It was warm. Sunlight trickled in where Louis hadn’t quite shut the curtains. Harry could already tell it was going to be too bright, his eyelids were painted red.
Outside, birds were chirping somewhere in the distance. Wind was blowing through trees. Closer, up near his ear, was the sound of quiet breaths. In and out. Slow but sure.
Harry felt a shifting against his side, a moving away. And then the warmth was gone.
He rolled towards it. Lazily threw out an arm to catch it.
He caught Louis’ shoulder.
His skin was hot, he was always running warmer than Harry. It was nice.
So Harry pulled him back towards himself.
Louis moved with a lazy, cosy moan. The sort of sound a kitten would make to say hello.
“Morning,” Harry grumbled. His voice was tacky, muffled against the pillow.
Louis reached an arm back and half-heartedly pulled Harry closer, right up against his back. It was a quiet acknowledgement — half of me is asleep, but the other half is here with you .
Harry kissed the back of Louis’ head.
They lay like that, both facing away from the window, for a good while. Until Harry woke enough to rub circles into Louis’ hip. He was naked under the sheets. They both were. It meant that Louis’ warmth was almost too sharp against Harry’s skin, like coffee on a cold day.
Harry blinked his eyes open and let the sun settle into them, let Louis’ shoulder come into focus.
And then he stayed like that for a good while too, watching Louis’ chest rise and fall as he rubbed his hip and breathed in his smell.
Louis smelled like summer. Like the summer they’d just spent together, like the long afternoons after Harry left his shift at the cafe or the longer nights after parties finally ended. He smelled like the salt left across skin when Harry was finished kissing him and discovering him.
He smelled like Harry wanting to take him home to his family.
But his mum was coming up in a fortnight to see Harry in his too-small flat, with his too many flat mates, to see that he was doing okay. And because they missed each other. It was his first summer he’d not gone home from university to spend christmas with his family.
So Harry could wait till then. He just needed to ask Louis.
“Hey, Lou,” he mumbled, voice still thick with the morning.
Louis hummed and rolled further onto his back, looked lazily up at Harry.
“My mum’s coming up next week,” Harry replied, shifting up onto his elbow so he could talk properly, rest a hand on Louis’ chest. “Would you wanna meet her?”
Louis gave a small smile and nodded. Maybe it was because he was still so sleepy, but Harry couldn’t help noticing something irresolute at the corner of Louis’ mouth. It looked more like he was saying I guess than I will .
“You don’t have to, it’s fine if you don’t want to. Sorry, I—"
“No, no,” Louis smiled, properly, reassuringly, this time. “That’d be nice.”
“Are you sure? It’s only been four months, it’s okay.”
”Haz,” Louis took Harry’s chin between his fingers. “When I nod, it means yes.”
Harry wanted to believe him, but even within those four months he’d started to pick up on the little things that Louis’ accidentally said without words. The quirk of an eyebrow when someone they didn’t know well enough to call out made an untoward comment, or the tighter grip on his hand when they walked past the wrong group of people. Louis held so much to himself, was quiet till he was ready, and Harry had seen that the most out of everyone now. He’d heard the quiet worries Louis finally whispered after they’d finished exams and driven up to spend the weekend camped out at Harry’s family bach — a small holiday home on the edge of Omaha Beach. He’d seen Louis cry at the end of Short Term 12 , and held his hand in silence until Louis gave one of his small little smiles and said they should go to bed.
Harry had seen Louis slowly come more and more out of his shell, had seen his bitten lips become smiles, and heard his giggles become bellows.
Harry was learning, and he was learning that Louis had little tells. He could recognize the lines at the edge of his eyes and what each one meant.
And he didn’t necessarily believe it when Louis said that his nod meant yes, that he wanted to meet his mum already.
But he’d also started to learn that Louis needed to be believed, and he’d explain what he was really feeling later on, when Louis wouldn’t go back to his own flat for the ninth night in a row, and they’d crawl into bed that night, probably. Or tomorrow, when Harry would wake him up with gentle kisses and a more gentle reminder that Louis could tell him anything.
So Harry just gave Louis a smile back, and then looked down at his hand on Louis’ chest. He kissed him between where his thumb and his finger lay. And then he kissed him again a little lower down, and then again. And again. And Louis’ smile would grow with each little kiss and Harry definitely liked this.
He liked that in his third year of university, he’d met someone so beautiful. So ready to give him love. So ready to spend every summer night with him until class started again.
So ready that they fell into each other’s lives and never really felt the need to come up for air.
Louis’ body, lying under Harry, was so gorgeous. So slight, but curvaceous. He had some hairs on his chest, but only enough that they could have just looked like the scratches Harry left on his hips. He had the shadow of a tan line around his arms, where his arms went from gold to olive, but his skin was still so smooth.
Harry reminded him of these things he liked so much all the time. And he did it again right now, kissing down his stomach.
“You look gorgeous in this light.”
The sun cast white light across Louis’ brow, made his eyes bright and wet and sparkly. Made the shadow of hair he could grow above his lip glint warm tones of brown, like honey.
The hair below his belly button was the same, barely there and shiny. Glinting at Harry like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
He wanted to follow that trail.
Louis pulled him up by the chin and kissed him instead. Soft and slow, the faint stubble on his lip brushing up against Harry’s baby-soft face.
“Promise me something,” Louis whispered when he finally pulled away.
Harry nodded, and made sure his face agreed with him.
“You won’t ever judge me.”
Harry wasn’t sure what to make of that, wasn’t sure what made Louis think about that either. Not when he was too busy kissing his body and telling him he was perfect.
So again, Harry just nodded. And he kissed his agreement into Louis’ mouth. And then he kept kissing Louis as the sun shone through the window, and Harry clasped each of Louis’ fingers between each of his.
Harry hoped that Louis could taste the honesty on his lips, could feel the reassurance in his grip. He wouldn’t judge him for anything.
Not now. Not ever.
The air was different here.
It was sharp, like menthol, stinging at the inner corners of his eyes.
But it smelled different too. Fresh, clear, sparkly like the snow that had settled into the roots of tawny grass.
Harry got out of his rental car, gravel crunching under his foot, and took a deep breath. He let the cold air fill his lungs and wake him up in a way that coffee never could, and then he looked around.
Lake Tekapo was massive, a great pool of flat blue water. The same colour as the sky above. Surrounding it was nothing but mountains, the tops of them white and pristine, and looking like the only clouds in the sky. Below, the hills that sloped towards the small tourist town of Tekapo itself were all a soft gold. The colour of sun kissed skin.
Skin that was covered in lace, where snow had made its home.
It was strange looking at it, Harry had only ever known grass to be that colour in the droughts that came every summer back home, in Wellington. But here, everything that wasn’t rock or water or sky had the same mellow colour of hay.
Far in the distance, Harry could see sheep standing in loose clusters.
Where he’d parked, right next to a cafe called The Greedy Cow , he and his car overlooked the water from only metres away. It was where the grass turned to pebbles, and then rocks that fell down below the water’s surface.
The water was still enough to see perfect reflections of the mountains in them.
That was the second thing Harry noticed, after the way the air was so different, so clean, everything in this town was so still.
It was almost 10 o’clock. He’d barely seen anyone. Not since he’d left Christchurch airport and driven the few hours here. He’d passed through small town after small town, and all of them were all but barren. A person here or there, walking their dog in their jackets and their beanies, their breaths blowing out in white clouds.
Harry breathed out his own cloud and watched it dissipate into nothing. Then he turned and made his way into the cafe.
Constable Payne was already there, making an order at the counter. Harry knew this because he was the only one around donning a police uniform. Blue jumper, blue trousers, lips to match. He’d clearly been outside for some time already.
He was smiling, laughing with the women making his coffee. And Harry had missed this, missed the way that a police officer could be like that. That’s what New Zealand was. That’s why he’d made his way back.
Because the UK was nice. He’d had a good job with the BBC. Had lovely friends. Had good nights. He’d drifted from pleasant relationship to pleasant hook up to pleasant relationship. By all means, it was nice. But it was only that, nice .
It was missing something.
London was so busy, so loud, so isolating. People didn’t look at him properly there. They didn’t smile like this Constable Payne. Harry had moved there to be a part of a bigger world, to write about bigger stories. And he’d found those stories, chased those tails until his fingers felt like they didn’t have the words anymore. And then it’d been five years and Harry had found himself with a strange sense of loss, of something missing. Like he was chasing something he’d realised he’d never find, and maybe it was finally time to come home. Time to see his mum for the first time since she’d visited three years ago. Find himself a boyfriend that was more than just nice .
Payne looked up and caught Harry’s eye, and his smile grew even more. He didn’t even recognise Harry, there was no way he could, he’d only talked to him via email. Apparently, that’s just who this Constable Payne character was. Apparently, that’s why he was so willing to talk to a journalist.
“Morning,” Harry said, taking the few steps towards the police officer, “Constable Payne?”
He nodded and stuck out a hand for Harry to shake, “You must be Harry! Just call me Liam.”
“Yeah, you want anything? My shout.”
It felt rude to say yes, Liam was the subject of Harry’s interview, but it felt just as rude to say no.
“Uh, I can get it, it’s fine,” Harry smiled.
“Nonsense, come on, what are you? A flat white kind of guy?”
Another thing Harry had missed about New Zealand. Flat whites. No one did them quite like the kiwis.
“Sure,” Harry gave in, giving his best smile.
When they’d gotten their coffees, Liam, who was a long black kind of guy, led them to a booth right at the back of the cafe. Far from people who might walk past.
“So,” Liam started, settling into his seat, “The Sarah Walker case.”
“Yeah, the Sarah Walker case,” Harry echoed, pulling out his bag so he could get his phone and notebook. “Do you mind if I record?”
“Sure thing, I don’t have much to give away.”
Harry just nodded and set himself up.
Liam, watching him, chuckled. “Haven’t been on this side of an interview in a while.”
“How’s it feel?” Harry asked, plugging his fancy Rode microphone into his phone. He glanced up to give Liam a small smile.
“Oh, it’s a bit exciting I guess. A bit nerve wracking too.”
“Well don’t worry about saying the wrong thing, I’m just getting the basic facts at the moment.”
All set up and ready to go, Harry took a sip of his drink, and continued talking, “Okay, cool. I’m recording. Can you put into your own words what happened when Sarah Walker disappeared last year?”
Liam nodded and then realised himself and let out a small cough, reached for his drink and then finally got some words out, “Well, she hasn’t really disappeared. Not anymore at least. Her father filed a missing persons report July last year, 2019, but she turned up with Sharon, her mum, soon after.”
“And where was this?”
“Down in Invercargill. Her parents split up a while ago, I was still in school then — used to see Sharon in town all the time — so that must have been about ten years ago.”
“What were her father’s reasons for filing the missing persons report?”
“Well, he said she didn’t come home from school the day before. He’d filed it the next morning when she didn’t come home overnight. She wasn’t at any of her friends’ houses, so we started a search. At 11am, two hours after he’d filed the report, she posted to her facebook.”
Harry knew the post. He’d scoured Sarah Walker’s social media pages. She had a public instagram, 34 posts, and Facebook — the settings on that were far more locked up. He could only see what photos she’d made her profile pictures. But the Facebook post Liam was talking about had been splashed across the news articles Harry had read online.
Harry listened as Liam described the post, he already knew all the details but for the sake of getting the official police story, he kept quiet.
Sarah Walker had posted a selfie at exactly 11:07am on July 18th 2019. She’d captioned it with, glad to finally get out of Tekapo. Here’s to new beginnings with Mum.
Liam said that as soon as the post went up, Sarah’s father went ballistic.
“Can you explain why that was? What was her family life like?”
“Well, from what I saw, her and her dad, Dave, got on quite well. After her mum left them and moved down south, she was always helping around on their farm. Her dad’s a merino farmer. Lots of people are here. Like all the other kids, she’d be up at 5am to help out before school. So when she posted about leaving Tekapo, her father was obviously in shock. He said they hadn’t heard from Sharon in years, no one around here had, he didn’t even know she’d been in contact with her mum. He didn’t believe the post, said someone was making it up, and wanted further action.”
“But that didn’t happen. Sarah’s case was closed that day.”
“Yeah, I checked her report yesterday. The station received a call from her mum saying she’d turned up safe and sound.”
“And no one went to check that that phone call was legitimate?”
“I wasn’t there, but there wasn’t really a need. News didn’t get out until after she’d turned up, the only people that knew she was missing were the people from here. There’s not many of us, we would have known if the call was faked.”
“Who closed the case?”
“Uh, full name?”
“Sorry, Sergeant Gregory Russell.”
“Yep. There’s only the two of us.”
“Small towns, huh.”
“So can you tell me about why so many people are then convinced something happened to Sarah?”
“Well, I shouldn’t really talk about that. I shouldn’t speculate on rumour.”
“No opinions on her pregnancy?”
Harry had scrolled the entirety of Sarah’s instagram. Three times. She posted exactly twice since the day she supposedly left Lake Tekapo.
The first picture was posted four days after she’d left, and was of the night sky, captioned with I keep thinking where you are, between me and you, I want you back, but it doesn't make sense. Harry had put the words into Google and come back with a Sigrid song, called ‘Never Mind’. It was soft, and bouncy and reminded Harry of breaking up with your first love. Not that he would have known what that felt like, he never got the chance.
The second picture, posted a month after she’d left, was of a yellow dress. Sized for a baby. This one was captioned with 6 months to go.
Liam shook his head, gave a sorry shrug.
“Who would be able to talk about it?”
“Try her dad. Or her best friend, Dot, she’s hell bent that something happened to her.”
“How could I get in touch with them?”
“Easy, they live right next to each other. I’ll write their addresses for you. Just— be nice. They might be convinced something happened but, as a reporter, go easy on them. People around here aren’t used to your type.”
Apparently, Liam wasn’t either. He’d never met a police officer so willing to sit down, pay for coffee, and talk to a journalist. Maybe he just thought he was doing his bit, kiwis were a naive bunch.
When Harry put the address of Sarah’s father, Dave, into his phone, it showed a farm fifteen minutes South-West of the township. Out past where Harry could see a thick crop of pine trees that lead up one of the hills around the town.
So that’s where he drove.
The road led through the main centre of the town, what was only a small dusting of buildings — backpackers, bars, a mini supermarket, and several tourist businesses — towards the swathe of pine trees.
It turned out that the trees covered the entrance to campgrounds and motels and several walking tracks. There were signs every so often trying to tempt Harry to drive in, take part in the tourist life that brought Lake Tekapo all its income. Promises of hot springs and glaciers and boat tours.
Beyond that was Tekapo Military Camp, a cluster of small white buildings a few hundred metres from the road.
As Harry drove towards the Walker family farm, he put together everything he knew in his head.
Sarah Walker was a long blonde haired fifteen year old girl when she left a year ago. She was pretty, had petite features and nice school photos that had been plastered across the few stories here and there about her in the year since her leaving. Local journalists had taken interest in the peculiar case of a town so split on opinion. Half of the people had said believe the police and leave it alone, and the other half was convinced she was actually dead or worse. The official story was that Sarah had fallen pregnant by some unknown boy and left to raise it with her own runaway mum — end of. But there had to be something that had let the rumours run wild. No boy had come forward, or been pushed forward, as the father. And no one had heard from Sarah’s mum since she’d called the Tekapo police station.
Sharon Walker was as much a ghost as Sarah was. Harry had wanted to call her before he flew to Lake Tekapo, but he couldn’t get a number from anywhere and she didn’t have a Facebook. Or any sort of online presence for that matter.
Harry already had most of the facts, the story had already been touched on so many times, but he was here to tell the story of the town. To explain how it could be so split. To explain why no one had heard from Sarah or Sharon, and why the police were so quick to sell the easy story. Where other journalists had written short pieces about the facts, short statements from either side of the fence, Harry wanted to go further. He wanted to dig where others hadn’t, and he wanted to actually find Sarah. Because for a town so apparently concerned, no one actually went to find her. The name Sarah Walker had become more of a myth than a real person’s name — a real person who should be out there somewhere. You’d think the girl would have seen her name in the news and wanted to clarify that, hey, she was still alive. Which gave reason for Harry to think that maybe she could have left to hide and that that was why no one had been in touch with her since. Maybe she didn’t want to be found by the people here and that’s what had made them so apathetic. That, or maybe people were keeping secrets.
Dave Walker’s farm was a piece of land covered in a decent layer of snow. It lay thick on this side of town. More of a trodden blanket than a sprinkling. His house was a pale wooden thing, like someone had taken a brush to the tawny ground and the snow and mixed it together into paint. His windows were closed and the gate at the edge of the road was shut, locked.
Harry parked the car in front of it and got out to shake it. The metal was ice cold so, with no luck shaking it open, Harry stuffed his hands into his jacket sleeves and hopped over it.
Dave Walker didn’t open the door.
Harry knocked and knocked, but nothing came.
Harry could see the faint square of a TV turned on inside, but there was no movement, no sound. Harry debated putting his face up to the glass so he could try to see any other shapes inside, but his skin prickled at the thought. It felt like Dave was right there on the other side of the curtain. It felt like Harry was being watched.
He waited exactly one minute, staring down at the time on his phone, but still. Nothing.
Harry bit his lip and furrowed his brow and figured he’d come back another time.
Dot lived next door, which out in the country meant another five minute drive down the road. When Harry got there, he found a long drive that twisted a good hundred metres away from the road.
Their front gate was wide open so Harry drove in.
As his car bumbled over gravel and the house came more into view, two cars were parked out front. One was an old 90s model Ford, dark green and quite sad looking. The other a bulking ute, or what Americans called a pick up, that put it completely to shame. This one was black and shiny and looked like it could easily make its way through all that snow.
The house itself was much the same as every other house Harry had driven by. It was the same milky colour, with a dark roof. Single storey. Probably made in the 60s.
Harry parked up, and ran to the front door.
When he knocked, it was quiet for a moment and then he heard footsteps.
A kid opened the door. A boy. Probably thirteen or fourteen, he had the gangly arms of growing teen. The dark undereyes of a kid that probably stayed up way too late on school nights. His hair hung around his eyes, straight and blonde, and he didn’t much care that it obscured Harry from view.
“Uh, hey…” The kid said. He was as tall as Harry’s chin.
“Hey, I’m Harry Styles, from The Herald. Does Dot live here?”
“You’re the journo?” He clung to the door and twisted his mouth a little.
“Liam called, said you’d probably come by.”
“Oh, did he?” Liam did not wait around.
The kid nodded, then he opened the door and stood to the side. “She’s gonna be back soon, you might as well wait inside. It’s fucking cold outside.”
“Oh,” was all Harry said before he followed the kid in. He wasn’t sure what to make of him just letting him straight into his home. For someone who lived with the missing girl’s best friend, you’d think he’d be a little more wary of strangers.
The kid lead him to the living area, which was kind of small but there was a fireplace going and a dining table that overlooked the mountains. Harry wasn’t going to complain.
The room itself was open plan. It had the kitchen separated by a half wall, then the dining area with the table next to a few couches that faced the TV in the corner.
The kid dropped himself on the couch that faced away from Harry so he disappeared completely from view, and then he switched the TV off mute. It was playing some cartoon that Harry was too old to recognise now.
And that was that, apparently. Harry took one of the seats at the dining table and they sat in silence. Harry waiting for this Dot girl, however far away she was. He tried to feel less awkward, but the kid was too engrossed in the TV to pick up on the clearing of Harry’s throat, his attempts to start a conversation.
So Harry just watched the TV over the top of the couch.
Then he looked out the window.
Then he looked at the floor and realised he hadn’t taken his boots off. And he’d left wet marks on the wood underfoot.
Harry twisted his mouth. He didn’t know what to do.
At midday, fifteen minutes after Harry had arrived, the back door suddenly opened.
A huntaway came bustling through the door and ran straight for Harry. It didn’t just wag its tail, more so its entire body, as it stuffed his face into Harry’s lap.
A blonde girl came through the door then, calling the dog — Georgie — to get down from Harry. And then she suddenly realised that Harry wasn’t a friend, or a family member, or anyone that should have been in her house. A stranger.
She stopped in her tracks halfway through the door. Cold air whipped in from behind her.
“Oh,” was all she said. Georgie went to her side.
Harry quickly remembered himself and stood up, stuck out a hand, and gave a smile.
“Hi,” he said, “I’m Harry Styles. I’m from The Herald. You must be Dot?”
“Uh, yeah,” she said, pulling off her jacket.
“Sorry to intrude, um, your brother—" he didn’t know what to call the kid on the sofa, he never got a name— “uh, I was let in to wait for you. I’m writing a story about your friend, Sarah, and why some of the town doesn’t think she moved to her mum’s.”
“Yeah, she’s dead.”
Harry gave pause at that. She said it with such seriousness, such matter of fact.
“Could I interview you about why you think that?”
“Is anything actually gonna come out of it this time?”
“Yeah, we’ve talked before but nothing ever happens. The journos just come and go and nothing happens . No one believes us.”
The door opened again.
And Harry suddenly couldn’t ask her why not?
Because Harry recognised the man that came through the door.
He wasn’t old, but he was older, his skin darker and harsher, and he had the shadow of a chin not shaved in a week. But it was definitely him.
It was 1am when they met.
Harry was on the edge of a conversation, sitting outside with the smokers as he toked up, and he was staring out over the balcony, out towards the lights of the city. The night was still warm, the bannister next to him was something cool to rest his head against.
Zayn was talking about something to do with one of the girls inside. Something about a redhead, or a girl in a red dress. Harry wasn’t paying much attention.
His thoughts were fuzzy, as warm and airy as the sky above them.
The Sky Tower blinked in the distance. Harry took a drag of his joint and blew a cloud out towards it, watching as the smoke drifted away with the breeze. In this light, the smoke looked like charcoal.
Harry turned back towards the flat and watched everyone inside. The music was a dull bounce behind the sliding glass doors, and someone’s cheap coloured lights spun around the room. Harry could see everyone stuffed in the tiny flat, all trying to seem like they hadn’t already drunk half their ciders, hadn’t scoffed back entire bottles of wine and gone on the hunt for drinks that didn’t belong to them. Because they were third years by now. They weren’t messy anymore.
Parties were chill now, not just piss ups.
It was an okay party. Harry knew about half the people here. He’d slept with a few of them, they were alright. He wasn’t much of a Grindr guy. But mostly this crowd was made up of Zayn’s friends, and he’d changed a lot through uni. He’d gone from regular guy with regular friends to hanging out with the kids that wore shitty thrifted clothes, and had even shittier tattoos. The kind of uni kids that never smiled in photos, and always had film cameras ready to go. Not that any of those things were bad per se. A lot of people in there were a laugh, a good time. Decent. But a room full of them made Harry feel on edge, like he was one bad joke away from being exiled to The Couch — to where he could watch them party, but where no one would invite him into their conversations about some band he should apparently already know about.
It felt like while Harry was a bit different, a bit weird, it wasn’t quite the approved brand of it.
So he stuck with the stoners outside, the other kids too unbothered by brands and hook ups to join in on the fun. On the party drugs and the lipstick marks.
The kids out here would laugh at his jokes, or have a genuine go at the fun, shitty pop songs he couldn’t get out of his head. They were just there to actually enjoy themselves, grab a bit of bliss, and maybe a pie later.
Harry watched Kate dance her circles in the middle of the room inside, the lights shining up her vinyl pants and glinting against her cat eye sunglasses. Her lipstick was kind of smudged, and Harry smiled. She must have hooked up with Ryan like she was planning. She looked happy.
Just behind her though, was a guy that Harry didn’t recognise. He was sitting on the dreaded couch, watching over the party. Or looking up at the party. He was kind of small. The couch seemed to swallow him.
Except he didn’t sit on the couch like he’d been left there to think about how he wasn’t quite cool enough. He had his legs apart, was leaning back into the pillows like he was on a throne, and he was laughing up at Kate and her barefoot dance moves.
He had a different kind of cool to the other kids here. The kind of cool that he didn’t have to think about, didn’t have to curate. He was only wearing a black t-shirt and black jeans.
Out of everyone in the room, in their intentionally mismatched outfits, he should have faded into the background.
But Harry couldn’t take his eyes off him.
And then the guy glanced over and they caught each other’s eyes. Harry was too fuzzy to know if he knew Harry had been staring for several minutes, taking in the way his wrists curved and taking that as a sign.
A confirmation that this guy was up for the taking.
What Harry did know is that as soon as the guy inside caught his eye, he let his smile slip a bit. He stared back a little too long, and Harry took that as confirmation too.
“Hey Zayn,” Harry started, not taking his eyes away. “Who’s that?”
Zayn didn’t answer so Harry let his staring go and smacked his shoulder.
“What?” Zayn asked, taken aback.
“Who’s that guy inside? Do you know him?”
“On the couch, wearing all black.”
Zayn looked inside, all too obviously, and then shrugged, “Dunno.”
“Who’d he come with?”
“How would I know?”
Harry bit his lip and debated just going and introducing himself, but when he looked back through the doors, the guy was gone. So instead he went to go pee and get himself another drink.
Harry didn’t have any more drinks. Someone had taken the rest of them, had stuffed their hands down the back of one of the couches where he’d hidden them and bloody taken them all. He looked around the room for the culprits and only saw four of his cans, empty, on the floor.
So Harry went back outside empty handed.
The guy was standing with his hip against the balcony, quietly listening to the boys tell stories about actually good parties they’d been to earlier in the year.
He didn’t quite look a part of the conversation.
When Harry pulled the door open to let himself out, he looked up, and Harry swore he could see the guy’s face kind of change. He wasn’t quite sure how though.
“Hey Harry,” Zayn grinned from where the guy couldn’t see his face, then he raised his eyebrows. Winked.
Harry gave him a smile and tried to say a tiny fuck you with his eyebrows. “Hey Zayn.”
Harry took his seat back, so the guy was standing between him and Zayn, and Zayn offered Harry a new joint.
Harry took it, took his drag, and because it was the right thing to do, he offered it to the guy between them.
He took it, and their fingers touched for a moment too long.
Not long enough.
“Hey,” Harry said, trying to keep his tone casual, as the guy took a drag.
He raised his eyebrows, and then blew out smoke as he, seemingly all too carefully, said back, “Hey.”
“Haven’t seen you before,” Harry was really trying to keep himself together, but the knots in his stomach were getting as fuzzy as the smoke in his brain.
“Yeah, Kate invited me. Interesting crowd.”
“Not your thing?”
“They seem... nice. I guess,” he was keeping his tone as civil as possible. Too civil.
Harry chuckled, and the guy caught on, seemed relieved that Harry was in on the joke. The tension fell away between them.
“I feel like I can’t mention that Wrecking Ball is actually a great song,” Harry added for good measure.
“Is it?” The guy asked, scrunching up his nose, his tone overly dubious. Joking though. “I feel like you can’t top The Climb .”
“Okay, but what about Can’t Be Tamed . That bird costume was the shit.”
And that was that.
That was the beginning.
They went from Miley Cyrus’ discography, to what music they actually seriously were into when it didn’t come to singing in the car, and then moved on to everything else they were into and they stayed out there until 3am.
Until Zayn and everyone had left and it was just the two of them, sitting in shitty plastic chairs with their ankles touching.
His name was Louis, rhymed with bluey, the colour of his eyes. And he’d smacked Harry’s shoulder when Harry had said that, but he laughed anyway.
When the party had completely died, they snuck their way past sleeping bodies and out to find the kebabs that Harry raved about.
And then their hands found each other and they never quite let go.
That was the first thing Louis said. The only thing.
And then the girl, Dot, whipped her head around and said, “You know him?”
Louis didn’t respond. He just stood in the doorway, shoes half off, and stared at Harry.
Harry stared back.
The kids both stared at the two of them, even the boy had turned his head to look around the side of the couch.
And then the boy broke the silence. The cold, deafening silence.
“He’s here to interview Dot about Sarah.”
Harry nodded and tried to form a sentence, “Uh, yeah. I’m writing a story on her di—"he couldn’t get the word out, not now that the man that had disappeared on him was standing right there— “her leaving. I want to actually get to the bottom of it, and give you guys some closure.”
Louis just slowly nodded.
And then he seemed to forget everything that had caused the silence between them, because he kicked off his remaining shoe and shut the door behind him.
“Did Ernie offer you a drink at all?” He didn’t quite look Harry in the eye as he made his way to the kitchen area.
“No,” Dot said matter of factly, “he’s just watched TV this whole time.”
Dot flicked Ernie’s hair and then dumped herself on the seat next to Harry and looked at him, entirely interested. Her eyes full of questions.
Louis ignored Ernie’s lack of manners and turned on the kettle. He kept his tone level as he asked Harry, “Tea or coffee?”
It wasn’t the question Harry wanted him to ask, it wasn’t, do you want to know what I’ve been doing all this time?
Louis nodded and quietly made them all drinks. It seemed his way to deal with this strange situation was to pretend it wasn’t strange at all, to treat Harry like any other kind of house guest.
Harry could still feel the static between them.
Dot spoke then, “So you’re going to actually find her.”
Harry shifted his feet and turned to face her properly, “Yeah. Hopefully. I just need to get everyone’s side of the story first.”
“Which is why you want to talk to us.”
“I’ll go and get everything then,” Dot jumped up and left the room. And it went quiet. Only the TV could be heard, but Ernie had clearly turned it down, the voices on it were a fuzzy mumble.
Louis came over then. He carefully put a mug in front of Harry and a plate of biscuits between them, and then pulled out the seat opposite Harry.
Trepidatiously, Louis offered him a smile, “You’ve got an accent now.”
Harry lifted his mug to his lips and let the hot tea go down his throat. It was exactly how Harry liked it.
“Mm, London,” Harry replied, not quite taking his mouth from the mug.
“So you became the big journalist you always wanted, then.”
“Why come back to New Zealand? There’s not much to report on over here, is there?”
“Seems that way, doesn’t it,” Harry said, not really answering the question.
Harry wanted to ask what Louis had been doing, why he’d turned up on a farm in the middle of the South Island. Why he’d gone back to his family.
But something was stopping him, there was a wall that Harry couldn’t get over. Didn’t want to get over. He wanted to know, but he also didn’t. He’d made up so many reasons for Louis to leave without a word. Some were good, some were terrible. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know which were true.
So he settled on a compliment instead.
Georgie was sitting under the table, her nose right near Harry’s foot.
Louis smiled at that and nodded. “Yeah, we got her a few years back. She’s a good one.”
Ernie, still lying across his couch, said nothing. Seemed to be completely ignoring this whole thing.
“Thought she might help that one over there a bit more,” Louis said, nodding towards Ernie, “but alas. She’s good at rounding up the herd.”
Help with what? Harry wanted to ask but Ernie was right there. It seemed rude. And Dot was walking back through the hallway, her arms full of papers and things.
Louis gave a soft knowing smile when he saw her.
Dot dropped all her things on the table and looked at Harry, hands on her hips. “Are you going to record this?”
Harry could only look up at her and try to answer correctly. “If that’s alright?”
“Good. This needs to be on the record.”
She waited expectantly as Harry pulled out his own things and set up. As soon as he pressed the red record button, off she went.
“Okay, hi. This is Doris Deakin. But everyone calls me Dot around here. I’m sixteen years old, and I am — or was — the best friend of Sarah Hannah Walker.”
She’d clearly had an interest in true crime podcasts. Harry nodded to tell her she was doing great.
“Sarah went missing on July 18th, 2019. I think she’s dead. The police say she went to live with her mum, down in Invercargill. They say her mum called them and said she’d turned up. And she posted about wanting to get out of Lake Tekapo, here’s a screenshot.”
She pulled out a stack of paper, all screenshots of Sarah’s Facebook account, and then pointed to one with the infamous post on it. Ernie popped his head over the back of the couch to watch, his head resting on his arm.
“But Sarah hated her mum. She left her and her dad when she was six. Like ten years ago. When she left them, Sarah would always come over and spend weeks here. I don’t think her dad was coping very well. It doesn’t make sense to me that she would run away to live with her mum when she never liked her. Then there’s the posts she made after that. She posted twice to her instagram. Apparently to confirm that she was pregnant. I don’t believe that either. She would have told me if she was pregnant. We would have helped her.”
Dot looked up to Louis and he nodded to her.
“And she didn’t have a boyfriend or anything. I tried to message her to find out what happened. If something happened between her and her dad, or anyone, she could have lived with us. We have the room. She knows we could have helped. But she never replied to me. She hasn’t replied to any of us. She hasn’t opened any of my messages since August last year, right when she posted her last instagram photo — the one of the baby’s dress.”
Dot pulled out a screen shot of that too.
“You printed everything?” Harry asked, interrupting her.
“Well, yeah. What if her page gets hacked or deleted or something? People say once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever, but that’s not true.”
Harry just nodded and let her continue.
“I really think someone had her phone and was pretending to be her to make people think she was still alive so that the police wouldn’t catch them.”
“So let me get this straight, you think Sarah was murdered and that the killer was posting to her social media so that they wouldn’t get caught.”
“That’s a big statement,” Harry turned to Louis. “What do you make of all this?”
Louis gave Dot a reassuring smile and said adamantly, “I believe Dot. Sarah was a good kid. For the last few years she’d talked about wanting to become a vet after she finished school, so her moving to Invercargill to raise a kid was a bit of a leap.”
“Was she good at school then?”
“Yeah,” Dot answered, “better than me. Better than everyone, really. She was really good at science and math.”
Harry nodded, trying to take everything in.
“Here’s some photos of us as kids,” Dot added, pulling out an album and pushing it over to Harry. She leaned over him as he flicked through it. The book was filled with Dot and Ernie as young kids playing with a blonde girl — Sarah. Louis was in the background of some of them, looking bright and tan and on the cusp of adulthood. He’d be 16 or 17.
There were other people too, adults. None of them looked like Louis or Dot or Ernie, so Harry couldn’t really guess which were their parents.
“We used to spend every summer holiday at the lake, Louis would meet up with his friends and take us all to camp out there. We’d go swimming sometimes but the Lake is always fucking cold—"
“Language,” Louis said with the hint of a grin.
“Well it is! And besides, cursing is hardly the most important thing to be worrying about now, Lou.”
Louis just raised his eyebrows and took a sip of his drink.
“So,” Harry started, trying to get back on topic, “who would do something to Sarah?”
Dot dropped back into her seat and put her head in her hands. It took awhile for her to answer, and when she did it came with a sigh, “I don’t know.”
Harry looked to Louis.
He just shrugged and then put a hand to Dot’s back, rubbed little circles.
“I think,” Louis said, “this is a lot for a teen to think about, let alone anyone. As much as you want to help, Harry, Dot’s already talked as much as she can. We’ve had this conversation time and time again, with other reporters and Liam and anyone who will listen—"
“I’m gonna keep talking until something happens,” Dot cut in. “This isn’t something you let go. Haven’t you seen her dad? He sits at home all day doing nothing — that’s not fair.”
Louis took a breath and tried to keep his tone reassuring, even when what he said wasn’t, “Sometimes life isn’t fair, Dot. You know that as well as anyone.”
Dot stared at Louis, bored her eyes into him, and then abruptly got up from the table and left the room.
Where Louis had had his hand on Dot’s back, it was let hanging sadly. He quietly dropped it to the table and looked at it pensively.
“Sorry,” Harry offered, as though it was him who’d done something.
Louis just slowly shook his head, “No, it’s fine. She likes to talk. It’s hard for her to listen sometimes.”
There was a quiet moment, a moment that almost started to get awkward before Louis cut it short, “Hey Erns, do you have anything to add before Harry goes?”
Ernie looked back at them hesitantly, trying to look like he’d just heard his name and hadn’t been listening to the whole thing. He turned his lip and thought for a moment, and then finally pushed himself out of the seat and came over to Harry’s equipment.
His body language was entirely shy, his shoulders hunched forward and his hair fell in his face. He leaned right over Harry’s microphone and let out a quiet, “Uh, my name’s Ernest Deakin. I’m fourteen. I went to school with Sarah and my sister was her best friend. Sarah was cool, but I don’t know anything.”
Harry couldn’t help it, he needed to ask just one question. So he gave it a shot and hoped he wouldn’t scare Ernie away.
“Do you think Sarah is alive?”
He shrugged. And then he walked out of the room.
“He’s pretty quiet nowadays,” Louis offered when he’d left.
“Teenagers,” Harry tried to sympathise.
Louis didn’t say anything to that, but he did stand to clear away the table and offer Harry one of the untouched biscuits. Harry shook his head and started packing away.
And then it went quiet. The two of them packing up, silent and timid and both too scared to say the wrong thing. Ask the wrong question. In the background, the TV kept at its quiet hum, and Harry couldn’t catch a thought. He couldn’t think about anything Dot and Ernie had told him, and he couldn’t think about Louis. No thought came into focus. All he could do was watch his hands put his phone away.
When Harry tried to be polite and tidy up Dot’s collection, Louis stopped him and said it was fine. She could do it later.
And then Louis was leading him through the hallway to the front door, and Harry could feel the cold air prick his skin before the door even opened. He could feel ice collect in his stomach and tell him he shouldn’t just leave. There was something left unsaid, hanging in the air around him. Something dark and clouded and lonely and Harry knew it was because Louis was looking at with his those bluey eyes. There was something so indecipherable in the lines that had started to accumulate around them.
Louis opened the front door for him and the icy air rushed in, blew Harry’s hair into his face. Cold winter sun bleached his vision.
And all the anticipation building inside Harry fell to his stomach.
“Um,” Louis started, hovering in the doorway. Looking down at Harry standing on the front step. “If we, uh, Dot wants to talk again…”
There was a long pause. It felt like Louis was asking more than one question.
“If she wants to keep this up, how can we get in contact with you?”
His voice was soft, shy. A little more husky than Harry remembered. He smiled at the end.
And it felt strange, disarming, that Louis could have hurt Harry so bad, walked away without a word, and still stand here and seem so unsure. So timid. Exactly like the day Louis fell into his life the first time.
Was it the guilt? Was that how Louis wore his mistakes? By being coy and trying to act as though nothing had happened?
“Um,” Harry said, finally answering his question. “Just text me.”
“Text you,” Louis repeated, slightly nodding to himself as if he should still have Harry’s number. As if Harry hadn’t changed it in the years since he’d lived on the other side of the world.
“Give this to Dot,” Harry said, trying to keep his cool as he dug a business card from his jacket pocket, trying to emphasize that it was for Dot only.
Though, deep down, Harry wasn’t sure how convincing he wanted to be.
Harry wanted to turn and walk back to his car, but Louis still hovered. And Harry wasn’t sure how to say goodbye. Him and Louis had never done goodbye before.
Louis seemed to bounce on his feet and then, quietly, managed to get the words out. “How long are you here for?”
Harry bit his lip and pushed his hands deep into his pockets, where they’d be warmest. “Um.”
He hadn’t given himself a date. The Herald paid him per piece, he had his motel booked for three weeks, but in this very moment Harry didn’t know what the right answer was. He should have given Louis a short few days, so they could both escape this strange energy that kept Harry’s jaw locked tight and his stomach twisted. But as much as that energy pushed Harry away, made him want to run, it pulled him too. It pulled him to ask more questions, to find out what had become of Louis, because that’s who Harry had become — a journalist, a digger of secrets.
So he stuck with the truth.
“A few weeks, but that could change.”
That could change .
The words hung in the air.
And then Louis said the words he’d never said before.
“Okay. Bye Harry.”
Harry didn’t say it back. He nodded his head and turned to the car.
Snow crunched under his feet and it felt like with each step, the world was getting bigger. Colder.
Harry floated, staring up at the spotless sky. It was so bright, so blue. So warm.
Somewhere near him, he could hear the soft laps of Louis wading towards him. The sounds of his hands dipping in and out of the ocean as he pushed his way over.
Each shallow wave bobbed Harry a little from side to side, making the one fluffy cloud in the sky shift a centimetre.
Harry closed his eyes. Louis’ splashes were getting closer, a little louder over the sounds of kids jumping over waves and seagulls diving for rogue hot chips.
He liked the feeling of this, the front half of his body warm under the sun, the bottom half cool below salt water. It reminded him of his childhood, long summer days spent racing under hose water spray in the garden, of ice cream on street corners. Of orange slices during football half times. He’d grown up loving the days that were too hot, he was always better at cooling down than heating up.
The water around him shifted and slipped over his shoulders, down his chest, and then Louis’ hands were under his back, and sliding to hook themselves under his armpits. His chin came to rest on Harry’s shoulder and he pulled him closer so Harry could feel how slick Louis’ chest was under the water.
“Hey,” Louis said softly, kissing behind Harry’s ear.
Harry hummed back happily. And moved his hands to cover Louis’ so there was no chance of them floating apart.
They were quiet for a while, feeling only the water shift between them with every lazy roll of wave. Louis’ hands were cold, two stark handprints against his ribs. Cold enough that Harry’s skin pricked and pulled tighter. In the spaces between Louis’ fingers, Harry could feel how his own skin had gone sort of bumpy, how his ribs were a little more pronounced.
He didn’t mind. The sun was warm enough on his face. And so was Louis’ cheek on his.
“Lemme see,” Louis eventually said, breaking the silence like he was splitting warm butter. So soft. As delicate as that cloud.
Harry smiled so Louis could feel it in his cheek, and moved his left arm away from his body. Immediately, Louis smiled back and moved his hand from Harry’s side to his arm, twisting it softly. Fondly.
Harry didn’t need to open his eyes. He was floating under the perfect sun, wrapped in his perfect boy, and he could feel Louis’ smile never leave his face.
“Are you sure it’s okay? It doesn’t itch anymore?” Louis asked, his hand still holding Harry’s bicep so he could see better.
Harry, humorously, hummed a no and then said, “S’all healed now, can’t feel a thing.”
“I can’t believe you got it,” Louis’ tone was filled with wonder. Awe.
“Well I mean, I wanted it—"
“Since you were sixteen, I know,” Louis grinned against Harry’s cheek, “but still, it’s such a statement. People will see it and know so much about you.”
“It’s just a star,” Harry shrugged without thinking, making water lap too close to his lip. “Only people who already know what it symbolises will get it. Besides, what’s wrong with people knowing things about me?”
Louis stroked Harry’s new tattoo, his first one, the outline of a single star, and was quiet a long moment. Harry could feel his heartbeat, a consistent delicate bounce, underwater.
Eventually, Louis whispered, “Nothing, love.”
Harry thought nothing of it.
The next thing for Harry to do was to talk to the other police officer, Sergeant Gregory Russell. Or Greg.
The one who’d taken the phone call from Sarah’s mum. The call that seemed to send this whole story spiralling in two directions.
But he couldn’t, because Greg was apparently at work. He’d stopped by the station and asked for him, but the lady behind the desk had turned Harry away. Sternly.
So Harry went to finally check into his motel. Where he could lay in bed and work through all the thoughts flying through his head. The thoughts that should have been about the case, but were about Louis instead.
Lying on his bed, heat pump on full blast, Harry stared at the ceiling and let the past wash over him.
He remembered the night he first met Louis, and the morning after. How they’d walked all the way to the waterfront with their kebabs, watched the sun come up and then fallen asleep right there on the beach. How they’d woken up hungover and disgruntled by people jogging by, giving them strange looks, and how they’d laughed it off.
Because they were still young enough to laugh off a hangover.
Harry thought about their first kiss, a week later when Louis came to Harry’s flat under the pretense of simply watching a movie, but where they’d eaten Chinese food and made out on Harry’s bed with The Lost Boys playing in the background.
And he thought about all their other firsts too. The first time Louis spent the night in his bed, tucked between Harry’s arms as they fell asleep to the sound of Matt Corby, and then the first time they’d finally slept together. It was after they skipped out on classes because it was too sunny, too warm, and all Harry could remember was how the breeze had whipped at the curtains in time to every kiss he left on Louis’ body.
There was the first time they went to a party as a couple, where Zayn couldn’t stop grinning, and Louis didn’t leave Harry’s lap.
And then there was the week before exams where they made a home in the library and fed each other hot chips and shitty vending machine snacks. They’d spent 28 hours straight at their table, cooped up in hoodies and an actual blanket Harry had brought with him. They were trying to cram every answer they could into their sleep-starved brains, but Harry couldn’t retain much more than how it felt to have Louis’ thumb on his leg be his only source of reassurance.
Harry couldn’t pinpoint exactly when it was that Louis’ belongings started making their way into his room, and then the rest of their flat. When he just stopped going to his own flat all together. But he could remember the last time he’d been there. Everything had seemed perfectly normal. He was the same happy, bubbly Louis that he always was. They’d been talking about renting a room together when Harry’s lease was up in a month, and how Louis wanted Harry to meet his family too — maybe they could go see them at the end of the new semester.
Harry went to work.
And when he came home, Louis wasn’t there anymore.
His smell was, the finger prints he’d left on his records and his laptop screen were. And the split in the curtains where Louis had never quite closed them was too.
But Louis wasn’t.
And he never came back.
He’d opened Harry’s messages on Facebook, but he never replied. And then he stopped opening messages all together. And he never posted on his Instagram or Facebook again. And he stopped going to university.
It was eerily similar to Sarah’s disappearance. The suddenness of it. The waning of messages and social media presence.
Maybe there was something in the water around here.
At dinner time, after Harry had written down his thoughts about Sarah Walker and the questions he wanted to ask Greg, he looked up where to eat around here.
The pub seemed like a reliable choice.
So Harry threw on a navy jumper, his massive coat and his boots, and then walked across the road.
Liam was there, not in uniform. He was sitting at the bar, beer in one hand and phone in the other. He waved at Harry as soon as he made it inside and peeled off his jacket.
Naturally, Harry made his way over.
Liam didn’t just give him a handshake this time. He stood and gave Harry a proper hug, asked him how he was and what he wanted to drink.
Harry decided on cider. He hated beer.
He settled into his seat and asked Liam if he’d had dinner already.
“Nah, not yet. I’m just waiting on Lou, we always do Saturday nights together.”
“Lou?” Harry asked, trying to keep the emotion out of his voice.
“Louis Tomlinson, if you got around to Dot’s today, you must have met him.”
Harry felt his heart sink, his stomach too.
“Oh. Yeah,” he tried to think of a reason to leave before it was too late, before Louis walked through that door.
But the doors swung open and there was Louis, swallowed by his jacket.
He hadn’t seen Harry yet, was too busy taking the thing off.
And then he did.
And Harry held his breath. And his grip around his glass tightened. The condensation around it collected along his finger. It was ice cold. Sent a shiver down his spine.
