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nocturne in silver and blue

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“Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three. Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one.”

– Sandra Cisneros, from Eleven

*

The first time it happens, Harry is four.

See, Gemma’s been growing a little seed she found in an apple. She put it in a pot and carefully put earth over it and watered it every day until there was a tiny green thing coming out of the earth. And when it happened she squealed and smiled and told everyone she’d plant it in the backyard when it was big enough and eat its apples and maybe put a swing on it. Harry liked the little thing just fine, even if he didn’t see much point to sitting and waiting around until it got big. Lots more interesting things to do in the meantime.

But now– but now they’ve just come back from a weekend trip to his Aunt Lydia’s and back in Holmes Chapel it’s properly cold, the kind of cold that’d made Harry’s nose and the tips of his fingers pink when he stepped out of the car. And now they’re in the kitchen and it’s much colder than Harry remembers it being before and Gemma’s clutching at the pot that was on the windowsill and crying.

Mum sees her and rushes to her. She looks into the pot and her face does something quick and sad. “Oh, darling,” she says, and holds Gemma close, letting her sniffle into her jumper and mumble things that Harry can’t make out.

He walks up to them and tries to peer into the pot. “Can I see?” he says. Gemma ignores him. Maybe she hasn’t heard. “What’s wrong?” he says, louder this time. Gemma cries harder.

He meets his mum’s eyes instead. She looks more tired than she usually does. “Gem’s plant died, baby,” she says, softly. Harry feels like his tummy’s suddenly heavy.

He frowns. He doesn’t understand. “But, but she’s been giving it water every day! And it had lots of light too, didn’t it?” He looks at Gemma and pats her elbow. “Maybe if you give it more water it won’t be dead anymore.”

Gemma shakes her head from where it’s buried in Mum’s jumper. Harry opens his mouth, wants to ask why, but Mum says, “It doesn’t work like that, Harry.”

Harry furrows his eyebrows. “Can I see?” he asks again. He doesn’t remember ever seeing a dead plant before. He reaches up and tugs the brown pot from where it’s squished between Gemma and Mum and peers into it curiously. It doesn’t look all that different, but Harry thinks he understands, because before it was green but now it just looks slumped and… sad.

Harry looks up at Gemma and sees her still sniffling, grabbing at Mum’s jumper with closed fists. He looks down at the plant again, and feels bad for not caring about it before. It was pretty, and it made Gemma happy, even if it took ages to grow. He wishes– he doesn’t know what he wishes, not really. He wants to make it better. He wants to give back to the plant the thing it had to make it not look dead. He prods it gently with a finger and wants.

And then suddenly the cold Harry was feeling is gone, and there’s a warmth that feels soft and glowing, like watching a fire. He hears himself breathing but it’s really loud, almost like he’s covering his ears, and then– and then, so slowly, the plant begins to curl upwards and turn green again, only this time it’s a green that’s dark and wonderful. Harry can hear his heart, boom boom boom in his ears and his chest. The plant twists, and its stem grows taller and taller, and suddenly, slowly, something at the tip of it changes and a flower opens up, its petals spreading out in brilliant red. More flowers bloom along the stem, opening into the light. Harry remembers what he’s been told at school and wonders if by touching the plant he made spring happen.

Because he made this happen. He knows it.

His heart isn’t so loud anymore. The flowers have stopped appearing. He tugs on Gemma’s sleeve. “Gem,” he says. “Gem, look.”

Gemma looks. Her mouth opens but she says nothing. Harry feels uneasy suddenly. He looks at Mum, and she’s already looking at him. For a second, Harry gets the distinct impression that he’s done something terribly, terribly wrong, and he feels his eyes get itchy with sudden tears. But then his mum is letting go of Gemma and picking him up like she only does sometimes now. “Harry,” she whispers into his hair, “Harry, my wonderful, wonderful boy,” and that’s all he needs to feel okay again, really.

*

Things change, after.

Harry doesn’t make anything else happen, and his mum doesn’t say anything else about it, so he thinks it’s okay, he hasn’t done anything wrong, and puts it out of his mind soon enough. But one day she starts taking him to see a lady that says she’s not a doctor but looks like one, and she does things that doctors do too, at first. She measures his height and weight and foot size and uses her instruments to look into his eyes and ears and mouth, and then she tells him to do things like draw his mum and his sister and a family made up of animals. Then she asks him a lot of questions. Some of them he knows from school, but others he has to think about and even then he’s not sure he’s answered right.

