry isn’t the only one who’s exhausted.

Louis looks at him and feels fond down to his bone marrow.

“Babe,” he whispers, sitting on the bed next to Harry and curling a hand gently through his hair. “Hey, love.”

Harry’s face crumples a bit in confusion before he blinks awake. “Oh,” he says, voice sleep-raspy and eyes very, very green. “Hi.”

Louis smiles, knows he must look stupid with love for this boy. “Did you sleep okay?”

“Yeah,” answers Harry, stretching his arms up luxuriously and tilting his head a bit into Louis’ hand, sleepy eyes fluttering. “M’tired.” His words come out mumbly, but Louis has plenty of experience parsing them out. He’s fluent in Harry. He may or may not be very, very smug about that fact.

“Let’s eat dinner, yeah? And then we can both get to sleep. I picked up a takeaway, figured we didn’t want to cook.”

Harry literally moans at that, tipping his head back. It’s silly, and has no right to look as obscene as it does. “You’re amazing, I love you, thank you,” he says, and Louis laughs, kisses his cheek.

“Up you get,” he answers, bouncing off of the bed, and Harry follows more sedately. That’s generally a pattern in their lives, though that’s not to say that Harry can’t match Louis’ energy, or that he hasn’t done so easily in the past. It’s always a riot when the two of them are feeding off of each other, lightning quick banter and spontaneous adventuring, but Louis loves this, too. The quiet moments, the in betweens. Harry pliant with sleep and smiling lazily, and Louis indulging him always.

Dinner is a sweet affair, calm and hushed, and Louis knocks his socked foot against Harry’s under the table every so often and receives a tiny smile for it every time, like Harry can’t help himself.

It’s going to be the two of them forever. Louis forgets, sometimes, that he gets to keep this boy. That he’s going to keep him forever.

Louis makes some offhand comment and Harry smiles so big his dimples pop in his cheeks, eyes sparkling like the picture of joy, and he’s the most beautiful thing in the world.

Christ, Louis is going to marry the fuck out of him.

By the end of the meal Harry’s eyes are drooping again, and Louis laughs. “Love you,” he says, standing up and starting to gather the plates. “Go get some sleep, I’ll be in in a bit.”

“Sure you don't need help?” asks Harry, yawning widely. “I can- I can help.”

Louis messes with his hair, giggling when Harry grumbles incoherently. “I’ve got it,” he insists, “go.” Harry nods, sated and already halfway back to sleep, and he mumbles a thank you as he goes.

Louis’ idea of cleaning up is more collecting the plates and dropping them in the sink, but he’s tired, too, and it’s nice to do something methodical and quick, like a little mental check-out. He’ll have a lie-in tomorrow, he decides, he and Harry curled up in the bed, warm as the autumn chill starts to set in, and the entire weekend will be devoted to rest.

He’s smiling a little, daydreaming as he finishes the cleaning, when he spots an unopened letter from the mail pile with an unmarked envelope. Weird, he thinks, picking it up.

It takes a minute, after he opens it, for his breath to catch, but it happens.

“What,” he whispers to himself, not even a question, and then he reads it again.

Louis:

In the past year, your powers have grown significantly stronger, and you have shown impressive potential. We at YNM have found you to be an excellent candidate for our training program. The program is highly selective, and, as such, should take priority over your day to day activities.

You have a promising future ahead of you, and we intend to sharpen your potential in the weeks to come. Your compliance is anticipated.

We will follow up with more information promptly.

He flips the letter over, then grabs the envelope and examines it, but there are no identifying marks on them. No return address, no symbol or logo, and no names aside from the one, mysterious YNM. Louis wracks his brain, but he can’t think of what it could possibly stand for, or what they could want from him. Powers, he thinks, his blood starting to freeze in his veins. No one was supposed to know about that. He isn’t- he hasn’t- he doesn’t flaunt it, doesn’t try to be anything more than he is, but apparently that wasn’t enough. It’s not that he wants to be normal, but for such a cordial letter he’s more scared than he’s been in a long time.

Comply, it says. He’s supposed to comply.

It doesn’t sound like a choice.

Louis takes a deep breath in, and one out, tries to ignore the sound of rain pattering on the roof. He’ll just… ignore it, for now. It’s not like he can do anything, anyway, and getting some training doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world. No one was supposed to know, but maybe it’ll be okay that someone does. Maybe they could help.

He goes through the rest of his nighttime routine distractedly, brushing his teeth and trying not to think too much. When he gets into bed, Harry nuzzles closer sleepily and throws an arm over him. It’s warm, and comfortable, and sweet.

Even so, it takes ages for Louis to fall asleep, and when he wakes up he doesn’t feel rested at all.

*

There’s another letter in the post a week later.

It’s the same as the last one on the outside, no return address, no stamp. Must have been slipped into the box overnight. He doesn’t shiver thinking about that, doesn’t wonder why it had to be him.

He’s flipping it over in his hands when Harry comes down the stairs, tying his scarf loosely around his neck. He’s looking down, eyelashes long, face pale and cheeks ruddy with cold. Winter’s coming early this year, Louis thinks. Isn’t sure if it’s his fault this time. “Louis? Hey, I’m stopping by the shop, do you need anything?”

“What?” says Louis, on instinct, then shakes his head, looks up. “Oh, sorry, no. Don’t need anything.”

Harry tilts his head, looks at Louis with a tiny, quirked smile. “Okay,” he says.

“Are you going now?”

“Yeah, need to pick up some things for dinner tomorrow.”

Louis smiles back. “Okay. See you in a bit, then.”

“See you,” says Harry, darting over to kiss Louis’ cheek before bustling out the door. The wind is frigid where it seeps into the house, just from that little opening, and Louis peeks out the window, sees Harry’s shoulders braced hard against the cold. He’d warm it up but he’s never done it consciously before, never on purpose.

Louis goes to the kitchen, starts the kettle. He keeps sneaking glances at the envelope on the table, both impatient and nervous to find out what it says. Maybe it’ll be more information, or a number he can call to find out what exactly these people want, and why they chose him. Maybe it’s a support group. Maybe he’s not the only one.

He can only stall so long, though, and ten minutes later he’s sitting at the table sipping his tea and the only thing left to do, really, is slip out the letter and find out what it says.

Louis:

This is a reminder that we do expect that you attend our training program. It is highly exclusive, and you are lucky to have been considered. Your training will begin exactly two weeks from today, and you will bring only the barest of necessities, including identification papers. You will leave any means of communication at home. We have clothes, communications devices, and training materials for you here at the base.

You will meet with a supervisor at 6am on the corner of 3rd and 12th streets; a car will be waiting for you and will take you to the base from there. It will be a black town car, and you will enter and say the word “wintergreen” to grant you access and confirm your identity.

This opportunity will be as vital to you as it will be to us as an organization.

We expect that you be on time and bring only the appropriate materials. We look forward to working with you.

Louis blinks at it, blinks again. He reads it over but the words are still...confusing. He still has no idea what’s going on, except this time it comes with obligations. He doesn’t even have a means of contacting whatever “organization” wants him, because the envelope is blank, and the paper has no identifying marks. YNM, the acronym from the first letter, turned up zero relevant search results on Google, so he’s just as stumped as he started. This letter is typed, too, there’s no signature, and Louis feels the crawling sensation that someone is watching him.

He looks out the window, but there’s nothing there.

He locks the doors anyway, turns the deadbolt just in case.

He reads the letter twice more in the time it takes Harry to get home, feeling more and more perplexed each time. There’s an uneasy curl in his stomach, and he focuses on tamping it down. It’s fine, he thinks. It’s nothing.

It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s-

“Bloody freezing out there,” says Harry as he bursts through the door, shaking the snow out of his hair and tugging off his gloves and scarf. He puts the grocery bags on the counter and peels off his coat, too, shudders at the temperature change. He chats as he bustles around, putting things away and opening and closing drawers. “Hey, I saw May from across the way at the shop. She told me to tell you hi. And I couldn’t find that chicken we liked but I think I can still make tacos with just the plain ones I got, and I’ll season it myself. Shouldn’t be hard, at least. Anyway, we have that housewarming party tomorrow night, so I got a bottle of wine to bring. We’re still going to that, right?”

Louis blinks, looks up. His mind is still stuck on the letter, and what it means. He tries to rewind back through what Harry said.

Right. The party. “Um, yeah. Yes. We are.”

Harry’s expression melts into worry. “Hey, are you okay? You look… what’s wrong?”

Very surreptitiously, Louis tucks the letter back into the envelope. “Nothing’s wrong.” Harry doesn’t look impressed with that explanation, so Louis sighs and tries again. “I promise,” he forces himself to say. “Just, like, work stress. You know.”

Harry’s eyes are concerned and ridiculously green. “Well,” he says, finally, “you’re done with work for today. Should we just pop in a film, have a cuddle on the couch?”

That… sounds perfect, actually. There’s nothing Louis can do right now about the letter except wait for more news - and, hopefully, a return address - so the best thing to do is just to distract himself. Harry, who is an excellent cuddler and doubles as a human space heater, has proven himself to be a fantastic distraction many a time.

“Okay,” he says, “yeah,” feels the tension already starting to drain from his shoulders. Just one night not thinking about it can’t hurt anyone.

Harry beams, and the force of it is disconcerting. I love you, thinks Louis, and then he thinks it again. He loves Harry. He really, really does.

“C’mon, then, up with you.”

Louis lets Harry haul him up, and two minutes later they’re a pile of limbs on the couch, curled close under the blanket Harry’s mum gave them as a housewarming gift. It’s been ages since they moved in together, but they still use it almost every day, especially when it’s cold like this.

Louis is tucked under Harry’s arm, half on top of him, and he relaxes into it. “Better?” murmurs Harry, running gently fingers through Louis’ hair.

Louis’ head lolls back. “Mmmmm,” he agrees. Harry laughs quietly, and Louis doesn’t have it in him to snipe back. He’s too content where he is. He isn’t even sure what film is playing, but it doesn’t matter--it’s not like Harry is paying attention, either.

“Thank you,” he says, later, very, very quietly.

He feels Harry rub a tiny semicircle in the warm skin just above his ear, and nearly purrs with how good it feels. “Of course,” Harry says, like it’s obvious, and maybe it is.

“Right,” mumbles Louis, more breath than voice, and he falls asleep right there, warm and relaxed and loved.

*

He wakes up with a crick in his neck and a post-it stuck to his forehead.

“Why,” he groans, more about being awake than the post-it, though that’s confusing as well.

Got called in early, it reads, have a good day! Love you! -H

Louis snorts, feels the corners of his mouth tug up. Only Harry would sign a note when they’re the only two people that live in this house. Though, with the way things have been going, he might not be the only one Louis is receiving notes from….

That’s not important, though, resolves Louis.

He goes through the day as normal, scheduling vacation time for work on his computer and tossing his dirty socks into the hamper when he notices them. He microwaves a meal, FaceTimes his mum, and makes plans with Lottie to go see a football game together when Donny stops losing every game. Overall, a typical day, but Louis also checks the locks three times, keeps the blinds of the windows drawn, starts a fire in the fireplace and then gets nervous about the smoke giving him away.

He wishes he didn’t feel the need to be acting this paranoid, but it’s clawing at him, keeps his feet tapping and his hands moving and his heartbeat from settling.

They have a party to attend tonight. Louis can’t show up looking like a nervous wreck, especially since he had a day off today.

Ten minutes before Harry gets home, he goes into the bathroom and splashes cool water on his face, tempering the flush. His hands are trembling but that might just be because they’re numb. Because he’s so cold. Because the bitter of impending winter is nipping at the corners of this house. He’d been meaning to call someone about the windows but it doesn’t seem like there’s a point when there are so many places for the cold to creep inside.

A shiver runs down his spine, mostly from the cold. Even so, a small fraction of it is caused by the feeling someone’s watching him. He hates that it seems like progress that he’s managed to start focusing on something else for a change. The other option is more of the same stifling paranoia, and he can’t afford that.

There’s a sound from the front, and Louis dries his face, walks out. “Harry?” he asks absently, heading toward the front door. The sound repeats, like someone is trying the knob. “Did you forget your keys again?” A thread of ice runs down his spine, but he dismisses it.

The doorknob rattles again, and Louis ducks around to the window next to the door, tugging at the curtain and peeking through the gap.

He only catches a glimpse of a retreating back, hood up, shoulders tight, but it’s enough for him to know that it was definitely, definitely not Harry at the door. “Okay,” he whispers to himself, trying to calm down. “It’s nothing. Maybe it was the postman, or it could’ve been a neighbor, or maybe someone got the wrong address.” He keeps running through scenarios in his head, alternatives to the crushing worry that the same people who keep sending him notes are now trying to get into his house. By the time Harry gets back, ten minutes later than expected, Louis has worked himself into a half-frenzy where he’s sitting on the loveseat, chest tight and breathing too quick. His eyes feel wet, and his cheeks must be flushed.

The door clicks open, and he only has the time to think oh, god before Harry is rushing over, face dark with worry.

“Hey,” he says, “hey, hey, what’s wrong? What’s going on?”

Louis shakes his head, trying to calm down. “Nothing,” he says, “nothing, sorry. I’m freaking out over nothing.” God, but he’s a mess.

Harry is kneeling in front of him on the ottoman, hands hovering like he doesn’t know where to touch. “Doesn’t look like nothing.” He says it so kindly that Louis has to look away and take a deep, shuddering breath, trying to collect himself. He takes another, and then another.

“I’m fine,” he insists, but Harry isn’t budging, watching him with that awful beautiful stubborn set to his jaw.

It’s how he looked that first day. Louis can’t stop the remembering, and it hits him hard. Harry with his wide eyes and his pouty lips saying, “c’mon, why not?”

Louis answering, “I’m leaving, babe. I’m graduating,” and trying to be strong for the both of them, trying to say I don’t know if I can stop with just one date with you, and it’s going to get us both hurt.

And then Harry, determined, stomping all over that plan. “Just the summer,” he’d said. “Let’s just try. I really like you.” The way the light had hit his mouth, like he was just begging to be kissed. Like he needed any help at all to bring Louis to his knees.

The summer turned into the rest of the year, turned into Louis getting a job nearby, turned into visits on the weekend and then Harry graduating, too. Turned into moving in together.

Turned into Louis down on one knee, saying, “I want to share the rest of my summers with you. Every last one,” and Harry nodding with tears in his eyes and the stupid, stupid joy in Louis’ heart.

And they’re here and Harry is as stubborn as ever and Louis trusts him with his whole heart but he can’t trust him with this. Or he shouldn’t, at least. He thinks to his mother’s reaction when faced with the idea that he could- that he might- that he isn’t just human. That he could be more than. That there’s something else there. No, Harry doesn’t need to know. It’s not important enough to risk everything for.

“I’m fine,” he repeats, tilting his chin up. He can be just as stubborn as Harry, when he needs to be. “Don’t know what came over me, but I’m fine. We can… we should get going, right? To that party?”

Harry fixes him with a final look and Louis tries not to squirm under the gaze. “Yeah,” he says, finally. “Just, you’d tell me, right? If it was something?”

Louis’ heart beats thickly in his chest. “I’d tell you,” he agrees, meeting Harry’s eyes head on, and it feels like the final nail in the coffin.

Whatever this is, he’ll deal with it alone.

*

Harry keeps shooting Louis glances from the corner of his eye. He probably thinks he’s being subtle, and Louis would call him out on it if he had the energy to spare; as it is, he shifts restlessly in the passenger seat and wrings his hands around the neck of the wine bottle. “How did we get invited to this, again?” he asks, mostly for something to say.

“Do you remember Willie? I worked with him right out of uni. Anyway, this is his cousin’s house, said we were both more than welcome. Asked me to bring a guest specifically, even. Really sweet.” They pull up right as he finishes, and Louis very intentionally does not check the mirror or the window before jumping out of the car. He’s not paranoid, or crazy. And maybe it’s stupid, but he feels safer with Harry here, and with the two of them out of the house. It’s easier to shut out the worry when he’s not by himself.

As they walk to the door, Harry links their gloved hands. The contact helps to ground Louis.

“Okay?” he murmurs.

Louis nods, musters up a smile and finds it isn’t as hard as he’d been expecting. Harry’s answering grin is breathtaking, and Louis’ heart stutters over it.

“Hi!” says a bright voice, and Louis looks up and is met with a shock of blond hair and a wide open door. “Welcome, you must be…” he pauses, squints at them, tilts his head, “...Willie’s friends?”

“Yeah, cheers,” answers Harry. They introduce themselves briefly, and Louis decides he likes Niall, likes the pep he seems to have.

Inside, the house is even bigger than it’d seemed. It’s enormous, and every inch of it seems to be renovated, neat hardwood floors - that, if Louis isn’t mistaken about the warmth coming through his socks, are heated - and stainless steel light fixtures in unobtrusive spots. The fireplace in the living area takes up the entire wall. “Bloody hell,” mutters Louis.

“I know,” answers Harry, and he’s still holding Louis’ hand, and it still makes Louis feel protected despite how ridiculous he knows that is. “Willie said it was nice, but this is, like, a mansion. Genuinely posh.”

Louis snickers a little. “Like you can say anything about posh, country boy.”

“Hey,” protests Harry, but there’s no heat in it. He tugs at their joined hands, and Louis tumbles into his side gracelessly, peering up at Harry mutinously but refusing to move because Harry is warm and solid and it’s nice to lean his weight against him.

“Willie said you two were engaged,” cuts in Niall, and Louis realizes that he and Harry had just been grinning at each other like idiots. “Didn’t tell me you were this gross, though.” He sounds delighted by their grossness. Another point to Niall, then.

Harry shrugs, looks up. “Yeah,” he says, and his tone is apologetic, but he doesn’t say sorry.

Louis nudges his hip like he’s saying cheeky. Harry raises an eyebrow in return like I know.

“So,” says Louis, finally letting go of Harry’s hand, “what do you do, then, to have such a sick place? You’re by yourself here, right?”

Next to him, Harry looks vaguely horrified by Louis’ rudeness, but too curious to stop him asking.

Niall just laughs, good natured. “Bit of this and that. Government stuff, wouldn’t want to bore you with it.”

“If you told us,” answers Harry, slow grin building the way it always does when he tells a joke he thinks is particularly funny, “then you’d have to kill us?”

“That’s it exactly,” agrees Niall, patting him on the shoulder. “I’d better go greet people,” he says, glancing over his shoulder where more guests are pouring in, “but shout if you need anything! I’ll catch up with you two later, for sure. Great to meet ya!”

“Yeah, of course, thanks, mate,” says Louis, and then Niall is off in a blur, and Louis is still clutching the bottle of wine.

It’s only a handful of seconds before Willie arrives and calls Harry over jovially. Louis gets sick of standing at his side and not understanding any of the stories they’re talking about, so he pats Harry’s hip gently a minute or so in and walks off to find somewhere to sit, figures he can answer an email or two before anyone needs him. He tucks the bottle next to him and tugs out his phone, starts tapping at it.

Answering emails turns into playing Candy Crush, but he’s at a party, so he can give himself a pass for being unproductive just this once, he thinks. Two minutes later he’s already cursing at the bastard game, entirely enthralled and trying not to attract too much undue attention by the other guests.

He doesn’t notice anything amiss until he realizes how quiet the room has gotten.

It’s mostly emptied out, either because there’s something more interesting somewhere else or because Louis and Harry have overstayed their welcome. He can’t quite tell upon first glance.

Across the room, he sees Niall whisper something into Harry’s ear. Harry isn’t smiling, face tight and drawn. “What?” Louis sees him ask, reading the confusion right off of his lips.

“Go,” says Niall, loudly enough that Louis can hear the urgency in his tone.

Louis stands up, not really sure of what to do. He has his phone in one hand and the still unopened bottle of wine in the other, and he dithers a bit by the couch.

Harry nods in response to Niall, still looking helplessly confused, and he makes a beeline for Louis, pacing purposefully toward him with long strides.

Just as Louis is about to ask what the hell is going on, someone outside screams an awful, blood-curling scream.

The wine slips out of Louis’ hands, which had gone lax with shock, and the glass bottle shatters across the floor. “Sorry,” he says, feels numb with how frantic he’s gone all of a sudden. All he can hear is the rush of his own blood. “Oh, god, I’m so sorry. I’ll pay to have the rug cleaned, I’ll- do you have a broom, I can- ?” He’s dazed with shock. His socks are wet with the wine, shoes still placed side by side near the front door from when he’d come in.

“For god’s sake,” interrupts Niall, and Louis doesn’t remember him having walked over, “you need to get out of here. Now.”

“But the floor-”

Harry grabs Louis’ arm and starts to haul him away, and then there’s a distant, distinct cracking sound, and Harry’s grip tightens even further, almost to the point of pain.

Louis flinches. “Oh my god,” he says, “was that a gunshot?”

“Damn it,” says Niall from somewhere behind them.

Harry is still pulling him toward the door, and they’ve graduated to a stumbling jog, now. “I don’t know,” he answers, sounds near hysterical. “Niall said- he said we really, really need to go. He didn’t say why but we need to- we have to go.”

Louis nods, can’t seem to stop, feels sick with how confusing this all is. They get to the front door and Harry pauses and Louis says, “come on,” and together they run to the car, hear the fierce rip of another gunshot and duck but don’t stop running, and Harry peels out of the parking spot so fast the tires screech.

His knuckles are white on the steering wheel. Louis is gripping the door handle next to him, holding on for dear life as Harry careens around corners and breaks about fifteen traffic laws. He only slows down once they’re miles out, back near the denser part of the city where the trees have thinned out again.

“What was that,” breathes Louis, barely a question. He can feel his pulse in his entire body, still.

Harry shakes his head, forehead tight with tension. “No idea,” he answers, sounds equally wrecked. “Niall told me I needed to go, that I needed to get you out of there, and then people started screaming and-”

Louis doesn’t push him to continue, knows how it went.

They pull up to their home a few minutes later, both of them still coiled tight with leftover adrenaline, and Louis gets out of the car and immediately flinches and gets back in.

Harry peeks at him through the window. “You okay?”

Louis looks down, starts to feel laughter bubbling up. “God,” he says, smiling helplessly, half delirious with all of the emotion swirling inside him. “I left my shoes at Niall’s.” He’s just wearing a pair of wine-stained socks, hadn’t even noticed until now. “When did you have time to put yours on?”

The chill of air coming through the open car door makes him shiver, but he’s grinning like an idiot, high on the relief of not being dead. “I didn’t take them off,” answers Harry.

“Rude,” retorts Louis immediately, “c’mon, Anne taught you better than that, didn’t she?”

Harry splutters, and Louis laughs at him, laughs because if he doesn’t he might fall to the floor crying and this is much, much better than that. Today has been a fucking trip, and he’s exhausted but at least he isn’t alone.

“Well,” says Louis after a pause, eyeing the snow on the ground, “aren’t you going to carry me inside?”

Harry walks over to where Louis is sitting and scoops him up in a bridal carry, so fast Louis flails a little, but Harry doesn’t drop him. “If I must,” he replies, put-upon, lips twitching as he fights a smile, and carries Louis all the way to the couch in the sitting room, depositing him there and collapsing next to him in a heap.

They sit for a minute in silence, leaning against each other, and then Harry says, in a small voice, “I hope nobody got hurt.”

It sobers the mood the rest of the way, and Louis shifts, presses his face into the cold, slightly scratchy material of the shoulder of Harry’s coat. “Me, too. That was fucking mad.”

“Yeah,” breathes Harry, still not unfurling his arms. He’s tense. Louis would do something about it if he didn’t feel so on edge, too.

They end up spending the rest of the night quietly, hovering around each other, not quite touching. Louis thinks that if they hugged he might burst apart at the seams, so he doesn’t try, just lets the evening fade out until they’re in bed next to each other and Louis is staring at the ceiling wondering how his life got so turned upside down. “It wasn’t because of us, you don’t think,” he whispers, not sure why he’s asking. He regrets it immediately, anyway, wishes he hadn’t said it out loud. It’s a stupid fear. An irrational one. He’s been getting really good at irrational, lately.

In the end it doesn’t matter, anyway. Harry doesn’t answer, already asleep, quiet snores arching up toward the ceiling.

Louis turns over in bed, facing away from him, and falls into a fitful sleep.

*

His phone rings during his break the next day. Caller Unknown, the screen says. He looks around to make sure he’s alone before taking the call.

“Hello?”

The area out the back door of the office is draftier than usual, and Louis pulls his coat up closer to his ears, hunching his shoulders. Against his back, the concrete is cold even through his clothes, and he shivers once, a full body twitch, before settling his weight.

“Louis Tomlinson,” says a voice, gruffer than he’d expected, and he makes a vague affirmative sound, “your training schedule has been prioritized, and your new departure date is this Friday. Four days from now, you will go to the address in the letter, bringing only the necessary items, and you will be brought to the facility. Do you understand?”

Louis is staring at the wall across from him, heart pounding. “Who are you?” he asks, hoarse.

“That’s not important,” huffs the voice, impatient.

“No,” argues Louis, “I’m not going anywhere unless you tell me who you are, what you do, and why you chose me.”

There’s a pause. “You speak,” drawls the voice, slowly, and Louis catches the trace of an accent but can’t quite place it, “like you believe you have a choice.”

Louis glances at his watch, taps his foot frenetically against the ground. Five minutes left in this break, and he doesn’t feel any closer to getting the answers he needs. “It’s my choice,” he says, biting. “This is crazy. I could just not show up, or- or go somewhere else, go into hiding. You wouldn’t be able to find me.”

“We would,” is the calm, assured answer, “but there are easier ways. We can send you incentives, if that is your choice. In any case, you will come, and you will bring only the necessary materials, and you will receive training.”

“Training for what!” bursts Louis, dragging a hand through his hair roughly. It hurts a little, but the pain grounds him, distracts him from thinking about incentives and what that might constitute.

Another draft blows through the alleyway, and the clouds overhead are starting to look ominous, dark and heavy with impending rain. “You will find out in due time,” says the voice, and Louis is about to scream, to demand answers, he really is-

“Louis? Your break is over, love.” It’s Mary, poking her head out the door. Her tone is gentle, like she can sense his agitation from just a look.

He takes a deep breath, and then another. “Be there in a mo’,” he promises, and then he turns back to the phone. “Listen, I don’t know what kind of game this is, but I’m not playing.”

The only answer he gets is, “we will see about that, I suppose,” and before he can retort, the dial tone is buzzing in his ear.

“Sorry,” he says, when he bustles back inside, taking a seat behind the wide reception desk. He tries to brighten his expression, knows that sick children (and the parents of sick children) are generally unimpressed with Louis when he himself isn’t feeling well. “Had some business to take care of, but it’s out of the way.”

That’s a lie, his brain reminds him helpfully, but Mary just smiles at him. “Good to hear that, love. You sounded a bit stressed, is everything okay?”

Louis forces himself to smile back, chokes out a half laugh. “Yeah, yeah, of course. You’re such a mum, honestly.”

She is, and always has been, but Mary rolls her eyes at him, still grinning. “You’re lucky I am,” she replies. “Need someone to look after you, don’t you?”

He doesn’t bother arguing the point, because she’s right. He thinks to his own family, all the way in Doncaster, and his chest aches a little bit. It’s so hard to find the time to see them, and his mum is always so busy with the girls and now the twins… he blinks, shakes his head. He’s saved from answering when the little door chime goes and a coughing toddler trails in, holding the hand of a frazzled looking woman. “Hi,” says Louis, “so if you could just fill out these forms…”

*

“Um,” says Harry, when Louis walks in the door after work the next day, “you got this in the mail, and I don’t, uh, understand why? It just- here, do you know why someone would send this to you?”

Louis tries to scrub his face of guilt, isn’t sure he manages, but the seasick feeling must overpower it anyway, because Harry doesn’t say anything more, just hands the paper over. On one side, here is your reason, is scrawled in spindly black pen. On the other, a blurry photograph. At first, Louis can’t even make out what it is, and then he catches the department sign in the upper corner, and that front desk looks familiar, and suddenly the dark, round shape in the middle makes sense when he sees it as the back of Harry’s head.

It’s a picture of Harry at work. It’s a picture of Harry at work where Louis can’t protect him. And it is absolutely, definitively a threat.

“Louis,” says Harry quietly, and his eyes are big and worried. He’s biting a little at his lower lip, a tick he picked up from Louis, and for a brief, panicky moment, Louis has no idea what he’s going to say.

“I don’t know what it means,” he answers, finally, which is a lie, but it’s at least rooted in a little bit of truth. He hasn’t felt like he’s understood what’s going on fully for single second since this whole mess started.

Harry clenches his jaw, nods. “You told me- you said if something was going on, that you’d tell me.”

He leaves it there, and it sits in the silence, waiting.

Another out that he’s giving Louis. Another chance to fix things.

Louis is almost tempted, but then he thinks about where he’d even start, and he can’t find a place at all. Well, he imagines saying, this is going to sound totally bonkers, but I can control the weather, kind of. Except I can’t really control it. Things just happen and they’re my fault. Anyway, there’s this organization that’s forcing me to join them, and I can’t tell anyone about it because they’re threatening you and I love you and I don’t want you to get hurt. So I have to leave, but you can’t say anything or do anything about it. I know this is probably a shock but hey, you told me to tell you, so this is your fault, really.

He only barely chokes down the half-hysterical laugh threatening to bubble up in his throat. Christ, but he hasn’t the slightest idea what to do. “I have no idea what’s going on,” he says, maybe too honestly, “Harry, I promise, I don’t know.”

Harry deflates, but the line of his jaw is still too tight. “Okay,” he says, after a pause, and he sounds exhausted. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to, like, accuse you of anything. Obviously you don’t know.” His mouth twists into a self-conscious grimace, like he knows he’s gone too far, and the guilt swelling in Louis’ gut is nearly unbearable.

Three days until Louis is supposed to leave, and Harry doesn’t have a fucking clue.

“It’s okay,” he manages to answer somehow. His mouth tastes sour and wrong. “I’m gonna call, um, the post office? Yeah. I’m gonna call them and see if they know anything about this.”

“Oh,” says Harry, “yeah, okay. Good idea.”

Louis nods, and it’s stilted and awkward the way it never, ever is between the two of them, and then he’s ducking into the bedroom and redialing the number from yesterday. The line goes live after just a few seconds, and Louis starts talking immediately, fear and adrenaline speeding up his speech until he can barely understand himself. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull with the whole picture thing, but if you’re trying to imply that I should just roll over and come do whatever you want, then I don’t know why you have to try to scare me into doing it--”

“It’s a message,” says the voice, the same one as before, “that compliance is required. We have the means to hurt the people you love. We don’t want to have to, because it gets messy and it is an extra effort that we would have to expend, but we will do it if we must.”

“Why?” asks Louis, and he feels short of breath. “Why me?”

It’s the question that’s been percolating in his mind for days now. He knows he has… abilities, but they hardly ever manifest how he wants, and it’s not like he’s dangerous. He doesn’t understand, and it makes him feel younger, out of his depth.

“You have no idea,” comes the answer, “how powerful you could be with the right training. Your potential is far beyond what you can even comprehend, and our goal is to work with you so you can utilize that potential in a way that will benefit both parties.”

Louis frowns. “So you want me to work for you?” That’s the gist of what he’s getting: go and get all trained up, and then work for this group that clearly wants to use him somehow to achieve a goal. “What do you even do? What is this company, or whatever it is?”

“You will find out soon. In three days, your questions will be answered.”

From there, the line goes dead, and no one answers upon the first redial, or the second. Louis ends up standing in the empty room, staring down at the phone. He has more questions now than he has answers.

All he knows is that these people will have no qualms about following through if they’re willing to stalk his fiancé at work. And he can’t- he can’t protect Harry forever, can’t tell him to quit his job and stay home, or to move in with someone else and never talk to Louis again, because that still wouldn’t mean Harry is safe. He can’t do that.

There’s nothing to be done.

Louis puts the phone down and leaves the room, cleans the kitchen from bottom to top until he smells like Dettol and there’s a satisfying ache in his shoulders. He hates cleaning more than most things but sometimes he just...needs to feel like he’s accomplished something, like he has traction. Like the things he does have consequences.

Harry joins in halfway through, picks up a rag without a word, and it’s the two of them scrubbing and working until it hurts, until Louis wants to collapse on the floor and never move again, hold Harry’s hand and not think about how upside down his world has turned, how there’s a very real chance he’s going to have to leave and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever come back, how he’s going to break this boy’s heart and his own and how everything is ruined, tarnished, a goddamn mess. “Sorry,” he says after they’ve finished, the two of them putting away cleaning supplies, and it feels like it’s being ripped out of his chest.

Harry regards him carefully, the smallest of head tilts betraying his confusion, his exhaustion. “We should go to bed soon,” he says, finally, after a pause that had Louis fidgeting in place.

It’s only 9pm, and Louis could mention that or he could agree quietly, nod, walk with Harry to the bedroom and change and climb under the duvet, feeling acutely all of the space between them.

“C’mere,” murmurs Harry, and it’s all Louis needs to tuck in close, head on Harry’s chest, arm around his waist. He’s trying not to reveal how desperate he’s feeling, how scared, but Harry shushes him quietly anyway, holds him tight.

Louis thought he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep tonight with everything knocking around in his brain, but Harry is warm and familiar and not even the anxiety in his stomach can stop him from sinking into a deep, dreamless sleep.

*

He leaves a note, in the end.

Harry, it reads, I need you to go and stay at Gemma’s for a bit, all right? Don’t come back here until I tell you it’s okay. I’m going to keep you safe, and you’ll be safer there. I’m going to be gone for a while, but you can’t come looking for me. I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you. He finishes it with a request to burn or shred it once Harry’s finished reading, and then he puts down the pen and stares at his shaking hands and tucks it away, greets the father and his ill daughter as they walk into the waiting room.

He doesn’t even sign the note, in the end, just keeps it tucked in his back pocket until it’s 5am on the morning he’s supposed to leave and he hasn’t slept at all. In two hours Harry’s alarm will go off for work, and Louis will be long gone, his side of the bed cold.

He has half an hour, though, before he needs to leave. He’s not worried about Harry waking up--sleeps like a rock, Harry does, always has--and he just watches Harry’s sleeping face, the lax sweetness, the errant curls that droop over his warm skin.

He takes the letter and puts it on top of his own pillow, right where Harry will find it, and brushes a bit of Harry’s hair away so he can see his closed eyes, the flutter of his lashes that means he’s dreaming. Louis hopes it’s a good dream, finds himself getting choked up. Christ, he’s leaving. He’s leaving this boy, this life, and he has no idea what’s going to happen, or even where he’s going. Hopefully not too far. Hopefully somewhere close where he can keep an eye on Harry, make sure he’s okay. Louis is going to make sure he’s okay.

Outside, everything is perfectly gray and still, thick with fog. Louis rubs at his eyes, catches a few tears before they fall. The minutes tick on, and then he needs to go.

“Goodbye, love,” he whispers, feels stupid and soppy and sentimental but can’t help himself, places a featherlight kiss on Harry’s cheekbone and steps away, shoulders his pack and walks outside, leaves it all behind.

He takes one long look back at the house and then turns away, and it’s only once he’s left the block entirely that it starts to rain.

The car is waiting where he’d been told it would be, black and sleek and entirely intimidating. Louis dithers outside for a moment, unsure of what to do, before the passenger-side window opens. “Password,” says the driver. There’s no one else around, and it all seems a bit ridiculous, a bit overwrought. Still, the fear that lives in Louis’ chest is a breathing, fluttering presence, and he recites it quickly. It comes out nervy but strong enough to be heard, and the window rolls up.

Louis gets into the backseat, and the driver just grunts, locks the doors after him.

“Where are we going?” asks Louis hesitantly. The clouds overhead are swirling a bit, electricity building. Either the sun will break through, or there will be a lightning storm. This in between won’t last.

“Airport,” says the driver shortly.

Louis’ heart drops. “Airport?” he demands, voice tilting up in surprise, nearly cracking at the edges.

The driver just nods, sharp.

“Are we getting on a plane?”

It’s like talking to a brick wall, like pulling teeth. “Yes,” says the driver.

“Where to?”

There’s a pause, and Louis feels his insides roiling, knows that the sky is about to break right open over their heads.

Finally the driver huffs a bit, looks out the window. “Russia,” he says, and the entire bottom of Louis’ world drops out from under him. He stutters over an answer, feels frozen to the spot.

“Russia?” he manages, incredulous and terrified. It comes out mortifyingly squeaky.

The driver doesn’t dignify that with a response, and overhead the rain starts to really come down, cracking against the windshield and slamming against the roof of the car. Louis thinks he might be trembling, but he can’t quite tell.

Russia. Russia. Christ, he’d thought they’d take him to a building in London, maybe just outside. Worst case scenario he’d thought they might move him to the countryside, but even then he never imagined the vast, terrifying expanse of a place he’s never been, so far removed from everything he’s ever known that it sends a chill running viciously up his spine.

It’s not long before they’re pulling up to the tarmac, and Louis thinks distantly that he hadn’t brought his passport. It’s clearly not a problem, as this is less of an airport and more of a stretch of pavement with a small plane perched on it, ready to go.

He stalls in the car, climbs out and clutches his pack tightly but doesn’t immediately go to follow the driver. “I didn’t agree to this,” he says when the driver turns back to him, irritated. “I didn’t say I would leave the country, or go on a plane, or any of this.”

“It is in your best interest to comply,” replies the driver, dead-eyed, and Louis shudders, wonders if this is the man he talked to on the phone--it’s too tough to tell, since he isn’t too talkative, generically gruff when he does bother to speak--or if all of the employees of this mysterious YNM have the same catchphrase.

“I didn’t agree to this,” he repeats, robotic. He thinks he might be going into shock, fingers going numb at the ends. “I didn’t say I would do this.”

The driver says something under his breath, maybe a curse, and then walks forward, rips the pack right out of Louis’ grip. “You don’t need this,” he says, while Louis is still breathless, rooted to the spot. “None of this is necessary.” He walks back to the car, throws the whole bag in the truck.

“Hey,” protests Louis, finally feeling like he can move, and he walks over, too, ready to pitch a fit.

The driver turns around, sighs longsufferingly, and pulls out a gun.

Louis is staring straight down the barrel, and he thinks, distantly, that this isn’t something he’s going to end up fighting against. “Uh,” he stammers, heart pounding.

He’s never had a gun pointed at him before. He’s never felt so cold and feverish all at once.

“Get on the plane,” says the driver, eyebrows furrowing. Louis has absolutely no doubt that this man is perfectly willing to fire if he needs to, and that it might be aimed to maim, not to kill. Louis also has absolutely no doubt that he doesn’t have a choice here.

He shifts on his feet. “Right,” he says, and his voice comes out hoarse, “okay.”

He turns around, walks to the plane, and jolts when he feels the gun press into the small of his back, urging him forward when he stalls. “I’m going,” he says, and he means to mutter it, annoyed, but it comes out reedy and frightened instead. “Okay, I’m going.”

The plane is as small on the inside as Louis had expected, but there are seats and it seems like it’s been used before, at least, like maybe it’s made a journey before, and that’s enough to settle Louis’ nerves about it bursting into flames, though more pressing is the concern that he’s about to leave the country with no means of getting back even if he does manage to make a break for it.

And that’s all assuming, anyway, that he has a way to keep Harry safe for sure once he leaves.

What has he gotten himself into?

He sits in a seat, and the driver goes toward the front of the plane, apparently a pilot as well. Out the window, there’s nothing for miles. Louis could scream, and scream, and scream, and he’d run out of breath well before anyone heard him.

“It’s a long flight,” says the driver/pilot, “so get comfortable.”

It’s the most personable thing he’s said all day, and it does nothing to help Louis relax at all.

On the plane, time passes awkwardly. Louis has no way of knowing how long it’s been, phone left in the backseat of the car that had taken him here. By now, Harry will have found the note, will be wondering where Louis went. Will have called a hundred times, frantic.

Louis curses himself for not hiding anything on his person, for not thinking ahead like that. It’s frustrating, realizing how helpless he’s made himself. This is the kind of situation that breaks people down, and he imagines that the worst hasn’t even started yet.

When they arrive, Louis is still wide awake, but he’s stopped trembling. He steels himself, still a little shaken from the rough landing.

“Out,” says the driver, and Louis doesn’t bother protesting. His legs thank him for the stretch when he stands up and strides to the door, and he wonders what he’ll find. Out the window on his side, he’d seen only snow, but surely there is something on the other side, even if it’s just a car. He’ll take that, at least. Better than a barren, frozen wasteland.

It’s not just a car at the bottom of the stairs.

Before them lies an entire complex, it looks like, three guards just at the entrance with all of their weapons pointed right at Louis. He puts his hands up on instinct, half-stumbles backward with surprise. The driver spits some words in a language Louis doesn’t recognize--though, if he had to guess, he’d assume it’s Russian--and the weapons lower, though the guards still watch him carefully, eyes sharp for any sudden moves.

I’m unarmed, Louis wants to tell them, and I’m weak and scared and confused. I’m not a threat to you.

The wind whips harder and harder as they get toward the entrance, and then Louis is inside the expansive concrete building and everything goes perfectly still and quiet. “You will meet with the bosses now,” says the driver, and Louis nods silently, still taking in his surroundings.

He’s standing in a long hallway, and the walls, ceiling, and floor are all made of concrete. It looks like an endless trail of gray, and it’s more than a bit disheartening, the lack of windows, of anything. They walk down and Louis spots a few doors to the left and right, but they’re all closed, and, Louis assumes, locked tightly against prying eyes.

Finally, they come to a stop in front of a door that looks the same as all the others. The driver raps at it sharply three times, and it opens soon after. “Come in,” says a female voice, sharp and British, and it throws Louis enough that it takes a harsh shove in the back for him to finally spill into the room.

In front of him sits a table, and at the table sit a man and a woman, both in crisp, clean suits. “Welcome, Louis,” says the man, equally British, but it doesn’t feel welcoming; it just feels cold and calculated, and Louis thinks he’s going to be exhausted once all of this adrenaline wears off. He hasn’t felt his heart rate slow to normal once since this morning, feels like it’s going to beat right out of his chest if things continue like this.

“What do you want from me?” he asks. Best to get it out of the way.

Neither of the two smile, and they exchange a quiet glance that makes Louis feel ill at ease. “Your training,” says the woman, “will begin tomorrow. More will be decided from there. For now, you will be escorted to your temporary living quarters and provided with the materials you will need.”

He’s about to tear his hair out from frustration. “You’re seriously not going to tell me why I’m here after dragging me to Russia?”

The man clenches his jaw and Louis has to make a concerted effort not to take a step back and apologize. “You are here to learn, and then you will receive missions. Things will make sense as time goes on, and your demands will be disregarded if they require anything you do not need. Is that clear?” His tone is deadly serious, and cold as ice. Louis nods. “Good. A guard will escort you to your room, and you will meet another recruit there.”

There’s someone else, then; that certainly piques Louis’ interest, and he doesn’t say anything as he’s led away by a guard who is equally as stoic as all of the others he’s encountered here.

It’s a twisting path to his room, full of so many turns that Louis is disoriented just a few minutes in, not helped by the lack of sleep he’s gotten. He’s dead on his feet, and knows he won’t have much time to meet this new roommate before he passes out. He doesn’t even know what time it is, thrown off by the lack of clocks and emotional highs and lows of the day. He’s a mess, and he knows it, and he’s trying really, really hard not to think about his situation right now because he can’t afford to break down.

“Here,” says the guard, startling Louis out of his thoughts.

He’s exhausted, and thanks her quietly without even thinking about it, stepping inside and hearing the click of the lock behind him.

The room had seemed spacious enough in the quick glance he’d gotten of it, but with the door closed it’s nearly pitch dark, just a little bit of light coming in through the small, square window in the door. “Um,” he says, mostly to himself.

“Light switch by the door, to your left,” chirps a voice, and he startles so badly he almost falls over. He rights himself quickly, though, and reaches around until he locates the switch, turning it on and flooding the room with light. “Hi,” says the girl, smiling sunnily. She’s wearing a dress, somehow, shoulders half-bare, and he wonders how she got here without catching her death.

He takes a second to survey the room, sees two beds and a desk and another door in the back corner.

“That goes to the bathroom,” says the girl. “It’s separate and all. Swanky, right? I’m Perrie, by the way, nice to meet you.”

It’s a lot of information to take in all at once, and Louis blinks at her dumbly before he remembers his manners. “I’m Louis,” he answers, “cheers,” knows he sounds totally dazed. “How long have you been here?”

“Oh,” says Perrie, twirling her hand in the air lazily, “just a few hours now. Been dead bored waiting here for you to show up.”

“Right. Well, I hate to be a bore, but I, um, I think I’m going to get some sleep, if that’s okay?” His stomach is rumbling mightily, but he’s barely keeping his eyes open, and he’s not got the energy to stir up any trouble.

Perrie regards him carefully. “Suit yourself,” she tells him, but she doesn’t seem disgruntled. “Should be food here in the morning, and then we’ve got training bright and early, or at least that’s what they tell me. We’ll get fancy uniforms and everything, like superheroes or something like that.”

Heroes, thinks Louis, derisive. He isn’t sure that’s what side they’re on, but he’s too drowsy to retort properly.

Even in the unfamiliar setting, Louis is tired enough that he falls asleep in minutes, ache in his bones dissolving until he’s well and truly unconscious.

*

“You’re quiet,” Perrie tells him over breakfast the next morning. She doesn’t appear to be a morning person, markedly less chipper in the bleak, absurdly early hours, but she’s still chatty, curious. It grates on his nerves, which were thin and fraying at the ends to begin with.

He sighs, scrapes his fork against his plate again. “I don’t want to be here,” he answers, and feels it twist inside of him. There are other people around, some their age and some younger--younger, thinks Louis, and smaller, and probably even more scared than Louis himself is--and Louis doesn’t like the idea of people overhearing this conversation. He doesn’t trust Perrie as far as he could throw her, but she’s the most familiar thing about this place even if he’s only known her 12 hours.

“Ah,” says Perrie, a small, affirmative noise, “so you must have been an unwilling recruit, then.” She says it’s like it’s capitalized, Unwilling Recruit, like it’s a terminology he ought to be familiar with.

He wrinkles his nose. “What does that make you? A willing recruit?” It wasn’t supposed to come out quite so derisive, but he doesn’t take it back.

Perrie is quiet, and he looks up at her. She shrugs delicately. “A volunteer,” she corrects, and the line of her jaw tenses a bit like she’s looking for a fight.

“A volunteer?” Louis asks, incredulous. He was dragged here at gunpoint, and this girl waltzed in on purpose? He can’t fathom wanting this, wanting to be different and using that to work for an organization that threatens and coerces people to join its ranks. “What, so you grew up knowing you wanted to work for these people?”

He’s being a bit too loud, notable by the quieting down of people around them, many most likely eavesdropping avidly, heads tilted in. Perrie looks back down at her foot, chews on the last bite thoughtfully before turning to him and saying, “Don’t talk about things you don’t understand,” voice hard like iron.

Louis isn’t sure how to answer, and she’s standing and walking away to deposit her tray in the container by the door before he gets the chance to say anything. At the next table, the two recruits slowly turn back to their meals, and the hushed murmur of conversation starts up again.

He eats the rest of his food slowly, keeping his head down, and then steels himself and walks out.

*

Day one of training is all physical diagnostics, and it’s miserable.

Louis slogs through a mile and then another one, trying not to think about how he never used to let Harry drag him to the gym, and then trying not to think about Harry at all because he can’t afford to cry while he’s running without losing even more time. His pace is dismal enough as it is.

The guard nods at him impersonally when Louis finishes, her face largely unimpressed, and she scribbles down his time without telling him.

Probably for the better.

Perrie, on the other hand, finished her mile aeons ahead of Louis, and it doesn’t even look like she’d broken much of a sweat doing it, her ponytail bobbing perfectly behind her as she jogs a lap to cool down. Louis does not jog a lap to cool down. Louis sits down at the edge of the track and gulps air and tries not to be sick.

Christ, but he really should have gone to the gym with Harry. It only becomes more evident as time goes on that he’s one of the less active of the bunch, years working behind a desk whittling away at the athleticism and agility he’d gained from playing football for so long when he was younger. Part of it is the exhaustion and shock, too, he knows; his body is weak with the aftermath of adrenaline, and he keeps getting distracted by thoughts of home and worries about what his life will look like now that he’s here and not there. He isn’t sure if he’ll ever be able to recover from this. He isn’t sure that he’ll get a chance.

The rest of the morning goes much the same, Louis locked in his own head and trying not to collapse while he and all of the recruits run and climb and push and lift until they’ve worn themselves out completely. They eat lunch halfway through, and Louis intends to sit by himself until Perrie plops down next to him, smiling like nothing happened.

“I heard the deadlift is next,” she says, apropos of nothing, and she seems about a million times more enthusiastic than Louis thinks is appropriate for the subject matter.

He heaves a sigh, a little hesitant to engage, but her eyes are bright and she doesn’t seem upset with him at all. “Sounds terrible,” he answers honestly, tilting some wryness into his tone.

Perrie giggles, and it’s still a bit grating but it turns out that she’s a great distraction. “I’m just excited to finally prove myself, do you know what I mean?” He doesn’t know what she means. He really, really doesn’t, and he tilts his head curiously, prompting her to continue. “It’s why I’m here,” she says with big, earnest eyes. “I’m, like… strong. Properly strong, or at least more than most people.”

“Oh,” says Louis, eyebrows rising. It’s not what he expected from her, and he feels a bit guilty at having misjudged her. “Well, I’m not too strong even compared to a normal person. I always make my- uh, my-” fiancé, he was going to say. He always makes Harry do the heavy lifting, partly because Harry is stronger, but mostly because Louis likes to see Harry’s muscles flex when he works them. He doesn’t finish the thought.

Perrie’s face softens, and Louis goes hot, feels like he’s given too much away. She looks like she wants to say something, but then they’re being called back to train.

Louis waits behind, re-ties his shoelaces and tells her to go on ahead, that he’ll be there in a minute. It’s easier to blink back the tears when he’s staring at the floor instead of her unsettlingly bright eyes.

He walks back into the training room with the last of the recruits, a straggler in a place where he’d thought they wouldn’t allow straggling. It’s confusing, being here, when it all seems so cut and dry despite the fact that they have these small freedoms, guards not quite as strict as they could be as long as everyone gets where they need to go. He doesn’t know if it’s apathy or something planned, just knows that he’ll take the space as it comes, and that maybe he’ll have some free time later to explore this place better, see if there’s a way out. He’s holding onto hope that there must be a way out; it all seems pretty locked down, but Louis is a rule breaker at heart.

The first time Perrie lifts the set weight without breaking a sweat, Louis feels both the most and least alone he ever has.

She’s holding it up with one hand, and Louis is presented with the terrifying and undeniable proof that it’s not just him that can do things he can’t explain. He remembers when he was younger, his mum telling him that it was nice that he was dreaming big but maybe he shouldn’t share his thoughts with anyone else. Looking back, she probably thought he was a bit mental, talking about controlling the weather, but he can’t blame her.

Perrie lifts the weight and then she puts it down, walking over to Louis. She’s whatever the equivalent is of top of the class here, always smiling and excelling and barely seeming to worry about anything at all.

“Hiya, roomie,” she all but sings, stepping into place next to him like he’d been saving it.

He’s trying really, really hard not to hate her on principle. “Hey,” he says. He’s not quite looking forward to lifting the weight himself, but he has to admit that her show was impressive. “You didn’t have much trouble there, did you?”

She grins, shrugging. “Yeah,” she answers, “not really. Hopefully they challenge me a bit, later. I’m not sure where my limit is exactly. I can’t, like, lift whatever, but it’d be nice to know where that upper bound is, do you know what I mean?”

Louis thinks to the day he lost his first job, how the rain was pissing down for days after. “I do,” he says, “yeah.”

Thinking of home hurts, though, and he tries to do it as little as he can. Harry is at home, and Louis’ family, and they all must be going out of their minds with worry. “Do your friends and family know where you’ve gone?” he asks, and it’s almost definitely out of line but it spills out of him anyway, awful and impossible to stop.

Perrie’s face darkens. “Some do,” she says, “but not my family. They don’t deserve to know,” she tells him, and her accent seems thicker.

He doesn’t press it; he does have some self-preservation instincts, after all, and he doesn’t want to upset her if he’s going to be living with her. Also, there’s the fact that she could probably pick him up and chuck him across the room, which he doesn’t really want to test out.

They call him up a few minutes later. Unsurprisingly, he fails rather quickly, only barely managing to pick up the bar and having to drop it soon after, muscles tight with exertion that will be soreness in the morning. He pretends not to notice Perrie hiding her giggles in the curve of her wrist.

The rest of the afternoon is less exciting, more endurance and strength testing that proves absolutely nothing about Louis. Perrie seems to be one of the select few that are thriving, acing test after test with ease, while most of the others are at Louis’ level or worse.

He wonders what the others can do, if anything at all. One girl seems slightly faster, but she might just be in better shape than the rest of them; he doesn’t have anything to go off of, really, and it kills him to know that. And at the same time, no one knows why he’s here. He wonders if the others were coerced like he was, or if they’re here by choice. It’s near impossible to get a read on anyone.

The end of the day comes slowly, and Louis is sore and achy by the time they’re led to the showers. He scrubs down quickly, clinically, under scalding water that he can barely feel.

Dinner is a quiet affair, everyone tired and run down and ready to sleep, and then Perrie and Louis are ushered back into their room--cell, he thinks, not room; this is a prison and he’d do well to remember that, even when it doesn’t seem all that stark or terrible. He’s here against his will. He doesn’t think he’ll be forgetting that any time soon, but everything feels topsy turvy and far away, like he hasn’t woken up from a bad dream yet but he’s getting close.

“So do you reckon they’d let us explore this place?” asks Louis, bone tired but not willing to wait any longer to get his bearings and start brainstorming a way out.

Perrie tosses him a look that is vividly unimpressed. “I’m falling over standing up,” she replies, “and we’re locked in, anyway.” Despite her easygoing tone, her shoulders are tight, arms folded in front of her. She must not like being penned in, either. Louis files the information away in case he ends up needing it.

He tests the door himself once, finds it locked as she said, and huffs irritably. His eyelids are heavy and his entire body hurts, but he can’t wait. He needs to get back to Harry.

Harry, who is in danger right now because of Louis. Harry, who hopefully took Louis’ advice and is staying with his sister now, who hopefully won’t be killed at work simply because Louis’ superiors needed something to lord over him. Harry, who woke up alone and must be depending on Louis to come back, or at least hoping, or at least wishing.

Louis thinks about the impending date of the wedding and wants to cry, because he doesn’t know that he’ll make it back in time to marry the love of his life.

“Are you all right?” asks Perrie, gentle.

Louis blinks. He hadn’t realized he’d just been standing there, hand still lax on the doorknob. “Yeah,” he says, another wave of exhaustion weighing his body down. “I’m fine. We should sleep. Early start tomorrow, and all.”

He has no idea what time they start tomorrow, and Perrie knows that he doesn’t know, but she just nods, bites her tongue. She disappears into the bathroom, and Louis sits on the edge of the bed and puts his head in his hands. His insides feel like a tornado, his heart like the aftermath of an earthquake.

The bathroom door clicks open, and Louis straightens, takes his turn.

After splashing some water on his face and brushing his teeth Louis feels about a hundred times more human, and he stumbles to bed with his eyes half open, barely managing a glance at Perrie before he’s huddled under the covers and he’s dead to the world.

*

Individual training is both more frustrating and more intimidating than group training.

“Again,” says the woman, impassive and impossible to read.

Louis glares at the ground, trying not to snap. “I’ve never done this before,” he says, taking a breath. “I’ve never tried to do something like this on purpose.”

Something like this is trying to create a microclimate inside a room with concrete walls. There isn’t much to work with in here in terms of humidity, not to mention the sparseness of the room itself, and all of that is only really relevant if Louis has any idea what he’s supposed to be doing in the first place. Which he doesn’t. It must be rather obvious, with the way he’s holding out his hands and mostly just staring at them, but the woman doesn’t say anything, and the camera in the corner of the room gives no indication as to who might be watching from the other side, or what they expect him to realistically be able to accomplish.