Harry didn’t know where to look. Louis had already met his eye.
And his face was unreadable. Taken aback, or confused, maybe. His eyes tightened for a millisecond.
“Louis!” Liam grinned, standing up to hug him exactly as he’d hugged Harry. Tight. Friendly. “This is Harry, I think you met earlier.”
Louis nodded and gave Harry a sheepish smile.
Harry couldn’t leave now.
He could’ve, really. Should’ve.
But he couldn’t.
Which made dinner tense. To begin with. Because when they sat down, Liam was asking how Harry’s story was coming along, if he’d figured anything out, and Harry had to try and keep his answers as on topic as possible.
All he wanted to say was how he’d only left with more questions, but they were all about the man sitting across from him.
And he wasn’t drunk enough to ask them.
Luckily, Liam did most of the talking. He could talk about anything. Or nothing. The guy seemed like he’d even manage to talk about the colour of the carpet, a greyish shoe-scuffed red. He kept the conversation alive, and as least awkward as possible, until the waitress came over for their order.
“How’s the shed coming along?” He asked, just after Louis asked for the usual and gave the waitress his menu.
“Um,” Louis replied, sounding thoughtful. But conscious. “It’s going. Dot helped me get a lot done this morning.”
“She’s a good one, that kid.”
Louis hummed. And he kept glancing at Harry. Glancing everywhere but his face.
“If only Erns wasn’t so lazy, you’d have it done by now,” Liam tried to sound joking, but Louis didn’t laugh.
“He’ll get there in his own time.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Liam said, his smile fading. “I know.”
“How is he going, then?” Liam asked, trying to give Louis a reassuring smile instead.
Louis kind of shuffled in his seat, glanced at Harry again, and didn’t really respond.
Instead he shrugged and just said, “You know.”
Again, Harry didn’t.
It felt like Louis was talking in code, was entirely aware that he was talking in front of someone who did not need to be a part of this conversation.
Harry played with the knife and fork on his napkin, made them line up perfectly. Tried to show that he wasn’t going to insert himself into the conversation and ask something he shouldn’t.
He could feel Louis looking at him as he took a sip of his own drink, beer.
And then Liam spoke again, to Harry, “Do you have any siblings, Harry?”
“Yeah, just a sister — Gemma,” Louis had already met her, but he didn’t mention that. “She’s a few years older than me.”
“What’s she do?” Louis asked. It caught Harry off guard, that he should talk straight to him. That he should break the unspoken rule that had grown between them since Louis had walked in.
Harry could sense the real question, what’s she doing since I last saw her?
Harry took a sip of his drink, two sips, “She’s a lecturer these days, got a husband and a kid.”
The answer didn’t quite make sense for the words that had actually made their way out of Louis’ mouth. It was too friendly, too intimate, too much of an update and not an introduction.
But Louis nodded and let out the faintest of smiles, “A kid?”
“A daughter, Rose. She’s almost two now.”
“I like that name, she sounds cute.”
“Yeah, she’s got the Styles’ curls already.”
And Louis smiled even more, and it felt like the conversation had lost all pretense, all means of disguising itself as mere small talk.
“We’ve gotta see a photo, come on,” Liam interjected, smiling. Completely unaware.
So Harry pulled out his phone and showed them all the photos that Gemma had shared to her Instagram.
Both Louis and Liam leaned over the table to see closer, and Louis seemed to forget himself because he reached out to cup the edges of Harry’s phone. Where Harry’s fingers were. They touched for a millisecond before Louis collected himself and let them hover instead.
“She’s cute,” He said, looking up at Harry from behind his eyelashes. Louis’ eyes seemed darker now, but maybe it was because it was the first time he was seeing them in six years without the pixels of a phone screen.
It was the first time he was seeing Louis this close without photos he’d searched up on his idle Instagram page. The one he stopped posting to as soon as he left Harry.
Harry felt the static between their hands then. The same static he’d felt the first time they’d met, in the second when Harry had handed Louis that blunt.
Except now it was curdled with something else. Louis’ hands were cold.
So was the shiver down Harry’s back.
The waitress brought out their food.
Harry sat back into his seat, placed his phone on the table next to his drink and quickly took another gulp. The cold fizz distracted from the icy feeling growing in the pit of Harry’s stomach. Made his cheeks warm instead.
Harry took a few more sips before he took a fork to his food. It made it easier to swallow.
Liam got him a refill immediately, so he had some of that too.
The food was decent, he couldn’t complain. So they ate for a while as Liam talked about some of his crazy cop stories. Which weren’t crazy by international standards but, Harry supposed, for a small town cop they were pretty good.
Stories of pranks in police college, and getting Greg good when it was a quiet Tuesday night.
And then Louis asked Harry if he had any crazy stories from overseas. And just like the first time, it caught Harry off guard.
For someone who’d left Harry in his dust, moved on without a word, he sure was interested in what he’d gotten up to since he’d gone.
Harry, though, was starting to feel a wave of warmth spread through his veins. So he didn’t mind telling him.
“I found a body once.”
Louis raised his eyebrows.
“I was doing a story on a new synthetic drug that had recently hit the streets, and I was meant to interview this kid that had really gone off the deep end—"
Harry had to swallow before he continued. The picture of that kid lying frozen on a mouldy mattress was still seared into his brain. “I’ve seen some shit, but yeah — that was probably one of the worst.”
He didn’t have the words to actually describe what he’d seen. How he’d knocked on the door and when no answer came, went around to the back garden and saw him, Jordan, the kid he’d been talking to for weeks, only fifteen and living on the streets, through one of the windows.
“Shit,” was all Louis said. And then, “sorry.”
“Perks of the job,” Harry stated, taking another drink.
“Speaking of perks, I heard you were trying to talk to Greg today,” Liam added, trying to lighten the mood.
“I should probably give you a personal word of warning, then. No one knows him better.”
“You probably won’t get anything out of him.”
Harry twisted his mouth, nodded slightly.
“But,” Liam added, “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll give him a nag.”
“Only if it’s not a hassle,” Harry offered. He couldn’t believe his luck to have a cop so keen on a reporter’s work.
“Anything with Greg’s a hassle,” Louis added, laughing a bit to himself.
Harry looked over at his drink and saw it was almost finished. One sip left.
And Louis used to be a light-weight.
“That’s true,” Liam grinned back, waving at the waitress for another round. “What’s next on your agenda, Harry?”
“Well,” Harry replied, “I’ll probably go and get some statements from some of the other locals tomorrow.”
“Don’t talk to Hamish,” Louis jumped in, grinning a little. He was looking at Harry in the eye now.
It was some sort of inside joke that Harry didn’t get but Liam did. Some sort of small town thing, because he snorted and agreed.
Louis answered, “He’s the ranger—"
“-And he’ll talk your bloody ear off,” Liam added, “probably because he spends so much time up in the mountains alone.”
“He’s starting to lose his marbles, I think,” Louis said, “the amount of times he’s told me off for Ernie hanging around up there, I swear.”
“Is it impossible for Ernie to have been up there?”
“Ernie doesn’t go anywhere,” Louis said, something in his voice. Something warning.
Ernie seemed to be a touchy topic, so Harry left it and asked Liam about the other characters about town.
“Well, there’s Niall. He used to work here every Saturday, but he does the day shifts now.”
“Because unfortunately for him, he’s Irish,” Louis added, “which meant he never got a break from the ladies around here.”
“Sounds like a charmer,” Harry commented as the waitress set their next round down. It was starting to look like a long night.
“Yeah,” Louis replied, sitting back into his seat a little further as he looked at Harry. “It’s amazing what an accent can do.”
If Harry wasn’t three drinks in, he would have toppled out of his seat. And he would have let the chasm Louis had dug between them stay wide open.
He wouldn’t have looked at Louis enough to notice the twitch of a smile at the corner of his mouth convincing him to build a bridge.
With those few words Louis said, the energy in the room completely changed.
The static electrified.
Awkward glances became little catches of the eye.
As Liam got more drunk and talked more and more about whatever show he was currently watching, Harry would keep catching Louis looking at him.
And with each fresh drink, Harry would let Louis catch him looking at him.
It became easier for Harry to talk, to actually talk like he was with friends just made. To let his guard down. The quiet music around the pub seemed to get louder, and Harry could have sworn the lights dimmed.
He could feel alcohol swishing around his stomach by now, and it felt like with each round of laughs their table had, he was taking another step towards something he was going to regret.
When Liam had to excuse himself to the toilet, Louis leaned in further over the table and Harry felt their knees knock together.
“Is that a tattoo?” Louis asked, nodding his head to the anchor that peeked out from Harry’s jumper sleeve.
Harry pulled his sleeve back a bit to show the whole anchor, and the beginnings of the rest of his tattoo sleeve.
And then Louis reached out and put his hands on Harry’s wrist so he could look properly.
“Remember when you got that star.”
Of course Harry did, Louis was there with him when he got it.
“I filled it in.”
And then the energy seemed to change again. It seemed to shift like a tide line, in and out. Back and forth.
There was something dark lurking again, and Harry didn’t like it. It didn’t mix well with the taste of cider. So he added, “It stands out more now that it’s solid black.”
Louis nodded and then Liam came back.
They moved from their seats to one of the pool tables in the corner of the room, and it was there that Harry felt the energy swell back up again. It was there that in the low lamps above their table, he saw some sort of anticipation in Louis’ eyes. He blew on his pool cue and he held Harry’s eyes when he did it. When he bent to take aim, Harry could have sworn he saw his back arch.
And he was too drunk to want to see anything else.
When it was Harry that needed to go toilet, Louis went with him. And he stood too close when Harry washed his hands.
Harry let him.
He’d forgotten how easy it was to be around Louis. How they just fit. How they just gravitated towards each other. And if this wasn’t the second time around, Harry would have already given in and kissed him right there.
He tried so hard to quell the static between them. The push-pull that Harry could actually, physically, feel now. The alcohol in him had gone to his shoes, made them heavy but made him want to walk right up to Louis. Grab him. Pull him close.
Fall into the way they were before.
Harry wanted to escape, he wanted these feelings to go away. He wanted to go back to his motel room and deal with himself and forget all about it. But the fuzz in his mind made those thoughts feel too far to reach, too wispy to grab.
He let Louis follow him back to where Liam was leaning against the pool table on his phone and take the spot right next to him.
He let him knock their knees together again.
He let him walk too close when Liam said he should get a taxi home, and there was already one outside.
And he let himself give Louis a look when Liam said he could share his taxi. A look that said he wouldn’t need it.
As Liam drove away, two red lights fading into the distance, Louis didn’t say anything. He just looked at Harry under the soft glow of the street lamps outside. Then he followed Harry across the road, both too drunk to care about putting their jackets on, to his motel. And then Harry was closing the door behind them.
Harry was letting Louis grab his waist and push him against the door.
Louis was kissing him. Biting at his lips.
Putting his hands in his hair.
Harry needed to catch a breath, but he didn’t want to pull away. He sucked air in hard through his nose as he pushed Louis towards the bed.
Louis fell back and let his hips splay wide and open and loose.
Harry thanked his earlier self for leaving the heat pump on because it was warmer than the pub and he could take his shirt off.
He cursed his future self for knowing he was going to regret this, was going to regret letting himself see the sight of Louis looking up at him like that . Like a wolf.
As Harry stood above him and yanked his belt off, he let Louis take in all the tattoos that covered the rest of his body, the ones across his arm and chest and stomach that he’d collected over the years, and then he bounded to him.
Went straight for his neck.
He pulled at the skin with his tongue, with his teeth, and let Louis grab at his hair.
Harry pulled back to grab Louis’ wrists, to hold them together like shackles above his head, and take back what Louis had taken from him all those years ago.
He held Louis down roughly, grinding down into him as he keened through Harry’s biting kisses. Louis always made these little noises, these tiny moans.
But they sounded strange now, different. Louis was so different.
When Harry pulled off Louis’ jumper and shirt, he actually had hair on his chest. Harry did too, between his two inky swallows.
And Louis had more stubble, enough to graze Harry’s lips so hard that it almost hurt.
As Harry let his hands wander down Louis’ body, grabbing at his shoulders and his waist and his hips, he felt how his skin felt different too.
Looser, but harder. Whipped by the winter winds and beaten by the summer sun. His biceps were bigger, more carved out under his skin.
“So many tattoos,” Louis managed, before Harry kissed him again.
And then they kissed more for what felt like hours. Each kiss alternating between pained and needing and regretful. All of them were hard.
They kissed until Louis’ pulled at Harry’s waistband, until Harry pulled his trousers off and then everything off and they fucked as though they had never made love.
Dancing Queen was playing. It was noon, Christmas Eve. They’d just come back from Omaha beach, trekking up through the flax bushes at the edge of the sand dunes. Harry’s family beach bach backed right down onto it, a thin path only barely visible through the plants. They’d left footprints of sand and grass and mud through the back sliding door, over the lino and right onto the living room carpet.
Louis was dancing, his red shorts still damp and his T-shirt sticking to where he hadn’t quite dried himself on his lower back. He was swooping back and forth, turning in circles as Harry poured himself an icy drink of water at the kitchen bench.
It was way too hot. Harry tipped the water back as Louis bounced his way over to him, mouthing young and sweet only seventeen as he went. He was so thirsty, salt water parching his lips, so he tipped it back more. A stream of water slid down his chin, dripping onto his stomach.
Harry was shirtless and he didn’t ignore how Louis’ hands went around his stomach, sliding right across the wet he’d just dripped.
Louis kept bouncing, dancing up and down on the spot, as he hugged himself around Harry’s back. Dig in the dancing queen, Louis sung, finally out loud, as he squeezed Harry and then started to pull him towards the square of carpet between the couches and the TV.
Harry let himself be pulled away, just barely managing to set the glass down on the bench before he’d be too far away and it would smash on the ground. Louis kept bopping as he pulled him along, moving his hands to slot into Harry’s so he could pull him from over his shoulder.
The house was stuck in the 70s, walls covered in tacky yellow flowers and floor covered in tawny speckled carpet. It was the kind of carpet that would easily hide the footprints they’d trekked in. The couches were all horrible too, yellowish brown with wooden armrests. Harry loved it though, it was the house he’d spent all his summers visiting. The room always smelled of the pine trees they’d stood up in the corner every christmas.
Louis stopped when he’d made it into the middle of the room and spun around so he was facing Harry, and then he grabbed Harry’s other hand so he was holding both of them. He started to swing their arms from side to side at the same time he started to sing at the top of his lungs.
Harry couldn’t help but laugh as he started to move with him, quickly turning Louis in a circle and up against his chest.
“You are the dancing queen!” Louis yelled, purposely trying to sound bad as he dramatically flung his head back against Harry’s bicep.
Harry laughed again. And then he bit down on the exposed side of Louis’ neck.
“Heey,” Louis laughed, squirming away. “You’re ruining my song.”
Louis spun himself out from Harry’s body and stood on one of the couches. He held onto just one of Harry’s hands, their arms fully extended between them, as Louis dramatically crooned the words at him. He curled his free hand in spectacular circles as he moved from seat cushion to seat cushion, pulling Harry along with him.
Harry bounced along with him, just happy to be there.
As the song came to an end and dwindled away, Louis came to a dramatic stop, arm flared high above him, head cast up towards it.
Money, Money, Money came on immediately and Louis snapped his head down to Harry and then pulled him close. He brought the hand that wasn’t holding them together to Harry’s chin, curling it emphatically under his jaw. He was a head taller than Harry as he stood on the edge of the couch and he held himself like he held all the power. Like Harry was a girl in a mob movie, waiting to be seduced.
Harry wanted to be seduced.
“I work all night, I work all day,” Louis sang lowly, huskily, right at the perfect time. He was staring right down into Harry, his eyes dark, biting.
Harry continued for him, grinning as he sang, “To pay the bills I have to pay.”
And then Louis pulled Harry right up against his chest, quickly wrapping his arms around him as he tossed his head back and snapping out, “Ain’t it sad!”
Harry laughed airily from where his face was squished against Louis’ chest before pushing him down onto the couch. Louis fell easily, his face happy and flushed. His eyes were so bright against his freshly tanned skin. Harry couldn’t help but stare into them for a moment.
Louis stared at him too, his chest rising and falling quickly. Like he was a little breathless.
“Thanks for bringing me here,” Louis eventually said, not taking his eyes off Harry’s.
“Thank you for coming, Birthday Boy,” Harry said back with a soft smile.
“Which time?” Louis asked. It sounded innocent, but there was a wicked gleam in his eyes.
Harry scrunched his nose, attempting to hide his grin.
“I can come again,” Louis continued, voice light like he was completely innocent. Then he raised his eyebrows devilishly. Delightfully.
“You’ll have to come here, first,” Harry stated, smirking as he rolled back onto the floor.
Louis automatically shifted, dropping his hands to the ground in front of the couch and slowly climbing down to the floor, and then up Harry’s body. He giggled as he did it, finally coming to rest his elbows either side of Harry’s head.
Harry looked up at him, taking in the way his fringe fell away loosely and his eyelashes looked so long. He pictured the way that he could always feel Louis’ lashes whenever they kissed, brushing delicately against his cheekbone.
Harry loved it and he felt like he was coming to love Louis too.
“Hi,” Louis whispered, smiling down at him.
“Hi,” Harry whispered back with a titter.
“Can I kiss you?” Louis asked, his voice was suddenly quiet and the energy in the room shifted. It felt a little more serious. Louis suddenly seemed too far away.
And Louis kissed him.
It was soft, delicate. And even though they’d been like this so many times before, it felt like Louis was only just discovering him, was exploring the way Harry’s lips curved against his for the very first time.
Louis shifted to cradle Harry’s head, his fingers a gentle tickle at the back of his neck. He lowered his face further into Harry’s, deepening the kiss. His mouth was warm and wet against Harry’s, opening slightly with a questioning lick.
Harry let him in, moving his hands to tenderly touch at, hold, Louis’ shoulders. His hands went up his back, past his ribs and near the bumps of his spine. His skin was so smooth, and so warm that Harry swore he could feel the brown of his tan.
Louis kept kissing him, both tender and wanting, until one of his hips shifted against Harry. Until he rubbed them together. It was then that he finally pulled away, merely by a centimetre. Harry could feel his eyelashes brush his skin.
“Can I?” He asked. He always asked this, always so conscious that Harry was willing. It was a hallmark of Louis’, the thing that always came before these moments, as though he was asking can I love you?
Louis smiled softly, thankfully, and he returned his lips to Harry. Harry swore he spelt out letters with his tongue, the most gentle I’ll love you too .
When Harry woke, it was to a headache and an empty bed.
He lay there for a moment, rubbing his eyes in the soft light of the morning. The curtain wasn’t quite closed.
The bed was cool from where sweat had stained his sheets and settled overnight. Harry could feel the shape where Louis had been, but he couldn’t think about it — the sirens were too loud. Too close.
So Harry pushed himself out of bed to see through the gap in the curtain at whatever was going on.
There were two ambulances across the road, and a small crowd standing near the water’s edge out behind the pub he’d visited the night before.
Harry could see a police officer, an older guy. Grey hair, stocky build. Tall.
It must have been Greg.
He quickly pulled on his clothes, grabbed his notebook that had been spread open face down on his bedside table, and ran out the door.
It had been cold the day before, but today was freezing. Harry could feel his nose going blue as he ran across the road to join the crowd.
They were all looking out to the water, out to where there were two people in wetsuits on a small boat.
Greg was right on the shore, talking on his two-way.
So Harry decided to wait for him to come back. He wanted to catch him when he could, but he didn’t want to intrude on whatever was unfolding out there.
“What happened?” Harry asked the guy who was standing next to him. A slightly shorter guy with a dark crop of hair, small features. He was standing with his arms folded, shaking his head slightly.
He sighed and kept his eyes out on the water, “Fucking tourists.”
He was Irish. Must have been this Niall character Liam had mentioned last night.
“Some backpacker took a kayak out and drowned.”
“Shit,” was all Harry could say.
“They’re not going to find him,” he continued, nodding towards the divers on the boat. “Lake’s got him now.”
Harry looked over at the guy, he had a look of resignation on his face, like this wasn’t new.
“What do you mean?”
The guy looked at him, “You’re not from around here, are you.”
Harry shook his head.
“Tekapo’s a glacial lake, gets its water from the mountains, which means it’s fucking cold in the winter. Too cold for bodies to release the gases that make them float or something, apparently. They just sink to the bottom.”
“Can’t they just look down there?” Harry asked.
“Nah, too deep. They’d kill themselves before they got that far. These bloody tourists have no idea — just go out on the water and have no idea .”
Harry just nodded and looked out to the water, wondered how something so beautiful could be so deadly.
But, he supposed, feeling the bruises on his neck, he already knew.
They never found that guy.
And Greg wouldn’t talk to him.
He shooed Harry away as soon as he walked up to him, seemed to recognise Harry straight away — if not just for the fact that he wasn’t a local, then by the urgent bounce Harry had in his step.
“This is not the time,” he said, walking away from Harry, towards his car.
“When is a good time then?” Harry asked back, trying to keep up with him.
Greg didn’t reply.
“It’s in your best interest,” Harry tried again, “to give Sarah’s dad some closure.”
“He won’t get it.”
“Because he refuses to listen to anything we’ve been saying.”
“And what’s that?”
“Sarah ran away. End of,” Greg jumped into his seat and looked up at Harry. “Go home.”
He shut the door.
And then he drove away.
Harry went back to the pub for breakfast — lunch. It was midday by then.
His headache took home in his brow. The Irish guy, Niall, got his order and gave him a look. A sympathetic smile.
He assumed it was because they’d both just seen something terrible.
Harry gave him a small smile of recognition.
“Are you Harry Styles, by chance?” Niall asked, just as he took Harry’s menu.
Harry nodded, “Big news in a small town, huh.”
“Word always travels around here quick. Heard you had quite the night last night.”
Glimpses of Louis’ skin shining with sweat under moonlight flashed through Harry’s mind.
Niall grinned, seemed to take delight in Harry’s discomfort, “Liam gets the best of us.”
Niall chuckled, completely unaware. He started to walk back to the kitchen, but Harry stopped him.
He cleared his throat and asked, “What was it?—"Niall turned— “that gave me away, what was it?”
Niall shrugged and said nonchalantly, “The accent. The tattoos.”
It was when Niall was gone, and Harry was staring at his phone, that he finally felt it.
The sick feeling in his stomach. He realised he had no appetite.
Flashes of Louis’ skin came back again.
The taste of his lips.
How they were coarser now.
The black screen of his phone shone in the same way, the same colour, of Louis’ eyes when he was looking up at him in the moonlight.
He could still feel the way Louis had quivered beneath him, taking him in all the way and watching as Harry’s muscles moved under his skin.
And he couldn’t shake the feeling that Louis felt like a stranger, almost looked like one too, but he still had that thing about him. Still had the smile and the laugh and the everything that just made them fall into place so easily.
Harry could feel the chasm between them splinter, crack. Shift a little closer. And he wanted to take a knife and cut it wider. He didn’t want to even have the temptation to reach him again. To feel him again.
Because that’s what italicised the guilt in his mind, not the fact that he’d let Louis into his motel room at all. He was drunk, and he’d forgotten the years and the miles that had grown between them. That was forgivable. Instead, it was feeling that Harry knew that, given the chance, he might do it again. Sober.
Harry bit his nail.
And he stared at his phone.
Everyone Harry talked to just seemed to reiterate the same story he’d already heard. Sarah went missing, and then she didn’t. For the most part, people believed it. Though, they were surprised for the reason that Sarah had gone missing in the first place. Apparently, she was too smart of a girl to be ‘going and getting herself pregnant’.
Harry didn’t quite understand what intelligence had to do with that.
As Harry made his way from door to door, from mums with a baby on their hip to shop owners, he made sure to go a little further and asked about the rumours — the ones about her being killed — he usually got back a shrug of the shoulder and Dot’s name. Lines they’d said had begun to swirl around his mind, trailing behind him like a shadow, Dot’s been telling her stories and she’s always got something to say and she needs to move on .
Which was also odd, Harry thought, because he’d had the impression that the town had actually been divided. He thought he could get some good sound bites for his article, concerned voices saying the police should have done more, but in reality almost everyone had been blasé in their answers. Happy to talk, yes, but not very fussed about it all.
It seemed that either this town was incredibly naive about the possibility of something nefarious happening in their backyard, or they’d grown tired of the whole thing. Maybe if Harry had gotten here before the journalists that had come by before him, he could have actually gotten some better answers, or at least actual interest.
The most important thing to everyone Harry talked to, was whether Harry was interested in a cup of tea or if he could let them just get on with their day.
That was the danger of time, Harry supposed, the longer it passes the less people remember. The less they remember how much they used to care.
Harry knew about that. He knew that if this was five years ago, and he met Louis just as he was getting on that plane to the UK, he would have still gone. He would have still left. Because the gaping hole that Louis had left was still a black mark in Harry’s chest, still burning and hot.
It hadn’t yet started to cool, to freeze over. He hadn’t started to see their relationship for what it was — just over four months of summer bliss. Of warm days and summer breezes, of the feeling of wind in Harry’s hair as they skated through Auckland city or drove to a beach.
It was four and a half months of two people — kids — learning for the first time what it was to hold something sweet and proper between them.
As Harry drove out to one of the camp sites, where the ranger, Hamish, was supposedly to be found, he opened his window to see if he could catch that feeling. Not the feeling of hope and happiness that he’d felt driving along coastlines with Louis in the passenger seat, but the pain he’d felt when it stopped. Harry wondered if seeing Louis would bring it all back, make it all fresh again.
But the wind outside was just cold.
He closed the window before his nose started to run. Before he could wonder what that meant.
Hamish Shearson was 5’6, or at least there about. And he’d clearly spent enough time outside that summer still shaded his skin. He was kind of leathery, but his smile lines were deep.
He didn’t seem to feel the cold either, because he was wearing just a long sleeve shirt.
Despite Liam and Louis joking about his trustworthiness, Harry wasn’t one to leave any stone unturned. And besides, it might be good to listen to someone who would actually talk at length.
When Harry came up to him, sitting in his cabin at the edge of the campgrounds, he’d given Harry a wide smile and asked what it was he needed — to pay the fee for staying at the grounds or to get directions.
“Neither,” Harry said, giving him a smile in return. “I’m after a bit of information actually.”
Hamish nodded and looked thoughtful, but his eyes were sharp, alive.
“Go on,” he said, automatically going over to the small coffee machine next to his desk to make Harry a drink. “What do you need to know? I’ve got plenty of knowledge up here—" He turned and pointed to his head— “I know all about the parts around here, and the people if you’re that way inclined. The mountains are a bit more interesting though.”
Hamish gleamed a smile.
“Well, it’s one person in particular.”
Hamish turned and rested himself against the table, his eyes narrowing mischievously as he folded his arms. “Alrighty then.”
“Sarah Walker?” Harry asked, pulling out his notebook.
Hamish’s shoulders sagged. “You’re the journo in town aren’t you?”
Harry nodded, this had become his trademark.
Hamish bit his lip thoughtfully as he looked Harry up and down. Something about Harry must have swayed him though because he said, “Now, that is a sad story.”
“Well yeah, what kind of mother leaves their kid? Poor thing, she was made for bigger places than Lake Tekapo and she never got the chance. Whoever knocked her up best keep himself quiet because they lost us one of our brightest sparks.”
“So you believe she was pregnant?”
“Was she not?’
“Well that seems to be up for debate.”
Harry nodded, seemed Dot had made a name for herself as much as Harry had.
“Yeah, well. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was onto something there.”
“Oh?” This was the first time today Harry hadn’t just gotten a shrug.
“She’s got her head screwed on well, that one. Always yapping away, she gives me a run for my money sometimes, but quick as a whippet. Besides, with the amount of shit no one ever talks about going on around here, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was sitting on some information.”
“What don’t people talk about?”
“Oh the usual small town antics, whoever’s sleeping with who, that kind of thing—" Harry felt his cheeks redden— “It’s the things that everyone knows, but no one is actually willing to say aloud. I wouldn’t know the half of the stories these days though.”
Harry was thoughtful for a moment, determined to keep his mind from wandering. “So… Suppose Sarah was one of these people sleeping with someone, you’d say there’s people who could confirm it — but they just won’t talk about it?”
“Why would they?’
“Seems like the kind of thing people would gossip about.”
“Not with you.”
There was a pause and then Harry dropped his notebook an inch and looked up at Hamish. “Fair point.”
“But,” Hamish quickly added, his eyes looking right at Harry, “there’s definitely someone who knows.”
“Who—" Harry started, flipping his notebook to the next page. But he couldn’t finish.
Because there on the page was a note he hadn’t written.
In handwriting he recognised.
Had to get home to work — it’s nice to see you
Suddenly, all the feelings Harry hadn’t been able to conjure came flooding over him. All of them. Hurt, anger, desire, confusion, hope.
He didn’t have words. He couldn’t put together everything he was feeling, all he knew was that he was feeling .
He’d spent the day wondering about the small town, talking to strangers, and wondering why the only person he knew around here had felt like more of a stranger than any of them. Harder to pin down. He’d not been able to understand how Louis, in all the years they’d spent apart, had made Harry so confused.
So willing to read this message he’d left behind.
So willing to think that Louis had left it with even an ounce of sincerity.
Maybe Harry was being too generous to think that, but it was the only good bye Louis had ever left behind.
He must have written the note and shut the curtains before ducking out this morning — the telltale crack in the curtains suddenly making a lot more sense.
“You alright?” Hamish asked, watching down at Harry staring at his notebook, the notebook he hadn’t turned over when he’d woken up.
“Uh,” Harry looked up, “Uh, yeah. Sorry. Just caught a thought.”
“And what’s that?”
Harry paused before he answered, trying to sound as reasonable as possible. “I think I might know who I want to talk to next.”
Of course, Harry wasn’t talking about the case at all.
Against all better judgement, he was talking about Louis .
Only Ernie was in.
Harry had spent the entire drive there trying to think of a goddamn reason that he should return to the Tomlinson house hold. And the best he could come up with, by pure stroke of luck, was Dot’s collection of print outs. All her Facebook posts and messages and everything she could get her hands on.
At least with that, Harry could excuse himself as wanting to put together a timeline of events. He could create a mosaic with them all, a tapestry of time. So that maybe he could unravel how it was that they had gotten to here.
When Ernie opened the door to Harry’s cold bitten face, he just gave him a half smile and moved to let him in.
“They’re out the back again,” Ernie said as he led Harry down their hallway. As Harry walked, he noted how the door to the first room they went past was slightly ajar. Inside, was a perfectly made queen bed. The curtains were open in there, and cold air drifted through the door.
“How long do you think they’ll be?” Harry asked.
The next door was shut, but old torn stickers were stuck across it at Harry’s hip — the perfect height for a child — and they said Ernest . The E was stuck on upside down.
Along the wall next to it was a short table, where family photos smiled up at Harry. Ernie and Dot went from young kids in their parents arms, to tweens before his eyes. Louis, of course, was older in all of them, the youngest one of him looked to be taken when he was twelve or thirteen, his cheekbones not yet carved out.
Ernie thought to himself, knocking his knuckles against the wall as he walked. “Um, most of the afternoon probably.”
“Huh,” Harry let out. There were two more doors up ahead.
“Actually,“ Ernie paused mid step and turned to Harry, making him almost bump into the kid. “I can take you out there?”
“Yeah, no biggie,” Ernie gave a small smile.
It was the most Harry had seen him look, and sound, alive. Maybe, under all his quiet, reserved nature, he could actually be a kind kid. Maybe you just had to get to know him.
Ernie took them back to the front door, snatching a pair of keys off the hook next to it, and clicking the ute open as he pulled on a jacket.
“I’m driving,” Ernie stated, smiling. Actually smiling. Mischievously.
“Um,” Harry looked at him incredulously, bemused. “I doubt that.”
Harry made his way to the driver’s door, raising an arm to open it. It looked new enough to be one of those keyless ones.
Ernie clicked car shut. Locked.
“I’m driving!” He said again, grinning even wider as he walked right up to Harry. He rested his fingers on the door handle and simply looked up at Harry, feigning innocence.
Harry had seen that look before. It must have run in the Tomlinson DNA.
“You’re not old enough to have a licence,” Harry stated, trying to keep his mouth straight. He couldn’t laugh at the kid.
“No one cares about that around here.”
“Really? Your parents don’t care about you driving their big, flash ute?” Harry folded his arms and leaned on the door. He couldn’t help but bite his upper lip and furrow his brow. He tried to keep himself chirpy though, more amused older brother than scornful parent.
Ernie just dropped his smile and, in one movement, clicked the door open and yanked the door open, shoving Harry out towards the snow on the ground so his feet crunched the thin layer of gravel as he tried to keep his balance.
“Let’s go,” Ernie said, voice straight and dead as he hovered in the door, looking at Harry expectantly.
Harry didn’t know what to do with himself, so he did what he was told.
As he sat in the passenger seat next to Ernie, Harry considered what he could say to bring back the mood. And to make the kid give him the keys instead. There was no way this was legal, and he didn’t want that on his conscience. Not with the snow that blanketed the fields around them.
But Ernie didn’t give him the chance, he quickly pulled his seat forwards so he could reach the pedals and started the car.
“I—" Harry started, moving his hands towards the keys that sat on the middle console. He had been right about it being one of those keyless cars.
Ernie put the car into gear and pulled off the handbrake, and then he pulled out the car. Slowly. Expertly.
Harry, not yet with his seatbelt on, found himself staring at Ernie in utter surprise. And with his hand frozen on top of the keys.
He didn’t finish his sentence.
Though, the air between them was still tense. There was something heavy, leaden, wedged in the space between them, and Harry couldn’t find the words to ask Ernie how he — at the age of fourteen — could drive. Instead, all Harry could think about was why the mention of him driving his parents’ car had sparked such a foul turn of emotion.
That just made Harry’s heart fall into his lap.
He hadn’t actually seen their parents either time he’d been here, and he wasn’t dumb — there was a reason he was a journalist. Harry knew that that meant something.
He didn’t want to assume though.
Parents not being in the lives of their kids was far too common, and for so many different reasons. He thought of all the reasons they weren’t there, and all of them seemed equally terrible. Maybe they’d left Louis and his siblings to fend for themselves, maybe they’d died, maybe one had died and the other had left. Maybe Louis and the younger ones were step-siblings and that’s why they had different last names, maybe that’s why they had over a ten year age gap.
Though maybe, Harry tried to remind himself to not get carried away, maybe they were just out for the weekend. And Ernie was just in a bad mood with them. He was a teenager after all.
Harry wanted so badly for that to be true, but there was something in the way Louis had talked about Ernie that made it seem like this was bigger than that.
“Can you get it?” Ernie asked, cutting through Harry’s thoughts, making him whip his head up and force the glum expression off his face. When he looked over, Ernie was nodding his head towards the front windscreen.
Harry followed his eyes and saw the gate that was hooked shut in front of them.
“Uh, yeah. Sure,” he said, before jumping out of the car. As Harry unhooked the gate to let the ute through to the next field, he ignored the sheep curiously watching from their side of the paddock and tried to see if he could see Ernie’s story in his face as he drove past.
Harry just saw his own reflection warp past in the side window.
As soon as he got back in the car, the air had changed. As though the cold wind Harry brought in through his open door had shot icicles through all that lead and cracked it. Broken it apart.
Ernie offered him a small smile. And then focused on his driving.
Harry finally put on his seatbelt.
It was quiet a moment and Harry started to let his thoughts wander back in, but Ernie finally spoke up. His voice was quiet, almost timid, like he was expecting Harry to disapprove. “I’m allowed to drive it.”
Harry nodded carefully, keeping his face neutral. He wasn’t going to do anything to scare Ernie off again.
“Everyone around here can drive before they can walk.”
Harry let out a small smile, and then let it hang a little wider so Ernie could actually see it.
Ernie glanced over and obviously caught it because he smiled back a bit. “Sorry if I scared you.”
Harry just shook his head and offered another smile, a truce, a white lie. “You didn’t, it’s fine. I just didn’t want you to get in trouble.”
There was a beat of quiet, just a little too long, like Ernie was trying to make his mind up about what to say next. “I kind of wanted to scare you a little bit, to be honest.”
Harry looked over at him with a half smile, another bemused look. “Why?”
“Everyone from the city thinks they’re invincible.”
“Well,” Harry thought aloud, “I wouldn’t necessarily say we think we’re invincible.”
“Yeah, but you think that because you’ve seen everything, that you know everything. Everyone I’ve met from the city, or bigger countries, always seem to think we don’t know anything out here. They think we spend all day sitting around doing nothing, learning nothing.”
“If it helps, I don’t think that.”
Ernie looked over at him from the side of his eye before he continued. “But it’s not like that. We know shit. I can drive a car, and nurse lambs, and shoot a gun. I know the shit that big shot guys would never know, and I’ve known it all since I was a baby.”
Harry didn’t offer anything. Whatever this was that Ernie needed to get out seemed to be cathartic for him. He could see the way Ernie’s grip was loosening on the steering wheel. His shoulders were loosening too.
“And, like, I’m not a kid anymore,” Ernie continued, making Harry try to hold back a smile because this was a fourteen year old telling him he knew what it was to be an adult — he was clearly trying to prove himself to Harry now, prove that he knew what it was to do this, act like he was older than he was so people took him seriously. “We had to grow up fast. Like, Louis still tries to act like we’re kids. I guess he wants to protect us, but, like, I’m— I don’t know...”
Ernie wavered off, like his thoughts had all sped out of him and he’d spun out of road, all out of steam. He bit his lip, eyes facing forwards.
Carefully, Harry asked, “Is it just Louis you live with?”
“Well, yeah. I—”
Ernie quickly glanced over at Harry and seemed to take him all in, and his frame changed a little, he went tight again, “Uh—" he shook his head a little— “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Huh?” Harry hummed, confused.
“I don’t do girlfriends,” Harry confessed, hopeful that Ernie got it.
He nodded thoughtfully and then he quickly snapped back with another question.
“How old are you?”
Ernie nodded again, then said, “You’re the same age as Louis.”
“And you know each other from uni, right?”
“I— Uh. Yeah. Is that what Louis told you?”
“Yeah, this morning Dot was bugging him about how he knew your name.”
“What exactly did he say?”
Harry looked at him, pointedly.
“Like, Louis likes to talk, right? But he just said that you knew each other in uni. That’s all he was willing to say.”
There was a long, strange silence, both of them biting their lip, staring out the window as Louis and Dot and Georgie came closer into view. They were nailing wood panels onto a shed. Georgie perked her head up from where she was lying next to Louis. Then Ernie cleared his throat and said, “Lou didn’t come home last night.”
Harry didn’t say anything. He forced himself to keep staring straight ahead. If he held his lip between his teeth any tighter, it would have bled.
Ernie spoke again, this time making his voice purposely lighter, kinder, knowing. “We didn’t mind.”
“Hey Erns,” Louis asked, looking up over his shoulder as the kid got out. “Everything alright?”
Ernie nodded as he shut the door behind himself and leaned on it.
Harry, still sitting in the passenger seat, didn’t know what to do. What Ernie had said, insinuated, was stuck in his mind. He’d sounded like he was offering Harry a line, his tone was approving, and maybe that’s why he was so quick to try and impress Harry with his maturity, his knowledge. His driving skills.
As soon as he got out of that car, he’d feel Ernie’s eyes on him, watching his every move, trying to figure out if Harry was someone that Louis was, or had been, involved with.
Still, Harry could hear Louis outside, asking Ernie if he’d come to help out for once, and Harry thought he ought to save the kid from that.
“Oh,” Louis breathed as he saw Harry walk around the side of the car. “Uh, hey.”
He stood from where he was crouched at the side of the shed and gave Harry a half smile, no teeth.
“Harry!” Dot gleamed, turning on the spot to give him a wide, bright smile. “You came back!”
“Yeah—" Harry offered, his best reassuring smile on show.
“He couldn’t stay away,” Ernie interjected, glancing at Louis.
Louis glanced back but seemed to ignore him, turning to face Harry instead. “What can we do for you today?”
And Harry tried to remember what it was he’d made up to get himself back here. “Uh, um. Oh yeah, I was wondering if I could have another look at Sarah’s social media. Those print outs you made, Dot, are some great detective work.”
“Oh, thanks,” She grinned. “We can stop for the day, right Louis?”
Louis looked back at what they were working on and slid his lips together in thought. “Hm. Yeah, sure. I can finish this myself tomorrow. You’ve done great today, Dot.”
She smiled angelically up at him and then practically skipped over to the car. But then, of course, as all older sisters do, she punched Ernie’s shoulder and goaded him with a, “At least one of us has.”
“Hey,” he complained, rubbing his shoulder.
Louis shook his head at them then turned back to all his tools and materials laying about. “You guys head back, I’ll tidy up and come back on the gator.”
He motioned towards the golf cart looking thing a few metres away from them.
“I bags driving,” Dot enthused, latching onto the handle next to Ernie and swinging on it.
“No way,” he countered, pushing his weight on the door so she couldn’t open it.
“Come on, I’ve been out in the fucking cold all day,” she complained, trying the door again, her wicked grin slipping a little.
“No,” he repeated, resolute. “Harry can.”
And then he tossed him the keys, and apparently Dot wasn’t fussed with arguing that.
Harry couldn’t ignore the look that had been brushed across Louis’ face when Ernie had thrown him the keys. A mix of confusion and suspicion and what Harry could only describe as a quiet sort of happiness.
He didn’t have much time to think about it though, the ground was slippery under his wheels, the snow shifting across grass. He’d learned to drive through snow in London, but that was always on the road. This was different.
That, and Dot was latching onto the shoulders of Harry’s seat as she enthusiastically leaned forwards from the backseat and happily said, “I’m really glad you came back, Harry. None of the other journalists have.”
“Well,” Harry managed, trying to concentrate on both the conversation and the fact that this driving in the country thing was harder than he thought, “when I talked to some people around here today, a lot of them have already moved on from Sarah’s story, but you haven’t. And I mean that in a good way, it means that something doesn’t add up for you and you’re trusting your instincts instead of what you’re being told.”
He glanced in the rear view mirror, she was staring at him completely consumed by what he was saying.
Harry continued, adding, “You’d make a great journalist, or police officer, or—”
“I’ve actually been thinking of studying something like that when I leave school, like, everyone says I talk too much, so why not put that to use? Maybe I could start a podcast or something.”
“Maybe,” Harry offered, giving her a smile in the mirror. He couldn’t help but smile about how fiery, how enthusiastic she was. Too excited to take a breath and let Harry finish.
“What did you study?” Dot asked, sitting back into her seat.
“I did journalism at Auckland University.”
“How did you meet Louis then? He was studying to be a teacher there.”
“Oh,” Harry breathed, it had caught him off guard. “At a party.”
“Huh,” Dot said, crossing her arms and looking like she was definitely trying to figure something out.
It was quiet for a moment, and then Ernie finally piped up, “What was he like back then?”
Harry breathed out a sharp bit of air and couldn’t help but shake his head the tiniest amount, because what Louis had been when they were together was something he’d spent years trying to put into words.
“Louis was…” Harry bit the inside of his cheek, “he was great. He was loud some days, — he was always full of thoughts. It was like he could tell what you needed that day and then he would be that thing. Louis was always really good at being there.”
Harry felt two sets of eyes boring into him, and it felt like he’d said too much, had revealed something too intimate.
But Dot said thoughtfully, “Yeah, he’s like that.”
It wasn’t until they were back at the house that Harry realised that he’d said that Louis, of all people, was good at being there for you. Because one day he was, one day he was perfect and fun and caring and always there. And then the next he wasn’t.
It was probably a good thing Harry hadn’t continued on to add that bit though, because what kid would want to hear that their older brother was the sort of person to leave without a word. After almost 5 months of dating.
Dot pulled out all her papers again, and then lugged out a laptop too — not nearly as new and flashy as the beastly ute they’d just driven in.
“All her stuff is still online, so we can just look on here if you want,” she said, placing the laptop on the dining room table in front of Harry.
“Okay, yeah, in that case the first thing I think we should do is see when Sarah was last active on her facebook.”
“Last I saw it had been like eight months,” Sarah added, sitting down next to Harry to open up a new tab on Chrome.
She clicked around, leaning across the table so the laptop could stay in front of Harry, until she had facebook open and was perusing the contact list down the right side.
“Weird,” she let out under her breath.
“Mm?” Harry hummed.
“She’s not here.”
Dot put Sarah’s name in the search bar instead, and hit enter. Her name didn’t come up in the results.
“Did she… block me? Ernie, can you look her up?” she turned to Ernie, who was sitting across from them fully engrossed in his phone. He didn’t look up, so Dot kicked him under the table and asked again. “Oi, can you look up Sarah on Facebook? I think she’s blocked me.”
“I thought you thought she was dead.”
Dot huffed, “Just do it. Please?”
Ernie started tapping away on his phone and then shook his head, “Nah, I can’t find her.”
Right then, Harry pulled out his own phone. He’d looked Sarah enough to know that her name would be at the top of his last searches. He knew exactly what profile photo he was looking for.
She wasn’t there.
Harry scrolled through all the Sarah Walkers on Facebook, until he started getting to results that were from other countries, places like America and South Africa. None of them were their Sarah Walker.
“I can’t find her either,” Harry sighed, plonking his phone down on the table.
“So she deleted her Facebook?”
“Looks that way.”
Dot didn’t say anything, she looked at the computer screen with her brows furrowed, fingernail between her teeth.
Louis walked in through the back door then, announcing himself with the shuffle of his boots and his jacket.
“How’s it going?” He asked when he’d gotten it all off.
“Sarah’s Facebook has been deleted,” Dot stated, looking up at him with a pained, confused look on her face.
“Oh,” Louis said coming over to lean against Dot’s chair and rub her shoulder. “It’s a good thing you printed everything off then, right?”
“I guess,” Dot said half heartedly, looking at the papers laid across the table, “but what if that means that someone knows Harry’s here and is trying to hide something.”
“What if it was deleted ages ago?” Ernie asked over his phone.
“I checked it last night when Lou went out, it was there at dinner time,” Dot shifted to look up at Louis, still hovering above her. Her face was contorted with worry, and her voice caught in her throat. “Lou, what do we do? What if something really did happen to her?”
“Well...” Louis thought aloud, “Harry’s good at what he does, and you’re smart. I’m sure we can work it out.”