He goes two times every week after school, and eventually she starts asking him to do different things. She gives him things to draw and to build and to dress up in, and once she gives him Legos and walks out of the room and doesn’t come back until it’s time for him to go. And she tells him to lie down and close his eyes and think of things like a garden, or a river, or being underwater, only she speaks like she’s telling a story, a story that he makes inside his head; and every time he opens his eyes again he has a strange tingly feeling at the tips of his fingers and toes. Until one day she tells him to imagine he’s flying and he hears his heartbeat everywhere, just like when he did that thing to Gemma’s plant. And when he opens his eyes he feels strange all over, and after a second he realizes it’s because he’s floating two inches above the carpet he was lying on.

The lady smiles the brightest smile Harry’s ever seen on her face.

His mum comes to his next visit after that. It’s nothing like the rest of them; there’s no games, no Lego, no lying down, and the lady says hi to him very nicely but talks to his mum the rest of the time. Harry sits on his chair and listens for a bit, something about how he does really show an aptitude for it and we’ve got some books and leaflets here if you’d like to take a look and specific schools with special programmes if you’re interested. He gets bored after a while, though, because even though he’s usually really good at sitting in his seat or criss cross applesauce all through class there aren’t any funny pictures to look at and the doctor isn’t even talking to him and it’s boring. He starts to fidget, slides down out of his chair and hopes his mum’s too busy talking to the lady to notice, and then starts to investigate the room. He looks at his mum once or twice, keeping a wary eye, and one time she notices what he’s doing and looks like she’s going to tell him off but the lady tells her something quietly and she leaves it be. It’s strange, but Harry’s not going to question his luck.

They don’t come back after that. Harry doesn’t ask why, but he misses it, sort of. He has his own toys, but he liked the bit where he imagined things. He especially liked it when he made himself fly. He’ll have to try that again.

*

There’s a boy at school called Rick who always takes Harry’s pencils during colouring time. Harry doesn’t mind sharing, but then he notices that when Rick gives them back the tips are all broken and snapped. He sharpens them again, but eventually the pencils start coming back snapped all the way through – and when he looks over at Rick, he sees he’s not even colouring anymore, but putting the pencils on the ground and stomping on them with his chair, breaking them under the chair legs. For a moment, Harry gets angry, really angry, and he feels something raging hot inside him, and the next thing he knows the chair legs have somehow melted and Rick’s on the floor crying. He only feels a little bit bad about it.

*

“I made a boy’s chair disappear today,” he announces that evening at dinner, because even if it was technically only the legs, it sounds more impressive that way. His mum looks at him in a way that makes him wonder if he should have said that or not, though. Gemma’s eyes widen, and she looks like she’s going to say something, but his mum puts a hand on her shoulder and speaks first.

“Did you hurt him?” she says, tone a little strict.

Harry fidgets. This feels like a telling-off. “Only a little,” he says, and watching his mum’s face grow stern, he adds defensively, “He was breaking my pencils!”

“Harry,” his mum says seriously. “When is hurting people ever okay?”

Harry blinks, then hangs his head. “Sorry,” he mumbles. “I didn’t do it on purpose.” He sneaks a look up and his mum’s eyes are softer, like she’s forgiven him. He breathes out, relieved.

Gemma, though, looks strangely excited. “Did you really do that? Can you show me how?” Her eyes are bright.

Harry shrugs, something he’s seen her do, but feels pleased all the same. “It’s easy. If someone’s annoying you you look at them and you just do it.” He sneaks a guilty glance at his mum, and adds hastily, “But you shouldn’t because hurting people is bad.”

Gemma, though, is frowning. Harry wonders why. He quite likes impressing her. “Mum, can Harry do magic?” she asks. He feels a jolt at that, and looks at his mum too, waiting for her to explain.

His mum hesitates. Strange. “It’s not like that, Gems,” she says eventually. “He can just do things that we can’t. It’s how he was born.” Gemma looks like she’s going to protest, and Harry has a burning need to ask questions, too, because how does she know all this? But his mum looks at both of them and says, “We’ll talk about this later, okay?”

Gemma frowns, but she mumbles, “Fine,” so Harry does too. They finish dinner, though, and soon enough they’re getting ready for bed, and his mum might have talked to Gemma while he wasn’t looking but later comes and she still hasn’t explained anything at all.

*

“Mum, can I do magic?”

Every night, Harry’s mum pulls up his blankets, tucks him in and then sits on the edge of his bed and tells him a story. Gemma says she’s too old for stories now and goes to her room and reads a book instead, but Harry loves it, never wants the story to stop. But– as much as he loves the stories, he has to ask his mum this first, because he’s been wondering about it ever since Gemma said it and he can’t go any longer without knowing.