He thinks of all the other times he’s created any kind of change, but gets stuck on the cause. He never did it on purpose. It was just… he felt a certain way, and the world shifted to reflect that.

Forcing it feels wrong, somehow. It hasn’t stopped him trying, of course, but feels less like progress and more like he’s slamming against a wall over and over and hoping to break through it.

Sun, he thinks, as hard as he can. Hot, bright, happy.

Nothing happens.

“Sorry,” says Louis, making sure his tone makes it clear that he’s anything but sorry, “but is there a reason we can’t do this outside? You know, where there’s actual weather that I can try to work with?”

The guard’s face remains stony. “There is weather in here,” she says, inflectionless. “Weather that you can change, according to the boss.” She doesn’t look like she believes it, and it makes Louis prickle, something under his skin going tight. He’s always been a sucker for a challenge, and he lets the righteous indignation fill him up, top up to the brim and spilling over.

It should be more momentous, in the end, his first time changing the weather on purpose; the reality is that he turns around to see a half melted pile of slush on the floor in the middle of the room, like Louis tried to make ice and gave up halfway. Still, there’s a tiny rush of pride alongside the disappointment. He did that. He made something.

The guard nods at it, scribbles something down in a notebook she’d procured from a drawer in the desk by the door, the only piece of furniture in the entire room. Louis expects some kind of congratulations, or at least an acknowledgement, but she just looks up, eyes still dead, and says, “again.”

Louis tries not to groan, doesn’t quite manage it.

The rest of the day goes on in much the same manner, Louis trying to harness emotions and use them, but he never knows what the outcome will be, and they all end up being weak at best. A brief gust of wind, or a quiet tremble that could be an earthquake if it were magnified by a hundred. And the guard, over and over, saying again.

By the time he’s sent back to his room, he has a headache the size of a blue whale, and it feels just as heavy, just as crushing against his skull. “Ugh,” he tells the empty cell, muffled through a mouthful of pillow since the first thing he’d done was to collapse onto his bed.

He wouldn’t mind if he never had to move again, honestly.

The headache reminds him of home, though, of Harry massaging his temples and bringing him painkillers, singing quietly and lulling him right to sleep. They loved each other so good, and now Louis is alone in this place and his head hurts and it’s enough to make him want to cry, homesick and disoriented and patently furious with the situation he’s in.

Perrie comes in quietly, tiptoeing around and slipping into the bathroom. Louis doesn’t have the energy to alert her to the fact that he’s awake, choosing instead to wallow silently, eyes tipping shut almost against his will.

“Louis?” whispers Perrie as she gets into bed.

Louis doesn’t answer, and Perrie rolls over, huffs a bit before settling down. Louis wants to know what her day was like, wants to compare it to his own, but he’s too busy worrying about his family and his job and his life back in London. He’s too busy worrying about home, and it’s like he can feel the downpour from here, humming to his heartbeat.

It must be wet there, he thinks, doesn’t bother wondering how he knows. It’s his last thought before he falls asleep, and it tugs in the back of his mind the entire night.

*

He’s in the same room he was brought to when he met the bosses, except this time the lights are low and Louis is handcuffed and Harry is there, trembling, in the middle of the room with a spotlight on him.

“Lou,” he says, scared and open, eyes wide. He sounds like he’s pleading. Like he’s begging for his life.

Louis turns to look around, but he can’t see anyone else here. The room is empty save the two of them. He goes to walk to Harry, but his cuffs rattle, and he realizes he’s been chained to a pipe. “What’s going on?” he asks. “When did you get here?”

There’s a sound of a crash outside, and Louis flinches. “I don’t know,” says Harry, tone edging into frantic. “I don’t know, I just woke up and I was here, and they kept asking me about you but I didn’t know what to say. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?” asks Louis, but it’s weak. He knows he should’ve said something, okay. He knows. But there’s a difference between knowing you should and going up to your fiancé and trying to explain something impossible. Harry’s eyebrows go up incredulously, and Louis jumps in again before he can say anything. “I tried,” he says, and it’s only a lie if he lets himself think about it. “I wanted to,” he amends, and that’s better, that’s closer to the truth. “I wanted to so badly, but I couldn’t figure out how.”

Before either of them can do anything, the door slams open.

It’s the two bosses, flanked by a mass of security. “You should have told him,” says the woman, nastily, and her smile is sharp and cold like a plane of ice. “If you’d told him, it wouldn’t have been like this.”

The man nods, smiling that same smile. “Now you have to watch this happen, because he couldn’t tell us anything before.”

Harry’s eyes go wide as two guards pin his arms behind his back. “Hey,” he says, starting to struggle. His eyes are wild like a wounded animal’s, like he knows he’s been cornered and he’s never been so terrified in his life. “Hey, wait, let me go.”

Louis’ blood goes icy when the woman places the very tip of a knife against Harry’s jugular. It makes Harry go statue-still, but Louis can see his chest rising and falling with his too-fast breathing. “Don’t touch him,” warns Louis, pulling fruitlessly at his cuffs. “Don’t you dare, I swear to god, let him go-”

“Quiet,” snaps the woman, and Harry gasps a breath, squeezing his eyes shut.

No, thinks Louis, look at me, please, but Harry doesn’t, and he’s still under that glaring spotlight, and Louis has to watch while the man circles around Harry, paying special attention to the glint of metal at his throat. “Now that you know,” he taunts quietly, “you know we can’t just let you go, right?” He’s talking to Harry, who’s trembling, and Louis thinks he’s going to throw up. “We’ll keep you here a while, and then we’ll get rid of you once we’ve broken this one.” He nods toward Louis at this point, smirking. “Then, unfortunately, you’ll be of no use to us. But for now, you’ll stay, and you’ll behave, and you won’t kick up a fuss. Understood?”

A single tear is trailing its way very slowly down Harry’s cheek, spilling over his clenched jaw and the tight tendons in his neck, and Louis yanks at his handcuffs again, feels them digging into the thin skin of his wrists. “He hasn’t done anything,” he protests, and it’s begging more than it is anything else. “I’ll do what you want, just let him go. Please, he hasn’t done anything. This isn’t his fight.”

“Too late for that,” answers the woman, quick as a whip.

She and the man exchange a glance that can only mean trouble, and then the guards have shuffled Harry around so he’s fully facing Louis. When they make eye contact Louis breathes a tiny sigh of relief; it feels like it’s been forever since he’s seen Harry’s eyes, even if it’s just been a handful of minutes. The knife is pulled away, as well, and things seem to be getting slightly calmer.

And then they turn to Louis. “Sit down,” says the man, gruff. Louis blinks.

“Uh,” he says, “now?”

The man smiles like he’d been waiting for Louis to question him. Without hesitating, he turns and lands a blow right in Harry’s gut, one that would have him doubling over if the guard’s weren’t still holding him upright. The man turns back to Louis, still smiling. “I said sit down. Don’t make me ask again.”

Louis sinks to the floor immediately, handcuffs keeping his hands hovering awkwardly above his head, elbows bent at a weird angle. “Okay,” he says, voice like surrender, “okay, I’m sitting, okay.”

There’s more awful sharp smiling, and then they tell him to stand up, and he does. And they tell him to sit down again. And he does. He rather expects that next they’ll tell him to do the hokey pokey, but the sheer terror in Harry’s eyes is enough to stop him cold, and he keeps every single snarky comment to himself. It’s been harder to get to that part of himself anyway, the bit that has a sense of humor, that likes to be the center of everything. If he could turn invisible and take Harry and run and never talk to anyone but him again, he thinks he’d be rather okay with it.

And then the woman turns to him and says, “turn this entire room to a blizzard,” and Louis’ eyes go big.

“It’s still early in my training,” he tries, though the words still feel weird in his mouth. “I can make a little bit of ice, and like, do small things, but I don’t think I can do a blizzard.”

The woman tilts her head and gets a calculating look in her eye. “You’d better try,” she tells him, and then she brings the knife back out, pressing it tightly against Harry’s throat.

“Louis,” says Harry, thick and scared.

Louis thinks he can feel his heart beating out of his chest. “Okay,” he says, since soothing Harry is instinct by now. “Okay, just give me a minute. I can do it, just...one minute, please.”

No one rushes him, and he takes a breath.

Cold, he thinks. Snow, wind, bite. But there’s nothing there. He can’t control the ugly, bubbling emotion inside of him; he’s meant to be channeling it, but he just feels overwhelmed.

“Louis,” says Harry, again, still choked, still scared, “please.”

When Louis looks up, there’s a thin trail of blood running down Harry’s neck. “Stop,” begs Louis, “I’m trying, stop, please-”

The woman shrugs, and then she’s making a slashing motion with her hand and Louis is screaming and he pulls at the cuffs so hard they break and that’s weird, isn’t it, they shouldn’t be breaking, Louis isn’t that strong, but Harry is in trouble and he can’t think about anything else, and-

He wakes up with a massive, heaving gasp, eyes hot, face wet.

It takes him a minute to get oriented again, chest tight where he sits up in his bed. “Fuck,” he breathes. Perrie is still asleep.

Once Louis’ eyes adjust, though, he’s cursing under his breath for a very different reason. The floor, previously slate gray, is now white, covered in freshly fallen snow. There’s barely enough to properly coat it, but the dusting is still there, and it’s more than Louis ever managed awake.

It’ll melt, he thinks, still feeling bright-awful-wired with anxiety. He shivers once, full body, and then turns around his bed and tries to go back to sleep.

*

“Louis,” hisses Perrie, “Louis, wake up.”

“What?” says Louis, still mostly asleep. It can’t have been more than a few hours since he last was awake. He scrubs at his tired eyes with his hands, hopes that it isn’t morning already because he’s absolutely exhausted. “Time s’it?”

Perrie huffs impatiently, and when he cracks his eyes open he sees her pacing back and forth, agitated, hand in her hair. Her breath is white, and she’s trembling a bit with the cold. Louis can’t remember if the snow thing was part of the dream or not, and decides not to worry about it. There’s no indication that it had been there aside from the heavy chill. “Come on,” she says, “you need to wake up. Something’s happening.”

There’s a clanging sound, like metal on metal, and then a slow grinding; a door opening, thinks Louis, or one closing. He sits up and holds his breath, feeling much more alert than he had a few minutes back. “What’s going on?” he whispers.

Perrie just shushes him, creeping over to peek through the tiny window in the door. It must be bulletproof glass, Louis thinks, and then focuses back, creeps up next to her and tries to see as much as he can. It’s difficult with the way the hallway is lit, mostly dark, but he can see several guards walk by, stopping about three doors down. He and Perrie are both silent, barely breathing for how hard they’re focusing.

“We’re coming in!” yells a guard, gruff in the way they all are, like they were trained to be frightening and cold on a production line.

Louis jumps when the door slams open, groaning against its hinges. Perrie inches a bit closer, likely just as unnerved.

There’s a terrible, small wail, and then one of the trainees is dragged out of the cell by the upper arm, hair sleep-rumpled and eyes wild and frightened. Louis recognizes him as one of the smaller, younger ones, remembers the hunted look in his eyes when he came last in the mile.

“Your performance,” says one of the guards, loud, voice carrying like he knows he has an audience, “has been subpar.” There’s a weight to his tone that sends shivers up Louis’ spine. He’s cold and disoriented, and there’s a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach at watching this, at the awful, unaffected air.

The boy shrinks back, the guard’s hand still clenched tightly around his arm. “I don’t-” he stammers, and it echoes, “I didn’t-”

“Do you have an explanation?” asks another guard, and when Louis looks more closely he sees that the guard is smiling, cruel glint in his eyes. “Can you give us a reason to keep you around?”

The boy is trembling. “What do you mean?”

Louis was thinking the same thing. Does this mean they can leave if they underperform? Or that they’ll be taken somewhere else? He doesn’t understand anything about this place.

He isn’t wearing shoes, and the concrete floor is freezing against his bare feet. He’s about to open his mouth to complain about it under his breath, but then the boy is stammering again and one of the guards pulls out a gun, trains it right between the boy’s eyes.

“Oh my god,” breathes Perrie, nearly a whimper.

“They wouldn’t,” whispers Louis, just as quiet. “They’re trying to scare him, they wouldn’t-”

He’s interrupted by the vicious crack of a gunshot, rooted to the spot as the sound ricochets violently through the corridor.

Perrie swallows around a shriek, and Louis’ heart starts pounding, adrenaline coursing through him so fast it makes him dizzy. The boy’s body crumples, falling gracelessly to the floor, and Louis is frozen, holding his breath.

The guards leave slowly, dragging the body, like they’re giving everyone a chance to see.

It was a spectacle. An execution.

Louis feels icy right down to his core.

“Do you think it’s over?” asks Perrie shakily once the doors close behind the guards. There’s a smeared trail of blood on the floor, and Louis is very actively not looking at it. He can still hear his own pulse in his ears.

He sits down on his bed. “I don’t know,” he answers, feeling younger than his years. “They just. I don’t know.”

She nods like that makes any sense, and sits across from him on her own bed. In the shadows, her face looks gaunt and frightened. He imagines he must look about the same from her perspective. “I’m not going to be able to sleep,” she whispers, like a confession.

Louis looks down at his hands, at his bare feet. “Me, neither.”

If he listens closely he can hear thunder even through the concrete walls of this prison. It continues for hours, and Louis and Perrie lie awake listening to its rumble until morning breaks.

Chapter Text

Harry wakes up and feels happy and peaceful for about ten seconds before his entire world crashes down over his head.

It’s instinct, by now, to check if Louis’ side of the bed is still sleep-warm or not. The crinkle of paper under his hand is a surprise, and smoothing it out on his lap in the weak morning light is most definitely not instinctual. It’s creased in all sorts of places, like Louis had folded it up multiple times before deciding to give it to Harry, and the ink is smudged in a few places; par for the course when it comes to notes from Louis, but Harry’s smile drops instantly once he reads what it says.

He doesn’t notice how tightly he’s gripping it until one side of it tears under his fingers.

This… it must be a prank, right? He gets up, doesn’t even bother to throw some joggers on, instead walking around the house in his pants. “Louis,” he calls, dread curling up in his stomach like a living thing, “this isn’t funny, where are you?”

The house is empty, doesn’t give anything up.

Harry keeps going, tone getting more harried as he walks from room to room. Surely Louis is under the table, or in a wardrobe, or waiting behind a door to jump out and laugh at him. Surely he isn’t gone.

Four hours and two cups of coffee later, Gemma is knocking on the door.

She doesn’t even make it all the way inside before he’s starting to crumple. “He’s gone,” he manages, and then she’s rushing forward and asking what happened and wrapping her arms firmly around his waist and he feels all of six years old, like he’d just fallen off his bike and scraped his knee; the tears come fast and hot, and he can’t do anything but ride it out and cry into her shoulder.

She quiets once she realizes that he isn’t going to answer quite yet, and sweeps her hand over his back carefully, waiting for him to collect himself.

He pulls back, finally, and says, “sorry,” before anything else, voice a bit wrecked.

Gemma doesn’t answer, but she does get up and put the kettle on, starting a brew. Harry isn’t thirsty but he sits down on the couch and watches her from the living room, trying to keep his panic down to a low grade simmer. He takes the note out of his pocket again, unfolds it and runs his fingers over it, trying to understand. Keep you safe, it says, over and over.

Harry twists his hands together and thinks safe from what?

“Hey,” says Gemma, like she’s trying not to spook him, and Harry looks up, jolts a bit.

He takes the cup of tea she hands him and sips at it slowly, not really bothered that it scalds his tongue. Louis always gets on him for that, tells him to be careful. “Hi,” answers Harry, relieved that his voice appears to more or less back to normal.

There’s a pause. The house is silent save for the quiet hum of the radiator, and Harry blinks slowly, tips his head back against the couch for one quick moment before shifting back to face Gemma. Her eyes are wide and worried, concern in every line of her face.

She twitches her mouth a bit like she’s deciding what to say before asking, “what happened?”

“Um,” says Harry, and just trying to answer has tears pricking at his eyes again. “I woke up, and Louis was gone. He left a note.”

He gives it to her, and it doesn’t escape anyone’s attention that his hand is trembling. She doesn’t say anything about it, though, just smoothes it out on her lap much like Harry had when he first woke up and reads it over, furrow between her brows deepening as she does. When she finishes, she looks back up, and the worry on her face has multiplied. “Harry,” she says, alarmed, “what’s this about?”

“I don’t know,” he manages, though it’s mostly choked and twisted up in his throat. “He was acting kind of weird for a bit, and then I would overhear him talking on the phone but I could never tell what he was talking about, and then… I woke up this morning, and all there was was this note on his side of the bed. But his stuff is still here, Gem. I don’t know if this was planned, or if he’s coming back, or-” His voice peters out into crying again, and his head hurts, eyes gritty, but he can’t seem to stop. It’s just that Louis was here and now he’s not, and he’d said that it’s dangerous for Harry to be here, and Harry has the worst crawling feeling that Louis is in trouble and Harry doesn’t have the slightest idea as to what could have happened.

“Oh, Harry,” says Gemma, kind and soft and worried, and she comes to sit next to him, puts an arm around his shoulders. “You’re all right,” she says quietly, “you’re okay. You’ll move in with me for a bit, okay? And then we’ll get to the bottom of all this.”

Harry recoils from the idea of leaving, just in case Louis comes back. “What if he gets here and I’m not here?”

“He wouldn’t expect you to be,” answers Gemma, logical as always. “He told you to stay at mine, didn’t he? Looks like he got mixed up in some trouble, but we’ll figure it out, okay? Just stay at mine for a bit, yeah?”

She’s asking simple questions, tone nearly coddling, but Harry is grateful for it. “Okay,” he says, finally. “Let me get my stuff.”

Gemma nods, rubs his arm. “I’ll help you pack up.”

Together they fill up a duffel bag, and Harry brings his work things, and he figures he’ll have to come back at some point but for now this is going to need to be good enough. He keeps expecting Louis to jump out and laugh even now, hopes for it even as he knows it won’t happen.

Gemma finds him standing in the bedroom a few minutes after they’ve finished gathering things, and she sighs a bit, not unkindly. “Let’s go, bud.”

She only calls him that when he’s really a mess, and this… it fits, doesn’t it. It fits. “Okay,” he breathes, barely audible, and hoists the bag over his shoulder, carries it out to her car.

Leaves the house behind.

*

“It sounds like he- I’m not sure, like he got mixed up with something bad and needed to leave quickly. It seemed really bad, though, mum. It’s not the kind of letter you leave when you know you’ll be right back. He thinks Harry is in danger. It’s frightening.”

Harry rolls over, squints against the bright afternoon light. “Gemma?” he asks, momentarily disoriented.

Gemma turns around in the doorway, looking guilty. “I’ll call you later, mum. Yeah, love you, bye.” She rings off quickly and steps over to the bed, gesturing to the cup of water left on the night table. Harry drinks it gratefully, isn’t sure how he can feel dehydrated after today but figures it must be all the tears. “How’re you feeling?”

Harry tries to take inventory of his body, finds everything working mostly fine except for the crush of sadness in his chest and the pulsing ache behind his eyes. “Shitty,” he answers, and she just nods, chewing at her lower lip.

“You really don’t know what could’ve happened?”

“I told you I don’t,” he replies, feeling a bit agitated. “What, do you think I lied?”

He must hit the nail on the head, because Gemma looks away, tucks a piece of hair behind her ear. It’s a nervous tick that the two of them share, and it makes something heavy sink in Harry’s stomach. “Just,” she starts, halting, “if he’s gone and gotten himself into trouble, and you’re in danger because of it… you don’t have to protect him from his own choices.”

“You’re kidding,” he answers immediately, not missing a beat. “You know him, how can you say that? Do you really think he’d be that selfish? He’s trying to keep me safe, Gemma, and I don’t know what happened, but I trust him. You- I can’t believe you’d think so little of him.” He’s rambling, he knows, and he wants to keep going but he cuts himself off at the last second, realizing that it’s probably not a productive road to go down.

Gemma picks at her cuticles. “I do know him,” she says slowly, “but that note is dark, H. It’s not someone having a laugh.”

Outside, a car rushes past, and then another. Harry can still hear his own heartbeat above the traffic. “I know,” he says, low. “I know that.”

He’s scared, too. He’s worried, too.

She nods and stands up, looking drained. Harry can’t imagine how he himself looks after the day he’s had. “Let me know if you need anything,” she says, and that’s all, and then she’s walking out of the room.

Harry nods belatedly, says, “thanks,” but she’s already gone.

*

The next day passes in an awful, grinding lurch. He makes breakfast in the kitchen and feels his hands shake on the kettle when he starts up a brew, and then he calls in sick to work and gets chewed out over the phone for not giving more warning, and then he calls Louis about twelve times and hears it go straight to voicemail about twelve times, and then he freezes in the middle of a redial because-

“Gemma,” he says, and Gemma looks up from her laptop, “shit, what am I going to tell his family?”

She looks about as lost as he feels.

He should stop and hear out her point of view, but he can’t stop talking, mind whirling faster than he can keep up with. “I don’t want to scare them for no reason,” he continues, “because what if it’s dangerous for them, too? They can’t go anywhere. They have the babies--they can’t just uproot their lives, and I don’t know if Louis left anything for them. I’d have heard from Jay, right? If she’d gotten anything? I’d have heard from her.” He can’t help but get worked up, hears his voice go thready and panicky and can do nothing to stop it.

It doesn’t help that every few seconds he feels the hair on the back of his neck stand up, like someone is watching him. He can’t help but think about that picture, about whether it’s related to any of this. Whether there really are people following his every move.

“Hey,” says Gemma, and his attention snaps back to the present moment, “she probably would’ve told you, but I’d try to get a hold of mum, first, before she goes talking to Jay. Assuming she hasn’t already.”

“Right,” says Harry, standing up, pushing away from the table. “I’ll go do that right now.” He doesn’t bother telling Gemma that it wasn’t her place to share, because for all Harry knows, it was. For all he knows the police should be involved, or the government, or whatever other help they can get. It’s just that Louis said not to look for him, and Harry can’t help but wonder what the situation is. If Louis will get hurt because Harry tried to meddle when he shouldn’t have, or if someone else will.

He makes the call quickly, and his mum seems confused but she agrees after Harry begs for a few minutes and downplays the situation as hard as he can. Louis has never been the flight risk in this relationship but he does get bored easily, and Harry breathes a heavy sigh of relief when he hangs up the phone and realizes that he’s managed to keep this contained.

By the time it’s all said and done it’s well past lunch time, and Harry’s stomach is growling, but it seems almost wrong to sit down and have a meal when Louis is out there somewhere, likely in trouble. “You need to eat,” says Gemma, ever the voice of reason. “You’re no help to anyone if you’re weak or hungry, c’mon.”

It’s easy enough, then, to order a takeaway and take a shower, try to scrub the misery of the past two days off of his body. It doesn’t work, but it was worth a shot.

Lunch is quiet, and the rest of the afternoon is quiet, and the rest of the evening is quiet

And the next day passes in the same awful haze, and the sun is starting to set, and Harry thinks, more than a little dismally, where would I even start? He’s tried Louis’ work, tried calling the post office, tried retracing his steps-

Oh, he thinks, and then Harry he sits up so fast he feels dizzy with it.

He feels immensely stupid for not having put any pieces together sooner. He knows exactly where he needs to go.

He can’t believe he didn’t figure it out before this, but it’s better late than never. “Gem!” he yells, grabbing his coat, “I’m going out! Need to check something!”

Her answers is muffled where it comes from the other room, but he blusters out the door anyway, wind biting into his cheeks and nose and making him feel like he needs to head straight back inside and thaw out. He has work to do first, though. Things that need attending to.

He jumps into the car and blasts the heat, rubs his hands together and puts it into drive. He should’ve done this yesterday, he thinks, or first thing this morning. He should’ve called ahead, maybe. He should’ve done a lot of things.

The drive is surreal, maybe because he’s still processing the events that transpired, or maybe because there’s a thick mist surrounding London, gray and nearly impenetrable, and he has to take it slow because he’s scared he’ll hit something. It’s the kind of weather that makes Harry nervous. It’s the kind of weather that usually keeps him inside, but not today.

Here we go, thinks Harry, rubbing his hands together and trying to make them feel more like hands and less like actual icicles. This is the moment of truth, or it’s just Harry following a hunch out of desperation. Either way, he’s putting all of his heart into this. Every last bit of it.

*

“So Louis didn’t want to drop by?” asks Niall ten minutes later, the two of them cupping steaming mugs of tea in their hands. His tone is casual, but Harry sees a bit of tension in his face and in his shoulders, thinks Niall really does know more than he’s let on.

Harry takes a moment to breathe before answering. “No,” he says. “That’s actually what I came to ask you about.”

Niall’s eyes shoot up, and there, thinks Harry, got him. “I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about,” tries Niall, but it’s clear that he does. He probably thinks Harry knows exactly what’s going on, and Harry isn’t going to give up that advantage by revealing that he doesn’t, in fact, have a single clue. “You weren’t supposed to come back here, anyway.”

“Oh,” says Harry, “after the party?”

“Yes,” says Niall, short.

Harry thinks back to the gunshots, to the fear that twisted up inside him. It’s related, then. “Louis’ in trouble,” he replies slowly. “I need to know how bad it is.”

“Didn’t come to small talk, did you, christ,” answers Niall, sounding a bit taken aback, but he’s not wrong. Harry came for answers. He came to be reassured that Louis is okay, except apparently he isn’t, and apparently it’s bad, and Harry doesn’t know how to fix any of it.

“Please,” says Harry. It’s quiet, and it isn’t as desperate as it could be, and Niall looks like he’s about to run out of his own house, make a break for it and leave Harry here alone.

This house doesn’t hum like Harry and Louis’ does. Instead, the silence is thick like a blanket. The house itself is warm, even homey, but the memories Harry has are enough to make him shiver under his jumper. “This isn’t something I can do here,” answers Niall after a too-long pause. “If you really want to know specifics, we’ll have to meet somewhere else.”

Harry’s heartbeat picks back up, so loud it feels like it’s thundering in his chest. “Okay,” he says, way too fast to be casual. “Okay, that’s fine. I don’t mind.”

Niall looks at him carefully. “Are you sure this is something you want to get mixed up in? You don’t even have any abilities yourself, do you?”

Abilities, Niall had said, weighty like it was capitalized. Harry doesn’t think he means physical ability, like walking or speaking or running or jumping. “I’m sure,” he says, instead of blurting out any of the questions that are trying to crawl up his throat. “I’m sure.”

*

They end up meeting at a coffeeshop the next day, and Harry didn’t tell Gemma where he was going or who he was meeting because he didn’t want her to worry, but he’s starting to wonder if that was a mistake. He doesn’t know what to expect from this. Their quick talk the day before left him jittery and restless, too many possibilities swirling around to do him any good.

When Niall saunters up, he doesn’t look enthused, either, and Harry thinks that neither of them really know what they’ve gotten themselves into with this.

They order drinks and take a table in the corner, and Harry clenches his hands into fists and then unclenches them. “Right,” says Niall, the first thing either of them says, “we can’t talk about much here, but some is okay as long as we don’t get into specifics.”

“Okay,” says Harry, nodding. He hadn’t slept much last night, and he can feel it in the ache at the base of his skull, heavy and miserable. “Can we go over specifics somewhere else?”

Niall checks over his shoulder before answering. He’s skittish, fidgety. It’s making Harry nervous, too. “My mate has a flat nearby,” he says. “If you’re okay with it, we can go there in a bit.”

Harry tries to remember the Niall that was so bright he practically glowed, the one that invited them into his home and clapped them on the shoulders and grinned like a beacon. This Niall is subdued and tired-looking but Harry is a good judge of character, and Niall has passed all of his tests so far. “I’m okay with that. But, like. Who were the people, when…? At your house. At the party.”

It looks like Niall is chewing on the inside of his cheek. “It’s a long story,” he says. “I wanted to talk to Louis about all of this personally, but obviously we got interrupted.” Yeah, thinks Harry, a little hysterically, interrupted by literal gunfire. “I’m not even sure why I’m trusting you,” Niall continues, “but if you’re involved already, you’re probably not safe where you are.”

“Louis said that, too,” offers Harry, and he has that feeling again, the hair standing up on the back of his neck, like he’s being watched. “He said that I wasn’t safe. I went to stay with my sister.”

Niall nods, but he doesn’t look pleased. Harry looks down and swishes his coffee around in the cup. “You’re not safe in this part of the city at all, mate.” Niall sounds apologetic as he says it, and Harry’s spine straightens a bit, nervous hum under his skin.

“Let’s-” starts Harry, right as Niall says, “maybe we should-”

The two of them stop, laugh a little, and the tension eases. “Let’s go,” says Harry, “to your mate’s house. He’s not, like, a serial killer or anything, right?”

Niall snorts. “Nah, he wouldn’t hurt a fly if he could avoid it.”

Harry very carefully doesn’t focus on if he could avoid it. “Good,” says Harry, and realizes he has nothing else to say. It all depends on the rest.

“Christ,” says Niall as they walk out of the shop, “it’s fucking freezing, was it this cold last winter? My balls are about to fall off.”

Last winter, Harry and Louis were celebrating six months of being engaged and drinking hot cocoa, and all Harry remembers is the sweet warmth. Now, he pulls his coat tighter around his middle, tugs his beanie lower so it covers his ears. “Don’t know,” he says vaguely, and they’re mostly quiet for the rest of the walk.

The flat they come up to is rather nondescript, and Harry feels silly for having expected anything else. After the extravagance of Niall’s house, though, and the weird vibes Harry has been getting from the entire situation, he’d maybe thought they’d be walking up to something a little less… normal. “This it?” he asks, and manages to keep the confusion out of his voice.

“Yeah,” answers Niall, and then he pounds on the door. “Oi! Zayn! Open up! Sorry,” and this he directs at Harry again, “he’s always got the music turned up so loud, or he’s sleeping, and it’s a nightmare to try to get him to the door.” Harry just shrugs agreeably, shifting back and forth on his feet. “Zayn! I swear to god-”

The door, unexpectedly, swings open, and Harry almost stumbles back, startled. “I heard you the first time,” says the boy on the other side, expression dark, and he turns around and walks back into the flat without another word, leaving the door hanging open on its hinges.

“He’s just moody,” says Niall, grinning cheerfully, and Harry blinks at him.

“Right,” he mumbles, and tucks his hands into his pockets as he follows Niall inside.

It’s blessedly warm, and the decor is interesting, not quite fitting the cookie cutter exterior. There are paintings on the walls that look like graffiti on canvas, and the knick knacks are small and strategically placed. Even so, it still looks like a twenty-something man lives here, a jacket strewn messily over the back of the couch and papers all over the desk in the corner.

The man, Zayn, is regarding Harry with an unimpressed brow raised. “Niall, if you came to get high and then fuck off, I’m not in the mood.”

“Um,” says Harry.

Niall rolls his eyes spectacularly and engulfs Zayn in a hug. Harry half expects Niall to get punched, what with the tetchy expression that had been on Zayn’s face, but Zayn just returns the hug and melts a little, pressing a tiny kiss to Niall’s temple as they pull away. The easy affection has something in Harry’s stomach settling; Niall is good people, Harry is pretty sure. Zayn is hopefully good people, too.

“You’re a terrible host, Zayner,” laughs Niall.

Zayn laughs, too, but also looks like he’s considering flipping Niall off. “Sorry,” he says, “I’m Zayn. This is my flat, obviously.”

“I’m Harry. Niall said we could talk about… things, here.” Harry feels woefully out of his depth, but he’s felt out of his depth since the very beginning and it hasn’t really stopped him, so. He’s just going to keep running with it for now.

Zayn and Niall share a glance, and Harry feels like they’re having an entire conversation with just their eyes. He can do that with Gemma, and with Louis, too, so he gets it, but it’s never fun to be on the outside of that. “What kind of things,” asks Zayn slowly, barely lilting it up. It’s more a demand than a question.

As Harry is about to answer, Niall huffs. “Can we at least sit, man?”

Zayn takes a breath and nods. “Yeah, of course, sorry. D’you want something to drink, or are we good?”

Niall takes a seat on the loveseat, Zayn collapsing next to him, and Harry perches on the edge of the easy chair, not quite comfortable enough to sink back into it regardless of how soft it feels. Like this, it seems like he’s talking to Zayn and Niall as a unit, that he’ll have to impress the both of them or get nowhere. Like they’re a team. “I’m fine,” says Niall, and it shakes Harry out of his stupor.

“No, thank you,” he answers as well, because they did just have a drink and Harry was raised to be polite, and then he folds his hands and puts them in his lap to stop himself from fidgeting. “Okay. So… uh, my fiancé disappeared three days ago.”

Zayn’s eyebrows scrunch up. “Okay?” he says, looking confused and very much like he wants to be doing something that isn’t this. Harry’s heart sinks.

Niall elbows Zayn in the side. “His fiancé is Louis,” he says, “the one we talked about.”

“From the party?”

Niall nods. “That’s the one.”

Zayn sucks in a breath. “Well, shit.”

“I know,” answers Niall.

Harry feels like he’s watching a ping pong match, eyes flicking back and forth between the two of them as they communicate. “Do you know him?” he asks, once he can’t hold it back any longer. They look up like they’d forgotten Harry was there. “I mean, it just sounds like you know him.”

Zayn shoots Harry a half-shrug. “Not personally, but I know who he is.”

“Can I ask how you know that?” This conversation is like pulling teeth, but Harry will do it if he needs to. He’ll do it.

“Long story,” answers Zayn, but he seems to realize that they have the time for it, settling back further into the couch and rolling out some of the tension in his shoulders. “Have you ever heard of the IDF?”

Harry scans his brain, finds nothing. “I haven’t.”

“Okay,” says Zayn, “well, it’s short for International Defense Force. But it’s not, like, an army, or anything. It’s more like a special unit. It deals with threats that the United Nations wants to keep low on the exposure list for now. Like, ah… people like Louis.”

Just the sound of his name is enough to make something twist inside of Harry’s chest, like his lungs are getting shredded through. “People like Louis?” he parrots, unable to do more. He knows the shock is written all over his face, though maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe he’s supposed to be playing it cool.

Zayn softens, though, like he’s not surprised Harry doesn’t know. “We don’t think he’s a bad person, or anything,” and Harry tucks away the we carefully, is maybe starting to see how Zayn plays into all of this, “but. How much do you know about his abilities?”

Harry looks to Niall, trying to figure out if honesty will get him kicked out. If this is something he isn’t meant to hear. Niall just nods, though, unreadable, and Harry gulps a breath. “Nothing,” he says.

The silence is heavy, pressing. Harry swallows thickly and can’t help feeling like he’s done something wrong.

He’s about to speak up again when Zayn visibly softens, leaning forward. “It’ll be a lot to take in, if I tell you. Right now you’re on the YNM’s hit list, but being associated with us will make it even more dangerous for you. So you need to make a choice. It doesn’t have to be this second, but you need to decide if you’re willing to get tangled up in this, because the risk is high. I won’t lie to you about that. The risk is really, really high, if you want to know.”

Think about it, is what Zayn is saying. Be careful. Walk away if you don’t think you can handle it.

Harry thinks to his empty bed. “I’m in,” he says, barely missing a beat. Zayn’s eyes go slightly wider, betraying his surprise. “I’m already in danger, anyway. It’s only fair that I know the stakes, and what this all even means. I woke up one day and my fiancé was gone. I just want to know what happened to him.”

“Harry, mate-” says Niall, tone pleading and gentle like he wants to persuade Harry to take another minute to decide.

“I’m not changing my mind,” he snaps, just a little too sharp.

He knows, is the thing. And it’s not that he isn’t scared, but he isn’t going to keep himself in the dark when Louis is god knows where, he isn’t- he can’t do nothing. He really, really can’t do nothing.

Zayn looks him over once, quick and clinical, and Harry tilts his chin up defiantly. “Okay,” he says, nodding once at Harry, businesslike, “here’s the story, then. Louis has been on our radar for a long time. He probably doesn’t know that, but we’ve had eyes on him. Usually, we don’t have problems, and he was never going to be an issue, but the YNM hacked our systems two months ago and stole some data before we managed to get them out of our file storage. One of those files belonged to Louis.”

“He’s really powerful,” says Niall, and the laugh lines around his eyes are softer now, subdued. “It’s not surprising that they wanted him. It’s hard to explain what he does in technical terms, but basically, well, he controls the weather.”

“He controls the weather,” answers Harry, flat. They’re fucking with me, he thinks.

“Well,” cuts in Zayn, “he can, but he’s never really been able to control it fully. He’s never been volatile to the point that it’s dangerous, but it seems to be tied to his psyche.”

Harry looks at the two of them, at their solemn faces and tense jaws, and immediately wants to leave. This is a waste of his time, and he isn’t going to sit around and be made fun of when he can be out there looking for Louis. He doesn’t know where he’d start, exactly, but at least he’d be doing something productive. “Stop,” he says, “just- stop.” He feels overheated, ridiculous. “None of what you’re saying makes any sense.”

They look at him like he’s the one that’s saying something absurd. “I know it’s a lot to take in,” tries Niall, but Harry is shaking his head before Niall even finishes the sentence.

“It’s not funny, okay? It’s not funny to me. My fiancé is missing, and he was getting threats, I think, or something, and I don’t have time for this. I’ve never heard of anyone being able to do… stuff like that, and even if people could, Louis would have told me.” He feels tears starting to prick at the corners of his eyes. “He would have told me.”

Zayn’s eyes have gone hard again, cold. “Do you think he’d have told you if he’d thought you’d react like this? Telling him it’s not real? That it’s not funny?”

“What,” bursts out Harry, “like you’d know?”

It’s the exactly wrong thing to say, he realizes. Zayn’s hands are clenched into fists at his sides, and Niall looks nervous, tugging at his shirt to keep his hands occupied. “As a matter of fact,” says Zayn, and he’s fuming, now, isn’t he, “I would.”

Harry doesn’t mean for his jaw to drop. “Bullshit.” It’s supposed to be a scathing retort, but it just comes out a little disbelieving, even awed.

Niall turns, puts a hand on Zayn’s shoulder. “Hey,” he says, so low that Harry knows he probably shouldn’t be privy to it, “you don’t have to.”

“I know that,” answers Zayn, closer to a normal volume, “but he’s right. Why should he believe us? It all sounds like a load of crap without any proof.”

Niall shrugs, like ya got me there, and Zayn nods like I need to do this. Harry is still slack-jawed.

“If I do this,” says Zayn, “you’re in. We can’t risk you leaving and talking about this. If I do this, then you’re committed.”

There isn’t another option. Harry nods, mute.

Outside, the stillness is almost complete, a blanket of snow over the entire city, everything gray and dark and quiet. Inside, Harry shivers through four layers.

Zayn stands up, and he’s small but he looks dangerous where he looms above Harry. His sharp features are even sharper in the dying light; he barely looks human, thinks Harry, and then has to choke down a hysterical laugh. He wants to ask whether he’s about to be killed, but then Zayn is taking a deep breath and standing a little taller, and then a little taller, and then-

Harry looks down at his feet, and it’s then that he realizes that Zayn has lifted clear off the floor, shoes hovering in mid-air.

He feels his halfhearted protest stick right in his throat. “Oh my god,” he chokes. His eyes must be saucers with the incredulous way he’s staring. “How are you doing that?”

Zayn chuckles a bit, and his face is so different when he’s smiling. It’s more open, less terrifying by spades. “I’ve always been able to,” he answers with a little shrug, but Harry reads some tension in his shoulders, like he’s playing humble when it’s not as easy as it looks.

“Is that how it is for everyone?” He can’t help the awe in his tone, the way the fight has gone out of him at seeing this. Louis, his Louis, can do something incredible and impossible. It’s taken his breath away.

When Niall speaks up, Harry’s head snaps over to look at him. “Not really,” says Niall, easy. “Took me ages to even realize I was special.” He says “special” like it has quotes around it, like he’s making fun of himself.

Harry needs to shut his mouth. That’s how you catch flies, his mum would tell him, but he’s too gobsmacked. “You too?”

Niall laughs. “Yep. Enhanced senses. Could hear you coming from a mile away.”

Harry snorts, unable to help it, and Zayn groans, smacking Niall on the back of his head. Niall beams at Harry, though, and it warms him up a bit. “So what does this have to do with Louis?” he asks, and he’s trying to stay positive but he can feel how it sobers the mood of the room. “Do you know where he is?”

“Kind of,” says Niall, which isn’t quite an answer, but he seems to be looking to Zayn. Harry wonders what their dynamic actually is; he’d assumed they were just friends, but this seems more complicated, like Niall is asking Zayn for permission.

Zayn sighs, floating back to the ground and running a hand through his messy hair. “You’ll need to come to the base with us.”

“The base?”

“The base,” confirms Zayn. “It’s an hour outside of London, really quiet area, good for lying low. It’s where our task force is centered.”

Harry is hyperaware of his entire body, feels like he’s being pulled inside out. There’s too much going on, and he hasn’t even finished processing the fact that powers are real, and that Louis has them, and it’s linked to why he’s gone. “I have a job,” he says, instead of blurting out some of the questions he so desperately wants to ask. “I can’t just leave.”

Niall is shaking his head before Harry finished, though. “They’ll have figured out where you work,” he says, and Harry can’t help but think about that blurry photograph of the back of his head. “It’s way too dangerous. Harry, I’m sorry, but we can’t let you go back there. Especially now that you know what you know.”

“I wouldn’t say anything,” he grumbles, annoyed.

Zayn walks right into Harry’s line of sight, planes of his face hard and unyielding. “What if they were torturing you? What if they held a knife to your neck? Would you say something then?”

Harry swallows hard. Zayn’s just trying to scare him into silence, right? That wouldn’t actually happen. He knew it was bad, but imagining that as any kind of possible scenario makes him feel sick. He must be silent for long enough, because Zayn nods, unsurprised, and turns around. “We’ll leave now, then. We have clothes and toiletries there, you don’t need to bring anything.”

Harry’s immediate instinct is to protest. “Can’t I at least tell my sister where I’m going?”

Zayn turns back, eyes still cold. “You’d get her involved? Do you want that?”

“Just to let her know I’m alive, then. That I’m okay. Please.” He feels like he’s being kidnapped, even as he’s getting the answers he’d gone looking for in the first place.

“We’ll handle that,” says Zayn. His harsh expression fades into something less severe. “Family is important, and I get that. You have my word that we’ll handle it, and she’ll be safe, and you’ll be safe.”

“Hey,” offers Niall, quieter. Harry looks up. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

Harry nods, and the two of them navigate to the small kitchen. Harry feels too exposed under the fluorescent lights, but every bit of Niall looks kind, and it helps him relax.

Niall leans against the counter. “So Zayn can be kind of intense.”

Harry huffs a laugh, but it’s mostly mirthless, a gust of air. “Kind of, yeah. It’s just a lot to take in.”

“I know,” says Niall, and he looks so earnest. “I know it is, and if we didn’t need you to come with us, we wouldn’t ask you to. But when it comes to this stuff, Zayn’s one of the best. He’s a good leader, and a good person, and I trust him with my life. You don’t have to worry.”

Harry nods slowly. “So is he in charge, then?”

Niall’s face does something strange, but it smoothes over a split-second later. “Kind of. He’s technically the second, but the hierarchy doesn’t matter that much, really.”

“Okay,” says Harry, doesn’t bother getting further into it yet. “I...you can understand why I’m hesitant, right? I barely even know you, let alone Zayn, and this is mad. It’s crazy.”

Niall smiles, and Harry offers him a small smile in return. “It’s a lot to take in,” says Niall. “But I think-”

He cuts off right there, head tilting like he’s listening, and then he freezes, tensing up. “Shit,” he mumbles under his breath, and then he seems to remember that Harry is in the room. “Go get Zayn, tell him we’re leaving. Now.”

“What?” asks Harry, alarmed. “Is something wrong?”

Niall ignores him. “Get Zayn,” he bites out, warmth having bled right out from him. He looks like he’s coiled to fight, ready to snap at any given moment. Is this their life, then? Will this be Harry’s if he goes with them? Does he even have a choice?

He hazards one last glance at Niall before striding into the living room. Zayn is on his phone on the couch, and Harry says, “Niall says we need to go,” lets the urgency in his tone fill in the rest of the blanks.

Zayn springs up from the couch, starting to grab various items and shove them into a knapsack. “Whats going on?” he asks, terse.

“I haven’t the slightest,” answers Harry, and if he sounds a bit panicked then that’s because is. “He just froze and like, was listening, and then said we need to go right now.”

It’s that moment that Niall picks to walk out of the kitchen, face pale. “They must have hacked into security footage,” says Niall. “We need to go before they get here and pull the place apart.”

“Damn it,” Zayn bites out. “Let’s go, then.”

“Who’s they?” asks Harry, but he’s ignored in the shuffle, and he figures he’ll have more time to ask later.

Niall doesn’t grab anything and Zayn packs light, so they’re out the door just thirty seconds later, hustling in the frigid snow and piling into what must be Zayn’s car. Harry is alone in the backseat, and though his legs are not thrilled with the contained quarters, it’s nice to get even the tiniest bit of space to himself to process everything. Zayn peels out of the parking spot quickly, and they’re zooming down the interstate before Harry knows it. In the back window, Harry can see people running, but then Zayn turns a corner and Harry stops being able to see anything but the gray of the road.

There are a few close calls with lane changes, and Harry finds himself gripping the door handle for dear life. “How are you allowed to drive?” he asks, adrenaline in his veins covering up the overly-familiar tone.

Zayn grins at him in the mirror. “Funny story,” he says, and looks sharp, dangerous, amused, “I never got my license.”

I’m going to die in this car, thinks Harry, and then he thinks it again when they almost swerve off the road.

Niall just laughs, whooping as they maneuver terrifyingly, and Harry tries to think about anything that isn’t his impending death in a fiery pile of scrap metal.

“Buckle up,” says Zayn, still grinning, “we’re an hour out.”

Harry shuts his eyes and holds on.

*

“Um,” says Harry, trying not to be rude. “So this is it?”

He didn’t quite know what to expect, but a tiny building masquerading as a malt shop was not it. The sign on the front is pale pink and fading fast, “ONE CONFECTION” etched in neat cursive, and it’s slightly off center, sad and shoddy. The entire front of the shop is shoddy, to be honest, from the grimy windows to the flickering OPEN sign. He really, really doesn’t want to be rude, but he’s back to thinking that this whole thing is just a very elaborate prank.

There’s just a beat of silence more before Niall bursts into laughter. “C’mon,” he says, leading the way inside. Harry follows, and the interior looks like a functioning malt shop. Harry wonders if maybe there’s something out the back, or if this really is a joke.

They keep walking, and end up heading through a door that reads employees only. “Ready to see the real base?” asks Zayn. Something in his eyes tells Harry that he’s only just getting started.

“Yeah,” says Harry.

Zayn opens another door that leads to a staircase, and they start to descend.

It must be six or seven flights of stairs before they finally come to a stop, and Harry really should’ve guessed that it would be underground. There aren’t many other buildings around here, and all of the empty space leaves even more room below the surface.

There’s a heavy looking steel door in front of them that says authorized personnel only, and Zayn does an eye scan on the keypad next to it and says, “here with Niall and a guest, he’s with me,” and Harry thinks he might have accidentally stumbled into a sci-fi movie for how advanced and confusing this all is.

And then the door opens with a hiss, and Harry’s jaw drops for the third time today.

There are people everywhere.

It’s like a wall of sound slams into them, and Niall guides him forward with a nudge when he realizes that Harry has frozen in place. “This is the main entrance,” he whispers. “We’re going to our team’s base, a little further down.”

“Okay,” whispers Harry back, and it feels like his head is on a swivel with how much he’s looking around. He just wants to take it all in. There are people running around all over the place, many with folders or briefcases in hand. Some of them are barking into headsets, while other are sitting and working at desks. The vibe is like that of a garage, except it’s a much larger space, sectioned off by groups of cubicles. Everything is sleek and gray, metal and concrete, and Harry feels very, very small.

Zayn and Niall weave through the chaos expertly, nodding at people every once in a while or giving hushed updates. Harry keeps up as best he can; it’s not easy when he feels so wildly out of his depth, but he manages it in the end.

They finally come to an elevator at the end of a hall near the back of the headquarters, and Harry steps in when they prompt him to. “We’re on the sixth floor,” says Zayn, punching the button for STF: PH.

“What’s it stand for?”

“Well,” answers Niall, “Kind of boring, but it’s ‘Special Task Force: Project Hurricane.’ We’re the task force. Obviously.”

Harry nods. “Why hurricane? Like, who picked the name?”

Unexpectedly, Zayn laughs. “Oh, it was Liam’s idea. He’s, like, he does stuff like that. Thinks he’s clever.” Harry would read it as snide except for the fondness in Zayn’s eyes. He goes to ask who Liam is, but Zayn reads the curiosity right off of his face; it makes Harry feel a bit transparent. “He’s the one in charge of us. The head of the task force.”

“Yup,” agrees Niall. “He recruited the lot of us, motley crew that we are. Zayn’s his second because of blatant favoritism.”

“Hey,” protests Zayn mildly.

Niall shrugs. “It’s true.”

Zayn doesn’t argue that, and Harry allows himself a small smile, because it is kind of funny. “Will I meet Liam, then? And is he, like, as young as you all?”

The elevator lurches to a stop, and Harry’s stomach lights back up with nerves. “You’ll see him around,” says Niall. “And yeah, same age. For this project, age is less important than ability.”

Oh, thinks Harry, right. He’s about to step into the home of people with abilities that he’s never even imagined--a task force, one that was set up with an express purpose, and one that makes him rather nervous. He hadn’t even known this agency existed until a few hours ago, and now he’s going right to the heart of it.

The door slides open, and the scene is rather similar to the one earlier, just on a smaller scale. There are one or two people walking through the center briskly, and the side wall has some doors. In the middle space, there are six desks set up in the middle of the room, each with a different kind of disarray on top. One of the people, a small girl with wide eyes, darts over to them immediately.

“Hi,” she chirps, accent strong and a bit Geordie. “Is this a friend of his, then?”

“His fiancé,” says Zayn. “Came looking for answers because Louis was gone. YNM nearly got to him first.”

The girl’s expression drops, hard and fast. She turns to Harry. “I’m sorry to hear that.” Her expression says that she’d rather be asking more questions, but she seems to be holding back, keeping her attention on Harry. “I’m Jade, it’s nice to meet you.”

“Harry,” he answers, holding out a hand to shake. Her small fingers are dwarfed in his hand, but her grip is strong, firm, confident. Jade pulls back for a moment like she’s inspecting him for injuries, careful to examine every bit of him. He feels hot under her gaze, weird and off kilter.

She stops after a minute or so, nodding to herself. “You’re in good hands here,” she tells him earnestly. “We’re pleased to have you.”

He swallows once, a bit thick. “Thanks.”

“Well,” she says, “I’ve got to get those diagnostics to Liam, but I’m sure I’ll be talking to you later.” She directs that last bit toward Niall and Zayn, who both nod and wish her well. “It was good to meet you, Harry, really,” she adds, and then she’s flitting off, darting between desks and chairs and people and disappearing into an office toward the back.

Not a second after she’s gone, Zayn spins on Niall. “You warned Liam, right? That we were bringing him? And you filled him in on what happened?”

Niall doesn’t meet Zayn’s eyes, looking guilty. “Well,” he says, “uh-”

“He’s going to murder us,” laments Zayn. “We’re actually going to die.”

“He’s going to murder me, you mean,” retorts Niall. “You’re his favorite, he’ll forgive you immediately.”

Zayn smirks the tiniest smirk like maybe he agrees, but he nudges Niall anyway, shoves him a bit. “I need to go deal with this, then. You go show Harry to his room.”

Niall nods, and Zayn disappears the same way Jade went. Harry spares a moment to wonder if Liam is really as terrifying as he is in Harry’s head; he knows that the guy is supposed to be their age, but Harry can’t help but imagine, like, James Bond, or someone else that’s old and experienced and scary. Drinks whiskey right out of the bottle, probably.

When he shares that last bit with Niall, he receives raucous laughter in return. “Liam doesn’t drink,” he says, still chuckling. “He’s got a bum kidney, and he’s too responsible for that anyway. Likes to run a tight ship, you know the type.”

Harry really, really doesn’t, but he lets it go. A lot of things seem very military around here, and he wonders what section of the government this is under. Must be defense, he thinks, remembers the name. Must be something with an edge.

They go through one of the doors at the wall and come out into a hallway, a series of doors smattered throughout. “There are the bunks,” says Niall. “We stay here when we need to, or when we start a project full time. Otherwise, we have our own places.”

If Louis were here, he’d make a quip about the pay, how Niall’s house must have cost a small fortune. Just the thought makes Harry’s chest ache.

“You’ll be staying in my room,” offers Niall after a pause. “There’s an extra bed and everything. And we’ve got clothes and toiletries and whatever else you need, too. It’s no five star hotel, but it’s not bad, I promise.”

Harry nods, content to let Niall chat a bit, and a minute or so later they come up to the door that must lead to Niall’s room. It’s unlocked, which is interesting, and inside the decorations are sparse, mostly minimalist in nature. Again, Harry thinks military. The people here seem to be mostly affable and well-adjusted, but this isn’t a summer camp. The entire place is hardwired for efficiency, or so it seems. Harry sits down on the bed that Niall doesn’t flop down on, figuring that this must be his. The light gray duvet and matching pillowcase don’t mark it as anything special, but it’s more than he’d been expecting, honestly. “There are clothes in the drawers,” says Niall, gesturing towards them. “They might be a little small, but we were expecting- we weren’t expecting you, specifically.” It’s a little stuttery, and Harry wonders if someone else was supposed to be sitting here. If they were preparing for a different person. Probably, he thinks, but he doesn’t push it.

“Thank you,” he says, instead of whose space am I taking up.

Niall stands up, claps him on the shoulder. “Bathroom is down the hall, can’t miss it. Go ahead and clean up and we’ll send Jesy in in a bit to show you round this place. I’ve got to talk to Liam, probably, and then I’ve got other things to do, but you can ask anyone here if you need something. We all know what we’re doing, more or less.”

“Okay,” says Harry, nodding. A shower sounds heavenly right about now. A nap does, too, but he doesn’t have the time for it, and he feels a bit too wired to sleep, anyway. All of this new information is making his brain run haywire, on overdrive.

Niall says a quick goodbye and he’s out the door, and then Harry is alone.

He flops back onto the bed and stares at the ceiling. He’s supposed to be at a tux fitting, he remembers suddenly. He and Louis both. They’re supposed to be finishing up preparations for the wedding and neither of them are even in London right now. He could laugh or he could cry.

Harry starts to laugh. It’s small at first, choked off and weird, but he squeezes his eyes shut and then he’s laughing in earnest, and it feels awful, and he can’t stop. He’s laughing because of how absurd this situation is. He’s laughing because of all of this hurt.

It takes him a good two minutes to settle down, laughter petering out into silence at last, and he feels wiped out.

He stands up, rummages through the drawers for some clothes, and goes to shower.

*

Jesy is slightly terrifying, Harry finds.

It doesn’t help that he feels massively awkward in joggers that end a good three inches above his ankles and a shirt that pulls across the shoulders, like he’d got caught playing dress up in someone else’s closet. He feels massively out of place here, even though he’s trying not to let on. He’s usually pretty good at making himself at home. He just also usually isn’t a maybe-prisoner in some kind of government sanctioned military-style base.

“You’re Harry,” says the girl in front of him; girl is the wrong word, honestly, but she can’t be much older than he is.

He nods. “You’re Jesy.”

She purses her lips. They’re stained a deep red. Lipstick, Harry knows, but he can’t help but think blood. Christ, he needs to get some sleep. She shoots him a ghost of a smile and beckons him out the door, and he follows her on unsteady feet, tired now that the adrenaline is dripping out of his system. “I’m giving you the full tour,” she tells him. They walk back into the hallway, and Harry nods, makes some kind of quiet affirmative sound to let her know he’s heard. “If you have questions about this place, now’s the time to ask. Our team’s pretty friendly, but we’re also busy.”

That seems fair, he surmises, and decides to try to perk up a bit, see if he can’t get some answers. “So does everyone have, like… abilities, I think Niall called them. Does everyone here have a thing?”