“Don’t tell her that,” Ernie spat out, finally looking up from his phone again. “Just because Dot wants to know what happened, doesn’t mean she will. If the police haven’t figured it out, why would we?”
“Shut up,” Dot hit back. “The police haven’t done shit.”
“I just saying you shouldn’t get your hopes up. Sometimes you don’t get the answers to everything. That’s life.”
“Ern,” Louis said, his voice warning. “That’s not kind.”
“Isn’t it?” Ernie shoved his chair out and stood. “Is telling her that she’s going to find her dead best friend kind?”
Dot bore her eyes into him and said harshly, “He’s just trying to be there for me.”
“Yeah. Well. Sometimes that’s just setting you up to get hurt.”
“Ern—" Louis started, moving towards him.
“Don’t,” Ernie cried, shoving himself past Louis and towards the hallway. “Just leave me alone.”
Ernie slammed his door shut, leaving a heavy, awkward silence behind him. Louis pressed his fingers into his temples, and then pulled them down along his cheeks and to the back of his neck, sighing. “Sorry, Harry. Maybe tonight’s not a good—”
“No, Louis,” Dot pleaded. “Ernie can’t make the world stop just because he’s in another shitty mood. Stop letting him do what he wants. I want Harry to stay.”
“For once, can we do what I want? For once?”
“Yesterday I try to tell you life’s not fair and to not expect too much, tonight I try to tell you that you might be able to work it, and both times I end up with a kid storming out,” Louis mused, running his hands through his hair. “I can’t bloody win here, can I?”
“That’s not answering my question,” Dot said, her face changing so it became a little more daring.
“Yeah, sure,” Louis gave in, moving to the kitchen. “Tea, Harry?”
Harry didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t lived at home in eight years. Since he was 18. By all means, he wasn’t used to family bickering anymore, certainly not bickering that centred around Harry himself.
Harry just blinked. And nodded.
“Sorry about that,” Dot confessed sheepishly. “You can go if you want.”
“It’s fine,” Harry offered, giving his best smile, trying to act as if nothing had happened. It didn’t quite come out right, but Dot took it. She grinned and pushed the laptop out of the way so she could spread papers out instead.
They spent an hour looking over everything, Harry and Dot sitting on their side of the table, while Louis sat on the other side watching on quietly. Harry could feel his eyes on him the whole time. It made it hard to concentrate because Harry didn’t know how that made him feel. He didn’t know if he liked being on show, if he liked Louis watching his hands move over papers and his lips move over questions about Sarah.
Because as much as this felt like a bizarre, uncomfortable situation, it also felt so normal. So average. Just a family spending an afternoon around a table.
He shouldn’t think like that. Harry was a journalist. This was not a family he was a part of. He was going to spend a few days here and then be on his way back to his flat in Wellington.
That thought shouldn’t have hurt Harry as much as it did.
He’d forgotten too easily how hurt Louis had left him, how hollow he’d made him. It was like 20 year old Harry had somehow snuck back in, the one that had only know Louis before he’d left. The Harry that would have described Louis as always having been there for you.
And he couldn’t figure out that had happened.
Maybe it was seeing Louis like this, parenting his younger siblings and trying his best, that gave him the benefit of the doubt, that separated this new Louis from the one that left. Maybe it was the feeling of Louis’ hands all over Harry’s back and neck and hips that had warmed him enough that he’d forgotten how to ice Louis out. Maybe that feeling was too intoxicating, and had made him more drunk than any alcohol ever could.
Harry knew he shouldn’t have come back. He should have left Lake Tekapo as soon as he knew Louis was involved because it was a conflict of interest. He could picture his sister already, how she would have looked at him sorely and reminded him he knew better.
But his feet never went to move.
Maybe he didn’t leave because, like Dot, he was prepared for a little pain if it meant getting answers.
Harry tried to concentrate on Sarah’s social media life. He looked over comments on her posts, took note of which names came up over and over again. He tried to learn a little more about her through all her posts.
Most of her posts were photo albums, pictures taken at school. Sarah and Dot and a bunch of other girls smiling at the camera in their school uniforms. And it was mostly these girls that came up time and time again in her comments. In fact, the only thing of note that Harry could pick out, was the severe lack of boys. Which was something, considering she was supposedly pregnant.
“Hey, Dot,” Harry started, forming a few sheets of paper with comments on them together. “Did Sarah ever talk about boys?”
“I mean, I don’t know. Not any more than the rest of us?”
“Well how much did the rest of you talk about them?” He asked, looking up at her with a bit of a smirk on his face.
She looked over at Louis hesitantly, and then shrugged her shoulders. “Uuh, like… I don’t know. How do I answer that? Whenever someone gets a boyfriend or starts talking to someone new, I guess we’ll talk about it. It’s not a regular thing though?”
“The boys around here aren’t really much to talk about.”
Louis chuckled under his breath from his side of the table and brought his tea to his lips.
“Like you can talk,” Dot quipped, satisfied when Louis widened his eyes, completely caught off guard. “That’s the problem with small towns, though, you’ve already grown up with everyone.”
“But kids do date?” Harry asked her.
“Hah, yes. Too much, if you ask me.”
Harry looked at her expectantly, wanting her to explain why too much .
Louis answered for her, “Surely you’ve heard how it is with straight kids in small towns, Harry. Date young, marry young, have kids young—”
“Not all of us!” Dot interrupted, not wanting to be lumped in with the kids Louis was referring to. “I’m getting out of here when I turn eighteen. No offense, Lou, but I don’t want to be stuck on a farm forever.”
“None taken. I get it.”
“You did it,” She added. “For a bit.”
Louis suddenly cleared his throat and shifted in his seat, “Yeah, well. Sarah. She wasn’t fussed on boys, yeah?”
“Eh, yeah. I guess.”
“Girls, then?” Harry asked.
“No, not girls. Not that I’m aware of. She did like boys but she didn’t talk about the ones we know. Like, she’d point out when she saw a cute guy at one of the camp sites, or someone on TV, but never the boys at school.”
“Hm, okay,” Harry said, thinking aloud. “What I’m noticing is that she was supposedly pregnant, right? But on all her posts, she doesn’t really have boys commenting on them. It’s just your closer group of girl friends. In fact, she doesn’t really have many people interacting with her posts at all.”
“Well yeah, we go to a small school over in Fairlie, the next town over. Unless you’re in the T.C. crowd, you don’t really get a lot of people liking your stuff.”
“ Too cool ,” Louis stated, raising his eyebrows in a way that said he’d heard this term way too often. “The popular kids.”
Dot nodded and then said, “Yeah, they’re the ones that go out and drink in whoever’s garage every weekend and do up their cars and that sort of thing. They think it’s fine to drink and drive, which is just dumb to me. Like, they’re not actually cool, they just think they are. So they’re too cool. ”
The definition of a popular kid was vastly different this far South. Harry had been picturing rich farm girls with horses and schist cladded houses.
“How many kids are there at your school?”
“That’s pretty small,” Harry mused.
Dot just looked at him like he shouldn’t be surprised. Which made Louis titter.
Harry rolled his eyes, but made it clear he was doing it about himself, because, yeah, this was a small town. Of course they’d be at a small school.
“What about this, then,” Harry offered. “Do you recognise all the names on her friends list?”
She only had 104 friends. It wasn’t too much to ask, surely.
Dot scanned the pages of Sarah’s friends, humming as she did so. When she got to the last page, she just shrugged and said, “Yeah.”
Harry scratched his head and looked at all the papers spread across the table. He wasn’t sure where to go next. And it didn’t seem like Dot did either, because she perused the papers in silence too.
“Dinner, then?” Louis eventually asked, cutting through the quiet, as he got up out of his seat and headed for the kitchen. Harry hadn’t realised how dark it had gotten.
“If it’s a roast,” Dot said, grinning but not looking up.
“Mmm, it’s a bit late for that, sorry—”
“—And you’ll mess it up.”
“Alright there, Doris ,” He lamented, grinning over at her.
“Just being honest!” She quipped, eyes still on the paper.
“I can at least do a steak, how’s that?”
“Just perfect, Lewis.”
Louis gave her a look and then shook his head, still smiling, as he went to the fridge and started pulling out vegetables.
It seemed Harry was staying for dinner, and he didn’t have much choice about it, so he did what he always did — offered to help.
“Can I do something?” Harry asked from his seat at the table.
Louis shook his head and gave an honest smile, “S’fine. You guys keep going.”
Harry looked over at Dot, who was twirling her ginger hair in tight circles as she stared intensely at all their papers, “I think I’ve kept Dot long enough for one day.”
She looked up at him and seemed to realise how tired she was, giving him a thankful smile. And then she looked between Harry and Louis and her face changed. She mustn’t have been properly listening until all the words caught up to her and she realised that Louis had declined Harry being in the kitchen with him.
She got a cheeky, calculating look on her face.
“Harry could peel the carrots and potatoes, Louis, I know you don’t like doing that.”
Louis looked up at her and immediately caught on. It was hard not to.
“Why don’t you come here and do them, then,” he offered, trying to stifle a smile, feigning innocence. It sent something through Harry’s stomach, a flutter or a boot, he wasn’t sure.
“Because I’ve been helping you all day, and then I’ve been helping Harry, and I’m the only one here that hasn’t had a break,” a delighted smile didn’t leave her face. “It’s only fair.”
Louis shook his head in amusement, biting at his smile still, as he opened a pack of steaks. Eventually, he managed to say, “Yes, well, Harry’s a guest.”
“I can do it, I offered,” Harry said, voice a little too enthusiastic. He didn’t know where it came from. It didn’t even feel like him that had said it. It was like someone else was wearing his body, making him play into this little romance Dot had thought she’d encountered, because suddenly his feet were picking him up and taking him over to the kitchen.
It wasn’t until Harry picked up a carrot and started peeling it over the sink that Louis eventually said, softly, like he had been holding it in with his breath, “Thanks.”
Dot didn’t hide her grin as she propped her knees against the table and pulled out her phone.
Some time in the six years since Harry had seen him, Louis had learned to cook a fairly decent meal. Harry thought he was in for an hour of leaning on the bench, waiting for Louis to figure out which pot would be best to use, or how much water he’d need to boil potatoes. He’d always known Louis to be so unsure in the kitchen that he never got anything done, and by the time he actually did, something had burned. But that’s not what he got. This time, the two of them seemed to swoop about the kitchen with ease, only bumping into each other when Harry asked what cupboard to find something in, and Louis’ hand would brush his.
And it was just all too easy now. Harry had time to make them a bread and butter pudding — something he’d picked up in London. And Louis had time to crack two ciders open and sit on the bench while Harry did his thing.
It was so easy to forget how it was that they ended up here. And it was easy to not think about it, because Louis sitting on the bench and Dot sitting on her phone, and the dog on the couch and all of it soundtracked by the TV on in the background just seemed so natural.
So Harry didn’t think about it. He ignored how the chasm between them kept melting.
Eventually Ernie made his way back out of his room, and apologised to Harry for his little outburst. He was sheepish with it, hands twisting around each other and his cheeks red, and Harry just said it was fine with the most earnest smile he could give — because Ernie was clearly being so Ernest .
That, and he was just a kid. It was tough growing up.
“Are you staying for dinner?” He asked as he watched Harry slide their dessert into the oven and shutting the door.
“If that’s alright?” Harry replied, standing up and wiping his hands on his trousers.
Ernie looked unsure, self conscious, because he swallowed and then nodded, almost bouncing on the spot before he turned and sat down next to Dot.
“Thanks for the apology,” she teased, knocking a knee in his direction. All seemed forgiven between them though because Ernie just pulled out his phone and that was that, both were content to say nothing.
When dinner was ready, Ernie pulled out placemats and they actually sat around the table to eat. It must have been something they did regularly because the wooden placements were well and truly loved, scuffed along every edge, and neither kid had said anything to suggest this was all done because Harry was around. In fact, they both instinctually put their phone into the middle of the table.
Dot was full of questions, as per usual, as they ate. She wanted to know all about London and Harry’s job and what all his tattoos meant. Which turned into questions about what movies and music Harry liked. And then Ernie asked if they could all watch one of Harry’s suggestions, Sing Street .
Which was all fine and good, until it was half way through the movie and suddenly Dot was excusing herself from the room and asking Ernie if he could help her with something and he was right up out of his seat and Harry was left with Louis wedged into the couch next to him and another cider in his hand. That was when all the normalcy Harry had felt all evening cracked and splintered and he became all too aware of how Louis’ toes were tucked up on the couch so they were almost touching Harry, and how it was becoming clearer and clearer that Dot and Ernie weren’t coming back.
He tried to concentrate on the movie, but he’d seen it too many times to find it at all distracting. Nothing was more distracting than how the TV shone light on Louis’ face, making his eyes look glassy and the bags under them all the more pronounced. Harry couldn’t get over how different he looked, and how different he was now — there was something quieter about Louis. He didn’t have quite so many opinions when they’d been talking around the table, wasn’t quite so quick to tease Harry when he liked something cheesy and overdone. In fact, Louis had seemed so ready to take a backseat and let Harry and the kids do all the talking and act more as the quiet observer.
He seemed more like that kid who’d awkwardly leaned against that bannister at that party, than the one who two seconds later was happily joking about the kinds of people that were at that party. Which wasn’t to say Louis didn’t talk at all or jump in with any little jokes, but there was something more careful there. Something slower and quieter and more protected.
Harry could picture this going two ways. He could make some remark about how Louis had changed so much, which could lead them on a path to the old days, which would loop back around to the day that Louis left and everything would come crashing down. He might get some answers, but Harry didn’t know if he could bring himself to ask. There was so much left unsaid in this house, whatever was going on with Ernie, what had happened to their parents, why Louis was here and not out there being a teacher like he always wanted.
Asking Louis what had happened would feel like he was asking so much more, more than he felt he could ask sitting here on the couch watching some silly Irish musical. And it felt like more than he could ask of Louis when it had only been a Saturday and a Sunday, and sure they’d gotten drunk and slept together, but that wasn’t intimate. Asking the questions on Harry’s mind was.
So Harry went for the other way he saw this playing out. He went for the way that would garner him more time, so he could pry those answers out of Louis when he would give them more willingly.
He shifted his leg. And it touched Louis’ toe.
Louis didn’t pull away.
Harry could feel the static build between them, hot and cold air swirling wildly between them but never dragging a gusty finger through their hair. Wind that was unmoving, but that Harry could feel dragging up his fingertips and his arms and making his hair stand on end.
Louis laughed at a joke on scene and the crevices in his laugh lines gleamed at Harry. The shifting weight made his toe catch on Harry’s trousers, and suddenly Louis was looking over and his mouth went a little slack, his smile shifted.
He looked like he was thinking about something.
“I don’t think they’re coming back,” Louis said, his voice coming out like a breath of air. There was hesitation in there.
“I think they think they’re subtle,” Harry replied, rubbing his thumb over the lip of his cider bottle. “Ernie was very interested in us in the car this afternoon.”
“He talked to you about that?” Louis asked, putting an elbow on the arm rest and leaning his head on it as he looked at Harry.
“Yeah, he went on this big rant about people treating him like a kid and then he asked about how we knew each other.”
“What did you say?”
“That we met at a party. That’s all.”
This was heading towards the exact territory that Harry was avoiding.
Louis dodged it though. He looked towards the door to the hallway behind Harry thoughtfully and said, “He doesn’t really talk to anyone these days, he must like you.”
“Not to toot my own horn, but it seemed like he was trying to impress me. He was pretty adamant that I take him seriously.”
“Did his driving impress you?”
“Don’t even get me started,” Harry laughed. “I don’t know how you Tomlinson’s are so good at getting your way.”
“Maybe you’re just a bit of a push over,” Louis winked, and this felt like the old Louis.
“I really thought I outgrew that flaw,” Harry confessed.
“Just a hiccup, maybe,” Louis offered with a soft smile.
Harry shrugged and then added, “He seems like a good kid. They both do.”
“They are,” Louis said, voice quiet but sure.
They talked for the rest of the movie, about the kids, about people in the town, and about each other. But for all of it, they both avoided the topics that were strictly off limits. Harry knew he’d kick himself in the morning when he’d wake up in an empty bed again, cold and in the snow-bright sun, but in this moment when it was dark and quiet and warm and he had all of Louis’ attention, he was glad that he didn’t ask any of the questions that were burning on his lip. He would willingly wake up with a scorched mouth, sooty with the false words he gave Louis in exchange for a little more time to pretend that everything was okay.
The space that was shrinking between them pushed the regret of tomorrow from Harry’s mind. It made his smile feel shiny, clean, as if he could brush it with borrowed time and hope that it would work out.
It was so easy to say that it had been six years and that Louis was clearly a different person now and that that somehow wiped clean all the pain he’d forced on Harry. All the teeth he’d pulled out, no anaesthetic, when he’d pulled out of his life and taken Harry’s smile with him.
When the movie ended, Harry didn’t even realise. He was too wrapped up in Louis talking about how he wanted to sell the farm once Ernie left school. Harry only noticed the shadow of the credits scrolling up Louis’ cheek when he got caught in his words and couldn’t quite get out how to explain why he was still on the farm.
“I— uh, yeah,” Louis stammered, shaking his head a little like it would rattle out a good answer and then moving away from the farm all together. “I think he’ll come out of his shell once he gets out of here, I think he wants to become a vet or something. He hasn’t said in a long time.”
Harry didn’t press him.
There was a lull in the conversation. The music over the credits had stopped. Harry could only hear the hum of the fridge.
It would have been the perfect time for Harry to shift his legs and say he’d realised the time and he should head off, no doubt Louis would have an early start with living on a farm.
But Louis leaned in closer and timidly whispered, “Harry.”
Harry held his breath and blinked that he was listening.
Louis kept his whisper as quiet as possible, “Can you stay?”
Harry was quiet, trying to think of what was logical to say here, trying to think of what he should say to protect the Harry he was going to wake up to in the morning. But he couldn’t concentrate with Louis looking at him like that, his brow tight and his eyes full of doubt, of worry. His mouth pressed together with self consciousness.
So Harry swallowed.
And he nodded.
And he really was such a pushover.
Harry didn't know what to expect going into Louis’ room. He didn’t know if Louis was going to kiss him, and if he was going to do it hard like he had the night before. He didn’t know if he’d pull Harry inside him and tear at his shoulders, make the skin around his ribs bruise any more.
As Louis led Harry to the bathroom and gave him a spare toothbrush — an unopened one he kept for if one of the kids had a friend over — Harry tried to keep his mind together. Half of him wanted to run out into the snow and all the way out of Lake Tekapo because his body was betraying him. He was going to hate himself tomorrow.
But still. He didn’t run. He just said sorry to himself in advance.
They brushed their teeth in silence.
Louis hovered around him like Harry was going to burn him even though he wanted to keep warm.
Harry hovered around Louis like he was the same, like he was going to melt the ice that grown over Harry, the muted happiness he’d created in London and the something he was searching for when he moved back. Louis was so close to melting it all and making Harry feel all too real for the first time in years.
He was scared that the life he’d told himself had made him happy was going to combust. Louis made him think too much, feel too much.
Louis switched off all the lights before they walked back to his room, it was the last one on the left. Next to Dot’s room. He grabbed Harry’s hand as he led him to the bed, and still he was wordless. His hand was cold and unsure.
Harry was just trying to keep his from shaking.
Harry slid into the bed and silently stared at the ceiling. He didn’t know what to do.
Louis lay on the right side, the same side he used to sleep on, and faced the ceiling too.
And for a long while, they didn’t say anything. It was too quiet for Harry to even breathe without feeling like he was breaking something. The room was so dark, even with the curtains not quite closed. Outside, he could see just one star blinking through the crack in the curtains.
Harry stared at it until it went fuzzy.
Louis turned to his side and faced him. Harry could feel his breath on his shoulder, and somehow in the darkness, his eyes on him.
“Harry,” He whispered timidly. “Why did you come back?”
There was a silent beat and then Harry whispered back, his voice croaking, “Today?”
“To New Zealand.”
Harry hadn’t actually answered last time Louis had asked, but he supposed that if he told Louis then maybe that would make him brave enough to talk too.
“I got homesick.”
“I…” Harry swallowed. “I don’t know yet.”
Louis breathed and then he said, voice still in a whisper, “I’ve spent so long wanting to leave.”
Harry rolled over to him, making their hands catch under the sheets. Neither pulled away, “Why don’t you?”
Louis was slow to answer, “I can’t.”
He lay frozen, his body a little too rigid, his breaths too shallow. Too careful.
Harry didn’t press him.
Louis was the only person that, Harry, a journalist, couldn’t bring himself to question.
Instead, Harry carefully brought up his hand and brushed Louis’ fringe from his forehead. He could just about make out the shine of Louis’ eyes.
Suddenly, Louis rolled over and faced away from Harry. But he pulled Harry’s arm with him and tucked it around his side so Harry was right up against him. So Harry was the big spoon.
Louis breathed in and it sounded jagged, wet. Like there were tears caught in it.
Harry stroked the skin below Louis’ thumb.
Louis squeezed his hand.
Eventually, so quietly that Harry wasn’t sure if he really heard it, Louis whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Harry stayed awake until Louis’ breaths fell evenly and unhurt, wondering if Louis was apologising because he might have been crying, or because of something else. Something bigger.
Something like the day he left.
The more Harry thought about it though, this all felt familiar. He felt like he’d laid in the exact position before, arms wrapped around Louis in comfort, tight like Harry was the only thing keeping him tethered.
There had been more than one night like this. The bumps of Louis’ spine felt so familiar that Harry knew he’d laid this way often.
This Louis had existed the first time round. Harry just hadn’t realised it before.
It was 9pm and the room was hot and stuffy. Was sticky feeling from being in it all day, too hungover to do anything but lie in bed and watch movies while they drifted in and out of consciousness.
This time of year, just over before uni was going back, the sun didn’t go down until 10 o’clock at night. The sun came through the window in red streaks.
Harry was gnawing on a cold pizza crust he couldn’t stomach when they’d first ordered pizza at dinner time. He had Drag Race on his laptop, an old season he’d seen before. Next to him, Louis was soundly asleep. Saliva had dried down his cheek.
Harry knew if he left the room and came back, it would stink. Two unshowered boys lying in their own summer sweat with alcohol and pizza on their breaths.
Harry reached for his phone and absentmindedly scrolled through Instagram while he chewed. He knew already that they’d fucked up their sleep schedule enough, and they’d probably not sleep properly until 3am.
When he’d finished two more episodes, and grown so bored of his phone that he actually watched them in a tired stupor, Louis stirred. He lay there for a while, slowly blinking his eyes up at the ceiling, and then as he came more to, he reached over and pulled himself into the crevice of Harry’s armpit. Once he’d gotten his head propped up on Harry’s shoulder, he smiled up at him and grinned a sluggish, “Morning.”
Harry winked at him and kissed his forehead. “Morning to you too, sleepyhead.”
“I think I could actually stomach a shower now.”
“And come back to this bed?” Harry asked. There were crumbs along the duvet from the kebabs they’d had the night before.
“Mmm,” Louis hummed happily as he shifted more onto his side. “You could always change it.”
“I’ll actually be sick,” Harry lamented.
“Too sick for a blow job, then?”
“For you or me?”
Louis pinched Harry’s nipple playfully. “Mee?”
“Yeah, right,” Harry rolled his eyes, and cursed himself for it when it made his stomach flip.
“What episode are you on?” Louis asked, finally looking at the laptop on top of Harry’s waist.
“Eight or nine? Willam was just disqualified. But we can change it if you want, I’m not really watching.”
They settled on The Truman Show and Harry made it about halfway through before he started to nod off, the room warm and dark enough by then to bribe him with a nap disguised as actual sleep.
When he came out of it, woken up by the cool night air that had finally started to whisper its way through the open window, Louis was on his phone texting someone.
“Who’s that?” Harry slurred.
Louis jumped and then looked at Harry with a breathy, surprised smile. “Oh, uh, my mum.”
“Does she miss you, huh?” Harry asked, grinning as he rubbed the corners of his eyes.
Louis hummed and put his phone down on Harry’s bedside table. He pulled Harry towards himself so he was spooning him, Harry’s chest against Louis’ back.
Harry squeezed him with a sleepy smile
“Actually, I’ve been thinking since we saw your mum last week,” Louis thought aloud quite seriously. “Would you want to meet my family?”
“Of course,” Harry smiled. “Seeing as you never talk about them.”
Louis was quiet a moment, squeezing Harry’s hand. “I do, but I was thinking we could see them during the mid-trimester break?”
“Mhm,” Harry hummed, too half asleep to remind Louis that he only knew his family’s names and that they had a farm somewhere in the South Island. His parents, Johannah and Dan, and his siblings Ernest and Doris. “I’m there.”
Louis pulled Harry closer, almost too tightly for his stomach to handle, and whispered, “Thank you, I love you.”
Harry wasn’t sure, he was too tired to really tell, but Louis’ voice might have shaken a little.
He slurred back his I love you too and fell back asleep.
Harry woke to an empty bed. Again.
The bed was cold, his legs were almost shivery. The space where Louis should have been was even colder, the duvet pulled back to show the dip where his body usually lay.
Frigid light streamed into the room in one dust-spun beam.
Harry couldn’t remember where he’d left his phone, so he halfheartedly patted his hands around the bed in case he’d fallen asleep with it.
It wasn’t there.
His hands made their way to the bedside table next to him.
It bumped something. Something wet. And cold.
Harry lifted his head to look and found himself staring at a cold cup of coffee, full to the brim.
Louis must have left it there for him. A while ago.
Harry didn’t realise how tired he must have been in his hangover, it was probably nearing midday or something. He slid groggily out of bed and pulled on the trousers he’d left on the floor, trying to blink himself fully into consciousness. He couldn’t remember when it was that he finally got to sleep the night before. All he could remember was the warmth of Louis’ body up against him, the only warmth in the room. That, and how he didn’t want to leave. Or stay.
He didn’t know what he wanted.
His phone was on the floor near where the pocket of his jeans had been lying.
When he was dressed, Harry pulled himself towards the hallway.
The house was silent. There was a ticking of a clock somewhere. It was colder in the hallway, with no one here to breathe the room warmer, but there was a patch of heat emanating from Dot’s room. She’d left her door open a crack, through which Harry could see a heater plugged into the wall.
Her room wasn’t tidy, but it wasn’t necessarily messy either. Which seemed fitting. The curtains were completely shut and she had a pile of clothes up against a wall. Her bed was unmade too, laptop lying in the middle of it, but that was it. The only thing of note were the pictures on the wall — a collage of photos and painted pictures, tickets to events and birthday cards. It seemed Dot was quite the sentimental one.
Harry quietly shut the door and moved down the hallway.
Ernie’s door was closed again, but the last one, that was exactly the same as it was the day before.
The front door was right there, his quiet escape back out to his car was right there .
He should have gone.
Instead, Harry slipped through the door to the bedroom.
Somewhere, it was quieter in here than the rest of the house. The air was heavy with it. Like the way it is in a museum, every one passing through, looking at artifacts of yesteryear, with the burden of silence on their backs.
It looked like a museum in here too.
Harry touched a hand to the dresser next to him as he moved further into the room. It came away with a layer of dust. It smelled of it too.
No one had slept in here in a long time.
Harry moved to the bed. Trepidatiously, he sat on the edge of it. A salmon coloured floral duvet covered it. The bed squeaked under Harry’s weight and it was too loud in this silence.
He looked around the room from his little perch. There was a clock on the wall that was stuck at half past seven. And there were photos too, a black and white one of two adults on their wedding day, and a family photo of them with Louis and his siblings.
Louis looked the same age as when they’d met the first time. The younger ones looked about 10.
They were overlooking the lake and they all looked happy.
Harry had a growing feeling that he was sitting in the room that had felt death. It was too still, too preserved. Too much like a museum.
Thoughts started to spin in Harry’s mind, about Louis and Ernie and about the parents that were clearly gone too soon. Something slotted into place.
The Louis on the wall, smiling with his parents, looked old enough to be at university. He had the same shaggy haircut as when Harry met them.
He remembered that they had plans to visit them.
Harry’s heart dropped.
He needed to get out of here.
Harry quickly slunk from the room and made his way to the front door, pulling it open a little too hard.
It swung open with a clatter and Harry found himself blasted with winter air and he’d completely forgotten to put on his jacket. And shoes.
Just as quickly as he opened it, Harry slammed the door shut again. He yanked on his jacket, zipping it only halfway and stumbled as he pulled on his boots.
Suddenly there was a clanging at the other end of the house and the familiar sound of Harry’s name being called, but he needed to get out. There was so much sadness in this house, too much left unsaid, too much that wasn’t talked about, and Harry had just walked in and thought he was the one that had been hard done by.
The silence of his phone on the days that he’d called Louis up and gotten no response rung in Harry’s head. The messages and messages he’d left him stacked up inside Harry’s boot so he couldn’t get it on fast enough.
And Harry was so, so confused as he finally pulled the door open again and slammed it behind him, because Louis hadn’t thought that Harry would have helped him through something like that. He hadn’t called to say that he’d had a family emergency, some sort of tragedy. And it made Harry fume. Louis hadn’t given him any answers until Harry had quite literally stumbled into them himself.
And yet he felt guilty. Like maybe he’d done something that he couldn’t remember that had caused Louis to score out that chasm that had kept them apart, had kept Harry in the dark.
Why hadn’t he told him?
Had Harry done something?
Harry needed to get away to think, to remember, to figure out if his guilt was warranted.
He stalked out to his car, feet almost slipping on the ground.
He got his hand on the door handle.
Louis was at the door, and he was calling Harry’s name.
Harry whipped around, his face tight, his brow creased.
“You’re still here,” Louis said, hovering in the doorway. “Do you… Do you want to get lunch?”
Harry couldn’t pull the door open. He couldn’t leave mad that Louis hadn’t told him. The guilt was too much. He was giving him too much rope here, knowing that Louis burned his end once already, but Harry couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe he’d burned his end too.
As Louis drove, all Harry could focus on was Louis’ face and how the smile lines around his lips might have actually been from sadness.
His eyes were always so blue, so watery. The same as the lake they reflected.
How many times had Louis wiped them dry?
As Louis sucked on his upper lip and indicated into the pub parking lot, Harry saw Louis for what he was. A kid who had dreamed of moving to the city, of becoming a teacher, but who had dropped it all to look after his siblings. Stuck on a farm he didn’t really want, in a town that was too small, with a disaffected brother and a storm of a sister.
He wondered if this, their parents, was what had caused Ernie to be so sullen, so wrapped up in himself. So disillusioned by Louis’ comforting of Dot.
He didn’t know how to ask about it all.
It felt wrong to.
It felt like he’d be intruding.
Niall was working.
When he came over to take their order, he leaned on the table they’d taken outside under one of the heaters. It was a sunny day and the pub had a nice view of the lake. Harry didn’t mind, his toes were still too cold but he had other things to think about.
At first, it seemed like Niall might provide a good distraction, someone to talk to that wasn’t just Harry and Louis because Harry didn’t know how to talk to him at all now. The little words he’d given in the car came out stilted, too forced. Too formal.
But Niall asked, with a careless smile, how Harry was after the little event yesterday.
“Little event?” Louis asked, turning to Harry with a curious, unaware smile.
Guilt bubbled back up in Harry’s stomach because he hadn’t even told him about the man that drowned the day before. That was the kind of thing you had to get off your chest, but Harry had become too desensitised to that sort of thing.
And maybe he wasn’t that good at opening up either.
“Yeah, an out of towner took a kayak out on the lake. He went down somewhere over there,” Niall pointed a fair way out into the middle of the lake. “Harry, here, stumbled into me in the crowd as it was all happening.”
Louis gave Harry a look that asked why he hadn’t said anything.
Harry shifted his lips self consciously and offered, “It didn’t seem like the kind of thing to bring up in front of the kids.”
“Oh, yeah. Fair enough,” Louis said, shifting and leaning onto his elbow. “Must have been a shit thing to see.”
“Didn’t really see much,” Niall interjected. “They didn’t find him.”
“Huh,” Louis let out, but he didn’t really sound all that surprised “They ought to put up signs in the winter, too many people visit the lake with no idea what it can do.”
“You’re telling me,” Niall said before he finally excused himself.
When they were alone again, the first thing out of Harry’s mouth was, “Sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“It’s fine,” Louis smiled, looking out over the water. “I don’t expect you to tell me everything.”
He had no idea how those words burned into Harry’s skin.
“It’s just, with the kids being around and then we were talking about other things and—”
“Harry,” Louis stopped him with a kind, genuine smile. “It’s fine. Really. I was just shocked someone drowned.”
Harry mused for a second, because not talking about things was fine to Louis, but it wasn’t for Harry. He yearned to understand why Louis had frozen him out six years ago, and yet seemed so eager now. Eager to be around Harry, to invite him into his bed and out to lunch and to talk about everything under the stars bar the scars beneath his skin.
But he supposed this was what they were doing now, this second time around. Pretending that the first time didn’t happen, that they didn’t have an unresolved past. Instead, only, a past that involved only an elusive knowing each other in university.
So Harry asked if people drowning in the lake was common.
“Not really,” Louis said thoughtfully, eyes caught up again in the water’s edge. The lake was so still today. Glassy. “It’s happened a few times here and there, Niall just gets riled up because he deals with the tourists that get drunk and try to dare each other to go swimming late at night.”
“He does like to complain about tourists.”
“Which is funny, seeing as he’s not even a local.”
“How did he end up here?”
Louis shifted in his seat and smiled to himself. “It’s a bit of a story, that one. It involves a girl.”
“I’m all ears,” Harry said, because it was a topic that wasn’t them, or Sarah, or drowning or anything related to death. And even if Louis wasn’t talking to Harry about the things that really mattered, at least he was talking. It quieted the guilt Harry felt momentarily, because the more Louis talked, surely the more he’d learn that Harry was someone that would actually listen.
“I’m nervous,” Louis confessed, voice shaking, “Harry, I’m—”
“You’ll be fine,” Harry reassured him, wrapping an arm around his shoulder as they stood at the arrivals gate. “She’s going to love you.”
“Yeah, but Harry, this family thing scares—”
“Louis!” Harry sung with a smile. “You don’t need to worry. You’re going to be amazing, because you’re always amazing.”
“Looouis,” Harry grinned, putting his other arm around him so he had Louis in a hug from the side. “Stop that.”
Louis gave in. He sighed a shaky breath and rested his head against Harry’s collar, obviously resigning himself to the fact that he wasn’t going to get another word in.
“Sorry,” He mumbled.
“S’fine,” Harry said softly, warmly, before he kissed Louis’ temple. “It’s scary, I know, but I have complete faith she’s going to love you. She already says she does on the phone.”
Louis didn’t say anything,
But Harry didn’t let go.
Not until his mum came through her gate, and she wrapped her arms around them both in a hug.
Harry zoned back in to what Louis was saying. Something about the animals he had on the farm, something about hundreds of merino sheep.
“And a few alpacas,” Louis added with a grin.
“Alpacas?” Harry asked, shaking his head a little because he wasn’t sure if he’d heard that right.
“Yeah, ten of them. You should come see them, I think you’d like them,” Louis replied, “and since your car’s still at our place, it’ll make the drive back worth it.”
Harry agreed because there wasn’t much option. That, and alpacas sounded interesting. Fun, even.
“Perfect,” Louis smiled, too happy. “We can feed them.”
Louis, it seemed, was in far better spirits that Harry was, what with his pensive, confused thoughts banging around his head. The whole way back to his house, Louis chatted contently about how it wasn’t until he’d seen one of the neighbours’ herd that his parents offered to get their own.
“I was completely enamoured,” Louis said, eyes shining. “There was this brown one, was blind in one eye so it was sort of blue and milky, and I just wouldn’t leave it alone. My mum said she’d never seen me smile like that. In fact, when we got our herd, the neighbours gave us that one to keep.”
It seemed like a moment that Harry could have finally brought it up, the topic of Louis’ mum and his dad and the deafening absence of them.
But he couldn’t.
Louis was too bright, too warm. Too happy. It scared Harry to be the one who might break that. Harry’s stomach was tight with emotion, the need to coax the words out of Louis so the air would be cleared, so their walls would be torn, but the thought of going there now made it tighter. And turn uncomfortably.
So Harry said, “Can I meet this half-blind alpaca? Does it have a name?”
Louis’ face fell a bit and he shook his head, “Nah. This was years ago, he was already kind of old when we got him.”
“Oh,” Harry breathed, cursing himself. “Sorry.”
“S’okay,” Louis said, looking over to Harry with a soft smile. “These things happen.”
Harry couldn’t ignore the fleck of sadness in Louis’ eyes.
They arrived back to the farm sooner than Harry thought, and kept their jackets on as Louis led them around to a building at the back of the house.
“This is where we keep everything,” he explained, opening the door and hitting a switch so the bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling flickered on. There were strange machines in here that Harry didn’t recognise. Some had seats on them and could clearly be driven, but the contraptions attached to them all looked too sharp.
Louis led them to some massive bags that lined one side of the building, raised off the ground on some wood pallets.
“This is all our feed,” Louis explained. “There’s a special one here for Toothless — Ernie named her from that How To Train Your Dragon TV show. She’s pregnant at the moment, so we’ll take some of that.”
Louis scooped a small portion of pellets out and dumped them in a bucket, and then moved on to another bag and scooped out a bigger amount.
“The rest just get the normal stuff. Do you want to drive?”
“Drive?” Harry asked, confused.
“The gator,” Louis grinned mischievously. He pointed at the thing he’d driven the day before.
“Uhhh, I don’t kn—"
“Come on,” Louis interrupted. “It’s fun! I promise.”
“If you say so,” Harry said, letting himself smile a bit.
The gator was easy to drive, much easier to get across the snow-slippery grass than the ute. And it felt faster too because they weren’t stuck behind the trappings of windows. Cold air whipped through Harry’s fringe and almost gave him brain freeze, but he wasn’t complaining. It was keeping all his thoughts at bay.
Harry even let himself turn the thing so they drove in snaking waves, a left here, a right there.
It was actually fun. Refreshing.
Harry turned it a little too sharply and one of the wheels spun out. Louis flung one hand out to the dashboard and one out to Harry.
“Alright there, James Dean,” he laughed airly, squeezing Harry’s thigh. The weight of his hand felt so right, so familiar.
Harry actually smiled widely back, teeth on show, laugh lines deep, as he breathed an airy apology. It was too easy for the sailing of the wheels and the wind in his hair get the better of him.
It was too easy to forget himself when he was having fun.
He hadn’t felt like this in a long time.
When they got to the paddock, a flock of heads turned towards them curiously, so Harry slowed and drove to the fence with as much restraint as he could muster.
“Perfect,” Louis smiled as Harry came to a stop. “Couldn’t have done a better job myself.”
“I doubt that,” Harry confessed with a soft smile.
“I don’t,” Louis countered quickly under his breath, leaning into Harry’s ear excitedly.
At first the alpacas hovered in their end of the paddock, a far distance away, but as soon as Louis hopped off and shook a bucket, they came running.
Harry hadn’t seen an alpaca in real life before. They were smaller than he was expecting, but still their heads were almost as tall as his shoulder. Toothless was easy to spot. She was a black thing, eyes bright and sharp, and the name seemed fitting. She was heftier than the others too, which Harry imagined was due to her pregnancy.
“Here,” Louis said softly, giving Harry a bucket and then hopping up to straddle the fence as he beckoned Harry over.
He went over cautiously, staying very clearly on his side of the fence. Louis shook his bucket and the group all surrounded him. He put a hand in and pulled out a handful of pellets, and then offered them to the animals around him.
“Do it like this,” Louis explained, emphasizing how flat he made his hand. How he kept it wide so his fingers didn’t get caught up.
Carefully, timidly, Harry did the same. He scooped up a handful of pellets and tentatively held his hand towards the fence.
A brown one came right for it, too quickly, and Harry couldn’t help but shoot his hand back. Their mouths were so fast, so eager.
But Louis caught his back and squeezed his shoulder.
“You’re good, he’s nice,” He whispered.
So Harry held his hand out a little further and let the animal brush its furry lip to his hand. It tickled, he was more delicate than he looked. Slowly, Harry pushed his hand out further and the alpaca finished the lot.
He scooped another handful.
As the alpaca ate from his hand, Harry carefully shifted the bucket to rest in the crook of his elbow so he could bring a hand to the animal’s neck, to his fur.
He was so soft. His coat in delicate, spongey curls.
Harry spread his fingers through them. They were tighter than the curls on his own head, which meant that as he moved his fingers through them, they unwound like silky coils.
Another alpaca suddenly pushed past and dove its head in Harry’s bucket. It caught him off guard and he stumbled backwards. But Louis’ hand was there again to catch him with a soft laugh.
“What do you think?” Louis asked, voice as soft as their fur.
Harry moved the hand that the first brown alpaca had eaten from, left wet and empty, to the head of the alpaca with its head in his bucket. He scrunched and stroked the fur around its ear, making it huff with a satisfactory growl. “I think I like them.”
“I like them,” Harry decided. “They’re not going to spit on me though, are they?”
Louis chuckled and shook his head, “Not if you keep feeding them.”
Harry gave him a worried look which made him laugh.
“You’ll be fine, Harry. Do you want to feed Toothless?”
Harry nodded, eyes stuck on the way the alpaca’s ears fluttered as he scratched around them.
Louis leaned down to the ground and picked up another bucket, the one with the special feed.
“You’re going to have to get in,” Louis added, his grin a little impish. He didn’t give Harry a chance to protest though, because he handed Harry the bucket and promptly dropped himself into the paddock. “I’ll get the others over to the trough, if you get in and coax her away.”
“I can’t do that from this side of the fence?” Harry asked, a little wary.
“You can try,” Louis smiled.
He took Harry’s original bucket, and the rest of his own, and led the group over to a half barrel a few metres away by shaking them. Toothless followed them, staying a little behind the pack.
Louis tipped the buckets into the trough and stepped back to let all the alpacas feed.
Harry shook his own bucket in the hopes that Toothless would come over, but she stood still, hesitating between her pack and Harry’s bucket.
“Come on, girl,” Louis coaxed her, pushing her softly in Harry’s direction. She took two timid steps, seemingly not wanting to move.
And then suddenly kicked off and ran at Harry.
He took a surprised step backwards as she came up on the fence, body almost throwing itself against the wooden beams. She extended her head far over the fence, trying to lean as far over to Harry as possible.
“Go on then,” Louis grinned as he made his way over.
Harry pulled out a handful of pellets and offered them to her.
She took them gratefully.
Louis made his way over and patted her on the back as he commented, “She doesn’t usually come to the fence. Lucky you.”
Harry was enraptured by her. Her jet black fur looked almost wet against the snow, shining as Harry ran his hands through it.
Louis came right over and leaned against the fence, his shoulder almost touching Harry’s extended arm.
“Do you want to hop up?” Louis asked, patting the fence, clearly invested in getting Harry as close to the animals as possible.
Harry supposed there wasn’t a reason not to. Louis was fine in the paddock with them, and Harry found himself rather enamoured with them all.
Careful not to scare her, he pulled himself up onto the top ledge and straddled it like Louis had done before.
Louis’ hand found its way to his back.
“She likes you,” he said.
“I like her too,” Harry replied, rubbing his hands down her long, fuzzy neck. Her eyes were so bulbous, black and shiny. Harry ran his hands down to the inside of her shoulder where she felt warmer, but suddenly she kicked backwards, ears pinning back, and spat at him.
He flinched, and raised his hand instinctively as he jumped back and lost his footing on one of the lower beams, almost sliding right off.
Louis caught his arm and kept him upright, a soft oh shit escaping him.
Once Harry got his footing back and managed to sit back up again, Louis gently pushed Toothless a bit away and took the bucket off of Harry so he could place it on the ground for her.
“You okay?” Louis asked, looking up at Harry with concern.
Harry took stock of himself, and yeah, he was okay. But his hand was covered in bubbly spit. Too much of it. He didn’t quite know what to do with it, his mouth curling in disgust.
“Here,” he offered, taking Harry by the wrist. He pulled a rag from his jacket that was marked with streaks of black. Harry wasn’t going to complain. Louis turned his hand over and delicately wiped away at it.
Harry didn’t realise how close Louis was standing until he looked up at him with a soft, quiet smile. His eyes moved to the underside of Harry’s chin, and then he wiped that too. There must have been spit there that Harry hadn’t felt.
Louis bit his bottom lip as he carefully wiped the last of it away, his hand still wrapped around Harry’s wrist.
And this is what it felt like when they’d met the first time, two strangers at a party. Now they were two strangers in a field. There was some semblance of a past, but like everything else it wasn’t spoken about, so it might as well not have existed.
Harry’s breath caught in his throat.
Louis’ eyes were too close. Too wide. Too shiny in the snow, in the sun. He started to lower the rag from Harry’s face.
Louis had already put out their fire, but he was returning to it now as though he’d never lit it. As if he hadn’t burned anything, everything.
Louis blinked and it happened in slow motion. Like his eyelashes were fanning kindling.
Harry didn’t push him away. He was giving him more wood to light, more of his rope to burn. He didn’t want to feel so dull anymore, so extinguished. He wanted answers. He wanted Louis to be able to talk to him.
Louis leant in.
Harry felt his heart beating out of his chest, so hard that he might just combust.
Louis kissed him. He pressed their lips together softly. Intimately.
It was different to the first night they saw each other, when they’d kissed painfully in the dark.
This was soft and slow and tinged cold by the snow in Louis’ breath. His lips were slightly chapped, his chin unshaven, and Harry felt it more here in the snow.
He felt everything more out here. Not dulled by drink or the dark.
Louis must have dropped the rag because his fingers came to delicately rest against Harry’s jaw.
Harry let his own hands wonder the each side of Louis’ face. His ears were so cold. He felt so small.
Louis pulled away only barely, their noses still touching. Eyes still closed.
“Is this okay?” He asked.
Harry nodded. Because Louis was so small, so alone in this world. Harry could feel the weight he carried. He moved his hands to Louis’ neck, to his shoulders, and he could feel the tension there. The years.
They let their lips touch again, and Harry pulled Louis closer. And he wanted it to be okay, he wanted the weight on his own shoulders to slide away. He wanted this kiss to solve everything.
But it didn’t. It wasn’t going to.
With every brush of Louis’ fingers moving closer to the back of Harry’s head, to behind his ears where he could get fingers in his hair, Harry felt everything crashing down more and more.