Magic. He’s never even thought about it like that. Magic would be the coolest thing ever.

His mum sighs and strokes a hand through his hair. The yellow light from his bedside table lights up her face and it feels nice, safe. “Ah, Hazza,” she says. “I think I should have told you about this before. I'm going to explain something to you, okay, baby?” Harry nods, the covers hitched up to his chin. “Remember the lady I took you to see?”

“The doctor?” Harry asks.

His mum smiles. “She wasn’t a doctor, but yes. Remember the questions she asked you, the things she told you to do?” Harry nods again, even though he wonders how his mum knows about that if she wasn’t there. “Well, she wanted to find out some things about you. She wanted to find out if you could do certain things, things most people can’t. Turns out, you can.”

“Magic,” Harry whispers, hardly daring to believe it.

His mum’s smile grows. “Not magic, Hazza, not really. It works in a very specific way.” Her hand keeps on stroking his hair, slow, reassuring. “It only happens when you really want something. When you do, you can sometimes change things, make them closer to how you want them to be. But you can’t control it, not really – the only way to control it is to learn to control what you want.”

Harry snuggles further into the blankets and feels so warm, down to the tips of his toes. “So it is like magic,” he says. His face is smiling even though he can’t remember making himself smile.

His mum laughs. “Maybe it is, Harry, maybe it is.”

“And can– can a lot of other people do it too?” He squirms from the excitement. Maybe he can get to be in some sort of club with these other magic people. Maybe he gets to use his powers to become a real live superhero.

His mum’s smile falters a bit. “Not really– I don’t know how many people there are, love. We can find out, if you want. See if there’s anyone your age around here. Would you like that?”

“Yes,” he says honestly. He thinks for a bit, and then, “Does that mean there’s no one who can do magic at school, then?”

“I talked to the school,” she says, “and I think there’s one girl in Year Five who’s like you. You can talk to her if you like, you know that?” Harry fidgets, because he’s never talked to anyone in Year Five in his entire life. They’re even older than Gemma. “The school mentioned there are some special classes she takes, too. Maybe try that out and see what it’s like.”

Harry nods in silence. He can’t– he can’t say anything right now, he’s so busy thinking about it all. He has powers. He has actual powers. And all he has to do is learn how to use them and he’ll be able to do anything he wants! A thought occurs, then, and he says excitedly, “Can I tell everyone at school?”

He wasn’t expecting the smile to drop off his mum’s face like it does. “I don’t think that’d be a good idea, love.” She takes one look at his face, and then adds, “You can tell your friends, okay? But maybe– I don’t think it’s a good idea to announce it, baby. Tell people you trust, and you’ll be fine.”

Harry feels disappointment swell inside him, cold and horrible, the thought of impressing everyone with his magic dropping from his mind. “But why?”

His mum sighs, and her voice is softer when she speaks again. “People don’t like things that are different, Hazza. They don’t like people who are different. Especially when they might be afraid of those people, too.” His mum looks straight at him now, and her face is serious. “And that’s why you should never, ever do what you did today, Harry. You have something special. Never use it to hurt people. Do you understand?”

Harry nods, although he doesn’t, not really, especially the part about people being scared of him. But he doesn’t dwell on it. Instead, he hugs his mum around the neck and lets her kiss him on the forehead and tuck him up snugly, and when she turns the light off and leaves the room with a whispered, “Goodnight, Hazza,” feels nothing but sleepy, and warm, and safe.

*

He keeps quiet about it all through the next morning, even though it feels like it’s a secret so big that it’s going to burst inside him like a balloon. After lunchtime, though, he can’t keep quiet anymore. He sidles up to David who is a friend of his and carefully tells him, “Do you want to know a secret?”

David looks at him. “What?”

“I can do magic.” He feels himself smile at that, big as anything.

He’s pleased to see David’s eyes widen. “Really?” Harry nods seriously. “Prove it.”

Harry falters for a second. He wasn’t expecting David to ask that. But it’s okay, really, because he can do magic to get the things he wants, right? So all he has to do is concentrate on wanting something. He looks around and spots a girl called Lucy who has very yellow hair. He frowns and concentrates on turning it purple. Nothing happens.

David looks at him. He doesn’t look impressed. “I knew it wasn’t true,” he says, and runs over to the football pitch without looking back at Harry. Harry blinks, confused, and says nothing. Maybe he’ll keep quiet like his mum said after all.

*

Harry wants a lot of things. In fact, Harry probably wants something all the time, so doing magic should not be a problem. He should be doing, then, too much magic instead of too little. It doesn’t make sense.