The smile that flickers across Jesy’s face is impossible to read. “Most,” she answers. “Not all, but most. And before you start getting any ideas, they’re usually pretty small things.”

“But,” protests Harry, though he feels silly for bringing it up, “I thought… they said Louis, he could control the weather. That’s pretty big, isn’t it?”

Jesy sighs as she turns the corner, leading Harry back out into the main room and out of the hall where the bunks are. “He’s the exception,” she tells him after a pause. “Not the rule.”

“Oh,” answers Harry. It still doesn’t make sense to him, but he gets the feeling that this isn’t his business yet, no matter how wrapped up in it he may have accidentally gotten in the last handful of days.

“This is Base Central,” she says, tour guide voice back on, and the rough edges have been smoothed out again. “It’s the work space, basically. We all have our own separate rooms in Base East, but this area is more collaborative. If you don’t need any specialized equipment, you’re usually working out here. All of our desks are mostly grouped toward the center, and then Liam’s office is over there.” She points to the room Jade and Zayn had disappeared into earlier, and Harry wonders what’s in there, why he needs to be separated from the rest of the group. Jesy seems to read the confusion in the set of his brow, and her smile quirks, goes amused at the edges. “He’s only on his own because he gets confidential reports and messages from HQ,” she tells him. “Otherwise he’s usually out here talking to us, or making sure we’re doing our jobs. He’s a good one, Liam. The rest of us wouldn’t respect him so much if he wasn’t.”

It’s more information than Harry had been expecting, and he nods gratefully, taking it in. What he’s heard about Liam doesn’t quite add up to the imposing, intimidating figure he’d built up in his head, but he figures he might as well keep his judgments to himself for the time being. “What kinds of things do you all work on?” he asks, unable to contain his curiosity. “I mean, they told me a tiny bit, but, like, do you get cases? Or….”

“You could call them cases,” allows Jesy, weaving through the desks toward a girl who appears to be working, braids falling in a curtain to cover her face from them. “This task group specifically is meant for one purpose, which is to stop YNM, one target in particular. We’ve all done a bit of fieldwork with bigger groups under IDF, though. We neutralize threats, mostly. Usually we take people in, try to rehabilitate them.”

She doesn’t mention what happens when they can’t take people in. Harry doesn’t ask, isn’t sure he wants his suspicions to be confirmed.

They reach the desk they’d been walking toward, and the girl looks up. “This is Harry,” says Jesy, introducing him to her. “He’s part of Tomlinson’s situation. Zayn and Niall brought him in because they thought he could be in danger.”

“Right, well, I’m Leigh-Anne.” Her face had gone through several different expressions during Jesy’s run down of the situation, but she settles on a bright smile, and it makes something in Harry’s shoulders unlock. They shake hands, and he gathers the courage to ask what she’s working on. She tilts her head a bit, like she thinks he has guts, before waving a hand over her desk. “Paperwork, mostly,” she tells him easily. “I have some loose ends to wrap up still from my last mission, so I’m documenting what’s happened so far to make it easier to finish.”

Jesy knocks a gentle, affectionate fist into Leigh-Anne’s temple. “She’s the patient one,” Jesy tells Harry, tone conspiratorial. “None of the rest of us have the eye for detail she does, except maybe Niall, but his work is different. Anyway, we’d be lost without her.”

“Shut up, you,” says Leigh-Anne, but the closeness between them is immediately evident, banter quick and light and easy.

Jesy squawks a laugh and jumps back out of the reach of Leigh-Anne’s retaliating smack. “We’ll leave you to it,” she concedes. “Dinner’s in half an hour, by the way. Don’t work through it again or I’ll have to come drag you myself.”

Leigh-Anne rolls her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, okay, mum. Nice to meet you, Harry.”

“You, too,” says Harry, and then Jesy is walking again, headed for the office in the corner.

“Ready to meet the boss?” she asks. “If he’s in, of course. I think he is, but he might’ve ducked out for a minute to take a call or something. We’ll see.”

She doesn’t wait for Harry’s answer before she strides right up and knocks on the door, a quick and efficient rat-tat-tat.

Harry barely even has time to be nervous before a voice tells them, “Yeah, come in.”

“He doesn’t bite,” whispers Jesy, smirking at what must be an excellent deer in headlights impression sketched across Harry’s features. Harry doesn’t much appreciate the laughter in her eyes, but he lets it go once she swings the door open, mostly because he’s worried he’s about to get kicked out or locked or something, like he’s doing something he’s not supposed to.

Sitting at the desk, though, isn’t the spitting image of James Bond. He’s nice looking, Harry can appreciate objectively, but he isn’t wearing a suit like Harry had maybe expected him to be. Instead, he’s wearing a hoodie and slouching in his seat, bending over his messy desk, different files splayed everywhere. “Hey, Jesy,” he says, without looking up. “Everything okay? How’s progress on that security footage?”

“Fine, boss,” answers Jesy, and she sounds fond. She clears her throat, then, and adds, “We have a guest, by the way. Figured you’d want to say hello.”

Liam’s head snaps up at that, and he runs a hand over his head quickly, like he’s trying to brush up. Harry bites back a smile, tries to keep his surprise off of his face--he probably fails, because he’s expressive even when he’s had enough sleep and is in a stable frame of mind, but he gives it a shot, at least. “Harry,” he says, “hi, sorry. All right?”

“Yeah, thanks,” answers Harry, shifting on his feet. “Jesy says you’re in charge.”

Liam runs a hand through his hair again. “Technically, I guess,” he answers, pulling a face. “Mostly I just relay stuff, and make sure everything's running smoothly.”

Jesy scoffs. “He works harder than the lot of us combined,” she informs Harry. Liam colors but doesn’t argue it. “Anyway,” she says, directing it back toward Liam, “just wanted to pop in and say hi. I’ll have the footage analysis to you by eleven, maybe a little later if the download stalls.”

“Great,” answers Liam, and even sounds properly enthused. “Thanks, Jesy. And Harry, let me know if you need anything. Our main priority is your safety, obviously, and I’ll probably have you in here again to ask a few questions, but if you run into any problems, you can definitely come to me with them, and I’ll help you out the best I can. We have a lot of resources here and some might be useful to you, so. Just let me know.”

Harry wonders what kind of resources are on offer. “Wow,” he says, a bit blown away, even if he knows the gesture is mostly meant to remain a gesture, “thank you, thanks. I’ll do that.”

“Sure,” says Liam amiably, if a bit distractedly, like he’d never checked out of work mode fully. “I’d better get back to this, but it was good to see the both of you.”

“Bye, Liam,” sing-songs Jesy, turning around and sauntering out of the office. Harry tosses out a quick goodbye of his own and follows her. “See,” she says, “I told you he’s a sweetheart. The best of the lot of us, really.”

Harry thinks to the kindness in Liam’s eyes, and the bags underneath them, and thinks maybe she isn’t wrong.

“Anyway,” she continues, “we’ll head to Base West next, check out some of the workspaces so you know where to find us if you need something.”

She walks through another one of the doors that’s at the end of the wall, next to the one that leads to the bunks, and Harry follows quietly, taking in the scenery. The hallway here is much the same, with the exception that it’s much, much noisier. He picks out Niall’s voice easily as it echoes past him, and he thinks he maybe hears Zayn, too. A female voice joins them, high and lyrical, and Harry thinks that it could be Jade, unless there’s someone else hanging around. There are five rooms lining the hall, all on the right side, and Jesy ducks into one of them, Harry close behind.

“This one’s mine,” she says, and Harry half-freezes in the doorway. The entire wall is covered in screens, computers on the desk, and they’re all dark now but Harry can only imagine what it looks like when they’re all lit up and displaying things. The room is rather small, accommodating the wall of screens and a desk and a couple of chairs, but it feels like a place to get work done. A place to focus.

“Whoa,” he says, mostly subconsciously. “This is awesome.”

Jesy preens. “If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m the head of tech. This is my work area. I’m in here a lot, just because my desk out in Central doesn’t have the right equipment, but the door’s usually open. I like company, if you ever get bored.”

It’s kinder than Harry would have expected in a place this cold, but he appreciates it deeply. “Thanks,” he says, “I might take you up on that,” and he fully intends to. “So is your ability, like, tied to this stuff?” He hadn’t gotten very far the first time he’d asked, but he really does want to know. This whole ‘ability’ thing is confusing even at the most basic level, and he’s having a hard time reconciling the idea with what he’s seen in person.

Jesy smiles. “I haven’t got an ability,” she says, “unless you count being able to code and deal with technology better than almost anyone else round these parts.”

“Oh,” says Harry, thrown off. “I hadn’t realized.”

“Yeah,” answers Jesy, and thankfully she seems more amused than anything else. “Us normal people can be useful, too, every once in a while.”

And that’s not what he meant, but she makes a good point, and Harry relaxes, taking a seat next to her in front of the computers. “So Liam said you were working on surveillance footage?”

Jesy nods an affirmative. “I have the footage from four different stores that overlooked the tail end of the last mission. I just need to piece together the full story, and send it off to Leigh-Anne for analysis.”

“Does she not have a thing, either?”

“She does,” says Jesy. “She works in the field sometimes, but she’s more useful here right now. If you want to know what it is she does, though, you’ll have to ask her yourself. People are a bit protective of themselves here, for obvious reasons.”

Right, thinks Harry. If their own job is to eliminate the threats that people like them pose to the world, then it makes sense that they’d play their cards close to their chests. “Would it be okay if I did ask people?”

“Most of them are fine with it. Just don’t push if you get a no, but I think you’re fine here. Other departments are a little less touchy feely, but our task force is pretty tight knit. We’re the youngest group here, so I guess it’s like we feel like we have to prove ourselves, I don’t know. Not sure why I’m telling you all this, I’m probably boring you to tears.” That amused glint is back in her eye, but Harry rushes to answer.

“No,” he says, “no, not at all. I like hearing about it. I like knowing how this place works.” He finds himself meaning it. He really is very curious, and it’s like nothing else he’s ever experienced. That vaguely seasick feeling is in the pit of his stomach and it follows him wherever he goes, thoughts of whether Louis is okay, or what their families are thinking right now, but it’s not enough to overpower the part of him that wants to learn everything he can before he has to leave.

Jesy softens. “Let’s finish the tour, then, and at dinner you can ask everyone all sorts of invasive questions.”

Harry smiles, a real smile, and says, “okay, let’s go.”

They go down the hall and poke their heads into Niall’s workspace, a room that’s mostly empty aside from a desk, a phone, and a massive filing cabinet. “He’s our stats man,” says Jesy.

“Sure am,” beams Niall. “You just missed it, but Zayn and Jade and I were looking for some new leads on the corruption mission we did last month, see if we could dig anything else up. I told Liam it was a dry case, but… captain’s orders, y’know? Nothing much to find, but we tried, at least.”

It’s mostly gibberish to Harry, but he nods along anyway, trying to keep up with Niall’s rapid fire speech. “Let me know if you need anything from my end,” says Jesy, “but yeah, case closed there, I think.”

They exchange a loaded glance that Harry can’t decipher, and then he and Jesy are filing out, headed to the final of the three doors branching out of Base Central. “Let me guess,” says Harry, “this is Base North?”

“Cheeky,” chides Jesy. “This is actually the Outreach hallway. It connects to all of the other departments on this floor. We don’t need to go in there right now, since they have jobs too and they aren’t currently working with us on anything, but it’s convenient if we need to transfer paperwork or get in touch with someone nearby.”

Harry just gets a peek down the hall, which looks mostly the same as the others had, with doors on either side, and then Jesy is shutting it, re-entering the passcode. There’s a hiss as the door clicks shut, and Harry knows immediately that there’s no getting through it without the correct code.

“Why is this the only one with a lock?” asks Harry.

Jesy’s eyes darken a bit. “There was a breach in Containment last month,” she tells him. “Better to be able to keep things like that, well, contained.”

He doesn’t ask for specifics on that particular incident, choosing instead to spare a final glance at the complicated locking system, wonders what kinds of people, things, whatever are powerful enough to elicit that kind of reaction for someone whose team deals with things like this for a living.

“That’s about it,” she says. “You saw the bathrooms and stuff by the bunks, and all of the rooms are more or less the same. Jade and Leigh share a room, I’ve got my own right now, and then Zayn and Liam share one next to yours.”

Harry raises his eyebrows. “Liam shares a room?”

Jesy laughs. “He’s the head of the task force, not royalty. I told you, we’re friends here, not just coworkers.”

“Right,” says Harry, trying to wrap his head around it. At the law firm where he interns--used to intern?--he wouldn’t be caught dead acting so familiar with the boss. He’d be fired on the spot, but here the entire hierarchy seems to have disintegrated. “What time is dinner, again?”

“Half an hour,” she tells him. “You can go back to your bunk, or you can watch me work, if you’d like. Or you can explore a bit more on your own, it’s up to you.”

Harry ponders the options. On the one hand, it might be good to get a moment to decompress and breathe a bit on his own. On the other, though, he can’t imagine what good it’d do to get locked up in his own head. The thoughts he has to keep him company are maudlin at best, and moping will get him nowhere. “I’ll see the others, maybe, if that’s all right?”

He can’t help but phrase it as a question. “Of course,” Jesy tells him, though, “no one’s really productive before dinner except for Liam, honestly. I’m sure they’d love it if you bugged them a bit.”

“Okay,” he says, breathing a tiny sigh of relief. “Thank you, by the way. For taking the time to do this.” For being so kind to me, he wants to say. For helping this feel a tiny bit like a home, no matter how temporary. Harry has always been too sentimental, though, and he has a feeling that he’ll need to toughen up a bit to survive here, or at least keep the soft bits tucked away where they can’t get hurt. For all that these people are nice, their job is intense, requires them to put aside personal feelings. Harry’s always been a bit crap at that, but maybe he can give it a try.

“Sure,” answers Jesy, “not a problem. You’re not bad company.”

It makes Harry smile a bit, pleased. “See you at dinner, then. Where, uh… where is that, by the way?”

“Oh,” she says, “at the end of the hall, by the bunks. The last door there goes to the mess hall. All meals will be there, and mealtimes are at 8, 12, and 6. If you’re hungry in between, though, you can pop in, too. They have fruit and granola, and some other things.”

Harry thanks her and goes back to his room, intent on finding a jumper to throw on over the shirt he’s wearing. It’s cold underground, and he’s been shivering all day. Honestly, he’s been shivering since two weeks ago, maybe three. The dip into winter has been unseasonably frigid; it’s like every year Harry forgets that winter is really this cold, or maybe this one is colder than the rest.

“Hey.” Harry jumps, spinning around to see Niall leaning against the door frame. “Easy,” laughs Niall, “no one here is going to attack you or anything, I promise.”

“Hi,” answers Harry, feels a little silly for overreacting. He can’t help but remember the cloying, sticky feeling of being watched, though, how the hairs on the back of his neck were never quite flat against the skin.

Niall walks in and leans back onto his bed with a sigh. “If you’re feeling sick or anything, I’ve got a sun lamp, by the way. S’good for when you‘re underground, especially when it’s gray up top, anyway.” He gestures to his desk, where the lamp sits, turned off for now.

Harry says, “thank you,” and feels genuinely touched, fights the urge to offer a hug. They’re not familiar enough for that, and this isn’t a summer camp.

He’d do well to remember that the only reason he’s here is because everything went to shit. The people are nice, and they seem to do good work, but he’s not here on vacation. “No problem,” answers Niall easily, cutting through Harry’s inner turmoil. “So, Jesy gave you the tour. Pretty sick place, right?”

“It’s cool,” answers Harry honestly. “You all seem really close, and it’s nice. It must be cool to work with your friends.”

Niall’s grin tempers out into something softer. “Usually,” he says, “it’s the best. It makes us more efficient, and we’re not afraid to be honest with each other, which is really important. But sometimes in the field it can get in the way. We have to make hard calls, and we don’t always make the right ones when the people we care about are in danger, y’know?”

Harry thinks about lying to Jay, and he still isn’t sure whether he made the right call. “Yeah,” he says, probably a shade too earnest, “I know.”

Niall nods sympathetically, hearing the hurt in Harry’s voice. “It’s mostly good, though. Mostly really good.”

And Harry can see how it would be, even in his short time here. It makes sense that they gel so well, personalities melding until they make something bigger than they are. He had that, he thinks. He had that with Louis.

He looks at the floor, kicks a shoe into the concrete ground. “Um,” he starts, not really sure how to phrase this, “so, will I be able to help, like, find Louis? Do you think?”

He’s asking if he can be part of the team, sort of, but he knows that that’s ridiculous. A pipe dream. It isn’t even that he wants to be considered a coworker so much as he wants to be part of the process. If he has to sit by and do nothing while they try to figure out what happened with Louis, he’ll go absolutely mad; he can’t just sit on his thumbs and hope for the best. Refusing to give in got him this far--surely he can push it just that little bit further.

Niall coughs into his fist, and Harry braces for rejection. “Not sure we’ll be able to find him without your help,” says Niall, and it takes a second for it to process. Once it does, though, Harry feels himself unfurling like a flower in bloom, starting to smile. The awful weight on his chest has lifted the smallest bit, but it’s enough to make breathing so much easier.

“Really?” he asks, nervous to push his luck.

“Yeah, mate,” answers Niall, “of course. You’re an asset to us. We’d be stupid not to use you, especially if you’re offering.”

Niall is talking like Harry is more of an asset than a hindrance, and it’s doing his head in a bit. “I don’t want to get in the way,” he finds himself demurring, even as his mind is screaming at him to ask for even more. “You’re all really busy and I don’t want to, like, mess anything up.”

“We won’t let you,” says Niall, and it’s a reassurance and a bit of a threat at the very same time.

Harry doesn’t argue any further, and they settle into companionable silence; Harry sits on the bed and re-ties his shoelaces, then does it again, and Niall is flicking through something on a tablet: maybe case files, or whatever it is they call them here. The time passes quickly, twenty minutes crumbling away. It’s weird down here, where there’s just the same fluorescent lighting in every room, and hard to tell what time it is, or how long things take. That said, it’s a relief when a little ping goes off on Niall’s tablet and Niall says, “that’ll be the alarm for dinner. You ready?”

Harry agrees easily, and the two of them walk to the mess hall.

It’s surprisingly tiny. “There’s a lot of confidential information that floats around during mealtimes,” explains Niall, “so each group gets its own mess hall. Plausible deniability, and all that.”

It makes sense, and Harry follows him to the array of plates. They each grab one and head to the single long table in the middle of the room, where everyone else is already seated. Harry ends up between Niall and Liam, and he can’t help but feel tense, like he can’t make any wrong moves or he’ll be tossed to the wolves.

“Hi, Harry,” says Liam cheerfully, clearly not feeling any of the same reservations. “How’s things? Did you see everything you wanted to see?”

“Yeah,” answers Harry, “yes, thanks. Um, Niall said that I could help with stuff, and, like. I just want to know what you know about Louis. If he’s okay.”

Liam sobers, expression turning serious. “I can tell you what I know after dinner in my office, if you want, but it’s not much.” The lines of his forehead are deep, and this is clearly something that’s been worrying him.

Harry’s heart sinks. “Can you at least tell me if he’s safe?”

“He’s alive,” says Liam. “He’s alive.”

It doesn’t do anything to calm the storm in Harry’s chest; if anything, it stresses him out even more, because he hadn’t even considered the alternative as an option. That Louis being alive is the most optimistic news Liam can give him is making his insides twist up until he feels himself starting to panic.

Niall’s hand comes to rest butterfly-light on his shoulder. “Breathe, mate,” he says, low and discreet, and Harry uses the point of contact as an anchor. “There’s nothing you can do right now, c’mon. Take a breath.”

Harry manages a deep breath, and then another. The chatter at the table has dimmed but not quietened, and he’s grateful for that, at least. It’s embarrassing enough without everyone staring at him. “I’m good,” he says, finally. “I’m fine, sorry.”

Niall’s eyes are clear and very, very blue. “Nothing to apologize for.” He pats Harry once on the shoulder and transitions seamlessly into the conversation going on next to him between Leigh-Anne and Zayn. They’re talking about physics, it sounds like. Gravity. Some kind of mechanics, and it all flies right over Harry’s head.

No pun intended, he thinks, and then has to stifle a laugh.

He really, really needs to get some sleep.

*

“What we know,” says Liam, “is that it’s the YNM behind all of this. They’re a terrorist group, working in almost direct opposition to us.”

Harry nods, worrying his bottom lip between his fingers. It’s chapped and dry, but he keeps at it, agitated and squirmy in the chair he’s sitting in. “So they, like, took him prisoner?”

Liam grimaces. “Something like that, we think, yeah.”

The only thing Harry can think to ask is, “why? What would they want with him? He’s not, like. He’s not evil.” He feels stupid saying that, but it’s true. Louis can be stubborn and prickly at times, but he would never hurt anyone on purpose. He wouldn’t willingly work for a terrorist group, and certainly not one that deals with something this massive in scale.

“He hasn’t done anything in conjunction with them,” assures Liam, “yet. But we’ve been monitoring him closely, because some intelligence we intercepted said that he was a good candidate. To them, that means a recruit. It means someone they can either convert or control.”

It all sounds extremely sinister, and well beyond anything Harry has ever been prepared to deal with. “Do you know where he is now?” He can’t help his voice sounding small. He can’t help being scared.

Liam’s eyes are creased with gentle understanding. “We suspect he’s at a YNM base. They have facilities all over Europe and Asia, so it’s a matter of figuring out which ones are real and which are puppet bases, and then narrowing it down from there. Right now it’s like he’s in Russia, but we’re not totally sure.”

“Russia?” It was meant to come out as an incredulous demand, but instead it’s just perilously close to tears. “Why there?”

“It’s an abandoned military base from when that area was controlled by the Soviet Union,” explains Liam. The phrasing is clunky in his mouth, like he’d only just learned it, but he’s confident all the same. “It’s heavily armed enough that there’s no way we’d be able to take it, but I’m already planning on running a small solo mission and trying to intervene, see what I can do. It’s the most likely candidate for their central base.”

He sounds determined, eyes like steel, and Harry genuinely believes that he’ll do anything it takes to succeed. “How dangerous is it,” he asks, “honestly, how much danger is he in? Like, right now?”

It’s like poking at a bruise, but worse; maybe something closer to picking at an open wound, pain on top of pain, but he needs to know. He might not be able to sleep either way, but he wouldn’t forgive himself if he didn’t at least try to find out. There’s nothing he can do right now, but that doesn’t mean that he’ll give up. It doesn’t mean he’ll stop trying to find answers.

Just the expression on Liam’s face, though, is enough to make Harry short of breath again. He looks apologetic and sad, and Harry knows immediately that it isn’t good news. That Louis is in very immediate, very real danger, and he’s by himself. Harry can’t be there to protect him, and Louis is by himself.

He barely notices the tears gathering in his eyes until Liam says, “Harry, hey, look at me.”

Against his better judgment, Harry looks up. Liam holds his gaze steadily, and after a moment Harry calms down, feeling the tightness in his chest evaporate. It’s replaced with one part exhaustion and two parts relaxation.

“Whoa,” he whispers. He’s never been a very anxious person, but this week has been enough to grate on his every last nerve, and it’s never been that easy to come back from the brink of panic.

“Sorry,” says Liam, and he’s wincing.

Harry blinks, confused. “What?”

“I usually ask first,” he says quickly, “I swear, I usually ask. I just didn’t want you to have a full-blown panic attack. Those are never fun, and I didn’t want you to have to deal with that, and I just. Sorry, I really shouldn’t have done that.”

Harry still feels thrown off. “Hold on,” he says, “rewind. What?”

Liam shrugs a bit, contrite. “I’m an empath, technically,” he offers quietly. “I can’t induce emotion against someone’s will, usually, but that’s only if they’re aware of what I’m doing, and it takes practice… anyway, that’s my ability, and I just used it on you without consent, which I really, really try not to do. So I’m sorry. I won’t do it again without asking, I promise.”

“Oh,” says Harry, “well, it’s okay. Thank you.”

“Thank you?” asks Liam, eyebrows shooting up in surprise.

“Yeah,” says Harry. “Do people not usually thank you when you stop them from having panic attacks?”

Liam smiles, a small, wry thing that disappears rather quickly. “Not always,” he says, and Harry leaves it there. “Right, you feel exhausted, so you should go and get some rest. I’ll let you know if there are any updates on the situation, I promise.”

Harry nods. He does feel exhausted, like he’s about to drop off right where he’s sitting.

“Thank you,” he says again, tired and shivery and honest.

“Have a good night,” answers Liam, and then Harry is gone and on his way to the bunks, intending to sleep for as long as his body will let them. He’ll need to be well-rested when he wakes up, because starting tomorrow he’s on the case. He’ll turn the entire world upside down if that’s what it takes. He’ll do whatever he has to.

Chapter Text

“That was shit,” moans Perrie, collapsing onto her bed in a heap. “Like, beyond shit. The absolute shittiest.”

Normally, Louis would be peeved by her theatrics, but the thing is that she really isn’t wrong. “I know,” he sighs in agreement from the desk chair. His voice comes out muffled where he’s slumped over the desk, head pillowed in his folded arms. “It’s like they don’t understand it when I say I can’t do something. They just stare at me like I’m an idiot.”

“Do you know they tried to get me to lift an entire car today?” asks Perrie. “One handed, too! Like it’s not hard enough with two!”

Louis grunts into the wood. “Fucking ridiculous.”

Perrie still grates on his nerves every once in a while, but standing next to each other while watching someone get killed did a lot to bring them closer together. Louis doesn’t need any more enemies. He needs friends. And the morning after the execution, when he couldn’t stop staring at the dark, terrifying bloodstain, she was the one to nudge him forward. She was the one to whisper, “come on, we’ll be late,” even though they had plenty of time, a hand on his elbow and another hovering near his shoulder. He’s more grateful for that than he cares to admit.

In the week since the incident, nerves around the training commons have been fraying rather quickly. Another of the trainees disappeared three days ago, and Louis feels sick thinking about what may have happened to her. The chances that she’s alive are slim, but he’ll hold onto hope until he’s blue in the face if he has to.

“By the way,” says Perrie, conversational tone nearly hiding whatever is brewing underneath, “would you happen to know why our room is always frigid? Because the hallway is usually normal, but in here it’s freezing.”

Her eyes tell him that she knows exactly what’s going on. “Okay,” he says, “guilty, sorry. I can’t help it.”

She frowns. “I thought you said you were making progress with your control during training.”

He is, but it’s less about control and more about focus. “It’s like,” he tries to explain, “there’s all this energy inside of me, and I’m no good at unleashing it. They’re not teaching me how to hold back. They’re teaching me how to aim it, and how to fire.”

Teaching is a strong word, but that’s the general idea. In training today, he’d turned a glass of water into a glass of ice from across the room, and had a headache after from staring so hard. The things he’s accomplishing aren’t monumental, nor are they particularly exciting, and that does nothing to quell his frustration with the fact that he still doesn’t understand his own power.

“I guess it’s the same for me,” says Perrie, and she looks lost in thought. “I don’t really know how to know my own strength, you know? But I’m learning to get even stronger.”

We’re weapons, Louis wants to say. He isn’t sure about that, but it seems like the only possible endgame. That they’re being bred for some kind of fight. “It’s like unlocking,” he says instead, because that’s what it feels like.

Perrie hums, agreeing. “Like they’re pulling something out of us.”

Like unraveling, Louis doesn’t say. Like fraying.

They chat around the subject for a few more minutes, and then Louis hears the electronic beeping of the door being unlocked and opened. He sits up and spins around to face it, heart thumping in his chest. “Hello?” he asks, when nothing happens immediately.

Perrie shushes him, but Louis can’t really be bothered, eyes trained on the door.

“Tomlinson,” says a guard, “you are to come with us. The bosses want to see you.” The guard sounds less lifeless than usual, but the hint of energy only serves to make Louis even more nervous.

“What do they want?” he asks, braver than he feels.

Perrie’s eyebrows are trying to tell him something, but he can’t read her expression, too distracted trying to find a way out of this meeting.

The door opens slowly, revealing three guards. “They want to assess your skills for themselves,” says a different guard; he’s about three times Louis’ size, and could probably snap him in half like a twig if he wanted to. “You’ll come with us, now.”

He only gets a split second to make a decision before his shoulders sag. There’s no way out of this. There’s no slipping away or hiding from it, so he might as well try to incur as few bruises as possible. “Okay,” he tells the guard, and shoots Perrie a small, “see you at dinner.”

He doesn’t know whether he’ll see her at dinner, but she just nods, bless her heart, and doesn’t bother correcting him. “Good luck,” she says, and it’s almost normal, almost like they’re heading to their individual trainings in the morning.

He thanks her quietly, and then he’s being led out once again into the confusing twist and turn of the corridors. He doesn’t even make an effort at remembering where exactly he is in relation to his room; he’s tried to do that in the past, but it never works, and it just leaves him frustrated. He finds that Perrie’s right, too, about the room being much colder than the rest of the complex, wonders whether he hadn’t noticed because it was him causing it or because he’s just too tired to care about things like that anymore.

They come to a stop in front of the door, and it feels much the same as the last time he was here, getting shoved inside unceremoniously. The guards come in to stand by the door, and Louis takes a hovering step toward the table where the man and woman who are in charge of this place are sitting, still wearing sharp suits, still wearing sharp smiles.

“Louis,” says the woman, “welcome.”

“What do I call you?” he asks. It’s more that he blurts it out, but he tries to keep his composure as he does. “I’m getting sick of calling you Man and Woman in my head.”

“That’s not something you need to worry about,” says Man. “You should, instead, worry about your performance.”

Just like that, the bravado goes right out of Louis.

He needs a second to unstick the words from his throat before he can speak. “What do you mean?” he asks. “I’ve been doing better, I don’t understand.”

“Better,” corrects Woman, “does not equate to excellence. You are only useful to us if you are excellent.”

“If I’m not useful, then why did you bring me in the first place?” It’s a tricky balance between holding his tongue and indulging his temper, but he can’t help the way it bursts out of him. He’s scared. He’s scared and he’s backed into a corner and he doesn’t understand why he’s been forced into this position when he might not even make it to the end.

Man tsks. “You’ve always had such great potential,” he explains. “You need to harness it. Prove yourself.”

He’s about to ask how, but Man and Woman stand up in near perfect synchronicity. Louis stumbles back on instinct, one step and then another. He feels hunted. “We need you to do something,” says Woman, and the sweetness of her tone is too much, too vicious and weaponized.

His mouth is dry. “What do you need me to do?” he asks, and it’s only just above a whisper. His heart is rabbiting in his throat.

He always thought, when he was younger, that if he was a character in a movie he’d be brave. He’d spit in the face of the enemy and take them all on himself, or he’d concoct a clever plan to escape and foil any evil plans, or- or-

In the face of real danger, Louis is terrified, mind blank, pulse racing.

“We’re taking you outside,” says Man. “We will exit the compound momentarily, and you will make something happen. If it’s impressive, we’ll take you back inside after. If not, well, I’m sure you can guess what will happen, hm?”

It’s his life on the line, then. He feels weirdly calm, now that his suspicions have been confirmed, but there’s a storm brewing in his chest.

“Okay,” he says, “okay, fine, I’ll do it.” He doesn’t have a choice, but he’ll be a bit contrary if he wants to. He thinks he’s earned that much.

When one of the guards tries to grab his arm, he shrugs her off. “I can walk,” he spits, as derisively as he can, and does just that. He’s not stupid enough to try to make a run for it right now. He wouldn’t do that. He values his life just a little more than that.

Man and Woman pull on coats before exiting, and Louis winces; he’s still wearing a threadbare long sleeved shirt himself, and it won’t be nearly enough to protect him from the bitter, frigid cold. There’d been a small, dusty layer of snow on the ground when he’d arrived, and he can only imagine what the winter has brought in the last two weeks or so. Maybe snow that sticks to the ground. Maybe white as far as the eye can see.

When they reach the door that leads out of the complex, Louis is most definitely not disappointed.

The cold hits him like a kick to the stomach. His arms come to wrap tightly around his middle, and he starts shivering almost instantly, body trying desperately to preserve some heat. They wouldn’t even need to kill him, he thinks wildly--they could just leave him right where he is and lock the doors, and he wouldn’t even make it through the night. “What am I supposed to be doing, exactly?” he asks again, teeth chattering, and he has to shout to be heard over the brutal wind. He can barely hear himself, but everyone seems to be able to hear him fine.

“Something to prove your worth!” shouts Man. His silvery hair nearly blends into the landscape. Woman nods her agreement, and her red lipstick looks a bit like blood.

Something to prove his worth, thinks Louis frantically, but what? The best he’s been able to is create a puddle, or freeze something. This scale is massive. Even as he thinks it, though, he knows that he can accomplish big things; he’s done it before, he swears, he’s turned entire forecasts on their heads just because he was feeling a certain way.

This anxiety, this fear...it must have a use.

He lets it ramp up, thinks they’re going to kill me they’re going to kill me they’re going to kill me, the chant echoing in his head until it’s all he can hear, and he unfurls his body, hands trembling near his sides.

There’s an energy coursing through his body that he’s never felt before.

There’s something about the way the ground feels beneath his feet that makes him want to scream, so he does.

He screams until his voice gives out, most of it getting swallowed by the wind anyway, and he can feel the vibrations ratcheting up inside of him, ready to explode out into something he has no idea how to control. It’s just there, and it’s huge, and it’s pressing at every inch of his body.

“Come on!” he shouts, at himself, at the snow, at the landscape of fear all around him.

And just like that, the ground starts to shake.

The problem is that he’s never gotten this far before. The problem is that he has no control. The problem is that the ground doesn’t stop shaking. Louis can’t make it slow down anymore than he can withdraw from the sensation himself. Man and Woman, when Louis opens his eyes enough to be able to see them standing several meters away, look absolutely delighted.

The fear starts to ebb away. He’s done it, he thinks. He’s saved his own life. The ground is still shaking but Louis feels like he’s separate from that, like it’s happening to someone else. He falls backward into the snow and thinks it’s not me. I’m flying above all of this, I’m in the clouds, I’m back home in London picking cake flavors for the wedding. He isn’t here, is the point. He isn’t here.

Someone is screaming his name, but Louis doesn’t listen, couldn’t react if he tried.

He feels warm, suddenly. Warm and safe and unafraid. A very distant part of his brain is screaming about survival and how terribly, terribly dangerous this is, but he shuts his eyes, smiles, lets the rock of the ground lull him to sleep.

*

He wakes up in his bunk.

“Shit,” he says, rubbing at his throbbing head. “What the fuck.”

Perrie’s voice, when she answers, is shrill and strained. “You nearly got yourself killed!” she shouts. “What were you thinking?”

Louis doesn’t sit up. “Didn’t realize you cared so much,” he answers, instead of I wasn’t thinking at all, and that was the best part.

“Come off it,” she scoffs. “They brought you back and I thought you were dead. Forgive me for not wanting to sleep next to a corpse!

When she says it like that, she might have a point. And anyway, Louis would miss her if she died, too, not that he’s about to admit that out loud. “Did they say what happened?” It’s all a blur after the earthquake he sort-of-accidentally lost control of. He just remembers how white everything was, and how he felt his power inside of his body like a living creature, how it curled up inside of him and purred when he let it take over.

“A seven on the Richter scale, apparently,” she says. Her tone says unimpressed, but her eyes are shining. “I heard the guards talking about it as they were leaving. I hadn’t realized you could do that.”

Louis smiles ruefully. “Yeah, well, me neither.”

“I think I might be next,” she says, and her voice is smaller, less excited. She looks worried and determined in equal measure.

He’s no expert on how to succeed at anything, really, but he offers her some advice, anyway. “Just let it happen,” he tells her. “Just try to let go.”

Her gaze, when it turns on him, is sharp. “That’s not my problem,” she snaps, and it’s so cold that he has to look away. “I want to do well. I’m not afraid of my own body.”

She’s like this, sometimes, emotions turning on a dime, and he never knows how to handle it. There’s something she hasn’t mentioned about how she ended up here, and he figures that a lot of the mystery surrounding her stems from there. He hears the younger recruits talking about it sometimes, how afraid of her they are. He hears chatter about himself, too, but never to the same degree. Though, he admits, maybe what he did today will change that, if word gets around.

“Okay,” he tells her, and it’s not quite placating but maybe it’s close.

“Okay,” she agrees, quieter, almost an apology.

He lets it go.

*

That night, they get their first chance to really explore the place.

Free Time isn’t exactly free, per se, but they get to roam the training grounds and use whatever equipment they like. For Louis, it’s not quite as relevant, especially since he’s learned he does his best work outdoors, but he throws on some comfortable clothing and follows Perrie out anyway.

He ends up sitting with his back against the wall and commentating as she hits punching bags clear off the chain, splitting some of them so badly that the sand runs out of the seams. “Ten out of ten!” he shouts, and Perrie turns around, shoots him a grin.

“They need better bags,” she says, offhand. “I keep breaking them.”

Louis laughs a little, mostly because she isn’t wrong. If they don’t get stronger materials, she’ll burn through all of them. Resources don’t seem to be an issue here, though. He’s sure that by tomorrow the stock will be replenished, and reinforced. “Hey,” he says, “do you want to see what other stuff they have?”

It comes out casual, natural. Like he hasn’t been scouring this room for weak points since he got here.

Perrie wipes the sweat off of her brow and shrugs. “Okay,” she says, “I was getting tired of this, anyway.”

She offers him a hand and almost pulls his arm out of the socket. Her apology is halfhearted, and Louis only manages to affect a glare for a few seconds before rolling his eyes, smiling. It never feels fully real when he smiles these days, but he makes it a point to keep trying, if only so he doesn’t forget how.

The area they’ve been given for free time is the size of an airplane hangar, or close to it at least. Of the remaining twelve trainees, Louis and Perrie are the eldest; the youngest looks to be maybe 16 or 17, and it makes Louis’ gut twist to think about how scared he must be. Louis himself feels like screaming sometimes, begging to go home. He can’t imagine what it would have been like if he’d been taken here nearly ten years prior.

They weave through the support beams, and Louis looks at their bases, for any strain in the metal. They seem sturdy. A shame, but he hadn’t really been expecting much, anyway. “Where’s this door lead?” he asks, gesturing to the one they’re passing now, in between the bench press machine and the treadmills.

Perrie’s face twists up as she thinks. “Might be a hallway to something else,” she decides. “I’ve seen a couple of guards coming in and out.”

Louis hadn’t noticed. Bless Perrie and her ability to multitask, honestly. “So probably not an exit, then,” he says, keeping his tone measured.

She regards him quietly, one eyebrow quirking up just the tiniest bit. “Probably not,” she answers, like she’s figured out what he’s doing. She doesn’t mention it outright, though, just nods to herself and keeps her mouth shut. She’ll probably grill him about it later, out of earshot of the guards and other trainees, and he’ll probably try to temper his burning desire to escape with the knowledge that if he fails, he’s done for. Few things quiet him faster than remembering exactly how dire his situation here is. Few things blow out the flame in his palms like covering a candle with a snuffer.

They keep walking, and Perrie keeps her cool, doesn’t make herself conspicuous. She’s smart, Perrie is. A good person to have on your team.

“This one’s a service entry,” she says, as they pass another door. “Materials for training are kept in here, I think. Storage and transport and the like.”

Useless, thinks Louis, and he’s starting to worry that the only way out of this room that they can realistically even use is the one that leads right back to their cells, putting them back at square one. “Interesting,” is all he says, voice dark. “Didn’t know that.”

They spend the rest of the evening like that, and the only piece of even vaguely interesting information is that they haven’t been able to identify the use of one door. It has a padlock and an electronic lock, and it’s the only door to have two mechanisms keeping it closed, which pings in Louis’ brain. Something there, maybe. Something they can use.

When they’re corralled back into their cell, Louis isn’t even all that disappointed.

“Well,” he says, when the door is finally sealed, but Perrie beats him to the end of his thought.

“Escape, then,” she says, and he can’t read her face.

He goes with a shrug. “You won’t turn me in, will you?” He’d meant for it to come out a bit playful, but more of his nerves come through than he’d intended, and it sounds a bit thin, shaky.

Her face cracks into a smile. “Obviously not,” she tells him easily. “Would be pretty stupid, since you’ll need help. You didn’t think you’d be doing it alone, did you?”

She kicks her legs as she says it, feet just barely brushing the floor, and he mirrors her position where he sits on the edge of his bed. “I mean,” he says carefully, confused, “weren’t you a willing recruit, or whatever you called it? A volunteer?”

Her face curls into a grimace. “That was before I realized they’d make me into a prisoner, wasn’t it? And before I knew they’d just kill people if they weren’t powerful enough, or whatever. They haven’t even sent us out on any missions yet, or anything. I feel useless just sitting around waiting for something to happen. Plus, you… you’ve got someone to get back to, don’t you?” the last part comes out hesitant, like she feels guilty for bringing it up, but Louis barely flinches, though he feels himself go dead around the eyes.

“I do,” he says. “My fiancé, and my family.”

Perrie hums, sympathetic. “They’re probably worried sick.”

He looks at her, shoots her a glance like you’re not helping, and she nods, quietens again. “I just need to get out of here,” he says, determined. “I don’t know when I’d even be able to, exactly, but I need to get back home.”

“Okay,” answers Perrie, “but you’re not doing it alone. You’ll need my help. It’d be better if we had even more help, but… do you trust anyone else here?”

Even trusting you is a risk, Louis doesn’t say. “No,” he says instead, because he doesn’t, and because the less people are in on it, the less chance they have of being made before they’ve even set the plan into motion. “No, I don’t. Better with just the two of us, I think.”

Perrie nods, pulling her hair out of the ponytail it’d been up in. “It’s settled, then. We’ll work on it more tomorrow.”

“Keep your eyes out for any weak points in this place,” he says. “We’ll need any advantage we can get.”

“And then some,” murmurs Perrie, and Louis wants to tell her to have a little more hope but she’s not wrong, is the thing. She’s not wrong.

*

The next day is a verifiable nightmare, because halfway through his training session, another guard comes in and says, “Tomlinson, the bosses want to see you.”

The last time the bosses wanted to see him, Louis almost died. He isn’t exactly eager for a repeat of that, but he doesn’t seem to have a choice in the matter, so he goes. He wants to be sick with how docile he’s gotten since he’s been here, but fighting back against direct orders just means he gets dragged, anyway, sometimes with a smattering of bruises to drive the point home, and that’s never better than just ducking his head and going.

Man and Woman are sitting at the same table in the same room as always, but there is a file sitting on the desk in front of them. “Hello, Louis,” says Woman.

“I know how this part goes,” he says, braver than he feels. “Just tell me what’s going on, thanks. I need to get back to training.” His desire to get back to training is a blatant lie, but he tosses it out there anyway, just for something to say.

Man stands up, and Woman follows suit. Louis looks at them warily, eyes darting back and forth between the two of them. “Your training has shown marked improvement in your control,” says Man. “We have a final test for you, and then your first mission will follow.”

“Mission?” asks Louis, voice pitching up with nerves.

He knows what this place is. He knows what these people do, or at least what they’re capable of. He’s not any good at hand to hand combat, though, and it’s not like he’d be more useful in reconnaissance than any of the guards here that have been trained in it. He doesn’t know exactly what they want from him, despite the idea that’s starting to niggle in the back of his mind, dark and insidious and frightening. It’s been building for ages, he knows, because training implies an endgame, and maybe he’s known all along what they were aiming for. What they’d try to make him become.

They wouldn’t, he thinks desperately, they wouldn’t make him-

God, but they really would.

Woman nods once, curt. “You will receive your first set of orders, and your first target along with them. We’ll start you off easy, of course, and work your way up to more challenging, high level excursions. Your abilities have grown exponentially, and we expect them to continue to do so. Our analysts have looked at your numbers, and they are highly, highly impressive.”

The word target is ringing through his brain, clanging around and blaring like a siren. Targets, he thinks, not partner, not source, not someone on their side. Louis knows better than to think that any of this can end well, but he has to cling to hope. Maybe if he doesn’t pass the test, they’ll let him go, or reconsider, or something. Maybe he’ll be strong enough to avoid turning into the monster he knows they want him to be. “What’s the test?” he asks, stalling.

Man walks around the table, pausing by Louis. “We’ll go outside and work from there,” he says.

He and Woman lead the way out, and it’s reminiscent of last time, just a few days ago, when he nearly lost his life in the snow. Even he knows, though, that that day unlocked something in him that he’d been looking for since the start. Louis channels that energy, instead, and it helps. He feels less like a hurricane and more like a lightning strike, deadly but focused, terrifying but in control.

Outside, it’s frigid, if a bit less so than last time. It’s not snowing, for one, everything eerily calm.

The only difference, compared to last time, is that there is a person standing in the middle of the snow, shivering, with a burlap sack pulled over their head. “What,” says Louis, stumbling, and it’s barely a question. His lips feel numb from the cold and the shock and the confusion.

Man and Woman stay close this time, and one of the guards trains a gun on Louis. “Your final test,” says Man, “is to eliminate this target. She won’t fight you, and there are no distractions. If you fail to comply, there will be consequences. Understood?”

Louis doesn’t say anything, just looks at him. He knows his eyes must look wide and disbelieving, because he can’t understand how they expect him to do this. They want him to take a life just to prove that he can.

“I’m not that person,” he says, and feels weirdly okay about it. His hands are trembling and he feels ill, but he isn’t going to do this.

There’s a click, and Louis registers it dimly as the safety being taken off the gun.

“I’m not going to do this,” he repeats, like they didn’t hear him the first time. He steps back, spreads his arms out, feels weirdly untouchable. “Shoot me,” he says, shouting a bit now. “I don’t care!” His escape plans are fading away even as he feels panic stirring in his gut.

He thinks about his chances, whether he’d be able to duck into the snow in enough time, or if he could outrun the bullet. If he could muster up a gust of wind strong enough to throw the guard on her back before making a break for it, but.

Where would he go? Out here, there’s just snow for miles, and he doesn’t even have a coat. He doesn’t have food, doesn’t have any kind of supplies, and if he came back they’d likely shoot him on sight. The bullet almost seems easier, he thinks. Quicker, certainly. Practically merciful.

This is not a place to defy orders; Louis has learned that much. This is a place to do good work, and keep your head down, and pray you’re doing enough to survive but not enough to pique interest. This is a place to accept your fate and do what it takes to stay alive, to let dark things rest on your conscience so long as it means there’s still hope of getting out. Here, Louis is a yes man. Here, Louis is subdued and quiet and scared and he doesn’t say no. He doesn’t fight. Here, Louis is nothing he recognizes about himself, all of the good bits scrubbed away until he’s barely processing things as they happen. Louis does what they tell him, here.

This, though. This is the first time he’s said no.

A vein in Man’s forehead starts to throb, and Louis takes deep breaths and waits for the command to fire.

He won’t live with innocent blood on his hands.

He won’t.

Woman steps forward, whispers something in Man’s ear. “Come,” says Woman, to Louis and to the guards both. “We’re going back inside.”

The procession turns to go, and Louis balks, looks at the girl standing in the snow, knees knocking together with the cold. “Wait,” he says, “what about her?”

“Leave her,” says Woman carelessly, trailing her hands in the air, lazy. “She was going to die anyway, it’ll just be slower this way. It was your choice, Louis.”

“No,” he says, “stop, wait,” voice catching desperately, but the guards are dragging him by his arms and he’s too cold, too overpowered to do anything but stare helplessly at the girl as she disappears behind the doors of the complex, alone and shivering with her hands tied behind her back.

She’ll die out there, and suddenly Louis feels a lot less heroic.

They drag him back to the original conference room while he’s still kicking his feet, trying to get back outside. He doesn’t know what he can even do to help her, but surely letting himself be herded back inside won’t be of any use to anyone though.

Still, he’s clumsy with cold and no match for two guards even when he’s not, and they manage it easily, shoving him right back where he started, in front of the bosses.

“I won’t kill for you,” he says, fury low in his voice. “I don’t care what you do to me, but I won’t.”

Woman smiles a thin, brittle smile. “You will,” she says, and his vision goes red for a moment, “but now we are going to discuss what just happened. You were willing to die for someone you don’t know, correct?”

The fear that had been tamped down earlier sneaks back up, cloying in the back of his throat. “I told you, I’m not going to kill for you.”

Woman ignores him. “A gunshot to the head is typically a painless death,” she continues. “But what if it was slow? What if it was suffering? Are you still as brave then?”

He swallows hard. “I’m not killing anyone,” he repeats, but the words sound dull and hollow, echoey in his own ears. They’re going to torture him. They’re going to break him down until he’s begging them to kill him. This place is cold, ruthless, efficient. He imagines this process, his ruination, will be much the same. Fuck, he can feel his heartbeat ratcheting up, and his cheeks must be flushing, hands shaking. The fear must be written on every line of his body.

Man rolls his eyes theatrically. “You’re naïve,” he says. “If you think you can outlast us, you’re wrong.”

Try me, thinks Louis, terrified and stubborn. He’s never backed down from a challenge in his entire life. Now would be a terrible place to start.

“If this is all you wanted to tell me,” he says, so much braver than he feels, “then can I go?”

Man stands up, temple throbbing, but Woman just smirks. “Sure,” she says, “you can go. We’ll have to restrict your free time, though. It’s either the cell, or monitored one on one training. You’ll have your meals brought to you in your room.”

He wants to argue it, suddenly claustrophobic, but he bites his tongue. She wants a reaction, clearly. He won’t give her one. “Fine,” he says, finally, “understood.”

And he lets the guards take him back.

*

“Holy shit,” breathes Perrie, eyes round as saucers.

Louis nods miserably. “I know,” he says. “I fucking know.”

She’s wearing her training gear, sleek black and nearly startling against the pale expanse of her skin. “They just left her out there?” she repeats, and Louis doesn’t want to relive it anymore but he understands her insistence, understands her need to make sure that this isn’t all some elaborate prank.

“Yes,” he answers, voice hoarse. He sounds like he smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, but he can’t help it that he’s exhausted, emotionally and physically. They had him running laps earlier until he threw up on the side of the track, and then pushed him to do three more.

He knows how he must look, sallow and sickly, but after he sicked up, the whole room was at least three degrees hotter, maybe five, and that’s something, isn’t it.

They won’t tell him about it, but he can feel himself getting stronger.

Perrie still has a look on her face like she’s been slapped. “You’re catching flies, love,” admonishes Louis, a little meanly.

She shuts her mouth, abashed, but her eyes narrow all the same against the flush that’s high on her cheekbones. “Well I’m sorry for being appalled by something so awful,” she retorts, clearly upset. She softens immediately after, though, and Louis feels himself winding back down from where he’d puffed up to fight. “I didn’t think it would be like this.”

“What,” asks Louis, “when you volunteered to join a terrorist organization?”

Maybe he hasn’t wound down completely.

Perrie’s jaw ticks. She doesn’t say anything, just spins on her heel and walks into the bathroom, locking the door behind her. She won’t be coming out any time soon, Louis reckons, so he lies back on his bed and stares at the ceiling. He’s done a lot of that today, and he imagines he’ll be doing even more of it in the near future, since there’s nothing to do in here and they won’t let him go anywhere else.

Sure enough, Perrie takes an hour to come back out. Her eyes are rimmed with red, and her cheeks are blotchy, but Louis swallows down the guilt as hard as he can. She doesn’t say anything, just gets ready for bed.

He has a feeling she won’t defrost quite so quickly this time, and feels a bit sick at the thought of being truly alone here. Perrie turns around in bed, faces the wall.

Fine, thinks Louis. That’s fine.

*

He learns quickly that when they said torture, they meant repeated slamming at his resistance over a longer period of time. They also meant slamming his head against a wall, apparently, and slamming a fist against his face.

He walks out of the first session with a wicked black eye and a split lip, and Perrie gasps when she sees him.

“What, have you joined a gang?” she asks, and then looks like she regrets speaking to him at all. Still mad, then.

“Bosses won’t take no for an answer,” he replies, too tired to fight. “They’re pissed off because that’s all I’m giving them.”

Perrie regards him carefully, then nods, curt, and walks out of the cell to participate in free training. Louis doesn’t feel disappointed--he doesn’t--but… it’s a bit lonely, isn’t it? Sitting alone in the cell and staring at the ceiling and knowing that he isn’t close to being done. The escape plan has screeched to a halt since he got put on cell arrest, and he can’t help but think that maybe Perrie turned him in. It wouldn’t surprise him, with the way things have been.

If she’d turned him in, though, he isn’t even certain he’d be alive right now. Or, at the very least, he’d be chained right there to the wall, maybe put in solitary confinement.

It doesn’t end up mattering, anyway, because Perrie hurries back into the cell just a few minutes later, carrying a bag of melting snow.

“What’s that for?” asks Louis.

Perrie rolls her eyes. “For your face, idiot,” she answers, and he’s so startled that he doesn’t even muster up the energy to be offended at that. “I told them I twisted my ankle and they gave me this. Not much, but they have med kits, so I might be able to get more stuff tomorrow.”

She leans forward, and Louis flinches a little as she presses the cold compress to his eye. “I know,” she says, to the wince twisting his mouth. “It’ll bring the swelling down, though.”

Louis nods. “Yeah,” he says, “yeah, my mum’s a nurse, so.”

He doesn’t know what he even planned to say there, maybe just I know I need to do this, but Perrie nods, gives him a tiny smile. “Hold still a bit, there we go.”

She’s being so gentle, and his cheeks flame a bit at the accusations he’d been throwing around in his head not minutes before. They sit in silence for a while, Perrie counting under her breath, presumably keeping time, and it’s soothing enough that Louis finally manages to drift away from the pain, face starting to go numb with the ice.

After she gets to what must amount to fifteen or twenty minutes, she pulls it away. “It’ll melt before we get to another set,” she laments, “but it already looks better.”

Louis agrees quietly, and his tongue feels a bit numb in his mouth. Perrie looks like she’s about to leave again, but he can’t let her leave without saying, “hey, thank you.”

It’s awfully sincere, but it needs to be.

It’s not quite an apology, but Perrie says, “you’re welcome,” with the same touch of sincerity, a small smile spread across her lips.

He quirks a smile back, and it feels like making up. He knows he should still apologize, but his head is still throbbing, and Perrie is already leaving again, instructing him to be bloody careful. She doesn’t say just take the mission already, and he takes it to mean they’re still on the same side.

“You be careful, too,” he says, isn’t sure what he means by it.

“I always am,” she answers, and it’s a dirty lie, isn’t it, but he accepts it anyway.

They’re fucked up, the both of them, but they’ll take what they can get.

*

The next day, the bosses drag him outside again.

It’s a boy, this time, tied at the ankles and wrists, but close enough that Louis can see the terror in his eyes.

“No,” says Louis, but his voice trembles as he says it, getting lost in the wind. He feels seasick, and it starts to snow again, flakes sticking to him in small clumps and soaking through his hair, his clothes, his socks. They haven’t given him anything waterproof, and Louis can’t help that he wears his emotions in the sky.

When they turn around, it’s the boy that yells, “Wait!” and Louis has to squeeze his eyes shut as tight as he can. I’m sorry, he thinks. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

The boy keeps shouting, and Louis flinches full body when he hears a gunshot go off behind his back. There’s no more yelling, after that.

“You chose this,” says Woman, when they get back. “Remember that.”

They leave him in his cell soon after, and he doesn’t bother taking his shoes off before collapsing onto his bed and bursting into messy tears. Perrie isn’t here, so Louis can be as ugly and scared and guilty as he wants, soaking the pillow through as he cries.

*

The rest of the week is much the same, passing in a lurch of training and punching and more kids left out in the snow and Louis feeling cold, cold, cold. Sometimes Perrie steals things from the med kits to help him heal up, but lately they’ve been getting hits in to the rib cage, to the stomach, to the back. He covers them up under his shirt, two layers if he’s feeling especially awful, and Perrie doesn’t notice.

Of course he’s lying when he tells her things are looking up, like maybe they’ll let the thing where they try to force him to kill people die if he doesn’t show any signs of breaking down, but if Perrie doesn’t believe him then is it really a lie?

She knows. The look in her eyes isn’t pity, but something close, and Louis can’t stand how awful he feels so he lets her say it for him.

“I’ve been looking into escape routes,” says Perrie.