Because who was he kidding. Giving Louis all this rope to work with was going to leave Harry untethered. Confusion and anger and worry swelled inside Harry, made his chest feel like it was on fire, like he was holding his breath.
Louis couldn’t just walk back into Harry’s life and do this. He couldn’t wrap Harry around his finger and expect him to play wife without explaining himself. It was foolish, juvenile, to let Louis be so happy, so needy, in Harry’s return.
He was the one that hadn’t returned his calls.
Harry suddenly felt the cold snap through his jacket.
He pulled away.
Louis kept his hand at the base of Harry’s skull.
Harry rested his hand on it.
They stayed there for a long moment, just staring at each other.
Eventually, Harry forced himself to say it.
“I should go.”
Something shot through Louis’ eyes. For just a millisecond, but Harry caught it. Then he nodded, “Okay.”
He started to pull his hand from Harry’s hair. Harry didn’t let his fingers go though. He wanted Louis to stop him from leaving, he wanted him to hold his hand and tell him why he was the one to leave first. He wanted Louis to not just be so willing to have things end.
“Sorry if I shouldn’t have kissed you,” was all Louis managed to say.
Harry shook his head, “No, that’s not it.”
And then he lied by adding, “I just need to focus on my job too.”
“Oh,” Louis let out. “Yeah. Sorry.”
He tentatively squeezed Harry’s hand, looking down at it.
Harry wanted to kick himself, because Louis’ hands were just too cold on their own and he couldn’t help but squeeze him back.
The only thing worse than being around Louis was not being around Louis.
As Harry drove back towards the township, he didn’t take notice of the white paddocks he passed by, of the mountains in the distance. Of the smell of ice and grass and animal coming in through the window that he needed open just to breathe.
He could only think about how he’d spent six years away from Louis and he’d been fine, he really had, but one weekend had been able to ruin all of it.
Harry tried to persevere, he tried to drive with his hands firmly on the wheel.
There was a voice inside of him telling him that he wanted to spin the wheel around, to go back and to beg Louis to talk. Harry could fix this if he was just there for Louis, just let him crawl out of his shell a little further.
He tried not to listen.
Louis had his chance to talk, he’d had two days worth of chances, but he’d just kissed Harry instead.
The further Harry drove, the looser his hands became around the wheel. The less he focused on the road.
Harry wondered how and why it was that they’d ended up, so instinctually, right back in each other’s laps. They’d fallen so quickly, so hard, the first time. He could feel it again. He could feel it in the way he hadn’t needed to actually say anything that first night at the pub, they’d just ended up fucking in the dark together. He could feel it in the way that even though they were strangers now, they felt each other out until they found the familiar bits, the friendly bits, and wrapped themselves around them.
Harry could feel tears starting to prick his eyes, already turning ice cold and stinging in wind. They were making it hard to see.
He wanted to get out of here.
But he wanted to go back.
He gritted his teeth and wiped at his eyes.
It wasn’t until Harry had felt Louis’ hands on him, up his back, under his chin, in his hair, that he realised how right it was. And that that was what kept pulling him back.
Louis was the only thing he’d come across that felt so right, so natural, that came apart so easily.
And yet he wasn’t coming apart.
Something moved in the front window.
Harry slammed on his brakes.
The car squealed and slid along the road, slowing down but not fast enough. The wheels went into the dip at the side of the road, where the asphalt turned to gravel and snow. One of them hit something, bounced over it, and then finally Harry came to a skidding stop.
He was staring at his hands. He didn’t realise he was until they came into focus and he saw how white they were around the steering wheel.
Harry sat like that for a long moment, just staring at his hands as a tear finally slid down his cheek. Outside, the smell of burning tyres blew gently away from the car.
A hand rested on the edge of Harry’s window.
And then he looked up.
It was a man, leathery with dark eyes. He was only wearing a light jersey and had bags under his eyes as grey as the streaks in his hair.
“You alright?” he asked quietly. There was something stoic about him, something hollow.
Harry quickly wiped at his cheek and nodded, “Uh, yeah.”
“Good thing you didn’t do any damage. Or hit her,” the man said, head motioning somewhere behind the car. Harry looked in his rear view mirror and saw a sheep standing on the side of the road. The man’s car was back there too.
“Mm,” Harry croaked as he nodded in agreement. “Sorry.”
The man gave him a half hearted smile and said, patting the door, “Just give yourself a minute, you’ll be alright.”
Harry was just about to let out a long, shaky breath, but the man added, “Be safe kiddo, we don’t want to lose anyone else out here.”
And then he was gone, and Harry could let out that breath.
He sat there, just staring at the rear view mirror as the man boxed the sheep in between his ute and the fence next to the road. He managed to pick it up and put it into the back of his car.
Watching him was the only thing keeping Harry from bursting into tears, his heart thudding with adrenaline and his mind spacey. His chest felt tight.
When the man got in his car and left, and he was finally alone, Harry collected himself and slowly pulled away from the curb. He drove back to his motel as carefully as he could, his thoughts kept at bay by the rumbling of the car.
He fell onto his bed and lay there, staring at the ceiling.
Ten minutes later, Harry’s phone went off.
It was a call from an unknown number.
He picked up.
“Hello?” Harry asked, voice croaky.
“Harry?” It asked. “It’s Louis.”
Harry was quiet.
“Are you okay? Dave just came by with one of my sheep, said you almost hit it and slid off the road. What happened?”
What happened . That was a question that had been on Harry’s mind for years.
“I don’t know,” was all Harry could muster. “I didn’t see it. I was...”
He didn’t have the words.
Of course he didn’t.
“Do you need anything?” Louis asked, voice a little frantic.
Harry shook his head, forgetting Louis couldn’t see him. Then quickly, as he caught himself, let out, “No.”
There was a quiet pause between them, and then Harry added, “Thank you, though.”
“Well, I’m here if you need.”
Are you? Harry thought.
Harry tried to focus on his work.
On Tuesday, he talked to a few more locals. It was more of the same, only this time when they talked, he just sort of stared at the wall behind them and wondered when he’d hear what they were saying.
He drove around the lake, scouting out people he didn’t think were locals — the ones taking photos — and sat and watched and wondered if he’d ever be able to read minds.
He went back to the police station in hopes of talking to Greg Russell.
He wasn’t in.
“Try tomorrow,” the lady smiled. Though her eyes were dead.
Harry smiled back over gritted teeth, “Sure.”
He wasn’t in then either. He seemed to be dodging Harry altogether.
On Wednesday, after another failure at the police station, Harry tried to talk to Sarah’s dad again.
He drove to his house determined not to let his eyes wander over to the Tomlinson farm, where Louis might be off in the distance, fixing that shed finally. But when he got there, a police car was out the front of her father’s house.
Harry slowed, curious what was going on, and then parked to the side of the road so he could watch. After twenty minutes of grueling waiting and daring himself to not even glance in Louis’ direction, Greg Russell came out of the front door and went straight to his car. No pleasantries, no goodbyes. He simply left. But the door behind him did shut. Someone was home.
Greg’s car pulled out of the driveway and onto the highway road. And he was facing the direction of Harry’s car.
He didn’t quite know what to do, because this was the man that Harry had been trying to talk to for days. This was the man that had been avoiding him. And whilst he was coming right towards Harry, there was no way to stop him to talk.
It was like some sort of sick joke.
Harry could only watch as Greg’s car got closer and closer, and how his face finally came into view. He was staring at Harry and he didn’t even bother to make it look like it wasn’t on purpose. Almost in slow motion, Greg passed by Harry’s parked car. And in slower motion, his head turned to hold Harry’s eyes for as long as possible.
And then he was gone.
Harry let out a breath. It came out duller than he expected. There was a tension in the air that it felt like Greg had wanted there, but Harry had been too distracted to really feel it. He could only feel a distant curiosity.
Harry drove to Sarah’s dad’s house.
He banged on the door lightly at first, as dull as he felt, just trying to get on with his job when there was Louis right over that fence. And then he banged it hard, cursing lightly under his breath, because he’d even thought about looking over there.
Sarah’s dad didn’t come to the door.
Harry kept knocking, knowing full well that he was home.
It wasn’t until Harry’s knuckles started to go numb that he gave up and went to the window. He cupped his hands around his mouth and called out, “I just want to help!”
Frustrated, Harry went back to the motel and did the thing he should have done to begin with.
He tried to get in contact with Sarah’s mum, Sharon.
He already knew there was nothing of her online when he’d checked before he came, and he had no way of finding her address. It would have been pointless to just drive down to Invercargill with nothing but a name to go by. But, according to the official story, she had called the police station the day Sarah disappeared.
And Liam had access to it.
Liam picked up on the third ring, a bright spark in his, “Hey, Harry!”
“Hey Liam, I was wondering if you could help me out.”
“Course. What is it?”
“Sarah’s police report, could I get a look at it?”
“Uh, I’ll have to talk to Greg first.”
“Oh,” Harry sighed, “Do you have to?”
“He’s avoiding me, I think.”
“Ah. Well, I’ll see what I can do.”
“It is a public document, isn’t it?”
There was a short pause on the line and then, “Yeah. Yeah, it is. It’s just… Look, Harry, we’ve had a lot of bad press around here because of all this, and now after the accident at the lake… We’re just worried about how this is all going to affect the town. Lake Tekapo depends on tourists coming through.”
“We?” Harry asked, wondering where this change of tone was coming from.
Liam didn’t say anything.
“Is it Greg? Did he say something to you?”
There was a quiet hum on the other side, like Liam was conceding.
Harry wanted the old Liam back, the one so quick to help. Before Greg had interfered.
“I get not wanting to ruin a town’s reputation, Liam. That’s not what I’m here for. Look at it like this, either Sarah is safe and with her mum in Invercargill, or she’s not. And people deserve to know, her dad deserves to know.”
And then Harry continued, because something had clicked into place, “Has Greg said anything else? He really doesn’t like me being here.”
“Umm, no. Not that I can think of. He’s just busy, this town means a lot to him.”
“I’ll get that report for you though.”
Harry didn’t know what to do with himself, he’d spent two days doing nothing. It had been as many dragging days without Louis as it had been fleeting days with him. And now he’d run out of ideas for Sarah too. It was just a waiting game now. Liam didn’t say when he’d get the report for him by, and he didn’t know how long it would take for Sarah’s dad to answer his door.
So he pulled on a jacket and headed out to the car.
The grocery store was just down the road, and it was the closest thing Harry was going to get to fast food around here. He pulled into the parking lot and then got out, walked in, and started his search for anything that would keep him busy for a while. Would keep him from fixating on Sarah. Or Louis.
Harry couldn’t decide on what he wanted, which was much too fitting for his liking. He found himself picking up snacks left and right, not really excited by anything but willing to try until he found something that might actually satisfy him. He ended up walking with both a bag of chips and a bag of salted popcorn under his arm, and then some beef jerky and pringles bunched together in his fist. He was on his way to the drink section, grabbing a pre-wrapped sandwich along the way, when he saw Greg down one of the aisles.
He was tossing cereal into a trolley with a man in an army uniform.
Harry stopped on the spot and watched them.
He couldn’t quite hear what was being said, but Greg was talking and he looked huffy, pissed off about something. The man driving the trolley behind him wasn’t saying anything. His face was expressionless.
This was his chance.
Quickly, Harry stuffed his items onto the shelf at the end of the aisle next to him and walked over.
“Sergeant Russell,” Harry smiled as professionally as he could.
Greg turned on the spot and looked at him. There was a split second where he looked in utter shock, but he quickly masked it with dislike.
“What do you want?”
“Well,” Harry started, trying so hard to keep his composure. “I’ve been trying to get in touch for a few days now. Can I grab a minute?”
“I’m busy,” Greg stated, starting to walk away, pulling the trolley and the man away with him.
The man looked at Harry strangely. He was taller than Harry, but seemed younger. His uniform seemed to swallow his slim shoulders.
“Just a minute, please,” Harry offered. “We can walk and talk.”
“Not when I’m off duty,” he said callously, not looking at Harry.
“When’s a good time, then?”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“Why not?” Harry stopped in front of Greg so he couldn’t move.
Greg stepped closer, their chests almost touching.
“Everyone here has already laid Sarah to rest, we don’t need you coming in and creating more nonsense.”
“Laid to rest?” Harry asked, quirking an eyebrow, not moving. It felt good to be confrontational for once, letting out some of the steam that Louis had pent up inside of him. “I thought she was in Invercargill with her mum.”
“Why are you trying to stop me from reading her report?”
Harry didn’t say anything. He just kept the daring look on his face, looking down at Greg like he could see right through him.
“You’re going to find yourself in trouble, Harry. ”
“Is that a threat?” Harry asked dangerously, under his breath.
“ Dad ,” The man interrupted sharply. “Don’t.”
Greg whipped around to face him, his shoulder smacking Harry in the chest and shoving him backwards. Then he quickly looked back with a strange look on his face and pushed Harry out of the way, with his hand this time.
They walked away, and Harry stood there watching them go.
His heart was beating hard in his chest, but it felt good.
Greg had said the words laid to rest , and it meant something to Harry because of the way he’d been acting. His inconveniently busy schedule, his talking to Liam, his threat . All together, it was painting a very suspicious picture.
Greg knew something.
And Harry was going to find out what it was.
Harry bought a can of iced coffee and headed straight for his car. It was too cold, but fuck it, he wanted to feel the tight thudding of his heart stay right there as he sat in his car and waited for Greg to leave.
So he could follow him.
Harry cracked open the lid and pressed the can to his lips, his heater on blast. It went down easy.
He sat there for a long while, just waiting. Forgetting the time for the first time in days. Harry didn’t mind that Greg and his son were taking their time, it gave Harry time to stew on his thoughts, on his emotions. Where Louis had left him feeling hollow in every second he wasn’t around, Greg’s absence was filling him with fire. There was something instinctual at work here, Harry was following his gut, this is where the story was. He knew it. It made sense. This is why the police would fare a single call from a mother and make no follow up. This is why the search party had been called off as quickly as it had started.
Dot was onto something the whole time and…
Dot was driving.
She was driving a car, the old Ford from the Tomlinson front yard, right past Harry, and was pulling the car park in front of him.
There were two other girls in the car, and Ernie was there too, and god this really was a small town. They must have been listening to music because the car didn’t turn off immediately, and the girls were all bouncing and smiling and singing along.
And Ernie was sitting there still as a statue, head against the window, with a morose look on his face.
Seeing those girls though, Dot and her friends laughing, that sparked something in Harry. A question he hadn’t asked yet, and he wanted to kick himself because it was so easy. It was something he could look up without Facebook, without the police.
He got out of the car.
It seemed, Harry was in a frenzy.
He walked up to Dot’s window and knocked on it. The bass of music immediately cut off, and she rolled down the window.
“Ma’am, do you have a licence?” Harry asked as though he were a police officer. He was grinning though, playing the part ostentatiously.
“Harry?” Dot asked, having to hide her laugh.
“Ah, that’s Constable Styles to you,” he joked. “I’m going to have to see some I.D.”
“What are you doing?” she asked, amused, but not getting the joke.
Harry sighed and leaned himself back against the door, “I was trying to lead into a question, but you’re not helping me here, Dot. What am I to do?”
One of the other girls giggled, and Harry could have sworn he heard a, “Is that him?”
“Sorry,” Dot confessed, giving Harry a fake pout and then a grin. “What’s up?”
Harry squatted down so he could talk to her properly with his arms resting on the window’s edge. “I was sitting in my car and saw you ladies come in — sorry Ernie — and it finally made me think. How did Sarah used to get to school? Was she like you hooligans, driving around when she’s too young?”
“I’m not too young!” Dot protested. “I’m sitting my first test next month.”
“Still, I don’t see a licence,” Harry smirked.
Dot rolled her eyes and the girl next to her giggled again. “But yeah, she had this beat up red Ford. Like this one. She drove it to Invercargill when she left apparently.”
“Do you know her number plate?”
Ernie shifted in the back seat so he could hear better.
“Umm, what?” Dot quizzed.
“If we have her number plate,” Harry explained, “We can search it up online and find out if it’s still registered and if someone’s taken it to get a warrant of fitness in the past year.”
“You can do that?”
“Yeah. For free. There’s a website for it. We can find out if her car’s still in use.”
Dot’s eyes went wide.
“We should ask Sarah’s dad,” she stated.
“Definitely,” Harry replied. “If we can get in touch with him.”
Dot turned to the others in the car and stoutly announced, “We’re gonna go back to mine first for a bit, okay.”
The girl behind her, sitting next to Ernie, gave her an amused eyeful and said with a fake girlish tone, “Only if Harry’s coming!”
The girl in the front giggled, again . She barely managed to get out her, “You absolutely wish .”
Harry had quite forgotten what it was to be the subject of conversation amongst teenage girls.
“Too bad he’s gonna be Dottie’s stepdad ,” the girl in the front added, snorting wickedly.
Dot smacked her leg, which sent both of her friends into near hysterics.
“Ignore them, please,” she turned back to Harry, clearly embarrassed.
“Don’t worry, I…” Harry said, before slowly wavering off. In the corner of his eye, he could see Greg and his son finally roll out of the grocery store doors. Both of them stared Harry in the eye as they walked past, faces unreadable.
Harry was torn. After two days of absolutely nothing, he suddenly had too many choices. Either stalk after Greg and hope he’d stumble into something, or follow Dot home and hope they could talk to Sarah’s dad.
Neither seemed like good odds now that he thought about it, but Greg had just seen him in the car park. Talking to Sarah’s best friend. He was anything but inconspicuous.
“I’ll meet you at yours,” Harry suddenly said.
He told himself that the only reason he was going with her was because Greg had seen him.
Harry and his new gaggle of girls almost ran inside.
Ernie, the only one to not nearly slip on the slushy ground of their footpath, lagged behind quietly.
Louis’ smell was the first thing Harry noticed as Dot opened the front door, but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
Harry tried to ignore his disappointment. He pushed the encroaching hollowness from his mind. And his chest.
“I haven’t been able to reach him,” Harry mused, hovering in the door as the kids all made their way into the living area. Dot’s two friends threw themselves onto one of the couches, legs entangled, flicked on the TV and pulled out their phones. Ernie carefully, quietly, sat in the other couch and pulled out his own phone.
“I’ll call him, he’ll know it’s us.”
And apparently it was just that easy.
Dot went to the wall where there was a landline and pulled it off the hook.
“I haven’t seen one of those in years,” Harry chuckled.
“Reception can be a bitch out here sometimes,” Dot explained as she punched the numbers in. She held the phone up to her ear and leant against the wall.
After a few too-long moments, Dot suddenly shifted and said into the phone, “No, it’s Dot— Yeah, yeah, he’s good. Out in the paddocks probably— No, I was just calling about Sarah—”
There was a pause, he must have been saying something, and then Dot sighed and said, “Oh, I didn’t know Lou talked to you already— But it’s different this time—”
Dot paused again, and then she gave Harry a confused look. Slowly, she peeled the phone away from her ear and then presented it to Harry.
“He wants to talk to you.”
“Me?” Harry let out as he hesitantly took the phone.
Harry tentatively held the phone up to his ear and said, “Mr. Walker. Hi, it’s Harry Styles—”
“I know. We met the other day. I was the guy who saw you almost hit one of Louis’ herd.”
Oh. Harry hadn’t put two and two together. But come to think of it, Louis had mentioned a name on the phone. The man who had checked on him and brought back his sheep. Harry had been too caught up in Louis to realise who he’d said.
Dave. As in Dave Walker.
“You’ve been banging on my door,” he added.
“I’ve been trying to talk to you,” Harry replied. “I really think there’s something going on here, and I need a bit of help to figure it out.”
“I don’t want to get involved.”
He already was. By being Sarah’s dad, he was always going to be stuck in the middle of this.
There was a pause on Dave’s side, then, “There’s no point. I can’t fight this.”
“...Is it Sargeant Russell?” Harry tentatively offered.
Dave was quick with his reply, something strange gargled in his voice. “What do you know about him?”
“I know he’s been blocking me every way he can.”
Dave didn’t say anything so Harry continued. “Dave— Mr. Walker. I know you don’t believe the police, and I don’t either. There is something going on, and I believe you and Dot. I believe that something happened to Sarah. I can’t stress that enough. I want to help.”
“You can help by leaving it alone.”
“Why? Don’t you want answers? Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“I’m only going to tell you once, getting into this is only going to bring you trouble.”
“I’m okay with that.”
Dave was silent.
Harry thought he was going to hang up. This was his only chance, so he took it.
“Do you have the number plate of the Ford that Sarah drove?”
Dave’s voice came through, quiet and crackling. “Fine, yeah. ZXD560.”
And then the line went dead.
As soon as Harry hung the phone back up, he had four sets of eyes staring at him.
It was Dot who spoke first. “I didn’t know Lou had seen him.”
How could Harry explain that he did, he’d heard Louis tell him, but he’d been too wrapped up in his frustration with her brother to work that out?
“It’s okay,” Harry said gently. “I got the number.”
They sat around Harry with complete interest. All phones put down.
Harry took a spot on the floor, resting against the side of the couch that Dot had squeezed herself into. Easily, he pulled up the website on their laptop to check the details of the car that Sarah drove.
“People usually go on here to check that the car they’re buying isn’t stolen or anything,” Harry explained as the page flashed on.
He typed in the six characters of the number plate and hit enter.
The car immediately came up. There was a stock photo of the model, a burgundy red Ford Escort. It was small and more angular than Dot’s car, clearly a few models earlier, and exactly the kind of thing Harry had learned to drive in.
He looked at the car details, 1994 model, owned by one David John Kahurangi Walker.
Harry scrolled down the page.
It wasn’t reported stolen.
He scrolled a little further, to the section titled Vehicle Fitness .
The warrant of fitness was expired. 10 months ago.
The registration was expired. 8 months ago.
“Holy shit,” Dot said, leaning forward, hands on Harry’s shoulders. “Holy fucking shit.”
That’s when Louis walked in.
“So, what now?” was the first thing out of Louis’ mouth after Harry had explained what had happened, including his bump in with Greg at the grocery store. “Sounds like we can’t go to the police with this.”
He was sitting on the floor across from Harry, dog leaning on his leg and the laptop between them.
“I don’t even think it’s smart to involve Liam at this point,” Harry thought aloud.
“Should we even be getting into this in front of—" Louis motioned to the four teenagers taking up the couches— “I don’t know that you guys should be a part of this if something with Greg is actually going on.”
“We won’t talk to anyone,” one of the girls offered. “You know Sarah was our friend too.”
“I know,” Louis smiled glumly. “But that’s not what I’m worried about. I don’t want to be putting any of you in danger.”
Louis sighed and then he added, “Dot, why don’t you take everyone around to Tessa’s?”
Dot didn’t argue, which kind of surprised Harry. She was so keen to be as involved in everything. Instead, she nodded and agreed, saying, “We were heading there after, anyway.”
“You guys can stay the night if you want,” one of the girls, presumably Tessa, offered.
Ernie wasn’t quite so convinced. He wanted to stay home, with promises to stay in his bedroom.
“I need to be able to just think about this all, Erns. Without you lot around. Sorry,” Louis explained, raising his hands with his fingers spread far apart. “I just—"
“Oh my god. Just do it,” Dot cut in, standing up to physically pull Ernie out of his chair. “You’re not the only one around here who needs space.”
Ernie pulled his wrist out of Dot’s grip and sat there for a moment, completely unimpressed. Then he looked around the room at all the eyes that had fallen silently on him. “Fine. Whatever.”
He lugged himself out of the chair and out to collect his things from his room.
As soon as Louis got them all out the door and to Dot’s car, Louis whipped around to Harry in the doorway. His eyes were needy.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea, Harry.”
“I don’t need to involve you guys anymore, if that’s what you want,” Harry offered.
Louis was motionless. Then he shook his head. “No, uh. I don’t know. If something sketchy is going on with Greg, maybe we— uh— I don’t know. I— what do I do?”
“I can keep working on this by myself, really. It’s fine.”
Louis’ brow was tensed up, the inners of his eyes creased with thought. He wanted to get something out, Harry could tell. This was a look that was vaguely familiar. There was definitely a time where Harry could have understood it.
“I thought you weren’t going to come back.”
It slipped out of Louis quietly, like a confession, and it caught Harry off guard.
“I…” Harry started. He didn’t know what to say, because he didn’t think he was going to come back either.
But that felt too cruel to say out loud.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could manage.
“I’m sorry if I moved too quickly,” Louis apologised in return, wrapping his hands around his own middle, leaning his back against the wall.
Too quickly . Harry mulled over the words. They’d spent two and a half days together and managed to find themselves falling right back into place during it. It had only been two and a half days .
Had he been too quick to assume Louis was pretending they hadn’t broken up on his wordless terms? Had he been too presumptuous about him?
Had he not given him enough of a chance?
It felt like Harry had spent the last two days staring at walls for no good reason.
He’d been telling himself that he didn’t want to kiss Louis, that he didn’t want to hold his hand, and that even though it was worse without Louis around, it would be worth it in the end. And for what? Because the guy hadn’t fallen to his knees and begged for forgiveness the first second they’d been alone?
Harry searched Louis’ eyes, looking for something that would justify why he’d gone back to his motel, almost in tears, just two days earlier and tried to ignore him since.
But Louis’ eyes were only round and blue.
Harry kissed him.
He felt a little unhinged as he did it, grabbing Louis by either side of his head and pulling him in. All the longing and the frustration he’d been holding inside his chest for two days came out of him as he pushed Louis into the wall behind him.
It felt like the first kiss they’d had, the one in the dark. Harry could feel flickers of moonlight pulsing through his veins, flashes of Louis’ neck in the faint blue light.
He didn’t like it.
He didn’t want to kiss like that again.
He didn’t want to fuck, he wanted to be held.
So he pulled back. Not away, just enough to loosen their lips, to lap at Louis instead of tear at him.
Harry felt Louis’ arms slowly come around his waist as he softened and slowed the kiss, gently pulling him in so he could hold him closely. He let Harry guide their lips together so that Harry’s tongue just barely caught the edge of his. It felt like Louis was melting into Harry, finally giving him something that he hadn’t either time they’d kissed before, like he was giving a piece of himself that Harry didn’t know he had anymore.
Harry pulled back with his eyes closed so he could feel Louis’ breath against his lip. It was warm, with just a touch of coffee.
Tenderly, Louis brought their lips back together. He just barely grazed his lower lip against Harry’s top, and Harry couldn’t help but want more of him.
Harry pulled Louis tighter into himself and then started shifting them inch by inch to Louis’ bedroom, kissing along his jaw with each step.
They fell onto Louis’ bed easily, Harry underneath. His hair spread across the duvet and Louis put his fingers through it, gently caressing as he plucked kisses from Harry’s mouth.
His legs were either side of Harry’s waist, though he wasn’t that heavy. There was a lightness in Louis, there always had been. Harry could vividly picture how his slight shoulders glowed against summer sunlight, like the time they did this on the floor at his bach.
Harry pulled at Louis’ shirt so he could see it again, even though now the light that streamed through the window was more blue than it was gold.
Louis leant back and arched his spine as he pulled his shirt off. His chest had more hair on it now and was more pale, and even though he was stronger, had more muscle, he still looked so small in the muted light.
It was starting to darken outside.
Louis came back down to kiss Harry again, his lips and then his cheek and his neck, and then he pulled at Harry’s shirt too. Harry shuffled, lifting each side of his back as Louis slowly moved it up and over his shoulders.
Once they’d gotten it off, Louis sat back and looked down at him. He seemed entranced by Harry’s skin, dragging his finger along all the tattoos that covered his arms. All the tattoos he hadn’t seen in the dark. A soft wow slipped from his lips.
And then he looked up at Harry through his eyelashes, mouth a little slack. He didn’t look alluring, or wanting, though. There was something amiss in his eyes. That fleck of sadness.
“I missed this,” he whispered before moving his lips to Harry’s shoulder. He carefully kissed a line of ink across it and then he whispered again. “I can’t believe it’s been six years.”
Harry couldn’t help it. His heart seized.
And that’s your fault , he thought, it’s all your fault .
He had to take his eyes off of the shiny spots of saliva Louis was leaving down his chest as he moved further down his body.
Harry tried to focus his eyes on the ceiling instead. To keep it all out, to keep his emotions at bay.
But he could still hear Louis shifting against the bed and kissing his lips across his stomach. And he could feel him too, bumping into his hip and his hand as he moved further downwards. It was all too much. There had been too much sadness in Louis’ eyes, like it had taken up a home there.
No amount of pretending was going to bring the old Louis back, no matter how many chances Harry gave him.
Harry couldn’t fill whatever hole it was that was dug from Louis’ side, not like this. They couldn’t come back together after six years apart and tell themselves that this was love that they were making.
Not with all that radio silence.
Harry tried to keep it all down, lodged under the lump in his throat. He needed something to focus on, something to keep him out of his thoughts, so that he could go along with this because he didn’t want Louis to take his hands off him.
He didn’t want that to happen.
But. But he needed it to.
“Wait,” Harry coughed out, his voice trembling. “Stop.”
Louis looked up at him with wide eyes.
“I— I need to stop,” Harry confessed, trying desperately to keep his voice straight.
“What is it?” Louis asked, full of concern.
“I can’t do this. I— I can’t play along. You left me and I need answers, Louis.”
His voice caught on the end of his name.
The first thing Harry did when he woke up was check his phone. It was always the first thing he did, but for the past four days he hadn’t just scrolled through Instagram. On all of those past four days, he’d gone straight to his messages.
He wanted to see if Louis had replied.
There were a few unread messages in the way, texts from Zayn and Kate and the others. Harry quickly opened them to see if they’d replied yeah, he’s here with me right now to his texts.
Instead, they were all some variant of still no .
It was the still that wrecked Harry the most.
He’d been waiting four days now. Four days.
It was the longest they’d ever been apart. Hell, ten hours was the longest they’d been apart. They were already harryandlouis to their friends.
They’d already said I love you . Louis had met his mum.
And now it was just harryand.
Harry opened his messages to Louis. There was no reply, but they’d all been seen.
Harry bit the side of his nail as he stared up at that little grey seen . It was the only thing keeping him from calling the police.
Harry scrolled up through his messages, up through all those blue boxes. He’d sent exactly 25 messages since Wednesday, since the day Louis was meant to meet him after work and never showed.
He’d waited outside at the time for an hour, texting Louis four times and calling him twice.
When he’d gotten home, he called him again.
They were meant to be buying their textbooks together and then going to the movies. It was their last week of summer until uni started again.
Harry considered sending Louis another text as he lay there in bed, but there was a sense of futility that had started to wash over him. It had started to wash over his room too, turning everything just a slighter more dull, more blue.
What are you doing, Louis? Harry thought to himself. This isn’t like you .
Because it wasn’t. Ever since they’d met they’d been attached at the hip, they’d texted every day.
Is that it? Harry asked himself. Am I too much for you?
Another wave of panic went through Harry’s body. Was this Louis’ way of breaking up? He knew there were things he struggled to talk about, things that made him veer towards bitten lips and silence — was this just an extension of that? Was this the very worst that Louis could be?
Or was Harry overreacting?
Maybe there was a simple reason for this. Maybe something had happened and it was keeping Louis. Maybe he just needed a few days to sort whatever it was out, and then he’d be back. Then it would be back to normal.
Harry caught the edge of his fingernail and tore it away.
Surely there was a simple reason.
He just needed to give Louis another day.
He’d call soon.
Louis peeled himself away from Harry and sat near the corner of the bed on his knees, curling in on himself.
He looked at Harry like he was about to be attacked. There was so much tension in his shoulders, and yet his hands hung loosely in his lap.
He looked down at his hands and started to slowly wring them.
“I’m sorry I left you,” Louis managed, his voice barely a whisper.
Harry carefully sat up and pulled his knees up to his chin. They were the words he’d wanted Louis to say for so long, and yet when they came out they felt… hollow.
They didn’t solve any the things Harry thought they would.
They didn’t stop the questions and the fears burning his tongue.
Louis looked so pained for this to all come up, but he also seemed defeated. Like he’d been expecting it. The slump in his back and the press of his lips told Harry that he was expecting him to explode, and he was preparing to feel it.
Even though it had been six empty years, Harry couldn’t do it. He was too much of a fucking push over. And Louis’ mouth was too sweet to lose again.
Harry let all the air out of his lungs and then tentatively shifted an inch closer to Louis. Carefully, he asked, “Was it your parents?”
Louis started to chew his lip. After a long moment, he finally started to nod.
Louis pursed his lips together and dug his thumb into his palm, stroking it harshly.
“I—" He coughed— “they were in a car accident. Drunk driver. I had to come back to look after Dot and Ernie.”
Carefully, Harry asked the one question that had been on his mind this whole time. The one that he hadn’t been able to deduce himself.
“Why didn’t you talk to me?”
“I— I didn’t know how to… There was so much going on, I couldn’t explain any of it to you.”
“You could have tried. I would have listened. You know I would have been there for you, right?”
Louis nodded, “Yeah, but I just… I’m not good at talking about this stuff.”
Louis looked up at Harry, his eyes red, and then avoided the question. “I didn’t know how to tell you at first, and then. Then it had been a week. And then a month, and then it felt like it was too late. I would go on your Instagram and it looked like you had moved on, you were partying and having fun and I was down here becoming a parent.”
“I— I wasn’t having fun. I was pretending to. Trying to,” Harry replied, brow tense. He didn’t remember a lot of those nights but he remembered the beds he’d woken up in.
Louis looked at him like he didn’t know what to say.
“Is it really just that simple? You didn’t know how to talk to me?”
Louis didn’t say anything.
“Did I do something? I’m sorry if I made you feel like you couldn’t talk to me—”
“You didn’t. You never did anything wrong. It was all me. I just… I can never get the words out.”
“You can try.”
Louis twisted his mouth and nodded, “I— I will. Just… Give me time. Please.”
Harry couldn’t help but nod.
“I’m sorry if I fucked up any chance of this working out,” Louis added solemnly.
Harry chuffed bittersweetly. “It hasn’t even been a week.”
Louis timidly let a hand creep over towards Harry’s. He rested it on Harry’s hand and looked at how they fit together.
“Can we try?” Louis asked.
Harry let his own eyes wander down to their hands. They were the perfect size for each other. He slotted them together and couldn’t ignore how Louis’ finger knuckles fit perfectly between his, and how the dips in the back of his hand seemed perfectly made for Louis’ fingertips. Maybe in another life, this would have all been so easy. They wouldn’t have a chasm carved out between them, one that they were going to have to cross if this was going to work out.
Because even though it hadn’t even been a week, Harry hadn’t felt so alive in years.
In six years.
It had to mean something.
He stroked the back of Louis’ thumb and said, “We can try.”
This new thing they were trying, it started out slow and cautious, and everything it should have been the first time around.
It started with staying over in the evenings, but not overnight. With gentle restrained kisses and coming over on the weekend and helping Louis out so Dot and Ernie could have a break from farm work, could be kids.
Louis started to open up, Harry could see it in the way that he held his breath before words slipped out, and then he’d say them anyway. First, he talked about the farm.
Louis didn’t want it, but it was the only thing that would keep a roof over their heads. He hated being stuck out in the cold, chasing loose sheep and euthanizing the lame ones. He explained, slowly and painfully, how he’d spent all his childhood wanting to get out of Lake Tekapo and now he was stuck there for good.
“Isn’t farmland worth a fair bit? Couldn’t you sell it and use that money to move?”
“And uproot Dot and Ernie? Even if the money from the farm was enough, I don’t know if I could. Not yet. I’d want to go back to uni instead of just working. I don’t know if I could handle that until Dot and Erns leave school.”
Harry agreed to keep things on the Sarah front quiet for a while, to keep the kids safe and to give themselves more time to figure each other out.
It was selfish probably to sit on a story like this, but Harry couldn’t help it. Unless she was stuck in someone’s basement, there wasn’t a huge rush. It had already been a year. No one except Greg Russell and Dot were particularly fussed on Harry’s movement with it.
His bosses had always encouraged him to take more time off, citing the fact that there would always be a story when he got back.
For once, he was listening.
Harry was trying his best to listen, and Louis was trying his best to talk.
He started with the farm.
The second thing Louis opened up about was how little he’d dated since Harry. That had started with Dot and Harry doing the dishes together.
“Are you okay with this?” Harry cautiously probed as he handed her a soapy plate to dry.
“With drying the dishes?” she asked, amused.
“No,” Harry chuckled, scrubbing at a chipped bowl. “With Louis and I.”
“Well it’s no secret,” she grinned.
“Much to my dismay,” Harry said with a dramatic sigh. “You lot are too bloody onto it.”
“I guess you could say I’m a young prodigy,” she said, cheekily, grin still wide across her face. “But yeah. I’m am. It’s nice to see Louis with someone finally.”
Harry tried to bite his tongue but he couldn’t help it, he hadn’t asked anyone for a scoop in a week. “Finally?”
“At all, I suppose,” Dot mused as she towelled another dish dry, not even realising the question might be something she shouldn’t be answering on Louis’ behalf, “He’s never brought a boy home—”
Louis walked in, and by the looks of it, he’d caught wind of what was being said.
He shot them an over the top look of betrayal, “And what is going on here?”
“Nothing,” Dot lied instantly, turning sharply to face the bench straight on, pretending she was doing a very thorough job of drying.
“Bullshit,” Louis quipped, grin right on cue. “You two are bloody gossips.”
Harry gave her a silly wide eyed look which made her laugh.
“I’m staying out of this,” she smiled, walking over to Louis and shoving the tea towel into his chest, before chirping. “Night boys!”
“She’s so much like you,” Harry commented happily as Louis joined him next to the sink.
“Are you trying to say I’m a pain?” Louis bumped his hip into Harry’s.
“Only sometimes,” Harry winked. “But no, seriously. I just asked her if she’s okay with all this.”
“Mhm,” Harry hummed contentedly.
They washed dishes in silence until they were almost done. That’s when Louis finally got the words out. They were stilted, but Harry kept slowly scrubbing his last bowl even when it was clean to give him the time. “If… If you must know. No, I haven’t dated anyone since you. I— Uh. The dating pool’s pretty slim around here, and… it’s not like I could bring anyone home whenever I wanted to.”
Harry didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. He just needed to show that he was listening, that Louis could stammer out the worlds as shyly as he needed to. He nodded with a soft smile and put a hand around Louis’ waist.
The third thing Louis opened up about was Harry.
They’d spent the morning out with the sheep, mustering them back to be shorn in the shed that Louis had finally finished fixing. Louis had been teaching him things all morning, how to whistle to Georgie to get her to lead the sheep the right way, how to shear them so they’d still have enough of a coat to not get cold.
They were chatting as Louis shaved away, pulling sheep up onto his little platform and moving his clippers down their backs in perfect stripes. He’d worked himself into warmth as he buzzed away, taking off his jacket and rolling up the sleeves of his red bushshirt. Harry watched as the muscles in his forearms moved perfectly. It was so easy to watch him like this, it made it so easy to forget how they had gotten here.
Louis grabbed the foot of the rather rotund ewe he was shearing and shifted it so it rested on its back. It looked awkward, possibly painful, but Louis had been assuring him all morning that it was neither.
“She’s pregnant,” he explained, motioning for Harry to come over. “But she’s an easy girl. Do you want to have a go?”
Harry hesitated. The electric shears looked far too dangerous for his amateur hands.
“You won’t hurt her,” Louis ressured, lifting the clippers for Harry to take.
“Are you sure?”
Louis nodded so Harry pulled himself away from the short fence he’d been leaning against. The shed was rife with fences inside, placed there to maze the sheep single file from one end to the other.
He took the clippers and carefully moved them up her belly. She shifted slightly but Louis had her tightly in his grasp, a solid weight against her back.
Harry’s go at it was nothing compared to Louis’. Where the rest of the ewe’s body was striped in exact lines, Harry’s patch looked more like he’d taken scissors to her. He’d been too afraid to press against her skin firmly so there were haphazard blocks of longer wool where she’d shifted away from the clippers.
Louis didn’t seem to mind.
“Nice,” Louis smiled. “Not bad for a first attempt. No blood, even.”
“There could have been blood?” Harry asked worriedly, handing the clippers back to Louis. He finished the rest of her and then sent her on her way with a tap on the back.
“It happens,” Louis commented. “Not often though.”
“Is that okay? It doesn’t hurt them?”
Louis shrugged his shoulders, “It comes with the territory. Farm life isn’t all baby lambs.”
They stayed in a thoughtful silence for a long while, the sound of the clippers and hooves the only thing in the room. As Louis sheared away, Harry couldn’t help but notice how his eyes looked far away, how he looked like he was working from muscle memory alone. Harry wished he was able to take over for him, that he knew how to hold sheep and shear them without drawing blood by himself, so that Louis didn’t have to. He wished he knew how to give Louis a break from the life he didn’t want. The only thing he could offer him were words.
“You’re not going to have to do this forever.”
Louis looked pensive, his brow a little tense, but he didn’t say anything in return. It wasn’t until he’d shorn three more sheep that Louis stood straighter and looked out to the next sheep in line for a long, contemplative moment. When he turned back, he wiped his hands on his shirt and sighed.
He came over to Harry, not quite meeting his eyes, and leaned on the fence next to him. Where Harry had his back against it, Louis rested his elbows on top of it and stuck his boot between the planks of wood running along it.
“Harry,” he said, quietly, timidly. “Why would you come back to me?”
There was a pause where Louis seemed to hold his breath and then he added, “I’m the one who left you and was too much of a coward to say anything. I’m the one who has spend every day chasing sheep around a fucking field. And you’re the guy with the world in his hands, who got to travel the world and write stories for a living. How do I compare to that?”
Harry carefully turned so he was facing the same way as Louis. “I think…”
Harry hadn’t thought about it. Well, he had. He’d spent every night wondering why he suddenly couldn’t sleep because Louis wasn’t next to him. He’d spent hours wondering why he was okay with this, why he hadn’t put up his hands and said he deserved better. But he hadn’t thought of how to put it into words.
Why would Harry come back to Louis?
“I think… It feels like I should have the world in my hands, I guess, but I’ve never felt like I could actually reach it. Like, I was holding it but never feeling it. I—" Harry paused, wondering if he was making sense. “I haven’t felt right in a long time. I haven’t felt much of anything in a long time. It was like I was just wandering. But then I got here and… I feel something. And I kept telling myself that what I was feeling was hurt. But it that’s not what it was. I think. It’s like… I look at you and try to drum up all that pain, but you weren’t there for that. All I remember when I look at you are the times you were there, and they were always so good. We were always so good, Louis. We just fell together and we didn’t fight, we didn’t have drama. That’s all I can see when I look at you, and I miss that. I realised how much I missed having something that feels so right .”
“But…” Louis started, eyes cast down. “Then you’re always going to see the past when you look at me. Everyone does.”
“What do you mean?”
Louis shook his head regretfully.
“Lou,” Harry coaxed, bumping his shoulder into him.
Louis just clasped their hands together between them and shook his head again, saying, “I don’t like how people see me and feel sorry. I’m scared you’re going to, too.”
“Why do you worry so much about what people think about you?”
Louis was silent and it felt like pulling teeth.
Harry didn’t quite know what to do. It was hard to understand Louis when he was like this, it was like there were too sides to him. One half of him was so mature, he was so giving and so forthcoming with his siblings. And he was so affectionate, always so ready to pull Harry in, and yet now, and all the times like now, he couldn’t get anything out. He couldn’t be any more than just a skeleton of who he usually was.
Harry didn’t know how to ask what it was that made talking about certain things so hard. He hadn’t been able to talk about his parents. Until he had. Until Harry harry had to speak for him and leave small gaps for him to fill.
He couldn’t help feeling like there were still pot holes.
Harry put his arm around Louis and pulled him close. He was quiet for a moment before gently saying, “Louis, I only look at you and see strength.”
It wasn’t just Louis that was trying to open up either. It was Ernie too.
Harry first noticed it when they were sitting around the table eating dinner one night, when Ernie asked about Sarah.
“What’s happening with your story?” he asked as he fidgeted with the collar of his T-shirt. “No one’s talked about it since you looked up her car.”
It was Louis that answered. With a soft, reassuring smile he explained, "We talked about it for a while and decided that Harry was going to take a break for a few weeks—"
"How come?" Dot curiously interjected, mouth full of peas.
Louis chuckled and shook his head at her, "I'm getting there, alright! Obviously, we all want to get to the bottom of this, but unless Sarah's locked up somewhere — which, you know, by the sounds of it, doesn't seem very likely — there's not a massive rush. I've called Liam about the car and he's going to look into it by himself. Quietly. While he's doing that, we think what's safest for all of us is to just slow down on that for a while—"
"What if Harry just leaves?" it was Ernie that cut in that time. "Isn't him being here only gonna make people think he's still investigating?"
"Do you want me to leave?" Harry asked tentatively. "It's okay to say yes."
Dot quickly said that she didn't, but Harry kept his attention on Ernie, making sure his expression was as open, as understanding, as possible.
Ernie thought to himself, keeping his eyes on his plate, before he looked up. "No."
"Are you worried about something?" Louis asked with concern. "Do you think Greg is going to do something?"
Ernie shook his head. "It's fine."
"No, Erns, if you're worried you should tell us. Harry and I are both adults, he doesn't have to stay if it's making you feel unsafe."
Ernie looked between Harry and Louis and pressed his lips together. "You're important too, Lou."
After that, Ernie became a bit of a shadow. Harry's shadow. Instead of keeping to himself at all times, he started to pop up whenever Harry was around and not too taken up by Louis. He'd offer him a controller when he was playing video games, and would actually help out with the dishes after their dinners and ask Harry everything about him. Harry got pretty good at asking Ernie questions back, and he found that Ernie was actually pretty funny. He had a darker sort of humour, but he always made Harry laugh.
Ernie even started to help out around the farm, which was the first time Louis said he’d witnessed that since he was still in single digits.
The first time they saw it was when the snow had finally melted, leaving the fields wet and muddy. Harry and Louis were driving back to the house in the gator and saw him standing out in the field with the alpacas. He was feeding them in the troughs, stroking their fur as they ate. Harry turned to give Louis an impressed look, and Louis gave him a thoughtful look back.
After that, they’d see him out and about more often, even if it was just to offer a sheep a piece of carrot.
It was a Saturday morning when Louis came through the back door and went straight to the phone. He’d been out trimming some of the herd’s hooves, which was a job that Harry couldn’t really help with so he’d stayed back and done some baking. Dot was sitting on the bench next to him, fingers digging into a leftover bowl of icing. Ernie was engrossed in some Netflix documentary.
“You alright?” Harry asked, looking up to see the terse expression on Louis’ face.
“Mm,” Louis hummed tensely. “I’m just calling the vet, found some foot rot. Can you guys lay some silage for me?”
Harry had no idea what he was referring to. He bit his lip questioningly and looked to Dot.
“Uh huh,” she nodded, not looking up as she intensely scoured the bowl for any chocolatey remains.
“I’ll help,” Ernie offered, pausing his show.
Louis raised his eyes impressively and then put the phone to his ear as he mouthed his thank you .
Laying silage out involved driving a tractor out to a massive, sagging pile of bales. They were bulking things, wrapped in pale green plastic wrap, just as tall as Dot and god knows how more wide. Harry recognised them from when he drove through the countryside as a kid, and he’d always wondered what they were actually for. Now he knew. Dot claimed the driver’s seat and drove up to the pile, skewering one with the forks on the front of the tractor. She pulled it away and lowered it so Ernie could reach it.
“We have to cut the bottom of it first,” Ernie explained, pulling out a carpenter’s knife, “so that when you put it on the ground, there’s not a bunch of plastic stuck underneath.”
He cut at the plastic and immediately Harry’s nostrils were filled with a putrid, deathly smell. Like a lunch box that had been in a school bag over summer. Behind the plastic was what looked like wet hay that had already been chewed at once.
Harry covered his nose and Ernie cackled, flicked a bit at him. It hit the front of his jacket and fell to the ground in a clump.
“You’ll get used to it,” he said as he cut the rest of the plastic away.
“What is it?” Harry asked.
“Basically? Uh, fermented grass. We bale it up when he have extra grass for when we need it.”
He finished and Dot maneuvered the bale down to the ground so the open side was face down.
“Here,” Ernie handed Harry his own knife. “You cut the rest of the plastic off this one. We can go faster that way.”
Harry did as he was told, whacking away at the plastic while trying to keep his nose as far away from it as possible. Next to him, Dot and Ernie worked together to lay down a few more bales.
Harry followed behind them, cutting away at the plastic of each bale they’d left. There was a natural silence as each person did their respective job. It gave Harry time to zone out, to watch his hands work away and let his mind rest. It was nice, letting his thoughts be only consumed by the faint chill snaking around his fingertips, by the occasional drip and sniff of his reddening nose.
It was colder than it had been for the past few days.
The back of his ears had begun to tickle, felt like they were being kissed by tiny frozen mouths.
“Harry!” Dot called.
Harry looked up to find her hanging out the tractor door. She had her hand extended towards the sky and on her face, a giant grin.
“Look,” she added brightly.
Harry stood back on his heel and looked around.
Tiny pillows of snow had started to drift down from the sky. Harry hadn’t noticed the sky turn white — he hadn’t even thought it possible, the sun had just been shining. And there was still sun, a single bright patch right over the mountains in the distance. They seemed to glow, the only things alight in the soft plume of white swirling in.
Harry raised his own hand and watched as a single snowflake delicately landed on the flesh below his thumb. And then another caught the tip of his ring finger.
And then one landed on his nose.
Harry smiled to himself, a quiet, happy laugh under his breath. When he looked to the kids, they had dropped their stations. The tractor door was left hanging wide open.
Dot and Ernie were a few feet away, and they were lying on the ground face up like unmoving snow angels.
Bemused, Harry walked over to them.
“What are we doing?” he softly asked. They both had their eyes closed, a serene look across their faces. It was the most peaceful Harry had ever seen Ernie look.
Dot opened her eyes and gave Harry a smirk, then she patted the ground next to her and said, “Lie down.”
So Harry did. He tried to angle his limbs away from any obvious patches of mud, but it didn’t quite work. He could feel a patch behind his left knee getting wetter and wetter. And colder.
“Now what?” Harry asked once he’d managed to pull his fluffy hood up to protect his hair from the mucky ground.
“Close your eyes,” Dot answered, voice distant, “and just feel.”
Harry closed his eyes and waited for something to happen.
At first he felt nothing. Just the cold wet of the ground.
And then he did.
Tiny smatterings of snowflakes twinkling across his cheeks. The frozen kiss of one on his lip. The brush of an eye lash near the bridge of his nose.
It felt like Louis. The Louis that he’d become, soft, quiet, yearning. It felt like the Louis that wanted kisses, but whose skin felt different and far away and a little too cold. But even though Louis was on his mind, the world felt quiet.
All Harry could hear was his own breath, a gentle breeze swirling around the hairs over his ears.
They lay there in silence until the snow on Harry’s brow started to get a little too cold. He wanted to finally shift, to sit up and let out a restful breath, but Ernie cut him short.
He spoke quietly, with uncertainty, “Do you… Do you ever think about where we’d be if it weren’t for Mum and Dad?”
Harry held his breath for a long moment before Dot finally replied, thoughtfully, carefully. “I try not to.”
“I do,” Ernie admitted. “All the time.”
“Don’t,” Dot breathed.
“I always think about if we weren’t Lake Tekapo.”
“Do you not want to be?”
Ernie was quiet and it felt like Louis’ bated breath. “Everything could have been different.”
“We could have been worse off,” Dot stated.
“Yeah, but…” Ernie trailed off thoughtfully.
“Imagine if we didn’t have Louis,” Dot added.
Morosely, Ernie started to say, “Imagine if we never—"
He was cut off.
He was cut off with a yell.
And then a laugh. A loud, brash laugh.
And then there was a giggle. Louis’ giggle.
Harry snapped his eyes over. Louis had his hands around Ernie’s waist, digging his fingers right in, with a mischievous grin on his face.
“Where was my invitation?” Louis laughed. “I’m the one that started this whole lying in the snow nonsense!”
“You were busy!” Ernie managed between laughs as he squirmed away.
“I’m never too busy for this,” Louis chuckled, finally pulling away to sit back with his legs spread. “Besides, someone had to tell you lot off for not finishing your job—"
“Yet!” Dot countered cheekily, sitting up. “We were just about to.”
“Bullshit,” Louis grinned.
Dot rolled her eyes, but she looked entirely, knowingly, guilty.
“You’ve got to tell these two off for slacking,” Louis said to Harry with a wink.
“I’m just as guilty as them,” Harry offered with a chuckle. Then he sniffed. The cold was starting to get to him.
Louis noticed straight away.
“And now you’re going to get the poor lad sick,” he tutted, teasingly smacking Ernie’s leg. “I think that calls for punishment!”
Louis jumped up and hopped over to Harry, reaching out his hands to pull him up. “You two can finish your work, and our man Harry here can accompany me inside while you do it.”
“Gross,” Dot teased, screwing up her nose as she fell back against the ground.
“Not like that!” Louis gasped amusingly. “But the vet can’t come till tomorrow morning, so while I’m up to my neck in footrot with nothing to do about it, I’m going to treat our guest to a fireplace and a hot chocolate.”
“He’s hardly a guest if he never leaves,” Ernie commented with a wry smile.
“I do so leave,” Harry quipped back with fake dismay. “I have a strict curfew of 9pm! I’ll have my head for it if I’m even a minute late.”
“You two are so weird,” Dot jumped in, shaking her head. “Why don’t you just stay? It’s not like you need to hide anything from us.”
“It’s not that,” Louis replied, taking on a surprisingly parental tone. “We’re just taking our time.”
“Sure,” Dot agreed, rolling her eyes with a smirk.
“Right, enough of that, I’m stealing this one away,” Louis grinned innocently, starting to pull Harry away by the hand.
As they walked away Dot yelled, laugh in her voice, “I’m feeling very betrayed right now, Harry!”
“I’m very sorry!” Harry yelled back, smiling wide. “You Tomlinsons are just very persuasive.”
“Bullshit!” She yelled back.
And then Ernie added, “Too bad we’re Deakins.”
Harry turned back to Louis with his mouth hanging open a little in thought. He’d never brought their differing surnames before. Neither had Louis, but that wasn’t very surprising. There was a voice in the back of his head that was a little scared to ask because Louis seemed in a good, humourous, mood. He didn’t want to ruin it, didn’t want him to retreat.
“Is…” Harry started, delicately. He didn’t want his fear of scaring off Louis to stop the possibility that Louis might keep bringing down walls himself brick by brick. They’d been making progress. “Um. You have different last names.”
It came out more like a statement than a question.
Louis hummed, squeezing Harry’s hand. He’d started to do that when Harry said something he didn’t know how to answer. “Yeah. I…”
Harry gave him a second to keep going.
When he didn’t on the third second, Harry squeezed his hand back.
“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “Later.”
Louis looked up at him like he wanted to curse himself out, his mouth a terse line, so Harry changed the subject for him, “You started the whole ‘lying in the snow’ thing?”
Louis nodded, voice a little flatter, embers of frustration still lingering, “Yeah, uh, I don’t remember when. But I’ve always done it when I want the world to just be quiet.”
“That’s exactly how that felt.”
“You like it?”
“Nothing wrong with quiet,” Harry added. Unless it’s the quiet that keeps you shut out, of course. He didn’t mention that though.
It was the hardest thing about being around Louis, the fact that Harry never quite knew if he could ask about things. It always felt like he was one question, one off hand comment, away from Louis clamming up. It was always stuff about Louis’ family, his parents, which made it hard to figure out his footing because Harry was right bang in the middle of Louis’ family.
There were two voices in Harry’s head. One telling him that this wasn’t worth it, that he was only going along with all this because he was too attached to memories of the past. That was the voice with cold feet, the one based in fear that Harry was too soft, too forgiving, and he was just setting himself up to fall. It told him that a relationship built on silence was doomed. It told him that there would always be walls, would always be icy chasms, and that Harry would never make it out of winter.
The other voice told him that Louis didn’t want those walls, and that he just didn’t know how to bring them down. It told him that it wasn’t even a chasm at all, it was only a wall of frozen water. And that he could slowly chip away at it, melt it, until it was gone. And that it wouldn’t come back up. It told him that Louis was trying, and it reminded him that Louis didn’t like to let go of his hand, didn’t like the goodbyes they inevitably had every night when Harry would go back to his motel. That voice reminded him that for the past three nights, Louis had driven him back just so he could drive with a hand in Harry’s lap, just so he could linger in the door and ask for more kisses when Harry looked at the time and realised they’d been laying on the motel bed together for an hour.
Harry clung to that second voice.
“Do we have time for a bath when we get back?” he asked softly. “I can give you a massage or something if you like.”
Louis looked up at him apologetically, reaching up to brush a hair out of his face. “It’s you who deserves one.”
“I want to.”
“I insist,” Harry smiled, squeezing the hand he still had and stopping so he could press a kiss to Louis’ temple.
They walked the entire way back to the house, and thankfully, the snow never came down in more than a gentle descent. When they got inside, Harry went straight for the bathroom, flicking on the hot water as he sat on the edge of the bath.
Louis hovered in the door. He looked far away.
“Come here,” Harry coaxed lightly, patting his knee.
Louis did. He looked at the spot on Harry’s knee and let his feet take him right over. Though he didn’t sit down. Instead, he stood over him and wrapped his arms around his neck so he could rest his head atop Harry’s.
His hands were still cold from outside.
Harry brought up his own hands to hold them softly around Louis’ waist.
Louis spoke just as the room started to settle into silence masked only by the spray of water into the bath, just as his hands started to warm against the back of Harry’s shoulders. He whispered, “I’m sorry...”
It came out hopeless.
He was telling the truth, Harry could hear it in the crack in his voice. He could feel it in the tight, needy clasp around his neck.
Harry squeezed Louis’ hips and quietly kissed the patch of arm at the edge of his T-shirt sleeve.
“I know,” he whispered back, “and I’m listening.”
“I just…” Louis lifted his head and it felt like he was looking out the window next to the tub. “...I can’t get the words out. It feels like I’m screaming the words in my head, but I just can’t get them out. I… I don’t know how. And I just feel so guilty all the time.”
Harry didn’t know what to say. Louis was guilty, he’d let his inability to talk ruin their relationship before. But there was clearly a reason for that guilt to need to exist in the first place.
How guilty can you be if something made you that way?
“Did…” Harry started carefully, “Did something happen to you?”
“I…” Louis managed before his breath caught in his throat. He started to pull away as he added, guarded. “Why?”
Harry caught his arms before he could get away, “Because you’re so good at talking the rest of the time, I’m just thinking about why it’s so hard to talk about… this. These things.”
Louis paused, looking down at the floor, “I don’t know how to explain it. Even though I know you won’t, it’s like every fiber of my being thinks you’re going to think less of me.”
Harry looked up at Louis and tried to see the secrets in his eyes.
But Louis couldn’t look at him.
“Lou, babe,” Harry offered, slightly shaking Louis’ arm. “Look at me.”
Louis looked up. He looked insecure.
“I have an idea,” Harry said with a soft, reassuring smile. “Let’s start somewhere else.”
He turned to dip a finger into the bath water to check its temperature. It was perfect, hot, so he turned off the water, turned back to Louis and stood up.
“I’m gonna tell you a secret about me first,” Harry stated.
Louis looked at him, unsure.
Harry gave him another smile and thought for a moment. When he got one, he pulled off his jumper. As he fluffed out his hair, he said, “When I was four, I shat my pants in a McDonalds playground and wouldn’t come out for an hour.”
Louis let out an unwilling laugh, screwing up his face like he was trying to keep it down. He bit his lip as he looked at the floor, but when he looked up, he’d let a tiny smile sneak onto his face.
Harry threw the jumper to the corner of the room. “Your turn.”
“Um,” Louis hummed, pulling his top lip between his teeth. “I slept with a girl in my first year of uni.”
Harry let his mouth drop open, half scandalized, half impressed, “Louis! Your golden star!”
“Stoop,” Louis begged, smacking Harry’s arm. “It was only once! And I was high on MD—"
“MDMA? Oh, Louis, who were you?” Harry joked. “You wild child!”
“You haven’t done it?” Louis asked wryly.
“I’m not using up my secret on that,” Harry grinned. “And besides, you’re not finished. You have to take your shirt off first.”
Louis rolled his eyes, but he pulled off his T-shirt. He still had a singlet on underneath.
“My turn,” Harry stated and he took Louis’ shirt from him and threw it in the corner. “I lost my virginity when I was 18—"
“I know that already.”
“You remember? Okay then, um… Did I tell you that it was with one of my tutors?”
Louis’ eyes went wide, cogs turning in his mind. He shook his head. “Who?”
“So many questions,” Harry said, pulling off his shirt so he was bare chested. He threw it in the corner and then looked at Louis expectantly.
“The first guy I kissed was Liam.”
Harry nodded thoughtfully, playfully.
“You don’t have to worry though, he didn’t like it,” Louis added as he pulled off his singlet.
“I’m not worried,” Harry said. “I have a good one.”
He pulled off both his socks first, “I was actually terrified about you meeting my mum.”
Louis’ smile fell.
Harry shook his head, “Not about her hating you or anything. I was scared I was rushing you.”
“I thought that’s why you left for a long time.”
“Stop apologising. I’ve already forgiven you.”
“It’s your turn.”
“I never stopped looking at your Instagram. I already knew you’d been in London before I saw you again,” it tumbled out of Louis all at once. He kicked his socks off while he stared Harry down.
Harry took pause, then he undid the buckle of his belt. “I never stopped looking at yours.”
Louis undid his trousers, and now they were really stripping. It was all coming out. They were laying themselves bare. “I was the first to say I love you.”
“No you weren’t—"
“You were asleep. It was at the bach when we went for my birthday.”
“But that was weeks before—"
“I know. I was too scared to try again,” Louis pulled his trousers off so he was only in underwear and he suddenly looked smaller. More naked than Harry had ever seen him before.
Harry grabbed his own zipper so they could be small together. “I’m scared you’re going to leave me again. I’m scared that I’m being too forgiving. I’m scared that I’m a pushover. I’m scared because I didn’t stop loving you.”
Harry pulled at his trousers in a frenzy.
Then he felt Louis’ hand on his arm. Delicate and careful.
“I’m scared too,” he said.
Harry looked up.
“I’m scared I’m going to drive you away and that I’m going to spend the rest of my life wondering why I couldn’t give you enough,” Louis sat on the edge of the bathtub. “Because I never stopped loving you either. And I don’t think I’m going to.”
Harry sat down next to him as Louis continued, “I’m scared you’re going to stop trying to listen, and I’m going to be on my own again. Like I’ve always been.”
Harry reached out a hand to Louis’ chin, delicately turning it towards him. He looked Louis dead in the eye and said, “I’m not going to.”
“I don’t know how to stop being scared.”
Harry mulled over that for a moment, staring right into Louis’ eyes. He didn’t want to look away, in case Louis saw that as a sign for times to come. “You just have to be scared but take the plunge anyways, and trust that you’re going to come out the other side.”
Louis kissed him. Simply and matter of factly. Needily.
When he pulled away, he asked Harry to stay.
He started to explain himself, “It’ll be cheaper for you, and—"
Harry shut him up with another kiss.
When Harry let their lips part for the second time he looked Louis in the eye.
And he said yes.
They had their bath together, and Louis got the massage he was promised. Harry was gentle with it, caressing, just smoothing warm soapy water across his shoulders and down his spine. And he kept at it until Louis leaned back into his chest and hooked their fingers together and closed his eyes.
Harry sat behind him, legs on either side, as Louis’ chest rose and fell and left Harry feeling the most sure he had in years. The most settled.
When they got out, Louis led them to his bedroom and gave Harry a change of clothes to wear. They had the same size trousers but the flannel shirt was a little too tight so Harry wore a giant white hoodie instead. They left to the living room, to find Dot and Ernie playing Mario Kart together, a half eaten tray of biscuits in front of them.
Harry sat on the arm of the couch, taking a biscuit for himself.
“Wanna join?” Dot asked, not looking away from the screen.
“Mhm,” he happily hummed around the crumbs in his mouth.
“Me too!” Louis proclaimed, leaning over the back of the couch so his shoulder brushed Harry’s arm. “But first—" He reached forwards and quickly pressed the pause button on Dot’s remote, getting back a disgruntled groan— “I have an announcement.”
“Is Harry staying?” Ernie asked, grinning as he unpaused the game from his own controller.
Louis just threw his head forward into his hands. “I don’t even get a chance to make a big deal about it!”
Dot laughed and, willingly this time, paused the game again. “So he is?”
Louis, head still face down in his hands, nodded.
Dot looked between him and Harry with a wide smile on her face. Then she emphatically, purposely, nodded once and stated, “Good.”
“As long as we keep getting baking, shit’s good, Harry,” Ernie added cheekily. “And ear plugs.”
“Oh my god,” Harry laughed, tipping his head back with a roll of his eyes. “I’m banning any and all jokes like that, you’re too young!”
Dot looked at Harry and scoffed, “Clearly you’ve never lived with a little brother.”
“Clearly,” Harry agreed wryly.
“Do you have any siblings?” Ernie asked, completely abandoning his controller for a biscuit.
Harry nodded, “An older sister, Gemma.”
“Is she cool?” he replied.
“Oh, only sometimes,” Harry smirked. “She used to be terrible though. She liked to boss me around nobody’s business when we were kids."
“Sounds familiar,” Ernie added dryly.
Dot smacked his leg. “ Someone has to give your arse a kicking.”
“Now, now, children,” Louis grinned, finally moving so he could steal the controller that Ernie had left next to him on the couch. “Speaking of arse kicking, who’s facing me?”
They played until Louis gave in to the fact that he wasn’t going to win anymore, that his siblings had learned the game a little too well and they were going to give him a run for his money. Harry managed to win once purely by luck when at the last second, Louis had accidentally blown himself and the two others up and he could fly right by. When that happened, he actually squealed and threw his hands in the air, yelling, “Finally!”
“Pure luck!” Louis jibed. “Absolute pure luck, that one!”
“I’m still gonna take it!” Harry laughed.
“You can take it,” Louis replied, leaning over to poke a finger into Harry’s side, “and shove it up your arse, mate.”
“Love you too, sweetheart,” Harry joked, blowing him an overzealous kiss.
The four of them all spent the rest of the day together, snacking on Harry’s baking and switching from racing to watching whatever was on Netflix. The snow outside had started to build enough to make it completely uninviting, so Harry was quite content to grab a blanket and cuddle up with Louis on the couch. At some point, the sky had gotten blotted and grey and everything got a touch too dark so Dot pulled the curtains and turned on just the lamp in the corner of the room. It was cozy. Warm. The gentle whistle of cold wind outside just a far away whisper. It was the first time, Harry realised, that he’d looked down at Louis, lying across his lap, and not felt that same cold threatening to come inside.
Dot and Ernie cooked dinner by themselves. Harry didn’t know it though, at some point in one of the movies, he’d fallen asleep. Louis had been the perfect warm weight to coax him into it.
He’d only snapped awake with a jump because Dot banged a pot against the edge of the sink.
“Sorry,” she confessed when he looked around the side of the couch towards the sound. “We tried to be as quiet as possible.”
Harry blinked his eyes as he shook his head.
“It’s fine, sorry we fell asleep. What’s the time?” he asked, voice gravelly, coated in sleep.
“Like seven or something.”
“Do you need a hand?” Louis was still a sleeping weight against him.
“We’ve got it,” Dot smiled. “Your phone went off though.”
Harry had no idea where his phone even was. It wasn’t on him. But he wasn’t about to move to find it, he didn’t want to disturb Louis. Instead, he settled back down and tucked an arm around Louis’ waist so he was spooning him.
This felt good, was all Harry could think as he listened to the sounds of cooking and TV and Louis’ gentle sleeping breaths. He could give up a lot to hold on to this, the mundane sounds of day to day life with a partner. The normality of not needing to leave for a motel at the end of the day. The promise that it would all be there in the morning.
This felt like the hole Harry had been wandering aimlessly to fill for so long. It felt like he’d been chasing a morning horizon his whole life, something pretty, spectacular, but unreachable, and now. Now he had a spaceship. Now he could break the rules and orbit the Earth to spend every hour with his little horizon.
Harry waited contentedly for when Louis would finally wake.
He had a sudden patience.
Louis woke a few minutes later when Dot set the last dish on the table and proudly, loudly , called, “Dinner!”
He shot awake and almost took out one of Harry’s teeth.
“Wha—" Louis slurred, blinking awake as he searched the room.
“Dinner,” Harry quietly chuckled, brushing away a sleep-damp strand of hair from Louis’ brow.
Louis squeezed his eyes shut and dropped back down into Harry’s front, clearly too enamoured by the warmth of Harry’s arms to bother waking for any food.
“Come on,” Harry coaxed, shuffling a bit. “They’ve put so much effort in.”
Louis grumbled something unintelligible as his face started to slacken again.
“Oi,” Ernie said, clambering over to playfully slap Louis’ cheek a few times. “Get up.”
Louis blinked and pulled his face away from Ernie’s hand, seemingly only just realising that he wasn’t dreaming it. He looked up at Harry confused, his cheek and his eyes and his lips perfectly puffy, and then let his eyes slide over to Ernie standing over them.
“Dinner,” Ernie smiled before turning on his heel and going to the dining table to serve himself up.
Slowly, Louis forced himself to move. As he made his way to the table, quietly lowering himself into one of the chairs, Harry came up behind him.
His phone was on top of the half wall separating the kitchen from them. Without thinking, Harry reached for it, wondering who he’d missed a call or text from.
He flicked on the screen and saw a missed call from Liam.
“No phones at dinner,” Dot joked, poking his hip from her seat.
“Yeah, yeah” Harry mumbled, waving his hand subconsciously. “Liam tried to call me.”
“Oh. What about?” Ernie asked.
“I dunno,” Harry replied, debating whether he should send him a text back. He felt like he should. But.
But he wanted more time.
“He can wait,” He stated, putting the phone back up on the divider.
Over dinner, Dot talked about whether they’d get another snow day in the morning if it kept snowing overnight. She couldn’t decide if she wanted it because she had a Math test in the afternoon and she didn’t know if it was better to have it postponed or to just get it over and done with.
“You might want it postponed,” Louis quipped. “I haven’t seen you study once all weekend.”
“I will tonight!” She protested. “I had more important things.”
“Like lying out in the snow,” Louis grinned.
Louis shook his head, smiling, and then said softly, “Just make sure you do, Dot, kay?”
She nodded like she didn’t need to be told again.
Louis was always so easy on them, so gentle in his guiding. Always reminding and never telling. Always asking and never demanding. It must have worked though, because as much as they wouldn’t like to have you think, Dot and Ernie always just got on with it. Dot always did her bit, and finally Ernie had been starting to as well.
Though, Harry supposed, maybe that’s just what kids did when they lost their parents. Just get on with it.
It was hard to not feel the absence in the house still, though. Harry wondered if they felt it too. It was written into every gentle reminder Louis gave them, too kind to be anything other than an older, protective brother. Too cautious to be a parent.
It had to have been why Louis always gave Ernie so much rope to do so little until recently.
“Can you pass me the salt, pleeease, Ernie,” Louis chimed as he took a fork to his veggies.
Ernie passed it to him with a faint hum of acknowledgement. Harry hadn’t realised it until then, but he hadn’t said anything since they all sat down to eat. In fact, he’d barely eaten from his own plate, choosing instead to push peas across it.
Harry watched him from across the table for a long while as he chewed his own food and listened to Dot and Louis talk about her upcoming test to get her licence. He took note of how Ernie sat, elbow on the table, head resting against his hand, kind of slumped forward.
He looked like the Ernie he’d first met.
“You okay?” Harry eventually asked, nodding his head in Ernie’s direction so everyone would know who he was talking to. Ernie didn’t look up. Louis, sitting directly in front of Harry, immediately stopped what he was saying and looked to him on his right.
A look of concern swept across his face.
“Hey,” he said, gently brushing a finger to Ernie’s elbow. “What’s up?”
Ernie, suddenly realising he was being talked to, sat back and gave a half hearted smile, clearly pretending he was fine. He apathetically stabbed a cluster of peas.
“Erns,” Louis added mindfully. “I know that look. What are you thinking about?”
Ernie stabbed a few more peas, and then sighed. “What happens next?”
“Next?” Louis asked. “With what?”
“Liam,” He said, almost choking with it. “And Sarah. What happens when Harry’s done with all this?”
“We’re…” Louis tried, unsure of the words. They hadn’t talked about this. Truth be told, Harry had been too scared to bring it up.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time, we’ll get to that problem when we get to it,” Harry offered for him.
Ernie seemed to bubble over something, his mouth screwing up.
“Is that okay?” Harry asked.
“It’s not like you’re going to stay with us anymore, right?”
“I don’t know—" Harry replied.
“Right, so what’s the point?” Ernie snapped back. “Why come here and make yourself at home if you’re just gonna go.”
“Hey,” Louis warned.
“What, Louis?” Ernie spat, dropping his fork against his plate. “You think Harry’s gonna stick around once this is done? Lake Tekapo is a place people leave . They don’t stay here. Mum and dad couldn’t even do that.”
“Hey,” Louis replied, voice stronger. Reprimanding. Parental. “Not everyone is going to leave, Ernest.”
“Bullshit, Louis . Tell me someone who hasn’t.”
“Not bullshit, no. Stop. I am not playing that game. We’ve all had a shit time, okay, Ernie. I’m not arguing that. First Mum and Dad, then Sarah. I get it. It’s hard to let people in. I try to give you as much space as possible, but it’s not healthy to keep people out.”
“That’s easy to say when you have some, I dunno, ex boyfriend, or whatever Harry is just come in and make things better for you, Louis, but—"
“No, Ernie,” Louis stammered, his voice choking. “It’s not easy. I’ve been shit to Harry. I’ve kept Harry out. He doesn’t know the half of it. Harry hasn’t just ‘made things better’. But he’s giving me a second chance when I don’t deserve it. Do you want to know what happened, Ernie?”
Harry felt himself shrink into his seat as Louis kept pushing out words. It seemed a dam had broken within him and he was finally letting out a stream of blackened water.
“Harry and I dated for months in university. And then Mum and Dad died and I just left him. Okay. I left him without a word, I fucked him over. And now is my chance to earn him back—" A tear slipped from the corner of Louis’ eyes. A crack splintered through his words. His dam kept breaking— “I love you, but I’m not letting you take away my chance to lose him again. I got fucked up too when we lost our parents. But you know as well as anyone that I’ve always been fucked up, Ernie. I’ve given up everything to protect you, but I’m lonely. And scared all the fucking time. And I don’t want to be any of those things anymore. For once, I want to let someone in. For once, I don’t want to worry about whatever tomorrow is going to throw at me.”
“Yeah but how can you stop worrying, Louis?” Ernie begged, his own voice breaking. “I’m— I’m scared too.”
“Of people leaving?” Louis asked, sniffing as he wiped at the tear down his cheek.
“No, of— I—" Ernie stammered, wiping at his own face. “ Fuck .”
He broke down into tears and immediately, Louis reached out and pulled him into a hug.
Ernie fell into him, clinging onto his hoodie for dear life, and managed to push out just a few heaving words, “It’s— just— fucking— everything.”
Harry had no idea what to do. There wasn’t anything he could say that would fix this. All he could think about was the fact that this was a reminder that this wasn’t Harry’s family, it wasn’t his place to be a part of this. Instead, he awkwardly caught Dot’s eye. She gave him an awkward smile.
They ate the rest of dinner in silence. When Ernie dumped his half-finished plate in the sink and sulked off to his room, Harry wondered why he’d suddenly gotten so spooked by Liam’s call.
Dot quickly made herself scarce too, not even bothering to take her plate to the kitchen. Instead, she simply got up and quietly left with the dog in her shadow.
Harry had a sneaking suspicion that no one was going to do the dishes that night. When they were finally alone in the room, Harry got out of his seat and walked around to where Louis was sitting. Silently, snowy wind blowing outside, he leaned down and hugged him from behind.
“I’m sorry,” Harry whispered. He said it with sympathy, the sort of sorry you say at a funeral.
Louis reached a hand to Harry’s sleeve with an appreciative squeeze.
They stayed like that for a while, silent. Just two bodies holding on to each other as they hurtled through time.
Louis eventually got up and, with a sniff, linked their fingers together and led them to his bedroom. He didn’t turn on the light when he got there. Like the first night Harry had been here, the night they’d simply slept next to each other, Louis just silently went to the bed. He laid down on it on top of the sheets, fully clothed, and didn’t ask Harry to join him.
Harry could feel the question in the air though, he could feel it in the expecting stillness of Louis’ silence.
He closed the door behind him and walked to the bed, sitting on the edge of it in front of Louis so he could put a thumb to his cheekbone, could wipe at any damp bits.
They sat in silence for a long while as Harry searched for something to say.
It came to him when Louis meekly wrapped his fingers around his wrist. No matter how weakly, he never wanted to let go.
“Louis,” Harry whispered. “I won’t leave.”
The curtains hadn’t been pulled so there was just enough light reflecting off the snow outside for Harry to see Louis’ face. He gave Harry a half smile. His eyes, glassy in the navy light, seemed to have given up.
“I’m sorry,” Louis whispered guiltily. “I don’t know what to say.”
Harry stroked his cheekbone delicately, watching as the moonlight shone against it. “Don’t worry about saying anything.”
Louis let out a breath. Then reached a hand to Harry’s knee and quietly, absentmindedly, thumbed circles into it. “I… I just wish to could fix everything. I just want to take care of everyone.”
Thoughtfully, Harry replied, “Louis, you can’t do that on your own.”
“I shouldn’t have blown up at him.”
“You didn’t,” Harry stroked a hair from Louis’ face. “You were letting him know what you were feeling. It might help him to know he’s not the only one that struggles. There’s so much power in being vulnerable.”
Louis halfheartedly scoffed, letting his head fall to the side. “I wish it felt that way.”
“Hey,” Harry offered, thumbing his chin so Louis looked back up at him. “Being vulnerable is one of the hardest things a person can do. And you already started tonight. I’m proud of you.”
Louis screwed up his mouth like he didn’t quite agree, but he wanted to.
“I am,” Harry said, and then he leant down to kiss Louis’ forehead to prove it.
Louis grabbed the back of his neck before he could pull away. Harry hovered above him, lips pressed to Louis’ brow, and waited for Louis do lead him to whatever it was that he needed next.
He felt Louis breath him in.
Then he loosened his grasp a little, enough for Harry to lift his lips, and gently pulled his neck downwards so Harry’s eyes were above his.
Louis blinked up at him.
His pupils were so wide in the dark. All the blue was gone from them.
Louis didn’t say anything, but Harry could hear the words flashing through his eyes. He blinked and Harry heard his name, he looked from his right eye to his left and Harry heard stay . For a slither of a second, too short for the moon to catch, his brow tensed and Harry heard take care of me .
With the brush of a thumb against Louis’ lip, Harry said I will . And then he brought their lips together.
They kissed slowly and painfully and Harry felt Louis searching for all the words he wanted to say in his mouth. The hairs on Louis’ chin were cutting, sharp against the soft of Harry’s bottom lip. But they were pleading cuts, the scratch of a fingernail when a hand couldn’t let go.
Harry curled a hand around the back of Louis’ neck so he could hold him, guide him, be there for him. He stroked the baby hairs above his spine and hoped that Louis could feel how he cherished them.
As they kissed deeper and longer, Louis’ breath became Harry’s. His skin did too. Harry could feel it, the low rumbling of a river, the pulsing of their veins. It felt like their heart beats were syncing up.
Louis pulled away and caught a breath. His eyes were still wide, still wet, but swirling with something else. Vulnerability not born out of fear, but want. Catharsis.
In that moment, Harry remembered something Louis always used to ask. Something he’d always say when they were like this, looking into each other and thinking of what came next.
“Can I?” Harry asked, and Louis immediately nodded. There was a shadow of a smile at the corner of his lips. He remembered this question too.
Harry’s heart thudded as he brought their lips back together. He pressed words into his lips as he kissed them, as he let his hands wander to Louis’ shoulders and his hips. He gave him adoration and reassurance and comfort and admiration . And maybe, just maybe, love.
These are the things I want to give you , Harry thought.
Louis opened himself up for Harry in a way that didn’t require words. He let Harry take his body. He let him take care of him, let him caress his thighs, let him peel off every layer of clothing and press his body into the bed. This was how Louis let Harry have his vulnerability. This was how he gave himself away.
Harry was gentle with him, so aware of how Louis needed to be held, needed to give up the reins. He never stopped kissing him as he went, as he opened him up. He never stopped pressing the love into his mouth.
When Louis started to whimper under their gentle rocking, Harry took his lips away. But he held his face close and he opened his eyes.
Louis looked up at him and Harry could hear his blood rushing through his ear drums. Nothing else mattered except the dark waters of Louis’ eyes, the infinity within them.
“Can I?” Louis whispered, not taking his eyes off Harry, not taking his hands from Harry’s back as he slowed his gentle rhythm. “Can I say it first this time?”
Harry could see the need in Louis’ eyes to say what he was about to, so he pulled Louis’ arms from his rib cage so they could hold hands against the bed instead. And then he nodded.
Louis clutched their hands together, so their fingers were knots as tight at Harry’s heart.
“I love you,” Louis whispered.
Harry pressed their lips together for a slow, tender moment, wanting to feel the breath that Louis had spent on those words.
He pulled away and reminded Louis, because he’d never really stopped, “I love you too.”
And then he showed him how love isn’t only a thing you say.
“Nonsense, love,” she chuckled. “I’ll get it.”
“It’s fine! Honestly!” Louis smiled back, handing the food truck cashier his card before Harry’s mum got the chance.
She rolled her eyes with a grin. “You’ve picked a good one, Harry.”
“I know,” Harry beamed, tucking his finger into Louis’ back pocket so he could tug him ever so slightly into his side as Louis typed his card’s pin into the machine. He was never shy about being affectionate in front of his mum, they were best friends as much as they were family.
And it seemed to help Louis, to see how easy Harry was with his mum around. He seemed to need the assurance that he was fully accepted, as much as he was all bright friendly smiles, he’d been a little shaky since she’d flown in the night before. He’d had a poor night’s sleep, but he’d assured Harry that that was only because they’d given Anne Harry’s bed and slept on the pull out couch together.
They got their food almost immediately, these spicy roti wraps, and left for a spot that overlooked the harbour, where the ferry came in to take people out to Waiheke Island. It was nice sitting there, a little way away from everyone. They’d just come from a few streets over, where all the shops were, because Anne had insisted on getting Harry some T-shirts that didn’t have holes in the seams.
“I’m fine with what I’ve got, Mum. Don’t worry about it,” Harry had said that morning, when they’d woken to Anne floating about the flat, ironing the pile of clothes that Harry had left at the foot of his bed. Apparently she had the washing machine going too, because she was flitting in and out with socks and underwear that she definitely had no need to be touching.
“Honestly, Harry,” she said, looking over at him from her side of the lounge. “You’ll be going to class naked by the end of the year if you don’t get some decent clothes on your back.”
“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean, Mum,” he replied, stretching out of the mismatched sheets they had swathed around them on the couch. “I’m just saying, you don’t need to buy them for me. I’m quite happy to just see your face.”
“And I’m very happy to see yours too, love, but I’m trying to do something nice here!” she smiled before throwing some clothes in his direction. “The least you can do after giving me a bed to sleep in is fold some of your laundry and let your mother take you out shopping! Come on!”
Louis was giggling from beside him, but he kept his mouth shut as he grabbed one of the shirts from Harry’s lap and started folding it.
And so they did their washing and piled together the things that Harry definitely could do with throwing out, and then they went shopping.
Harry took a bite of his wrap, careful not to spill any of the sauce on the shopping bags at his feet. And then he turned to Louis and asked around his mouthful, “How is it?”
Louis nodded emphatically, determined not to lack any manners in front of Anne. They shared happy smiles with each other and ate until Anne knocked Harry’s knee with hers.
“So I was thinking,” she mused, “for your birthday tomorrow night, have you figured out where you want to go?”
Harry turned to her and nodded, “Yes, actually. Louis mentioned this place in Ponsonby, they do Asian-European fusion.”
“Oh that sounds nice!” she smiled, leaning over past Harry to look at Louis at the end of the bench. “Have you been there before?”
Louis shook his head and wiped his lip. “No, not personally. But our friend Kate goes out lots and she recommended it to me.”
“Take the credit,” Harry grinned, knocking his knuckles into Louis’ thigh. He turned back to his mum and explained, “Kate gave him an entire list of places that were good and he liked the sound of this one the most, so that’s the one we’re going to.”
He could almost feel Louis’ blush.
His mum just smiled at the two of them and said, “Well as long as we get our special birthday ice creams after, I’m fine with wherever.”
“Birthday ice creams?” Louis asked.
Anne beamed. “For Harry’s 7th birthday, we got stuck in traffic and missed his birthday party with all our family, so we stopped by a McDonald’s and bought ourselves two soft serves and put straws in them like candles. It’s been a tradition to get them ever since.”
“Oh,” Louis breathed, a small smile on his lips. “That sounds nice.”
“It is, isn’t Haz,” Anne smiled warmly. “Do you have any family traditions, Louis?”
Louis bit his lip and looked at his feet. His eyes shifted like he was looking for words, and stuttered when he finally answered. “Uh, yeah. Um. I— I can’t really think of any.”
Anne caught on to his stammer and knotted her brows with soft concern.
“Oh, sorry,” she apologised. “I didn’t ask if you’re close with your family, I, uh, I know not everyone has the support that they should—”
“Mum!” Harry interjected. His mum loved to play up her care-free all-accepting role as the mother of a gay kid. She didn’t quite get that bringing up this kind of thing took a bit of tact.
“It’s fine,” Louis assured, giving a smile that tried to look convincing. “We are close. They’ve always supported me. I guess we just aren’t a very traditional family, is all.”
“That’s good,” Anne said, brow relaxing. “It’s awful when kids don’t have supportive parents.”
“Yeah, no, they’ve always accepted me. I never even had to come out to them, it was just something we’ve all always known,” Louis smiled, rolling his eyes and making a show of letting his wrist go limp.
Anne chuckled and playfully patted Harry’s back. “We had our suspicions too.”
“Mum,” Harry lamented, shaking his head even though he couldn’t stop a smile because Louis was grinning down at him. This was entirely embarrassing.
“What is your family like, though, Louis? I think you were telling my last night that they have a farm down south?”
Louis nodded and cleared his throat, “Uh, yeah. Wool farmers. They’re a few hours from Christchurch.”
“And is it just you or do you have siblings?”
“A younger brother and sister, Ernest and Doris.”
“Now those are some names,” Anne chuckled. “Are they in high school?”
Louis shook his head, “No, still got a long while before they’re even thinking of high school. They’re only eight and ten.”
Harry had already heard all of this before, but he listened intently still. Louis didn’t really talk about his family much, but he supposed he just wasn’t that way inclined. Harry didn’t talk much about his either, they were always too caught up talking about each other or the future or whatever had happened with one of their mutual friends. It wasn’t until his mum had come to visit that Harry realized that his knowledge of Louis’ family was only surface level.
“Now that’s an age gap,” Anne said brightly. “What is that, twelve years between you all? Assuming you and Harry are about the same age?”
“We are,” Louis smiled, not answering the first of Anne’s questions. “I had my birthday just over a month ago. December 24th.”
“A Christmas present for your parents, then.”
Louis just shrugged and gave half a nod.
“Did you do anything to celebrate? Must’ve seeing as Harry didn’t visit us this year,” Anne jokingly chided, tugging on Harry’s ear lobe.
Harry slunk away from her and defended himself with a grin, “We went back up to the bach for a few days.”
“Oh, very romantic! You should have told us, we would have sent you some gifts, Louis!”
Louis smiled self consciously. “Oh no, it’s fine. Visiting the beach house was more than perfect.”
“Come on, now. It’s your birthday! You deserve it. How about we go and find something after we finally get through our wraps?”
“It’s fine, really,” Louis repeated. Harry could sense that he was trying desperately to be as polite as possible. He gave her that half smile of his. “I really couldn’t ask that of you, Mrs. Styles.”
“Anne,” she corrected. “We consider any boyfriend of Harry’s a part of the family, okay. Call me Anne. Or mum, if you’re feeling extra gooey. I won’t complain.”
Harry scrunched his nose and gave Louis a look that tried to apologise silently. His mum was so overzealous sometimes, though he supposed that’s where he got his own love from. He always gave it away so easily.
When they left, they went to more shops where Anne bought Harry more clothes and convinced Louis to let her buy him some too. And then they eventually made it home to Harry’s flat. The smell of weed wafted out from under Zayn’s door and Anne gave Harry an amused, wide eyed look, and said, “That’s… I won’t ask if you recognise that.”
“Do you recognise it?” Harry asked back with an innocent grin.
“Do you?” was all he got back.
Harry motioned that he was locking his mouth shut with a key and his mum rolled her eyes.
They hung around the flat for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Anne liked to bake, and she didn’t want them to be relying on instant noodles any time soon, so she popped out to the shops and brought back enough ingredients to stock the fridge. When she came back, she roped both Harry and Louis in, giving them menial work to do at the dining table.
That’s how they stayed for a long time, rolling out dough and icing biscuits and cupcakes. They talked the entire time, about university and their summer break and things that Louis was interested in. His favourite bands and movies and football teams.
Harry’s mum was good at making people feel included. She didn’t seem to care that she had flown up to spend time with her son for his birthday while his Dad was stuck in Wellington with work. There wasn’t a moment where she seemed to want some time with her son and her son alone. It made Harry’s chest flutter to see her asking all her questions and making all her jokes, and it made his heart thud so see how easily Louis had started to smile around her.
It wasn’t just a polite smile, small and careful, it had become wide and bright and easy.
Harry felt a warmth that wasn’t just from the glimmering even sun streaming through the window, that wasn’t from the sweet smell of sugar that lingered between them. It came from seeing his boy, his Louis, smile.
Louis smiled when Anne talked to him about what it was like when she had gone to university.
He smiled when Harry caught his eye and knocked their toes together under the table.
And he smiled when Anne came over to see how they were getting on with their icing. Louis’ was a bit of a mess because he’d been more focused on the conversation at hand than how his swirls had failed. He’d taken to smearing the icing on with spoon and then sprinkling them with chocolate flakes. Anne looked down from over his shoulder.
“Looks bloody delicious,” she said. And she rested a hand on his shoulder when she said it.
Harry was the only one to catch Louis’ smile. It was quiet and just for himself, tucked away near his clavicle as he looked down at the cupcake in his hands.
There was an indescribable feeling sitting in Harry’s chest, looking at his mum and his boyfriend like this, together in the glowing sun. He didn’t know the name of it at first, but he knew it felt like open windows on summer mornings. Like floating in a still, perfect water or jumping from couch to couch while singing a favourite song. It was a feeling that was overwhelming, exhilarating and yet restful. Settled. Complete.
Harry had caught moments of it before, though he’d never thought of it being more than infatuation, more than the excitement of a new relationship. But the feeling had never subsided, it never left his chest, and so as their relationship had gotten closer, had gone on for longer, it developed into something else.
It came again later that night, when Harry’s mum had finally taken herself off to bed after an episode of The Fall. They’d made up the pull out bed but they didn’t lie in it. It was still too warm out, and Harry wanted to hold Louis but he didn’t want anyone to stumble out to the lounge and catch them.
He wanted it to just be them.
So they crawled through the lounge window and out onto the roof of their downstairs neighbour. Their flat was on the side of a lazily sloping hill and overlooked the city. It twinkled in the dusky sky, the night finally almost too dark to see as they sat cross legged, facing each other, beneath it. Louis’ hands looked kind of blue as Harry took them into his. He pressed their palms together and then closed his fingers into the gaps between Louis’.
His heart was beating hard, and he hoped Louis’ was too.
“I like how well you get on with my mum,” Harry said, voice no more than a gentle caress.
Louis looked at the hands between them, brushing his thumb against the back of Harry’s. “I like her.”
He paused and kissed Harry’s hand, then stayed holding it close to his bottom lip. “She’s easy to talk to.”
“She is,” Harry agreed. “It got me thinking though.”
Louis let his eyes drift up to meet Harry’s.
The feeling came back. The indescribable one. The one that came whenever Louis looked up at him through his eyelashes.
“What about?” Louis asked, voice almost a whisper.
Harry thought he had a word for it now. He’d heard of it so many times, but he never quite knew what it meant before.
He leaned his head closer so only their linked hands would fit between their mouths. And he let his lip brush against the skin of Louis’ fingers as he whispered to him.