“Monica disappeared last night without a trace,” says Perrie.

“This place is doing my head in,” says Perrie.

Louis nods, or murmurs his acknowledgement, or shifts on the bed when the hurt his body has been subject to is too much to bear.

And one day the guards come, and they drag him to that same room--he calls it the Interrogation Room in his head, even though they only ever ask him the same question and he only ever says no--but the setup is different.

There aren’t more guards waiting inside. There isn’t a club, or a bat, or any of the other tools they’ve taken to using recently. No big, meaty interrogator is waiting inside, ready to clobber him if he doesn’t cooperate.

Instead, the bosses are sitting back at their usual table, and Louis is prodded forward to stand in front of a massive screen covering the wall to his left.

He turns to face it, baffled.

“We’ve tried to reason with you,” says Man.

Woman sighs, like she’s upset. “You just wouldn’t listen, would you?” She pauses, and Louis glances over, sees her examining the paper in front of her. “Your fiancé,” she tells him, “hasn’t been to work in a while.”

The relief that rushes through him is quickly replaced by terror when she continues. “We had to find alternative methods of tracking him down. Did you know he has a sister? Lovely girl, has a new houseguest now.”

No, thinks Louis, and he can’t think anything else. No, no, this isn’t happening.

Man nods. Louis looks wildly toward the door, scared that they’ll drag Harry in, beaten and bloodied, or worse, or-

“He isn’t here,” interrupts Man. “That would be a waste of our resources. But if you accept our first mission, you can guarantee his safety.”

Louis’ heart is beating overdrive, fluttering in his chest. The edges of the room are starting to go cold. He can’t tell if there’s frost gathering on the floor, but there may as well be for the shiver that runs up and down his spine. Even so, he gathers himself, and his voice barely wavers when he asks, “How do I know you’re not bluffing?”

Woman smiles condescendingly at him. “That’s why we brought you,” she says. “To show you.”

She trails one manicured hand into the air, fingers pointing almost lazily at the screen. There’s a whir, and a projector turns on, picturing Gemma’s kitchen. Louis has only been there once, but he recognizes it immediately, the sink, the window above it, the yellowing lacy curtains that were a housewarming gift from Anne.

And then Harry walks into the frame, and Louis stops breathing.

He’s humming, something faint and tuneless, while washing the dishes. The kettle’s on, red light blinking, and Harry is wearing a white t-shirt and boxer shorts and nothing else. They have eyes on him, thinks Louis frantically.

He has to squint to see it, but the little spot on Harry’s shirt isn’t dust, he realizes, or a stain.

There, dead center between Harry’s shoulder blades, is the red laser point of a gunsight.

The realization is so loud in his brain that he has half a mind to cover his ears. They have eyes on Harry, and they’re going to kill him. They’re going to kill him, and they’re going to make Louis watch, and Louis can’t do anything, and-

Louis collapses to his knees, and the ground trembles hard beneath him. He can barely feel the concrete against his kneecaps, and his hands are clenched into fists at his sides, but it’s like he’s floating above the room even as he feels so sick he isn’t sure he won’t wretch right there.

“Don’t,” he begs, in a raw voice that he’s surprised even belongs to him, all ugly desperation and panic. “I’ll do what you want, please, please don’t touch him. Please,” he begs, and he can hear his heartbeat in his ears, loud and terrified.

If he loses Harry, he’s done, is the thing. They can do whatever they want to him, and he won’t try to escape, or run, or fight, or anything. He’ll be numb from the inside out, let them turn him into the person he swore he’d never be, stop caring entirely, and he can’t- he can’t let that happen. He can’t let Harry die. He can’t let it be his fault.

Woman looks at him, sizing him up, and she appears unimpressed. “Stand up,” she commands.

Louis stumbles to his feet. He won’t defy any order they give him, not while this is happening. Not when one wrong move could ruin absolutely everything. “Okay,” he says, hands up at his sides, “okay, I’ll do what you want.”

He felt less helpless when he was literally staring down the barrel of a gun, but this… this isn’t a choice.

“Leave him alone,” he begs, again, voice wet and thick. Pathetic, he thinks. He must look spineless, embarrassing, but that all comes second to the gut-crushing fear he feels in every bit of his body. “I’ll take your mission, I swear I will. Just leave him alone.”

Man says, “here,” and slides the manila folder forward, and Louis’ chest nearly collapses in relief.

“You won’t hurt him?” he checks.

“We’ll leave your fiancé alone,” confirms Man, “as long as you succeed in your missions. We’d hate to have to bring him in after all this.”

Louis recoils at the thought, tries to shove out the remnants of the dream he had that involved just that. He won’t let it happen. He’ll study up on the mission, and he’ll practice until he’s so sore he can barely move, and then he’ll go out and get the job done and keep Harry safe.

No more emotion, he thinks. No more breaking down.

“Okay.” He takes the folder, goes back to his cell, lets himself get locked in with no fuss.

No more emotion.

He pulls out the pictures, sees a man in his mid-forties stare back at him, eyes dull as he carries a briefcase, probably not even realizing he’s being photographed. Kill him, is all the paper says. Keep it clean.

He can do that. Messy has never been his style, anyway, though he is of the firm belief that a little controlled chaos never hurt anyone. This scenario is different. This is so far outside of his comfort zone that it’s doubled back around so that he can hardly feel anything at all.

No more emotion. No more breaking down.

And then Perrie walks in, eyes concerned, and it takes him about five seconds to break down.

“Hey,” says Perrie, alarmed, walking over to him and hovering close like she doesn’t know if she’s allowed to touch but wants to. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

Louis shakes his head, wraps his arms around his middle. “God-” he chokes out, “they-” but just thinking about it is enough to get him crying even harder, to the point that he can’t even talk, just has to ride it out like this.

Perrie makes a sad sound and scoots closer. You wanted this, thinks Louis, aimed right at her, mean and unwarranted as he shifts away. You chose this. I didn’t choose this.

He can’t hold onto the anger, though, not when he’s so wracked with pain or grief or whatever you can call this. “They showed me…” he tries again, but cuts himself off, still sobbing. He’s thinking about the expanse of Harry’s back, and his bare feet. Being watched in Gemma’s house. How stupid Louis was to think he was safe there. All the things he could’ve done to protect him better.

“What did they show you?” prods Perrie, gentle. “Sh, love, try to breathe.”

“I’m trying,” he gasps out, but it isn’t to be funny, or to sass her. He’s trying, but he feels like he’s going to die.

“You’re panicking,” Perrie tells him, matter of fact but still soft enough that he doesn’t bristle or try to pull away. “Forget what they showed you, focus on your breathing. Come on, Louis, breathe with me.”

He’ll never forget what they showed him, but he tries to breathe with her, coughing through his tears.

“I said no,” he manages, once he feels less like he’s going to faint or die or break right open. “I kept telling them no, I tried, I promise.”

“I know,” murmurs Perrie, brushing his hair away from his temple.

He shuts his eyes, leans into her because he feels like he’ll fall over if he doesn’t. “They just- it’s- it’s Harry,” he explains, helpless. “They have eyes on him, they had a gun on him, and I couldn’t- I couldn’t. They were gonna kill him if I said no.”

He’s still crying, cheeks hot, eyes aching. It feels like there’s an endless font of tears in him, and they just keep spilling out. He can’t stop them at all.

“I didn’t want to,” he repeats, because that’s the most important part. That he didn’t have a choice.

Perrie peels the folder out of his hands, flicks through the contents, and her expression is stony. “You’re doing your best,” she tells him firmly, and she doesn’t let him look away, keeps her eyes on him. “I don’t blame you for this, and you shouldn’t blame yourself. You’re trying to make the right call. It’s hard, but you’re trying to do the right thing. Okay?”

Louis nods, feels like a child being lectured but can’t seem to find his feet under him. “I know,” he rasps, watery. “I know.”

People are going to die either way, but at least now he’s doing something with a purpose. He can’t let himself think differently, because this is the way things are now. He’s made a choice. He needs to stick to it, knows what will happen if he doesn’t, can’t live with that.

“It’s late,” says Perrie, “you should get some rest.”

He’ll miss dinner if he does, but he feels too sick anyway.

“Yeah,” he nods, sitting back and then curling more or less into a ball, bunching the threadbare blanket up around his chin. “Yeah, okay.”

Perrie brushes his shoulder one last time, a glancing touch, and then she’s gone like a whisper.

Louis lies in bed, stares at the wall. Does his level best not to turn this whole damn place to ice.

Chapter Text

“Rise and shine, you’re with me today.”

Harry groans, rolls over in bed and mashes his face into the pillow. He’s usually more of a morning person--or at least one compared to Louis--but today he feels groggy and out of it, not in the mood to deal with waking up. The fact that the voice sounds slightly miserable on its own isn’t enough to make him feel any more amenable to the person behind it. “Go away, Zayn,” he mumbles.

It’s probably too familiar, but Harry has given up trying to figure out where the lines are. After two weeks or so of floating around at the base and doing nothing, he’s more than ready to contribute, but these people feel less like members of a deadly task force and more like a group of friends on a gap year after uni, doing some government work to fill the time.

Or something like that. He’s still working on the metaphor.

“You’ll miss breakfast,” Zayn tells him. Harry, head pounding with exhaustion, flips him off.

Zayn laughs a little. “Your loss,” he answers. “Meet me in my workroom at 9, then.”

Harry shrugs, mumbles something that was supposed to be an obscenity but just comes out garbled, and Zayn turns around in the doorway, leaves. This is Harry’s first day working under him, and he’d hoped to start it better, but he hasn’t been sleeping very well lately.

It’s fine, though, because the headache dissipates in the shower, and he’s left ready to face the day and see what kind of work Zayn has him doing.

It’s like his internship all over again, except Harry is still wearing clothes that don’t fit (no one will tell them who they were expecting, or why he found an unopened box of girl’s briefs in the back of one of his drawers) and he’s moaning and groaning when the person he works for comes to wake him up.

Again, metaphors are hard.

He ends up making it to Zayn’s office first, in the end, with plenty of time to spare. The door is open, so he lets himself in, sits on the spinny chair and rocks from side to side for a bit, trying to keep his hands to himself.

He still has twenty minutes until breakfast is over, though, and he could go back to his room but it seems like too much work all of a sudden, and it isn’t as if he has anything better to be doing. He spins around a couple of times and kicks his feet out, but it only holds his interest for so long.

Zayn’s office is cluttered, like some kind of controlled chaos, and Harry is interested in all of it, though he knows he shouldn’t snoop.

He’s about to rip his gaze away when he sees a folder, tab sticking out, that has his name on it.

Harry’s not nosy, usually, but he’s curious. For all they’ve told him about this place, he still has more questions than answers, and he’s found that most of the people here are excellent at evading questions and making you think they’ve told you everything they know. Clearly, though, that’s not the case.

Checking over his shoulder first, Harry reaches out with a barely trembling hand and tugs the folder out from beneath the pile.

Styles, Harry, it reads, rather innocuously. It’s like the ones he used to use in school to keep papers or artwork he’d done in class--must have been ten or fifteen years ago now, god--and he flicks it open, careful not to make too much sound. Inside, there’s a thin stack of papers, and he pulls the the first one out and starts to read.

It looks like some kind of report, or bio.

It has his mum’s name, his dad’s, his stepdad’s. Gemma’s address, and a picture of the cat his family used to have when he was growing up. The information is bulleted, like a rush job, but it’s all perfectly accurate. Fiancé: registered, it reads, and Harry goes a bit cold. He wonders when this was written, if it was before or after he met Niall, if this entire thing has been a setup, or close to one. He tries not to jump to the worst conclusions but he can’t help it that he feels uneasy. This is the government, or something, and of course they have access to his information, but. He doesn’t know what Zayn needs a file like this for. He doesn’t know why anyone here would need it, since he hasn’t exactly been shy about offering up information.

Maybe he should be more careful, then. Especially since the paper under that is actually a collage of pictures, all of Harry and Louis in their home.

Jesus Christ, he thinks. This is creepy. This is more than routine surveillance, even from a government perspective.

There’s one last paper in the folder, but he hears Jade laughing at something down the hall, footsteps approaching, and he rushes to put everything back where it was, neatening it up as best he can and tucking it into the spot he’d taken it from.

It’s a good thing, too, because not five seconds later Zayn is sauntering into the room. “Oh,” he says, a bit surprised, “hey, I didn’t realize you were in here.”

He doesn’t look shifty or particularly suspicious, but then… no one here does, and there’s still a file of pictures of Harry in his home when he hadn’t known anyone was watching, so. He doesn’t know what to think, anymore.

“Yeah,” he answers belatedly. “Sorry, I figured you’d be right in.”

Zayn looks at him carefully, and Harry keeps his expression neutral. “Right,” answers Zayn, “well, I actually had some questions to ask you, about Louis. We need all the intel we can get before we try any kind of rescue or engagement. Otherwise it’s too dangerous, and we won’t get cleared. We want to get him out of there as soon as we can, you know?”

Zayn has been nothing but kind to Harry, for the most part at least, but all of Harry’s hackles are rising after realizing that this is what they’ve been doing the whole time. “Sure,” he says, because there’s no other answer he can really give. “What do you want to know?”

“Basic things, mostly. Do you remember his emotions ever being tied to the weather back home?”

Of course, thinks Harry, because in hindsight it’s obvious, isn’t it.

The day Louis found out his nan had passed on, and London was pouring rain for weeks after. Or the time he got fired from his third job in a row, and the entire city was covered in fog for hours, so thick you couldn’t even see through it. They stayed inside that day, barely talking, Harry just running his fingers slowly through Louis’ hair. There are so many instances he can pinpoint, so many times that he could have read every one of Louis’ feelings out of the air but didn’t, and it’s almost hard to relive so many memories at once.

Zayn is watching him expectantly, and Harry shifts in his seat. “No,” he lies, “sorry, not really.”

“Are you sure?” Zayn circles around, pulls up his own seat next to Harry.

Harry breathes, counts to ten, tries to keep his face cool and neutral. “Yeah,” he answers, makes it sound apologetic, “it’s just… hard, right? If I didn’t know what was going on.”

“Well, if you remember anything…” Zayn says, trailing off, clearly a little disappointed.

“Of course,” Harry says, and he hates that he feels guilty. “Yeah, definitely, I’ll let you know.”

They only talk for a few more minutes after that, a little crease of tension appearing between Zayn’s eyebrows, before Harry is dismissed to do… whatever he wants, essentially. He has a lot of free time here, and he’d rather not spend it just twiddling his thumbs and hoping for the best, but he doesn’t have a lot of options. It’s not like he can leave.

He tried asking, once, when Liam was first assigning him to help Zayn, if he could talk to his sister, go back and see her.

Liam was apologetic but firm.

He’s not allowed to leave the base. He’s not allowed to make contact with anyone outside of the base. It’s too dangerous, for Harry and for the rest of the people here.

Security risk, Liam had said. Harry knows he’s being honest, but that doesn’t make it sting any less.

It makes him feel like a kid being babysat most of the time, except with a sharper edge to it. He wouldn’t leave permanently, he knows; not when he’s so close to finding answers, at least. It’s frustrating when the answers aren’t coming up as what he wants them to, and when there doesn’t seem to be any action being taken aside from Liam’s recon mission that starts tomorrow, but he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. This is the only lead, and it’s where he’s going to stay. Harry might be laid back most of the time, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t determined, ambitious, loyal. That doesn’t mean he’s going to let this slip away from him.

“Hey,” says Zayn, right as he and Harry are parting ways at the end of the hall, “if you remember anything, or just, like, want to talk. You know where to find me, yeah?”

There’s an unsure tilt to Zayn’s mouth that wasn’t there before, like he’s putting himself out on a limb for Harry, and it softens something in Harry’s chest, no matter how begrudgingly. “Yeah,” he answers quietly. “Thanks.”

Zayn nods once, a wry, shaky thing, and then peels away.

*

Harry dithers for ages in his room before going to Niall’s workspace and seeing what he’s doing.

His new Don’t Trust Anyone attitude has only really been in effect for two hours, and he’s already lonely. He thinks his soft heart is going to get him killed here, and then cracks a smile, thinks about the irony of fear in this place. These are supposed to be the good guys.

He shuts those thoughts aside for a bit as Niall greets him warmly, bright smile and all. “You look tired,” he remarks, somehow not unkindly, “Zayn work you hard?”

“Something like that,” mutters Harry. Niall takes it as a joke, laughing, and it’s infectious enough that Harry feels the dark cloud over his head lessening. He’ll be careful, of course, but he doesn’t think letting his guard down a bit here will cause too many problems. And anyway, the less tense and visibly stressed he is, the more likely it is that people will actually tell him what he wants to know. “What’re you up to?”

“Ah,” says Niall, gesturing toward his desk, which is currently covered in all sorts of papers, wood underneath only visible in slivers, “I know it looks crazy, but there’s a method to the madness, I promise. Looking up some schematics for Liam’s mission. Gonna cross reference them against the older files Leigh Anne is digging up right now, see if we can spot a pattern in any changes that have been made in security.”

It sounds like a bunch of gibberish to Harry, if he’s being honest, but he nods along anyway. “And where is this place?” he asks, knows his tone must convey his awe.

The schematics look like they’re for a place just as big as this base, if not bigger. The blueprints are enormous, or at least what he can see of them is, and Harry fights the urge to get a closer look himself. There’s writing everywhere, diagrams and magnifications littering the pages. It looks like something out of a movie. Like nothing he’s ever seen before.

Niall’s smile softens when he sees the look on Harry’s face. “Security’s pretty fucking airtight,” he laments. “It’s in Russia. Middle of nowhere, snow for miles in every direction. Used to be a Soviet submarine base, but it’s been, ah, repurposed.”

Russia, then, probably Siberia. A hulking expanse of land and concrete in the middle of a wasteland. Fitting.

“Why is Liam going there, anyway? What information does he need?”

Harry catches Niall at the tail end of an expression, and his stomach drops out when he realizes that Niall looks nervous, wary, hesitant to say.

“Niall,” Harry pushes.

Niall looks away, chews on his thumbnail for a second. “It’s for the YNM mission,” he answers. “That’s the base in Russia. It’s, uh. It’s Louis. We got intel that he’s there, and Liam wants to go check it out and see if he can bring Louis in by just talking to him. That’s Plan A.”

Louis is in Russia.

That’s the thought that echoes in Harry’s head, first and foremost. They’re not even in the same country, and here Harry thought he could storm in and rescue Louis, carry him out while the explosions went off behind him, or whatever action movie cliche. That it would be as simple as hopping in the car and sneaking in. But this… Russia is far, and vast, and the facility where they’re holding Louis has so many security measures that Harry can’t even read all of the markings on the report, each sentence spilling over onto the next so it just looks like a mess of chalk.

This was always a possibility in the back of his mind, but he refused to let himself believe it. Didn’t think it could possibly be true.

“What’s Plan B?” he makes himself ask, realizes how fast his voice goes hoarse.

Niall shrugs, and Harry believes him when he says, “I don’t know yet. We’re all hoping this works. A clean in and out. If anyone can do it, Liam can.”

Harry still doesn’t understand what’s so special about Liam aside that he seems nice and works hard and can skew emotions, but he doesn’t push any further, still feeling a bit sick to his stomach.

Louis is in Russia.

Just over one month ago now, they were finalizing the cake order for the wedding. They were tasting the samples, and Harry had smeared a stripe of vanilla frosting down Louis’ nose, and it had ended in the most dramatic food fight Harry has ever been in, even after years of dating Louis.

His chest contracts, heart aching just thinking about it.

They were so happy, is the thing. Nothing could touch them.

And now Harry is here in this place where he isn’t sure if he can trust anyone, and the rules of his universe have been turned completely inside out, and Louis is in Russia.

“Here,” says Niall, gently, and Harry looks up to see him holding out a file. “Alphabetize these for me?”

An easy task, menial and mind-numbing. Harry takes the folder gratefully. “Sure,” he answers.

He takes out the papers and starts to sort.

*

He’s been trying to sleep for three hours that night when Jesy knocks on the door. Niall is passed out next to him, dead to the world, and he creeps out into the hallway to talk to her, squinting at the bright light. “What’re you doing awake?” he asks her, rubbing at his eyes groggily.

The circles under his eyes must be as dark as bruises. The look she tosses him is mostly concern, and it’s the softest look he’s seen on her face yet. “Could ask you the same thing,” she answers plainly, voice in between a whisper and a murmur.

He shrugs, runs a hand through the messy tangle of his hair. “Can’t sleep.”

Jesy laughs, mirthless. “Join the club.”

And he does.

They go to Jesy’s room. She has a single room, empty bed and drawers across from her side, and Harry sits cautiously at the edge of the bed, not wanting to muss the duvet even though no one is using it. Her room is much like Niall’s was, almost military in simplicity, and Harry has a million questions but isn’t sure he’s allowed to ask them.

He waits for Jesy to speak first.

“Being underground is weird,” she starts. “Most of us are used to it by now, but it gets to you, sometimes. I realize that if there was a fire down here I’d probably die, and it freaks me out a little, but we live with it. The sacrifices we make, blah blah blah.”

It sounds like an adage, or a motto, something so familiar she doesn’t feel the need to finish it. “I’ve found it okay,” he tells her, even if the fire thing is kind of unsettling when he thinks about it. “Niall let me use his sun lamp.”

Unexpectedly, Jesy’s face blossoms open into a smile, amused. “Generous, that Niall.”

“He makes it look easy,” Harry says, and realizes too late that that sounds a bit pathetic, especially since Harry isn’t exactly doing any heavy lifting around here. He’s a guest and, at best, a glorified intern, same as before except for the whole “government agency that handles people with superpowers” thing.

“He’d kill me if he found out I told you,” says Jesy, conspiratorial, “but his first few weeks here he was the worst of any of us.”

Harry feels his eyebrows shoot up. “Really?” He can’t help the incredulity.

Jesy nods, shadows flickering across her face. “Claustrophobic, isn’t he? Not exactly comfy for him to be more or less trapped under several tons of rock and metal, especially not all the time.”

His house, remembers Harry. All of that space for just one person. The open floor plan, almost to the point of inefficiency, and the high ceilings. If he’s going to be inside, Niall must want to do it on his terms. “Oh,” is all Harry says, still turning it over in his brain. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”

There’s a pause where they settle into the silence a little better, Harry sitting less stiffly, Jesy kicking off her shoes.

Harry tugs at the hem of his shirt, trying to pull it low enough to cover the bottom strip of his stomach. It said UNISEX on the tag, but he can’t help that his shoulders are a little broader, his torso a little longer than the average person’s.

“We all have something,” says Jesy, after he stops fidgeting.

He looks up, finds her eyes far away and remembering. “Yeah?”

She shifts her gaze to the side, then down at the ground. “We’ve all lost something,” she amends. “No one gets here without being hurt first.” Her room is sparse, and Harry wonders if it’s because she’s a minimalist, or because things carry memories. He’s too exhausted to ask. “We learn to cope,” she continues, “because we have to, but we get it. Some of us more than you might think.”

That’s an emotional minefield of a statement, and Harry genuinely doesn’t have the energy to push any further, dig any deeper. He’ll ask later, he figures. It isn’t as if there’s an end to this in sight--or one in the near future, at least.

Instead of asking the obvious question, he shifts gears. “Do you have trouble sleeping?”

If Jesy is thrown by the change of subject, she doesn’t show it. “Sometimes,” she answers, calm and easy. “It’s hard when there’s no sun, I guess. Mixes up all of the signals in my brain.”

Sun lamp, thinks Harry, but he knows from experience that it isn’t really the same. “Do you just not sleep, then?”

He can’t imagine being here and working a job like this while running on too little sleep could possibly be a good combination, but Jesy shrugs. “Usually I just get as much as I can. If it’s really bad, I take a couple of sleeping pills. I try to avoid it, though. They’re easy to get dependent on.”

“Do you have a house?” he asks. Jesy has been surprisingly candid, more so than anyone here but Niall, really, and he finds himself curious, wanting to know more about this world.

“Rent a flat,” she tells him, waving a hand around noncommittally. “Small thing, I’m not there much.”

Harry wonders if that has to do with the whole thing about loss, or forgetting. If there are ghosts there that she can’t shake. He can’t imagine staying in the house without Louis in it, if he’s being honest. Even just the day he was there was enough to put his every nerve on edge, on top of the crushing sadness of knowing that whatever was happening wasn’t a game. Isn’t a game. Is happening right now, and isn’t getting any easier to cope with. “But the pay’s good,” he suggests, because he’s seen Niall’s house.

“But the pay’s good,” agrees Jesy, quirking a smile.

Harry feels his eyelids starting to droop, limbs getting heavy. “Is that why you joined?” he asks through a yawn.

It’s three, maybe four in the morning. Jesy doesn’t have a clock.

“No,” answers Jesy, “but that’s a story for later, I think.”

It’s not never, and that’s what eases the frustration in Harry’s chest. “I should sleep,” he admits, rubbing at his tired eyes. It feels like the past few days have all caught up to him at once, making him feel syrupy and exhausted.

Jesy agrees with him, and sends him on his way only after pressing a small baggie of pills into his hand. “In case you can’t sleep,” she murmurs. “Try to find me first, maybe we can talk it out or something, but if you can’t… I know it’s tough down here.”

Harry smiles, a small thing, and thanks her.

Heads back to his room, nudges his way in quietly, falls into bed, sleeps.

*

“I don’t believe you.”

Harry’s blood runs a little cold, but he keeps his expression impassive. “Why would I lie to you?” he challenges, figures that maybe taking the offensive will stop the attack.

Zayn looks extremely unimpressed, though. They’re about the same age, maybe a year apart, but Harry feels like a kid sometimes when he’s with Zayn, like he doesn’t quite belong in a place this sophisticated. “I’ve been asking myself the same question,” he replies, eyebrow arched.

It’s instinct by now, three weeks since he got here, to check the room for doors. For exits.

The nearest way out is behind Zayn, though, and it’s making the hair on Harry’s arms stand up. “I want Louis back as much as you do,” he answers, and then amends it, “more, probably.” He hasn’t cried since day two, but he can’t help the way his throat gets tight whenever he says Louis’ name, thinks about how hopeless the situation feels. “Has Liam left yet?”

The turn of the conversation makes Zayn furrow his eyebrows even more, but he lets it go. “Yeah,” he says, with a quick nod. “Just left this morning.”

“Alone?”

Zayn tilts his head, considering. “You think he can’t handle himself?”

It’s a baseless accusation, especially since Harry doesn’t exactly have a frame of reference for what any of these people are like in the field. “I’m just surprised.”

“It’s not going to be a violent confrontation, no matter what the outcome is. It’s just a recon mission. Best possible outcome, he makes contact with Louis and brings him back. Worst possible outcome, he doesn’t see anything and comes back here.”

Harry can think of a couple of worse possible outcomes just off of the top of his head, but he doesn’t say anything. Zayn has been tetchy all day, and this is probably why. Worry, maybe, or anticipation. They need a new lead, Harry knows--they’ll tell him that much, at least, though not much more--and this could lead to the break that helps them start to solve things.

Jesy has been working hard on hacking into their system, but the dark expression in her face at lunch earlier told Harry all he needed to know about progress there.

“Is there any way I can help?” he asks. Aside from giving you more information to put in a file, he adds in his head. Aside from contributing to something creepy that I still don’t understand yet.

Zayn folds his arms, but his posture isn’t particularly menacing, mostly just annoyed. He frightens Harry sometimes, but he really is a skinny thing. Harry might be able to beat him in a fight by sheer size alone. “Ask Jade,” he says, like he knows they won’t get anywhere working together.

“All right,” answers Harry.

And he goes.

*

“Perfect!” says Jade, when Harry asks if she needs anything. “I was just coming to find you, actually. Zayn’s been greedy.”

Harry, bewildered, just nods and leans against the desk next to Jade’s; Zayn’s, he thinks, though he isn’t totally sure. “Um,” he starts, but Jade cuts him right off, hands fluttering excitedly.

"I’m going to search for him today. Finally got the right materials for a reading--it’s so hard to find pure petroleum these days, honestly--and I’d like your help, if you’d join me over here," says Jade. Harry looks up, surprised. He doesn’t know Jade's power, exactly; he hasn’t had opportunity to figure them all out, exactly, especially when people hold them so close to their chests. "How?" he asks, even though he knows better than to question good things. He knows what happens. He's had to learn. She motions him over to her work table, and he goes. The mess is charming, if a bit confusing, and there are plenty of things he couldn’t put a name to if he tried scattered across it. They’re in the middle of Base Central, and he feels a bit exposed, even as everyone else here is minding their own business, working just like he and Jade are.

"It's a bit witchy," she tells him with a smile, holding up a bowl of pitch black liquid and a white crystal. He nods, feels like he shouldn’t be surprised. It suits her, somehow, with her tumbling curls and sweet eyes and quick hands. He blinks at her anyway, still thrown off guard. "I didn't know that was, like, a thing." "Not very scientific, is it?" chimes in Leigh-Anne, and Jade rolls her eyes, laughing a little. "Shut up," she retorts, with no heat at all. "Don't think I will." "Careful, or I'll make you." Leigh Anne snorts and goes back to what she was doing two desks over, pen hovering in the air and spinning next to her as she thinks. Harry is usually soft with the people he loves, but this back and forth is fun to watch. All of the girls are like that with each other, and the boys, too; the push and pull, the give and take. It's a bit normalizing, in this place where everything feels upside down and inside out. He forgets that not everyone here has secrets; or, at least, that not everyone here lets their secrets keep them guarded. "I'm going to start with the crystal," says Jade, waiting for Harry to nod an acknowledgement before continuing. "It'll need a memory to focus it, so I'll need you to hold it, here, and remember a moment between you and Louis as clearly as you can." Harry swallows hard and takes the crystal in his hand. It's dwarfed in his palm, and he feels very aware of his clumsiness all of a sudden, next to Jade's dainty, practiced fingers. "What kind of memory?" She smiles softly. "Something happy. And something clear. The more details the better. We need to establish the strongest connection we can." That's pretty vague, but Harry nods anyway, curling his fingers around the crystal and shutting his eyes in hopes of feeling less exposed. He can do this, he knows, and if that’s what it takes to help for real, he’ll do it. If it’ll bring him closer to finding Louis, he’ll do anything he can. Jade places a hand on his shoulder, and he pretends that it's grounding, that it’s enough to help him sink into himself without a fuss.

They can’t see what he’s seeing, he’s pretty sure. They can’t remember it with him. He’s safe in his own head, and he’s going to do his absolute best. He doesn’t have to think of which memory to pick, exactly. It’s more of a feeling, a million moments strung together, and then they narrow into one so easily it feels like a miracle. "Okay," he says to himself quietly, breathing slowly. "Okay."

“Take your time,” says Jade, but Harry’s already falling. The memory goes like this: Sunday morning lie in. Louis' hair is sleep rumpled and his voice is rough-soft the way it gets in the mornings. The rasp in it makes Harry shiver every time, without fail. Louis blinks awake. Outside, birds singing. Outside, molten yellow sunlight seeping into everything and turning it gold. Outside, the low hum of traffic rush, just out of sight. Inside, now, and Louis says "g’morning," with warm eyes and a sweet, rueful tilt to his lips that Harry tries and fails to kiss away. If anything, Louis looks even more fond after, and Harry's heart is overflowing.

“Hi,” he says, and he can’t fight the stupid smile that spreads across his face.

Louis mirrors it, and they’re looking at each other like idiots, grinning and sleepy. This Louis is younger than today’s, and it’s summer, his freckles visible across and around his nose. Harry loves to kiss them, hears Louis pretend to protest it every so often and laughs. "I love you," Harry says, apropos of absolutely nothing. Sometimes he looks at Louis and he just can’t help it, feels it spill out of him like breathing. "I love you, I love you, I love you." Louis reaches up slowly, brushes Harry's cheekbone with his thumb. "I love you, too," he says, easy easy easy. "Do we have to move?" The bed is warm and Harry is here with his favorite person in the world and he's so in love he could burst with it. "No," he says “not for a while. Let's stay right here for a bit." Louis shifts under the sheets, curling closer. His eyes flutter shut again, and he’s perfect. He’s everything. "Okay," he whispers. Harry nudges even closer and brushes their noses together. They both giggle at that like children, eyes scrunching up, and Harry thinks he's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, thinks he's all I've ever wanted, thinks I could marry this boy, I could- "Harry," says Jade, hesitant. "Harry? Hey, you're okay, you’re all right, hush now." He blinks back, jarred out of the remembering. "Sorry," he says, finds his voice wrecked with tears. She looks at him with her sad doe eyes and he flushes under it, feeling awful and exposed and shaky. "Was that okay?" he asks. She holds her hand out, and he gives her the crystal, which is now colored a vivid, opaque red. She studies it carefully, turning it over and over. "You did well," she tells him, half-distracted, and he’s comforted by her focus. Harry shrugs her hand off of his shoulder as politely as he can, and she startles, like she'd forgotten it was there. "Okay," he says, rubbing away the tears on his cheeks and fighting back a new wave. “Good.” Jade dithers for a moment, turned halfway between him and her workspace. "I'll do this bit myself," she says gently. "Shouldn't be more than five minutes. I'll let you know when I'm ready." "Thank you," says Harry, because he really is grateful, but that's all he's capable of, the rest of his energy going into keeping him from splitting apart at the seams. It's four minutes, in the end, and Harry spends every second very carefully not thinking 'where did you go what did I do wrong why did you leave me why won't you come back.' "Harry," says Jade, tone careful like she's tiptoeing over broken glass. "I've found him. Would you like to have a look?" "Please," says Harry, voice hoarse. This doesn’t feel real. "Yes, please." For a moment that's about to change everything, it happens rather slowly. Jade pushes the bowl toward him, murmurs, "just focus here," and at first it looks like ink. Like it's so thick and deep there could never be anything beneath the surface at all.

Harry furrows his brow, coming closer, and feels his frustration start to bubble up. This has to work. He’s only known it to be an option for half an hour, now, but all his hope is already invested. His eyes are burning, his chest hot. Please, he thinks. It has to work. And then something starts to take shape, murky at first and sharpening quickly. The blur of a body, the line of shoulders, the careful swish of messy hair disrupting the perfect darkness. "Oh," whispers Harry, heart going curiously wobbly. "Oh, no." Because there's Louis, curled into a ball, and it’s the Louis of today, of now. There’s Louis, alone, and he's crying, too.

Jade makes a sad sound, quiet next to him, and Harry peers closer, tries to see as much as he can. The room Louis is in is sleet gray, like concrete, and the bed is sparse, just a thin blanket and Louis shuddering on top of it. His fists are clenched tightly by his side; Harry can’t see that close, but his knuckles must be white with the strain of it.

Nothing changes over the course of a minute, then two, then five, and Harry is halfway through whispering how long can you keep this up when he’s interrupted by-

“Oh, god,” says Jade, not surprised but sad, not blindsided but maybe a little heartbroken.

Louis isn’t alone in the room anymore.

It takes Harry a second to make sense of what’s happening, but it’s pretty clear once he focuses properly. It’s a girl. Their age, looks to be, or close to it, blonde hair tied up tight into a severe ponytail. She goes straight to Louis, sitting at the edge of the bed, hands hovering like she isn’t sure whether to touch or not.

If Harry was there, he’d have swept Louis into a hug ages ago. But he’s not.

There’s a minute more of quiet conversation between Louis and the girl, all incomprehensible through the murky haziness, and then the image starts to fade, liquid rippling.

When it’s gone, Harry turns on Jade. “Who was that?” he asks.

Jade looks bewildered, caught out. “I- I, uh-” she stutters. Her hands are trembling, color gone from her face like she’s seen a ghost. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I just- I need to-”

She leaves, then, scurrying over to Liam’s office, where Zayn is currently stationed in his absence, and Harry blinks the tears out of his eyes, shell shocked.

He can’t get the image out of his head, of Louis alone and small and sobbing like the world is ending.

If he’s going to help, he knows that he’s going to have to trust these people, and be trusted in return. Whatever doubts he has, whatever sinister motives he feels may or may not be at play… he needs to clear it up. Louis’ situation has become startlingly real, and terrifying, and Harry has no idea what he’s doing here but all of his focus is on Louis, now. There isn’t any room for anything else.

*

Dinner is a tense affair, quiet. The only person who doesn’t look as if they’ve been crying in the past half hour is Niall, though he’s a bit subdued, too.

Even Zayn, normally so to the point, so prickly, has red-rimmed eyes, a flush high on his cheeks that betrays how miserable he must be feeling to look so torn apart. Harry is still confused, even more now than before, and genuinely hopes that this girl isn’t, like, a known assassin, and that Louis is as good as-

Okay, he thinks. Time for a new train of thought.

He spends the rest of dinner pondering the magic behind what Jade did, and what exactly her ability is. Manipulation of energies? Scrying? Is that a separate thing or is it connected to something else? He wishes he knew more about all of this, but it isn’t as if there’s a manual, right?

“No,” says Niall, once dinner is over, patient but clearly amused, “there isn’t a manual. Most of us figured it out by accident, and were scouted.”

Harry tries to quell the disappointment. “Scouted by this group?” he asks. “The one you work for now?”

Niall nods. “We went through bootcamp first. Training, really, but everyone called it bootcamp back then. A lot of us got to know each other there first before being assigned missions, and eventually put on this team.”

Harry tries to absorb the information whilst Niall unties and re-ties his shoelaces, flexing his feet after to make sure they’re on tightly enough. Harry doesn’t know where he’s going, exactly, but this feels like the right opportunity to ask a few questions that he’s been meaning to, and he needs to get a word in before Niall disappears. “So,” he says, “do you know a lot about how this organization operates?”

“This task force? Or the overarching group?”

“The second one,” clarifies Harry, though he’d take information on either right now.

Niall touches his hair absentmindedly as he mulls it over. “Kind of,” he non-answers. “What do you want to know?”

A cleverer person might be able to get in and out of this one without incriminating themself, but Harry bites the bullet and says, “I saw a file on Zayn’s desk last week. I didn’t mean to snoop, but it had my name on it, and. There were pictures. Of me, and of Louis, in our house. At home.” He trails off, feeling a bit useless, but Niall’s eyebrows furrow together like he’s confused even as his eyes light up in comprehension.

He clears his throat before answering. “The scouting doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” he says, which is confusing. “I mean,” he continues, spotting Harry’s likely bewildered expression, “Louis was marked as a candidate for our training program a while ago, after we hacked into YNM’s records system and found his name there.”

“Okay,” says Harry, slowly, “but why am I in there? Obviously I don’t have any, like, abilities, or anything.”

Niall shifts where he’s perched on his dresser, legs kicking a little as he adjusts. “Like I said, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s like… do you have a Twitter?”

Harry blinks, thrown off. “Um,” he says, “yes?”

“Right,” says Niall, “so let’s say you’re a big fan of a celebrity, right? And you follow them on Twitter to see what they’re up to. But then maybe one of their friends posts a group picture and that celebrity is in it, so you follow them, too. Because you don’t want to miss anything.”

Harry rolls it over in his head. “So to keep a closer eye on Louis, they kept an eye on me, too?”

“Probably,” answers Niall. “We’re not on surveillance, even though our team is targeting YNM recruits. I can’t tell you exactly why they did that, but they must have had a reason.”

It doesn’t do a lot to settle the uneasiness in Harry’s stomach, but he feels safer here, in the company of these people. Niall has been as transparent as he could be through all of this, and the others seem genuine, like they want to do the right thing. He’s a little scared that this all may come to bite him in the ass, but these people are the only ones he can trust to help him get his fiancé back. “Do you think we can rescue him?” asks Harry, feeling small, suddenly. Feeling young.

Niall doesn’t answer right away. “Not my call,” he says, “but my money’s on our team, if that’s what you’re asking. We have a job, and it’s to stop YNM from doing any damage. That includes using Louis to hurt people, or putting him through a special program, or even killing him themselves. We don’t have the same resources, but we don’t need them.” He looks thoughtful, careful.

“So,” says Harry, “is that a yes?”

Niall smiles, runs a hand through his hair. “Yeah,” he says, “that’s a yes.”

*

It’s Jesy that tells him who the girl is, unsurprisingly.

He figures he could’ve tried to ask Jade, or maybe Leigh-Anne, but he doesn’t feel as close to them, isn’t sure they’d talk candidly about it. And if he’s being honest, it’s Jesy that he’s closest to here, that he’s come to sit with while she works and learned about this place from.

Maybe something about her sharpness and her kindness reminds him of Louis.

Maybe Harry’s had too much time to think lately.

“I knew her,” says Jesy, quieter than Harry has ever seen her. “Most of us did, actually. We, uh… we got recruited together. Me, and Jade, and Leigh-Anne, and- and Perrie.”

Harry’s mouth twists in sympathy. “Did they take her? Like they took Louis?”

Jesy’s eyes go from devastated to hard in the space of a heartbeat. “No,” she answers, and she pauses. Takes a breath. It’s shaky. “She volunteered.”

Shit, thinks Harry, low and fervent. “Why?”

From what he knows, YNM is the worst kind of terrorist organization. They’ve already successfully completed a few assassinations just in the last week, and they’re fairly new, or so Niall has told him. The hacked communications reveal things so vile that Harry can’t imagine anyone working with them voluntarily unless they’re a truly, properly evil human being. You’d have to get satisfaction from pain, to work with them. You’d have to love to destroy.

“She didn’t know what she was getting into,” explains Jesy, thin and watery. “We tried to tell her, but she wouldn’t listen. She thought we were signing off to be props, or robots. That we were letting people use us. Her family are wealthy, have ties to the government. They put her name forward when this class was being formed, and she was furious when she found out.”

“So she decided to side with the terrorists?” he asks, can’t quite keep the disbelief out of his tone.

He’s exhausted, still hasn’t been sleeping much, and his hands are trembling a little at his sides, a combination of seeing Louis and hearing about this. He has the scene on loop in his head: all that dark gray, all that industrial heartbreak.

“She wanted to make the choice for herself,” Jesy answers. “That’s all. She made a reckless decision, and… we thought maybe she’d run off, that she wouldn’t go through with it. So it was a shock for all of us to see her there.”

Harry runs through the tally of dry eyes and wet, rolls it over in his head. “Did she know Niall and Zayn?”

“She just knew Niall through us, but not well,” says Jesy, and she doesn’t bother explaining further. “She and Zayn… that’s his story to tell. But yeah, they knew each other.”

Every bit of Jesy looks sad and tired. Every bit of her aches heavy.

“You seem like you really cared about her,” he says quietly.

Jesy nods, looks down. “Yeah,” she whispers, belated. “I do.”

There’s nothing left to say after that.

Chapter Text

“Don’t die out there, okay?” says Perrie, twirling her ponytail around her finger. “It’d be awfully boring here without you.” She makes doe eyes at him, half teasing, but there’s a tilt to her mouth that’s more genuine concern than anything else.

It’s an interesting contrast, the sleek black of her suit against her white-blonde hair. When she got here, she was wearing a sundress. Now, there’s a knife strapped to her ankle, and another to the inside of her thigh, her features just as wicked but a bit more sharp. This place changes all of them, Louis has come to realize. He isn’t sure what that means for him, exactly. Doesn’t want to think about it.

Louis rolls his eyes, but shoots her a small smile, tries not to let it twist. “I’ll be careful,” he offers, because he can’t promise not to die. He wants to say no one will die on this mission, but they have a target they want dead, and they have Louis’ boy, and it’s an impossible choice.

He isn’t going to roll over, and he definitely isn’t going to make it easy for them, but there’s no use resisting. He knows that, now. They’ve made it clear.

“I’ll see you later,” he says, shouldering his pack.

Perrie flutters her fingers in a wave, and he turns around, leaves.

There’s only one way out of the facility: a hallway that looks more like a loading dock than a place to exchange niceties. It’s made entirely of concrete - floors, walls, ceiling - and Louis has guessed that this entire place is an abandoned military base, or something like it. It’s too well defended, too fortified. There’s no getting in or out unless the people in charge authorize it, and Louis is and has been far, far, far from their good graces.

All he really knows is that he’s somewhere in Russia. Just thinking about it is enough to unbalance him, to send him spiraling.

The closer he gets to the exit, the more he shivers.

The first one will be easy, they’d told him, but he knows better. It’ll never be easy to kill someone, not for him. When he’d asked why they wanted this man in particular dead, one of them had said, simply, because they could. Because they felt like it.

It’s a flashy show of power, and Louis is their shiny new weapon.

Please don’t have a family, thinks Louis as he walks, bracing himself against the frigid air. He’s outside now, starting to make his way to the car he’ll be transported in. Please, please don’t have a family.

By the end of today, Louis will have innocent blood on his hands.

The driver of the car doesn’t engage when Louis tries, shrugs off his questions. The Russians are like that, Louis has realized, or at least the ones at the base. He settles back, quiet. Subdued. They’ve broken enough pieces of him. Why not this one, too?

It’s at least a short drive, during which he watches the snow fall gently outside and tries to swallow his anxiety, feels it fluttering in his chest like a living thing. He has to step out of himself or he’ll never get through this.

“Out,” says the driver, low and gruff, and Louis doesn’t reply, just jumps out of the car and into the snow.

The silence is all consuming, blanketing him tightly the moment he realizes he’s completely alone. He’d been expecting a city, maybe, or at least a village street, but this is emptiness, a wasteland. Remember what they told you, he thinks, and promptly hates himself for it even as he knows it’s necessary. He has to be made of steel. It’s the only way to survive, to make it through, and failure is not an option here. His stomach turns, sick. Failure is not an option.

Louis wracks his brain and tugs out the pieces information that he needs: an image, a name that’s likely fake, and an address that is not. He sets out walking for lack of a better option. They’d taught him how to use a compass but he didn’t think it’d be relevant - ironic, considering how much he’s struggling to orient himself properly. Never was much of a student, Louis. But this isn’t about his brain, it’s about his heart, and he knows the stakes, had them driven into him more than once.

Once he figures out where he’s supposed to be going, it’s a fairly easy walk, only made difficult by the frigid wind and all the snow.

“Can’t you do something about this?” Perrie had asked on one of his first days, complaining about losing feeling in her extremities on her previous mission. “Isn’t that, like, your thing?”

He doesn’t know how to explain that he thinks that he is doing something. That this winter is his something. That it’s the second biggest, second most frightening thing that’s ever been his fault. As it is, he just grits his teeth and walks, boots crunching and breaking ice beneath his feet.

To his left, houses start appearing, huge, gaping spaces between them. They’re shrouded in white, and the lights all look to be off. Ghost town, thinks Louis, except that he knows better. He wonders who’s watching him, who could know anything about him. If there’s a gun on his back right now, the same way there was one on- his hands are shaking, and he cuts that line of thought off as cleanly as he can, feels sick with the memory.

Up ahead, a lone street sign sits on a corner, words fading off of it, weather proving too much. Louis thought everything in Russia was built to handle the elements, but maybe there’s nothing that can truly stand up to a winter like this. The houses all look small compared to the expanse of land, the endless white barren horizon. There’s too much empty, too much room.

Nothing about this place reminds him of home. Louis shudders, continues on.

His orders were vague, but the gist is that he’s going to find this man, and then this man won’t be alive anymore. Louis will do what he has to do. It’s the way, here.

Right on time, a car up ahead starts to pull into a driveway a few houses down. There’s a single light on in a window upstairs, and Louis freezes, thinks what if he has kids, what if someone is watching, what if what if what if-

The man gets out of the car, everything about him nondescript down to the unadorned boots on his feet, and Louis bursts into motion, feels like he might throw up but has to do this anyway, doesn’t have a choice. He ducks behind the siding of the house, breathing heavily. His hands are clenched into fists at his sides, and he remembers his training, pulls out everything he can.

It works better when he’s emotional, he’s learned. It’s like a kick when he’s already down, but he has to do whatever he can to make this happen, and, sure enough, the wind starts to pick up as soon as he starts recalling the events of that morning, the awful scared energy building up in his gut. Snow starts to fall faster, and faster, a blizzard more than a storm, and he knows his cheeks must be pinking up from the cold, can feel the warm prickle of blood.

The man pulls the collar of his coat up and his hat down, trying to brave the sudden onslaught of the storm, and he’s only a few steps from the front porch when a strong gust of wind knocks him onto his back. Through the desperation, Louis has to choke down a sob.

The snow keeps coming down, heavy and vicious, and Louis can’t breathe, watches it build and build and build. It’s too late to stop it.

He runs before it’s over, snow still falling. What have I done, he thinks, even as relief flows through him. There’s too much heaviness, too many mixed emotions, too much hurt. He’d be ready to collapse if there weren’t all this thick adrenaline pumping through his system. And anyway, the blizzard hasn’t settled, and he needs to get out of here before he does something stupid, or dangerous, or both. He’s no good to anyone if he’s dead. He can’t save anyone if he stops breathing, and it’s that thought that propels him forward. He can’t kill anyone if he’s dead, either, but if he thinks like that he’ll lose his fucking mind.

There’s no choice. This is his path, his mission, and that’s the end of it.

He thinks back to the blanket of snow, the weight of it. It must have been several meters deep at the very least, and suffocating.

There’s a man under there, he thinks distantly, and he’s having a hard time feeling his face, or his hands, or his body. There’s a man under all that snow and I’m the one that buried him.

His eyes water all of a sudden, tears that freeze almost as quickly as they appear, and he’s barely even had time to process it all when he starts to hear the shouts.

When he looks over his shoulder, he sees a group of men, three of them with smudged outlines in the distance. One of them waves his arms, points at Louis, and Louis’ heart rate picks back up. He runs.

His thick boots make it hard, but it’s snowed every day since he got there, and the roads are slick and icy. Falling and hurting himself or getting lost in a blizzard could literally kill him.

He checks his shoulder once, twice. They’re still behind him, shouting things that Louis can’t hear over the whipping wind, the three of them moving faster, faster. Catching up. “Fuck,” he yelps, breathless, cheeks prickling with cold.

Behind him, a wall of rain crashes into the ground, freezing and sharp. He feels the edges of it nipping at his ankles, knows that as long as he’s running it’ll stay at his back. He chances another glance back, and his opposition has slowed, icy water blinding them and weighing them down, damaging their equipment, cold sinking down to their bones. Louis chokes on a breath and keeps running, running, running.

It takes another mile or so for him to lose them completely, huffing and bending over to brace himself on his knees. He’s still a mile out from the base, but the adrenaline is starting to burn out. It’s cold - it’s always so fucking cold - but the sky is clearing up ahead. He isn’t doing it on purpose, but then again he doesn’t do most things on purpose these days. It’s all he can do to stay afloat, let alone try to keep the weather in check, or however this works. He’s too volatile, too unpredictable. The training they’re putting him through here is exhausting and, so far, not enough.

There’s nothing to be said for the molotov cocktail that makes up his insides.

Home soon, he thinks, trying to distract himself. This will be over soon, one way or another. He won’t let it go on any longer than he absolutely has to. The plan right now is more heart than it is substance, but he refuses to give up, to roll over. They might have plenty to hold over him, but Louis has never gone down without a fight. Not once. Fuck if he’ll let this be the first time.

He’s lost in thought as he walks, and that’s the only reason he doesn’t see the person waiting for him up ahead until it’s far too late.

“You’re Louis,” says the stranger, and he’s bigger than Louis, taller, probably faster. He steps out and blocks Louis’ path, standing right in the middle of the road. The accent is British, and it’s a bizarre relief to hear something familiar even as he starts to panic.

Louis mind whirs, and snow starts to kick down again in flurries as he slows to a stop. “Let me through,” he says, as evenly as he can. “Whatever you want, I can’t give it to you.”

The stranger doesn’t move. “I need to take you in.” Louis can’t see much of him under the beanie and scarf - not far from what Louis is wearing - but he sounds deadly serious.

It doesn’t matter, though, because there’s no way Louis is going to budge. “I need to get back to my base,” he replies, and even as he says it the words taste foreign in his mouth. “I don’t want to have to hurt you. I’m sure you know what I’m capable of.”

That part is a bluff, but Louis knows that word travels. Knows that there are whispers of him everywhere, that there’s nothing to be done for that except use it to his advantage when he can.

The stranger just stares him down, must see something trembling under the bravado, and it makes Louis prickle. “I know you’re scared,” he says, eyes wider and warmer than they ought to be, and Louis tenses. The wind is icier, now. He’s holding back, but he can feel the energy thrumming in him, waiting to be unleashed.

“Let me through,” he repeats. “I don’t even know who you are.”

“I’m Liam,” says the stranger. “Liam Payne. And I want to help you, but I can’t do that if you don’t come back with me.”

It’s grossly tempting, the idea that he can just walk away, but this isn’t something he can walk away from, and who knows if Liam means what he’s saying, if he really does want to help. “Let me through.” His tongue feels numb in his mouth, and his hands feel hot. It’s all he can do to hold himself together. He killed someone. Why would anyone want to help him after that?

Liam winces, must be feeling the temperature dropping steadily. “I didn’t want to have to do this,” he says, almost to himself, and then squares up to Louis, pushes back his shoulders, and stares.

There’s a pause, the two of them standing perfectly still.

“Mate,” says Louis, and then wishes he’d bitten it back, hates the familiarity when he feels so out of his mind, “are you trying to do something?”

Liam relaxes, stops the creepy staring, and his mouth turns down. “Oh,” he says, so quietly Louis almost misses it. “I didn’t realize- are you- I’ve never… that’s never happened before.”

“Out of the way,” says Louis, trying to be firm, because Liam looks frazzled and worried and distraught and he can’t be older than Louis himself, there’s no way. This is a war full of young people who are too big for their skin and have no idea what they’re doing, and Louis thinks I could kill him, too, and recoils so hard he almost sees stars.

Liam shivers once, full body, and steps forward, hands open. “I just want to help. You don’t have to stay here. You can come with me, back to my base, and you’ll be safe. You don’t have to stay.”

“Yes, I do,” says Louis, a little choked, and he needs to get out of here now, needs to get past Liam so he can break apart in peace. “Don’t come any closer.”

Liam steps forward again, and Louis panics, doesn’t realize he’s thrust his hands out until Liam is on his back, staring up at Louis with a hint of fear in his eyes. It’s the first time he’s focused his abilities, first time he’s been able to generate something out of thin air with any kind of intent, and he feels wild with it. There’s something humming inside of him, and all of a sudden he feels like he can’t breathe, sees Liam lying there in the snow and flashes back to the man from all of twenty minutes ago in the exact same position. And Louis can’t. He just can’t.

“Go,” he manages, throat tight. “Seriously, go. I’m not coming with you and I don’t want to hurt you.”

He really, really doesn’t want to hurt anyone; at least, not more than he already has.

Liam looks at him, still a little dazed, and then starts to stand. “Okay,” he says, palms up. “I’ll leave. But my offer is still on the table. If you do decide to leave, ask for me.”

As he’s speaking, Louis walks past, storming by him and marching up the path. The line of his spine is coiled tight. He needs to get away, and doesn’t even spare Liam another glance before he hears the retreating footsteps that mean that Liam is walking in the other direction. It’s a sick, dizzy relief that comes with being alone. His stomach turns, over and over, and by the time he makes it back to the facility he’s thrown up once on the side of the road and once outside the fence, head aching with it.

Perrie isn’t there when he gets back to his room, off doing her own mission, and Louis is grateful. He curls up under the threadbare blanket they gave him when he got here, and lies there trembling for what feels like hours.

That night, unbeknownst to him, every city within a two hundred mile radius is blacked out.

It’s the coldest night Russia has ever seen, and Louis’ hands shake even while he’s asleep.

*

“The escape plan needs to be pushed up,” is the first thing Louis says when Perrie walks in after her mission, face pale and eyes dazed. It’s maybe rude of him to push when she’s clearly so out of it, but he’s been shaky for hours, and this is the only way to stop this cycle.

To her credit, it only takes a handful of seconds for her to collect herself before she’s nodding. “Definitely,” she agrees. “I can’t do that again. I thought- but I can’t.”

He doesn’t ask what she thought, or why the blood seems gone from her face when her cheeks should be ruddy with the cold. There’s snow melting in her hair, still. “I’m on lockdown, but can you-”

“I’m expanding my recon distance,” she cuts in. “There are still hallways I haven’t looked down. I’ve done okay befriending a couple of guards, but I need to start taking risks.”