“I think I love you.”
Even from this close, Harry could see the way Louis’ eyes twitched. They shifted.
He hoped it was in recognition. In reciprocation.
Then Louis pulled back and his whole face came into view.
He was biting his lip but he was smiling.
“I was waiting for you to say that.”
And then he brought his face, his mouth, back in and he lowered their hands so he could place a single, gentle kiss on Harry’s lips. It was short and chaste and soft, but it punctuated his words perfectly because he pulled away and said, even more softly than his kiss had been, “I love you too.”
Harry woke to arms around his neck. A warm reminder that Louis was still there.
Blue light was just starting to trickle in through the window. Outside, it had stopped snowing. The sky was still dark, with merely the promise of morning beyond the mountains. Snow along the edge of the window glistened just as the stars above did.
It felt too early to wake, but there was a crack of yellow light under Louis’ door. The kids must have started to get up.
Harry contemplated going back to sleep but he didn’t get a chance. The alarm on Louis’ phone went off.
Louis jolted awake, sucking in a sharp breath of air, and smacked Harry’s chin with the side of his hand. He groaned and rolled towards his phone. There was a moment where the edge of Louis’ silhouette glowed from his phone, and then it was dark again. And silent.
Louis laid there motionless for a long moment before he slowly rolled back over. His eyes, barely a glint in the moonlight, softened.
“I thought I’d dreamed it all up,” he let out under his breath before rolling further into Harry’s side, where he rested his chin on Harry’s chest.
“Which part?” Harry asked, brushing sleep-damp hair from Louis’ forehead.
Louis looked up at him, blinking a few perfect times, and then brought his own hand to Harry’s face. He let his thumb fall to Harry’s bottom lip, dragging it softly to the corner of his mouth. He didn’t need to say anything, Harry knew what he was meaning.
Harry let Louis’ thumb rest there until Louis turned his head so he could see down to the bottom of the bed, to where the window was. His hand fell to Harry’s shoulder, latching on as though Harry was the only thing keeping him from floating up and out to the sky.
Harry kissed the back of his head.
“I’ve always wondered,” he asked, drawing circles into the peak of Louis’ shoulder. “What is it with you and never closing curtains properly?”
He felt the quick chuckle under Louis’ breath. “Well, I was a bit distracted last night.”
“Not last night,” Harry smiled, voice still a soft whisper. “All the other times. You leave them open a crack, but it’s always too much of a crack to seem an accident. I’m not complaining — just wondering.”
Louis was quiet a moment, his right eyelash fluttering against Harry’s chest as he blinked at the window. When he spoke, it was timid and slow.
“I…” Louis drew a breath, hand tightening against Harry’s shoulder. “It makes me feel less…” He paused, blinked once. “Alone.”
Harry was careful not to disturb the words that Louis had just said. He wanted to comfort Louis, to remind him that he wasn’t alone, that he never had to be, but the words felt like they’d fall short. It felt like they weren’t what Louis wanted, or needed.
Harry, wanting to show that he was still there, was still the weighted rock under his arms and the beating chest below his ear, simply moved his hand to the back of Louis’ head and stroked his thumb through his hair.
He felt Louis close his eyes. And he let the moment, the words, sit in the air.
Harry could feel the turn of Louis’ mouth, the thoughts on them, so he kept stroking until Louis built up the courage to speak them.
Eventually, he said, “I don’t like to sleep in the pitch black. I like to be able to see the sky, it reminds me of where I am. Like… When you get nightmares, everything that scares you at night suddenly feels silly when the day comes up. It’s like that. It’s harder to forget yourself when you can wake up and see you’re still, I don’t know, on Earth.”
Harry bit his lip in thought, wondering what to say next. “Do you… get nightmares?”
Louis moved his hand from Harry’s shoulder and bit his nail, breathing out, “It’s not that.”
Harry wanted to ask what it was immediately, but it felt like he’d scare him away. Silence seemed to be the thing that was working best.
Louis went unnaturally still, and then whispered, the words mangled by the thumb in his mouth, “It’s the feeling of being tethered to reality, so I don’t feel lost. So I don’t feel like I’m on my own again.”
Harry couldn’t help it, it fell out of him, torn up with concern and confusion. “Again?”
He regretted it immediately. They’d found something perfect last night, had woken up with it, and now he’d sent them spinning back to the thing stopping Louis in the first place.
Louis didn’t breathe. He didn’t blink. But his jaw was tight, and his teeth clicked as he bit the corner of his nail.
Then he let out a shaky breath. And then he blinked. And then he shifted so his head wasn’t resting on Harry’s chest anymore. He was sitting up, his lips were pursed like they were sewn shut, and he was clasping Harry’s hand.
Louis avoided Harry’s eyes, favouring the butterfly inked into his stomach. Still, Harry could still see the words swarming between his temples.
Harry squeezed Louis’ hand. Louis’ lip quivered just a single time as he squeezed back.
“Sorry,” Harry apologised, sitting up so he was eye level.
Louis shook his head, trying to give him a smile, but Harry caught his chin with his free hand. He held him still for a moment before bringing his lips to his forehead and whispering again, “Sorry.”
Harry rested their foreheads together so he could look down at his one hand under Louis’ chin and the other in his hand.
“I just want to get it out,” Louis whispered.
“I know, love,” Harry replied steadily.
“But I can’t.”
“But it’s always hanging over us.”
“I don’t want this to be me.”
“I just wish someone else could say the words for me.”
“You don’t need to say anything.”
“I feel like I’m stuck between telling you and losing you, and not telling you and losing you,” Louis breathed out. Frustrated, burnt out. Like he’d been thinking these thoughts on repeat until they bubbled over.
“I’m sorry,” he breathed, embarrassed. Like he’d admitted too much.
Harry smiled down at their hands, bittersweet. “Stop apologising. I already told you, I’m not going anywhere. I’m gonna stay in this bed and sleep with the curtains open until you realise you’re not alone.”
Louis squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry I’m annoying and putting you through this.”
Harry rolled his eyes and fell back onto the bed with amusement, the only way to deal with Louis’ perpetual self consciousness. “Lou!”
“Sorry, I’ll stop,” Louis admitted, chiding himself.
“Good,” Harry smiled, pulling Louis down towards him. “Now come down here and kiss me for having to put up with that alarm. It’s far too early to be awake.”
“It’s 6am, Haz. I’ve gotta get up and work.”
“Umm,” Harry hummed playfully as he kept pulling Louis towards him, determined to turn the mood in the room and the thoughts on his mind. “I require just two kisses!”
Louis scrunched his lips and then gave up and let the tiniest of smiles breach his lips. He leant forward and quickly pecked Harry’s knuckles twice.
“Excuse me!” Harry gasped. “I’ll be having none of that! Two proper kisses please.”
He paused and then added, “And then I’ll get up and help?”
“I don’t know how much of a help you’ll be,” Louis confessed, finally giggling.
“I’ll be good company though! I’m willing to risk my arse out in the freezing cold for just two measly kisses here, come on!” He groaned the last word.
Louis rolled his eyes and said, “Only if you promise to kiss me as many times as I request today.”
“Today? I’ll do it for the rest of my life,” Harry grinned.
“Just to stand out in the cold?” Louis asked skeptically.
“To make sure you’re not alone.”
He pulled Louis down and finally Louis gave in, falling onto his chest heavily. Harry squeezed Louis’ cheeks so he could kiss him playfully and over the top. But Louis seemed to need more than that, because he put his hands over Harry’s and he pulled them away, interlocking their fingers against the bed sheets instead, and then kissed Harry like he wasn’t going to ever let go.
The sky behind the mountains was baby blue by the time they got changed and left Louis’ bedroom.
And Harry’s mouth tasted salty. It was unexpected, but it was another thing to show Louis that he was right there with him, for him. They hadn’t been able to pull their lips away from each other until Harry had forced his down Louis’ neck.
Dot was sitting at the dining room table as they clambered in.
She looked up half-surprised, spoonful of cereal hanging from her mouth.
Harry cleared his throat and was about to come up with some excuse, but she just smiled and said, “I thought you’d already left. Your keys were gone and so is Georgie.”
Louis grinned back with ease, walking over to snatch her coffee. “Must have been Ernie, I was busy having a sleep in.”
Dot hummed back but she didn’t sound convinced. “Right.”
“Right, what?” Louis shot back innocently.
Dot just looked at him, unimpressed.
“Besides,” Louis continued, completely ignoring her. “What are you still doing around? And drinking coffee?”
Louis took a sip from her cup as he walked over to his boots at the back door.
Dot’s expression turned within a split second, a proud smile growing wide across her face. “Snow day.”
Without turning around, Louis said, “And by that tone, I’m guessing you didn’t end up studying last night.”
“Excuse you,” she protested, dropping her spoon into her bowl. “First you take my coffee, and now you accuse me of not studying?”
“But did you?” Louis grinned, pulling on a boot with one hand.
Dot screwed up her mouth, and then walked over to take back her coffee without a word. Louis quickly gave it another sip before she could pull it away and then chuckled as she walked back to her seat.
“I will today, okay? But it’s maths and I hate maths.”
“That sounds familiar,” Harry chuckled as he pulled on his own boots. “Somehow I remember a certain someone skiving of classes they didn’t like.”
“Oh, really?” Dot grinned, raising her eyebrows at Louis as she sipped her drink.
“Oi, you,” Louis smacked Harry’s shoulder and was about to defend his own study habits when Ernie burst through the back door, face flush with all his hair under a beanie.
He sort of jumped back when he almost walked right into Louis and then let out a surprised, “You’re here!”
Louis nodded and raised his eyebrows. “Yep. You sound surprised?”
“Oh, uh. No,” he pulled off his beanie and shook out his hair. “Um. Just thought you’d be up and out already.”
“He was having a sleep in ,” Dot interjected, quoting the air. Though both Louis and Ernie seemed to ignore her. Instead, Louis looked at Ernie with a soft curiosity. “What were you up to out there?”
Ernie walked into the kitchen area and opened the fridge, staring into it for a few moments. “Just going for a walk.”
“A walk?” Louis asked.
“Yeah, I got up to get ready for school, but it’s cancelled so I went for a walk. I like the snow.”
“With my keys?”
Ernie froze for a moment too long, hand stiff on the fridge door. Then he patted down his jacket pocket and pulled out Louis’ keys, throwing them over to him. “I took the gator out.”
Louis looked at him incredulously.
Ernie turned back to the fridge. “I just wanted to go to one of the further fields.”
Louis hummed thoughtfully, eyebrow curving upwards, but he seemed to take it. “Just leave a note or something next time, yeah?”
Harry wasn’t quite so convinced.
Ernie just nodded.
“Oh, and Erns?” Louis added as he opened the backdoor for the two of them.
Ernie lifted an ear, and then slowly turned his face so he could see Louis when he didn’t continue. “Yeah?”
Louis gave him a pointed look and then, so obviously that Harry could even understand, mouthed the word apologise.
Ernie screwed up his mouth painfully, embarrassed, and then gave a half smile and nodded.
“Today,” Louis added, this time audibly.
Ernie finally apologized when they got back.
It was almost midday and Harry had forgotten what his hands felt like. And it was only the consistent brush of Louis’ nose against his own nose that he could feel that , could feel how it was definitely red and definitely dripping. He’d spent the entire morning wandering around as Louis’ crystalizing shadow. Snow had made its way through his trousers, making the hairs on his legs stand up and drag against the thick fabric over his calves. Somehow it had made its way into his hair and his gloves and his scarf too. The only thing that had kept him going in the frigid air, moving sheep and silage and watching on as the vet treated a small group of sheep with footrot, was Louis huddling his body into Harry’s chest. Because the only thing worse off in the snow than Harry, was Louis. He didn’t quite understand how he’d had managed all these years, farming out in the icy, open air. Harry had always known him to get cold easily. And he still did, which Harry didn’t particularly like because it meant that Louis kept snaking his hands up under the bottom hem of Harry’s jacket. And his hands were cold .
When they arrived back, the vet in tow with promises of a hot drink, Ernie had holed himself up in his room. On the table was a folded over piece of paper with Harry’s name marked across the top.
Harry pulled off his jacket and swiped it up immediately as the vet, Hemi, pulled out a chair to sit down and start pulling off his layers. He stuffed it in his jeans pocket and popped around into the kitchen area to help Louis make drinks, the divider offering enough height for him to hopefully give it a quick read without seeming rude. He could have held onto it for later, but he was already a bit caught on the outside of the conversation. Louis and Hemi had been talking about some disease he’d been dealing with a town over called scrapie, and it didn’t sound particularly nice.
“I’ve got it,” Harry said under his breath, taking the kettle from Louis at the sink. “You two have your chat.”
Louis gave him his perfect soft smile, and a squeeze on the hip, and left him to it.
Harry got his chance as the water boiled. He quietly pulled the note from his pocket and leaned over the bench, hip jutting out. Barely any of the page had been scrawled across in tiny, jagged letters, clearly a boy’s handwriting. He quickly scanned it just as the water started to squeal.
Sorry about last night. I should have apologised earlier but I was too embarrassed and then when Louis called me out this morning, it was even more embarrassing. Sorry for that. I do want you around, even if I’m not good at saying it in person. I wish I wasn’t so shit at this kind of thing. Sorry.
Harry bit his lip, unable to hide the empathetic smile pulling at it. He felt for Ernie, wanting to speak his apology, but still so young to find it too embarrassing to do so. He was just a kid, as much as he wanted to be taken seriously. Harry remembered the time when he, aged fifteen, had come out to his parents in a letter just like this. At the time, it felt like the only way he could tell them. He’d built the words up inside himself for so long but couldn’t find the right ones when the moment finally felt right. So he wrote five letters before he’d gotten it right and shoved it under his parents’ bedroom door before scurrying to his room, waiting for that embarrassing look of sympathy to wipe across his mum’s face when she’d inevitably come in to talk to him.
As the kettle clicked off, Harry understood what Louis had meant when he’d wished someone could say the words for him.
Maybe a pen could.
He tucked the letter back into his pocket and promised himself that he’d talk to Ernie later, that he’d be the one now to cautiously slink into the bedroom to give his reassurances like his mum had. And that he’d think about how to approach Louis differently.
With three cups of coffee in his hands, Harry made his way to the dining room table and tried to pick up where Louis and Hemi’s conversation had moved on to. He slid a mug across to Hemi and one to Louis on his right before sipping from his own mug as he listened.
They were talking about some family trip that Hemi had coming up, taking his family to the Cook Islands. Harry didn’t have much to add, he’d never been before, so he listened contently as he detailed what they were going to do over there.
“What about you?” Hemi eventually asked. “Any trips coming up?”
Louis chuckled and shook his head. “No, no. Don’t have the time for that kind of thing.”
“Oh come on, mate, gotta get the kids away some time. And yourself, you’ll do your head in otherwise. Get Darren or Dave or someone to take over for a week or something.”
Louis shrugged and have a shy smile. “Yeah, we’ll see, we’ll see.”
“Come on,” Hemi continued with a grin. “You’re telling me you’ve got a new man in your life and you don’t wanna whisk him off to bloody Fiji or something?”
“We’ll get there!” Louis chuckled, throwing up his hands. “In good time.”
“Good time, my arse,” Hemi laughed, turning to Harry to say. “Make sure he takes you somewhere, alright?”
“I will,” Harry smiled, patting Louis’ shoulder.
Just then, Harry’s phone started buzzing. Louis and Hemi instinctually looked over at the sound as Harry pulled it out of his pocket.
It was Liam.
“Sorry,” Harry apologised, about to decline the call.
But Hemi just shook his head and told him, “It’s fine, mate. Take it.”
Harry didn’t want to, he sort of wished that there was no investigation anymore. It would’ve meant that he could just stay here, that this would be the end of his story. He could pretend for as long as he liked to have found a home.
He could feel expectant eyes on him though, so he left for Louis’ room and took it.
“Harry?” Liam’s voice crackled as he finally picked up. “Are you okay, mate?”
“Uh, yeah?” Harry said, quietly clicking the bedroom door shut behind him. “What’s up?”
“I was a bit worried, you didn’t pick up yesterday and you haven’t been back to your motel.”
“Sorry, I’m staying at Louis’, I just haven’t gotten back to the motel to check out yet,” Harry replied, leaning his head and body against the door.
There was a short pause and then, “Louis’, huh?”
“Oh. Are you—?”
Harry chuckled under his breath. “Yeah, we are.”
“Huh. Imagine that,” he paused, then softly added, “I’m not surprised.”
Harry snorted. “How come?”
“I could cut the tension with a knife last week at the pub, and Louis’ left me hanging every Saturday since.”
“Sorry,” Harry apologised accidently smirking up against the door.
“Nah, don’t be. I’m glad.”
There was a pause. It was Harry’s turn to talk, but he didn’t want to. That meant asking Liam why he called.
He cleared his throat.
Liam gave in to the silence, his voice taking a slightly darker tone, “Anyway, uh. It’s about Sarah.”
“Yeah?” Harry tried to keep his voice even, the resignation out of it.
“I found the report. Finally. I couldn’t for a week, it was completely gone. And I couldn’t get anything off the computer either,” he paused, something shifted in the background. “Greg saw me look it up, and the next day it was back. I think you’re right, Greg’s involved.”
“What did the report say?”
“That’s the craziest thing,” Liam’s tone went a bit more hush. “There’s a massive stain over the number. I couldn’t read the whole number”
“Yeah, but the page had been written on.”
“So there were indentations in the back of it. I was eventually able to figure out what the missing numbers were. I searched it up and,” he breathed out. “It’s an inactive number. Hasn’t been used since 2011.”
“So her mum never called?”
“Fuck. So whatever Greg’s got going on here, he’s faking the whole story?”
“I guess. But I can’t see what Sarah would have had to do with him. You don’t think he… He couldn’t have been the one to...”
“Get her pregnant?”
Liam didn’t answer, but Harry took that as a yes.
“I don’t know,” Harry answered himself. Then he remembered something. “I saw Greg at her father’s house a few weeks ago. I only saw him coming out, but he didn’t look too happy. And Dave hasn’t wanted to talk to me.”
“I can talk to him.”
“You can try.”
“What are you gonna do? We should coordinate. If Greg’s behind all this, we need to tread carefully.”
Harry sighed. “About that…”
He didn’t know how to put it into words. He didn’t want to give up or anything, he wasn’t that selfish. There was a missing girl at the centre of this, after all. It was just that he had a real life family to deal with too. There was a man sitting in the other room that had come back into his life and was trying his damndest to keep Harry around the second time. They still hadn’t talked about what came after all this.
“Is… Is there any way I can have just a few more days.”
It was quiet on Liam’s end.
Harry took a breath, trying desperately to articulate himself. “It’s just, with Louis, I—"
“I get it,” Liam interrupted. “I get it, Harry. I’ll keep an eye on Greg for a few days. Let’s meet this Saturday, it’ll look like my regular night out with Louis. We’ll go from there. Keep safe, Harry.”
“I’m the copper here, mate, it’s my job,” Liam chuckled darkly.
“Thank you, though, Liam.”
“Thank you , Harry. Hopefully we can finally bring this all to an end.”
Harry hung up the phone and leaned his head back against the door. He wished things were easier. They’d been easy for six years, he’d kept everything at an arm’s reach for six years. And now he’d gotten too tangled up in his personal and professional life.
And yet it was the first time that he felt like his personal life came first.
He put his phone in his pocket and felt Ernie’s note crumble against it.
Ernie, Harry thought. He was meant to talk to him, and despite the call he’d just had, Harry was more in the mood for a brotherly heart to heart than trying to wedge himself into whatever Hemi was talking about. Louis and Hemi clearly knew each other, and fairly well by the sounds of it, so it felt like Harry was only going to be able to sit on the outer edge of that conversation, whittling away at the handle of his mug.
Harry went to Ernie’s bedroom door and gave it a quiet knock.
He heard a muffled grunt come from the other side, so he slowly opened the door.
The curtains were shut completely and without any lights on, the room was lit only by the snow-grey light coming through at the top edge of the windows. Ernie was lying on his bed, with his hoodie up. He had the ties between his teeth so he could chew on them and keep his hood pulled tight around his face. On his chest was a laptop playing a video, youtube or something by the sounds of it, the blue glare making his eyes shine. At some point, Georgie had made her way in and was sleeping up against his side.
“Hey,” Harry offered when he looked up without moving. “Can I come in?”
Ernie raised his eyebrows and paused his video. He didn’t move as Harry came to sit on the bottom of his bed.
Harry had never actually seen Ernie’s room, he always kept his door shut, but as he looked around there wasn’t much to see. He had a pile of clothes at the end of his bed, spilling out from his closet. Across the room was a dresser with a haphazard assortment of deodorants and video games. There was nothing on the walls except for a framed picture of a younger Ernie and Georgie at a beach.
“What are you watching?” Harry asked, leaning back against the wall so he looked somewhat as slovenly as Ernie.
Ernie turned the laptop slightly towards Harry so he could see and mumbled around the ties in his mouth, “Just a Let’s Play for Borderlands 3.”
“Nice,” Harry said, not really sure how to bring up the fact that he was here to talk to him about the note.
Ernie flicked the video back on so sounds of shooting and hollering filled the room. He supposed he could deal with that though, they could settle into each other’s space for a while. So he leaned over onto his elbow so he could watch with him, Georgie squashed between them. Ernie didn’t seem to mind, he kept the laptop slighted turned so Harry didn’t miss anything. They’d played the game a few times together, so he knew enough to appreciate what they were watching.
Eventually, after that video had ended and Ernie put on another that could have passed itself off as the same thing, Harry cleared his throat and prepared himself to get into it.
“Thanks for the note,” Harry said quietly. Evenly.
Ernie didn’t take his eyes off the video, but his lip flickered a bit. He’d heard him.
And he wasn’t telling him to stop.
Harry paused for a moment, just in case Ernie got up the courage to say something. “Don’t be embarrassed about last night, though. It’s all good. I get it.”
Ernie gave him a half smile around the ties of his hoodie.
“Do you mind me bringing it up?” Harry asked, shifting on his arm so he could stroke Georgie. It felt like something that would make this more casual, so that maybe Ernie wouldn’t feel so looked at.
He shook his head. He tugged thoughtfully at the ties for a moment before finally pulling them out of his mouth and said, “Sorry I get shitty sometimes.”
“We all do,” Harry reassured.
“I just got scared.”
“Like… You leaving. I guess I’m just scared of letting people in nowadays. After...”
“Your mum and dad?”
Ernie twitched his mouth.
“I think that’s fair. It’s a shit thing to go through,” Harry added.
“Do you talk to Lou or Dot about it?”
“Um, yeah. We talk about my parents all the time, Louis always tells us he’s there but it’s hard you know? There’s some things that are too hard to say.”
“Yeah,” Harry quietly replied. “It is. But it’s good to let people in. I know for a fact that Louis feels the same as you sometimes.”
Harry hummed his yes. “He bottles things up.”
“Unlike last night,” Ernie mused with a wry grin.
“Bit of an explosion there, right.”
“From both of us to be fair. I was shit to him.”
“I won’t disagree,” Harry smirked.
It got a small smile out of him, “To be honest though, I don’t even mind that he yelled at me. Like, for once he’s not babying me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, he usually just lets me do what I want.”
“And that’s babying you?”
“Well, I mean, he’s not doing everything for me like a literal baby, but it feels like he’s scared he’s gonna upset me or something, so he just does nothing.”
“What do you want him to do?”
Ernie was quiet for a long thoughtful moment. “I guess… I don’t know… I should be able to do it myself, but, I guess, just talk to me. Like, Dot talks about this shit all the time, but she’s so focused on the future. She acts like we should all just move on.”
“What about Sarah, though? She collected all those print outs of her social media and is pretty obsessed with that.”
“That’s different though. Like, she wants answers so she can move on. It’s all about moving on . And finding justice and shit. Sometimes, I don’t know, I kind of just want to wallow in it for a while?”
“I get that.”
“Yeah, I mean. You need to let yourself feel, even when it’s unhappy emotions. It’s all a part of grief.”
“Does it get better in the end, though? Eventually? I don’t want to feel guilty forever.”
Harry didn’t know how to answer that.
He took a thoughtful breath. “I mean, I haven’t lost anyone like you have, but… I’ve seen some terrible things in my job. You either learn to put your feelings away or you let yourself go through them all. And in my experience, bottling them up doesn’t get rid of them. They just come back later.”
Ernie was quiet, eyes flickering as he thought to himself. Eventually, he finally paused the video and looked up at the ceiling. “You don’t think people can just eventually get over things?”
Ernie thought again. “I want to. But… I just want to get things out in the open but I can’t. Everyone would hate me if I did.”
“Why would they hate you?”
“Because… Because…” He seemed at a loss for words, “You just would.”
“I doubt that, Erns. Whatever you’re feeling or thinking, you’re not the only one.”
Ernie was silent so Harry added, voice quiet, gentle, “Louis has gone through everything you’ve gone through. I really think you should open up to him.”
“Trust me, he might be a hard egg to crack, but he’s a good listener. And he won’t judge you. And I’m always here too, if it’s easier. I know this is all new, but I know I’m not going anywhere. Even after I’m finished with Sarah’s story. We’re going to work something out. Okay?”
“Yeah,” Ernie sighed, “but where do you even begin...”
Harry thought for a moment, searching for something that would actually help, that would spark some sort of inspiration in Ernie. He couldn’t think of anything smart or knowledgeable, so he settled on the first thing that came to mind.”
“You just have to get the first word out and hope the rest will follow. It doesn’t matter where you start as long as you do.”
Ernie stared back up at the ceiling, his jaw tense. Then he let out a tiny breath and changed the subject. “Can I ask what actually happened with you and Louis in uni?”
Harry twisted his mouth in thought and then let out a musing breath of air. “Well he kind of covered it last night.”
“Yeah, but like. What’s the full story? How did you meet and everything? Why wouldn’t he tell you about mum and dad if you were going out? Why wouldn’t he tell us who you were when you first visited?”
Harry thought for a moment, calculating how best to explain to Ernie the very questions he’d had on his own mind. “Well, I think it comes back to what you were saying earlier. It’s really fucking hard to let people in, and Louis went through something terrible and confusing at a young age. I mean, you all did, but he had to come back and learn how to take care of the farm and parent you guys. It’s hard to predict how someone handles that. I can’t say why he didn’t explain who I was when I first came by, maybe he was worried about having to explain how we broke up.”
“That is so shit of him. I’m sorry.”
Harry chuckled morosely. “It’s fine now. We did manage to talk that through.”
“I don’t know if I could forgive someone for that.”
“I guess I’m a bit of a push over,” Harry grinned. “But it’s also that actually talking about things can heal so much. I really don’t think he’s that person anymore.”
“I should fucking hope, man,” Ernie pushed some of his fringe under his hood. “But yeah, what happened before all that? How did you first meet and everything?”
Harry smiled as he recalled it all. He kept it as G-rated as he could, explaining the party and the beach and their trips to his family’s bach. He made it sound exactly how he remembered it, tinted gold and warm. In his mind, the memories were the colour of Louis’ sun soaked skin, they were the flash of his shoulders in sunlight and the glisten of his lips. But he described them as pinky fingers lingering together and the fluttering of Louis’ eye lashes, and everything that Harry adored that was sweet between them. It was a summer of floating in water and hoping the world would never change.
It felt cheesy, almost embarrassing, to be describing their relationship to Louis’ little brother, but Ernie had a soft smile on his face. He’d shut his eyes so he could listen intently.
“Could you take us there?” Ernie eventually asked. “To your bach?”
Even though he and Louis hadn’t discussed their after , Harry still said, “Of course. You’ll love it.”
Harry couldn’t help but once again hope the world would never change. Even if that meant something completely different now.
They had four days until Saturday. That was four days until Harry’s life would surely change again. He could count on just one of Louis’ hands how long he had left for the world to stand still. For him to live in a snowglobe.
Tuesday was his thumb, it was Louis wiping the corner of Harry’s smile. He’d gotten up while it was still pitch black out to make everyone a proper breakfast, pancakes, and Louis had sleepily caught the single bead of honey on his lip and then sucked it into his own mouth.
“I love you,” Louis whispered, eyes puffed with sleep.
Wednesday was the forefinger Louis pushed into Harry’s mouth at close to midnight. It was the fixation in his eyes as he watched Harry swirl his tongue around it, and the glint of dare when he pushed his lips right up to the knuckle. Harry smirked at him, and then pulled off with a pop and pushed Louis’ hand down past his stomach.
“I love you,” Harry whispered, giving himself away.
Thursday was Louis’ middle finger, the finger he flashed when Harry was too cheeky, and when Harry was too competitive, and he got that middle finger at least four times that day. They were playing football out in the melting snow and Harry couldn’t help but notice that Louis was melting too. His eyes glistened, they were round pools of pure blue. And they shone every time Louis laughed, bellowed, as he tackled Harry to the muddy ground.
The fifth middle finger came when they were walking back to the house, cold and wet and red, but it wasn’t directed to Harry. This one went out towards the road, towards the police car that had just driven past a little too slowly. Louis had waited for it to go a little way down the road and then he gave Harry an impish look and said, “For that lovely wanker that’s going down.”
“I love you,” Harry grinned as he rolled his eyes and pulled Louis into his side.
Friday was waking up with Louis tucked into his side, his hand on Harry’s stomach. It was accidentally sleeping in until the sun came up, and it was Harry playing with Louis’ ring finger as sun rays streamed down on where a ring would have fit. Harry imagined the twinkle of gold in morning sunlight and wondered if, had they never broken up, they would have been married by now.
Going by the way he suddenly felt so much more alive than in any time, and in any relationship, during those six years, he would have. This was right. This was perfect. This was Harry’s perfect snowglobe, and he would give anything to keep it, to have it for the next six years and every year after that.
Which might have been crazy to say because this was new, and there was no way to know where six years together would have actually taken them, but they’d said I love you every chance they could since they’d reunited. It was crazy, but it was right.
Everything had been right in those four days, and they’d reminded Harry that Louis was so much more than the secrets he held so closely. He was quietly caring and craving and competitive and mischievous. He was so much more than a walking tragedy, and it wasn’t Harry’s job to lull Louis’ secrets out before he could give them away. He’d contemplated suggesting that Louis try to write it all down like Ernie but he wasn’t the subject of one of Harry’s interviews, he wasn’t some human interest story. Instead of wanting everything out in the air for Harry’s own comfort and some notion of Louis’ personal growth, he also wanted to just be a good partner. Sometimes that means keeping yourself in the dark for the comfort of someone else. Sometimes it’s saying I’ll be okay not knowing and not adding a yet.
So in those four days Harry told Louis about Ernie’s note and about Liam’s phone call and he’d been as honest as he could himself. He’d told Louis about what he wanted to do after all this, how he truthfully wanted to stay. Or go, if Louis went to. All he wanted was to be where Louis was, and he could write fluff and opinion pieces for a while and that, honestly, it was nice to be taking a break from writing altogether for now. He told him all of this to show Louis that he was honest and that he was committed and that one day, when he was ready, he would feel comfortable to talk to Harry and not just obliged.
Harry lay in bed swirling circles around Louis’ ring finger until he finally started to wake. When he did, Louis balled his hands up into fists and stretched against Harry’s ribs.
“I love you,” Harry smiled, brushing hair from Louis’ forehead so he could softly kiss the spot above his brow.
He wondered what Saturday would bring and how his day would be marked by Louis’ pinky. The very last finger on his hand.
He wouldn’t get a chance, though. Everything changed when Dot came home.
It was 4.36pm, Harry had just finished his shift at the cafe. He was sat on the floor in front of the couch and Louis was behind him, a leg on either side, with his fingers rubbing calming circles against his scalp. A Louis Theroux documentary was on the TV. Marijuana smoke wafted up towards the open window. Outside, the sun was still high. The sky was still blue.
Harry let Louis’ fingers spin tingles up his spine, the feeling warm and intense in the smoke leaving his lips. He let his head fall back and lay in Louis’ lap, let his eyes drift up to the ceiling. There was a speck just to the left of the lightshade glinting in the afternoon sun. It was vaguely white-pink and shone like a stray piece of glitter.
Harry kept his eyes lazily focused on it, a bright spark that punctuated the rising feeling in his head.
“What are you thinking?” Louis asked, looking down at him. His face was upside down and distorted by the way the sun hit the side of him. But he looked as happy, as peaceful, as Harry felt. His eyes sparkled.
Harry hummed to himself, letting his thoughts unwind and drift to the front of his mind. He’d been thinking of something before, just before he took a hit and let the shine of glitter and Louis’ eyes take over.
“I was thinking,” Harry started, mouth in a lazy grin as he moved his hands to wrap around Louis’ ankles. His leg hair felt like it was fizzy under Harry’s palms. “What do you want to do once you finish uni?”
“After uni?” Louis mused, twisting his lips in thought and letting his fingers wander to the sides of Harry’s neck, just below his ears. “I think I’ll do some teaching placements until I get a full time job, and then I’d like to travel in a few years. Do the big Europe trip everyone does and all that. I don’t know about moving overseas though, I want the security of being near home, so I can visit my family and that sort of thing. What about you?”
Harry hummed to himself, again. He hummed a lot when he got high, when the weed in his lungs made him feel like he was expanding and rising and tingling. It made his thoughts feel fluffy and far away, like cumulus clouds on a summer’s day. Louis had offered it to him when he’d gotten home from work with sore feet and a pinching headache in his brow. It had been a long, hot shift. The sound of clinking cups and cutlery and crying babies had gotten the most of him and had him coming home just wanting quiet and peace and the comfort of Louis’ fingers on his skin.
“I’m not sure,” Harry eventually answered. Truth be told, he hadn’t thought too much about what he wanted after university. He wanted to work and he wanted to travel, and maybe work while he traveled, but he wasn’t too fussed on what order that happened. “I’d like to go overseas one day but I’m really content right now. I don’t mind staying.”
“Do you want to stay in Auckland?” Louis asked. His right hand left Harry’s skin as he reached for their joint and took a puff. Harry watched the smoke leave his lips, and it made him want to be closer to Louis. It made him want to sit in Louis’ lap and feel that breath against his neck. He wanted his entire body to shiver under Louis’ breath.
“I don’t know,” Harry replied honestly as he slowly shifted his weight and turned so he was facing Louis head on, resting his head on Louis’ knee. “Auckland makes me think of you now. Whenever we go places, we have memories there. I go to the beach and think of the time we slept there when we first met, I go to the supermarket and think of the time you made us go at 11 o’clock at night just so you could buy the feijoas you were craving. Whenever I walk past the park down the road, I think of the time we went on the swings for an hour after Josh’s party. I can’t even look at that window without thinking of the first time I said I love you. So I don’t know, I don’t know if it’s Auckland I love or just you.”
Louis bit his lip and Harry relished the pink in his cheeks.
“If we’re still together then, which I can’t see why not, I would be happy to stay in New Zealand and work for a bit until you want to travel,” Harry added.
“You’d do that?” Louis softly asked. He sounded sincere and it made it feel like his hands were still tickling up Harry’s spine.
“Why not? If we’re together in a year, why not a year after that? And then years after that?”
“You’re head over heels, aren’t you?” Louis smiled. The twinkle in his eyes said he was too.
And then he shifted again, his body slow and lethargic, but so so warm in the summer air and the clouds floating in his lungs. He crawled up onto the couch and into the clutch of Louis’ lap. He put his knees either side of Louis’ waist and his lips to Louis’ jaw because fuck it, he was happy and no one else was home to see.
He kissed the edge of Louis’ jawline so his lip caught the underside. He tasted like earth and kindling, and it started a fire in Harry’s chest. When he pulled away, slowly, softly, to look Louis in the eyes, Harry whispered, “Of course I’m head over heels, it’s only been a few months but I know that I feel complete when I’m with you.”
Louis smiled up at him, blinking his eyes happily as Harry put his fingers in the hairs at the back of his head.
Harry grazed Louis’ bottom lip with his teeth and added, “I’ll stay wherever you are, and we can work here for a while if that’s what you want.”
“You’d be happy staying in New Zealand?”
“If it’s with you.”
“I’d like that,” Louis whispered.
And then Louis kissed Harry, and Harry kissed Louis. And it tasted like nectarines, sweet and wet and dripping from their chins.
The following chapters discuss and depict issues that may be distressing. Please refer to the work's description for a full list of tags.
She was so excited, bounding through the front door and quite literally screaming in excitement.
“Lou! Harry!” Dot yelled down the hallway, stumbling out of her boots as she kicked them out to bounce off one of the walls.
Harry lifted his head towards the living room doorway from where he’d been making bread from scratch. Louis was sitting on the bench next to him, fiddling with the music they were listening to on his phone. They’d spent the afternoon free together, lazing about on the couch and eventually mustering up the courage to go grocery shopping so Harry could show him an easy focaccia recipe.
“It smells so good in here,” Dot beamed as she almost leaped through the doorway, throwing herself against the back of one of the couches. “But that’s not what’s important!”
Ernie pottered in after her and leaned against the door frame. His nose was a bit scrunched up. He clearly wanted to look more annoyed than he was, Harry could see the grin pulling at the edges of his mouth.
“What is it?” Harry drawled happily, like he was about to get some gossip.
“Well,” Dot gripped the back of the couch and swung out dramatically. “I got 95% on my math test.”
“95?” Harry asked, impressed. “This is the test you didn’t want to study for?”
Dot shrugged like it was no big deal, and of course it wasn’t. Of course she was that kid that got good marks without trying.
“Maybe, but that’s not even the best thing.”
“And what’s that?” Louis asked, looking over as he shook his hair out with a grin.
She sucked her cheeks in and let her eyes go wide, like she would burst as soon as she breathed out. When she finally got it out her voice was strangled with excitement, “We can see the southern lights tonight! There’s going to be a fucking aurora!”
She threw her top half over the back of the couch and Harry couldn’t help but giggle at her excitement. She lived her life so loudly, and it was infectious.
“Do you want to go then?” Louis asked, “I haven’t seen one in like ten years.”
“Yes!” Dot grinned, “Mr. Randall said we should watch it from the observatory near the training camp! Can we go there? Pleeease?”
“Hell fucking yeah,” Louis laughed, too excited to care about any of the profanities being thrown around.
Dot threw her arms up in the air and then bolted from the room, calling as she went, “I’m gonna message Tessa! Let’s be there by seven! It’s meant to start at like eight!”
“Why does she need to go so early?” Louis asked Ernie, who was still leaning in the doorway.
He shrugged his shoulders and guessed, “To make sure we don’t miss it? You know her.”
They arrived at 6.51pm. Dot was almost vibrating in her seat.
They’d driven to Niall’s pub so they could grab some pizza to eat in the car while they waited. Louis had offered to sit in the pub until it started so they could keep extra warm but Dot was not having it, she was adamant that they were going to drive to the observatory on the northwest side of the lake next to the military training camp, where they’d meet Tessa’s family, and they were not going to miss anything.
It wasn’t a bad thing that she’d made them go so early though, the hillside was covered in bright yellow dots. Headlights. Cars filled the nearest field like a swarm of glow bugs. They took the first available space, in the very far corner, and Harry promptly flipped open the pizza boxes for everyone.
Dot didn’t wait.
She jumped out of the car as soon as Louis pulled the handbrake. Harry could only see her phone lighting up her face as she clearly looked around for Tessa. The three of them stayed in the car and ate as they watched her eventually find her friend, the two of them hugging and then racing back to Louis’ car. Dot jumped in first and took up the middle seat, rubbing her hands together as Tessa pulled the door shut.
“Fucking cold out there,” she commented as she took a pizza box and offered a slice to Tessa.
“There’s some blankets in the boot,” Louis offered around his mouthful of pizza.
Dot leaned over and yanked out two blankets, securing one around herself and Tessa and handing Harry the other just in case. He pushed it to the floor between his legs.
“Have you seen an aurora before?” Tessa asked Harry as he sat back up.
Harry shook his head, “Not in person.”
“They’re amazing,” she smiled back, and then that was that. Louis switched on the radio and they talked while they waited. Dot talked to Tessa, the two of them huddled right in the corner over their phones, and Harry talked to Louis. They talked about how it seemed like half the population had shown up to get a good view, and how it seemed like Harry was no longer the talk of the town. They hadn’t exactly hidden their new relationship, but it was the first time they were out in public as a family , and that the thought of getting out of the car made Harry’s heart spark a little.
“Excitement or nerves?” Louis asked over a smile.
Harry hummed as he thought, the sound of Two Door Cinema Club bouncing in the background. “Contentness.”
“Is that even a word?” Ernie dropped in, at some point he’d leant forwards onto the shoulder of Harry’s seat.
“It is now!” Harry chuckled. “I’ve made it official.”
“Officially embarrassing,” Ernie cheekily added.
“Officially cute,” Louis interjected with an overly sweet smile. Ernie rolled his eyes.
“But yeah,” Harry continued, “If I have to choose one, it’s excited.”
“Good,” Louis said with one single nod.
Harry was about to, for all of Ernie’s disdain, reach out for Louis’ hand to give it a squeeze but there was movement outside. People were getting out of their cars, flicking on their phone lights as they went. They were walking towards the front of the field that overhung the small forest at the edge of the lake. There were already small groups of people sitting there, swathed in jackets and blankets, occasionally fiddling with the cameras they had on tripods.
“Is it happening?” Harry breathed, looking up to the sky. There wasn’t any anything that immediately stood out, no glowing streaks of colour, but the clear sky was perhaps a little lighter in the south.
There wasn’t any point in asking, Tessa and Dot were already bolting from the car. Ernie was already getting out too. All Harry could do was give Louis a breathy, excited smile, and let himself be quickly kissed as Louis pulled him in.
“Let’s go, baby,” Louis whispered, eyes twinkling in the bouncing of flashlights outside.
Harry grabbed the blanket at his feet and jumped out of the car, cold air biting at his cheeks, swirling down his neck. He could have swore if he weren’t surrounded by families. There were a few he recognised from his rounds of interviews. None of them looked particularly shocked to see him there, though they did give him a few curious glances.
Their faces didn’t change when Louis made his way around the car and tucked his hand up the back of his jacket to sit against the small of his back. His hands were, thankfully, still warm. Harry caught the eye of one mum, small and dark haired, and she gave the faintest smile as she looked away. It was a look that said it all, this was merely the confirmation of what she’d already heard. News travels quick in a small town.
They walked together towards the growing crowd, Ernie, Dot and Tessa already lost in it. As they got closer, Harry could feel more eyes glance at him, at the other hand Louis had brought to his bicep, holding on like he was going to get lost in the dark.
The ground was uneven, marred by tiny holes that probably led to rabbit burrows, and Harry tripped on the first one his foot found. He caught himself as Louis quickly tightened his grip on him. They smiled at each other, they couldn’t help it.
The sky was brightening beyond the twinkling lights of the township that the hill looked over. Very faintly, Harry was beginning to see purple embers. Louis led them further into the crowd and then out the other side, so they were right near the dip of the hill that tumbled down towards trees, and beyond that, the perfectly still lake. The moon, high and half-full, made it shine, glassy and black.
“Look,” Louis quietly said, barely audible over the excited chatter around them. People had started to switch off their phone torches, favouring their cameras instead.
The sky was starting to swirl, so slowly he wouldn’t see it if he blinked. The purple was slightly brighter.
And the air was slightly colder. Louis’ hand wasn’t quite so warm against his back. His arm was letting cold air prick Harry’s spine.
Harry tore his eyes away from the sky so he could unravel their blanket, throw it around their shoulders. Louis took it gratefully, clutching it around to his chest with the hand he’d just pulled down a sleeve to cover. Harry pulled it in tightly so they were huddled together, his right arm making its way over Louis’ shoulders, Louis’ left arm making its way around Harry’s back.
When they were warm enough, entirely wrapped up in each other, Harry looked back to the sky. The purple was stronger, brighter now. It was tinged with pink. And now there was a green glow starting to peek out at the very bottom. It was like the sky was painted into a sunset, streaky and glowing, but the colours were all strange. They were dazzling, the distant sky a flaming glow.
Slowly, all the colours started to move, they started to shift and glimmer as though time had slowed down. The people in front of them seemed to have auras, black silhouettes aglow with chartreuse and magenta. The colours were so much brighter now in this fairy light horizon. Harry couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t the rippling tiger stripes he’d expected from pictures of the northern lights, but it was gorgeous. It was perfect.
He needed to see Louis’ face.
He glanced over and Louis was smiling stupidly too. His face was wide open, his eyes glassy and colourful, and he was close enough to kiss. And Harry needed to kiss him because he was the only thing more beautiful than that sky.
He left a peck against his temple and whispered the only thing he could manage, “I love you.”
“I love you too, baby,” Louis whispered back, the corner of his smile pulling wider as he said it. He didn’t take his eyes away from the faraway mountains below the lights, but Harry didn’t mind. He liked seeing the way Louis’ eyes glowed. There was something so carefree in his smile.
Harry would paint the sky himself if it meant Louis kept that look on his face.
Louis moved so he was standing right in front of Harry, close enough for Harry to hug him and rest his chin on his head.
There was a sharp laugh to Harry’s right. He couldn’t help but glance at the sound, finding himself looking at a group of boys standing together. They couldn’t have been any older than twenty. They weren’t looking at Harry, obviously only laughing at something one of them had said, but one of them must have felt Harry’s eyes on them. He looked over, and something flashed in his eyes.
His laughter lulled, and he held Harry’s eyes.
The kid was smooth faced, had prominent cheekbones and a strong, biting jaw line. His black hair was buzzed short, but had it been any longer, Harry would have considered him a bit of a looker.
He didn’t look away from Harry. In fact, his eyes narrowed. The kid was lithe, nowhere near as bulky as his friends. Less red blooded.
Which made Harry’s blood cool.
Because Harry suddenly recognised him. It had taken him a moment because he wasn’t in uniform. He didn’t have a hat.
It was Greg Russell’s son.
Harry quickly looked back to the aurora in the sky, and wondered where Ernie and the others were. If Greg’s son was here, it was just as possible that Greg was too.
But that wasn’t the only thing Harry could think about it.
Out of military uniform, Ben was exactly the kind of kid Harry would have had a crush on in school. There was as much softness in his eyes as there was darkness. He looked like the kind of kid that chose smoking joints behind school sheds instead of shotgunning beers in the weekend.
He looked like the kind of kid that girls fell for.
Sarah might have been one of them.
No sooner than Harry moved his lip to whisper in Louis’ ear, Ernie popped up behind them. He was cold apparently, asking if he could go back to the car. He’d seen enough.
Harry had too.
“Here, you have the blanket,” Louis offered, pulling it off from Harry’s back so Ernie could take it. He, apparently, was the only one left who was content to stay staring at the sky. A few people in the crowd, mostly those with already bored young kids, had already started to leave.
Ernie seemed to hover, but he didn’t question it. Instead, he halfheartedly put the blanket around him and huddled next to the two of them. Harry kept his arms around Louis. In his mind he told himself it was for warmth, but in his heart he knew it was for protection.
“Babe,” Harry whispered, rubbing Louis’ arms gently. “Let’s go before you get sick out here.”
Louis had started to shiver so it didn’t take much persuading. He quickly pulled out his phone to take just one picture of the sky and then let Harry and Ernie drag him away to the car.
They texted Dot come back when she was done, which she wasn’t, so the three of them sat with the heater on blast until finally Dot came trudging over.
She thanked them for waiting and Louis said it was no big deal, and then they drove home. Louis kept the radio quiet, it seemed fitting for the half hour drive back to the house. It was strange to under the purple green sky, everything was a little lighter, a little less like they were in the cover of darkness. Streetlights through the town centre didn’t glow so brightly. Louis drove slowly and Harry assumed it was so they could look for as long as possible.
When they got home, no one seemed particularly fussed to stay up and watch TV. Nothing they could have watched would really compare to what they’d just seen, so they all just wandered off to bed.
As Harry shut their bedroom door behind them and started to peel off his layers, he tried to keep his mind from thinking about Ben. He tried to keep the weight of Ben’s eyes off his shoulders.
Louis pulled the curtains and for once, Harry was thankful he never did it all the way. Even though they were no longer high enough to see the southern lights in the distance, they could still see the soft glow of purple beyond the mountains. It gave him something to look at as they crawled into bed. It was harder to let himself tailspin into panic with something tethering him to reality. It was harder to think about what had gone on with Sarah and Greg and presumably, instinctually Ben.
With Louis tucked under his arm, Harry watched the sky shimmer until he fell into an uneasy sleep.
They were meant to go and buy more feed that morning. They had maybe three days worth left. But they never made it.
Louis had woken up in a pleasant state, cuddly and warm, and he’d been full of kisses as Harry slowly rolled out of bed. And he’d had a song humming along under his breath as he helped Harry make everyone eggs for breakfast. He’d even taken to knocking on Dot and Ernie’s doors with a plate in each hand so they could eat something decent.
“You’re in a good mood,” Harry commented when Louis came to sit down at the table next to him with a complimentary kiss on the forehead, a ruffle of his hair.
“I guess I just had the best sleep I’ve had in a long while.”
“Must be the hot water bottle you’ve invited into your bed,” Harry winked as he scooped up a mouthful of yolk.
“At least you’re useful for something,” Louis beamed. “That and all this food we’re suddenly eating. I feel like a prince.”
“Well if you’re asking me, you are one,” Harry grinned with a playful wink. “At least as far as requesting the royal treatment in bed goes.”
Louis scrunched up his nose but he was still smiling. He only managed to get rid of it by asking Harry how he had slept.
“Alright,” Harry said. “Not as good as you did.”
“Well that’s a bit shit.”
“A bit, but I’ll live.”
When they finished, Louis pulled on his jacket and boots and plucked his car keys from the hook by the door. Harry couldn’t find his beanie, and he didn’t want to go out in the cold without it if he could help it, so he scoured the entire bedroom, jacket and boots already on, in case he’d somehow thrown it under the bed or into the wardrobe.
He wasn’t having any luck. It wasn’t even in one of the dresser drawers that Louis never opened.
A thought flashed through his mind, it was probably still in the car from the night before. So he pushed the clothes he’d just been muddling through back into the wardrobe and made his way to the front door.
Louis opened it before he got there.
He was storming through it. Into the hallway.
There were tears in his eyes.
His nostrils were flared.
“What is it?” Harry asked, jumping forwards so he could wrap his arms around him. He needed to catch him, it looked like he was about to trip over his quivering lip.
Louis pushed past him.
Harry’s arm hung in midair.
“Lou? Babe?” Harry asked as Louis almost bolted down the hallway towards the living area. “What happened?”
A moment later and Louis was walking back. His tears were fully formed now. He was wiping them away with his sleeve as he stumbled back down the hallway towards the front door. There was a rag and spray bottle in his hand.
“Lou?” Harry tried again, but he was gone out the front door.
Everything after that happened too quickly.
Harry needed to find out what had happened, why Louis had cleaning supplies and why he was crying . He ran to the door and swung it open, throwing himself through it. Cold air whipped him in the face, but he didn’t notice. He was only focused on finding Louis, because he wasn’t here either. The ute was still in its spot just a little to the right, but the driver’s door was wide open. The lights were on, and the car’s warning system was ringing.
Harry immediately went over and pushed the door shut so the sound would stop. He slammed it a little too hard and the sound made him jump. At some point his body had gotten right on edge, blood was thrumming through his ears. He couldn’t feel anything but the panic in his veins. His feet didn’t know how to move.
Harry spun around trying to find where Louis had gone. He needed to find him. He needed to know that he was okay, he needed to let Louis know that he didn’t need to cry, he didn’t need to storm through the house in a tearful panic. Even though Harry was quickly finding himself in exactly the same state.
“Lou—?” Harry called again, his voice catching sharply in his throat this time.
The air was eerily quiet as soon as he swallowed the rest of Louis’ name and that’s when he heard the quiet choking sound.
It was coming from around the side of the house, just out of view from the driver’s door.
Harry bolted towards it, towards Louis.
He saw Louis immediately as he turned the corner, he was scrubbing the wall profusely. Both of his hands were clenched around the rag as he dragged it up and down against the side of the house.
“What is it?” Harry cried as he came around further. “Wha—"
Harry stopped in his tracks.
The entire side of the house was marked in black spray paint. Vulgar words and pictures stared down at them, but Harry couldn’t take any of it in. He could only see the sentence that Louis was trying so desperately to destroy.
Louis Tomlinson’s parents killed themselves because they adopted a snitching faggot
Out of all the words, Louis was scrubbing away at the one in the middle. The least offensive one. Adopted .
It was such an innocuous word, nothing to be ashamed of, but he was scrubbing with such force that it clearly wasn’t just a word on a wall that he was trying to erase.
Harry didn’t have time to even think about it. His feet were moving without him realising, his arms were crushing Louis’ frame.
Louis wouldn’t fall into his hug. His sobs only grew stronger as he scrubbed fiercely at the paint. Harry tried as best as he could to find perch against Louis’ shoulders, but he couldn’t. Louis was somewhere else entirely.
“Babe, babe,” Harry tried, frantically stroking hair from Louis’ face so that he might look at him. “Stop, I’m right here.”
Louis made another choking sound, spit flying from his mouth as he heaved out a violent sob, and then finally, finally, his hands started to slow. He started to get out a mangled, “Sorry. Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
He collapsed against his arms above his face, leaning against the wall, and started crying into the sleeves of his jacket. Harry could only do his best, he could only rest an arm around Louis’ shoulders and rest his head against his back.
“I’m here, baby,” Harry whispered. He hadn’t tried to, but it came out stronger than he’d ever sounded before. He sounded determined. It didn’t feel like his own voice. “I love you.”
Louis just kept his face against his sleeves as his rag fell to the floor and he heaved up more tears.
Something needed to be done. And quickly. If Ben or Greg or someone else entirely had done this, it was a treat. There was a window just to their left so Harry banged on it, not knowing who’s bedroom would be on the other side. His knuckles struck it so hard they could have bled, could have smashed it.
Dot came immediately to the window, her eyebrows tight in confusion. She didn’t have time to even ask what was going on, as soon as she got the window a crack open, Harry shouted, “Call the pol— Call Liam.”
She disappeared back inside, the window left to swing openly in the wind. He could hear banging doors and muffled talking inside, and suddenly Ernie was running around the corner outside Harry had just come around. He skidded to a stop when he saw everything written across the side of the wall and got a strange look on his face. His brow crumpled and his mouth curled and suddenly he was almost crying too.
“Louis,” Ernie managed between quivering breathes. “Louis?”
Louis sniffed and tried to stifle his own sobs.
“Louis,” Ernie repeated, voice cracking on every syllable. “Don’t call the police. Please. I—" He stumbled backwards— “Louis, I don’t. I don’t know what to do. Fuck . Not the police. Not Liam.”
And then he was running back into the house.
Louis was running after him.
Harry ran after Louis.
It was strange to see Louis’ entire demeanor change so suddenly, so drastically. One minute he was in a heap against a wall, completely unresponsive, and the next he was tearing through the house to his little brother.
“Ern!” Louis shouted, voice breaking as he ripped through the front door.
Ernie was up ahead at the end of the hallway. He was hurtling into the living room, straight towards Dot who was frantically talking into the landline phone.
“Get off!” Ernie cried, trying to tear the phone from her ear. He was like an animal, equally scared as he was ferocious. He yanked at the receiver in her hand and shoved Dot into the wall when she wouldn’t give up.
“Liam, come!” Dot managed as she fearfully dodged away from Ernie. She turned her voice to him and spat, “Fuck off! What the fuck .”
“Hang up! Please!” Ernie cried back, aiming his claws at the base hanging from the wall instead.
Louis tried to stop him, tried to get his hands around his shoulders, but Dot only got one last now out before Ernie ripped it away from the wall.
“Ern!” Louis yelled as Ernie came away with it in his hand. Dot dropped the receiver in shock and it hit the ground with a crack.
There was a split second that felt like an hour where Ernie’s chest was heaving in deep, bent up breaths, like a cornered dog, and then his shoulders fell. And the phone fell too. And then he fell to the floor with a curdled sob and burst into tears. He curled up into himself, covering his face with his hands so no one could see or hear his bawling.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he managed as Louis fell to his knees next to him and hugged him. Louis and Ernie were so similar. This is what Harry must have looked like with him outside.
Dot didn’t know what to do with herself. She nursed the skin on her shoulder, Ernie had torn a hole in her T-shirt sleeve. She seemed just as torn, wanting to comfort her family but actually being scared of her brother.
So Harry went to her, because she needed comfort too, and it was the only thing he felt like he could do. She didn’t cry when Harry put his arms around her, but she did fall heavily into his arms. He could feel the rigid shock in her shoulders.
Time didn’t quite feel real, Harry couldn’t tell if it was moving too slowly or too quickly, but they stayed frozen together until Ernie’s sobs had slowed. Until Liam was trepidatiously walking through their open front door.
He found them all in the same spots they’d fallen into minutes, hours, milliseconds earlier. His eyes were wide, shifting around at the confusing scene around him. The boys on the floor, the broken phone next to them, Harry and Dot crumpled against the wall.
“What’s— What’s happened?” He eventually managed, coming down to place a careful hand to Louis’ back.
Louis could only give him a strangled look as he stammered over his words, “It’s— It’s outside.”
Harry gave Dot a gentle squeeze before he lifted away. Everyone in this house needed someone to care for them, to say the words that they clearly couldn’t. “There’s shit spray painted all over the side of the house. I think it was Greg’s son Ben, I saw him last night at the—"
“You saw him?” Ernie interjected, sitting up. His eyes flickered from side to side in thought and then his nostrils started to flare up again and he swore, “I’m fucking dead. I’m so fucking dead. Fuck.”
“What do you mean? Where did you see him last night?” Liam asked, trying his best to keep up.
Ernie just replied with, “It’s all my fucking fault, and now it’s over. And I’m fucking dead .”
“Why? What happened Ernie?” Louis asked. He sounded more fearful, more wary, than any inkling of caring he was trying to muster.
Ernie stood suddenly and paced in circles, wringing his hands out, voice frantically blabbering under his breath. It was actually a little scary to see this skinny fourteen year old boy like this, so caught up, so unstable. Harry didn’t know if he was going to lash out again or fall down in tears. He could only watch with bated breath.
“I— We— We need to leave. We need— We’re fucked.”
“Ernie!” Dot cut in, finally finding her footing again. “What the fuck happened? Just fucking tell us.”
Ernie froze mid step and looked at her with glassy eyes. “I— I don’t know how.”
His lip started to quiver as he repeated, “I don’t know how. I’m sorry.”
He sucked in his bottom lip to stop himself from crying again. “I…”
His eyes went to every single person in the room. When they landed on Harry, he could see how swollen Ernie’s eyes were, how his fringe was damp at the tips and starting to mat against his brow. He saw the fear in his eyes that looked exactly the same as in Louis’.
He just needed someone to help him.
Harry stepped towards Ernie and clasped his shoulder.
“Ernie,” he whispered. “If we’re going to fix this, you need to talk. It’s the only way forward.”
Liam jumped in with, “We just need your help to understand.”
He was quiet for a moment before he chokingly whispered, “I don’t know how… I don’t know how to even start. I’m just going to make it worse.”
“Hey. Remember what we talked about the other day?”
Ernie shakily exhaled. “Yeah, I think...”
“About how it doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you do.”
Ernie mulled over those words for a long moment, his throat bobbing as he tentatively swallowed. He let out a shaky breath and asked, “Promise you won’t hate me?”
“Promise you won’t leave?”
He turned to Liam and admitted, “I don’t want to go to jail.”
Liam looked at him quietly confused and said, “I don’t want you to either.”
Ernie breathed hollowly and looked down at the fists that had formed in his hands. Slowly, he made his way to the couches and sat down so his head was rested on his knees. He waited in silence as the rest of them made their way over and carefully sat down. Louis sat next to him and softly said, “You can do it.”
Something shifted in Harry to hear him say that.
It must has shifted in Ernie too because he finally gave a solemn smile and let out a shaky breath.
He started with, “She’s dead.”
The following chapters discuss and depict issues that may be distressing. Please refer to the work's description for a full list of tags.
It was a full moon. It was a bright round light in the night sky. Around it, stars twinkled. There wasn’t any wind. There never was here.
Everything was still. The lake was blacker than the sky and the moon was a perfect orb floating in it.
Sarah was biting her nail. She always did this when something was on her mind.
She was in the driver’s seat, staring out at the water. The moon reflected in her eyes. It made them shine.
But they always shone.
“What is it?” Ernie asked. He was on the passenger side, fingers deep in a chip bag trying to find any crumbs that he might have missed.
Sarah didn’t respond, but that was like her. It was how he knew that they were close. She was always so loud, so quick with other people. Her quiet was reserved only for him.
Ernie looked up to her face, to see where she was looking.
They were staring at the distant lights of the township, a twinkling orange light in the shadow of night.
“Are you worried about what they’re going to think?” he asked. It wasn’t the first time he’d asked it.
He always got the same answer.
“No,” she muttered. “I don’t care about any of them.”
“You never have,” he replied.
It was quiet between them again. Somewhere outside the car a morepork quietly hooted. If he didn’t know this place so well, if this wasn’t their spot at the water’s edge, it would have been eerie. But it wasn’t. This was the place that they always went together when Sarah woke Ernie with a text and he quietly snuck out through his window. This was the place they’d been going to since Sarah had learned to drive. Before that, their spot was in her dad’s shearing shed. And before that, in the summer that Ernie’s parents died, it was at the furthest fence post between their properties. That was the place that Sarah had found him in a puddle of tears, and he’d told her the worst news of his life. That was the place that Sarah decided Ernie was a lot like her, that he would know what it was like to live without a parent.
They became secret confidants that day.
Even now, after their spot had moved so far from home, they still were.
It was a friendship born out of tragedy. It was a friendship born out of the fact that Ernie needed someone to talk to that wasn’t a family member, wasn’t someone with the same tear stained cheeks as him.
Sarah got out of the car.
She walked down to the pebbles at the water’s edge and picked one up. Ernie sat and watched her as she threw it into the lake. Smooth ripples broke the water’s edge, breaking the perfect flat. And that was so like her, beneath her perfect exterior, her good grades and her blonde hair, she was always breaking things. Breaking rules. Breaking his heart.
Sarah was the first person Ernie smoked weed with. He was twelve, and he felt self conscious about it. He knew Louis would probably recognise the smell, and he’d disapprove because Ernie was always the youngest. But he liked it. So they smoked a lot together. It made them feel older. That was something they’d both always wanted. Sarah wanted to be older so she could leave. Ernie wanted to be older so people would stop treating him like a kid. Everyone always looked at him with such pity even though it had been five years by now.
Smoking wasn’t the only rule that Sarah broke.
Ernie got out of the car and walked over to her. It was freezing. Blatantly too cold for Sarah to be picking up wet rocks with bare hands. He wanted to tell her to be careful, she shouldn’t let herself get too cold anymore. Not in her condition. But he settled on shoving his own hands in his pockets and sitting down on a log not far behind her. She never liked to be told what to do.
He winced as he sat down, the cold went straight through his trousers. He shook his legs up and down to keep himself warm.
Sarah just kept throwing rocks.
Eventually Ernie brought up the thing that he knew was on her mind. It had been on her mind all week. They’d driven out here every night, five days in a row, to talk about it. The lack of sleep was starting to catch up on him.
“I can come with you still, if you want.”
Sarah threw a rock. It dolloped in the water. Then she spun around, long hair flowing out behind her, and said, “I think I might keep it.”
Ernie tilted his head, confused. “I thought you didn’t want to?”
Sarah picked up another stone. “I don’t.”
“But I was thinking I could help someone else, I don’t know, Like—" She threw the rock and then came over to sit down next to him— “Someone like Lou would want it.”
“Like Lou?” Ernie asked incredulously.
“Someone gay, or, I don’t know. Think of all the people that can’t get pregnant. At least then it would have parents that loved it. You guys did.”
“Your dad loves you.”
“You know what I mean, imagine a world without parents like yours. I always wished they were my parents when we were kids.”
“Until they died.”
“You still have Louis.”
“I guess… But what if no one adopts it, what if it ends up like Louis did? You know how that fucked him up.”
“Yeah, but I looked into it this morning, and apparently babies go really quickly. There’s like a massive line for them and I get to choose who it goes to. It’d be like you.”
“I wasn’t a baby.”
“You were fucking two, Erns, and you got new parents as soon as your birth mum died.”
Ernie sighed and then said, “So that’s it? You’d just adopt it out?”
Sarah shrugged and looked at her feet. “I mean, why not?”
“And you don’t care that everyone would know you got pregnant?”
“I told you,” she grinned, rolling her eyes. “I don’t care what they think. I could, like, help someone.”
“Have you told him?”
Sarah went quiet. Her smile fell.
That was a no then.
“He already blew up and told me to get rid of it when I told him I was pregnant. I don’t know how to tell him that I’m not going to anymore.”
“Yeah,” Ernie mused, kicking a rock. “But you should. He’s going to find out either way.”
“Then he can find out when everyone else does.”
Ernie looked at her, entirely unimpressed, “Sarah.”
“What?” she looked back at him equally unimpressed, “Fuck him.”
“You did,” Ernie grinned. It earned him a punch in the arm.
“You sound jealous,” Sarah mocked. It was a joke she always made, but it was the only joke of hers that Ernie hated. Because it was true.
“Shut up,” he replied, trying to make his annoyance sound more fake than it was.
They found themselves in silence again. Sarah looked out at the water and Ernie looked at her. He looked at her hands and wondered what it would be like to hold them again. They used to all the time, before holding hands meant more than helping a friend over a fence.
Ernie tried to remember the day that she dropped his hand for the last time. He tried to remember when it was exactly that she wanted to hold the hands of older boys instead.
He wished he was older.
“I probably should tell him,” Sarah eventually said ever so quietly. “Right?”
Ernie nodded. “I think so.”
“But it’s not like anyone will know it’s his.”
“What if they find out? People talk.”
Sarah gave him a sharp look and snapped, “The only people who know are you and Ben. Are you gonna talk?”
“No— No,” Ernie shook his head. “I didn’t mean that.”
“What did you mean?”
“Just…” he twisted his mouth, “I don’t really know. What if he tells people to get back at you.”
“Then he’s only hurting himself. He’s the one that didn’t want anyone to know about us.”
“That’s probably because you’re fifteen.”
“And he’s eighteen.”
She seemed to forget that sometimes her age meant there were things she still shouldn’t do. “I’m almost legal.”
“ Almost being the key word there, and besides, you know what his dad is like.”
“Don’t remind me,” she rolled her eyes.
Ernie gave her a small smile and softly said, “You should tell him. At least then he can’t blow up in front of everyone.”
She twisted her lip, but she nodded. Hesitantly, she pulled out her phone and unlocked it. She stared down at the screen, finger hovering over Ben’s number. Frozen.
“I can’t do it,” she eventually muttered. “Can you?”
Ernie nodded and took the phone from her, “What do you want me to say?”
She thought for a moment and then said, “Just tell him to come here.”
Ernie paused and looked at her a little mystified. “Here? Now?”
She nodded. And then she said, “I’d rather do it in person. He can’t just hang up on me then.”
Ernie slowly nodded and then sent Ben a text that asked him to come to their spot. He was still a little bitter that Sarah had been bringing him here too.
A text came back immediately.
“What do I say?” Ernie asked.
“Just tell him I want to talk in person. One last time.”
He sent the text. Ben replied with have you got rid of it yet?
Ernie showed Sarah the message and she rolled her eyes. “Just tell him yes. At least then he’ll come.”
“Are you sure about that?” Ernie asked back. “Don’t you think that’s just going to make him more angry when you tell him you’re keeping it.”
Sarah shrugged. “What’s the worst he can do? If he gets angry we’ll just drive away. Easy.”
“Okay…” Ernie agreed without feeling.
They waited for half an hour until they saw Ben’s headlights shine through the thicket of bush at the end of the gravel road. Fifteen minutes into waiting, they’d made their way back into Sarah’s car so they could blast the heater.
Sarah’s face glowed orange as he drove towards them. She looked pensive.
“You okay?” Ernie asked.
“Yeah,” she said breezily, face suddenly switching back on, back to the chirpy Sarah that she was in front of everyone else.
“You’d tell me if you weren’t, right?” Ernie asked. He didn’t believe her smile.
She nodded and rolled her eyes. “You know I would, Erns. I always do. Let’s go back to mine after this, I’ll make you one of my midnight castles.”
They were these desserts she’d been making at their family sleepovers for as long as they could remember, a pile of ice cream and lollies for the castle, with coke poured around the edges for a moat.
“To say thanks for doing this all with me, I guess. I don’t know who else would.”
“Okay, but it’s the middle of winter,” Ernie quipped back, “and we’ve been standing out in the cold all night.”
“Are you turning me down?” Sarah grinned.
“Nope. I’m just saying that I’ll be requesting a hot chocolate too.”
“Need all the sugar, huh?”
Ernie shrugged with a smile. “What else.”
Ben pulled up next to them and sat in his car for a long minute before he finally got out and leaned up against his door. He hadn’t bothered to put on a proper jacket, instead just wearing a hoodie and a beanie over his shaggy black hair.
He looked down at them through Sarah’s window and didn’t seem particularly impressed to see Ernie there.
He knocked on Sarah’s window.
When she rolled it down he unenthusiastically said, “What’s the kid doing here?”
As if they weren’t all kids. As if Ernie was any different to them.
It was water off Sarah’s back though, she just shrugged with a smile and said, “He was with me already. Is that wrong?”
Ben folded his arms and looked petulantly out over the water, “I’m not talking about our shit in front of some kid.”
“He already knows.”
Ben looked back, eyes dark and narrow. He looked right at Ernie, right into him. He said, “Get out of the car.”
Ernie started to move immediately. He’d never really spoken to Ben before, they were five years apart and their families didn’t have anything to do with each other. From afar, Ben had always just seemed like a regular guy, he was kind of quiet but he played sports and was part of the in-crowd. Ernie didn’t really know anything about him outside of what Sarah had said, but she’d been kind of coy about it all. Apparently he was nice, but intense. All in. He talked to Sarah about everything . He was sensitive and emotional. That was all she was willing to say.
But now, that way that he had looked down at him, he had something in his eyes that looked like his father and it reminded Ernie that Ben had military blood running through him. It reminded him that Ben probably knew how to crack his neck or something.
So Ernie moved to get out of the car.
Sarah caught his leg. Ernie looked back and she shook her head.
And then she got out herself.
She left the keys in the ignition so that Ernie could keep the heater running. He sat quietly and tried to decipher what was going on. The two of them had walked out towards the log and sat in exactly the same spot that Ernie and Sarah had done so earlier. Except now, Sarah, with her arms crossed and her back hunched forwards, was the smaller one.
She’d always been at least an inch taller than Ernie their whole life. No matter what time it was or where they were, Ernie had always had to look up to her. His time was coming though, he’d been going through a growth spurt. Surely in a year, he’d be standing so tall above her and she might finally realise that he wasn’t just a little kid to drag around. He was someone that would still love her after going through something like keeping a baby at fifteen.
Ernie bit hard on his nails as he watched them sit out there and talk. He’d always been the one at Sarah’s side. He’d always been the one she shared her secrets with, even the ones that she didn’t want Dot to know. His sister didn’t know about the smoking and the boys and the sex. Ernie did. And he still loved her.
He still would.
He was only thirteen but he was already more mature, more kind than Ben would ever be. Surely.
He wouldn’t have to be dragged out to the lakeside to get news in person because Sarah was afraid he’d hang up. Ernie would never hang up on her. He wouldn’t.
Sarah stood from the log.
She shoved her hands into her pockets and walked a few feet away from Ben, out towards the water. She was looking out across it.
Ernie almost expected her to pick up a rock like she’d done earlier and throw it as she collected her thoughts. But she didn’t. She turned on the spot and looked down at Ben.
She had her chin a little high, her back was a little straight.
She looked like she was trying to be brave.
Her lips moved.
Ben suddenly stood, and closed the gap between them in just one step. His back was to Ernie but he must have been saying something because Sarah was looking up at him with wide eyes. She was only as tall as his chest.
Sarah said something else.
She waited for Ben’s reply.
And then she looked defiant and moved to step away from him. Even from here, Ernie could see the quirk in her eyebrows, the sharp spit of her mouth moving around the words, fuck yo—
Ben grabbed her.
He grabbed the front of her jacket.
She shoved him away and took two steps back.
She shot more venom at him and Ernie wondered if he should get out. He wondered what he could do to someone so much taller, so much older than himself.
Ben stepped forwards and shoved Sarah’s shoulder. She spun with it, pushing his hand away from her as she went. It was another step closer to the water.
Ernie could hear the words that came out of Sarah’s mouth next. She yelled them, spitting fire as she kicked the rocks at her feet into the water.
“It’s not your fucking decision!”
And that’s when everything went a little murky.
Ben was on her. His hands were on her jacket, shoving her around to face him. Her hands were pulling them away. He wasn’t letting go.
She was stumbling backwards. Her feet were splashing in the shallows of the waves.
Ernie didn’t know what to do.
Ben shook her.
Sarah clawed at him. She was yelling.
Ernie couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t hear anything.
Sarah stumbled again and Ben didn’t catch her. He let her fall and it started to look more like a push.
Ernie could only blink and try to understand what he was looking at. His hands felt far away. His thoughts felt further. He tried to make his legs move.
They couldn’t move.
Why couldn’t they move?
Sarah fell to the ground and water splashed around her. Her hands were clutching at Ben’s wrists. They were yelling at each other, their voices mixed together and Ernie couldn’t understand any of it.
Ben dropped to his knees. They were on either side of Sarah’s waist.
Ernie didn’t know what to do, but he knew he needed to do something, so he shoved his body against the door and flung it open. He wasn’t expecting it to move so quickly and he fell to the ground. His palms scraped against the sharp edges of rocks but he stood without wiping them, and he ran for Sarah.
Ernie went for Ben’s throat, it seemed like the only thing he could grab.
Ben was swearing at him and he was shoving Ernie off, but Ernie wouldn’t let go, not until he was off of Sarah. Her face was in the water. She was sputtering.
Ernie yelled something at Ben but he didn’t know what it was, he didn’t know what anything was anymore. Everything that his body was doing seemed like it was out of his control.
Ben tried to shove Ernie to the ground, jutting a shoulder into his front and then an elbow to his side, but Ernie was not giving up. He wasn’t letting go. Because Sarah was right there and the waves were washing over her face and she must have been so cold. She was whimpering.
Ernie’s fingernails were digging into the skin of Ben’s neck, he could feel Ben’s stubble stab beneath them. He was pulling him away as hard as he could, but Ben was stronger than he looked and we wouldn’t budge. He wouldn’t get off Sarah. He wouldn’t let go. Water was going everywhere. It was in Ernie’s shoes, up his jeans, but he couldn’t distinguish between what was icy water and what was hot blood thrumming through his veins.
Ben struck an elbow into Ernie’s gut and suddenly he couldn’t breath.
He clutched himself as he fell to the ground, gulping for air as he fell sideways.
Rocks hit his arm and his shoulder and his head, but he could still see. He could see as Ben turned back to Sarah and put his hands to her face. He couldn’t tell what what Ben was doing, but his hands were at the base of her ears, right above her neck.
She was looking up at him.
A wave washed over her.
Ben didn’t pull her out of it.
Ernie couldn’t breathe. His stomach still seized every breath he tried to take. He didn’t know what he was looking at.
Ben was still on top of Sarah. His hands were still on her.
She was still looking up at him.
Another wave came.
The water quickly left and she didn’t sputter.
Finally Ben let down. His hands left her neck, but he stayed sitting over her. He stayed looking down at her, only now he was panting as he did it. Now it seemed like he was struggling to catch a breath as much as Ernie was.
Sarah’s face lolled to the side. So she was looking right at Ernie.
A wave crashed over her. It came right up to Ernie’s shirt and he hadn’t noticed that every other wave before that had too.
As it rolled away, Sarah’s hair pulled back with it, but her eyes didn’t move. They were cold.
The breath that Ernie was finally about to take left him. Everything left him.
He felt empty in a way that was different than before. It wasn’t feeling far away from everything, like he had no understanding of what was going on around him. This emptiness was seeing Sarah’s face like that and knowing exactly what it meant, but feeling every possible emotion wash away with the waves.
He could only gulp and look.
Ben turned to him. His eyes were dark and sharp.
He spat something at Ernie and it took a moment for him to hear what he’d said.
“Look what you did.”
But Ernie hadn’t done anything except try to help his friend.
“I— I didn’t do anything. I tried to stop you,” Ernie managed, voice cracking.
Ben rose to his feet and pointed to Sarah’s lifeless body, “You fucking did that.”
That wasn’t true. Ernie hadn’t. Ben already had her on the ground, in the water, before he even got to him. He was already holding her down. He held her down after Ernie fell too.
“I didn’t,” Ernie repeated weakly, tears starting to swell. “I was trying to pull you off.”
“No,” Ben said, somewhere between strangled and calm, like he was telling himself he was in control. “You wouldn’t get off me.”
“If I didn’t get off you, you would have… You would have…” He didn’t know how to say that this would have happened anyway.
Ben stood a little taller and he looked menacing. Threatening.
This was a threat.
“You did this, you little fuck. You walked over here and started to strangle me, and that meant I couldn’t get off her,” he leaned down and fisted Ernie’s jacket, whispering, “and if you tell anyone anything about this, you’re dead.”
Ernie glanced at Sarah and believed him.
“I…” he choked, too scared to move a muscle. He couldn’t say any more. Ben’s beanie had come off some time in their struggle and his dark hair was over his brow. Every strand was as black and shiny as his eyes, as the lake behind him.
A droplet of water fell from a strand of Ben’s hair and landed on Ernie’s neck.
There was darkness all around him, it was Ben’s face, in the trees, in the perfect black sky. The same morepork from earlier hooted quietly and this time it was scary.
Everything was scary.
Ernie didn’t know what to do.
He hadn’t truly known what to do the whole night, the whole week. The whole time he’d known about Sarah’s pregnancy, and in fact, every rule Sarah had ever broken. He was just a kid playing in something much bigger than himself.
He should have known better.
He should have asked for help before help meant trying to get out of this situation alive.
Ben looked down at him, expectant look on his face, “You’re not going to tell anyone, okay?”
Ernie was silent. But he shook his head.
“Good, because you’re a part of this too now. Yeah… Yeah, you’re a part of this. You’ll go to prison if anyone finds out what you did,” he glanced up at Sarah’s car on the bank, “You know how to drive, right?”
Ernie didn’t say anything.
“You’re going to get rid of her car,” Ben said, voice strange and tight, as he let go of Ernie’s jacket so his shoulders fell to the ground.
“What—" Ernie’s voice cracked— “what about her?”
Ben glanced back at Sarah’s body bobbing in a shallow wave, and then he looked out towards the lake. Towards the glittering lights in the distance and the complete darkness in the opposite direction. Then he sniffed and started nodding to himself.
“You’ve heard the stories, right?” he didn’t wait for Ernie to answer as he looked back at him. His eyes were bloodshot. “People drown, and they don’t come back up. Gone forever.”
Ernie looked out at the water. It was so dark, so cold.
It wasn’t the place for Sarah to be. She needed to be somewhere where all the people who loved her could visit. She’d always wanted to leave Lake Tekapo, and now she’d never leave.
“You… You can’t,” Ernie croaked. The tears in the corners of his eyes bubbled over and slid back to his ears and down his neck.
Ben brought his face closer, close enough to see the tears swelling in his own eyes. His voice seemed almost shrill, manic, “Have a better idea? Would you rather chop her up?”
Ernie couldn’t stop the choking sob from escaping him, spit sticking to his lips. He pushed his hands to his face as if it would stop the tears. As if it would stop any of it.
“That’s what I thought,” Ben leaned back on his knees. “Fucking kid.”
Then he stood up and kicked Ernie’s shoe, “Get up and hide her fucking car before anyone starts looking for her.”
Ernie sniffed and tried to slow his tears enough to see. He couldn’t quite do it, everything stayed blurry and wet, but he could at least find his feet. Just.
He pushed himself up and stumbled back towards Sarah’s car. He didn’t even think about shutting the passenger door he’d left wide open when he’d gotten out. He just fell into the driver’s seat and tried to feel around for where the key was.
He fumbled as he turned it on and then flicked on the lights. In front of him, Ben was wading knee deep into the water with Sarah trailing along next to him. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her properly because this wasn’t real, this wasn’t really the last time he’d ever see her. That wasn’t a fucking body of his best friend out there. But he couldn’t take his eyes away either because everything was strange and surreal and he couldn’t believe what had just happened without seeing it right in front of him. He only managed to focus on the sole of her right shoe dipping in and out of the water as Ben pulled her deeper.
He wanted to run out there and pull Ben from her again so he could bring her to shore and shake her awake. But the sight of her wide, lifeless eyes in the moonlight had seared itself into his brain. He knew she was gone. And he knew he’d never be able to sleep seeing the moon again.
Ernie tried to think of where to take the car, and he tried to do it quickly because Ben was still right there in the water. He needed to get away before he came back to shore and found a reason to do away with Ernie as well.
But it was so hard to think about anything.
He scoured his mind for anywhere that could hide an entire car. But Lake Tekapo was in a basin at the bottom of all the surrounding mountains. It was flat, and there were barely any trees except for where he was parked. There was farmland in every direction, and he couldn’t just drive right up into the mountains or towards the next town over, he’d never make it back home. It’d take too long, and he might get too cold.
Where he was, where his and Sarah’s spot was, was at the far end of the camping grounds. It was at the bottom of the hill that the observatory sat on, and where pine trees crowded together at the side of the gravel road they’d driven down.
Ernie tried to think. There had to be somewhere he could go. He had to do what Ben had told him.
He looked in the rear view mirror at the trees behind him, at the hill that curved up through those woods. But he just couldn’t think. He couldn’t do anything . It started to feel like he was losing grip on everything, even on Ben starting to make his way back to shore, and quick hyperventilating breaths suddenly felt like they were about to tear at his throat.
Ben looked up at him, his face bright and white and wet in Ernie’s headlights.
His expression was unreadable.
He couldn’t tell.
Because he couldn’t think .
Ernie shoved the car into reverse and put his foot down on the accelerator. The wheel spun against the gravel before catching traction and lurching backwards, sending Ernie’s chest towards the steering wheel.
He hadn’t put on his seatbelt.
But he didn’t notice.
He drove the car backwards onto the old gravel road that led back towards the camp grounds, towards the township, and deftly changed gears so he could throttle forwards.
The car skidded along the road as he threw it forwards, finally slamming the passenger door shut. He felt so out of control of his limbs, he was only trying to get the car away from Ben but all his gear changing and steering came out stilted and too strong, and the car didn’t know where to go.
But he was going forwards and, through the tears in his eyes and the lump in his throat, that was enough.
The road curved to the right, veering inland so trees could cling to both sides of the road. It was darker here, the moon was barely visible through the leaves in the trees. He knew this road so well, and yet for the first time in his life, he didn’t want to.
He didn’t want all his memories here to be destroyed.
But they already were.
Flashes of his years coming here as a kid whipped past him. There was the time when he was eight and Dot was ten, and Louis brought them here during their first summer as a family of three. It was the first time they’d all left the house together. He could see exactly where they walked along the edge of the road back to the car. It was right at the end of summer, when school had gone back, but Louis had let them have a few more weeks off. Somehow, it had still been hot out and Ernie had left his shoes at the shore, so Louis had piggy backed him the entire way to go and get them.
There was the time when Ernie was seven and Dot was nine, and their parents took them to the ice rink up ahead, and Ernie wasn’t as good at it as Louis or his dad and he just wanted to be like them. He’d fallen over ten times and he was close to tears, but his dad took one hand and Louis took the other and they’d held him up long enough to make it around the entire rink, long enough for him to have tears of joy.
And there was the time when Ernie was six and Dot was eight and they’d just been allowed to watch Lord of The Rings for the first time. It was almost autumn and Louis was about to leave for his first year of university, so the entire family came to the lake to hike to the top of the bush track behind him because there was a nice view at the top, and they could get a photo together there before Louis went. It was the sort of thing that their mum liked to do. But on the way to the track, Dot had lead him off into those trees just off the road, and they’d found a trench to hide in and play pretend that Dot was Frodo and Ernie was Sam and they were hiding from the Nazguls that he’d been too afraid to look at when they’d watched the movie.
And that was it.
He’d already driven past it.
Ernie slammed on the brake. It took a minute for the car to come to a complete stop, but when it did, he wasted no time turning it around and driving back to the spot where the gaps in the trees widened enough for two young kids to see an entrance to another world where orcs were real and rings could rule men.
He came to a stop when he found it. Bush had grown over it a little, but this patch of road felt familiar. It was hard to tell if he could even squeeze the car in there. It was hard to tell anything.
Ben’s car came up to him out of nowhere. He didn’t have headlights on.
Ernie could only tell it was him because his own headlights shone on his face. He looked red and sullen and tired.
Ben didn’t stop.
But he did stare as he drove into the shadows that Ernie had just come out of.
Ernie felt something strange in the pit of his stomach, but he didn’t know what it was. He didn’t know what he was feeling. It was like he was on the edge of something, perhaps uncertainty or panic.
It all still felt far away.
He took a breath, looking up into the dark shadows of the trees, and drove up into them.
The car managed to fit. Just. He scraped a wing mirror off, but it clung to the car by a few wires. The dirt beneath the car was bumpy, churned up by tree roots and fallen branches as it slowly climbed the slope of the hill towards the observatory. But it felt soft and unstable too, in the patches where pine needles had made a blanket across it. The car didn’t like it. It struggled to move without throwing Ernie about. One of the bigger roots sent his shoulder slamming into the car door and it was unfair that he was doing this and Ben wasn’t. It was unfair that Ben had gone home. It was unfair that Ernie had been pulling him off Sarah and that Ben had then told him that this was his fault.
It wasn’t Ernie’s fault. It was just dawning on him.
He slowed the car and tried to remember what had just happened but it was all a bit blurry. He remembered that Ben already had Sarah down in the water before he got out of the car, and that he didn’t get off her even when Ernie fell to the ground winded. But Ben had just told him that it was Ernie who had killed her. It was him who wouldn’t get off. It was him who Ben had to elbow in the gut just to get him away.
Ernie didn’t feel like he was even physically strong enough to somehow hold Ben down when he was trying to pull him away. But Ben had just said that’s what had happened. And now it was all starting to blur together. The truth that he could remember, and the truth that Ben was telling him instead. He couldn’t tell the difference. He didn’t know what he remembered, and he didn’t know how to trust what he’d thought he had.
He couldn’t put all the parts together and see those horrifying moments for what they were. He still couldn’t think.
That feeling of panic was getting closer.
Because what if Ben was telling the truth and Ernie had just killed his friend?
But what if he hadn’t and Ernie was innocent, and now he’d just been roped in to hide Sarah’s car?
What if Ben was setting him up, and now it was too late? Now he couldn’t call the police because the police was Ben’s dad. Now he couldn’t go and get Sarah’s body and call Louis and he could tell him what to do, he could figure out what was truth and what was made up. Louis was always good at these things.
Ernie could feel the bile in his stomach.
He felt his age and how he was too young, too naive. Too stupid to understand anything around him. He should have stopped Sarah from texting Ben to go and talk to her. He should have stopped her from breaking all those rules. He should have known better. He shouldn’t have done any of it. The smoking, the sneaking out, the pretending he wasn’t just the thirteen year old baby of the family.
If only he was older, he wouldn’t have gotten into this mess.
Another tree root sent Ernie’s shoulder into the door, and the tears that had started to build again suddenly spilled over. He was already sick of crying, he’d done so much of it in his life. He knew the exhaustion and the sore chest that came after too well.
But he couldn’t help it. Because he couldn’t tell if he was guilty for killing Sarah, or for covering it up. And if nothing else, he was guilty for letting it all get to here.
He wanted his mum.
At some point his tears took over his vision entirely and Ernie stopped seeing the trees in front of him. So he didn’t see where the ground stopped inclining and dipped back down into the trench that Dot and him had found.
It took him a second too long to get his hand on the brake.
The car juddered over the roots at the edge of the trench, and then it fell.
Ernie felt it in his neck first. The splintering pain of his head whipping towards the steering wheel. By sheer luck, he was too small for his skull to reach the windshield.
His head hit his knuckles instead. Right above his temple.
He didn’t quite know what had happened but his body felt like it had hit a brick wall. And that he’d crumpled into the space in front of the foot pedals. He hadn’t been driving fast enough to do too much damage, but it was enough to shake all the panic and the tears completely out.
Ernie broke down.
He clutched the steering wheel as he sank to the ground and heaved up all his tears. He blubbered and spit fell from his lips as he pounded on anything he could reach. If he wasn’t guilty before, he was now. And he was completely alone in the middle of a forest, in a car he couldn’t hide, with no one he could even tell.
He wanted to tell Louis but he’d call him guilty, and then he’d call Liam.
He wanted to tell Dot, but she’d just tell Louis.
He wanted to tell Sarah, but she was sinking to the bottom of a lake.
He wanted to tell his mum and his dad, but they were probably already looking down in disgust.
Ernie cried until he couldn’t.
He cried until the tears came out dry and the howls came out silent.
Sarah’s phone lit up.
It was at Ernie’s foot, thrown there from the middle console when he’d crashed.
He looked down at it. Her lock screen was a photo of her and her school friends. They were in uniform, pulling stupid faces in comically big sunglasses. Dot was in it with her, one arm wrapped around Sarah’s shoulder, the other pulling a peace sign.
It was so innocuous. The notification was too. Someone had commented her name on a post on Facebook.
Slowly, Ernie reached down and picked up the phone. It felt strange and heavy in his hand. He didn’t like it. But he knew her passcode so he unlocked it and checked what she’d been tagged in.
It was a Spongebob meme. And it made Ernie heave up a dry, dark laugh. Because it was so normal, it was life going on like nothing had happened. And it felt like a sick joke on him. Ben and him were the only ones that knew Sarah would never get to laugh at stupid memes again. She’d never take photos with her friends, with Dot, again.
And that meant life was going to go on without him too, surely. He was going to either end up in prison for the rest of his life because that’s what happens when you murder someone, or he was going to be stuck in his head for the rest of his life wondering when he would be normal again.
As if he ever had been.
Ernie shut the phone off and held it to his chest. He whispered to himself, “I’m sorry.”
And then he took a deep, shaky breath and got out the car.
It was freezing. Colder than it was before. Maybe that was just because Ernie was wet now, his jeans from the lake and his cheeks from his tears. Walking was his only way home but he’d never tried it from this far. It would surely take a few hours, especially if he didn’t go near the highway his house was on.
He was sure he would get frostbite, but he was so tired now and that familiar exhaustion had taken hold in his chest, and besides, maybe getting frostbite and dying in some ditch wouldn’t be so bad. One minute he would be here, and the next he wouldn’t. Just like that. He’d just seen how easy it was to die, how quick it was.
But that would leave Dot and Louis feeling like he was. It would leave Georgie without a warm bed to sleep on. They were all innocent. They didn’t deserve to feel the way Ernie was.
There had to be a blanket or a jacket somewhere in Sarah’s car.
He went straight to the boot and there was one right there. Of course there was, Sarah always gave it to him when she picked him up and drove them out to their spot. She always kept it in the car for him.
It wouldn’t need to stay there anymore, so he pulled it out.
A bag fell out from under it.
Ernie looked down at it as he wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. It was a small plastic bag from The Baby Factory. Something churned in his stomach.
He reached down and opened it.
It was a dress.
A tiny yellow dress, perfect and pristine, and exactly the kind of thing Sarah would have picked out.
Ernie could feel fresh tears stinging his eyes, but he refused to cry again. His eyes were too sore. So he sniffed and shoved the dress in his pocket. Then we walked back down to the gravel road.
It took two hours to walk home and by the time he got there, he was a shivering mess. His shoes were sodden from the fields he’d walked through, and he’d had to stop six times when the tears came back.
He’d gone between total numbness, utter fear, and absolute misery like clockwork. The full moon had been enough to light the way, but the night still felt the darkest it had ever been. Ernie had wandered along like he was lost. And he was.
His window creaked as he swung it back open and clambered in. It hurt to do because he was so cold. Georgie was still on his bed from where he’d left her when he snuck out. She looked up at the sound of his knuckles cracking as he gripped the window frame and her eyes were wet and round and knowing.
“Hey girl,” he whispered tiredly.
She put her head back down on his duvet and closed her eyes. It was what he needed, for someone to look at him and see him truthfully, and then not think anymore of it.