A pang of guilt sits ugly in his stomach. It’s dangerous, he knows, but he can’t find it in him to argue with her. He’s going stir crazy in this cell, and she’s his best chance at getting out of here and back to his life. “Be careful,” he says anyway, because if he loses her he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

“I always am,” she tells him, and it’s an awful, awful lie, but it’s what he needs to hear.

There’s an hour until free training, when Perrie will go and sneak around a bit and Louis will undoubtedly be dragged out of here by his arm, or his shirt, or, that one memorable time, his hair. He doesn’t want to see the bosses again, but he imagines they’ll want to debrief his mission, or just intimidate him more. He can’t imagine they’ll leave him alone now they’ve gotten him where they want him.

They sit in silence for a few minutes, Louis fidgeting with his pants at the threadbare duvet on his bed.

“Hey,” says Perrie, and she sounds a little hesitant despite the interruption. “What they made you do… it wasn’t you.”

Louis snorts, still looking at his hands. “Sure felt like me,” he says.

Perrie makes a frustrated sound. “You know what I mean. You only did it to protect someone you love.”

“And what about the people that love the guy I killed!” he bursts out. “What about them?”

The statement echoes.

Perrie takes a quiet breath. “They would’ve done the same thing, if they’d had the chance.”

She’s not wrong, and Louis curls in on himself, squeezing his eyes shut. He feels like he’s going out of his skin, and his face crumples without his giving it permission to. He thinks he might shake apart right here. The bed dips next to him, and he feels Perrie’s delicate hand at the top of his spine. “I know you don’t want to hear it,” she says, “but I think you’re a good person.”

He doesn’t answer for a good while, still hunched in on himself.

“Who you are is what you do,” he says, finally, and it echoes dully in the cold room.

Perrie stands. “I can’t afford to think that way,” she answers, eyes fierce, and walks out. They always do the second dinner session together, but it looks like she’s going to the first, today.

Fair enough, he thinks. He needs his space, too.

*

He doesn’t see Perrie until after his individual training session, where he learns that they haven’t stopped enjoying roughing him up just because he’s given up the fight. He didn’t have the energy to fight back, today, just sat there and took it like a sad punching bag. He hasn’t looked in a mirror, not really keen to see how he looks, but Perrie’s face when she first walks into the room is more than enough to tell him that it’s not pretty.

She looks like she wants to tell him off, but she doesn’t, just marches back out to the group training room and returned ten minutes later with a bag of frozen peas. “Trainer 12 has a friend in the kitchen,” she explains as he hisses against the cold where it presses against the tender skin under his right eye.

She’s good at this, the playing nurse. She started out a little rough, but her hands have gotten gentler since she got here. Louis wishes he could say the same about himself.

“Thank you,” he murmurs, voice rough. It’s always rough these days, especially since he saw the footage of Harry and turned their cell into an icebox.

If she’s miffed about the constant cold, she hasn’t mentioned it, and Louis is grateful.

There’s another moment of silence, and then, “You know,” says Perrie, “there’s a corridor behind the kitchen that doesn’t have any cameras. It’s a loading dock, or something like that, where they get deliveries.”

“Is that our exit point?” asks Louis.

The plan ends with an exit point. Either they make it back to London before they’re caught, or they die in the cold--there aren’t any options behind that. Louis can’t imagine the bosses will assume they’ve actually escaped properly if they just disappear; rather, a few guards will probably get blamed for something going wrong. He’d leave on a mission, but they’ve kept a bug on him during those ever since they caught wind of what happened on the last one.

Apparently the bosses aren’t too receptive to people that try to sway their assassins to leave. It figures.

The only real part that’s been tripping him and Perrie up is how to get to an exit point without being caught and detained and probably punished severely after. So… most of the plan, really. They’re working on it, though, and this is a pretty big breakthrough if it’s going to lead to something bigger.

“Yes,” says Perrie, and there’s a tilt of hope in her eyes that’s dangerous. “That’s our exit point.”

Louis hisses again as she presses a little too hard at his cheekbone. “Easy,” he pleads, and she rushes an apology, pulls back so he feels less like he’s getting frostbite. “Okay, so that’s it? Hustle to that corridor and run?”

The guards have guns, is the thing. Louis is willing to run while being fired at if he has to, but the tighter their plan is, the better it’ll be for them, and the higher their chances of escaping without being seen--that’s the ultimate goal, getting out without being seen.

“Not quite,” answers Perrie. “I’m getting closer to guard twelve, and I think eight and nine are warming up to me.”

“What,” blurts out Louis, incredulous, “you think you can get them to help us?”

Perrie laughs a little, presumably at the look on his face. “No,” she says, “no, no. I just think maybe… I can get them to turn a blind eye if they see us during. If we could just buy a few seconds it could mean the difference between getting caught and freedom. It’s going to be all in the timing, I promise you.”

She sounds especially fervent for never having escaped from this place before, but Louis just nods, lets her tilt his chin to get to the other side of his jaw.

“And we know how we’re breaking out of this room,” he murmurs.

She agrees quietly, sparing a glance at the electronic locking mechanism attached. They’ve discussed this part. It won’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s far from the most concerning part of the plan for the two of them.

Louis wants to be rid of this place more than anything, feels the claustrophobia under his skin every second of every day. “Just want to get home,” he whispers, as Perrie pushes his hair back to get at a bruise on his temple. He’s tried so hard not to let himself be vulnerable, but there’s no point in that here. Not anymore. Perrie has seen him literally sobbing, so a little melancholy isn’t going to be a terrible shock.

“I miss the rain,” Perrie admits, looking steadfastly at Louis’ temple and only his temple.

Louis watches her anyway. “I could try to arrange that,” he jokes, even though it smarts at the edges.

Perrie laughs a little, self-deprecating. “London seems so far away,” she says, still with that faraway look in her eyes.

“How,” starts Louis, and then pauses, swallows, starts again. “How did you get here?”

It feels like a heavier question than it should, but the A to B doesn’t really make sense to Louis, especially when Perrie hasn’t proven to be the evil, conniving monster he originally thought she was. She doesn’t belong in a place like this. She must have thought she did, at some point or another, but it doesn’t add up.

Her sigh is heavy, a little sad. “You know I volunteered.”

“Yeah,” he agrees, as she turns the peas over, presses the colder part to the bottom of his chin. “But why?”

A few weeks ago he wouldn’t have dreamed of pushing like this, but things between them are different now. She doesn’t tense up like she used to, doesn’t snap at him. “My family always had a plan for me,” she says quietly, instead of something snarky. “They found out I had an… ability when I was ten years old, and ever since it’s been a path set up for me.”

Louis tries to roll it over in his head. He thinks about his mum trying to manage his life because he’s not like other people, and then stops thinking about it because it’s too hard to fathom. “How’d they find out?”

With him, it’d been a fluke. He’d said he was so tired he thought he might cry, and then the sky opened up and it poured rain for about ten seconds: the length of time it took his mum to sweep him up in a hug. “Oh,” she’d said, looking up, tears in her own eyes. “Oh, love.”

It runs in the family, she told him later.

He begged her to specify, but she said it was safer that he didn’t know. To this day he can’t tell if she was right or wrong.

Perrie pulls the ice away, musters up a small smile for Louis. “A motorbike had trapped a woman under it. She wasn’t wearing her helmet, and she was calling for help, and I- I ran over, and my mum was screaming, but it felt like the easiest thing in the world to lift it up and help the lady get free.”

“What, and you ended up here after that?” It still doesn’t make sense.

Perrie doesn’t scoff, but he can tell she comes close, mouth twisting. “I was playing hero,” she says. “I didn’t realize that it wasn’t that easy.”

“You try so hard,” he says, slow with how numb he feels, “to be the villain of the story. Why?”

“I don’t-” protests Perrie.

Louis cuts right back in, though. “You do,” he insists, “but that… that’s not something a villain does. Saving people.”

He’s trying to get through to her, but Perrie’s expression has already gone dark. “Do you want to hear the rest of the story, then?”

The bit in him that wants to yell at her goes quiet, then, and he motions for her to go ahead.

“Right,” she says, twisting her hands in her lap. “My parents, they work for the government. Or… my mum is a politician, and my dad’s her trophy husband, basically. That part doesn’t really matter, it’s just that they have ties to the government. And there’s this department that works internationally, with people that have abilities. Like a small scale army, but less well-known.”

“Shit,” breathes Louis, eyes wide. “I didn’t know that.”

Perrie shrugs a shoulder. “They keep it hush hush, but I bet they would’ve contacted you if YNM hadn’t done it first.”

He gets a brief glimpse of an alternate timeline where they did find him first, and it’s so strange he doesn’t even know where to begin thinking. “So your family wanted you to join?”

“My mum was one of the representatives for the new task force. It was supposed to target a terrorist organization that was starting to expand its presence in Europe and Asia.” She picks the peas back up, tossing them back and forth between her hands before putting them down again. “Come here,” she says, and he leans closer.

She examines the bruise blooming on his jaw, and he lets her. “That organization,” he says, “it sounds familiar.”

She only spares him a half a tired smile. “Yeah. It’s how I first heard about it.”

“Ironic,” he mutters, and he feels guilty but she giggles a little, wry and understanding.

“My mum must’ve lost her shit when she found out what happened.” She doesn’t look as amused as she maybe could at the image of it, but it’s better than the sadness that colors her features most of the rest of the time. “Anyway, that task force has some of my best friends on it. And my- there’s a boy,” she admits, quiet and exhausted. “He’s there, too. They all are. And they thought I was going with them.”

Louis bites at his sore lip. “You didn’t want to work under your family?” he guesses.

Perrie shrugs. “Yes and no. Of course I didn’t want to work for them, but I was sick of everyone telling me what to do. Of all of these expectations. I just didn’t want to be used, or another cog in the machine. I might not have picked the good team, or the right one, but at least I had a choice.” Her expression is fierce, like she’s convinced herself of this before, maybe even tried to explain it to someone else. “You told me I like to play villain, but at least I’m the villain of my story.”

It makes sense, now, the viciousness in the way she defends herself, and the way she pushes back at other people. The way she never tried to think about what she was doing until it got real and she had to make a choice.

“We’re getting out,” says Louis, and he has to sound strong, has to be confident. “You and me, we’re getting out. So we’re not the heroes this time--so what?”

People are dying, Perrie could say. It’s not just about their stories, it’s not just about championing yourself. But she of all people understands where he’s coming from, and she just breathes a shaky breath. “We’re getting out,” she repeats, and their eyes meet for what feels like the first time in ages. Hers are steely, determined

“Yeah,” says Louis, “yeah we are.”

“I know I volunteered,” she says, “but I want to get home. We need to get home.”

Out in the hallway, the lights go out, and the little square of light that had seeped into their cell through the window disappears.

“Tomorrow,” whispers Perrie through the darkness, “I’ll check out the corridor, and see how long it would take us to get there.”

“All right,” says Louis.

In the smoky silence, it sounds like a promise.

*

Halfway through his next mission, three days later, the hope that has been burning his gut feels more like a smoldering wreck. The thing is… he’s getting stronger.

Part of it is exhilarating: the hum of power in his blood, and the ease of the fear that he’s going to die. He can fight back, and he does. He’s getting good at completing missions, efficient, must be the most valuable assassin on this squad, or whatever they’re calling it now. From the whispers he’s heard, and what Perrie tells him, there’s no one else that can do as much as he can do, and that’s enough to light a little spark of pride in the part of him that has thrived in learning his own abilities.

Part of it is good, is the thing. Part of it is exciting.

The other part is cold, awful dread.

It’s getting so much easier to kill people, to protect himself, to do what needs to be done. Every time he finishes a mission, it’s like another tick closer to getting home. It’s the only way he can think about it without feeling like he’s going to genuinely be sick. “I’m in position,” he mutters into the earpiece they gave him, voice low and partially lost in the wind.

“Move ahead,” orders a guard.

Out in front of him is a wide open space with no cover whatsoever. Naturally, he balks.

His targets aren’t Everymen anymore. They’re more dangerous, more paranoid. More willing to fight back.

“Move ahead,” comes the order, again, low and authoritative.

Fuck, thinks Louis, shaking his head, but he steps forward anyway until he’s in the line of sight of his target.

The woman starts, must recognize him. He knows that, by now, there must be people that know who he is. They also, coincidentally, are often the same people that YNM has on a hitlist. “Stay back,” she says, and her eyes are wide and frightened. “Don’t come any closer.”

He doesn’t wonder if she has a family. It’s not a productive line of thinking.

Instead, he summons snow, bursts of white that swirl around the two of them like a frozen hurricane, the two of them at the eye. If she steps back, she’ll be thrown to the ground by the force of it. Louis knows this.

They’d had him practice it a million times in the last three days, hours of training complete with shouting and bruising and that ever present, crushing sadness. At this point, he could do it in his sleep, and it takes hardly any energy at all to turn some of the snow into ice, to start battering her with it. She cries at him to stop, but he shakes his head, eyes burning.

It takes just a solid hit to her temple before she’s out cold, one more to her throat to ensure that she doesn’t walk away again.

“Well done, Louis,” says the guard, and it’s the first time he’s gotten positive feedback during a mission.

“Thanks,” he replies, dry and flat.

There’s a bit of a commotion around the area as he leaves, and then a scream as someone notices the body on the ground, and the pool of blood around her. Louis gathers enough fog around him that he knows he won’t be seen, and walks back to the waiting car.

The ride back to the facility is twenty minutes long, and the entire time Louis is thinking about that look in her eyes.

He’s never had to put down a wounded animal before, but that was the look. Like she’d been cornered and she knew it, and her only thoughts were of escape.

He knows the feeling.

Isn’t sure why he was the one to walk out of it alive, and she had to end up dead.

The world has a funny way of working, sometimes.

*

“Guard number nine is coming around,” says Perrie. “Just a couple more days, and then we can do it.”

Two days seems like a lifetime and a rapidly approaching deadline all at once, but Louis doesn’t vocalize any of his multiplying fears. “You’re amazing,” he tells her, instead, because he’s tired and feeling sentimental and misses having a person to say nice things to. And also because Perrie has this way of batting her eyelashes and making herself seem innocent that has the male guards practically falling into her lap, and she has a way of making her eyes sad that has the female guards softening, and he knows he couldn’t do what she does. The guards all hate him, not that he’s tried to warm up to any of them. Still, though, he has a feeling that any advances would be taken rather badly.

Perrie scoffs a little, waves a hand like she’s brushing the compliment away. “I checked out the corridor today, the one behind the kitchens.”

“And?” Louis straightens, blinking himself properly awake to hear this.

Perrie finishes unlacing her boots before answering, shaking off the melting snow. “And I didn’t get all the way to the exit, obviously, but it looks promising. No cameras, just like he said.”

“No cameras,” repeats Louis.

Once they get there, they’re gone. They’ll disappear from the security feeds. They’ll be home free.

“How far is it from this room?” he asks.

He thinks it might be just a few turns, but this place is massive. He knows he hasn’t been down every hallway, nor has he even seen every entrance or door, and it almost seems too much to hope that it really is close.

Perrie slips off her coat, hanging it over the side of the bed. “A couple minutes running, maybe,” she says, grimacing a little when she realizes she isn’t sure. “Not too far, but we’d have to make good time.”

That’s not an issue, thinks Louis. When it comes down to it, this will be the fastest he’s ever run, the hardest he’s ever pushed himself. If there’s no coming back from failure, then failure can’t be an option, simple as that. “We can make good time,” he says, and Perrie nods, clearly thinking more or less the same thing.

“Guard six is on rotation tomorrow, so let’s go day after,” Perrie tells him. “Tonight I’ll map out the route from here to the corridor we need to get to.”

He has a mission tomorrow. She doesn’t. It’s hard to swallow the protest, but guard six is the same guard that calls Perrie princess and seems to be the one in charge of discarding the unnecessary trainees, so he has to concede that she has a point. If they can match up their escape with the right lineup of guards, this might not be so difficult after all. Plus, Louis doesn’t even know where they’re going, exactly, so Perrie has to be certain. She has to be one hundred percent certain, or else the whole thing will collapse around them.

“Day after tomorrow,” he repeats, feeling a little sick.

Perrie shoots him a tiny smile, maybe meant to be reassuring, but the determination has hardened the planes of her face, made her look fierce, unrelenting. He forgets, sometimes, how dangerous the lot of them are. How they wouldn’t be here in the first place if they weren’t. He’s hoping desperately that it’s enough to get them out, too.

*

He’d promised Perrie that, on the way back from his mission, he’d look for weak points in the base’s exterior, and try to map out the route from there to the first sign of civilization he could see.

He doesn’t end up doing any of that.

His eyes are burning, head an echo chamber. If they make him keep doing this, he’s going to lose his fucking mind and kill everyone within a 20 mile radius with just the force of a scream. He hadn’t known, before this mission, that he could kill so many people at once. He’d had no idea.

Perrie asks him for a status update when he gets back, and he doesn’t say a word, just lies on his bed facing the wall and tries not to shiver. The temperature in the room had dropped starkly the second he entered. He wishes this was a new phenomenon, and not something that’s been out of his control since the start.

“If we don’t get out tomorrow,” says Louis, dull and awful, “we’re probably going to die here.”

A heavy, pregnant silence. Perrie coughs delicately before answering. “If it doesn’t work this time,” she retorts, “we try again.”

Louis barely has the energy to lift his head up and face her. He’s about to shoot back something scathing, because he never has a filter when he’s tired, but her face crumples a bit, sympathetic. “It’ll work,” she insists.

He’s too tired to argue.

Considering the alternative is almost too crushing to bear, suddenly, and he finds himself softening. “It will,” he echoes, a little quieter.

It’ll work. It has to.

*

“That’s guard eight,” says Perrie, the two of them peeking through the rectangular window in the door, faces smushed together.

Guard eight has a long braid that thumps against her back as she walks, and arms that look powerful enough to snap Louis in half if he were to cross her. Great. Louis only really knows two of the guards, the ones that facilitate his personal training, and even then he hasn’t spoken to them enough to know their numbers. “Is she one of the ones that’ll turn a blind eye?”

Perrie grimaces. “Doubtful.”

He’d expected it, but it still smarts. On the plus side, though, guards nine and twelve are both on rotation tonight, and that betters their chances. If all goes perfectly, of course, they won’t run into any guards at all, but it can’t hurt to give themselves any advantages they can, especially with the stakes so high.

“You remember the plan?” asks Louis.

Perrie snorts a laugh. “Run,” she says. “The plan is to run.”

She isn’t technically wrong.

He steps back, away from the window, and Perrie follows suit. “Ten minutes,” he says. His heart is beating hard in his chest.

The guard walks by once more, and then again. Every three minutes and change, if the clock on the wall is to be trusted. It’s methodical and exact, and Louis has never been so grateful that this place is so well organized. Four minutes left, now, and Perrie’s hands are twitching by her sides. Maybe she has too much pent up energy, or the nerves are getting to her; the latter seems unlikely, though, given the fact that she pushed herself to come here in the first place. If she’s afraid, she’s good at working through the fear, at not letting it show.

Louis has been getting better at that part, too. They watch the seconds tick away in silence, eyes on the clock, and Louis keeps his breathing steady.

“Here we go,” breathes Perrie, as the guard passes by a third time. The second hand hits the 12, and Louis shuts his eyes, clenches his hands into fists.

Here they go.

“Back up,” he murmurs, and Perrie does.

This is the part where the training comes into play, ironically enough, and he tries to find the spark inside of him. The bit that wants to get out even as most of him wants to roll over and lie on the floor, let them chip away at him until he’s nothing and no one that he used to be. There’s a line between exhaustion and drive, and he vaults it, electricity swirling at his fingertips. He thinks about Man and Woman and their smug faces, and he thinks about Harry at home alone with a gun pointed at him, and then he feels abruptly so full of fire that the air around them is crackling visibly.

Perrie breathes out a quiet curse, impressed and maybe relieved or frightened, and then the entire room goes shock-white.

There’s a sound like a whip cracking, and then Louis is staring at the smoking, charred remnants of the automated lock.

“Lightning,” breathes Perrie, eyes wide. She’d known it would happen, of course, but she’s never seen Louis do anything like this. He fights the urge to preen, to show off a little.

Instead, he says, “come on,” insistent and urgent because there’s no time.

The alarm must already be blaring somewhere. The guards must already know, and they’re losing their lead the longer they sit here and play games. This is now or never, do or die. There’s no time.

Perrie nods once, curt and businesslike, and tears the door clean off the hinges.

And they’re off.

Perrie is that little bit faster, maybe her superior strength propelling her forward, or maybe just Louis being out of shape and unable to practice on his own, cooped up in the cell whenever he wasn’t at individual training. Regardless, he only barely keeps up, adrenaline pushing him to pump his legs faster, harder. He doesn’t know exactly where they’re going, following Perrie’s lead blindly, turning corners so fast they’re blurs.

The gray concrete is everywhere, he learns. He knew it already, but it’s heavy either way, the expanse of cold, industrial stone. They make another turn, and then a sixth, and by this point Louis couldn’t get back to the cell if his life depended on it, too turned around and disoriented. Thankfully, the only way he plans to go is forward and out of this place.

He keeps running.

“Almost,” says Perrie, breathless and still a little faster, and her slight lead is what puts her around the next corner first.

He slams into her back.

“What are you-”

The first thing he thinks is shit. The second thing he thinks is how are there so many of them. The third he thinks is we’re fucked.

In front of them are no less than ten guards. None of them have guns out, by some miracle, but half of them have batons in their hands, and one is speaking rapidly into a walkie talkie. They’re outmanned, and Louis is about to turn and run back to try and find a different way out when he hears the footsteps starting to thunder behind them from where they came.

The only option is a corridor to their right that leads to who-knows-where, but the guards are getting closer on both sides and there’s no time to regroup and come up with a new plan. Perrie knows these halls, not Louis.

“Stay where you are,” says a guard. Number nine is standing in the back, expression somber. If he was willing to turn a blind eye at some point, that moment has disappeared. Louis probably wouldn’t either, in his place, in front of the other guards. It doesn’t make it hurt any less to realize how hopeless the situation is.

“When I say,” murmurs Perrie, expression fiercer than Louis has ever seen her, “run, and don’t stop.”

Her stance is the stance of someone who is about to do something very stupid.

Louis knows. He practically invented that stance.

There’s ice creeping into his chest. “Perrie,” he warns. The area around them has gone uncomfortably warm, the unease in his gut making itself known. A bit of sweat starts to dot around his temples.

The guards are closing in. Now ten metres away, now seven. Now five. Some of them have their batons raised, others just look like they’re ready to attack by the harsh lines around their eyes. Perrie takes a step forward and raises her hands, and Louis follows her lead. Your call, he thinks, even as his insides freeze and the room temperature climbs unsteadily. At the beginning of all this he thought she was evil, and now he’s trusting her with his only chance to get out of here.

“Now!” shouts Perrie, unceremoniously shoving him into the empty hallway. It’s more of a corridor, really, narrow and twisting further down.

Louis hesitates for a split second, but Perrie is shielding the entrance with her body, her silhouette stark and backlit a bit frightening. “Go, Louis!” she yells again, and it echoes.

She has friends in that crowd, he knows. At this point maybe half of the guards have warmed to Perrie, and it’s enough to push him to leave. If he doesn’t, they’re both done for. He turns just before he hears her cry out angrily, the sound of fists to flesh, and runs for his goddamned life.

Every pound of his feet against the ground is a reminder that he’s that much closer to freedom. Every catch of breath in his throat, every squeeze of his chest… it’s all building toward something. He doesn’t know where he’s going, or what exactly he’ll do when he gets there, but-

he doesn’t-

he isn’t-

There’s a door. Just around the last bend, the hallway narrows down even further, and it ends in a door. Louis reaches out and tests the handle, hands shaking from how intense this has been, and finds it locked.

“Damn it,” he mutters, frantic, pulling on it. Shouts continue to echo from the far end of the corridor, and he fumbles with the handle again. Fear starts to creep up on him, and he doesn’t even mean to freeze the lock over.

Now it’s cold to the touch, and icy. What would Perrie do in this situation, he wonders frantically. The guards must be getting closer, and he can’t afford to sit here in indecision. After fruitlessly yanking on the handle again, he takes two steps back, and kicks at the handle as hard as he can, once, twice, three times.

On time number four, it snaps cleanly off, and Louis throws his body weight against the door. It swings open easily, and his eyes widen.

In front of him is what looks like a loading dock, wide open and impressive in width and length. It’s maybe the size of a football pitch, and the door at the end of it is open a crack… just enough for Louis to slip through, it must be. It’s blessedly empty, and he takes off sprinting.

He only makes it ten metres before he starts to hear the shouting escalate behind him, the guards having made it into the same room. His lead dwindles as he approaches the halfway point, and he runs recklessly, desperately.

A hand catches at his elbow, and he yanks it away, turning back to swing his arm wildly, trying to stave them off.

Come on, he thinks. Come on, come on, but he’s sleep deprived, undernourished, exhausted down to his bones.

He only make it ten more metres before someone slams into him hard from the back, and he ends up sprawled across the floor, shooting pain in his knee. A body pins him down, others waiting, and Louis feels the floor beneath him go ice cold.

He’s hauled up, and he doesn’t even have the energy to fight, knows he wouldn’t make it far anyway with how he’s limping. The guards shove him forward none too gently, and he walks.

It snows inside, just a little, the whole way to the interrogation room.

Chapter Text

“You didn’t see it,” Liam is saying, tone low and urgent. From where he’s standing, Harry can see the tense line of his shoulders, the heavy of his spine.

Zayn, just out of sight, makes a considering sound. “Has it ever not worked before?”

“It’s not… that wasn’t the problem. I usually flood them out, right? Drain out the energy and make them sad and numb, try to make them docile. But I reached out and there was nothing there to take. I’ve never seen anything like it. He was already sad, and numb. He felt… he felt cold.” Liam sounds distressed, and Harry’s entire heart goes heavy and swollen with fear.

Oh, he thinks. Oh, god. His Louis is vibrant, loving, beautiful, warm. Anything but numb. Anything but cold. Harry didn’t think he’d have to do this more than once, but every day is an exercise in losing him all over again.

Zayn steps forward and Harry shrinks back against the wall. “D’you reckon we can still save him?”

Liam huffs a breath. “Save him?” he asks. “Or stop him before this gets worse?”

Harry holds his breath, can’t watch, can’t even think.

“He’s 26,” says Zayn quietly. “Has a family. Engaged to be married, and to Harry, no less.”

“He’s killing people,” answers Liam, hand reaching up to fist agitatedly at his hair. His grey t-shirt is hanging off him, and Harry wonders if he lost weight on the trip, or if it’s just the light that makes him look so small. “We save him if we can but we have to be realistic.” He sounds like he’s on the brink of tears. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt but what if we don’t have a choice?”

On the sliver of Zayn’s face that Harry can see, the eyebrows draw together. “You’re not doing it by yourself, Li.” His voice is low and tender, tinged with worry. “Hey, we don’t have to decide anything right now. Breathe, yeah?”

Liam nods shakily. Harry tries to breathe, too, past the lump in his throat, the ice he feels tightening his chest.

The day after Louis proposed and Harry said yes, yes, obviously, the sun was so bright that all the weather channels put out an advisory: PREVIOUS RAIN PREDICTION REDACTED. Louis’ smile was forty degrees on its own. Fifty. A hundred. I love you, thinks Harry, remembering, fierce and heartbroken and terribly, terribly sad. I won’t give up. I’m going to bring you home.

“I want to show them the videos,” says Liam, finally. “They deserve to know.”

A pause.

“Even Harry?”

Liam shrugs, an aborted motion. “I don’t want to hide things from anyone. It’s not fair. I’m not- I don’t want to be like that. This is a team, not a dictatorship.”

Zayn hums in agreement. “Okay. You need to remember that, too, though. It’s all of us, together. We’re here for each other.”

“Yeah,” says Liam, but he doesn’t sound any less determined to shoulder things alone. “Team meeting in an hour, then.”

There’s some movement, and Harry takes that as his cue to leave, heart racing as he darts back toward his bunk. It’s a heavy relief to know that they don’t want to keep things from him, and that he’ll hear whatever they have to say along with the rest of the team. He’s terrified but he’s sick of playing guessing games.

Niall isn’t in the room when he gets there, thankfully, and Harry sits cross-legged on the bed, trying not to dwell on the pieces Jade has shown him of what Louis’ life looks like, now. Harry’s been awake too long, though, and his mind is punishing him for it, presenting him with images, each darker than the last, of Louis alone, Louis in pain, Louis being tortured-

He breaks the thoughts off with a gasp, wrapping his arms around his middle. He has an hour, he thinks, half frantic. Someone will wake him. The last sleeping pill Jesy gave him is still in the outside pocket of his bag, and he needs to not be awake right now. He swallows it dry, lies back and waits for it to work.

I’ll bring you home, he thinks, and then he’s slipping, slipping, falling…

He wakes up choking on a scream.

“Hey,” says Niall, concern written all across his features. He’s hovering above Harry, hands fluttering like he doesn’t know what to do with them. “Hey, hey, you’re okay.”

Harry’s breathing is ragged, eyes wet. It’s not me I’m worried about, he doesn’t say. “Sorry,” he answers dumbly, trying to blink the tears away.

“You don’t have to apologize, mate. What were you dreaming? Got you really worked up, looks like.”

There was this dark room, thinks Harry.

It had a spotlight and it was shining on Louis and I was there but they couldn’t see me and I couldn’t move I could only scream, thinks Harry.

They were hurting him and I couldn’t get to him and he kept asking them to stop I wanted to stop them but I couldn’t, and they knew that, and they were laughing, they were taunting him and hitting him and I thought I was going to die with how much it hurt to see, thinks Harry.

“I can’t remember,” says Harry, perfectly dull and even.

Niall looks like he wants to say something, but Harry matches his gaze quietly, waits him out. “Let me know if you want to talk about anything,” Niall says, finally. “Or if you remember.” He sounds perfectly genuine, and a big part of Harry wants to open up and try to dig up some of the poison in his wounds. A bigger part is quiet, though. A bigger part is thinking about Liam wanting to stop Louis before anything else happens. A bigger part is thinking what if they use this against him, so he keeps his mouth shut. He’s gotten good at letting parts of himself go quiet. The part that loves Louis has been burning in silence for weeks.

*

The team meeting is in the briefing room, and the full sized projector is already set up, Liam standing by the control panel and nodding at each of them as they walk in. Zayn is stood at his side, and Harry takes a seat toward the front. Next to him is Niall, who seems relatively unbothered except for the way one of his legs keeps bouncing. Harry would say something to him, but then Liam is clearing his throat and clapping his hands together and the grim look on his face has Harry’s mouth kept firmly shut.

This is bad news he’s going to be imparting, then. Harry maybe could have guessed, but he’d been holding out hope that something had changed in the last hour, or that he’d misunderstood something or other.

“Right,” says Liam, jaw tight, “thank you all for coming.”

“I mean,” says Leigh-Anne, “we didn’t have a choice, did we?”

Harry expects Liam to snap at her, but instead he smiles, shoulders relaxing. Every time Harry thinks he has Liam pinned, there’s a surprise. “That’s a fair point, I guess. Anyway, it looks like everyone’s here, so I’ll get started.” Liam looks down, smile fading, and presses a few buttons on the control panel. A map comes up, with a single red blip. “That dot,” he explains, “is Louis Tomlinson, or at least his location when I saw him last. As you all know, I recently returned from Russia, and that’s where I was. There’s a military base nearby that was considered abandoned, but we are assuming that the YNM have no affiliation with the Russian government, and have repurposed it for their own uses. Is everyone following?”

There’s a round of nods.

“Great. So when I confronted Louis, he was skittish, and his abilities seem to have developed much faster than we had projected.”

“How?” interjects Jesy, and when Harry turns to look at her he sees that she’s frowning. “That algorithm was airtight, I don’t understand.”

This time it’s Zayn that speaks up. “It’s rare, but a strong emotion can trigger an exponential reaction, and I think it’s fair to say that, like, he’s been under a lot of stress. Obviously we don’t know everything about the situation, but from what Harry tells us and what we saw from Jade, it doesn’t seem like he’s there by choice, or he’s at least having a rough time of things.”

“He was able to focus a gust of wind and snow forceful enough to have me on my back,” says Liam, and the look on his face is worried, heavy. “Told me he didn’t want to hurt me, that he was scared he would. He didn’t seem cold-blooded to me at all, and he didn’t seem like a killer. I want you all to keep that in mind as you watch this.”

Something in Harry’s chest is fluttering anxiously like a trapped bird as Liam presses a few buttons. The wall across from them immediately lights up, showing a bleak, snowy landscape. “This happened yesterday morning,” says Liam, and doesn’t explain how they got the footage. “I thought you should all see it, and we can talk about what to do moving forward. For reference, I saw Louis in Russia two weeks ago, give or take a few days, so this is a progression, kind of, of his abilities and maybe his willingness to use them.” Harry tries very carefully not to meet anyone’s eye but he sees Zayn watching him and can’t help but glance over, notes the weight in his gaze and looks down again, keeps his heart more or less to himself.

Liam pauses for a moment, dithering like he doesn’t usually, and then he presses play.

Nothing happens for the first few seconds, and Harry’s stomach turns. He has no idea what to expect, and then he sees Louis enter the frame and everything stops. The sound is mostly wind, but Louis has always had a voice that carried well, and they all hear the crystalline, “don’t!” like the sound has been isolated and projected by itself.

A line of soldiers enters the other side of the frame, weapons raised, and Harry’s heart stutters hard, fear crawling its way up his throat. Liam would have said, right? If Louis was dead? Oh, god- behind the first line of soldiers another marches forward, and then another.

“Fifty-two soldiers in total,” says Liam quietly. All with guns, all with training and all up against one boy. “Look at the sky.”

Harry shifts his attention, and, sure enough, in the video the sky has gone from a misty gray to something darker, more sinister, clouds twisting around until they’re nearly black and thick like cord. The sound in the video has shifted, from a rushing to something close to a hurricane, and the wind must be biting, cold, vicious.

“Don’t come closer!” Louis yells, but the soldiers keep advancing slowly, one step at a time. “I don’t want to hurt you! Please!”

But they don’t listen.

The sky is starting to churn dangerously now, and Harry can’t see Louis’ face--misses his face, misses his everything and it aches--but he can hear the plain desperation in his voice. One more step forward and Louis has his hands extended out in front of him and he’s trembling and then there’s a flash of light so bright that everyone in the room flinches back.

Harry nearly falls out of his chair, white heat burning the insides of his eyelids, and when he has his wits about him enough to look, the scene is drastically different.

Louis is standing exactly where he was, hands still up, but the soldiers are all lying in the snow, badly burned, some nearly ash.

Lightning strikes, thinks Harry, perfect aim, just as Louis says, “I told you not to come any closer,” choked up with tears and only audible because the wind has died completely, leaving an eerie silence. “I told you.”

A pause, and then Louis’ arms drop and he sinks to his knees, curled in on himself. He looks tiny. He looks terrified. The tape keeps running and Louis doesn’t move and Harry says, “turn it off,” doesn’t recognize his own voice for how hoarse it is. “Liam,” he begs when no one moves, “please, turn it off.”

Liam turns it off, and the wall goes back to being a wall, and Harry tries to catch his breath. “They’re making him do it,” he says, and his heart feels bruised, hurt. “He didn’t want to do that. It’s not his fault.”

“Yeah,” adds Jade, high and stressed but still lilting in that way of hers, “he didn’t do anything wrong.”

“He killed fifty-two people in one go,” says Niall, and he looks shaken, eyes still wide. “That’s not nothing.”

“I’m with Niall,” agrees Leigh-Anne, and she doesn’t seem to notice that all of her belongings are floating several inches off the ground. “Even if he doesn’t mean to hurt anyone, he still did. We can’t just sit around and not do anything while that’s happening.”

Zayn is nodding pensively, and Harry’s heart rate is still high enough that he feels a bit sick. “What do you propose we do?” asks Zayn, directing it toward Liam, and Harry swallows down the protest, knows he’s outnumbered here.

He can’t stop thinking about Louis, though, alone and terrified and forced to do things that he should never have had to do, that he’ll have to live with, that Harry can’t protect him from.

The silence in the room is weighty, pressing on Harry like a vice, and it’s the crush of an ocean, the sprint to a deadline, a shortness of breath. Come on, he urges Liam in his head, hopeful to the last, make the right choice, make the right-

“We find him, first,” says Liam, “while he’s on a mission. They send him out alone, and I didn’t have any trouble tracking him when I went. He usually doesn’t need any backup; we saw what he can do already, so it makes sense. We plan an ambush, figure out a way to catch him off guard. He can’t protect himself if he doesn’t see it coming.”

Harry fiddles with his rings, taps his foot against the floor. “Doesn’t see what coming?” he asks, can’t help it.

Liam pauses, clenches jaw, and Harry knows he isn’t going to like the answer even before Liam opens his mouth and says, “a bullet.”

It takes one awful, quivering moment for it to sink in, and then Harry is on his feet and storming across the room, has one hand fisted in the front of Liam’s collar and the other braced against his chest, shoving him hard up against the nearest wall. “Hey,” Zayn is shouting, “Harry, what are you doing?” but Harry ignores him, feels like flames are licking his insides, roar of his heartbeat heavy in his ears.

Liam barely blinks, just meets Harry’s gaze evenly. “He’s killing people,” Liam says, low and insistent, and his eyes are bordering on tortured.

“What,” demands Harry, “so you’re just going to kill him instead?”

“That’s how it works,” answers Liam, and for all that he’s stoic he also sounds desperately, desperately sad. “We can’t make an exception and risk more people getting hurt. That’s on us.”

Zayn and Niall each grab hold of one of Harry’s arms, and Harry lets them tug him back a step, untangle him from Liam. “There has to be another way,” he says, begs, pleads.

His arms are released and Niall lifts a hand up to pat Harry on the shoulder, quiet and supportive. Harry has been missing physical contact a bit since he got here, though he hasn’t been totally deprived--it might just be Louis, really, how no one touches him the way Louis did, and how he wouldn’t want them to, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss it. He lets himself remember for a split second, a flash of the summer when the heater broke and the best they could do was brush pinkies and even then they both broke out into a sweat, and how every time they touched Harry’s entire body lit up, and then he shuts it down, retreats back into himself, tenses for the fight.

“If there’s another way,” Liam is saying, gentle like he’s hurting because of it, too, “I haven’t been able to find one, and we’re out of time. There’s a planned attack near a government building in Russia in five days. We mobilize in three. Jesy, check the security, see if there are any ways we can get in close undetected. The rest of you, I’ll be coming around for status updates in an hour. Get to work.”

People start to move, a quiet buzz rising out of the quiet, and Harry feels numb, dumbstruck. They’re going to kill his fiancé. They’re going to kill him, and they’re going to leave Harry here by himself, and all he can do is try to think of a way to save Louis when an entire team of trained tacticians failed before him.

Unless…

Unless they didn’t try.

It’s absolutely mad to think that way, and maybe he’s just paranoid, but this certainly seems easier than any kind of rescue mission, and far more cut and dry. Less resources wasted, less time taken up, and the threat eliminated in one go.

“Liam,” he asks on impulse, right as he sees Liam starting to leave the briefing room. He looks older here than he does anywhere else, lines around his eyes that seem deeper in the harsh fluorescent light. “What were your orders from the higher ups? About Louis?”

He feels small asking, and a bit embarrassed about his outburst earlier. Stronger, though, is the need to know if he has a chance, if there’s hope, if this place is far less transparent than he’d originally thought.

Liam shifts, set to his jaw slightly uneven. “To eliminate the threat,” he says, “as quickly and efficiently as possible,” and he looks uncomfortable saying it, like he knows how it sounds, what it means.

“So to kill him,” clarifies Harry, voice flat.

“To kill him,” agrees Liam, and Harry respects him for not beating around the bush even as his insides twist sharply.

He shuts his eyes for a moment, exhausted, before opening them again and pushing his shoulders back. “If there’s a way,” he starts to ask, “to do it without hurting him-”

“Then we’d do it,” cuts in Liam. “Harry, I don’t- nobody wants to hurt him. None of us want to. But we have orders, and he’s hurting people, so we have to do something. I was up all night last night watching the footage, trying to figure out the best way to handle this, but there isn’t an easy solution. We’re not giving up on him, but we need a direction, and time is running out. I’m sorry. We’re doing all we can, but he’d kill us before we got close enough to try. I can’t risk my team like that.”

Harry is taken back, suddenly, to a history course he took in uni. It feels like a lifetime ago, the professor telling the class that good leaders make hard choices. Good leaders make hard choices. It had made Harry pause, roll the words around in his head, and the phrase had followed him around for days, popping up in all sorts of ordinary circumstances; it makes sense, then, that he’d remember it now, that it’s even truer on a bigger scale.

Liam is on Harry’s side here, or at least Harry thinks he is, and maybe they can work together, figure something out that doesn’t end with a bullet through Louis’ temple. Harry’s entire mind recoils at the image, and he flexes his hands, tries to focus. “What can I do?”

“Nothing that I can-”

“Liam,” interrupts Harry, with just enough steel in his tone to show that he won’t back down, “what can I do?”

Liam sighs, but there’s a twitch at his lips that could be a smile if everything were less heavy right now. “Jesy could use some help on surveillance,” he admits. “She’s brilliant and I trust her completely, obviously, but it’s tedious work. Another pair of eyes there is always better.”

Harry nods, tense line of his shoulders finally relaxing into something close to normal. “Thank you,” he says.

Liam regards him for a moment, and he looks tired but warmer than Harry has seen him since the very beginning, weeks ago. “You’re welcome,” he answers, and then, “now get to work.”

Harry doesn’t need to be told twice.

*

He finds Jesy in her workspace surrounded by screens, an entire wall of them in front of her and three separate laptops sitting on her desk, one of which she’s tapping away at near-manically, keys clacking so loudly she misses Harry’s arrival entirely until he coughs into his fist awkwardly.

“Bloody fucking hell--!”

“Sorry,” interjects Harry quickly, “sorry, sorry. Liam just said you could maybe use some help.”

Jesy leans back in her chair, hand still over her heart. “It’s all right. You scared the life out of me, christ. Yeah, I could use help. Pull up a chair, love.”

Harry grabs one from the stack in the back of the room and shifts up, squints a little until his eyes adjust to all the light coming from the screens. “What exactly are you doing?” This bit is familiar, the asking her questions and watching her work, and it settles him, anchors him.

Jesy turns to face him, hair bobbing where it’s up in a ponytail. “Here,” she explains, pointing at the screen of the laptop she’d been using, “is the footage from today of the place we’re staking out.” It’s grainy, and shows a government building that looks rather extravagant, heavy foot traffic passing in front in all directions. “Up there,” she continues, pointing up at the wall, “are places nearby that have a camera we could use to see the building. Once we find the best one, we’ll get into contact with the owners and have them relinquish it for a few days.”

“We can do that?” It sounds… unethical, to just bust in and take over, but Harry isn’t an expert in this, doesn’t really know anything about the process and how it works. He hasn’t left the base once since he got here, and no matter how much people tell him, it doesn’t really compare to the idea of going out and executing a real mission in real time.

“Yeah,” says Jesy easily. “We’re not technically government, or at least not officially, but we’re close enough. Gets the job done when we need it.”

And Harry can’t say that he understands, but he’ll accept that.

There’s a beat of silence, and then Harry starts to fidget. “What am I looking for, exactly?”

Jesy reaches out and tips his chin up, toward the top row of screens. Something in him goes soft at the easy contact, and he realizes that he’s been missing this kind of friendly affection, the closeness. He’s always been a bit touch-starved, even when he wasn’t in an underground military-style base preparing for a sting operation. It’s nice, is all, to feel that little bit less alone.

“Be critical. You want an unobstructed view, hopefully something well lit. Here,” she says, pushing one of the other computers toward him, “is where you’ll look at the exterior of the buildings--match them up with the views up top and see which is all around the best. For the exteriors, you’ll want something that doesn’t have too many windows. The more discreet, the better. Okay?”

“Okay,” answers Harry.

Time passes in lurches in that room, the two of them tapping away and examining things. It is tiring work, Harry finds, tedious and long and straining, but it feels good to be useful, to be helping.

“I’m not,” he says, once his hands are starting to ache, “looking for the best place to fire a bullet from.”

Jesy stops working, hands hovering above the keys. She hadn’t talked about it during the meeting, hadn’t said a word, and Harry isn’t sure where she stands but he has a guess. She turns toward him, spinning in her chair, and retracts her hands slowly, tucking them into her lap. “That’s two of us, then,” she answers, finally, voice a bit raw.

Harry breathes a quiet sigh of relief, knot in his chest untangling that bit more. “How long do we have before we go?”

“Not long,” answers Jesy, “but, babe, Liam said… he said you weren’t coming.”

Harry’s first thought is that Liam is mad if he thinks that Harry isn’t going. His second thought is, “What?”

“You’re not on the task force, Harry. You’re here because we’re protecting you, technically.” She sounds apologetic, and it only serves to rile Harry up.

“Louis is my fiancé,” he says, makes it as clear as he can, “and I’m not staying here while people set out to kill him. Not a chance. If you try to leave me here I’ll just go home and put myself in danger, or wreck all of your equipment, or go on a fucking hunger strike, I don’t know. But I’ll do it.”

Jesy’s eyes are wide, and she looks more than a bit alarmed. “I’m on your side,” she rushes to say, “I swear I am, but you can see where they’re coming from, right? You’d be a liability if they go for the shot.”

He wouldn’t bloody let them go for the shot, and he feels it with such a ferocity that he gets her point, even though he doesn’t like it. “We can’t let it get to that,” he says, and it comes out like a plea. “There has to be another way.”

“Well,” says Jesy slowly, like she’s really thinking, and Harry loves her for it, “how do you think they’re making him do this? I mean, it’s obviously not voluntary, so what’s the incentive? And how do we beat it?”

Harry nods a little, starts to run ideas through his head when-

“Hey!” says Niall, over-chipper. “Liam said I’d find you two in here. What’s up?”

Jesy is quiet, clearly passing the ball over to Harry’s court, and Harry takes a few breaths to gather himself. Best to spit it out, he thinks. Best to just get it all the fuck out there. “The orders from the higher ups were to kill Louis, basically. We’re trying to figure out how to save him, instead.”

Instead of looking shocked or unimpressed, Niall’s expression is careful, considering. “Find the weak spot,” he answers easily, like he’s willing to help just like that, and Harry brightens just the tiniest bit, thinks that maybe this team is stronger than he’s given them credit for. “Everyone has one, we just need to figure out what it would take to cut off whatever they’re threatening him with.”

“Yeah,” jumps in Jesy, “exactly. Harry, can you think of something they’d have access to, something they could use to threaten him with, or blackmail him maybe?”

And from there, it’s so fucking simple to put the pieces together.

Harry stands up, runs a hand through his tangled hair. “Before he left,” says Harry, and it feels like a lifetime ago now, “he got something in the mail. It was a picture. Of me. At my work. I was kind of confused at the time, but he left right after, and if he thought they were threatening me, or if they were threatening me, he would go.”

Niall and Jesy both look a little hesitant, but Harry can’t afford to be unsure about this. It’s the only thing that makes sense. If their positions were reversed, Harry would do the same in a heartbeat--it’s how he and Louis operate, putting each other first, and if this is the thing that breaks them, then at least it’ll be in character.

“You’re not in danger anymore, though,” says Niall, little furrow between his eyebrows.

“Okay,” says Harry, “but how would Louis know that? I can’t imagine they’d tell him.”

Jesy is still frowning. “So you’re saying that they’re making him do this to protect you, even though they don’t know where you are.”

“They better not fucking know where you are,” mutters Niall, but he doesn’t sound angry, just fervent.

“I didn’t find out about all of this until after Louis was gone,” says Harry, and he feels like he’s gaining momentum. “For all Louis knows, I’m still at Gemma’s, going to work and worrying myself sick over him, without the slightest clue about where he’s gone. He’s all by himself,” continues Harry, and fights back the tears that are pricking at his eyes and forming a lump in his throat. “How could he not worry?”

“So,” says Jesy, slowly, “you want to rescue him by putting yourself into danger?”

When she puts it like that, it sounds reckless. He runs a hand through his hair. “Am I supposed to let them kill him, then?”

He feels himself getting frustrated, anxious.

A rush of movement on the screen distracts Jesy, which in turn distracts Niall, and Harry exhales slowly, tries to keep the well of desperate sadness at bay. If he doesn’t go, he won’t be able to do anything, but if he does go, he might make it worse.

An hour later, they’re still looking through surveillance tapes, Niall having come to help since he’d finished his work earlier. It’s all quiet shuffle and low hums. “You can’t go without me,” says Harry, quiet, and he thinks he can feel his pulse in his entire body for how hard his heart is beating.

A pause, heavy and thick.

Jesy and Niall share a look over his head, and Harry tries not to bristle.

“We won’t,” says Jesy, finally, and he knows that she means it.

Hope blooms, small and frightening, in the space between his lungs.

*

“Absolutely not,” protests Liam, arms folded tightly. It’s three hours until takeoff, plane ready, and Harry is going to get on that flight if it’s the last thing he does.

Zayn is standing a little closer to Harry than Liam is, maybe subconsciously getting between them, or maybe just finding some space to breathe amidst all the tension. “You’ve never been in the field,” says Zayn. “You haven’t had basic training; you don’t even know how to fire a gun. I don’t think you understand how dangerous this is. If you come, we can’t guarantee that you’ll walk away alive.”

Harry feels a muscle in his jaw tick. “I’m not asking you to guarantee that,” he retorts. “I’m asking you to let me try to bring him in. Bring him home.”

Liam pinches the bridge of his nose. Zayn’s mouth curls into a half snarl, but the bags under his eyes betray how exhausted he is. They all are. “Listen-” he starts, but Liam cuts him off.

“Hold on,” he tells Zayn. “Just, hold on.”

Zayn holds on, and Harry holds his breath.

“If we sent you out,” says Liam, and ignores Zayn’s hissed what are you saying, “what would you do that we can’t?”

“Ask him nicely,” says Harry, too-honest and more than a little shaky. Liam doesn’t look impressed, nor does Zayn, so he continues. “He won’t hurt me. If they’re controlling him the way we think they are, then it doesn’t make sense that he’d attack me. If he knows I’m safe, and that he can be safe, he’ll come home.” Home is an exaggeration, Harry knows. There’s a chance they’ll never be able to go back to their old lives, especially if the plan is extraction and not destruction. YNM will still be out there, and they’ll be looking for Louis. There are only so many places they can go. “Listen,” he says, tone dropping sincere, “I know him. If anyone can do this, it’s me. I promise you, I can do it.”

It doesn’t sound like begging, exactly, but it feels like it.

Liam looks down again, consternation sketched across his features. “You’ll wear an earpiece,” he says, and it takes Harry a minute to realize that Liam’s agreed. “You’ll wear an earpiece the whole time, and you’ll take orders, and we’ll have eyes on you. If we do this, you have to listen. I don’t want to risk your life any more than we have to.”

Harry nods immediately, feels like a bobblehead. If they ask this of him, then it’s more than worth it to play by their rules. “When are we going?” he asks.

“Now,” says Zayn, jaw tight but tension in his shoulders slowly loosening. “Better get packed.”

“Right,” says Harry, half-turning out of the room. “Right, yeah, thank you. Should I…”

“I’ll come get you when it’s time to go.” Zayn again, and Harry thanks him quickly before darting through the doorway and around the corner.

It’s a quick jog back to his bunk, and, once there, he starts to shove his few belongings into the little rucksack that he’d found in the bottom drawer weeks before. Toothbrush, toothpaste, a set of borrowed clothes, his useless cell phone--there’s no service down here, at least not from any provider that Harry has been able to connect to--, and the little bottle of sanitizer they’d given him when he arrived. A precautionary measure, they’d said, more for him than the others. Disease spreads fast when all of the air is circulated, apparently.

He’s pulling the drawstring tight when someone raps on the inside of the doorframe.

“Oh,” says Harry, “I thought I had a little more time.”

Time for what, he isn’t sure, but it’s still a little jarring to be leaving so soon. For all that he trusts Louis and this team, he feels a bit like he’s about to march to his death, head held high on the away to his own execution. Zayn walks in, taking that as enough invitation, and Harry doesn’t stop him.

He sighs, sitting next to Harry on the bed. “No,” he says, “no, it’s not time yet. Just wanted to come, like. Apologize.” His face twists up as he says that last word, like he isn’t sure how much he means it, but Harry nods, doesn’t shuffle away like he kind of wants to. “I know I haven’t been the nicest to you. I mean, I don’t think I’ve been like, a complete arsehole, or anything, but I just- this team is my family, you know?”

Harry doesn’t, really, but he murmurs a quiet, “yeah,” anyway.

“I mean, I have a family back home, and I send them money and call when I can, but it’s dangerous. This life is really, really dangerous. So when you walked in and didn’t even take that into consideration, hardly, it made me kind of angry. You have a lot to lose, so why would you throw it away for someone you’re not even sure can be saved?” Zayn looks desperately sad as he asks, but his tone isn’t accusatory. More defeated, resigned, like he already knows the answer.

It’s an obvious one, anyway. “If they took someone you loved-”

“They did,” interrupts Zayn, sudden and fierce. “They did take someone I love.”

It’s not the same, Harry wants to say, except all of a sudden he really isn’t sure that he’s right. “I couldn’t leave him,” says Harry. “I have to do everything I can. There’s no other choice.”

He’s looking down, so he misses it when Zayn moves, touch on his shoulder coming from nowhere. It’s gone so fast it’s like it didn’t happen at all. “There is, though,” counters Zayn, quiet again.

He’s seen people die, thinks Harry. They all must have, in a line of work like this. He’s heard the stories from Niall, from Jesy, about missions going wrong. About people getting hurt. “When it comes to him,” Harry replies, just as quiet, and his heart aches, “there really isn’t.”

He expects another protest, but Zayn deflates. “I know,” he answers. “I know that.”

“I know I’m just, human, or whatever-” Zayn snorts a laugh, mumbles something that sounds a lot like what does that make us, then, “-but I can still help. I can still do things, too.”

Zayn’s mouth is quirked into a tiny smile. “You sound like Jesy when she was first applying,” he says, and Harry is surprised, hadn’t really pegged the two of them as anything beyond acquaintances and coworkers. He didn’t know they knew each other before. There’s a lot missing from the little history of this team he’s started to compile in his head. “It’s not about having an ability or not having one. Or, sometimes it is, but usually it doesn’t matter.”

Harry smiles a little, helplessly. “Easy to say that when you can fly.”

“Levitate,” corrects Zayn, “trust me, there’s a difference. And I’m afraid of heights, anyway.”

Harry places the bag on the floor, doesn’t miss the way Zayn’s hands are twisting over each other again and again, like nervous energy. “Really?” It’s hard to imagine Zayn being afraid of anything, with his quiet determination and fiery opinions. Zayn twists his hands again, laughs into his own shoulder.

“Yeah,” he answers, “really. Still not sure how high I can go. Never tested it out.”

“Landlocked,” murmurs Harry, thoughtful.

Zayn huffs a laugh. “Guess so.” There’s a faraway look in his eye.

Here, next to Harry, he’s almost impossibly human, tiny holes at the knees of his skinny jeans and the hum of his body heat bleeding into Harry’s side. “Think you ever will? Test it out, I mean?”

Zayn hums a little noncommittal sound and checks his watch. “We should get going soon,” he says, and it’s like the confrontation from earlier never happened at all. They’re all on the same team again, or maybe for the first time; either way, Harry will take it. A whole team defying orders to bring Louis home. Two months ago, he and Louis were making wedding plans, and now… “Time to get your boy.”

Harry’s already packed, and Zayn is, too--or, at least, doesn’t have anything to bring--and they head to Base Central quickly and more or less quietly, though the silence isn’t uncomfortable like it might’ve been a few days before, or even just a few hours. The others are waiting there, standing around with drawstring bags or messengers over their shoulders, and he feels a sudden rush of affection for this group of people. He was scared, and then suspicious, and then disheartened, and now all he wants to do is get out into the field and let these people have his back. It seems so simple, the plan, but he knows all of the ways it could go wrong. It’s weird to have this kind of trust in a team he hadn’t even known when this whole mess kicked off, but he reckons he could do a lot worse.