Ernie smiled sadly to himself as he shut the window and pulled the curtains firmly shut. He didn’t want the moon in here. He peeled off his shoes and his trousers, but he slid into bed with Sarah’s blanket still around him, with his jacket still firmly zipped up. He was frozen to his core, but he had Sarah’s smell around him and Georgie’s fur between his fingers, and that was enough to lull him into an exhausted, empty sleep.
“So what happened in the morning?” Liam asked, his voice cracked a little but he tried to disguise it. No doubt it was hard to be an impartial party when you were dealing with a family you’ve known half your life.
Ernie was red faced and tear stained. They all were. But he looked up at Liam with his brows knitted as he tried to explain, “I… Louis woke me up so that we could join the search party. When I woke up, I realised I had Sarah’s phone still and it had heaps of missed calls and texts. And then on my phone too, I had all these scary messages from Ben. I— I panicked, and so I made that Facebook post from her phone. I didn’t know what to do. I still don’t know what to do. I don’t know anything—" Ernie’s voice rose higher. It wasn’t the first time his voice got high and strangled as he explained everything but Louis squeezed his hand every time— “I don’t know what Ben did after that. I just know that I posted to Facebook and then everything stopped.”
Liam looked at him pensively, seemingly unsure of what to say, “So… you moved her car and made the Facebook post, but didn’t know anything about the fake call from Sarah’s mum? Okay—" He paused to think— “Ben must have told Greg at some point then, surely. Especially if no one stumbled across the car in all that time, I mean, you said it was just off the road?”
Ernie nodded, wiping his face.
“They’ve probably moved it. It’s possible that they haven’t and Greg’s been covering up in the case that someone’s seen it and reported it, but that seems less likely, that’s more effort than getting the car somewhere else somehow, but. Um,” Liam mused. He trailed off and looked off into space then and the room fell quiet. It felt like Liam had more to say, but for whatever reason he was holding back.
Louis hadn’t said a word the whole time since Ernie had started retelling the events of that fateful night, so Harry took it upon himself to get out whatever it was that Liam wasn’t saying.
“What is it?”
Liam looked at him and screwed up his mouth, “Ernie, do you still have Sarah’s phone?”
“Um,” Ernie croaked. “I buried it.”
“Out in one of the far paddocks.”
“Can you take us there?”
Ernie hesitated, “What’s going to happen? What if they find something bad on there?”
“Is there anything bad?” Liam asked.
“No, but, I don’t know. I couldn’t look through it, it was too— too—" he took a moment to let out a shaky breath and tried to motion what he was meaning so he didn’t have to say it. Clearly it was too painful for him to look through her phone. “I only ever used it to post from that morning, or when I missed her too much. But she had a lot of secrets, what if there’s more on there?”
Liam sighed. “I’m going to have to be completely honest here, okay, Ernie? It’s hard to go through this, I can’t imagine the feelings you’ve dealt with this past year, but it’s not your responsibility to worry about whatever else Sarah could have been hiding. I need you to take us to it because with something like this, we need evidence. Without that, it’s your word against Ben’s, and I don’t know that we have enough to protect you on word alone—" Ernie let out a choked sound— “We don’t have a body, and I don’t know if we have a car yet. The only thing that we currently have is that Greg was tampering with evidence. This is going to require a homicide investigation, so you’ll need to give your statement officially. But as soon as you do that, it’s going to place yourself at the crime scene. I completely believe you Ernie, but without evidence, it’s wholly possible that Ben or Greg is going to misrepresent your involvement.”
“What— What does that mean?” Ernie barely managed.
“It means that we need to prove that the actions you took, the moving of the car and the social media posts, were done because there was reasonable fear for your own life. You need to prove that your story is true to people who don’t know you. It means that if your story stays the same and is backed up with evidence, anything that Ben and Greg say that doesn’t fit that is much harder to believe.”
“But I don’t know half of what happened, I don’t know if Ben killed her or me,” Ernie croaked. “I don’t think it was me, but what if I’m wrong? I shouldn’t have let her meet up with him...”
Louis squeezed Ernie’s hand again, but it was Harry who replied to him. “Erns, You’re a fourteen year old kid. You were thirteen when this happened. You’re just a kid. None of us thinks you’re capable of doing that, okay? You were stuck in an hard situation, it was possibly one of the worst things you could find yourself caught up in, and that is not your fault. It is not your fault that Sarah did the things she did. It doesn’t matter what Ben says, if you know that you didn’t hurt her then I believe you. We all do. He was clearly trying to take the blame away from his own actions. It was him who pushed her into the water, and it was him who didn’t get off her when you tried to stop him. You’ve already done one of the hardest things in telling us this, and we are so proud of you, okay? We don’t think any less of you. Life threw something terrible at you and you did your best to cope with it.”
Ernie gave him a solemn smile as Harry continued. “I can’t say that it’s going to suddenly get better now you’ve told us, and I’m really sorry about that. I really am. But you need to be strong and help Liam with getting her phone and giving a statement. But now that we know, we can be right by your side along the way. You’re not alone anymore. You don’t need to worry about trying to figure out what the right thing to do is anymore. We will help you, and we won’t let anything else happen to you. I promise.”
Harry’s chest was beating like a hummingbird when he finally finished, and there was a knot in his chest. But he supposed that knot had been there this whole time. It was so hard to not look at this family and feel it. They’d had so much thrown their way their whole lives.
“Okay,” Ernie nodded quietly, looking down at his lap. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Harry reached across Louis to softly sooth Ernie’s knee. “You are okay.”
They all pulled their boots on and headed out the back door. It was quiet as they trudged through the wet grass, it didn’t really feel like there was anything that could be said. There was, of course, the option of taking the car, but that would have squeezed them all into too small of a space. It was cathartic to get outside and feel the fresh, ice-blown breeze against their cheeks. It gave them room, enough to breathe. Enough to think. They naturally fell into walking order, Ernie up ahead with Liam two steps behind, both with their hands in their pockets. Louis was barely half a step in front of Harry, close enough for them to be walking together, but far enough for Louis to be left in his thoughts. It wasn’t the time for Harry to bring up Louis’ own secrets so he left him be, bar only the occasional knock of hands to remind him that Harry was right there with him. Dot was behind them all, Harry glanced back to see her walking along slowly and with her arms folded and her eyes glued to her feet.
It gave Harry pause. Through all of this, Dot had sort of been on the outskirts. It was her friend who’d gone missing, been killed, but she knew the least. It was her family that had been severed, but she was the one who always kept her head brightly up and looking forward. Whether she was actually doing that, or merely braving it like the others, Harry wasn’t quite sure.
He turned back to Louis and hooked a finger around his pinky.
“Hey,” he said lowly. “You okay if I drop back?”
“Hm?” Louis hummed, looking back from where his eyes had been off in the distance.
“I’m gonna walk with Dot for a bit.”
Louis nodded distractedly, so Harry squeezed his finger. “Is that okay? Are you alright?”
Louis nodded again. “Yeah. Just thinking.”
“Do you want to talk or be left to it?”
Louis gave him a small smile and shrugged his shoulders. “Left to it.”
“Okay. I love you,” Harry whispered the last bit, just to remind him.
Louis squeezed his finger back.
Harry let Louis walk on without him so he could wait for Dot to eventually make her way to him. She didn’t even notice he was there until Harry was falling into step at her side. She jumped a little and gave an apologetic smile.
They walked together in silence for a while, Dot watching her feet and Harry watching the boys up ahead. Louis was still trailing behind the other two, but only just. Ernie pointed in the direction of the mountains in the distance, and it seemed like they might be walking for a while. Despite the cold, it was slightly more temperate than some of the earlier mornings, so Harry didn’t mind.
“You alright, Dot?” Harry eventually asked. “You’ve not said anything all morning.”
She lifted her head and glanced at Harry before looking out into the distance. It took her a while to respond, but when she did it was softly spoken. “I just… I don’t know how to feel.”
“What do you mean?”
Dot sighed and seemed to consider herself. “I don’t know, I want to be angry at Ernie. He hurt me this morning, and he’s been lying this whole year about everything. He had this whole friendship with Sarah that they both kept a secret from me, and I don’t know why? But I feel like I’m not allowed to be angry or upset about it because of the reasons he did all of it. Like, at what point am I allowed to be hurt?”
Harry mulled over that, over the fact that Ernie had done something that hurt Dot but he’d done it out of pain and fear.
It was a very familiar story.
“I don’t think you can’t feel hurt,” Harry replied. “Hurt is hurt no matter the reasons. You’re completely entitled to feel that way.”
“It doesn’t feel like it though. I feel like I should be protecting him, I should have realised something was wrong and talked to Ernie about it sooner. And it just makes me feel guilty, but then it also feels like I’m not allowed to feel guilty because Ernie should have known that we’re family, and we could have helped him. I’m just… I’m just angry that he couldn’t tell the truth. Angry at him and angry at what happened to him.”
“I understand that.”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s hard when someone you want to help can’t help themselves. You feel responsible for being there for them even when there’s no way you would have even been able to guess at the time. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. So you can’t be too hard on yourself. You need to let yourself feel all those conflicting emotions. You’re allowed to be angry and hurt and still feel protective for your brother. I struggle with having lots of conflicting emotions too, but that’s life I guess, things are complicated. I’m still learning as well, it’s hard to be hurt by someone and hurt for them too. I don’t really know how best to navigate that except with trying just be open and honest with your feelings.”
“If only things were just black and white, it’d be so much easier,” Dot mused, moving her hands to her pockets.
“If only,” Harry repeated. “But we keep going regardless.”
There was a short pause and then Dot piped back up again, “Actually, do you mind if I keep talking, Harry? I just have a lot of my mind and I don’t know what to do with it.”
“Go right ahead,” Harry offered, grateful that Dot was such an open book.
“I feel mixed emotions to Sarah too. Half of me wants to cry because she’s dead, but I also feel like this isn’t new information. I’ve thought she was dead for months. And like, I knew she used to break the rules sometimes. She was super smart and likeable and everyone thought she was kind of perfect, but I think that she probably felt everyone’s expectations on her. I feel like that too, sometimes. I feel like I have to be mature and switched on all the time so that people take me seriously, but it’s tiring too. Sometimes I just want to go to parties and go wild and act like a dickhead, but I don’t want people to know I want to do those things. Especially after Mum and Dad died, I feel like we have to act like model kids so Louis doesn’t get upset or we get taken away or something ridiculous. A bit of me wishes that Sarah invited me to do those sorts of things with her, but also… she smoked weed with Ernie when he was twelve? I don’t like that at all. That’s just shitty and she should have known better. I don’t like that she was going out with Ben either, but I guess that’s why she never told me. She knew I didn’t like his group of friends, they’re the kind of people that make fun of you for being different.”
“Do you get made fun of?”
Dot shrugged her shoulders. “It’s not like we get bullied or anything, but kids definitely make jokes sometimes. It’s whatever. I only have a year and a half left at school before I can leave. No biggy.”
“Mhm,” Dot nodded emphatically. “I guess Sarah and I had that in common, we don’t care what the people around here think of us at all.”
“At all?” Harry quirked an eyebrow. “Weren’t you just telling me that you secretly want to go to parties?”
Dot rolled her eyes with the first chuckle he’d heard in hours. “That’s different! I don’t want them to know that sometimes I might actually want to be like them.”
“Alright, alright,” Harry chuckled.
“You partied, right?” Dot asked rather inquisitively. “Like you’ve got your head screwed on, but you and Louis still did that?”
Harry nodded. “Yeah. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with partying. As long as you’re with the right people and you’re safe about it. You’re allowed to let your hair down, you know right?”
“Yeah, I guess…” Dot screwed up her mouth. “I just don’t want to let anyone down. Especially Louis.”
“You won’t,” Harry offered. “I guarantee that, you’re bloody brilliant you know.”
Dot rolled her eyes, but they both smiled.
“Do you… Do you think he’ll get off?” Dot suddenly asked, nodding up towards Ernie and the others. “Like he didn’t kill her, but he still covered it up. I mean, we know why he did it, we know what Ernie’s like, but a judge might not.”
Harry pursed his lips and took a long breath. Because honestly, he didn’t know.
“I can only hope,” Harry eventually replied morosely. “I think he’s guilty of some things and innocent of others, but he is only a kid. I think.... I think that guilt isn’t just a black or white thing, like we were saying earlier, but it’s sort of seeing where someone sits in that grey space, you know? Sometimes when people do bad things, they need to be punished, other times they just need help. I really, truly hope that a prosecutor will understand how Ernie got stuck in the middle of this. The last thing he needs is punishment, if I’m honest.”
Dot looked up at Harry with a thoughtful look on her face. She seemed to consider him entirely, contemplating the things that made Harry, Harry. Then she softly said, “You’re just a nice person, you know.”
“Uh, thanks? I try?” Harry scrunched his nose. It felt weird to be getting compliments like this from Louis’ sixteen year old sister.
“I mean, you always say you’re a pushover, but you’re just understanding. It’s nice to have around.”
Harry looked up to where the three ahead of them had finally stopped and were hunched over a patch of grass beneath the fence line. “Well, I hope I get to stick around for a while longer.”
Nothing came quickly, but that wasn’t a surprise because nothing ever does. It’s not like emotions get turned on and off like switches. But it ended as it started, with the two of them in bed, and with the sun warm on their skin.
Harry had just woken up and it was already too hot in the morning February sun. He couldn’t bear to touch the warmth of Louis’ skin next to him, but he couldn’t bear not to either. So he rolled over and placed a hand against his back, up near the crook of his neck so he could thumb the baby hairs at the base of his skull. Even though Louis had just turned 28 and he had more lines in his face than the first and the second time they met, he still had the little things that made him the same. The baby hairs and the grin and the tan that came every summer.
“I love you,” Harry whispered, even though Louis hadn’t stirred. But it wasn’t something he said to be heard, he said it because he felt it. Those words had felt at home in his mouth for years now and they meant something completely different. His I love yous no longer meant I’m glad I’m not alone . Now they meant I know all of you and I know we belong.
Because Harry knew Louis completely now.
It took Louis over a year to tell him everything, but he started the night that Ernie dug out Sarah’s things and Liam called in the police from Christchurch. He started when they finally fell into a cheap motel bed with Dot and Ernie in the next room because Ben and Greg hadn’t yet been arrested, and because it wasn’t yet safe to return to their freshly scarred home.
Harry was finally on the edge of sleep when Louis whispered, “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you.”
Harry whispered back earnestly, “You’re okay.”
They were quiet and still for a long moment as thoughts swelled between them, but Louis broke the silence when he cleared his throat, rolled towards Harry and tucked himself between his arms.
There was more silence then, but Harry treated it gently and with care, he held it with the fingers he had around Louis’ shoulders. Louis choked as he finally whispered again, “I— I moved in with Mum and Dad when I was twelve.”
Harry stroked his back.
In another breath, Louis managed, “I was fourteen when they took in Dot and Ernie. Dot was four and Ernie was two. That’s why we have different last names. Mum couldn’t have kids and she had been ad— She was like us too. So they took us in even though we were older.”
Another silence and then, “I’m sorry it’s so hard for me to say.”
“You’re okay, Lou,” Harry whispered back, rubbing circles into Louis’ back. “I don’t blame you.”
Louis sniffed and Harry could hear the wetness in it. Then Louis managed, voice crackling, “I’ve been thinking about what you said to Ernie all day, and how just talking about it helped so much. And it has already helped so much. I just— I want to tell you, but it’s still hard. I want to make things easier, better. I feel like shit that I might have made it hard for Ernie to talk because I can’t talk about my own stuff.”
“Don’t,” Harry calmly said. “It’s hard to talk, but you’re trying. I see you.”
“I wish I could just flip a switch and explain everything like Ernie did. It seemed so much easier for him and I can’t understand why it isn’t for me.”
“Maybe he’s just had less time to get stuck, but that’s okay, you are okay Louis. You will get there.”
And eventually he did.
For months, he would find himself trapped in a breath that he couldn’t let out, until stilted words finally came spilling out instead. It would happen at random times that Harry couldn’t predict. At night when they were watching a movie and something would spark a memory. In the car as he looked out at the low sun. There was the time where Louis was staring down at one of Harry’s childhood books and he just suddenly started to cry. Louis eventually told him about it all. How he was taken out of his birth mother’s care when he was four and how he spent the next eight years bouncing from one foster home to the next. He explained how some of those homes were alright, but some of them were awful. It took him a year to talk about those ones. Harry didn’t like to think about it, but it was difficult not to see Louis when he was upset and imagine a kid bearing witness to adults with alcohol and belt straps and words that still cut deeper.
Louis explained how he dropped everything to go back for Ernie and Dot because he couldn’t bear the thought of them ending up places like that too. They’d never really known anything other than the family farm in Tekapo, he couldn’t let them end up in homes where they would be seen as nothing more than a nuisance with a dollar sign. It was why he never told Harry in the first place either, because he was so used to people looked at a certain way when people knew he was adopted. When they knew he didn’t belong and that he was damaged goods and that he knew it too.
Harry always made sure to listen as best he could, and when one of Louis’ stories didn’t quite piece together all the way before he couldn’t talk about it anymore, he just squeezed Louis’ hand and told Louis he’d get there soon enough.
Every day together was a revelation, until it wasn’t. Until the things Louis said came easier and lighter and barely a passing mention.
Louis was starting to wake, sleepily smacking his lips together as he rolled over and pulled Harry into him.
“C’mere,” Louis mumbled and Harry did what he was told. He shuffled closer into Louis’ arms, closer to the heat of his skin, and it was already making him sweat. He kicked the single sheet they’d slept under away from him and then he kissed Louis’ temple.
Louis moved his head in return and lazily puckered his lips for another kiss, this one on the mouth.
Harry gave it to him with a smile.
They kissed slowly and softly for a while. It was always better kissing in the summer when Louis’ lips were warm and happy and tasted like sun. When Louis pulled away, he blinked up at Harry and smiled gently, “Morning.”
“Good morning,” Harry smiled back.
“Should we get up and go for a swim?”
Harry nodded, because this is what they’d done every morning since they’d got here, back to Harry’s family bach for the summer.
Slowly, they both stretched and then pushed themselves out of bed. Louis pulled on a pair of Harry’s swim shorts and Harry went over to pull open the curtains.
At some point, he didn’t know when, they’d stopped being left a crack open.
Every morning that Harry got to open those curtains, he’d hold them in his hands for a short, quiet moment, and take in what that meant.
Harry flung them back and bright sunlight poured in. When Harry turned, Louis was glowing in it.
“I don’t suppose the others will be up yet?” Harry asked as he pulled on a pair of shorts himself.
“What if I want you all to myself this morning?” Louis quipped back as he grabbed a salty beach towel from the wicker seat in the corner of the room. Washing had become something they only did when absolutely necessary while they were here because there was just something about being at the beach in the summer that made everything so clean and fresh and lazy. They’d grown used to the layer of salt and the grit of sand that followed them everywhere.
“I guess we’ll just have to sneak out,” Harry grinned back.
They left their room quietly, giggling under their breath as Louis pulled the door carefully shut behind them as dramatically as he could. The house was still quiet as they shuffled through it, out to the living room where the sliding doors led down to the beach. They could only hear the clock ticking and the gentle wash of waves outside.
Harry pulled open the sliding door for Louis and waved him through, grinning as he quietly said, “After you, sir.”
Louis curtsied and waltzed through.
Outside, the air was still fresh. Not stuffy like their room.
They walked through the flax bushes down to the sand and saw that they weren’t the first to wake for a swim. Dot was already lying in the sun with a book in hand and a floppy sun hat drooping past her face. Her swimsuit was still wet from the ocean.
Next to her, as had at some point become the norm, was Elliot. Her boyfriend.
He was a tall kid with sandy hair and skin that matched, and he was the kind of kid that was good for her. Quiet but open, smiley, and always with his head in the clouds. He was the sort to let her talk for hours and when she’d ask if he’d been listening, he always just grinned, nodded, and told her to keep going.
They’d met just before Christmas and so everything was still new, but Harry could see the rested comfort in Dot’s eyes every time he came around. He was a local boy, just one month younger than her, and they were both due to start at Auckland University next month. She was going to study psychology and journalism, and he graphic design.
It was funny, looking at those two. Everything was so cyclical. The last time Harry had been here, it was him who was falling in love. Harry walked down to her and kicked a bit of sand onto her back. She groaned and flicked wet hair at him.
“Morning, Harry,” Elliot chuckled, glancing up at him. He was drawing in a notepad and his toe was touching Dot’s leg.
“Morning you two,” Harry grinned back, dropping his towel right onto Dot’s head. That’s just the way they were now, gently jostling each other and being vaguely annoying. But Harry was always the first person Dot went to for everything. When she’d come home and told him about the tall blonde guy she’d met down the road, she’d asked him how to approach him.
Harry had told her to just be herself and there wasn’t much else to it.
When she’d come back and jumped on Harry and Louis’ bed a week later to tell them why she’d disappeared for hours at a time, she asked him if he had any advice about how to ask him about his plans after the summer. Harry went to answer but Louis jumped in, and so they both said in unison, “Just talk to him.”
They’d shared an amused glance with each after that, because that’s what the six years of silence had become to them, a passing phase worth only the shortest of looks.
Down on the beach, Louis smacked Harry’s bum with his own towel and laughed before taking Harry’s towel off of Dot’s head and shoulders. She readjusted her hat and gave Harry the bird, and then the two of them, Harry and Louis, looked out to the water.
There was a single figure floating out there, a fair way out.
It was Ernie.
He was wading his arms through the water as he lay facing the sun with his eyes closed. He looked peaceful and he deserved it.
Louis wasn’t the only thing that didn’t happen overnight.
It took fifteen months between the July that Ernie finally came forward and the November that the judge finally dropped his gavel. And their lives had all gone on hold because of it.
Greg was the first to be found guilty on account of him tampering with evidence. He’d forged the phone number with a cellphone that had been in his possession all along. He’d left the car where it was though, choosing only to remove its plates and ‘take care of’ any calls that came in about it. Dave came forward too, eventually, to say that Greg had been visiting him regularly, making threats to him after he’d pressured him to do more than take the supposed call from Sarah’s mum at face value. When he did that, they added more charges and no one was surprised.
But everything else about the case had been entirely unexpected.
Ben did something that Harry had never seen coming.
The Christchurch investigators had been going back and forth with him for days because his story didn’t add up. He’d first tried to say that he wasn’t even there, and then it became he was there and Ernie was holding him down. When the investigators asked how a thirteen year old kid held down an eighteen year old athlete, his story turned into a confusing mess of saying he didn’t remember what happened. It wasn’t until they finally told him that they’d looked through Sarah’s phone, and that they’d found the messages, that he finally told the truth.
As it turned out, Louis’ family wasn’t the only one to have skeletons in the closet. Over the course of Sarah and Ben’s four month relationship, he’d texted her across a total of 13 different occasions detailing his home life in excruciating detail. He’d been telling her, and apparently only her, about his dad. His dad, Greg, who was a bigger pitbull at home than he was in his uniform. Everyone knew that Greg was a strict guy, that he was ex-military and no-nonsense, but they didn’t know that he’d been abusing Ben his whole life.
When the police pulled out the texts and told Ben that they knew what he’d been through, that he’d lived with a man who knew how to give him bruises where they wouldn’t be seen and who know how to beat the manhood into him, and that he wouldn’t need to worry about him anymore, he apparently broke down crying. And then he told them how he never meant to kill her. One minute she was standing in front of him and the next he had her in the water, and he wasn’t sure how it happened but that it was definitely him. He explained how he’d never felt more like his father in his life than in the moment he wouldn’t get off her. His hands had felt like his dad’s and the fire in his chest had too and he never knew what love was without fists, without bruises.
After the murder, he’d gone back to home and not slept at all. When the search party was called on, his father had come right for him, held him by the neck against the wall. He’d said that he knew that him and Sarah had been running around together and he’d made Ben tell him what had happened. It was Greg who told him what to do next, to text Ernie and threaten him to post as Sarah on her Facebook, but it was Ben who had listened because there was nothing else he apparently could have done. Because Greg wasn’t going to let something like murder destroy their image in the community. He wasn’t going to have a son who slept with underage girls and killed them, he was going to have a son who kept his head down and would join the army once he’d left school.
Harry wasn’t sure how he felt when the jury put Ben away. He wasn’t sure if a ten year manslaughter charge would really be the thing that brought justice. Justice for Sarah, maybe, but she wasn’t here to get it. Ben still was, and he was looking at a life trapped between bars. He wouldn’t have the chance to learn what love, what a good relationship could look like.
It took a long time for him to be charged because that’s just what happens when it comes to murder. Or manslaughter. The process goes on for months. And it was difficult to warrant a sentence to the fullest extent of the law because Ben was just 18 when he killed Sarah, he was an adult in the eyes of the law, but he was a child in the eyes of anyone who watched his confession. Harry had seen it too, they all had, because they’d gone to every hearing and when required, testified. He’d cowered in the corner with his shaved head and swollen eyes, and his voice had been strangled and misshapen as he detailed how he was terrified to learn that Sarah was going to keep her pregnancy because that meant people would know, and his father would know that his son had fucked up his chances at leading the life a proper man . When he’d killed her, he’d panicked and tried to lay the blame on Ernie, but he didn’t mean to. Not really. When the police then asked about the graffiti on the side of the Tomlinson house, he broke down again but this time without much empathy. He’d said he panicked again because he had seen Harry and Louis together the night of the southern lights because that meant that Harry, a journalist, was probably getting close. The members of the gallery were less impressed at the footage of that. They’d left during recess with whispers of how it had been a year since he’d killed her and he’d had plenty of time to come forward, to do the right thing. He didn’t need to resort to such vulgar threats.
When November finally came and Ben was finally convicted, his face went a peculiar shape. He softened and almost looked relieved, his shoulders went slack in a way that was more accepting than cowering. Harry wondered if he found some kind of solace in knowing that his actions were wrong, that what his father had taught him was wrong, and that he was getting the deserved punishment for it. He seemed relieved to have everything off his chest, and although it meant taking away his freedom, he’d had more freedom than he’d ever known before.
The whole issue of Ben was complicated, but like everything else, it was never going to be black and white. He was a victim in some cases and a perpetrator in others, but the harm he’d caused far outweighed the harm he’d taken. He’d taken a life and nearly ruined Ernie’s, so Harry couldn’t feel too sorry for the kid.
When it came to Ernie, Harry couldn’t really complain at all. After all the interviews with the police, he was charged with perverting the course of justice. The police in Christchurch didn’t know Ernie like Liam did, they saw merely what Ernie was on paper — a foster kid in his brother’s care who’d gotten caught up in drugs and kids too old for him. Even though it hurt, it didn’t surprise any of the Tomlinson-Deakins. They were used to that way of being looked at. But thankfully, when it came to making Ernie’s appearance at the Youth Court four months after Ernie came forward, they had The Honourable Justice Aroha Manaia . She was a Maori woman with deep crows feet and smile lines, and whenever she talked she was firm but warm.
When she’d asked for Ernie’s plea, he’d said he was guilty. Because he was. And for that, Judge Manaia peered over the edge of her bench at him for a moment and considered him entirely. She considered the way he gave himself up so freely, how his tone was forthcoming and candid as he admitted his role in the events that unfolded at the lake, and then she said she was impressed. She was impressed by his understanding that he’d done something wrong. Not that he’d been there in the first place, she could not blame him for being there at the wrong place at the wrong time wherein Ben had threatened him, but for the fact that he stayed silent for an entire year.
“Ernest Rupert Atholl Deakin,” she said, looking over at him with unflinching eyes, “you, like so many of the kids that come through my courthouse, have been dealt a tricky set of cards. From being put into the foster system, to finding a family and having those parents pass, you have clearly already been through a lot. However, you strike me as a particularly self aware young man who likely understands how being through things like this can make us feel more alone in the world than we are, would I be correct?”
Ernie chewed on his lip and hesitantly nodded.
“That’s what I thought,” the judge continued. “Despite all the things that have gone wrong for you, though, you are much luckier than most kids I see. By the sounds of it, you have a brother and sister who love you very much and you, by the most part, have a stable home. I have no interest in taking that away from you.”
She paused and took a thoughtful breath, “However, Ernest, you are, as even you agree, guilty of making a very bad decision. You helped to cover up the death of your friend, and you continued to act as her on social media for months following this. As I understand it, you did this because you felt like you had no other choice, and no one to tell, even when the immediate danger of Ben Russell was no longer present. I want you to take this as a very tragic and very important lesson, Ernest. You are never alone in this world, and you must not let your fear stop you from doing the right thing. In regards to your punishment, I do not think that detention will benefit your growth from this experience. You will be required to perform 90 hours of community service and the completion of a plan as set out by one of our justice coordinators that will see you have sufficient counseling.”
Ernie took it well. By the time he was sentenced, Louis had put their family farm on the market and they’d since moved into a small rental in Christchurch. It meant that Ernie and Dot didn’t have to return to school with the kids who would look at them differently. It also meant that Louis could take his energy off the farm and focus it on keeping his family going. Harry wrote his pieces for The Herald, and Louis homeschooled the kids. After he was sentenced, Louis drove Ernie to community service every Thursday and Friday. He helped at the local animal shelter, cleaning and feeding and nursing abused animals back to health. Really, it was a blessing in disguise, because Ernie had always been the quietest in the family. He’d always been more inclined to being with the farm animals or being by himself, and at least with going to the shelter, he got to spend time with other people who had quiet natures and cared more about seeing Ernie bond with the latest litter of puppies than looking at him with disgust, knowing he had some part in Sarah’s death.
It was hard going back to Lake Tekapo when the farm finally sold. Niall and Liam seemed to be the only people about that didn’t give their family dirty looks. Everyone thought they knew the story, but they didn’t really know it. They didn’t really care that Ernie had been thirteen at the time and that he was only a kid . They still lumped him in the same boat as Ben. As Greg.
So they packed up their things and they didn’t come back.
They would have all been quite happy to leave the South Island all together as soon as it sold, but because of Ben’s trial and because manslaughter trials take so long, they were stuck in Christchurch. Ernie had to testify and so did Harry. Ernie had to explain how the night unfolded and he had to go through cross examination and make sure his story didn’t waver.
Harry just had to explain how the truth had come out.
So their lives went on hold until November, over a year later.
It was Ernie who suggested the beach bach. Since he’d gone through counseling, he’d been suggesting a lot of things. Getting another puppy, going on holiday overseas together, Louis going to counseling. He got them all.
Louis went to counseling half way through the trial, and it had been tough but worth it.
The second puppy came three quarters of the way through it. She was a Australian Shepard that Ernie named Fang, like the dog from Harry Potter. Georgie loved her. Everyone did.
They were booked to visit the Gold Coast with Harry’s parents in July, when Dot had her break between trimesters.
Harry’s family found out about his new found relationship with Louis when the news broke, the day of Greg and Ben’s arrests. And they’d been surprisingly happy about it. Despite the circumstances, they took everything Harry explained to them in their stride, and they hadn’t made themselves strangers ever since. Harry’s mum flew down often, appointing herself honouring grandmother to Ernie and Dot, and just like that, their family seemed to get bigger and bigger.
After the trial finally finished, everyone let out the breath they’d been holding for fifteen months, and then they packed up their house in Christchurch. First, they went to visit Harry’s parents in Wellington. It gave them all a chance to just have a break. It gave Harry and Louis their first chance to be a couple that wasn’t half-occupied with secrets and trials and school work.
They spent a week just driving around together, Harry taking Louis to all the places he grew up around. He took him to the movies and to a music gig and for a midnight walk along the waterfront at the edge of the city.
That week brought up a lot of things for them. It was a fist in the face of all the things they missed the first time around. It was Harry feeling unsettled because he knew it was hard on Louis to be so confronted by what he’d missed out on. And it was Louis wandering around Harry’s childhood home and being caught between the memories he never got to have because he didn’t have a childhood home, and the knowledge that he’d gone seven years by then of missing out on visiting.
The difference, this time, was that they actually talked about it. They’d drive to a look out at 9pm, just the two of them because Dot and Ernie and the dogs were quite happy with Harry’s parents. Then they’d sit on the bonnet of their newer, smaller car and look out over the twinkling lights of the city and talk about how it was they were actually feeling.
Louis still stumbled over the words of his abuse at this point, but he didn’t shy away from sharing his feelings, his thoughts. His fears.
He still got scared that, despite the fact that they’d been together, officially , for over a year, Harry was going to suddenly have an epiphany that Louis was too hard. He was too much work. That he was going to want to be with someone for whom bringing them to your childhood home was merely an exercise in giggling over old soft toys and stickers on walls.
Harry didn’t shy away from his feelings either. He explained to Louis that, sure, it wasn’t always easy to be on the outside looking in, but it was worth it. It was always going to be worth it. He loved seeing Louis chip away at his walls, and he loved the moments where Louis accidentally let out off colour jokes about himself, about the things he’d gone through, without realising it.
At the end of that week, when they’d settled into the fact that they definitely weren’t going to stop loving each other any time soon, they’d packed up the kids and the dogs and driven up to Omaha Beach, north of Auckland, to Harry’s family bach. To where they were going to spend their first summer as a family. A regular family. Free of all the challenges they’d faced over the last year. They’d been stuck on hold for so long, and now, finally, they were going to do nothing out of their own accord.
And so this had become their new normal. For the past three months, they’d given themselves room to breathe in the warm waters of the beach every morning. They’d walked the dogs in the evenings and fell asleep to nothing but the sounds of waves and peaceful silence.
Harry looked out at Ernie floating in the water and he smiled. His hair was shorter, out of his face, and his smile came easier. He was taller too now that he was sixteen, was the same height as Harry though twice as gangly. He’d spent the summer taking the dogs out to explore the dunes in the distance and the thickets of bush beyond. Harry had no doubt that after he’d finished lazily lying in the ocean, he’d go and dry himself off and go and see the friends he’d finally made. They were a group of kids he’d met because one of them, Zach, was Elliot’s younger brother. They’d seen him lying on the beach, keeping to himself at the edge of Dot and Elliot’s towel. Then they’d handed him some one of the ice creams they’d bought for everyone and that was that, they were friends. And it was easy because they didn’t know who Ernie was, they didn’t have any preconceptions, and they didn’t ask him to keep secrets or do drugs.
Harry walked down to the water’s edge and touched a toe to the cool water. It was so fresh here, the waves perpetually foamy and there was always a breeze.
He started to walk and then wade out into the water.
Somewhere, just up ahead, Harry could see a starfish clinging to a rock. He wondered, as me looked down at it, what it would be like if that were his life. So unmoving, so unchanging. It sounded boring, to be honest. His own life was so fast, so fleeting, and he’d not found somewhere yet that he knew he’d stay for years.
That would come soon though.
Splashes came up behind him, a giggle too, and Harry bent his legs in preparation. He knew what that sound meant, he’d grown used to it.
It was Louis. And he was running to jump on Harry’s back.
Harry still laughed every time he did it, his spine tingling at the cool water Louis always sent shooting up his back. His skin always pricked where Louis tucked his wet hands into his arm pits.
Louis always laughed when he did it too because that’s just who Louis was. He took delight in trying to surprise Harry with the full force of his entire body.
Even if he’d done it every day for three weeks and it was definitely a part of their routine by now.
“One day you’re going to break my back,” Harry laughed, catching Louis’ thighs as he wrapped them around Harry’s waist.
Louis just giggled and kisses the back of his neck. “Are you saying I’m getting heavy here, mate?”
“I’m saying,” Harry chuckled, “you’re a nuisance but I love you.”
Louis squeezed Harry’s chest with the arms he had around him and then he whispered, “Well your little nuisance loves you back.”
“Even when I dunk him?” Harry quipped.
“Don’t you dare—”
Harry dunked him.
He let his legs go limp and he let them fall to their side, so that when the water went rushing through his ears Louis slipped away from his body altogether. It was the only way to get him off.
Not that he wanted to.
He just liked being a nuisance too, sometimes.
Harry came up for air and Louis was already standing above him, wet hair slick against his forehead. He was grinning and it made Harry grin too.
“Come here, baby,” Louis gleamed, fake innocence dripping like the water droplets on his bottom lip.
“Why would I do that?” Harry asked back, crouching so the water came up to his shoulders. He knew that as soon as he stood, he was in for a tackle.
“Because you love me?”
“Because I love you, I should let you tackle me?”
“Who said anything about tackling? I’m not going to tackle you,” Louis said back. His smile grew wickedly and Harry wanted to know why.
“Then what are you going to do?” Harry asked, raising an eyebrow.
“ I’m not going to do anything.”
Harry caught onto the too much emphasis in the I’m too late.
Hands were on his shoulders.
And he was being pressed down.
It only lasted a second before they were gone, and then the fingers were digging into his sides instead and Harry was coming up, gasping for air between too loud, too shrill, laughs. He jostled in the water, splashing it everywhere as Ernie latched on to him from behind.
And then Louis joined in and it only got worse, because fucking hell , nothing was as deadly as Louis and Ernie getting up to mischief together.
Louis tickled him from the front and Ernie tickled him from the back and the only thing Harry could do was scream for help.
The dogs came immediately, from where they’d been tucked under the shelter of flax bushes this whole time, barking as they jumped into the water. They swam for Harry and luckily it worked, as the dogs got closer Ernie’s deft fingers finally gave way to clutch Fang’s still gangly body instead.
Louis only stopped tickling him when Harry managed to get his hands to Louis’. He yanked them away and held them behind Louis’ back and then swore to the both of them, “I swear to god, when you two are least expecting it, Dot and I are going to go into your rooms and actually dump cold water on the two of you.”
Ernie laughed from behind him as he encouraged the dogs to go back to shore, “Isn’t doing that to Lou just gonna make your bed, where you sleep, cold and wet?”
Harry turned to him with a grin, “Well, I guess. But it’s a small price to pay for vengeance.”
“And besides, Harry,” Louis added, “that’s only going to give us more reason to do it again.”
“You can’t get revenge on revenge,” Harry loudly complained, making sure his hands were securely around Louis’ wrists. There was no guessing he would yank them away to jump on Harry and tickle him again.
“I’ll do what I want, thank you very much,” Louis grinned sweetly back. And Harry should have known it. He really should. There was no winning in this situation.
Ernie dug his fingers back into his sides and Harry had no choice but to writhe and plummet beneath the water.
“Stop!” Harry managed, somewhere between laughter and pain. “Stop!”
And this time, thankfully, he did.
Ernie fell away from him and they laughed as they all fell back into the water and let it cover all their sides. Their laughs slowly, lightly fell away as they let themselves float instead. The sun was already high above them, hot and white, and the lick of it across their eyelids bleached their chuckles away.
They fell into a natural quiet, the three of them floating there, knees bumping into each other. Harry could soon only hear the dull pop of water as shallow waves slipped in an out of his ear.
Harry could stay like this forever. It was so easy for time to slow down when he was like this, floating in warm water with people he cared so much about. He was going to miss this, their routine of sun and quiet. The haven carved out just for their family. Two weeks and they’d be moving on again.
“Are you ready?” Harry asked out of nowhere.
It was a question for all of them but it was Ernie who answered, “I hope so.”
“Hope?” Louis asked, voice light. Delicate.
“Well I think I will be, but still, it’s going to a whole new school in a new city, and it’s kinda weird after being homeschooled for a year.”
“Zach will be there with you, though,” Louis offered.
“Yeah, I’m sure I’ll be fine. It’ll be good though, right? A proper fresh start, things back to normal.”
“Mm,” Louis hummed. “It will be good, I’m sure. We’ve all got those pre-school nerves, though.”
“Everyone but Harry,” Ernie mused.
“If it helps, I’m going to be the one stuck at home unpacking furniture. Starting school sounds a lot more interesting.”
“I doubt that,” Louis chuckled, moving out a hand to tuck his pinky around Harry’s. “You’ve always liked that kind of thing.”
Harry did. He’d been the one to spend hours mulling over which way to put couches and pillows at their Christchurch rental so it at least felt like a bit of a home while they were stuck waiting for hearings and testimonies. It was him who’d reorganized the bach so it didn’t still smell like the 70s. And it was going to be him who was going to write and unpack in Auckland when Dot started her first year of university, Ernie started his first year back at high school, and Louis went back to finish his teaching degree.
Harry felt Louis’ hand snake further around his and then give it a squeeze. Louis was quiet a moment before he gently said, “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d said it, so he didn’t have to explain further. Harry knew that he meant all of it, the talking and the confessions and the moving on to the beach and then Auckland. They both talked a lot about where they would have ended up by now if they hadn’t reunited. Louis always thought he’d still be two feet in sheep manure and Harry thought he’d still be wandering.
Though they agreed that they’d both be wondering.
Wondering what ever happened to the other, and what their lives would have looked like if they’d stuck it out the first time.
It wasn’t the last time they talked about the why nots, the what ifs and the could have beens. It came up again that evening when the house was quiet because Dot and Ernie had gone out. Harry and Louis went back down to the beach because they liked the breeze in the evening. Louis liked to watch the sun go down. Even though he didn’t need to sleep with the curtains shut, the sky still gave him comfort.
They’d been walking for half an hour, the dogs unleashed and chasing each other up ahead of them. The sky was mellow and brushed with lilacs and buttercup yellows. It made Louis’ skin look tanner, and it made his eyes look deeper too.
With a gentle brush of his fingers, Louis led them towards a log, thick and washed smooth. It sat on it and dug his toes into the sand and waited for Harry to sit too.
When he did and their shoulders were touching, Harry could finally see the way Louis was looking out to the ocean. He could see the low sun just barely glint in the corner of his eyes, they looked wistful, far away. Louis always suited the beach more than the mountains. Where the mountains had crowded around him and kept him in, the ocean was wide and open and free.
They sat in silence for a long time, Louis watching the ocean and Harry watching Louis. The breeze ran gentle fingers through Louis’ hair and it took Harry’s thoughts with it. He was content, and it had finally started to settle in him that that was something that he could feel every day. He could wake up content, come home content, go to sleep content. Because although their lives were still moving, still fleeting, the hardest parts were over. They had time now, too much time to count, for them to just be normal. For them to move on, together.
Louis kept his eyes out on the water and let out a long, settled breath. And then softly let out, “I’ve been thinking.”
Harry let himself breathe in and out twice before he felt the need to reply. “What about, baby?”
“About everything. About why it was so hard for me to let you in,” he sighed. “It feels so stupid, now that you know everything.”
“It’s not stupid,” Harry said back, placing a tender hand on Louis’ back.
Louis went with it and let his head rest into Harry’s shoulder.
“I know,” he breathed. “I know it’s not stupid. But I’ve been thinking about what I was so scared of. Because, like, everything that happened to me happened so long ago. I’d forgotten a lot of the shit that went on in the houses I lived in, I’m not kept up at night thinking about them, but it’s like those things that happened to me just live in me now, even if I don’t know they’re there. They’re just a part of me. And that’s frustrating because I wish I was able to explain to you all those years back why I felt so alone, even when I wasn’t—”
“And you aren’t now,” Harry interjected, because he could never remind Louis enough.
“I know, baby,” Louis whispered with a small smile. “I really know that now. But I still find myself feeling guilty about it all. And not just about not being able to talk to you. The more I look back on my life and how I grew up, it’s like I had to raise myself, and I didn’t have anyone there to hold my hand and show me how to love, or even how to not be on my own. I was so used to thinking that I was the only one who would understand and I was the only one I could trust. I didn’t really know how to be vulnerable with other people, and it sometimes leaves me with this big sense of guilt. Like, somehow I’m guilty for how I grew up. I’m guilty for not really having parents until I was twelve, or I’m guilty for having had abusive adults in my life before that. Which… I know is wrong. I know I’m not guilty of any of that because I was a kid. There was nothing I could have done, but the guilt is still there sometimes. It was like I had to hold all these things inside myself and not ever let them out because then everyone will look down on me, like I chose them. I knew you wouldn’t think that, but the fear was still, like, physically stopping me from getting it out. It’s like these memories were stuck somewhere deep inside me and I could never bring them to the surface.”
Louis paused and took a thoughtful breath, linking his fingers with Harry’s in his lap. “But I’m letting that go. I’m so much better at talking about things now and letting you in.”
“You are,” Harry whispered, smiling to himself as he rested his chin on Louis’ head.
Louis lifted Harry’s hand and kissed the back of his knuckles, and then he continued, “I’ve been thinking about something else too.”
“I think I’m going to get a tattoo.”
“What of?” Harry asked, letting a seagull flying by in the distance catch his eyes.
“It might sound dumb—”
“Oi,” Harry gently chuckled, knocking his knee into Louis’. “None of that. Tell me.”
Louis rubbed his thumb into the palm of Harry’s hand and he could feel him looking at it. “Okay, so I was thinking about how it’s all so circular. Everything is connected. I wouldn’t have had Mum and Dad in my life if I wasn’t in the foster system, I wouldn’t have Dot or Ernie either. And I wouldn’t have reunited with you if it weren’t for Sarah. Then on the other hand, I wouldn’t have needed to reunite with you if I hadn’t gone through what I did. It’s like, all the good stuff and the bad stuff is so interconnected, I wouldn’t be who I am today if anything had been different. So as much as I hate all the terrible stuff, I’m thankful for it too. Because I wound up here, and I’m happy. And I’m strong.”
He took a natural pause that fell into natural quiet, because they were both looking out at the waves and how the tide always goes out but it always comes back in.
Eventually, as the sun started to glimmer at the edge of the horizon and the dogs came to sit at their feet, Harry remembered why it was that Louis had even been talking about how everything built on everything to place them right here.
“So what are you going to get?” Harry asked quietly, kissing the back of Louis’ head and squeezing his hand.
Louis shifted, turning his whole body so he was straddling the log with his back against Harry’s chest. He leant back into him, wrapping Harry’s arms around his waist so he could get comfortable and lift his arm for Harry to see over his shoulder.
Harry couldn’t help but smile and rest his cheek against Louis’ head as he finally pointed to his forearm, just below his elbow, and explained.
“A circle,” Louis finally said. “Just a circle. Because there will always be good and there will always be bad. You can’t have one without the other. I’ve made it through my past and I will make it through my future. I thought that my story had ended so many times, when I left one home for the next, when I found my parents, when my parents died, when I lost you. And even now, moving to Auckland to start again. But those were all beginnings as much as they were endings. A circle reminds me that there are no endings or beginnings. Life will continue, and so will I.”
“I like it,” Harry whispered.
And then he kissed his cheek and they watched the sky darken, knowing that something had finally ended and something else was beginning.