He meets Niall’s eye across the room, and Niall flashes him a quick smile and a wink.

Harry smiles back.

They’ve got this. They have to. There’s no other option.

“All right, gang,” says Liam, stepping out of his office and right to the middle. The bags under his eyes are still there, and he still looks exhausted, but there’s a confidence about him that wasn’t there at the last meeting. “Our assignment, our mission, it’s all led to this. We’re giving Harry a shot to bring Louis in so we can talk to him and prevent more innocent death, but if you feel as if your life is being threatened, you have my permission and express order to shoot to kill.” A cold shiver works its way up Harry’s spine, but he knows this won’t be necessary. They’ve got this. “It’s going to be freezing, so stay alert and don’t forget hand and shoe warmers.”

A tiny chuckle circulates the room at that. “Learn from experience, there, Payno?” asks Niall.

Liam rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling, too. “Yeah, yeah. Do as I say, not as I do. Whatever.”

There’s a pause, and Harry scuffs a foot against the concrete floor, agitated.

“Chopper here yet?” asks Jesy.

“Nearly,” answers Zayn, checking his watch again.

Liam claps his hands together and clasps them in front of him. “This is it, then. Everyone know their jobs once we get there?” He waits until everyone nods to continue. “Let’s head up, should be here any minute.”

The thrum of nervous energy in Harry is the most positive it’s been since he got here, sense of purpose propelling him forward. The elevator ride is slow and quiet, and by the time they get to the top, Harry can hear the blades of the helicopter cutting through the air up above. It’s with a fluttery heart and steady hands that Harry takes his first breath of fresh air in weeks.

“God,” says Niall, face upturned to catch the sun as it peeks between the clouds, “it’s good to be outside.”

“Tell me about it,” agrees Leigh-Anne, stretching her arms out behind her back luxuriously. “I’ve been underground since the mission in Brussels went haywire.”

Harry nods along like he understands. Everyone else has a look in their eyes like remembering, so they don’t bother calling him out on it anyway.

“Load up!” calls Liam, after having gotten some signal or another from the pilot.

The wind from the blades is buffeting up against Harry so hard by the time he gets close enough to board that he has to duck his head just to stay on his feet. It’s exhilarating. The helicopter itself looks like military technology, sleek and dark gray, surface almost matte in texture. Must make it harder to pick up on radar, or else just a stylistic approach; either way, it’s massive and impressive, and Harry feels tiny as he grabs Zayn’s offered hand and hoists himself into the body of it.

“Here we go,” says Zayn, that same reckless grin from the very beginning plastered across his face.

Harry laughs, a small, shaky thing. As he runs a hand through his hair roughly, he feels the adrenaline all catching up to him. “This is it, I guess,” he says, and it sounds weirdly nonchalant for how on edge he feels. Soon, they’ll fit him for an in-ear mic, and he’ll practice responding to commands from Liam. He’ll also get the best hand-to-hand training he can in the span of about two days, and he’ll have to pray it’s enough in case this whole plan goes to hell. From what they know, it’ll just be Louis at the scene, and Harry isn’t exactly going to fight his fiancé, but there’s always the chance that their intel is wrong. That the plans will change on the other side, or that there’s something they’re missing. Leigh-Anne handled the translation, and the others seem to trust her completely, but if anything is wrong... it could mean Harry’s life.

He walks further into the space and slumps into a seat toward the back. He’s keyed up and exhausted at the same time.

Leigh-Anne sits next to him, just as slumped and tired-looking as he feels, and cracks a tiny, rueful grin. “All right, newbie?” she asks.

He doesn’t feel like a newbie. “Yeah,” he answers anyway, “just ready to get there. And to, like, see him again.” He’s really, really ready to see Louis again, even if it hurts, even if they’ve accidentally ended up on opposite sides of a war. It almost seems too good to be true, that in just two days he’ll see his fiancé after it feels like the entire universe tried to drag them apart.

This is the longest they’ve gone without seeing each other since the day they met, Harry realizes suddenly.

Liam climbs onto the helicopter, shouting something that Harry can’t hear over the whir of the blades. Everything seems to get louder all at once, and then the floor under Harry’s feet lurches and they’re lifting off. Around them, it’s snow as far as the eye can see.

Harry shivers, pulls his arms in a little closer.

“Here we go,” yells Niall.

Here they go.

Chapter Text

When he sees Man and Woman again in the interrogation room, Louis’ first instinct, for the first time, isn’t to speak. He doesn’t want to beg them to let Harry go free, or spit out a string of curses until he runs out of breath, or scream until his lungs give out. He doesn’t want to insult them until they’re crying--though he knows he’s in no position to be doing that in the first place--and he definitely doesn’t want to discuss the botched escape attempt.

He’s been so close, is the worst part of it all. Perrie gave herself up, and for what? For him to be dragged back here by his collar, about to be shamed and berated like a little kid?

The shock of failure keeps him mute.

“You had quite a run today,” says Man, and he’s not smiling, lips pressed thinly together. “You and your friend.”

Louis shrugs, doesn’t open his mouth.

Woman picks up where Man left off smoothly. “She’s been put in solitary,” she tells Louis, and it’s a cold relief to hear that she’s still alive, and not in the medical wing or anything like that. He’s not shocked, if he’s being honest, has seen her fighting first hand and knows how well she can hold her own, but he’s glad of it anyway, in the part of him that can feel anything beyond aching numbness. “You’ll also get your own cell, a few levels down.”

Down? His confusion must read on his face, because Woman clarifies. “Oh,” she says, condescending, “you didn’t think this was the whole facility, did you? We run three levels below ground as well. It’s mostly storage, but we think you’ll find it rather… cozy.”

Underground, then. Concrete on all sides, no chance of escape in hell. There’s nothing he can do, and the thought weighs him down like he’s been filled with wet sand. He nods, despondent, and Man and Woman seem surprised, exchanging a glance like he’s not standing right there.

“I trust you won’t try that again,” says Man.

Louis’ arms are still being held behind his back, and he tugs once, cursory, just to see. He doesn’t move an inch, hardly, and he finally slumps all the way.

It seems like they’re waiting for his answer, but he doesn’t give them one.

His only way out, and it’s gone, slipped through his fingers like water, or light. There’s nothing left. There’s just Harry, and keeping him safe. It’s not about getting home anymore. If he were feeling less demoralized and numb, he’d be tearing up right now, eyes watering at how hopeless the situation is. As it is, he just hangs his head.

A beat passes, and then Man gives the order to take Louis to his new cell.

The guards drag him, and Louis barely bothers to keep himself upright as they go, only going through the simplest motions as they walk. He stares at his feet as they go.

It’s not snowing anymore, but his hands are still going numb.

He could rub them together with the way they’re being held if he twists around a little, but he doesn’t.

It’s not that he isn’t cold; it’s that he doesn’t care.

*

The new cell is tiny. He takes a mental snapshot anyway, cataloguing every piece of it:

The bed is barely a bed. It’s more like a pallet, or a flat, wide crate. There’s no blanket, no pillow, not even the scratchy, thin quilt that he’d had in the last room. Instead, it’s a bare expanse of wood that looks like it houses splinters, and he’s certain he won’t be getting any sleep on it at all.

There’s no separate room for the sink or toilet, either, both of them sitting exposed in the corner. He figures it doesn’t matter, since he doesn’t have a roommate, but it’s still dehumanizing. Distantly, he feels a pang of outrage, but it’s not enough to overcome the ice.

The ground is concrete like before, as are the walls and the ceiling, and he wonders how this was built. He never took any classes on architecture in uni, or engineering, and he imagines pouring it straight in wouldn’t work. He spends too long like that, standing by the door where they left him and staring at the tiny space, maybe the size of a broom closet and a half attached, wondering about the mechanics of a concrete building.

He examines the swirls in the rock, the patterns and discolorations, and commits them to memory.

It’s not that he thinks any of it is particularly noteworthy, but he’s been doing this since the start, taking pictures in his head and tucking them carefully away in the part of his brain that still thinks he’s going to get out of here someday.

They’re for Harry, is the thing. It’s all always for Harry. If Louis ever sees him again, he won’t be the same person he was before, and Harry deserves some kind of explanation. This entire experience, as miserable and horrifying and terrible as it’s been thus far and will likely continue to be, is part of his history now. It happened to him. It’s still happening. And if Louis has any chance of describing what exactly happened, he’s going to take the time to do it in detail, right down to the yellowish fade of the ceramic sink basin. He’ll give Harry all of it, good and bad and ugly, and hope that it’s enough to justify the shell he’s become since they last were together.

Sometimes… sometimes Louis wishes he’d never left. That he’d told Harry to run away with him and taken their chances, bunkering down somewhere where the world couldn’t find them.

They’d be together now, if Louis had done that, or they’d both be dead. It’s selfish of him to think that both of those are better than this hellish alternative, but he does. In the note he’d left Harry, he’d said I’m going to keep you safe.

It’s that promise he clings to, even after everything.

I’m keeping you safe, he thinks, over and over, shivering where he stands. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m doing my best.

It’s all for Harry. It’s been that way from the start.

Louis curls up on his side on the scratchy pallet, mind stuttering over apologies, and he doesn’t shed a single tear.

*

The handful of days that follow the escape are mind-numbing. They give Louis food three times a day, the same tasteless bread and jerky from before, and that’s it. No human contact, no sympathetic glances from Perrie, and, most notably, no training.

They must think he doesn’t need training anymore. He wonders if it’s because he’s strong enough now that there isn’t much else they can teach him, or if it’s because they’re going to get rid of him now, dispose of him like they did the others. They probably wouldn’t have bothered bringing him all the way down here into a new room if they were going to do that, but even that is only a cold comfort.

He reaches for whatever power he can find, but there’s hardly any connection to the sky down here. It’s just concrete on all sides, and the cold gray industrial misery, and all he manages to do is cool down the water dripping from the sink a few degrees. Not impressive, and certainly not anything he’d be able to weaponize. Everything feels like it’s coming to him through a sieve, like he’s losing the important, vital bits, and just getting a foggy imitation. He doesn’t feel vibrant, barely feels alive, and the electricity that used to spark at his fingertips without hardly any effort at all now feels so unreachable that he doesn’t even try.

It’s day 3 now, or maybe 2 and a half, or maybe 5. He’s so fucking tired. They’ve just brought meal number 3 of the day, if his calculations are anywhere near correct, and he figures he should try to get some sleep.

It’s all he does, really. Sleep and eat, occasionally piss. On the first day he yelled until his voice gave out and woke up with a sore throat, so he hasn’t tried that again. Hasn’t had the energy to, anyway.

He shuts his eyes, curled up on the ground (he’s found that it’s less likely to give him splinters, and no less comfortable than the pallet, really), and tries to dredge up a memory.

It would be nice, is all, to watch one play across his mind like a movie. He wouldn’t be opposed to some escapism right now, even though he used to think that it was for people who couldn’t be bothered to do the best with what they’ve been given. He figures this can count as an exception.

Pulling at a memory feels like opening his eyes underwater, but he ignores the sting and reaches, reaches… ah, there.

“Come on,” he can practically hear himself saying. “Harry,” and his voice is all mucked up with laughter. He’s fighting a smile but he can’t help it.

Above him, Harry’s eyes are wider than Louis has ever seen them, vivid green and round with shock. He has both hands covering his nose and mouth, hiding his expression. Louis imagines he’s gaping, and tries not to feel too horribly smug about it. Harry makes a muffled sound through his hands, shaking his head, and it doesn’t sound quite like English.

Louis shifts. “I rehearsed that speech!” he says, still grinning. “Least you could do is give me an answer, Styles.”

Harry’s hands fall to his sides. “Sorry,” he answers, awe softening his tone into something almost reverent. Louis is so in love he feels like he might cry. If he does, though, then it’ll set Harry off, since he’s precariously close to tears already, water shining in his eyes. “God, sorry, it was beautiful, it was a beautiful speech.”

He’s rambling. Louis stands up, because kneeling on one knee is fine for a few minutes, but not for any longer than that, and Harry immediately launches forward, kissing the living daylights out of him. It’s deliberate, frantic, deep. Louis feels a camera flash brighten the space behind Harry and pulls back, one hand still cupping Harry’s cheek. “Babe,” he says quietly, just for the two of them and this electric space between them, “we have an audience, and you never told me whether you’d-”

“Yes,” interrupts Harry, just a whisper, and it’s the most intimate moment of Louis’ life. Harry is absolutely beaming. “Yes!” he repeats, louder, and cheers start to break out where people have camped around their front porch. “Yes,” he says, one last time, kissing Louis gently again. “God, of course I’ll marry you.”

After that it was all light, pure and unreal, flooding over everything. The memory is gold. The memory is love.

Louis comes up out of it slowly, by increments. It’s hard to unstick himself from the gentleness of it and settle back into grimy, cold, miserable reality, but he does it. It’s only thirty seconds later that he realizes he’s been crying, tears dripping onto his trousers and getting the material wet. It’s a little uncomfortable, but then what about his situation isn’t? He would murder for a shower and a change of clothes about now.

He used to say things like that--I’d kill for a burger, or that test just murdered me, or this hangover literally feels like death--but he never meant them. That was a different world, where none of this could touch them. Now he’s in the thick of it, and the unsettling nausea has been a constant from day one, and he can’t think anything without it feeling like a trap, and it hurts so much he can’t breathe.

If this was last week, he’d be talking to Perrie about something stupid, probably, to get his mind off of it. She knows about the wedding plans now, even offered some tips for when they escaped.

He laughs bitterly thinking about it, and it turns into a sob.

Everything’s wrong. Everything’s gone so, so wrong.

Above his head, the fluorescent lights that have been on since he was brought down here however long ago wink out, one by one, until he’s left in the dark. One sob turns into two, turns into three, turns into crying his eyes out like the world is ending.

Somewhere in his memory, Harry’s smile is a supernova in and of itself.

Here, now, this isn’t bright. It isn’t lovely, or warm, or sweet.

It isn’t any of those things.

It’s just dark.

*

An indeterminable number of hours later, Louis finds himself back in the interrogation room.

“This next mission,” says Woman, “if completed, will be your final one at this facility.”

A pinprick of interest burns in Louis’ mind, but it’s not enough to drown out the apathy. “Okay,” he says, dull, so quiet he isn’t even sure they heard him.

Man nods anyway, businesslike, and he’s still more shark than human in Louis’ mind. “This one won’t be as cut and dry as the others,” he explains, gesturing for Louis to come forward and sit at the table, across from the two bosses. Louis goes and the walk feels wooden. Once he’s seated, Man continues, pushing a manila folder across the metal surface. “You’re used to having an advantage because other people don’t have abilities like you do, or they don’t know who you are. Your targets for this mission don’t fall into either category.”

“So,” he says, trying to wrap his tired mind around the idea, “they have powers?”

Woman’s lip curls a little at the word, like she’s highly unimpressed, but the look does nothing to Louis. Where before, it would’ve made him feel ashamed, or frightened, now it’s just a hollow echo. “Essentially,” she tells him. “And they know exactly who you are. They’re coming to kill you.”

Somewhere, beneath all of the crushing exhaustion, Louis is horrified that his first reaction to this news is relief. “Let me guess,” he says, instead of okay or I’d let them, “I’m supposed to kill them first.”

When Man smiles, it’s all teeth. “They think you’re on a mission to destroy an embassy in the Capitol. In reality, you’ll be waiting for them to arrive so you can wipe them out all at once.”

“An ambush,” he says. Easy enough, then. He’s killed an entire army at once, and whether he succeeds or not he doesn’t have to stay here after. They won’t see it coming, and he’ll shut his eyes as it happens, and then he’ll be on his way.

Woman nudges the folder toward him again, and this time he opens it.

The first file contains a picture of a girl, hair in long, dark box braids and eyes intense. Her skills are listed, including affinity for language acquisition and low mass telekinesis. Her name reads Leigh-Anne Pinnock in small script across the bottom. Louis commits it to memory almost automatically before flipping over to the next file.

There’s a boy with enhanced senses they’ll have to watch out for, the only one without a picture, and one who can levitate (max height from ground: unknown), and Louis finds it bizarre that there are so many. This folder contains six names, and those, paired with the ones from the training center here, are more than Louis ever thought he might find in his lifetime. When he was younger, he hadn’t known there was anyone like him. He’d barely understood any of it himself.

Now, it’s like the world is expanding right before his eyes, and he’s going to have to kill these people before they even meet.

The unfairness of it all almost brings tears to his eyes. Almost.

It’s the last file that gives Louis the most pause. Liam Payne, it reads, along with a picture of the man Louis ran into on one of his first missions all those days ago. He’s smiling in this picture, looking off at something behind the camera, and the joy on his face is starting. Empath, it reads below that, and Louis wracks his brain, tries to remember if he’d felt anything different while confronting this Liam Payne.

He comes up with nothing, but that’s not really surprising in and of itself. He’s felt nothing for a long time, since the shock and horror wore out into something sadder. Maybe he just didn’t have any emotions to control.

The thought, if possible, makes Louis retreat into himself anymore. He’s going to kill Liam Payne before Liam Payne kills him, and he’ll never smile at anyone the way Liam is smiling in the picture again, and that’s the end of it.

All of these people will be dead in an instant. “Is it okay if it’s messy,” he asks, monotone.

“It’s preferred,” replies Woman. “The group they work for would hate for their deaths to be made into a spectacle.”

A spectacle Louis can do.

He spares one last look for Jade Thirlwall and her soft face, her thick, dark curls, and then he shuts the folder.

Whatever happens is going to hurt. Whatever comes next may hurt more, but at least it’ll be different. He closes his eyes, takes a snapshot of this moment:

The cool metal chair and table, and the concrete on all sides. It’s a quiet thing, this omnipresent claustrophobia, but it’d certainly worsened when they shoved him into a tiny, underground cell. He takes stock of how he feels physically--dirty and tired even though he’s slept more in the past few days than he can ever remember sleeping, achy from lying on the ground, so burned out he feels like a husk. And then emotionally--awful and sad, miserable and exhausted, so beaten down that thinking that the only way out is through makes him genuinely want to sit down on the floor and never get up again.

It’s not a pretty picture, he knows, but he doesn’t feel like crying anymore.

He looks up at Man and Woman, at their mean, narrow eyes, and nods once, just to himself.

“I can do it.”

Chapter Text

Russia is white. That’s the first thing he thinks when they land just outside the city center. It’s white, flat, expansive, and bloody freezing. The snow seems like it goes on forever, and Harry’s never seen anything like it in his entire life. By the base back in England, the ground was frozen over and the air was cold, but this is truly something else.

“Unreal,” he breathes, stepping out of the helicopter. The ride was long, and his legs feel a bit numb from sitting down for so long.

Next to him, Jade stretches out. “Isn’t it,” she agrees, voice hushed with awe. She sounds a little overwhelmed. He knows for a fact that she’s been on missions in both Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, though, so maybe her surprise stems more from being tired than it does from being impressed by the landscape. Or maybe she’s just never been to a place that fit the term wasteland quite so well.

The rest of the group piles out slowly, all sore from being cooped up for so long, and when Harry turns around to look at the chopper take off again his back pops in three different places. Christ. He had a chiropractor appointment scheduled for last week, if he remembers correctly. It’s just another bullet point on the list of things that don’t matter anymore.

They move en masse to the two sleek, black cars parked across the lot. Harry wouldn’t be surprised if they’re armored, honestly, and then wonders exactly when he stopped being surprised by that kind of thing.

“The base is an hour and a half out. We should make it there by nightfall easily. All good?” Liam looks as tired as Harry feels, bags under his eyes heavy. He didn’t sleep on the way here, either.

The group echoes it in a messy, half-chaotic murmur, and Harry piles into the car, joints protesting. It feels like he barely got a chance to stretch his legs out at all, but the ride is thankfully short, and Jade is driving. She, thankfully, actually has a license, so Harry doesn’t feel like he’s about to die.

It’s enough to have him dozing, and when they pull up to the inn his eyes are only half open.

“Same rooms as back home,” says Niall quietly to Harry.

Harry mutters some sort of agreement and follows him into the room.

He kicks off his shoes, flops onto the bed, and is out like a light.

*

“Come on!” Liam is yelling, ducking under yet another sloppy punch. “I’m absolutely sure you can do better than this!”

It’s as condescending as it is supportive, and it makes Harry want to punch Liam a little harder. He would, too, if he could actually get a hit in. Liam taps him twice in quick succession, once at his side and then his stomach, and Harry groans. If he was using his full strength, Harry would be doubled over and wheezing right now. “How do you move so fast?” he complains, trying and failing again to land even a glancing blow.

Liam grins, and something about it is a tiny bit reckless. “Practice,” he intones, “makes perfect.”

Harry curses under his breath but he can’t help but smile back. “You make it sound so easy.”

“It is,” answers Liam, quick as a whip, and before Harry even fully realizes what’s happening he’s flat on his back and staring up at the ceiling, wind knocked out of him.

“Damn it,” he says to the ceiling.

Liam laughs a little and offers a hand, hauling Harry back to his feet. “We’ve been at it a while,” he tells Harry. “The others are grabbing lunch around the corner, why don’t you join them?”

For a covert operation, the team seems weirdly unfazed by potentially being spotted in this village. Admittedly, Harry isn’t even sure there’s internet here, but the risk must be real anyway. YNM found Harry at work, got to Louis via the mail, and he isn’t sure where else he’s been spotted. He can only hope they didn’t manage to trail him to Gemma’s.

“Hey,” he says, on a whim, “did you ever get into contact with my sister?”

Liam looks up, clearly surprised. “Yeah,” he answers, “ages ago. Think we called her the day after you got here.”

Harry nods. “And she’s okay?”

The thought of anything happening to her, or to Harry’s family, or to Louis’ family, is frankly terrifying. It makes him feel younger, too, like he’s still small enough to hide behind his mother’s skirts the way he always used to. He wants to protect them, wants them to be safe, but there’s also just a baseline of love that he knows will never go away, the instinct in him pushing him to take care of the people closest to him. He wonders how it is for the people here, who seem to have more or less cut off ties with their families.

Liam’s face doesn’t reveal much, but he says, “yes, she’s okay. She had a few choice words for you about disappearing on her, but we figured you were under enough stress as it was without passing the message along.”

Despite himself, Harry smiles, imagining Gemma’s outrage at learning that Harry is fine, and she worried herself over nothing.

The flipside of that is thinking about how much she must have worried in the first place, and down that path lies only sadness, honestly. He shelves it for now. “Good,” he says. “Just. Good. Thanks.”

Liam shrugs like don’t mention it and Harry figures that that’s the end of it.

“Back here in an hour?” he asks, just checking.

The last four hours training with Liam have been hell, but Harry needs to be able to protect himself. He knows that. After these sessions, he probably still won’t be of use to anyone in a fight, but he can at least give it a solid go. And, for all that it feels like he’s made no progress at all, his stance is steadier and he’s gotten a little better at blocking hits.

Not enough, he knows, but something. Kind of a sad motto, but he’ll take what he can get.

“Back in an hour,” confirms Liam, and he looks pleased.

Harry nods and starts walking in the direction Liam had pointed for lunch, suppressing a shiver.

The news reports, months ago, had said that this winter would be a mild one. It seems like no one really accounted for this much snow.

*

36 hours out from the confrontation, Niall goes quiet.

He hasn’t exactly always been bouncing off the walls in the time that Harry’s known him, but it’s unusual to see him so withdrawn, pale, and silent. The night before, Harry had tried to strike up a conversation, and had received nothing in return, not even a glance.

He’d fallen asleep shivery and thrown off balance, like he’d been flat out rejected. There’s something sweet and homey about the inn, but Harry feels colder every minute that he’s here. He just wants to get Louis and be done with it. This team was starting to feel a bit like family, but everyone seems to be getting more and more wired the closer they get to the time of the ambush.

Everyone, that is, except for Niall.

He’s currently sitting in the corner with Zayn, the two of them with their shoulders pressed together. Zayn is saying something, maybe whispering, and Niall is nodding a little. Harry inches closer, can’t help that he’s morbidly curious when there’s so much to think about right now. He wouldn’t mind a distraction, so sue him.

“...she’d make you samosas, probably,” Zayn is saying, with a tiny soft smile on his face. “It’d probably be raining, or, like, snowing, considering how this winter’s been, but. It’s nice, even when it’s not, y’know? S’home.”

There’s a long, long pause. Niall’s fingers twitch at his side. “Sounds nice,” he murmurs, finally.

Zayn’s smile brightens. “We could go to the shop near the house. They order things differently, s’like a whole adventure just trying to find canned tomatoes or summat.”

Harry doesn’t fully know what’s going on in this conversation, but it feels like intruding, almost, to hear Zayn’s voice so gentle. He steps back, and almost misses Niall’s reply.

“I love adventures,” is what Niall says, a little shaky but genuine all the same. He tips his head to rest on Zayn’s shoulder, and the two of them stay just like that, almost preternaturally still.

Harry slips out the side door and goes to find Jesy.

He isn’t lonely here, per se, but seeing that kind of familiarity and communication almost without speaking makes him realize exactly how new this all is. He misses home, his sister, his friends. He misses his fiancé, his Louis, the one who knows him better than anyone in the entire world.

He’s not teary eyed when he finds Jesy in her room, but he’s also not not teary eyed.

She clucks at him anyway, pats the bed next to where she’s sitting.

“Hi,” he says, voice definitely not a little hoarse.

“Hey,” she says, and her tone is careful, like she’s nervous to cause more damage. “You okay?”

He shakes his head, trying to snap out of it. A day and a half, and this will all be more or less over. He just has to make it that far. “Yeah. Just… is Niall okay?” It’s a cop out of saying what’s actually bothering him, but he clings to it. “He was really quiet today.”

Jesy purses her lips, seems to give it some thought. “Depends,” she tells him, “where’s Zayn?”

Huh. Maybe he should’ve realized that it isn’t his place to meddle. “With Niall.”

Jesy’s eyes clear right back up, and she smiles. “He gets nervy before missions, but Zayn helps sort him out. He’ll be fine, don’t worry yourself about it.”

Harry nods a little distractedly and puts his hands at his sides, and then rests them in his lap, and then puts them back on the bed. He can’t seem to sit still, has no idea how they managed such careful quiet in the other room. Jesy lets her body tip onto the bed, back flat against the duvet, and releases a heavy breath. “We don’t usually fly this blind, y’know,” she informs him, and her voice betrays her own nerves. “We usually have a plan of action, and a plan B, and three more plans in case that one goes wrong. And we never, ever send untrained people into the field.”

“But-”

“We like you,” she says plainly. “None of us want you to die, and we want even less for it to be because we threw you out there unprepared. So if we’re bricking it a little, that’s why.”

It’s unexpectedly sweet, so genuine that Harry almost squirms under the attention. This team… they’re good people. Not what he’d have expected if he’d known he would end up here, with a team of spies about to take his fiancé in so he doesn’t kill anyone else. The entire situation is so far-fetched that the entire first week he was here he woke up thinking he’d dreamt it all up. “I’m not going to die,” he says, because he’s confident in that bit, at least.

Jesy looks sad. “You can’t promise that.”

“I won’t,” he insists. “I know him, okay? I know him.”

He doesn’t believe in himself, necessarily, he’s saying. That’s not how he knows. He believes in Louis, and he believes in the love Louis has for him, and he believes that it’ll be enough. That he’ll say come home and Louis will say okay. It’s the only thing that’s kept him more or less sane ever since he woke up to an empty bed the day Louis left.

“Run me through the plan again,” says Jesy, and the tilt of sadness in the planes of her face has been replaced with resolve.

Harry nods. “Oh six hundred,” he starts, because they use military time and he’s not so secretly delighted by it, “wake up, eat something, ready to go by oh six thirty. Ear piece will be secured and re-tested in the car on the way there. We’ll get to the destination, and Jade will drive up as close as possible to where Louis will be. I’ll wait for the signal from Liam to get out of the car, and then I talk to Louis and convince him to come back with us.”

Jesy grimaces. “Okay,” he amends, “the last part isn’t that simple, but. I don’t want to plan it.” “Plans keep people alive,” reminds Jesy.

Harry shrugs. “How am I supposed to plan it, though? I’ll just be reacting to what he does. I don’t know what he’s been through, exactly, so how can I know how he’ll react?”

“Exactly,” she retorts, “so you have to be prepared in case something goes wrong.”

“I trust him,” he says, and he’s so, so tired. “I trust him with my life. Isn’t that enough?”

The expression on her face says that she doesn’t really know that it is. It’s fine, though, Harry knows. They don’t have to believe him. It’s not their lives he’s risking, anyway, it’s his own, and he’s more than willing to do it. Somewhere in London there’s a tux fitted to his exact measurements waiting to be picked up. He still plans on wearing it someday. He still plans on marrying Louis. If this is what it takes, so be it.

Jesy doesn’t say anything more, and a quick glance at the time lets Harry know that it’s just about time to get some sleep. They leave bright and early the next day, intel having leaked that Louis will be in the city square near where the helicopter touched down, and from there it’s all up to fate.

He leaves her in the room without saying anything else, the silence almost too much to bear, and slips back to his own room. It’s empty--Niall must be out doing reconnaissance with Liam or going over the leaks with Leigh-Anne, or else he’s still with Zayn, tucked into a corner and shielded from the world.

Harry hadn’t prayed in years before this all went down. He used to do it proper, down on his knees at the side of the bed like his mum taught him. All through uni he wore a cross necklace so it rested on his chest and glinted in the light, and he had a rosary hanging up in his bedroom. He’s never been ultra religious, but he used to care at least a bit about the formalities.

Now, desperate and exhausted, he shoots up a quick message:

Dear God,

It’s been a while. Sorry about that.

I just- I’m scared. I’m scared that what they have on Louis is too much for him to bear, and that I’m wrong. I’m scared that he’s different, that being forced to do awful things had too much of an impact on him, that I’ll never get him back. I’m scared that I’ll ask him to come home and he’ll say no, and it’ll get one or the both of us killed.

I’m asking for strength, and wisdom, and whatever else you can give me. Love, maybe. Enough to get the both of us through this.

I know you have a plan for us, and there has to be more to it than this. There has to be. Please, help me get him back.

It’s so cold. I’m worried about him. Please. I just want to bring him home.

He pauses, keeps his hands folded together for one perfectly still moment.

Amen.

*

Niall gets in late that night, bouncy and anxious, which is better than the completely blank stares he’d been giving earlier. Zayn must have helped, then, Harry figures. The two of them seem closer than Harry first realized.

“You ready?” asks Niall, once the lights are out and they’re both in bed and Harry can’t fall asleep to save his life. The covers on the bed are scratchy and not warm enough, and he keeps shivering despite himself, teeth chattering every now and then.

Harry rolls over, facing Niall. He can only barely make out the blonde tuft of hair in the weak light. “As I’ll ever be, I guess.”

Niall turns to stare up at the ceiling, hands folded over his chest. His fingers might be interlocked… Harry can’t quite tell. “Feels like my first mission all over again.”

It’s quiet like an admission.

“Yeah?”

A pause.

“There was a storm. It was in Bulgaria, so not far from here but also really far from here, you know? Everything is so spaced out, relative doesn’t even matter much anymore.” Niall trails off, and it sounds like remembering. “Anyway,” he continues, “they don’t tell you that fieldwork is something you have to learn by doing it. So I had all the training, had run all the simulations, but I was nervous as anything when they dropped me down and said go. You know?”

Harry swallows around a lump in his throat, not sure how it got there. “I know.”

Niall makes a sound like agreement. “Right, so I was there with Liam, and- shit, I should probably tell you about his first mission, huh?”

The conversation has turned on a dime, apparently, and Harry realizes almost too late into the expectant pause that Niall is actually waiting for an answer. “Sure,” he answers, a tight knot curled in his belly. Liam is great but he’s a little abrupt sometimes, goes cold around the edges. Harry is worried to learn what happened to make it that way, or if he was cold before and these people softened him from the inside out.

Niall sighs. “We were roommates at bootcamp during training, did you know that? He had this mop of curly hair and the stupidest cow eyes, I swear. Made us all want to like, protect him, or something. He worked so hard all the time, wanted to be the best, really believed in the cause, but he’d never talk about his ability until one day I was sad and then I was just… fine. It was the weirdest thing. And then, if you can picture it, the kid practically trips over himself apologizing, says he’ll make me sad again if I want.” Niall breaks off, laughs. “Fuckin’ idiot.”

Harry has never heard any of them say anything disrespectful about Liam, and this isn’t that, either. It’s just… far more familiar than Harry would’ve guessed, like the two of them are best friends, like Niall isn’t Liam’s subordinate. He figures it must feel that way to them, like they’re partners in crime. Or partners in justice, rather. The pause extends, and Harry’s jaw cracks around a yawn. “So his first mission?” he prompts.

“Right,” says Niall, “sorry, got too excited telling you the other bits.” Harry nods even though Niall can’t see him, just for something to do with his body. “Liam’s first mission partner was named Connor. Kind of a dick, but he was good at his job, and he and Liam never really knocked heads, so it was okay. Anyway, he was more experienced than Liam, and they went on a recon mission. It, uh, it should’ve been simple, right? Get the information and get out before anyone gets their sorry arse killed, you know? Kid stuff.” The way he says it doesn’t make it sound like kid stuff, though. The way he says it doesn’t make it sound simple at all.

“Something went wrong,” infers Harry.

This time, when Niall sucks in a slow breath, Harry instinctively shuts his eyes, braces for impact. “Connor got cocky. He kinda resented Liam. A lot of the senior agents did. Liam was at the very top of our class, and he works really hard, and he’s good at what he does. Made the superiors want to give him more authority than he was ready for, and made the people who already had that authority angry. So Connor decided to show off a little, make the mission less boring. I don’t know all the details exactly--Liam never really talked about it to us--but Liam ended up with Connor’s arm slung around his shoulder, trying to get them both out of there before Connor bled out.”

Christ, thinks Harry. It’s even more abrupt the way Niall tells it, like one second Liam was looking down at his shoes and the next he had a mortally wounded partner in his arms. “Did he manage to?” he asks, but he figures he already knows the answer.

Sure enough, Niall answers, “no,” quietly, sadly. “Liam came back alone, and he was covered in blood still. Kid was shaking so bad I could see his hands trembling. I asked what was wrong and he just went to the sink, tried to wash his hands without getting water everywhere. I’m telling you, he was shaking like a leaf. Kept muttering to himself about how there was too much blood, how he had to get it off. I asked him what I could do, but. What is there? You know? We were kids, couldn’t have been older than 18 at the time, and he was scared out of his mind.”

The image of Liam covered in blood and desperate to get it off is one that Harry knows won’t leave him anytime soon. “Shit,” he murmurs, low and fervent, “that’s awful.”

There’s a space there to breathe, and Harry takes it, opening his eyes to stare back up at the ceiling. There’s a crack running right down the middle, fracturing the plaster, and a hook that must have had a use at some point but now sits empty, unadorned.

“It’s hard,” says Niall slowly, “sometimes, to just watch. To trust people to come back alive, because you never know for sure.”

“Yeah,” agrees Harry uselessly, heart heavy. He doesn’t know if they’re talking about Liam anymore, or if they’re talking about Harry either. He spends a while drifting in his head, silence thick around them.

Niall might say something else, but it’s nearing half two and Harry’s eyelids are drooping. He’s asleep before he even realizes it’s happened.

*

When they get outside the next morning, the snow that’s been steadily melting is a bit like sludge. Instead of the pure white it’d been when they arrived, everything is gray. The clouds are unsteady but not on the verge of collapsing in on themselves like they had been. It’s a muddy feeling, being outside in this weird cold, and Harry feels exceptionally unsettled. The dirt road is starting to show in patches under the snow, but the sun is still nowhere to be found.

“Feels like a storm brewing,” says Liam, but Harry isn’t sure that’s it.

Zayn falls into step beside the two of them. “Unnatural, though. Must be the prelude to the attack.”

Attack. Harry’s stomach turns uncomfortably. They’re meant to get there before anyone gets hurt, civilians especially, but there’s always the chance they got something wrong. “Were the others like this beforehand?” asks Leigh-Anne. “Like, did the weather change this drastically before the others were carried out?”

Liam shakes his head. “It’s almost impossible to chart,” he replies. “All we know is that this is the first day it isn’t visibly more snowy since we started on this case.” He kicks at a piece of half-frozen ice on the ground, and it crumbles beneath the toe of his boot.

“What does that mean?” asks Harry, anxiety fluttering in his chest like a bird.

Zayn huffs a mirthless laugh. “Who knows,” he replies, and it’s more resignation than it is conjecture. “We’ve been ten steps behind since this whole thing started. There’s not enough information to deduce a pattern even if we thought any of this evidence is conclusive, which it’s not.”

Harry huffs as he gets into the car, kicking the sludge off of his boots on the bottom of the door frame before jumping in. It’s not quite enough to get rid of all of the ice, and he frowns at the puddles his shoes leave in the doormat. Liam and Zayn are seated up front, Harry in the back with Jesy. The others are in the other car, which already left and will arrive at the scene first to set up for plan B. It won’t come to plan B, but the thought of it makes Harry’s heart thump harder in his chest.

“How long?” he asks.

He knows the answer, but hearing Liam say, “one hour,” is grounding, helps him settle back into his body.

“Try the earpiece now,” says Zayn, “see if the comms are set up over there yet.”

Jesy agrees quickly, and Harry complies, slipping it into his ear and pressing the little button on the side. It’s flesh colored, blending in so well that Harry had barely been able to spot it in the mirror even when he’d been looking for it. Louis won’t notice it, Harry knows, which is good. “Test,” says Harry quietly, “test, test.”

They’d told him a different call to try, but he hasn’t exactly had the time or desire to memorize it when test works just as well.

There’s a crackle of static, almost loud enough that Harry winces, and then he hears Niall on the other end, loud and clear.

“Hey, mate! Clear as a bell on my end. If it is for you, too… hm. How about you say bologna?”

Harry snorts. “Bologna,” he repeats dutifully. Across from him in the back, Jesy rolls her eyes.

“This is why I’m usually in charge of comms,” she laments. “Because Horan’s an idiot.”

There’s an indignant scoff on the other end of the line. “Tell her I can hear her!”

Harry relays the message, laughing, and Jesy, if possible, looks even less impressed. “I know that, obviously,” she tells him and Niall both. “I’m the one that bloody well designed it, aren’t I.”

There’s a bit more quiet banter after that, but Harry mostly checks out, choosing instead to relay messages when Niall insists and watch from his seat. He’s worrying his nail between his teeth, a bad habit of his. This time he can probably cut himself a break.

“Hey,” says Jesy, once Niall has signed off and attested to the security of the line. “You okay?” She’s quiet enough that Liam and Zayn can’t hear over the bizarre R&B music they have turned on at the front.

Harry checks the clock. 10 minutes to the scariest thing he’s ever done, and the easiest decision he’ll ever have to make. “Been worse,” he non-answers. Jesy makes a face like she sees him evading the question, but lets it go. He figures that happens a lot in this line of work, and with a start realizes that he’s been thinking about himself as an agent for weeks now. He never got the proper training, and he never even interacted with anyone above Liam in terms of authority, and- shit, he doesn’t even know if the higher ups know he’s here.

He’s about to open his mouth and ask about that when Liam says, “Five minutes out, looks clear,” and suddenly his heart swells right up into his throat, blocking all of his words. It’s pounding. He can hear his own heartbeat.

Part of him thinks he might be sick. The other part knows that this is too important to let that happen. He clenches his hands into fists at his sides and tightens his jaw. This, he’s learned, is easier than counting to ten or meditation. That has a different purpose, was for a Harry of a different time. It won’t stop him from doing some yoga tonight or tomorrow if he gets the chance, though, to work out the kinks in his back. It’s just that facing fear with strength, no matter how manufactured… it helps.

The last five minutes pass silently, bumpy road giving way to smooth paved streets for the last stretch. “You’re following orders,” Liam reminds him as the car pulls to a stop next to its twin. “If I tell you it’s too dangerous, and to abort, it’s because I’ve been there before.”

A flash, unbidden, of Liam covered in his partner’s blood.

Harry feels a little dizzy when he nods his head yes. “I understand.”

Even as he says it, he knows he’ll be making his own calls out there. There’s not a single situation he can think of where he leaves Louis alone. Not a single one.

“Final test on the comms,” says Jesy, clear and assertive, softness falling away to a sharper persona.

Wartime, thinks Harry, changes all of them.

Or maybe it was the brief peace that did. He can’t be sure.

“Loud and clear,” replies Niall easily. Liam hands the keys to Zayn and heads to the other car, now empty save Niall. The girls are in the surveillance building where they’d set up the cameras a few days prior--a rickety convenience store that’s been repurposed into a command base for this operation. On the second story, Leigh-Anne is probably holding a sniper rifle.

Harry has never seen any of them holding a gun. Isn’t sure he’d want to.

They offered to arm him for this mission a few days ago. Told him that if he intends on going out there, the least he can do is be prepared if something goes wrong. If Louis point blank told me he’d kill me, Harry had thought, I’d let him. It might be stupid, but I would. I really would. He’d said something about guns not helping the soldiers in the video, and it’d appeased them, but the truth is that no matter how scared he is for himself, it won’t be enough to override the need to protect. And on top of that, Harry’s never killed anyone in his life--obviously he hasn’t, but he forgets that he’s not with company that’s in the same boat--and he doesn’t have a lot of faith that he’d be able to do it now, for the first time. That the first person he kills could be his fiancé.

It won’t happen, and he’s going out unarmed, and when Louis asks him what he’s doing Harry will be able to hold his hands out and say nothing, nothing, please come home.

And he’ll do all that before the target Louis is supposed to kill today ends up dead.

“Harry,” says Liam, and the tone of his voice says that it’s not the first time he’s tried to get Harry’s attention.

Harry coughs a little into his fist. “Yeah,” he says, “yeah, sorry, what?”

Liam softens the tiniest amount, line of his brow smoothing. “Listen to me when you’re out there. Be careful. And if he says he’ll come, bring him straight here. Don’t stop to, like, kiss, or whatever it is you’d do.” He’s awkward with that remark, but pushes on valiantly. “You run to the car, and we get the hell out of here before someone who really does want to kill you shows up. Got it?”

“Straight to the car,” answers Harry, “got it.”

Now all that’s left to do is wait.

According to Niall’s and Jesy’s calculations, each cross checked against the other, Louis will be here in about sixty seconds, and the target will arrive some time after that. There hadn’t been any specification on that, and Harry knows it made Liam uneasy to be missing information, but they can only hope that Harry will have enough time to make a convincing argument.

Outside, the wind picks up, and everyone in the car turns to look out the window at the same time. The hairs on the back of Harry’s neck are standing up a little, nerves back full force from where they’d abated.

In the far distance, there’s a tiny figure walking through the snow.

When he gets closer, Harry realizes that he is only wearing a thin t-shirt, and his head is bowed low, braced against the wind that he created himself. The sky is still gray and uneasy, and the snow is still melting unevenly, and for the first time in months Harry sees his fiancé again.

“Louis,” he whispers, almost despite himself, low and fervent like a prayer.

They all hold their breath, waiting for him to get closer. As he does, the snow starts to swirl around him, twisting up in flurries and spiraling radically. The wind ruffles his shirt and his arms are folded tightly to his chest, making him seem even smaller than Harry knows he is.

He gets close enough that Harry can see his face--it’s devoid of emotion, eyes blank, and Harry shudders. The clouds right above them are dark and roiling, just like the video, and Liam says, “Harry, go,” and it feels like an out of body experience.

Louis stops in the middle of the square, just twenty meters or so from the car. He looks like a hurricane. Like a building storm.

Harry takes a deep breath, puts his hand on the door handle, and pushes it open.

The first thing he notices is the cold. It hits him like a brick wall, slamming into him from every angle. All of a sudden he can’t feel his hands, and he shoves them into his coat pockets before thinking better of it. “Approach carefully,” says Liam, “does he see you?”

Harry looks up, and he and Louis meet eyes, and the wind, snow, rain--they all stop. It falls into complete stillness, silence.

“He sees me,” whispers Harry.

Harry steps closer, fighting the urge to sprint into Louis’ arms.

Louis’ jaw is slack, mouth open in shock. “You shouldn’t be here,” is the first thing he says, sounding almost hysterical. Harry is maybe fifteen paces away now, and still walking slowly. “What are you doing here?”

Every inch of Louis’ body is humming with tension, but the clouds are gone, having dissipated the second their eyes met. It’s still gray, still freezing, but Harry knows he’s not in danger of being struck by lightning, or buffeted around by a windstorm. “Hi,” he says, surprised to find his own voice hoarse like he’d been chain smoking cigarettes earlier. If he let them, his eyes could be filled with tears right now, he’s that overwhelmed. “Louis, hi. It’s okay.”

“It’s not!” replies Louis, chest rising and falling too quickly. He looks terrified. Harry’s heart aches. “You have to get out of here,” he says, and the words trip over themselves with how fast he’s talking. “They know you’re staying at Gemma’s, and they have eyes on you, they’re awful people Harry and you can’t be here, it’s too dangerous, I can’t- I can’t-”

“It’s okay,” Harry repeats, and he stops walking, almost close enough to touch. He can’t stop looking at Louis, drinking in the sight of him. He’s almost desperate to reach out and wrap him into a tight hug and never, ever let him go. “It’s safe, I’m safe, it’s okay.”

In the distance, the sound of thunder. Harry flinches, a tiny thing, but Louis notices it and his face goes pale. “You’re not safe,” he says again, still half-hysterical. “How did you even get here, I don’t understand. Did someone talk to you? Did they come get you? Harry--” his voice cracks miserably on the last word, over Harry’s name, and Harry’s never heard anything so awful or so beautiful in his entire life. If he’s not careful, he really is going to cry. It’s been months. He’s missed Louis so much.

He spreads his arms out carefully by his sides, palms up. I’m unarmed, he’s saying. You can trust me. “I made some friends,” he explains carefully, “and they wanted to help me come get you. I’ve been safe, love,” and here come the tears, welling up in his eyes. Harry hates that he’s always been a crier but he ignores them in favor of an explanation. “We had to come get you. I’m so sorry it took us so long.”

The wind is starting to whip around again, shock starting to drain from Louis’ system and being replaced with distress. If this were a normal situation, Harry would just sod it all to hell and take his hand, pulling him toward the car himself. As it is, he has to be careful. He has to be so, so careful.

“I don’t understand,” says Louis, again, hectic flush staining his cheeks. The force of his disbelief is almost staggering. The temperature where Harry is standing drops steeply, which he hadn’t even thought was possible, and he shudders hard, a shiver running down his spine. “You can’t be here,” he says, “it’s not safe, please, you have to go.” The words seem like they’re being torn right out of him. He sounds about thirty seconds away from getting on his knees and begging Harry to leave.

Harry doesn’t plan to do that, though. “I’m not leaving without you.”

Louis is shaking his head, distressed. “They’ll find us,” he insists, “I know they will, and I can’t put you into more danger than you’re already in, Harry, god.”

“Harry,” says Liam, and Harry jumps a little, had forgotten that people were listening in. “The humidity levels are getting high outside. We think it’s a precursor to some kind of attack, maybe electrical. Be ready to abort on my signal.”

He sounds calm and firm and horribly, horribly logical.

“I’m not leaving,” says Harry, for Louis’ benefit and for Liam’s, too.

“On my signal,” repeats Liam, stronger this time.

Harry takes one breath, two. In front of him, Louis is shaking like a leaf. “Aren’t you cold?” he asks gently.

Louis blinks at him, face going soft for a split-second, and he looks young and terrified even as he answers, “got used to it, I guess. It’s always cold where I am. I’m like a walking raincloud.”

“Lot of snow,” muses Harry, pretending he’s not scared of all the ways this could go wrong, “for a raincloud.”

“Abort,” says Liam, right into his ear. “Back to the car now.” Harry ignores him.

Louis’ hands are fists where his arms are crossed over his chest. “So you know? About like… about my thing? With the weather, or whatever?”

“About your ability?” asks Harry, as nonchalantly as he can when he feels so anxious he could be sick. If Louis keeps saying no, if he doesn’t agree, if-

“Abort,” says Liam again. “Harry, I swear to god, if you don’t-”

“One second,” says Harry, and reaches up, tugs the in-ear out of his ear and throws it to the ground, crushing it beneath his boot. It snaps into shrapnel easily, thin plastic giving way to wire and metal, and when Harry lifts his foot it’s mostly buried beneath the snow, entirely useless now. If he’s going to be stranded in a warzone, so be it. “Just us now,” he tells Louis, “sorry about that.”

If anything, Louis looks even more terrified now than he did before. “Who put you up to this,” he asks, voice flat and icy.

“No one put me up to anything,” he answers honestly, and fear pricks at his heart. “I came to them. They kept me safe,” he implores, “and they can keep you safe, too.”

Louis opens his mouth to respond, but the sound of a helicopter descending--the same one that brought them here, or at least the same model--interrupts him. “Please tell me that’s your people,” he says, and his voice is breathy with fear.

Harry wants to make whoever hurt him pay, a sudden and violent urge, before nodding. “Must be,” he says, spotting the words along the side. PROJECT HURRICANE, it reads in white, bolded text. It’s such a relief he could cry.

The car doors open, Liam and Niall and Jesy all running over to the chopper as it lands, and Harry spots Leigh-Anne and Jade coming too, from a bit of a distance. “They’re with us!” yells Harry, when he catches the conflicted expression on Louis’ face. The sound of the helicopter blades is getting ever louder as it descends, and he has to shout to be heard. “Lou! Please, we have to go!”

He realizes, in that moment, that if Louis wants to stay, there’s nothing they can do to stop him. They took a gamble in coming here, and if it doesn’t pay off, this entire thing will be blown to hell. Harry doesn’t know what he’d do.

“Let’s go!” calls Liam, voice cutting through the air, and when Louis nods in response to Harry’s questioning glance it’s such a relief his knees almost buckle right then and there.

This time, Harry does reach for Louis’ hand.

It’s cold and small and when their fingers interlock it’s the best thing in the entire world. “Gonna keep you safe,” Harry promises as they run, wind whipping at his air and stinging his cheeks. Louis isn’t even wearing snow boots, and Harry makes a mental note to have him checked for frostbite, or whatever it is that could hurt him. If Harry has his way, Louis will never hurt again.

Louis looks over his shoulder as they approach the helicopter, twitchy and nervous, and Harry’s heart aches in his chest.

“It’s safe.” At Louis’ flinch, the voice continues. “Sorry, didn’t introduce myself. I’m Zayn, pleasure, now please get in here before they figure out where you’ve gone.”

That seems to light a fire under Louis, and he hoists himself up quickly, efficiently, a grace to his movement that Harry isn’t sure was there before. Harry jumps up after him, and he can’t help but notice the wide berth the others are giving the two of them. By the time he’s fully up and inside, Louis has claimed a seat for himself, and he has his arms wrapped tightly around his middle. He looks small, still scared, and he’s so beautiful Harry thinks he might never look at anyone but Louis again, or something like that, or whatever, he’s exhausted and this worked and he’s never taking anything for granted ever again.

He sits next to Louis, all too aware of the near-stifling quiet around them. “Hey,” he whispers, “hey, love,” can hear his own voice shaking with emotion. “Can I hug you?”

Louis looks up at him, eyes red, and says, “yeah.”

It’s all the invitation Harry needs, and within a split-second they’re clinging to each other, holding on tight so the world doesn’t rip them apart again. “I missed you,” confides Harry, and Louis lets out a tiny dry sob. “Missed you so much.”

Louis shakes his head desperately where it’s buried in the crook of Harry’s neck, but it seems more like a response to how overwhelmed he is than any kind of disagreement. Louis is literally trembling in Harry’s arms, shaking like a leaf, and Harry lifts his head only to ask, “does someone have a blanket? Or an extra jacket?”

In the air it’s no warmer than it was on the ground, and people startle into movement. It’s Jade that turns up next to them with a soft fleece blanket, though, and Harry helps her drape it over them. “Thank you,” he says.

Louis doesn’t say anything, but he hasn’t stopped shaking. Harry wonders how much of it is because of the cold, and how much is emotion.

Five minutes later, they run through a patch of turbulence so bad they’re almost thrown to the ground. “Harry?” asks Niall, voice disembodied as it drifts back from where he’s sitting next to the pilot--a nice man whose name Harry can’t remember for the life of him--, “can you, ah, have him do something about all the wind?”

“Um,” says Harry, floundering.

“My name’s Louis,” comes the reply, a little less playful than it might’ve been before this whole thing started, “and yeah, just. Just give me a minute.”

He shuts his eyes, and Harry watches him carefully, can’t seem to pull his eyes away. Nothing changes outwardly except for a little divot in Louis’ brow that Harry aches to smoothe away. There’s five seconds of silence, then ten, then twenty, and Harry’s about to ask if Louis’ okay when Louis’ eyes open up again, and he sags in his seat like it took a lot out of him to do… whatever it is that he did.

“There,” calls Louis, up toward Niall. “Should be better now.”

And when Harry listens closely, he realizes that the sound of wind battering against the metal exterior of the helicopter is far lower than it was before.

Niall laughs to himself, disbelieving. “Thanks,” he replies. “Anyone ever tell you you’d be a great pilot?”

Louis cracks a tiny, tiny smile. Harry is so glad to see it he sags, too, relaxing back into his seat and pressing a quick kiss to Louis’ temple. Louis twitches a little, but doesn’t lean away, making a low, pleased sound that seems like it must have been half-lost in translation. Under the blanket like this, shielded from the rest of the world, Harry wants to cling to Louis so tight he’ll never leave again. He settles for murmuring, “it’s so good to see you,” voice thick, and pretending that Louis was away on vacation, or seeing family, and anything but what actually happening.

Louis is quiet. A split-second later, Harry feels his hand searching out Harry’s, and links their fingers.

They’re still holding hands when the adrenaline finally catches up to Harry and he falls asleep, just like that.

*

He wakes up gasping, breathing hard like he can’t get enough air into his lungs.

He knows it’s just his mind playing tricks on him, but he remembers the altitude all at once and immediately feels sick, scrambling up into a sitting position and wrapping his arms around his legs, jostling the fleece throw.

“Hey, hey, hey,” and it’s Louis’ voice, it’s Louis’ hands on Harry’s upper arms, it’s Louis soothing him quietly. The day comes back to Harry in bits and pieces and he thinks it’s going to be a long time still before he gets used to any of this, let alone the fact that it’s over. “I’m right here,” Louis continues. “Right here, I swear. Breathe.”

Harry’s chest is heaving. “Oh,” he breathes, and that’s all he says, focusing on bringing his heart rate back down.

Oh, you’re here. Oh, that really happened. Oh, it didn’t feel like home without you.

Oh, they said you’re dangerous but you’re still the safest place I’ve ever been.

Louis is still shushing him absently, having reclaimed one of Harry’s hands to hold. “We’re safe, remember?” says Louis, and he’s thinner than he was when Harry last saw him, bags under his eyes so much darker and more pronounced. Harry should be the one comforting him, he knows, and it’s the final push he needs to get himself together.

“I’m okay,” he promises, “I’m all right now.” And he is, once he shakes off the last bit of panic from his system.

Louis nudges closer. “The blond one says we’ll land soon,” he stage whispers.

“You bloody well know my name. Wanker,” shoots back Niall, laughing, and they must have had time to talk before Harry woke up if they’re already joking like this. Or maybe they remember each other from the party--it feels like a fever dream, remembering, like it was ten years ago when they ran out of Niall’s house to the tune of gunfire and Louis forgot his shoes and they stress-laughed their way out of the car and inside.

“So… soon?” asks Harry, still feeling groggy. He has no idea how long he was even out.

There’s a slight shuffle to his left, and he sees Liam and Jade discussing something in low voices, and Zayn asleep on Leigh-Anne’s shoulder, and Jesy elbow deep in tech of some sort; it’s almost startling to see them there, like they hadn’t even been on the plane until just now. “Not long,” comes Niall’s voice, still disembodied. “Maybe ten minutes before we touch down back at the base.”

Louis coughs self-consciously. “Base?”

“Right,” Harry says, “this is, like, a task force? Kind of? That was made to fight YNM, which is the, you know. The people that you were, uh, captured by? And the base is bigger than just this team but it’s, um, it has nice places to sleep, and the showers are-”

Liam looks like he’s trying not to laugh. “This is the team behind Project Hurricane,” he interrupts, “and the base is where we’re centralized, basically. It’s about an hour outside of London, it’s heavily fortified, and it’s the safest place for you and Harry both right now. Plus, we wanted to ask you some questions anyway, get you processed.”

“Do I have a choice?” asks Louis flatly.

Liam has the good grace to grimace, at least. “It’s protocol to get you processed first. But if you want to leave right away after that, you can’t go home unless you want a repeat of what happened before. Your options will be discussed later, though. For now we just need to focus on processing and helping you adjust to life at the base for the time being.”

Louis’ lips are pressed into a thin line, clearly displeased, and he looks to Harry.

Harry just looks at him helplessly. He’s not the one in charge here, and he certainly doesn’t want to risk Louis’ safety or his own by leaving too soon.

Apparently, Louis finds what he was looking for, because he turns back to Liam. “Okay,” he says, “fine, I’ll stay.”

Even when he’s upset it’s a relief to hear his voice.

We were gonna get married, thinks Harry, unbidden, as he studies the stubborn line of Louis’ profile, the slope of his nose, the recalcitrant tilt to his jaw. The appointments for suit fittings, the cake tasting, the deposit for the venue… all deadlines they missed, all appointments that are well past over with. “It’s for the best,” reassures Harry, even as his brain is yelling that they need to get back to their lives.

Harry’s probably been fired from his job by now. Louis, too. Their house has been empty since the day Louis left, and the food in the fridge will have gone off ages ago. There’s a lot of aching hurt in his chest, and so much of it is for what they lost, but it can’t negate the relief.

Louis is here, alive, safe. A warm weight against Harry’s side. His eyes are distant, tired.

“I know,” answers Louis, and they’re still holding hands but it feels like he’s miles away.

*

Louis hates the base.

Harry maybe should have expected that, but it still bites into something soft in him that Louis eyes it with so much plain disdain. Louis has never been shy about expressing his opinions but Harry was hoping it could be different, this time. That Louis could try to like this place that has started to feel like a second home to Harry, and the people that have started to feel like family even after so short a time.

“This place is just depressing,” Louis is saying, he and Harry holding hands again, “and I just- I just got out of a place like this, you know?” He sounds less certain as he goes on, and Harry nods gently. “I used to have dreams about the sun.”

It’s the most he’s said of his time with YNM since they got back the night before, and Harry’s heart clenches. “We could go up, I’m sure,” he offers. “Just would have to clear it first, but I’m sure they’d let us go up and get some fresh air.”

Louis’ mouth twists, but it looks more defeated than it does angry. “Later,” he compromises. “I’m still… can we just stay here a little longer? Just us two?”

They’re in the room Harry shares with Niall, other bed empty for now. Niall is, no doubt, processing paperwork somewhere in his workspace, or maybe in Central with the others. For a job that’s so action-packed and dramatic, they really do a lot of paperwork after the fact. “Of course,” Harry replies, “yeah, of course.” They’re missing breakfast right now, but Harry’s gotten friendly with the cooks, and he’s sure he could sneak them something later. And anyway, after the whirlwind of yesterday, he isn’t really sure that he’s hungry at all, or that he will be anytime soon.

Louis murmurs, “thanks,” still looking down, and this is maybe the quietest Harry has ever seen him. It’s certainly the most downtrodden, the most resigned. Even when he was fighting with Liam--again--about whether they could leave or not, there was still a tilt of fear in his eyes that Harry’s never seen the likes of before. Not in Louis, at least.

When they were in uni, right before Louis graduated, they had the biggest fight of their entire relationship. “I don’t want to lose you,” Louis had said, “but I don’t want to hurt you, either.”

“You’re already doing both,” Harry had answered, frustrated and sick of people being noble to protect his feelings. So he was the youngest of the group, so he went to school so far away from home, so people gave him a hard time, so what? “If you leave,” he’d gone on, tone verging on desperate, “it’ll break my heart.”

His voice had cracked hard on the last word, and he hadn’t known what else to do. That was all. That was everything he had to offer.

“I need some time,” Louis had told him, begged of him.

Harry had thought it was over right then and there, and when there was a knock on his apartment door that night, he let Nick open it up. And Nick, in true Nick fashion, butted heads with Louis immediately, telling him that he needed to go.

Even then, though… even when Louis thought he would lose Harry, even when things were crashing down around them both, there was never the kind of fear in his eyes that he seems to carry with him now. Harry can’t even imagine the kinds of things that must have happened for him to be like this, thinks he might not have to if remembering the video where Louis killed fifty people in a split second was anything to go by.

Harry looks down at their linked hands.

Harry is still wearing his engagement ring. Louis isn’t.

Harry wracks his brain, trying to remember if it was left at the house or not. If it was dropped onto the side table before Louis left, or if they took that from him, too.

“You tired?” he asks, when Louis droops a little more against him.

Louis huffs out a breath, and then another. “Uh,” he says, seeming confused, and then, “no, not really.”

Harry smiles to himself, a small, private thing. “Okay,” he answers.

Not a minute later, Louis is out cold. Even in sleep, the furrow in his brow doesn’t smooth out, and Harry fights the urge to press against it with his thumb to push away the crinkles. He would, he really would, but it might wake Louis, and he needs all the sleep he can get right now.

“I love you,” whispers Harry, promises himself he’ll remind Louis as soon as he wakes up, and not a second later, like he’s trying to make up for lost time.

*

Louis comes out of the first round of processing with a red flush high on his cheeks and mottling his neck and chest. He’s wearing the shirt Harry was wearing when he got there for the first time, and Harry is still in too-small clothes meant for a girl named Perrie who he’s never properly met. “How’d it go?” he asks, wincing preemptively.

Louis’ jaw ticks. “If I hear someone say the word protocol one more time, I’m going to scream until my vocal chords bleed and my voice gives out and I can’t answer any more of their questions.”

“Oh,” says Harry, blinking, because that was more graphic than he expected, even after living with Louis for years. “Um, do you want to get lunch?”

For a split second, Harry thinks that Louis really is going to scream, but then his shoulders drop and the tension eases its way back out of his posture. “Sure,” says Louis. “Liam said I didn’t have to answer more questions today, so I was thinking maybe you could give me the grand tour after?”

He’s trying so, so hard to act like this is all normal, even as he’s shouting about injustice and how frustrated he is, and Harry wants to grab his hand and fly to Sweden or Madagascar or Chile and pretend that none of this ever happened. That they’re not both so hurt that this feels like the edge of a cliff, like they’re just waiting for the final push. “I’d love to,” he says, swallowing past the unease. “Of course, yeah.”

He doesn’t mention that the others still look at Louis like he’s a danger to them all. Harry can’t exactly blame them, but the Louis from the video, from the stories… he seems so far removed from this reality. When they go on their tour, the best Harry can hope for is that everyone minds their own business.

It might’ve been more prudent, he realizes five minutes later, to worry about making it through lunch, first.

The atmosphere is tense and hushed, the others clearly not comfortable talking about specifics of any mission with Louis around. Harry wants to ask why it was so different when he was the new one, but it’s silly to think that the situations are the same at all.

Under the table, his thigh is pressed tightly against Louis’. There’s been barely five minutes since they got back that they haven’t been touching, and Harry thinks it’s going to take a long time to get over the fear of Louis being ripped away again. He doesn’t admit it, but he barely slept the night before, startling awake to check on Louis again and again. When dawn broke, he groaned pitifully to himself and roused Louis to shower, washed his hair under the running water and almost cried at all the bruising along his torso. What did they do to you? he wants to ask, but doesn’t. He doesn’t have the right words, and Louis wouldn’t answer, anyway.

“Hey,” says Harry, looking at his own mostly untouched food, and at Louis’ still mostly full plate, “do you want me to show you around now?”

Louis nods, relief coloring his features almost painfully clearly. “Wouldn’t mind,” he says, and sounds so much like the Louis he was before all this that Harry nearly does a double take. “Well?” he asks, when Harry doesn’t give any indication of moving. “You gonna give me a tour or are you just gonna stare at me all night?”

Both, thinks Harry, only a little bit morbidly. “Sorry,” he says, hazards a smile.

Louis’ answering one is soft, sad at the edges, but it’s there. “C’mon,” he says, standing and helping Harry up from his chair.

The buzz of conversation starts up hesitantly behind them as they leave. Harry catches someone saying Louis’ name, and sees Louis’ shoulders stiffen up. Neither of them mentions it, but Harry nudges their hands together until Louis interlocks them. Better.

“You’ve seen, uh,” he starts, “you’ve seen the bunks, and the mess hall. I thought I could maybe show you the workspaces more, so you can, like, see what they do. Here. What they do here.” He’s a stuttery mess, realizing suddenly that he’s defensive of this place. That he wants Louis to like it, even just a little. That he’s made a home here, and he feels shy, wanting so badly for Louis to approve.

They go to Base Central first, and Louis hums and haws at the appropriate moments, but he still looks a little distant.

“This is where we saw you,” offers Harry. “Jade, she can like, I’m not sure what her power is, but. She did this thing, and I helped, and we saw you. At the place where they kept you, in Russia. That’s how we knew how to reach you, and how Liam found you that first time. It was really intense, and I was, uh, sitting right there. Like, in that chair.”

The look on Louis’ face isn’t particularly impressed. “So you did some ritual, and then came to rescue me because I seemed so helpless?”

It’s a barb, and Harry recoils. “Would you rather we had left you there?” he shoots back, and regrets it as soon as he does. “Shit. Sorry,” he tries, but Louis’ eyes have already shut like he’s sustained a physical blow.

“Can we finish the tour?” he asks, eyes still closed, and his hair has gotten so long, stubble turned nearly into a beard, fingernails ragged--some broken, some torn off--, and Harry loves him, doesn’t want him to be upset.

“Yeah,” he answers, “yeah, we can.” He hates to fight, with Louis especially. They’ll need to hash this out later, but they have time. There’s plenty of time. “Liam’s office is in the corner over there, and the others have separate workspaces in a hall down the way.”

“How long were you at Gemma’s? Like, when did you get here? And how?” The first question triggers the rest, and Louis’ brow is furrowed like he’s been trying to work it out but doesn’t quite understand. That’s probably fair. It felt like a surreal experience to Harry, the fact that he made it to this place at all, and it’s weird to think about how fortunate he was in hindsight.

They turn the corner toward the offices. “I was only at hers for a few days. Do you remember Niall’s party? When we first met him?” Louis nods. “I thought there was something weird about it, and then you just disappeared, so I went to talk to him. Almost died a couple times in the process, but he took me to meet Zayn and then I ended up here.”

It’s a gross oversimplification of the timeline, but he doesn’t want to overwhelm Louis, who already looks like he’s going to be sick. “Just a few days?” he asks, finally, voice weak.

“Yeah,” answers Harry. “The rest of the time I was here, safe. This team kept me safe.”

Louis looks genuinely ill. “The things I did,” he says, “I did because I thought you were in danger. I- I hurt so many-”

“Hey,” interrupts Harry, holding both of Louis’ hands, urging him to look up at Harry. “Hey, you couldn’t have known. Lou. It’s okay.”

Louis is shaking his head, still looking at the ground. “It’s not,” he argues, voice mucked up with tears, and shit, this is not what Harry wanted to happen. “It’s really, really not.”

Harry doesn’t know what to do. In the weird fluorescent light, Louis’ skin is too pale. “We can finish the tour another time,” he offers. “How about let’s go back to the bunks right now, all right? We can just hang out for a bit. How’s that sound?”

There’s a bit of movement behind them, the others exiting the mess hall and probably going to do more debrief work on Louis’ case, but Harry’s focus is entirely on Louis. That, if nothing else, has been the same since they met for the first time in university, Louis with his bright energy and massive heart and quick wit. Cool, older Louis who knew all the best people and accepted Harry into his life with open arms. Louis who Harry has been in love with since they went on a date at a ridiculous skate park at night and dangled their legs over the edge of a ramp and talked about nothing at all for hours, holding hands under the starlight. Louis who is nodding now, albeit reluctantly.

Louis who has killed for Harry, and regrets it dearly.

They go to the bunks. On the bed, Harry strips out of his jumper (or, well the provided jumper, which rides high on him and constantly exposes a sliver of his undershirt) and leans back against the thin, firm pillows. “I know you hate this place,” he says, after too long of neither of them saying anything. “I think you could learn to like it, though.”

Louis sighs. “When does it end?” he asks, despondent. “When is this over? When do we get to go back home?”

“Home isn’t safe,” says Harry, because it isn’t, and if he lost Louis again he’d never forgive himself for taking the risk. “I don’t even have a job anymore, I’m sure, and I don’t think you do, either. Not after disappearing for months with no notice. We have to stay here. For now, this is home.”

When Louis looks up, his jaw is stubborn. “It’s not home,” he argues, sounds like he’s on the brink of tears. “Not the one we built together. It’s not fair.” Harry feels the injustice deep in his bones. “I know,” he says, “I know. But I need you safe, Lou. I need us to be safe.” It feels like he’s aged years in the last months, like he’s a different person entirely, and he’s worried that Louis is, too. That they’re wasting time they should be spending relearning each other having arguments instead. Louis deflates, again, and Harry worries that if he gets any smaller he’ll disappear right out from under Harry’s arm. “You lost weight,” he observes quietly, after a pause.

Louis shrugs. It’s probably fair that he wasn’t worrying too much about taking care of himself when he was just trying to keep them both alive, but Harry can worry about these things enough for the both of them now, he figures. “Can gain it back now that there’s, like, food that’s not disgusting.”

He wrinkles his nose at the memory. Harry’s chest hurts a little, but he mostly wants to laugh. They’re here. They’re both right here. “Good,” he affirms, smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

“Good,” says Louis, quiet, playing with Harry’s fingers between his hands. If he notices all the missing rings, he doesn’t mention it.

They get ready for bed slowly, both tired from fighting and how weird time passes down here, away from the light.

“What’s the weather like outside?” Harry asks tentatively. “Can you tell?”

In the darkness, he can’t read anything on Louis’ face, but they’re pressed together as much as is even possible; the bed is too small for the two of them, but neither even entertained the idea of spending a night apart. As it is, Harry clings in his sleep, arm tight around Louis’ waist, like he’s scared he’ll leave even when there’s nowhere to go. Louis is still relaxed, doesn’t tense at the question.

“Gimme a minute,” he murmurs, gentle, and Harry waits.

“Okay,” says Louis, after a pause, and his voice is so, so sweet and quiet. “We’re pretty far underground, so it might not be totally right.”

“That’s fine,” answers Harry, tucking his face into Louis’ shoulder, almost on his chest.

Louis accommodates him easily, one hand threading soothingly through his hair, and starts to talk again. “It’s still cold,” he starts, half apologetic, “but it’s not snowing anymore. Or raining.”

“S’good,” mumbles Harry sleepily, slow smile spreading across his face. No snow, no rain. It’s good.

Louis huffs a tiny laugh, shrugs the shoulder that’s not currently supporting half of Harry’s head. “Windy, though. Snow might be starting to melt, it’s hard to tell. There’s so much of it.”

Harry hums, low in his chest. “It’s been a long winter,” he allows, drowsy and warm, “but it’ll melt. Just gotta give it time.”

“You think?” asks Louis. He sounds naked, vulnerable.

“Yeah,” answers Harry, eyelids heavy, “I do.”

Chapter Text

They’re wary of him here.

He can’t be surprised, honestly, after all they’ve seen him do. If they really did have a way to surveil him, they’ve seen a host of terrible, miserable, frightening mistakes that he’s made. Seeing Harry joke around with them on occasion leaves a weird, lurching feeling in Louis’ chest, like he went to sleep and then woke up in the middle of a vivid dream.

He feels uncomfortable, and that’s not to mention the processing. It’s his least favorite part of his days here, though he can admit that it’s better than what life was like at the YNM base, which also felt like a vivid dream, though it was closer to a technicolor nightmare. But every time he has to go into Liam’s office and sit through question after question, he feels like a new part of him is splintering off.

It doesn’t help that Liam seems equally frustrated with the lack of progress. “You don’t know the leaders’ names?”

He huffs. “I called them Man and Woman in my head, okay? It’s not like they were eager to offer up information, and it didn’t seem like a priority to me.”

“What, so your priority was killing people?” There’s a beat of silence, and Liam looks horrified with himself. “That was out of line,” he rushes to amend. “I’m sorry, that was way out of line. The whole experience was obviously really traumatic for you, and I didn’t mean to snap like that. God, sorry, I just haven’t been sleeping hardly at all, and I know that’s no excuse, but-”

“Liam,” interrupts Louis, “or, like, Commander Payne, or whatever they call you-”

“-Just Liam is fine-”

“-can I just… can I ask you something?”

Maybe a month or two or even three ago, he’d have fought back harder, or held a grudge, but Louis is so, so tired of fighting. He’s so tired.

Liam nods before Louis has even finished asking. “Yeah, yeah, of course.”

“When you came to Russia,” he says, slowly, trying hard not to relive the memory as he does, “and you asked me to come with you, what would’ve happened if I’d said yes?”

It’s not a brilliantly worded question, and he isn’t sure what he’s expecting for an answer, but he’s hoping to appease some of the guilt that’s been threatening to rip him apart.

Liam pauses, leans forward a little in his chair. “Probably the same thing that happened a few days ago,” he says. “You would’ve come here, and met back up with Harry, and we’d have debriefed and talked it through.”

“Harry was here,” Louis echoes, devastated even though he already knew that. “Why didn’t you lead with that back then?”

“We weren’t even sure if you were there on purpose,” says Liam, but he looks sad, too, no doubt also thinking of all the suffering they both could’ve prevented if it’d worked out that way. “And it honestly probably would’ve sounded like we were keeping him hostage, or trying to blackmail you, or threaten him…” he trails off, but Louis gets the idea. “You were understandably stressed out, and we didn’t want you to, uh- you wouldn’t have listened to an explanation for long enough for me to convince you of the truth.”

“They were in my head,” Louis agrees slowly. The truth is he wouldn’t have believed Liam, and even if he had he would never have taken the risk in case Liam was lying. It would’ve saved him, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

After another pause, Liam stands up. “We can finish mapping the exterior tomorrow,” he says, a clear dismissal.

“All right,” he says, instead of I’d rather brain myself on a low hanging pipe and slip into a coma than keep reliving all of this over and over.

Liam nods, awkward, and Louis takes it as his cue to leave. He could seek out Harry, but Harry is probably with Jesy or Niall or whoever else is around and willing to be pestered. The first day here, they’d been glued at the side, and they still more or less are, but Louis is going to have to get used to not being with Harry every second of every day. Just because the nerves turn into terror after enough time passes doesn’t mean Harry can’t spend some time with people he likes rather than babysitting Louis and making sure he isn’t a total headcase.

Louis is a little bit of a headcase, but he can be a headcase on his own for a few minutes. That’s fine.

He goes back to the room he and Harry have been quasi-sharing with Niall--or, they’ve been sharing it with his stuff, technically, since Niall’s kind of taken over the empty bed in Jesy’s room. Someone mentioned something about that bed being for someone else who isn’t here, but Louis doesn’t have the energy to meet another member of this task force, so he hasn’t been worrying about it too much.

Once he’s collapsed onto the bed, sitting hunched over with his head in his hands, he’s more tired than he’s been in weeks. Maybe the constant adrenaline at YNM’s base had kept him more or less alert, or maybe Perrie’s easy company--though it hadn’t been easy at first--had been the thing to buoy him up when it was tough. Here, he has Harry, but he feels like a different version of himself. Harsher, maybe. Definitely sadder.

He exhales, shaky. All he’d wanted was to go home, but this place is so gray, concrete floors and ceilings just the place he just escaped, and he’s still underground, and he’s still stressed out, and the only thing that’s okay is the fact that Harry is alive and Louis doesn’t have to kill people anymore to make sure that that’s still true.

Okay, so he has a lot to be thankful for.

It’s just that he can’t stop replaying things in his head, like the other trainees that were picked off, and how Perrie is still in that hellhole, and how she went down protecting him, and how Louis killed a guy by burying him in snow and leaving him there, god damn it-

A knock on the doorframe.

Louis startles so badly he almost jumps off the bed, looking up guiltily to find Jade waiting with a cup of tea. “Hi,” she says, and she almost seems shy, “can I come in?”

He clears his throat. “Yeah,” he says, scooting over on the bed and accepting the tea without protest. It’s made the way he likes it, and he isn’t sure how to feel about that. Takes a sip, lets it warm him slowly. “You don’t have processing to do?”

She smiles. “You’re the only one who’s processing around here. The rest of us are debriefing.”

He rolls his eyes, but twists it soft, because he doesn’t think he can afford to make these people dislike him any more than they already do. “Done with your debrief, then?” The word feels almost clunky in his mouth, and he wonders if he’ll ever assimilate into this place like Harry seems to have. If he really will need to.

“More or less,” she answers, fluttering a hand vaguely. “Most of my job was in the getting to you in the first place, and the rest comes later. For now, I’m waiting for you to finish processing, and then you’ll help me out a bit. If you can,” she rushes to add, probably sensing the expression on his face. He doesn’t know exactly what his mouth is doing, but sure the way it’s curling isn’t particularly inviting. It’s just- he thought he was done reliving the nightmare. He’d wanted out, and then he wanted to go back to his life and never think about any of this again. Reality is throwing a wrench in those plans, though.

“Okay,” he says, belatedly. “If you wanted to spend more time with me, you just needed to ask.”

The joke falls flat, and he winces. Just as he’s about to apologize, she nudges him with her shoulder. “It doesn’t have to be all at once,” she says, “but our job is to stop YNM from hurting people, and you’re by far our most valuable resource. You’ve been there, Louis. You know more about how they operate than we do. We’re on the same team here.”

He knows that. He knows all of that, and he wants to help, but he can hardly sleep without waking up gasping from dreams that are just as much nightmare as they are memory.

“Y’know,” she tells him, after too much pressing silence, “you don’t seem like someone who enjoys hurting people.”

He looks up at that, sees the gentle, neutral expression on her face and lets his hackles drop. “I’m really not,” he replies. “And I know why you might think I am, but-” I didn’t have a choice remains unsaid, because he did, didn’t he? He made a choice. And he has to live with it. Still, though, god, he’s not a monster, is he? He’s tried so hard not to be a monster.

“A while ago,” she says, accent tilting her words up, up, up, “Liam got an order from the higher ups to kill you. And it didn’t sit right with any of us, but we didn’t know what else to do.”

Louis swallows thickly. “What changed?”

Her entire expression softens. “A bunch of things, really, but mostly your fiancé. He threw a proper fit when he heard. We all thought he was gonna punch Liam’s lights out, honestly.”

“Harry?” he asks, incredulous, startled out of feeling sorry for himself. “My Harry?”

Jade isn’t laughing, though, looks perfectly serious as she says, “he’d do anything for you, y’know. He came here and we told him how dangerous it was, and he didn’t even hesitate. The look on his face when he realized that the original plan was… he wasn’t going to let you die, or stay there and keep getting hurt.”

There’s an underlying message, something about being worthy of that love, or proving himself. Louis doesn’t say I murdered people to keep him safe because there isn’t a way to say it that doesn’t paint him as a monster, but he understands what she’s saying. “The reason I left,” he says, “in the first place, it was to protect him. They were threatening him. I didn’t know what else to do.”

He’s not on the brink of tears, necessarily, but his head hurts, and his hands are shaky. Jade hums sadly. “You’re all right now,” she tells him, like he isn’t a killer, like he hasn’t done unspeakably awful things in the name of love when it wasn’t even necessary. When he should’ve let them kill him and be done with it.

He shuts his eyes, hangs his head.

Her fingers link with his tentative at first and then more confidently, her hands dry and cool, and they sit like that for ages, holding hands in silence, Louis trying and trying and trying not to cry.

*

He and Harry are orbiting each other weirdly, and Louis doesn’t know how to make it stop. He pictures Harry shoving Liam up against a wall and then he remembers the way Harry used to help the neighbors find their puppy whenever she would run away, driving up and down the street and calling, “Charlotte! Charlotte!” with his sweet worried eyes and the wind in his hair.

Surely Harry has similar memories, mixed up with what he knows of Louis now. Mixed up with what Louis did.

He doesn’t feel like himself anymore, is the problem. It’s like someone took his insides and stuck them in a blender and tried to give them back mangled and bloody.

It doesn’t help that they’re underground, either, at least eight or nine stories down. He’s never been claustrophobic, but living in a cell changes a lot of things. The only saving grace is that most of the space above them is dirt, unlike the concrete of YNM’s facility. It’s breathable, retains moisture. All of these things Louis never noticed before about the world around him, thrown into stark relief by his training, his new intuition.

When he spots Niall headed toward the elevators, he doesn’t think, just moves. “Hey,” he says, trying to be casual, “where are you going?”

Niall could totally shoot him a wary look and say it’s classified, but he doesn’t do that, thankfully. “Headed up top,” he says, “wanted to get some air. Wanna come?”

It’s literally a dream come true. “Would love to,” he agrees, before anyone can question it or ask if it really is a good idea. He knows he’s a risk, especially at the surface, but Niall doesn’t seem scared he’ll run, or try to kill someone. Lucky, that.

The ride up the elevator is quick, and then they end up climbing six flights of stairs. Louis is winded by the end of it, bent over at the waist catching his breath. A lot of it is nerves rather than exhaustion, because the training he’d undergone had definitely improved his physical fitness, but it’s nice to have a second to pause and breathe. “Why doesn’t the elevator go the whole way up?” he asks.

“Safety?” offers Niall, but he doesn’t seem sure.

“Okay,” says Louis, “but what if there’s, like, a coup? And you have to escape, but, hold on, you have to climb six bloody flights of stairs before you’re out.”

Niall grins. “Okay, but what if they took out your power? And the elevator stalled halfway up, in the middle of a bunch of packed dirt?”

Louis has to concede that it’s a fair point.

The two of them walk out into the same shop that louis saw upon entering this place, the ONE CONFECTION sign hanging crookedly over a blinking CLOSED sign. Everything looks to be fully functional, and Louis wonders if the team has ever celebrated a win by getting milkshakes up here. If this last mission can count as a win for them.

It’s a bit of a shock to his body, coming out from underground for the first time in a few days without the expectation of completing a mission in exchange for the brief freedom. Next to him, Niall already has a bit of color back in his cheeks, heading outdoors to get even more space, Louis’ sure. Louis follows quietly, looking around as he goes.

Outside, the weather is cold and humid, like it’s about to storm, and Louis tries to relax, to part the clouds above. The air feels almost electric, like he could snap lightning at any time. “Fucking awful weather,” he says, for something to say.

Niall barks a laugh like he wasn’t expecting Louis to say that. “It’s winter,” he says, and it’s an out.

Louis doesn’t take it. “S’all right,” he concedes, “I know I’m a miserable bastard.”

Niall frowns. “It’s an adjustment period,” he says, “and we’re underground most of the time, anyway. No one’s bothered if it’s a little weird out while you’re figuring yourself out.”

“And if they track me?” he asks, suddenly going cold. “If they’re looking for weather irregularities, somewhere it’s colder than it should be, or storming more or-”

“Did you know,” says Niall, cutting him off, “that while you were in Russia, the weather in London was absolute madness? Rain and sleet and snow like we’d never seen it. Coldest winter ever.”

Louis swallows. He hadn’t known that.

Niall nods to himself, kicks at a clump of icy snow. It makes a crunching sound, leaving flecks on his boot. “You’re from Doncaster, right?” He doesn’t wait for Louis to nod. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s been weird there, too. And in Russia, still. None of us know exactly how this works for you, but you’re a lot more powerful than you realize.”

Louis steadfastly doesn’t think about killing fifty people at once, that rush of power. How he felt sick, how he threw up on the side of the road after that mission and three others, how well acquainted he is with his own capacity for destruction. “So they won’t track me like that,” he guesses.

The frigid wind that had been blowing mellows out, and Louis finds he can feel his nose again. Hopes Niall isn’t too thrown by the changes. “They might try,” he says, “but we’re a blank spot on a map anyway. As far as anyone knows, we’re just another field in a giant mess of fields, nothing special about it.”

The relief is enough to warm the air a few degrees, and Louis rubs his hands together, starting to feel pinpricks of warmth beneath his gloves. “Okay,” he says, quietly. He never used to be quiet. He’s barely the same person at all.

In the time they’ve been outside, Niall has checked his watch six times. That means, Louis figures, that they don’t have much time left, but then Niall turns, says, “want to sit inside?”

And Louis says, “yeah, okay,” feels a line of tension ease from his forehead.

The seats inside are cool metal, but there aren’t any clouds in here, at least. Louis feels less like a live wire ready to explode, and more like an electric current. Like he’d shock anyone that touches him.

“I’m surprised you let me up here,” he says, breaking the silence. “Or that Liam cleared it, or whatever. Thought I was too much of a risk.”

“I mean,” says Niall, “pretty sure as long as you’re not alone you can come up with anyone, and even then… might be naïve of us, but we don’t think you’re a bad person just because you did some bad things, y’know? We’ve all done bad things. We have, like, extensive training, and orders to follow, and knowledge of what’s happening, and we still make the wrong calls sometimes. You were scared and backed into a corner. I don’t blame you for not feeling like you had another choice, Louis. We don’t want you to feel like a prisoner here, or, like, the enemy. I figure you want them to pay for what they’ve done as much as we do, so we’re on the same side. That’s why I trusted you not to fry me once we got up here. Plus, I might not know hardly anything about you, but Harry trusts you with his life, and we like Harry. Figure you’re good people, too.”

It’s a lot to take in. Louis stops, breathes, thinks it all over.

Not a bad person. Imagine that.

“There’s this takeout place,” he says, finally, “by our house. Thai food. It’s my favorite, but I haven’t been as much since Harry went on his healthy eating kick.”

Niall looks entirely nonplussed. “What?”

Louis can’t help a small smile. “I’m telling you about myself,” he insists. “Now shut up and listen.”

Niall shuts up and listens.

Louis recounts small things, trivial tidbits that wouldn’t be found in a file. Feels lighter than he has in ages when Niall starts sharing back.

*

They get back late, sun setting in the sky, and they’re joking when they get off of the elevator and back to Base Central.

When he spots Harry, his laugh dies in his throat.

“God,” says Harry, face ashen and worried, “I- sorry, they said you were with Niall, and I knew it was fine, but I-”

Louis doesn’t hesitate, just rushes forward and practically launches himself into Harry’s arms.

“Sorry,” he mutters into Harry’s neck, and Harry’s arms are tight around his waist, and Louis knows he’s clinging but so is Harry. They must make an embarrassing picture, the two of them hugging so tightly in the middle of the busy room, but no one says anything, and Louis squeezes his eyes shut, tucks his face further into Harry’s shoulder. “Sorry,” he says again, “I’m sorry,” and it’s not just for leaving to go up top without saying anything. It’s not just for not being here when Harry inevitably came looking for him.

Harry squeezes him tighter like he knows.

They’re clingy for the rest of the day, just as bad as they were in the hours after Louis first got back to England, whispering to each other and refusing to break apart for more than a few minutes, always reaching out, reconnecting, careful to stay in orbit with each other.

When Harry says he’s going to take a shower, then, it’s only natural that Louis joins him.

“It’s a little tricky to get going,” explains Harry, fighting with the water gauge, “but you just have to get used to it.”

Louis eyes the water with trepidation, feels it trickle against his feet practically icy, and then again just a few seconds later so hot it scalds. “Right,” he says.

He still follows Harry in when he gives the okay, and the temperature is divine, water pressure loosening some of the knots in his back. Harry shoots him a little look like I told you so, and Louis smiles a little smile like okay, but you won’t get me to admit that you were right. It’s so normal between the two of them that Louis almost feels thrown, the desperate sadness in him at war with the desire to be okay.

Maybe he’s just desperately sad that it’s so hard to be okay, that it feels like playacting half the time. Louis wonders if he’s ever really going to feel all right, and then if it’s too horribly over-dramatic to wonder in the first place, and then what it means that he feels like he’s faking it whenever he smiles.

Harry steps closer, until they’re almost touching, and smoothes his hands over Louis’ shoulders.

Louis shudders, feels warm. This, he thinks, maybe this can be a way to stop thinking, even just for a few minutes.

“C’mon,” he murmurs, not totally sure what he’s asking for, but then he’s saying it again, softer, right up against Harry’s lips, and Harry catches on quick. Fast learner, Louis’ boy. Always has been.

“Yeah,” breathes Harry, pulling Louis closer until their bodies are flush. His lips are warm, soft, exactly like Louis remembers. If he keeps his eyes shut, he can pretend they’re back at home, celebrating a promotion or just getting ready for the day. It’s luxurious kissing, like they have all the time in the world, and something in Louis fractures at how gentle Harry is being with him.

More, he thinks, more, more, bites at Harry’s bottom lip and deepens it quickly, scrabbles to grab at his shoulders, and then twines one hand into Harry’s hair. It’s gotten longer. Louis isn’t going to think about that. “Please,” he begs, feels entirely weak.

Harry shushes him gently, but the hand he snakes down to grope at Louis’ arse belies his own building urgency. “I’ve got you,” he says, “don’t worry, I’ve got you.”

Louis doesn’t whine, but it’s a close thing when he feels Harry growing hard against his hip. “Come on,” he urges, scratching his nails down Harry’s back and hearing Harry hiss. It’s a dirty trick, but being away for so long doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still know Harry’s body better than his own.

And then Louis wraps a hand around Harry properly, grip sure, and everything in him has laser-focused on wanting to see Harry fall apart. On wanting so, so badly for things to be okay, on wanting to make Harry feel good, on wanting to be good. Harry, for his part, is as gorgeous as ever, tipping his head back, mouth going slack. Louis takes the opportunity to kiss at his neck and nip at the skin there, damp and hot from the shower. “Fuck,” breathes Harry, and Louis thinks yes, yes, yes.

His free hand reaches down to toy with one of Harry’s nipples, and Harry pulls him back into a deep kiss at that, groaning low in his throat as Louis keeps stroking. “God,” he says, “Lou,” voice breathy and overwhelmed.

Louis gets in three more pulls before Harry bats his hand away and replaces it with his own, taking both Louis and himself in hand at the same time. The friction is all heat, and Louis can’t help the moan that slips out of him, or the urge to cry. He knocks his head forward against Harry’s shoulder, overwhelmed.

“I’m close,” murmurs Harry.

Louis makes a tiny sound of agreement, of acknowledgement. Anything louder would break the moment.

Right now, the entire universe is glass and steam and water and the two of them. Mostly the two of them. Everything else has changed but this is so familiar it hurts in a different way, digging right to the soft bits of Louis, making him vulnerable. He feels himself getting closer and closer to the edge.

By the time Harry comes, Louis can’t stop making little hurt sounds with every tug of Harry’s wrist. He kisses Harry to muffle them, whines right into his plush mouth, and when his orgasm hits, tension peaking and then releasing, he nearly crumples to the floor, knees gone watery.

“Fuck,” he breathes, when he finally has his bearings. The water is still steaming hot. Harry is holding him up. His heart doesn’t feel any less fractured than it did before.

“Hey,” says Harry, smiling cautiously. “God, I love you.”

You shouldn’t, thinks Louis immediately, and then he can’t stop thinking it. If you knew what I’d done, if you knew everything that happened, if you’d seen me kill all those people-

“Hey,” says Harry again, interrupting his thoughts, and when Louis meets his eyes again they’re big, worried, “what’s wrong?”

It’s only then that Louis realizes there are tears streaming down his cheeks, and it’s the realizing that gets him in the end.

He feels his breath hitch. “I’m sorry,” he tries, voice wrecked and teary, and that’s the very last straw.

He tips forward, exhausted and wired and sad and guilty and cracked right open, and he’s crying so hard he can’t speak anymore. Harry murmurs nonsense, alarmed but trying not to show it, holding Louis close. Louis sobs into Harry’s chest like the world is ending, like they’re both going to die and there’s nothing to be done, like he was blackmailed into murdering people by a false threat. Like now he has to live with it.

I’m sorry, he thinks, wants to say it out loud but can’t through the gasping sobs. The water is still pounding against Harry’s back. They should get out of the shower- they should move- they should-

“Sh,” Harry is saying, stroking his palm up and down the expanse of Louis’ back, “you’re okay, you’re safe now, it’s okay.” His voice is warm and heartbreakingly gentle, and Louis tucks in closer, shields himself against it.

He can’t help the protest that bursts out of him. “I’m not,” he insists, voice teetering on the edge of breaking. “I’m not, I’m really not, I’m so sorry,” and he can’t say it enough, apologizing and apologizing. He can’t handle kindness right now, not when he’s feeling so fragile, so brittle at the edges. It’s taking every defense he has just to stay in one piece.

He can’t stop remembering the look on that woman’s face as he trapped her in an ice storm, like a cornered animal. He can’t stop crying, like poison bleeding out of a wound.

He can’t stop begging for forgiveness that he doesn’t deserve.

It’s ages before he can even pick his face up, step back. Even then, he grabs onto Harry’s forearms and uses them to keep himself standing, worried he’ll crumple into a sad, awful heap if he doesn’t. “I’m so sorry,” he says, again, pulling back properly and looking up at Harry.

It feels like it’s been forever since he’s seen Harry’s face, and something in him fractures even further at the plain distress and concern sketched across it. “You don’t have to be.”

It’s a lie. It’s a well-intentioned, miserable lie, and Louis shuts his eyes. “Let’s go to bed,” he says quietly. Harry sighs but doesn’t protest.

Only once they step out of the shower does Louis realize he’s been shivering, the water having long since run cold.

*

He wakes up too hot, eyes puffy and inflamed. He rubs at them sleepily, probably irritating them further, and rolls over with a groan, right into Harry’s back.

“Morning,” says Harry, twisting around from where he’s sitting at the edge of the bed, amused little smile quirking his mouth.

Louis must look a mess, but he forgets about that for a second. “Morning,” he replies. Four days later, the relief of waking up to Harry hasn’t lost its impact, hitting him like a full body blow each time. It’s part awe, part love, part like being jolted out of a nightmare. He takes a breath, decides to bite the bullet. “Sorry,” he says, voice still rough with sleep, “about yesterday. Didn’t mean to freak out.”

Harry shifts, sits back against the headboard with his legs outstretched. Louis shifts, too, until they’re not touching anymore.

It’s just- for this conversation, he needs some space, he thinks. It’s not a big deal except that it really, really is.

“What you did,” says Harry, gravelly and slow and so careful, “wasn’t your fault.”

Louis is shaking his head before Harry even finishes speaking. “It was, though. I made my choices. I killed people. That wasn’t, like, someone else doing it and trying to place the blame on me. I did that. I did those things. Those deaths are on me.”

It hurts to say it out loud. It hurts to think that people should see him differently for what happened, but it’s all that’s running through his mind. Stop loving me, he thinks, you can’t love me when I’m like this.

The bubble of panic that was caught in his chest earlier has dissipated, but he still feels on edge and exhausted. Harry hums low in his throat, considering. “You were trying to protect me,” he settles on.

Louis swallows, mouth dry. “On my fourth mission,” he says, trying to keep his voice steady, “my target was a girl about my age. She had a book bag with her, must have been studying or coming back from school. And I-” his voice catches, and he pauses for a moment, breathes. “I drowned her. Or suffocated, or- fuck. I put her in the middle of a stormcloud and waited for her to stop breathing.” Distantly, he realizes that he’s crying. Again. He’s so sick of feeling like this but it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of end to the crushing guilt in sight.

*

“What’s happening?” asks Zayn, brows furrowed.

Overhead, the cacophony is only swelling, the clang of metal dull through layers of dirt. The acoustics are amazing for being this far down, though--Louis figures it’s to scope out incoming threats. To hear them before they figure out what they’ve stumbled upon.

Because this place is all about rules, and order, and knowing your place, and how they treat him like a friend sometimes but only if it’s in their favor. How he’s a war criminal in their eyes. How they refuse to forget that, even when they’re pretending to care about him.

Louis huffs an exasperated sigh, still seething. “Hailstorm,” he answers darkly.

Zayn’s brows go up. “Oh,” he answers. “Could you, uh, stop?”

Liam makes a tiny motion like cut it out but it’s too late, Louis is already laughing harshly, mirthlessly. “What,” he asks, “just like that? Just turn it off?”

To their left, a spark shoots up over the interface connected to one screen or another on Liam’s desk. Louis laughs again.

God, fuck this place.

And then Liam mutters something that sounds a lot like okay, you’re done now, and suddenly Louis feels nothing at all. He reaches for the anger but it’s drained right out of him, replaced instead by a deep, crushing sadness.

Two weeks ago, he wouldn’t have felt a thing.

Now, it’s like a dam bursts. Every time he thinks he’s processed a particular trauma, another takes its place, and he’s tearing up before he even realizes what’s happened.

Just as his tears are about to spill over, Zayn says, “Liam- Liam, will you quit it?”

Louis looks up, confused and sad and entirely thrown off, and the vice in his chest releases, anger rushing back in slower than before.

“What-”

“Sorry,” says Liam, immediately, eyes wide and contrite. “I’m sorry. You were compromising confidential information, and I acted instinctively, but I took it too far.”

The pieces converge in Louis’ head slower than they maybe should, but Zayn and Liam wait him out patiently.

“Empath,” says Louis. The word feels right in his mouth, like his body knew before his mind did.

Liam smiles a wry smile, but he still looks miserably guilty. “I’m sorry.”

Louis shrugs, rubbing absently at his chest where the tightness was coiled like a snake. “S’alright,” he answers, even though it isn’t, really. “I’m a risk, I get it. Should probably lock me up, throw away the key, keep me underground forever.”

It was supposed to come out light and sarcastic, but somewhere between being blackmailed and murdering people, he’s lost his sense of humor. Zayn is wincing, and Liam looks vaguely aghast.

“What?” asks Louis, still prickly. His hair must be sticking up funny, what with the static electricity he’d centered in his hands. “Am I supposed to pretend you all trust me?”

Liam opens his mouth to speak, closes it, opens it again. “That’s not-” he stops, exhales slowly. “I hate that you feel that way,” he continues, and his eyes are so goddamned earnest, and Louis always has been weak for earnest eyes. “Listen, can we just- did you want to kill those people?”

It’s an abrupt shift of tone, of topic, and Louis blinks, surprised. “No,” he answers, and his voice stays steady. He wonders if Liam can tell whether he’s lying or not. Figures it doesn’t matter right now. He’s telling the truth.

Zayn is eyeing him carefully, but there’s nothing suspicious in the set of his brow, or the tilt of his jaw.

Liam claps his hands together. “Brilliant,” he answers, and it startles a half-laugh out of Louis. “No, I’m serious, like, after processing is over, or whatever, would you go back there? Or on a murder spree? Would you go do terrible things?”

“Obviously not,” answers Louis, but he doesn’t feel as frustrated as before, or as scared. Maybe, just maybe, they’re starting to get it. “I would see my family, probably, and marry my fiancé like I’m supposed to next month, and, fuck, I don’t know. See if I still have a job, or try to get a new one. Invest in better security.” He laughs again, dry and tired, and knows he must look awful.

This morning, when he’d looked in the mirror, he’d been shocked.

He knows, objectively, that he lost weight in his time at YNM, and that the bags under his eyes are heavy and dark, and that he hasn’t felt rested since before he left London. He knows that. But there’s a difference between knowing it and seeing it reflected back at him. Harry had to tug him away by the wrist, gentle gentle gentle, and reassure him that he’s safe and okay.

Every time Harry touches him gently, Louis wants to cry, can’t kick the urge. He has a headache from all the crying he’s been doing, but he figures he deserves a pass, all things considered. All this feelings shit is still better than the freezing numbness.

“For all we know,” says Zayn, weighing his words careful, “you could be a spy sent to infiltrate our ranks and report back to YNM.”

Louis pauses, coughs into his fist before realizing it makes him look sketchy. He glances at Liam, but he’s unreadable as usual, like he isn’t getting a map of Louis’ feelings. “Not the case,” says Louis.

He can’t help the wry smile that accompanies it.

“What’s that for?” asks Liam, though he doesn’t sound upset at all, tone light. “You know something we don’t?”

“You were my mission,” says Louis. “That day, when you came to get me. It was supposed to be an ambush. I was going to kill all of you, or try at least, except. It wasn’t one of you to get out of the car, was it.”

There’s just silence after that for a heavy beat.

“How did they-” asks Zayn, and then cuts himself off. “That mission was top secret.”

Louis laughs, dry. “Guess not,” he retorts.

Liam is rubbing at his temples, already starting to type up something into the computer. “What information did they give you? About us?” He sounds frazzled, and it’s an interesting change from the constant ‘everything is under control’ vibe that Liam has been exuding.

Louis says, “Name and picture,” because he remembers that for sure, and tries to think of the other points. “Ability was on there, and-”

“Ability?” cuts in Liam, alarmed.

With the way the light is hitting the three of them, fluorescent and weird and impossible to tell what time it is, Louis feels a bit like he’s back under interrogation. “That’s how I knew you were an empath,” he answers. “I’d forgotten about it, but then you… yeah. And it jogged my memory, like.”

He only realizes it’s true as he says it, that he’d known Liam was an empath, that he knows all of their abilities. Zayn looks pensive. “What can I do, then?”

“Levitation,” says Louis, without hesitating. “Can hover in the air. I feel like that would be pretty sick.”

Zayn huffs a laugh. “All right, Storm.”

Louis rolls his eyes, ready to retaliate. It’s almost scary, how quick the back and forth is here--one second bickering like brothers, the next a sober reminder that he’s not like them. That he isn’t here because he was recruited and wanted to save the world, and that he can’t afford to keep forgetting that.

“Here,” says Liam, already dialing on his cell and standing up, “write down everything you can remember about the profiles--what information was on them, what they looked like, what pictures they used, anything. If you could get it back on my desk by dinnertime that would be perfect.”

With that, Liam bustles out of the room, already speaking rapid fire into the phone at his ear, and Zayn is close behind.

Louis, alone in Liam’s office, only has the energy to consider snooping for about five seconds before giving up and settling in to write. He’s not on Liam’s task force, and he’s pretty sure they can’t make him turn in an assignment like a schoolkid, but.

It’s nice, is all, to have a task. Especially one that could help people in the long run. His hands shake less when he’s got something to do with them.

*

Harry finds him an hour and a half later.

“Hey,” he says, quiet like he doesn’t want Louis to startle. His hand rests on Louis’ shoulder as he peeks at what Louis is writing, and Louis doesn’t tense up, doesn’t try to hide it.

“Hi,” he replies, pen still moving. He hadn’t realized he had so much to say, but it’s infinitely easier to write it down than to say it out loud, and his memory of those last few days is weirdly vivid when so much of it feels like a dream. “Sorry, I should’ve told you I was in here.”

Harry sits down next to him, and Louis notices absently that he looks better rested than he did a few days ago, like Louis just being here has improved his health. He wonders if there are any similar differences in himself, whether he’s gained back some of the weight he lost, or if the bags under his eyes are lighter. “Zayn told me,” he says, “and Leigh-Anne, too. And then Jade told me. They must think we’re, like, codependent or something.”

Louis allows himself a smile. “Not sure what could’ve given them that idea.”

Harry giggles. It’s the purest thing Louis’ ever heard. “Just came to tell you I’m heading up top in a bit, wanted to see if you wanted to come.”

“Obviously,” says Louis, and he doesn’t even have to think about it. There are few things he wants more than to go up top and feel the air against his face, feel how connected he is to the sky. “How long is a bit?”

“As long as you need to finish that up,” answers Harry, scooting closer on his chair until he can rest his head on Louis’ arm, neck craned to reach. The position can’t be comfortable, but Harry just sighs, content, and sinks into it.

As long as you need, he’d said. Louis tries not to let any emotion swell up in his chest, but he feels so warm, is the thing. “Just give me ten minutes,” he says, and the pen goes back to scribbling down everything he can remember.

And sure, maybe the things he’s writing won’t all be useful, but it’s like an exorcism, letting the words out onto the page. Pictures didn’t look like candids, he writes, more like professional shots, like maybe they got access to a partial file. Some information was missing on some sheets, but it looked pretty consistent across the board. Do you have access to your files? Do you know where they’re stored?

He realizes that he’s asking questions that he won’t get the answers to, but hopefully they’re still even a little bit helpful. Hopefully they lead Liam and his team to think more about their own higher ups.

“Jade said the plan was to kill me,” says Louis, and they’ve been over this before but maybe Louis wants to talk about it again.

Harry tenses against his side. “Not, like- I mean-” he stumbles, clearly not expecting this turn of conversation. “It wasn’t… it was a last resort.”

He doesn’t sound convinced. Neither is Louis. “If I’d known,” he says, “I’d have let them do it.”

It’s too honest. It’s way, way too honest, and it isn’t something Harry needed to know. It isn’t even something Louis really wants to admit to himself, but it’s the entire truth. If they’d said Harry is safe, now we’re going to kill you, he’d have walked into the line of fire with open arms and the crushing weight of guilt lifted from his chest. He’d have said tell him I love him, maybe, or tell him I’m sorry. Maybe both.

Harry makes a tiny choked off sound. “No,” he says, and he sounds young and frightened, “I wouldn’t have let them.”

Louis knows this now. He picks up the pen from where it’d been resting lax against the paper, grip loose, and puts it down on the table. He’s kidding himself if he thinks he can write more right now. Instead, he shifts so he’s facing Harry, takes Harry’s hands in his own.

“Thank you,” he says, as heartfelt as he’s ever been. He’s looking right into Harry’s green, lighthouse eyes. There’s a curious tug in his chest, seeing Harry splayed open like this, the sadness plain across his features. Open book, Louis’ boy, always has been, but it’s different when he’s hurt because of Louis.

Harry’s face is a homing signal, a flashlight, a picture of home. He reaches out, places his warm palm on Louis’ cheek, face so fierce with affection that Louis feels like he’ll burn right up under it. He doesn’t say anything, probably realizes he doesn’t have to, and pulls Louis closer, closer.

When they kiss, it’s the exact opposite of a snowstorm or a lightning strike. All Louis can think is please, and yes, and this boy risked his entire life to keep me safe, and I did the same for him. How much does the rest even matter when he’s got a love like this?

And they’re still kissing, and it’s still soft and warm like sunlight on an upturned face, like the first day of spring, like Louis can feel the snow starting to melt even through layers of concrete.

They break apart and Louis’ first breath is ragged. “I love you,” he says, forehead still tipped against Harry’s, and god, it doesn’t feel like enough.

“I love you,” answers Harry, like he’s never been so sure of anything in his entire life. He leans in again, lips plush, and Louis loses himself in it, lets the rest fall away.

They only get a few more minutes before-

“Oh,” says Niall, laughing at the way Louis immediately goes to fix his hair, “gross.” He sounds incredibly cheerful. “Anyway, Payno wanted me to ask if you had the report ready, Lou.”

The nickname makes Louis want to roll his eyes. He loves it. “Just about,” he says, “yeah.”

He doesn’t apologize for kissing his fiancé in a room that probably has way more confidential information than Louis should be allowed to access. Whatever.

Niall faux salutes. “Great, I’m gonna go be somewhere that isn’t here, then.”

“Cheers,” says Harry, and he’s smirking a little, and Louis loves him so much he can barely breathe.

Niall exits as quietly as he’d entered, and then it’s just Louis and Harry again, this little slice of the universe. As much as it feels like time has stood still, though, he does need to finish this report, and he’d love to go up top before dinner. “Five minutes,” he promises, turning back to the papers on the desk.

“All right,” yawns Harry, settling back against Louis’ side. His hair is soft where it tickles Louis’ neck, and it’s getting long, a little ridiculous.

Louis hums to himself as he writes, and takes six minutes to wrap it up.

The report is a little rambling, and definitely not up to standard here, he’s sure, but he’s proud of it anyway. He leaves it on Liam’s desk with a tiny inkling of pride blooming in his chest. “Ready?” he asks Harry.

Harry smiles, slow and easy. “Sure,” he answers, and takes Louis’ hand in his own. As they walk by Niall’s desk in Central, Niall pretends to gag, clearly teasing, and Louis snickers.

“You’re just jealous, Horan,” he tells him, and Harry laughs, bright and loud. Jade does, too, and agrees with him, and Niall sticks his tongue out.

These are my friends, Harry had said. As they climb the stairs to the surface, he starts to think that maybe they could be his, too.

*

Louis is surprised at how cold it still is.

Harry clearly was, too, when they first exited the stairwell, but he didn’t say anything. The tiny concerned looks he kept shooting Louis weren’t all that subtle, but he kept his thoughts to himself, and Louis is grateful. He has enough to sort through in his own head, first.

“Thought it’d be a little brighter,” he admits, sitting down on the curb outside the shop. The wind is bitter and cold, stinging his cheeks and nose, and he shudders. They won’t be able to stay out long, especially as the evening shifts into night.

Harry sits next to him and sighs. “Could you maybe- could you tell me how it works?”

His eyes are all genuine curiosity, no fear at all, and that’s what makes Louis crack in the end. “My, like, ability, you mean?”

He’s not totally comfortable with the lingo yet, but Harry nods. “Yeah. That.”

Louis sits back on his elbows, thinks. “When I was seven,” he starts, “my dad left, and it was hard, obviously, but I didn’t realize that it was only raining on me until I got home from school soaking wet and my mum was… bless her, she was so confused. Said, ‘Louis, it’s been sunny all day, what trouble have you gotten yourself into?’ She thought I’d burst a pipe somewhere or something, I don’t know. But it was a storm cloud, right above my head, like in the cartoons.”

Harry is smiling faintly. “Did she ever realize what it was?”

“Yeah,” says Louis, “she was the first one to figure it out. Sat me down a couple weeks later and told me I had to be careful. That I couldn’t ever tell anyone. So I didn’t. And it wasn’t- it wasn’t a big deal. Every once in a while the forecast would be weird, but never anything that drastic. I just turned that part of myself off, like. And it was fine.”

It was fine, he remembers, though everything from his childhood tends to be tinged gray in recollection. He went to school and helped his mum at home and kept an eye on his sisters, and it was fine.

And then he got older, and realized that his mum was frightened for him. That Louis’ weather-thing, like he used to call it, was dangerous. That it could get someone hurt.

He left when he turned 18. Went to uni in London, never looked back. He talks to them, still, of course, but he keeps his distance. Keeps them safe.

“I didn’t think it would be a problem if I kept it to myself,” he continues, and it aches, how wrong he was. “I didn’t think anyone would get hurt.”

He looks down at his knees, picks at the fabric of his jeans. The cold is bone-deep, now. He’s sure he isn’t imagining that it’s gotten even frostier since they got outside. They have a few minutes left at best before the wind starts to whip again, and they have to retreat underground to warm back up.

Harry isn’t saying anything, and Louis is getting twitchy. He knows Harry needs time to process things--he knows. He’s just always been impatient.

Finally, finally, Harry looks at him. With the way their sides are pressed together, his face is so close. It feels like Louis hasn’t seen him properly in years, let alone the last few minutes. “No one will get hurt here,” he says, careful.

Louis tries to swallow that truth but it gets lodged somewhere in his throat. “Perrie gave herself up to try to get me out. She’s still there, and I left her alone.”

“That wasn’t your fault,” says Harry, fierce like he can make Louis believe it by sheer force of will. “You can’t keep blaming yourself for things that weren’t your fault. You’ll burn yourself up.”

Louis knows, but. “What about the things that were my fault, then? When they told me to kill someone and I said okay? No one was holding a gun to my head then.” Except they kind of were, he figures. If they’d been holding up a real one, he might’ve goaded them into it, even, but they forced him into an impossible choice.

But the man he buried. But the woman whose throat he slit with a shard of ice.

He’s shivering so hard his teeth are chattering.

“Hey,” says Harry, “hey, let’s go back down, yeah?”

Louis nods without looking up, allows himself to be led away from the snow and the gray and the cold. Back under layers of soil and concrete. He feels like a prisoner down there, but at least he’ll be warm.

*

The next day of processing is weirdly smooth, mostly just going over the information that Louis had written the day prior, and Louis walks out in a surprisingly good mood. He doesn’t even bat an eye when Leigh-Anne pulls him aside just as he’s about to go find Harry, with a, “Could you look at these blueprints for me really quickly? Won’t be long, I promise.”

“Sure,” he says, “yeah,” and follows her into her office.

It’s immaculate, which maybe shouldn’t be a surprise, but the others he’s been in have by and large been cluttered, though the chaos appeared to be organized, at least. Leigh-Anne’s office, though, is the picture of order, and when he walks in he immediately feels nervous.

“Right,” she says, “here’s the mockup of a blueprint--it’s sloppy, obviously, but I just wanted to know if you could confirm any of the positioning of things.” By sloppy, she apparently means ‘almost perfect, with a few small inaccuracies.’ He’s astounded at the level of detail, and it must read all over his face, because she laughs. “Not sure if I should be offended that you’re so surprised.”

“Oh,” he says quickly, “no, sorry, didn’t mean to come off that way.”

She waves it off easily, and he exhales, a little relieved.

“What,” she says, a few seconds later, “are you scared of me?”

Louis smiles at her tone, which he’s sure is nonthreatening on purpose, but he’s entirely truthful when he replies. “Not sure if there’s a right answer to that question, if I’m being honest.”

They settle into silence after that, and it isn’t particularly uncomfortable, thankfully, though he still feels like he shouldn’t be touching anything. Like he’s back home and in his mother’s bedroom while she’s out, snooping when he isn’t supposed to.

Another moment passes, and then he gets to work. He accepts the pen she gives him, which writes like some kind of chalk, and starts circling anything that stands out as being obviously incorrect. A circle by the kitchens, and another in the free training space. He flips a page and makes a few notes on the painstakingly detailed drawing of a cell, recalling things as objectively as he can. “I think you got the lock wrong,” he tells her.

She purses her lips. “Here, I swear I have-” she rummages through a different pile of blueprints, surfacing with one triumphantly a moment later, “-here, does that look right?”

It’s an intricate, expanded diagram of the lock, mechanical parts labeled neatly. “Christ,” he says, without thinking. “I have no idea.”

It breaks some of the tension, and Leigh-Anne takes it back, re-files it. “We can’t all be electrical engineers, I guess,” she laments, and he thinks they’re maybe almost at the point where he can call her out on her jokes when-

“Oh my god, shut up,” laughs Jade, poking her head in. “Why’re you always talking shit, huh, babe?”

Leigh-Anne pretends to flip her off. “Just because I take pride in my education,” she starts, but dissolves into laughter, too. “Yeah, yeah, all right. Do you need this one?” She gestures to Louis.

“If you’re not too busy telling him about how boring your schooling was,” says Jade, but her smile is sweet. Louis hadn’t realized how funny she is, what with the whole somber air around this office all the time. It’s a relief to know he isn’t living with robots.

Leigh-Anne starts folding up blueprints, tidying it all back up. “Go on, then,” she tells him, “thanks for the help.”

Louis is pretty sure he was less than helpful, but he doesn’t say anything, just nods in her direction and stands up. It’s weird, almost like they’re trying to make him feel like part of the team, but it’s certainly better than feeling like they see him as a ticking time bomb. Leigh-Anne makes him a little nervous, he’ll admit, but it’s nothing compared to how she seemed when he first got onto the helicopter, or when they first got back.

He keeps finding himself thinking that it’ll get better in time.

Just a few days ago he was worried about staying here for any length of time at all, and now he realizes that it’s kind of nice to stay, to make friends, to slot into this new normal. In an hour or two, he’s sure, he’ll be back to feeling like the enemy, but the respite from thoughts like that is a blessing.

Jade leads him four doors down, quiet and sure of herself, and her office is essentially the antithesis of Leigh-Anne. “I’m a creative type,” she explains, making a face at her own messiness. It’s not clutter, but it’s something close to it, gemstones and vials of liquid scattered every which way, and old books up on the top shelf. “It’s energy, you know,” she says, and he nods even though he doesn’t. “Needs a mess, sometimes.”

“What do you need me to do?” he asks.

She gestures that he sit, and he does. The chair is far more comfortable than it looks, rickety and soft, and he sinks into it. “You,” she says, “are going to remember, and I’m going to help you. That sound all right?”

He can feel his mouth twist. “Not really,” he says.

She nods sympathetically, eyes apologetic. “We’ll do that part in a bit. For now, just give me your hands, please, palms up.”

He can’t help a laugh, huffed. “You gonna read them?”

“Yes.” Her smile is bright. “Yes, I am.”

He holds out his hands, palms up, and she takes them in her own, touch light across the backs of them. Her eyes, light and dancing just a moment ago, have gone dark and somber. “I can talk you through it,” she says softly, “if you like.”

She traces one finger down the line that cuts right through the center of his palm, curling in and down from the edge, and he shudders a bit. “Yeah,” he says, just as soft, feeling how the mood of the room has shifted so quickly, “all right.”

She nods, all business. The humidity in this room is a bit higher than most of the others, and he feels a little prick of sweat at his temple. Itches to rub it away.

“This,” she says, “is your life line.” She traces it again, and again, like she’s searching for something. “Most people think it tells you how long you’ll live, but they’re wrong. There’s no way of knowing that.” Her voice is gentle, soothing, like she’s heard this story a million times. Like it’s information she knows so well she doesn’t even have to think about it, just reaches back and tugs. “Your life line on this hand is about your past,” she lifts his right hand, “and on this hand, your future.” His left is now raised a bit higher, and she traces a nail down it, examining.

Unexpectedly, she smiles. “Not to be cliche,” she says, “but there’s a fork, at the bottom here. Look, do you see it?”

He looks. He sees it, branching out from the life line itself, thin and delicate but unquestionably there in the lines of his palm. “A choice?” he guesses.

She hums. “Not always.”

Something curls in his stomach, ugly and afraid. He wants to ask what it means, but he doubts she’d have the answer. And he isn’t sure he’d want to know, anyway. She traces it one more time before moving on.

She pushes his palms next to each other this time, so his pinkies are lined up, and the two lines under his fingers connect and form a crescent shape. “Head line,” she says, brushing his fingertips over it. It almost sounds like she’s talking to herself. “Twin forks, so many lines across it… I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“By what?” he ventures.

She looks up, doe eyes amused. “You’ve got hands like lightning strikes.”

Oh, he thinks. He wants to ask is that a good thing, but he holds back. He’s been learning that good and bad aren’t always that simple. That black and white dichotomies get you nowhere.

Jade traces his head line once more. “You’re so conflicted,” she tells him, like he doesn’t already know. “There’s so much grief.” She pauses, looks at him. “Old and new, both.”

“No surprises there,” he answers, trying to keep it light.

Her mouth stays downturned, brows furrowed. He wonders how old she is, that she can do this so easily, read him from the lines in his hands, especially when she looks younger than Harry. He wonders how she got here, and why she stayed, and what she does on missions when she doesn’t have people like Louis and Harry around offering up their memories, however unwilling it may be right now.

She opens her mouth, as if to say something more, but closes it again and moves on.

“Heart lines,” she says, drawing her fingers down the two of them. Beneath the head line, they look like hyperbola, almost touching at one point and then curving away on either end. “They intersect your life lines,” she murmurs, almost inaudible.

Her touch is still dry, still cool. He feels small, watching her open him like a book in front of her.

“You’d die for love,” she explains, hint of a smile in her eyes.

She’s not surprised, either.

“Are those all of the lines?” he asks. He doesn’t know if he’s hoping for a yes or for a no.

“Just one left.”

He nods, waiting. She traces the last line with her fingernail, focusing on his left hand. On the past. “Your soul line,” she says. It feels weighty. He looks at where she’s touching, and he honestly doesn’t see much--it’s a mess of thin overlapping lines, all slanted in one direction. “Your past,” she continues, “looks like a rainstorm. Hurricane.” His breath is caught in his throat. She turns to the other hand, and even he can see a difference, this line extending straight, parallel to the lifeline. “Your future’s more like a path, in a forest. Clarity. Your lines, they all end in forks, in choices, but your soul line… it knows what it wants. What it must.”

Her eyes slip shut. “You’ll find peace,” she tells him, face clear of storm.

It’s that, of all things, that makes his throat go tight, tears pricking at the backs of his eyes. He swallows them back, blinks until he feels more stable. “Thank you,” he says, for the reading, for the calm, for her peculiar brand of gentleness.

When she opens her eyes again, her pupils contract quickly, and her hands squeeze his once, briefly. Her body reacting to the new light in the room.

He hadn’t realized he could bring sunlight indoors, and underground, at that, but the edges of her hair are glowing, as if backlit, and he can feel warmth on his cheeks. Oh, he thinks, again. Maybe some parts of himself haven’t been destroyed by death (or grief, or pain) after all.

Jade smiles, sweet. “Your energy,” she tells him, “needs lavender and myrrh and glass to focus. I need three days to collect everything, and then we can tap into it, and to your memory.”

“All right,” says Louis, dreading it less than he was before. “Sounds good.”

Jade smiles again, and Louis smiles back.

*

“So,” Liam is finishing up, “we need to finish this processing by the end of the week, and then we’ll debrief back here for our next mission. Should be a quick one, in and out, just while the recon team next door gets us more info on YNM’s next move now that they lost their main asset.”

Louis feels his jaw tick, weirdly embarrassed at being referred to like that.

Niall stands up, claps Louis on the shoulder as he passes. “Sounds good, boss.”

Liam rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “Yeah,” he says, “okay, get to work.”

Everyone starts to filter out of the room slowly, and Louis is already compiling a list of questions in his head to ask Jade or even Liam himself when-

"Louis," says Zayn quickly, "wait up a minute, yeah?"

Louis waits up a minute. Harry passes, shoots him a little look like do you want me to stay? And Louis shoots him one back like nah, I’ll be fine.

He and Zayn haven't talked much, really, and definitely not one on one, but he figures it can't hurt to hear him out and see what he has to say. "What's up?"

Zayn tips his chin toward the desk chair, and Louis takes the hint, sits down.

In here, it's a bit dark, overhead lights turned off, just the desk lamp on now. Louis shrugs off his threadbare jacket, hangs it on the back of the chair. Zayn is fidgety, distracted looking.

"I, uh-" he starts, then cuts himself off, looking down. "You were there with Perrie."

Louis blinks. He knew she was supposed to work here, and that this could've even been her team, but he didn't realize it would be so personal. "Yeah," he answers, caught off guard, "we were roommates for most of the time I was there."

Zayn nods, still looking distracted, still looking a bit off. He seems like he's hesitating to say something, like there's a block in his throat. Louis thinks back to everything Perrie's told him about this place, but it's frustratingly little. She kept it to herself, mostly. Kept it locked up tight. Zayn clears his throat. "Is she okay, do you know?"

It comes out in a rush, like he hadn't meant to ask that question specifically, but Louis doesn't call him out on it.

It feels a bit like a kick to the chest, hearing it so plainly, especially when the answer is, "I don't know." It's more than that, but keeping the specifics from Zayn is probably a kindness. "You were close to her?"

When Zayn laughs, it's a twisted, sad thing. "Yeah," he answers, runs a hand through his messy hair and tugs at the back. "Yeah, you could say that."

For a moment, he looks so devastatingly heartbroken that Louis thinks he might cry. There's a boy, he remembers Perrie telling him, and things start to slowly slot into place. "You're the boy," he says, and realizes he needs to clarify when Zayn just levels him with a confused look. "She said there was a boy, back here. I didn't realize it was you."

"That's me," he says, but the twist of his smile is weird and tilted and wrong. "I just want to know if she was okay when you left, and like. How she was. What it was like for her."

Louis sighs. "The last time I saw her," he says, maybe too honest, maybe too blunt, "was when she gave herself up to give me a shot at escaping. That's the last time I saw her, and I'm sorry, but I don't think they just let her off scot free. I don't think they brought her back to the bunk and said, all right, here's some food and new clothes and you don't have to kill anyone anymore. She gave herself up for me, and I'll always be grateful, but mate... I don't think she's okay."

Zayn's hands are shaking. Louis regrets everything he just said, mind running double time to figure out a way to take it back. "What was it like before that happened? For her?"

Louis wants to say Zayn, mate, you're breaking your own heart, but he doesn't. If it was Harry, Louis would be asking the very same questions. "She was the best of us," he says finally, after a long and awful pause. "She was brave and curious and she just wanted to be in charge of herself. That's what she wanted, but she didn't know what it would be like."

Zayn is nodding. "None of us knew," he offers. "When we realized she'd gone, YNM wasn't what they are today. We figured she'd go and get a taste of it and come right back. We hoped, at least. But then things started to blow up, and next thing we knew she'd cut off communications altogether."

That last bit comes as a surprise. "She was communicating with you? Before?"

"Yeah, she had her cell phone and everything, would send texts. I don't. I don't know if it was just me, or if she was talking to the girls, too, and Niall, and Liam, or whatever, but. I got texts almost every day until she went dark." He's still not looking at Louis, still looking down at his hands. "She would tell me about her day, like. Tell me she missed me, but she needed to do this. I was stupid enough to believe she'd come back."

Louis makes a small hum of agreement, of acknowledgement. "She would've," he says, as certain of this as he's ever been of anything, "if she could've. If she'd found a way. The original plan was to escape together, did you know that?"

"I didn't," says Zayn. "I didn't know that."

"She didn't want to kill anyone. She never wanted that. She was sharp and a little angry at her parents, I think, and at the institution, but she didn't want anyone to get hurt. She just wanted to do it her own way." He's parroting back her arguments, and it should feel weird and contrived but it just feels like doing her memory justice. She's not dead, but in that place... for now, she might as well be, and the thought tugs hard at Louis' heartstrings, makes him want to turn back right now and break her out.

Zayn has a look on his face like he's thinking the exact same thing. "I know that," he says, but he still sounds relieved to have heard it from someone else. "I know she didn't want to hurt anyone."

That he's in love with her is no question. That he's still hurting is no question, either. "We'll go back," says Louis, though he can't promise that for a second. "We can't just leave her there."

Zayn smiles a small, sad smile, faraway look in his eyes. "She'd kill me if I showed up there," he says, but he doesn’t sound particularly against the idea. "Always said she didn't need saving."

Louis thinks that that sounds about right.

"How did you meet, anyway?" he asks, and he's not sure if it's too soon to be asking but Zayn seems softer than he was at the start of this conversation, like the shine of nostalgia has dulled out his sharp edges, and he's curious, wants to know everything he can.

Plus, it helps that it turns the focus off of his time with YNM, which he'd like to forget sooner rather than later. He's dealing with it, sure, but it's a long process. He'd like a break. So sue him.

Zayn nods, acknowledging the question, and pauses like he's trying to figure out how to answer it. "We met right before bootcamp," he says. "It was at this gala, and she was fucking stunning, you know? Like, you know how gorgeous she is. If you could've seen her before, like, god. I was gone for her before I even knew her name."

Louis smiles, nods, understands. Perrie is beautiful, of course, but he's remembering what it felt like to see Harry for the first time--really see him, not the time they ran into each other in the queue for lunch, or the time Harry tripped over himself outside of Louis' law lecture, but halfway through their first real conversation, when Louis had made a joke and Harry had smiled, dimples devastating, eyes bright, and Louis knew. He just. He knew.

"Anyway," Zayn continues, "we talked for, like, two minutes, and then she asked if I wanted to get some air, so I smoked a cig on the balcony while she leaned out over the railing and looked over her parents estate--it's massive, fucking sick, but like. Cold, you know?--and the moon was so bright and the way it hit her face, man. And the way she talked, like she’d never settle for less than she deserved. Like the whole world was at her fingertips. I was gone for her so fast it made me dizzy.”

“And then she left,” says Louis, gentle as he can.

The entire moment feels fragile and fraught with nostalgia. “And then she left,” intones Zayn, looking down. “I just hope she’s still alive.”

“Last I checked, she was. And like, she had friends on the guard, and she’s smart. She’s all right.”

Zayn shrugs one shoulder, like he gets that it’s all platitude, but his face looks less stormy just for having talked about it. “We should go meet the others. Harry will be wondering if I’ve kidnapped you or something,” he laughs, and Louis laughs too, and the joke isn’t really funny but he’ll take what he can get.

When they walk back out to Central, their shoulders bump, and Louis feels a tiny, tiny thread of maybe this could feel like home.

*

When he actually starts processing with Jade--which, he finds out later, will be his last round of processing altogether--it’s not as smooth sailing as the first time round was.

She hands the glass to him like he’s supposed to know what to do with it, and he holds the orb nervously, scared to drop it and shatter it. It’s small but heavy in his palm, feels like a pocket-sized version of a fortune teller’s crystal ball. His stomach turns as he contemplates the things she’s going to ask of him, and how unprepared he feels to handle them.

“I’m going to burn some sage first,” she tells him, and it’s quickly followed by the low hiss of a match igniting.

He doesn’t answer, just watches as she ignites the sage bundle and then snuffs it out, and dark smoke curls toward the ceiling.

Jade lifts the sage, walking around the room and following some pattern Louis doesn’t understand, and can’t hope to. “It creates a blank slate,” explains Jade. “We don’t want any energy polluting the process, not for something this delicate.”

“Right,” says Louis, like he understands. Mostly he’s just fixating on the world delicate and trying not to be sick.

She pulls out a vial of oil next, amber glass and a dark stopper, and asks him to hold out his hands. He complies, still holding the glass orb, and feels clumsy. She takes a few droplets of the oil and spreads them on the insides of his wrists, and the smell is warm and earthy.

Finally, she lights a thin, tall, purple calendar. It doesn’t take any particular strike of genius for him to assume that it’s lavendar, and the scent reminds him of his mother’s old aromatherapy kits that she’d use to sleep.

“I love my job,” she’d tell him, “but it just wrecks your ability to sleep when you want to.”

She’d cup his cheek in her palm and kiss him on the forehead and send him to bed, and he has to blink a few times to settle himself back in the present.

Jade watches him, and smiles. “Already working, looks like,” she says.

“Looks like,” he parrots, nervous.

Her face goes soft, but she doesn’t try to reassure him, or tell him that it’ll be painless. He doesn’t know whether he likes that or not. Platitudes are mostly useless, but if nothing else they establish a baseline for what to say when you don’t know how to handle something.

“Shut your eyes,” she directs him, and he does.

Like this, the scents seem stronger, and he can practically feel the warmth of the candle flame against his skin. He isn’t sure if he’s making it up, brain on overdrive, or if it has something to do with his abilities. Figures he shouldn’t bother asking.

“Think back,” she says, and her voice feels more layered than it did before, like they’re sitting in an echo chamber, “to a time you showed kindness to someone else.”

She says something else, but it gets lost to the memory:

There’s a kid. It’s all he can think, mind blaring into overdrive, and he feels ill with panic. The file didn’t mention a kid, but this man is walking briskly through the snow while holding the hand of a laughing toddler, telling a story in silly voices and adjusting the brim of his hat every so often.

The kid is a girl, and she can’t be older than 4 or 5. Her scarf has pink butterflies on it.

If Louis doesn’t kill this man, they’ll kill his fiancé. It’s not a choice.

‘Bystanders, too,’ he remembers, and he remembers the look on Woman’s face as she said it, too, and the way her face bore no lines of mercy at any point. ‘Witnesses are collateral damage, but they must be killed in the interest of safety.’

Louis understood, at the time. But there’s a kid.

He thinks he might be crying when he hits the man in a clean strike, icicle slicing through his throat with horrible, practiced ease. He’d been waiting for a brief moment when he and his daughter were no longer holding hands. He got it. The man sinks uselessly to the ground, now more corpse than father, and Louis can’t breathe, he can’t move, he can only yell ‘RUN’ at the girl.

Her eyes are wide and horrified and confused, and he yells it again. Tells her to run.

He’d do anything for Harry, but not this. Not this.

He comes out of the memory gasping. It takes a minute for him to even get his bearings back, chest heaving with the force of the remembering, but Jade is patient, talks him down, hands him a glass of something that’s cool and refreshing but that definitely isn’t water.

He gulps it down gratefully anyway. “You’re not drugging me, are you?” he asks, but it’s just perfunctory. At this point, she could’ve slipped nightlock into his drink and he’d have finished the glass.

She just smiles, almost laughs. “It’s for focus,” she tells him. “I think the myrrh was too effective, so I’m helping counter-balance that with mercury.”

“Mercury?” he asks, alarmed. He wasn’t ever that good at science but he knows enough about chemistry to be worried.

“Neutralized,” she’s quick to explain. “It won’t harm you, I promise.”

He’s still reeling from the memory, too tired to fight back. Too tired to do anything but trust her with his life. “Okay,” he answers, dubious but accepting, “thank you, then.”

She urges him to sit on the floor, taking a seat herself, and he mirrors her posture without thinking. In this position, his legs are cramping a bit, but it’s less of a testament to the weirdness of his position and more of one to his lack of flexibility. “Haven’t sat tailor-style since I was a kid,” he comments.

“It helps with relaxation,” assures Jade, eyes closed, features serene.

Okay, he thinks. Sure. He’s mostly tense and a bit stressed about what they still have to cover, but he tries to sink into the position, let it ease the coil of dread in his stomach as best he can.

“Now,” says Jade, and he shuts his eyes dutifully, “think of a time you were shown kindness by someone else. It might be difficult, and if you can’t think of anything right away then that’s all right-”

“No,” he interrupts, “I’ve got one.”

His insides go shimmery and light, and he slips into the past once again:

“Third time this week,” says Perrie, tone light but eyes dark with worry. “You need to be careful.”

He looks down. “Can’t exactly prevent it,” he argues, “can I? Aside from giving in and telling them yes.”

Perrie’s fingers are cool where they brush against the tender bruising around his jaw, and she’s gentle in a way it doesn’t feel like he deserves. “And you didn’t instigate anything? Didn’t try to make them angry at all?”

He knows his silence is telling, but he isn’t going to lie.

Perrie hums quietly, acknowledging. “Careful,” she repeats. She’s insistent about things like that, for some reason keeping an eye out for him like a sister would, or… or a friend.

That’s what they are now, isn’t it? Friends? He thought he wouldn’t be able to stand her when they first met but she keeps on proving him wrong, and now she’s taking some ice she stole from dinner and wrapped in a cloth napkin and pressing it gently to his bruises like he matters to her. Like she cares about him.

He imagines her in his position, imagines her bruised and beaten, and a surge of protectiveness rushes up.

Right, then. Friends, at the very least.

“You don’t have to be nice to me,” he says, because Louis hasn’t met a single good thing that he hasn’t wanted to ruin.

Perrie rolls her eyes. “Shut up,” she admonishes, hands still gentle on his face, and he doesn’t know what to do short of complying.

This time, when Jade pulls him out of the memory, it’s easier to come back to himself. Mercury, he thinks, disbelieving, but apparently it works.

When he looks at the candle, the flame is brighter than it was before. “Is that supposed to be happening?” he asks. If it gets out of control, he can probably put it out before it does any damage, and there aren’t even that many flammable things down here, but he’d still prefer not burning to death underground over the alternative.

“Yes,” says Jade, enigmatic, and doesn’t elaborate. “Just one more memory should do it,” she decides, looking at the flame and then back at Louis a few a times. “You up for it?”

Louis thinks it over, and finds that he is, actually. Surely this will be something awful, something meant to unearth the guilt and shame locked up inside of him. Surely she’ll pull something forward that’s so monstrous he’ll never be able to look anyone in the eye again.

Louis shuts his eyes as if bracing himself, hands too tight around the glass orb, oil hot on his pulse. “Okay,” he says, “let’s do it.”

And then Jade is saying, “think about a time you made a decision because of love,” and he’s falling too fast to protest its kindness.

The images flash too fast for him to count, and not all of them are even from his time at YNM.

The first time he realized he couldn’t go home because he wanted to protect his family. He couldn’t stop remembering the look on his mother’s face when she realized he was special, and his baby sisters were so small- he had to keep them safe. He had to keep them safe, and that meant he had to leave, and he got to uni with a one way train ticket and no intentions of ever going back.

“You’re coming back for the holidays, right, love?” his mum asks, voice thin over the phone line.

He swallows hard against the lump in his throat. “I don’t think so, mum,” he answers, and he feels his heart break a little right then and there.

and then

“Listen, mate,” says Nick, so derisive it makes Louis shrink back despite himself, “he doesn’t want to hear it. So you can take your sorry arse home-”

“Nick,” comes the interruption. Hope soars in Louis’ chest, and Harry speaks again from somewhere inside the flat. “Quit it, let him in.”

Nick bristles but steps aside, grabbing his coat. “If you’re not here to make it right,” he warns, but Louis is absolutely here to make it right.

“I know I was stupid,” he says, “and awful, and I don’t deserve him, but I’m going to make it right.”

His heart is going to beat out of his chest, but he knows what he needs to do, and he’s not afraid of doing it. The worst possible thing has already happened. Anything in the other direction will be nothing short of a miracle, and Louis will take all the luck he can get. Nick studies him, and, with a brisk nod, lets himself out.

And then it’s just Louis and Harry in the flat, and Louis is so nervous he thinks he might expire right then and there.

Harry steps out from the kitchen. His eyes are dry but red, and his nose is flushed--a telltale sign that he’d been crying not long before.

“Lou-”

“I’m sorry,” he opens with, because it needs to be said. “I was so, so stupid.”

Harry grimaces, an arm wrapped across his middle like he needs a shield. Like he needs to be protected from Louis. Louis’ heart hurts. “You left,” he says, not like an accusation but like a fact.

He’s not wrong. Louis panicked, and he thought he was doing the right thing, and he didn’t want to ruin Harry’s life by dragging him along on what would likely be a shit show of a job search after uni. He didn’t want to distract Harry, or chain him to a loser like Louis who only barely passed enough classes to get a degree. All of those reasons pale in comparison to the boy in front of him, the boy that Louis could’ve had if he wasn’t such a coward.

“I shouldn’t have,” he answers. “I regretted it the second I said anything, and then you weren’t in your flat, and you wouldn’t pick up your phone, and-” he cuts himself off, frustrated that he can’t find the right words.

Harry just looks at him, though, eyes big and sad, and Louis… Louis would give him the entire world. Would kill for this boy. Would raze a city to the ground and salt the earth.

“I was scared,” he admits. It’s not as hard as he expected it to be. “I didn’t want you to get hurt, and I ended up hurting you because I thought I was protecting you, but I was wrong. I love you, okay? I love you, so much, and I can’t see my life without you in it. I know I messed up, but please, please don’t say we’re broken up.” He could feel himself getting desperate, hear his voice getting reedy and thin, but couldn’t do anything to stop it.

Harry tried to speak and had to clear his throat before he could manage it. “If you’re scared,” he says, slow, “you have to talk to me about it. You can’t just- you can’t just leave. That doesn’t fix anything.”

“I know,” Louis answers miserably. “I know, and I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

That part is only half a lie. He knows what he was thinking, but he also knows that it makes no sense, and that his logic was skewed and messed up by emotion, and he regrets everything that’s happened since yesterday morning.

“Do you promise?” asks Harry, and he sounds so gorgeously hopeful. “If you get scared, or if you’re stressed, or if we fight… do you promise you’ll stay?”

Part of him wants to say that he can’t promise that they’ll always be together, or that he won’t leave. That he’ll never feel like he has to.

The part of him that loves Harry says to damn that all to hell.

“I promise,” he says, with every bit of genuine honesty he has in his entire body. “I swear, I won’t leave, I promise you. I’m gonna stay. Always.”

Harry’s eyes are shining. Louis rather suspects his own are, too.

When they collide, it feels like it’s been a lifetime since they touched, and Louis repeats the promises to himself in a mad loop in his brain until the only word he can make out is ‘stay.’

and then

His knees buckling in front of the screen.

Harry humming in the kitchen with a gunsight on his back. Harry alone, Harry being watched, Harry in danger because of him.

They were never asking him what he wanted to do.

It was never a choice, except for how Louis chooses Harry in every world, every version of the story.

“Louis,” says Jade, and it sounds like maybe she’d had to say it more than once. “Louis, hey, you’re done.”

He balks.

In the corner, the candle flame is bright yellow and spitting sparks.

"But I didn't-" starts Louis, stuttery and thrown off, "I thought-"

Jade takes his hands in her own, eyes earnest and serious. It’s like she can read right into him. "The trauma,” she starts, and then stops, pauses to collect her thoughts. “Everything that hurts, everything that makes you feel bad and guilty, that belongs to you," she says. "That's part of what healing is about. The only person who can shame you for that is you, but you're the only person who can forgive yourself, too."

Louis pauses, breathes, tries to reconcile it all in his head.

Forgiveness.

He hadn't dared to let himself hope.

 

“How?” he asks. He feels small. Feels young.

Jade smiles her gentle, enigmatic smile at him. “You have to look at the good alongside the bad,” she says. “You’ve got it in your head that you are what you’ve done, but it’s not that simple. You’re much more, and I think you know that, and now I think you should probably hand over the glass before you break it.”

He looks down at his hands, sees his knuckles white in a too-tight grip. It takes longer than he should to relax his fingers, but he does it, and he hands over the glass easily. “Sorry,” he says, and he means it for more than just the glass, or his difficulties with properly dealing with everything that he’s been through.

He’s been doing that a lot, he knows, apologizing to the wrong people, but Jade just pats his cheek and stands up, a clear invitation to leave.

He takes it.

He maybe wasn’t expecting to find Harry outside in the hall, pacing up a storm, but that’s what he finds. “Hi,” he says, heart going soft the way it always does when he’s reminded that Harry is alive and safe and still his.

If he’s trying to play it cool, Harry is doing a terrible job of it. His hair is all messed up in the front like he’s been running his hands through it the way he does when he’s agitated, and he breathes a visible sigh of relief when he sees Louis. “Hey, you missed lunch.”

“Did I?” He’d gone in at 11, he thought. Lunch is at noon, and runs until one, and surely Louis was only in there for an hour, tops.

Harry smiles a rueful smile, but it’s still edged with worry. “Yeah, love. Dinner is in like forty minutes.”

“Oh,” says Louis, blinking. “I didn’t realize.” Time had passed in lurches, sneaking out from under his feet when he wasn’t watching. It’s disconcerting to be losing hours, but he tries not to be too bothered. Jade hadn’t said anything to make him worry, anyway.

“You all right?” asks Harry, because Harry is the kind of person who radiates concern and love so genuine that Louis had been drawn to him from the very moment they met.

Louis steps forward and hugs Harry tight around the middle. To Harry’s credit, he doesn’t hesitate, just brings his arms up to pull Louis even closer. Louis pauses, tucks his head into the crook of Harry’s shoulder. “Yeah,” he says, and finds that he means it for the first time in who knows how long. “Yeah, I’m good.”

*

“And then,” Niall, says, gesturing with his fork in a dramatic stabbing motion, “the turret comes up from the tank and starts just, fucking, spraying bullets-”

“Niall,” interjects Zayn, put-upon even as he’s grinning, “please, I’m trying to eat.”

Leigh-Anne whacks Zayn in the upper arm. He winces, and she sticks her tongue out at him. “Don’t be such a baby,” she admonishes, “it’s a great story. Lots of action.” She pantomimes firing a machine gun, rapid fire sounds and all, and Louis thinks maybe he should feel weird about all of the implied violence but he’s mostly just amused.

Zayn throws his hands up in surrender, and Niall continues the story, still smiling. “Right, so like, we’re in the chopper, and we’re watching all of this from above, and then-” he breaks off, laughing so hard Louis is a little worried he’ll fall out of his chair, and Louis wonders what possibly could’ve happened to elicit this kind of reaction in hindsight when it had to have gone down in the middle of a genuine warzone.

He never does find out, because that’s when Liam walks in and says, “team meeting in the briefing room in five,” and he looks harried, and it sobers the mood back into what Louis had grown to expect from the team.

He nudges Harry and shoots him a questioning look, but Harry just shrugs, as in the dark as Louis is.

They gather their plates quickly and head to the briefing room en masse, and Liam and Jesy are already there, heads bowed over a padfolio full of papers. They’re talking quickly and in low tones, but finally straighten once everyone is seated.

“Thanks for coming,” says Liam, like he didn’t just order them to five minutes ago. “Jesy found some information that we think is going to be huge when it comes to taking down YNM.”

He doesn’t look happy, though. He doesn’t look upset, either, but Louis still doesn’t let himself get excited.

Jesy steps forward, papers still in her hands. “Right,” she starts, all business, “like Liam said, I found something. I was running the daily hack on the YNM security--usually doesn’t yield anything, but the passwords change every day, and sometimes a little dumb luck pays off--and I found an encrypted file that I managed to download before they cut me back off and tried to run a counter attack.” She waves toward Liam, who’s at the command table now, and he pulls up what must be the file on the projector screen at the front of the room. It looks like a bunch of nonsense to Louis, honestly, but he’s not the expert here. “They’re plans,” she explains, shuffling past a few slides to the last one, which reads Operation 6. The writing below is scrambled, still, but the blocks of text are huge and intimidating, and one of the diagrams contains a helmet-like device that makes Louis nervous.

“For an attack?” asks Leigh-Anne, and she looks ready to jump out of her seat. “How soon?”

Jesy sighs. “That’s exactly it,” she says. “Phase one is barely in development stages. The plans say that it’ll be six months until they deploy, maybe longer.”

“How do we know it’s not a trick?” It’s Zayn this time, wary and skeptical.

“We don’t,” answers Liam plainly, “but they didn’t give us this intel on purpose.”

Jesy picks up the thought with, “yeah, it had a self-destruct bug. I lost half of it before I even realized the code was collapsing in on itself. This is what I managed to salvage.”

“A failsafe,” murmurs Jade, and Jesy nods.

“So what’s next?” Niall asks.

Liam stands back up and moves toward the front of the room again. “Now we refocus our efforts. Louis,” he says, and Louis almost flinches at being called out in front of the group, “your processing is indefinitely suspended. You’ve given us a lot of really great information, and we’re going to use it in our future missions, but unless there’s something pressing that you haven’t mentioned, we’re going to assume that the rest of your information isn’t going to be as relevant to the mission.”

Louis has heard Liam go into captain mode before, into leader mode, but never quite so efficiently. The switch from laid back leader to focus-driven captain is a little jarring. “Okay,” he says, because he isn’t sure there’s really anything else he can add.

“Great,” says Liam. “Jesy, I want you working with Leigh-Anne and Niall to sift through the digital archives, see if there’s any mention of Operations 1 through 6 in the YNM database or any other related ones. Jade, finish processing from your session earlier and then come see me. Zayn, my office, we need to discuss a game plan that goes beyond just today.”

“Aye, aye,” says Niall, standing up, but it seems like less of a joke and more of a reflex.

Everyone is getting up, and Louis feels a bit like he’s been left in the lurch. “Um,” he says, “can I help?”

The room goes quiet.

That’s probably fair. When he first got here he felt like he’d been dragged underground kicking and screaming when all he wanted was to go home, but to feel useless in the face of fighting back… he’d relive every memory if he thought it would help. He’d fuck with his own head on purpose if it made a difference in taking YNM down.

Harry, next to him, is tense. For once, Louis has no idea what he’s thinking, but it’s all just as well, because all he can really focus on is maintaining the stubborn tilt of his own jaw.

“Come to my office in four hours,” says Liam. He already looks exhausted, but it’s going to be a long night for everyone.

Louis wants to pitch a fit, but doesn’t. “All right,” he acquiesces, and follows Harry back to their room.

It’s weird, being the only two without a task. “What did you do,” asks Louis, mostly just to make conversation, “when you were here and I was there?”

He isn’t expecting Harry to smile softly. “Bugged Jesy, mostly,” he tells Louis. “She’s good about sharing space. And she didn’t mind if I, like, wasn’t really in the mood to talk. I was really stubborn, obviously, but she and Niall were really good at sticking up for me. For us.”

“Oh,” says Louis. He imagines Harry hunched over at a computer, or sifting through files with Niall, and then he imagines him fighting with the others. Can’t quite picture it in his head. “I’m glad,” he says quietly, after a pause. “I’m glad you had people here. I didn’t want you to be alone.”

Harry doesn’t answer, but he does tip closer to Louis, resting his head on Louis’ shoulder.

He’s taller, and the angle must be hell on his neck, but he doesn’t show any inclination of moving. In a bit, Louis will nudge him, force them into a more comfortable position.

Just. Five more minutes like this. And then they’ll deal with the rest.

*

Harry falls asleep on the bed, face entirely slack, and Louis has been trying to do the same for almost an hour when he gives up and starts wandering the complex. It’s empty and quiet for the most part, everyone in their private workrooms, and Base Central is deserted. He walks aimlessly, trying to get his head together when he feels so unanchored.

He gets back to his room half an hour later, but he’s twitchy, keeps getting up to pace. Harry wakes up and tries to get him to settle, but Louis is a ball of tumultuous energy and he can’t figure out how to dispel it.

It’s Jesy that sits him down, in the end. She walks into the room and tells Harry that Liam was looking for him, and instead of leaving right after, she makes herself comfortable on the bed, right next to Louis.

“Um,” he says, because he hasn’t talked to her much and she honestly is a bit scary, “hi.”

“Hey,” answers Jesy. “You seem restless.”

He can only laugh, mirthless, as an admission of the truth of that statement. “Never been good at sitting still,” he explains, and brightens as he does. It hadn’t been true for a while, he realizes, thinking back to the endless hours of solitude at YNM, and how moving felt like a Herculean effort, and how the sadness was always less acute when he was sleeping.

If he lets himself think further back, though, he remembers what he was like at home and at work, hands always itching to do something, be it ridiculous or helpful.

“You were quieter when you first got here,” she observes, not judgmental, just considering.

He shrugs. “Had a lot to think about.”

Jesy nods. “You remind me of a lot of the young recruits,” she tells him, “from when we all first started out.”

He makes a face, mouth twisting. “I’m not any younger than you lot,” he protests. “Older than most of you, I think, actually.”

“Okay,” she concedes, “but before training, when we all got here, we were so impatient. We just wanted to do something, you know? Didn’t matter what, as long as it was something.” She has a faraway look in her eye, like remembering. Her tone shifts, then. “But after our first missions, we got quieter. Some of us more than others.”

He shifts on the bed, tucking his legs underneath him. “You all seem pretty well-adjusted to me.” It’d been meant as a joke, but it ends up coming out sincere. He doesn’t take it back, is thinking about them giggling at dinner, recreating a massacre with carrots and sound effects.

“Doesn’t mean we haven’t done some stuff we can’t take back.”

There’s some silence. Louis turns it over in his head, surprised that Jesy is being so upfront with him. It maybe makes sense, though, when he considers what he knows. Remembers Harry talking about the way she stood up for him, and all the time they spent together. It’s hard not to be grateful for someone who stuck by Harry’s side.

He steels himself, tries to summon some courage. “When things like that happen,” he starts, clumsy, “that you regret. How do you move on from that?”

Jesy doesn’t answer right away. She’s twisting one of her rings around her finger.

“The first time I headed a mission that led to someone dying,” she says, slow, “I was nineteen.”

Shit, thinks Louis.

She continues. “It wasn’t my fault, but it felt like it was. There was nothing I could’ve done to change the outcome, but I lost a lot of sleep over it. Nightmares, guilt…” She trails off, still quiet and subdued. Louis doesn’t ask for details.

“How’d you live with yourself?” He asks, and realizes it comes out more judgmental than he’d meant.

Thankfully, she doesn’t seem bothered. A small smile quirks at the edges of her mouth. “I had all of this anger and frustration and I didn’t know what to do with it, but then I started working with these girls, and then the team as a whole. We still make mistakes, and we don’t always make the right calls, but it helps, do you know what I mean? I had focus, and people that trusted me, and we help people. It doesn’t undo the damage, but it’s better than sitting around and being sorry all the time.”

“Oh,” says Louis. His tongue feels thick, throat tight. It sounds so easy, when she puts it that way.

And then he’s thinking of Jade, who told him to forgive himself, who said he had choices to make.

And then he’s thinking of Niall, who barely knew him but said he had a good feeling about Louis, who didn’t think he was a monster even after what he knows Louis did. What they all know.

And then he’s thinking of Harry. Harry, who left home to find him with just a suspicious note and a bad feeling to go off of. Harry, who believed so fiercely that he could bring Louis home, who saw video of Louis killing people and never stopped believing in him, who has held him through crying jags and anxiety attacks and everything in between. Harry, who wanted to save Louis. Harry, who did. They were reaching for each other the whole time, and they didn’t even realize it.

Louis wants to say something that carries weight, or that at least can sum up part of the swell of emotion that’s been so heavy in his gut since he got here. “Thanks,” he says, instead of any of that, because he knows he’d get it wrong.

“You’re all right,” Jesy replies, smiling, and she pats him on the leg as she gets up to leave. “Better get moving soon, Liam’ll be wanting to talk to you.”

Louis must make some kind of incredulous face, because she laughs. It gets him smiling, too, but he’s still confused. “I’m not meant to go in for another hour and a half,” he tells her.

Jesy pats him again, this time on the back, urging him to stand. “Go on and see if he’s ready now,” she suggests, and it has the undercurrent of a command.

He goes.

When he gets to Liam’s office in the corner of Base Central, Harry is already sitting inside, and he and Liam appear to be deep in conversation. Louis checks Harry’s face for signs of stress or agitation, and it’s nice to find nothing of the sort.

He dithers outside for a moment, not wanting to interrupt, but Liam catches a glimpse of him hovering through the window and beckons him in.

“Hi,” says Liam, “I wanted to talk to both of you about this, so if you could sit,” he gestures at the other chair opposite him, next to the one Harry is sitting in, “that’d be great.”

Louis sits. Harry looks expectant, but not nervous, and it eases some of the confusion that’s masquerading as anxiety in Louis’ lungs. “Something wrong?” Louis asks, and he thinks that maybe they’re both about to be kicked out of this place and told to fend for themselves, once and for all.

“No,” says Liam quickly, “no, nothing like that. I was just talking to some of the team today, and we came to a consensus about an offer we want to make.”

“Like a plea deal or something?” Harry asks, law-student-sharp like he’s back in his uni classes, and the tension is back in his shoulders.

“No,” says Liam, again. “Listen, you both were curveballs that this team didn’t expect, obviously. Louis, we thought we’d be able to talk to you before YNM got involved, maybe warm you up to the idea of coming in and at least talking to some people about what you can do. Harry, you were never even a part of our plans at all.”

Harry still looks wary. “If this is some kind of extortion-”

Liam blinks once, then blinks again. “I don’t know what that means,” he admits honestly. Louis doesn’t either. “But I told you, we wanted to make you an offer.”

There’s some silence while Harry and Louis process that, rolling it around in their heads and trying to relax. Harry is still not fully sitting back, though, and Louis has been taking cues from him for as long as he’s known Harry.

“What’s the offer,” says Louis, finally, when it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to speak.

“We want you to join the team,” says Liam, and there’s no hint of a joke anywhere on his face. He looks entirely serious and genuine, and Louis thinks his jaw has dropped entirely without his permission. “Both of you,” adds Liam, “obviously,” and Louis realizes that Harry had more or less frozen in his seat.

“Um,” says Louis faintly.

Liam looks patient, waiting them out, and it’s Harry that finds his words first. “Do your higher-ups know about this?”

Liam’s expression doesn’t crack, but when he says, “we’re pretty self-contained,” Louis knows the answer is no.

That fact is weirdly comforting, though he knows it could make things sticky someday.

Someday. God. He’s actually considering this.

Harry says, “can we get a minute to talk? Alone?” It’s a good idea, a smart one, and Liam nods and ducks out of the office in the span of a handful of seconds, quick like he’d been expecting this.

When it’s just the two of them, Louis starts to feel the nerves rear up. He has no idea how Harry feels about this, and he especially doesn’t he know how he feels himself.

The room is weirdly tense, and Louis doesn’t look at Harry for a heavy moment, fighting the urge to wring his hands. This decision will change their lives entirely no matter what they choose. Louis isn’t naive enough to think that they can skip back home without dire consequences, and if they don’t stay, where will they go? His mind is running at a mile a minute, and he can’t stay quiet any longer.

“What’re we gonna do, H?”

He hasn’t called Harry that in a long time. Harry looks at him, and his eyes are bright with emotion. “What do you want?”

Louis’ heart stutters in his chest. “I want to help people,” he says. “I want to stay.”

He’s looking down again, so he misses it when Harry scoots closer. He doesn’t miss Harry’s little choked off sob-laugh hybrid, though, or the hand cupping Louis’ cheek. “You want to say yes,” he suggests, a little wondering.

Louis nods once, and then twice, and then he can’t seem to stop. “I want to say yes,” he agrees. “This changes everything, though, it can’t just be my decision-”

“Hey,” interrupts Harry, gentle but firm, and Louis stops talking. “I want us to be safe. I’ve always wanted us to be safe, and to be together. This is our best bet, isn’t it?”

It’s terrifying, like standing at the high dive and looking down, or the moment before lightning strikes. It seems too good to be true. “We’re going to say yes,” repeats Louis, feeling like a broken record.

“Yeah,” says Harry, “I think we are.”

He pulls back, ostensibly to go tell Liam to come back, but Louis grabs his wrist and keeps him close. “Wait a minute,” he pleads, “just, one minute.” He swivels around in his chair so his and Harry’s knees are touching, and meets his gaze steadily. Harry’s eyes have always given him away, and right now they’re clear and soft and very, very green. Louis shifts his grip to Harry’s hand, interlocking their fingers, and loves him, and loves him, and loves him.

The moment dissolves gently, the two of them shifting back into separate space, and Liam comes in like he sensed it.

“So,” he says, and it almost feels over-loud in the quiet, “have you come to a decision?”

“Where do we sign?” Louis asks, only mostly joking.

Liam laughs, appears thrilled and a little surprised by Louis’ enthusiasm, and tells them they’ll have a team meeting later to go over the specifics.

“Sounds good, captain,” says Harry, slight hint of mocking in his voice.

Liam rolls his eyes, but he’s still smiling.

Louis walks out of his office with a burst of happy bubbling up in his chest. He and Harry link hands again, easy as breathing. In the past months, his life had been entirely overturned, but this feels like a new normal that he just might be able to get used to.

*

After Louis’ club football team wins the league, the city experiences record high temperatures for a week and a half.

It’s all elation and thrill. Louis is eleven years old and feels like he’s on top of the world, like the king of the universe, like he’s literally shining like a beacon of light. Every bit of him is warm and bright, and he can’t stop laughing at the stupidest things.

“I’m just happy,” he tells his mum, waving off her suggestion that he bring a coat to school, just in case the weather turns.

He knows, somehow, that it won’t.

A piece of him has always been inextricably tied to the sky, and when he was young it felt like freedom. Like opportunity. Like the whole world was wide open for the taking.

Now, Louis is 26, and the room is dark, and Harry is asleep beside him, and the feeling isn’t really so different.

He shifts closer to Harry, presses a tiny kiss to his hand where it rests on Louis’ chest. Love you, he thinks, we’re going to be okay, and they are.

*

Louis blinks awake to Harry nudging at his shoulder. "Hey," says Harry, "time to get up, we're going up top in a few minutes."

"Really?" asks Louis, blinking sleep out of his eyes and rubbing at them with his fists. He still feels mostly unconscious, but the idea of going outside has him perking up pretty quickly.

Harry smiles, sweet and dimpled, and nods. "Yeah, come on."

Louis gets his behind into gear and rolls out of bed, picking clothes at random. They don't have much selection, but Louis figures that one of the others must have put in some kind of order recently, because plain t-shirts and pants keep showing up in their drawers whenever Louis isn't looking, and they all seem to fit.

He'd seen the other clothes, before, the ones they had Harry wearing even though they pulled across his shoulders and rode up on his stomach. The ones that must've been ordered based on Perrie's measurements. He swallows hard, tries not to think about it too much. She's all right. She must be.

They head up single file, Louis behind Jade, her hair bouncing where she has it in a sloppy bun. It can't be long after 5am, which is what Louis hazily remembers as the time he woke up, and it's almost surreal to be up this early and going to see the world. Like reality hasn't properly set in for the day yet, and they're sitting in this murky, shimmery in between while they wait for the world to wake up.

"Any special occasion?" he asks the group, mostly at random.

"Kind of like a tradition," Leigh-Anne offers from behind Louis. "When this team was first set up, we spend hours up here, talking. Kind of ironic, but we get the most privacy from other teams and stuff up top. No one's ever really up here except to come and go."

Louis can understand how that might make sense. "So you're just up here to, like, relive the good old days?" he says.

Jade giggles a little, shoulders bobbing with the motion. "No," she tells him, turning around, upper body twisting so she can smile at him. "We're celebrating."

“Celebrating?”

“You’re on the team,” Jade explains, “and you’re the first new additions we’ve had since we got put together, so. Yeah, we’re celebrating.”

He doesn’t know why they had to be up at the crack of dawn to celebrate, but he nods agreeably anyway. Any occasion to see the sky is a worthy one in Louis’ book. He’d spent so much time indoors at YNM and now here that he’d felt almost disconnected from reality. It’s nice to have a reminder that the world is still turning even as Louis isn’t out there to see it, or to feel it happening.

Up ahead, Louis sees Harry laughing at something Niall’s said, his face striking in profile, eyes shut the way they get when his smile is entirely unrestrained. Around him, their new team, all slogging up the endless stairs at some ungodly hour of the morning just to celebrate his and Harry’s addition. And Louis, who ruins every good thing he has, isn’t scared. For the first time in ages, he’s not afraid of his world tumbling down around him.

The past months have been a long, exhausting exercise in fear and shame.

Right now, he’s having a hard time finding a single reason to feel awful, like the guilt has been burned out of him by the morning. When Liam, out in front, opens the door to the top, he breathes in deeply, pretends he can feel the difference in the air.

Once he gets outside, he realizes that he can. It’s stale downstairs, sometimes, the air recycled like it is on an airplane. “Wow,” he manages, even as he shudders from the cold. 5 in the morning, he thinks ruefully, and it’s freezing but it isn’t snowing, or hailing, or even drizzling. All clear.

He sidles up next to Harry as they exit the malt shop and Louis wonders, not for the first time, if these machines are fully functional. “Hey,” he tells Harry, “do you think these work?”

Harry blinks at him and pauses, clearly trying to figure out the context, and then he grins. “Maybe,” he offers. “Let’s try them tonight, see if people want to come and have an after party.”

“Oh,” says Louis, delighted, “I like the way you think.”

Harry just keeps smiling, bright and happy and maybe even a little flirty, and Louis is smiling back the same way. They’re so embarrassing. Louis is still going to marry the fuck out of this boy.

Once they’re all outdoors, Louis notices that Zayn has a pot of coffee in his hands, and Jesy is carrying a bag of cups. “It’ll be a little lukewarm, I think,” says Zayn, halfway apologetic, “but it’s something, right?”

“It’s the thought that counts,” agrees Niall.

Louis rolls his eyes. “Give it here, then,” he says, and Zayn cocks a considering eyebrow before handing it over.

Up here, so close to the sky, it takes hardly any time at all for him to warm up the coffee. It’s not, like, piping hot, but it’s certainly better than it was, and the cheers that go up around him are the first time anyone has ever had a genuinely positive reaction to his ability. That’s probably why he stands there, stunned, like an idiot, before someone takes the coffee from him and starts pouring.

“Cheers,” says Zayn, passing Louis a cup, “and welcome to the club.”

“Please,” says Louis, and it’s so easy to make fun, “we’re in different leagues, nice try, mate.”

That gives Zayn pause, and Louis almost takes it back. But then Harry snorts the most ridiculous, honking laugh, like he’d been trying to restrain himself but couldn’t, and Zayn is laughing, too, and then everyone is.

Zayn recovers, and then shoots back, “pretty sure you’re just kinda winging it with combat skills. I have, like, actual training, and I could probably take you out before you even realized what was happening.”

While that’s probably true, Louis ignore it entirely, instead inquiring cheerfully, “what are you going to? Hover in my direction? Yeah, real intimidating.”

They shoot a few more barbs back and forth, entirely harmless, and Louis finally wakes up all the way after a cup of coffee and some easy banter. It’s weird to be joking about his ability, to have it lauded as a good thing rather than something to tuck away, or to use to kill, but it’s a good kind of weird.

After a toast with their now empty cups, a group huddle (for warmth, supposedly, though Louis figures he’s not the only one with this warm-bright-overwhelming feeling in his chest), and an inspiring speech from Liam featuring comments from the peanut gallery, Louis and Harry break away to sit on their own on the curb in front of the shop.

“This is mad,” says Harry, and he sounds good, sounds happy.

Louis tucks a piece of fringe behind his ear, thinks distantly that he needs a haircut sometime soon if he ever wants to look presentable again. “Yeah,” he agrees.

Harry’s arm comes up to wrap around his shoulders, and Louis leans into him. Every variation of touch between the two of them is intimately familiar and infinitely comfortable--the notable exception, of course, being the times early in their friendship when Louis had smacked Harry in the balls in an ill-conceived attempt at flirting--and Louis is grateful for him, now and always. Would never have made it through this without him.

“Everything’s gonna be different,” Harry says, slow like he’s still parsing his thoughts, “but I think this is gonna be good. For us, I mean, but also like- this team, we could help so many people. And you can… the things you can do are amazing. The rest of it we can figure out later, but right now, I think it’s gonna be really good.”

It takes him approximately ten years to say all of that, but Louis is caught on every word the way he has been for years, and it’s the sweetest kind of relief to know that they’re on the exact same page. “Every memory I have of using my abilities,” Louis says, “on a big scale, at least, is something I feel guilty about. Now I get to change that. I didn’t think I would get a chance to be better, but I do.”

“You have a chance to do things differently,” corrects Harry, gentle. “You were always good.”

And that-

Louis feels like his insides have turned to gold, to warmth, to late summer sun. And Louis has done horrible things to keep this boy safe, and it might make him an awful person, but god, he’d do it all again in a heartbeat if he had to. “I love you,” he says, and he doesn’t mean for it to wobble.

“Love you,” answers Harry, easy as breathing, and Louis has to kiss him, so he does.

Harry hums into it, shifting to make the angle easier, and his hands come to rest on Louis’ shoulders. Louis has a hand on Harry’s jaw and one in his hair, and they break apart a moment later to breathe, faces still close together.

“Hey,” murmurs Harry, and the smile on his face says we’re alive, we’re okay, we’re together.

Louis says, “hi,” and he means I still want to spend the rest of my summers with you for the rest of forever.

They kiss again, and again, and progress into practically making out like they used to when they first got together. And like, for a year after that. And the next year, too. And-

An empty cup thunks against the back of Louis’ head, and he pulls back laughing. “Okay, okay, we get it.”

“You two are seriously the worst,” says Jade wonderingly, like she’s amazed at how gross they are. Louis sees Harry preening out of the corner his eye, probably taking it as a compliment. And okay, maybe Louis is, too, but he’s allowed to be happy.

The ruckus dies down once they’ve gotten their fill of ribbing Louis and Harry, and then it’s just the two of them leaning into each other the way they were before.

“Love you,” says Louis again, this time quieter, softer.

“Love you,” answers Harry, that same tone.

Later, they’ll go back inside, and Harry will talk to Niall about scouting and fieldwork, and Louis will talk to Liam about revising the IDF training and outreach systems.

Later, Harry will move into Jesy’s room properly, because they’re on the team now and they can’t keep sharing a full-sized bed and kicking Niall out of his own bedroom. They’ll grumble about it a bit, but it’ll mostly be for show. (They’ll end up finding each other in the middle of the night half the time anyway, one of them needing to see the other before being able to fall asleep.)

Later, Louis will talk and talk about his time at YNM, continue to dissect it, to pick it apart. The others, Harry especially, will be patient when Louis cries or needs a break. And, little by little, it’ll feel less like a vice crushing his rib cage.

Later, Louis will still be sorry. But he’ll be doing something about it.

Now, Louis is happy.

It’s been months of winter, and his heart’s still a little mangled, but he’s here with his favorite person in the world and all of the makings of a new beginning. There’s an entire world out in front of him, torn wide open, just waiting for him to do something.

He looks at the sky, face upturned, and watches the sun break through the clouds.