Or it doesn’t at first. Harry eventually stops trying to impress people with his magic, because it’s just not working. He can’t do it, and no one believes him, and some people even laugh at him. He’s thinking of telling his mum that maybe the doctor got it wrong when one morning he sees a dead squirrel by the side of the road when his mum’s walking him and Gemma to school and before he knows it he’s turned it into at least ten miniature squirrels who scamper off and leave nothing behind. Gemma gasps, his mum smiles, and Harry thinks that he maybe can do magic after all.

Weeks pass, and the air starts getting warmer, and Harry eventually figures it out, the knowledge growing like it was part of him all along.

There are a lot of things he wants. When they pass an ice-cream cart and his mum refuses to get him one, when he goes to his friend Sam’s and plays with her dogs all afternoon and wants one of his own, when they go shopping for his cousin’s birthday present and he wants a Nintendo game too – when all of this happens, he squeezes his eyes shut and wishes. But when he opens them again everything’s the same as it was. Still no ice cream. Still no game. Still no dog.

He cries a bit the first few times. What good is magic if he can’t even use it? It doesn’t seem fair. But even though he wants those things desperately, he forgets about them soon enough, and when he wakes up the next morning he can’t remember if there was anything he wanted at all.

The other kind of wanting is different.

It doesn’t happen all the time. It doesn’t even happen often, and when it does it’s for seemingly unimportant reasons, reasons that a lot of the time he can’t even explain himself. But when it does… when it does he knows instantly because he gets so focused suddenly, and then he feels hot down to his toes, and then he makes things change. And even when he can’t explain what he wished for, he looks at what he’s done and feels happy, and calm, and good.

He has magic. He knows that now. He can do anything, even if he can’t choose what he does with it, even if he can’t tell anyone, even if he’s the only one.

*

People find out, anyway. After the third time he makes it snow inside the classroom and Harry’s teacher has quietly taken him off to the side and told him maybe he should have a word about this with his magic teacher (Miss Wheel isn’t his magic teacher, not really, but he has separate classes with her and she talks to him about his magic a lot so that’s what he calls her), David edges up to him.

“Did you make it snow?” he asks.

“Yes,” Harry says immediately, because he actually feels quite proud of it.

David looks at him for a moment and blinks. “All those other times, too?”

“Yes,” Harry says again. He wonders excitedly if David will believe him this time.

“That’s so cool!” David says. “Can you show me how?”

By the time Harry’s mum comes to pick him up, six different people have come up to ask him if he really can do magic. Harry’s feeling very pleased with himself. When he sees his mum, though, he remembers what she’d told him, what she’d said about not telling people, and he feels guilty and scared for a second before he remembers he’s done nothing to make people afraid of him. He’ll be okay.

*

Harry is seven when his grandmother gets ill.

His mum takes him and Gemma to visit her in the hospital. Harry hasn’t been to many hospitals before: he wonders if they’re all so clean, if the light is this white in all of them. He and Gemma kiss his grandmother’s cheek and she smiles at them both and squeezes their hands tight. Harry smiles back even though he feels uneasy and has decided he doesn’t want to be here at all.

When he gets home, he asks his mum, “Is Gran going to die?”

He’s old enough now to know from the look on his mum’s face that he maybe shouldn’t have asked that question. But she sits next to him in one of the kitchen chairs, dinner temporarily forgotten, and looks him in the eye. “Maybe. We don’t know. The doctors don’t know yet.”

Harry keeps on asking, even though he knows he shouldn’t. “What’s wrong with her? Is she ill because she’s old?”

“Her lungs aren’t working properly,” his mum says gently. “And yes, in a way it’s because she’s old. It means she’s not as strong as someone who’s younger. But young people get ill too, like you and Gemma do sometimes. Only you’re strong, aren’t you? So you get better.”

“I know that already,” says Harry. He’s frustrated, like he isn’t saying what he wants to say at all. “But you don’t have to be old to die. Do you?”

His mum looks at him. Harry thinks she looks sad, sort of. “No,” she says quietly. “Life always ends at some point, love. So what matters is if it's a good one.”

Harry thinks about that. “I’d like to live to be a hundred years old. Do you think I can?”

His mum ruffles his hair and kisses his forehead. “I don’t know. Do you think I’ll live to be a hundred?”

“Definitely,” Harry proclaims. He grins at his mum, and she grins back, and then goes back to making dinner.

Harry’s left thinking about what she said. He feels like he needs more, though, so when he gets back to his room he stands on the bed and inspects his bookshelves. He finds three or four books that talk about the human body, and he looks through all of them, trying to find an answer for what he asked his mum, do you have to be old to die? But there’s nothing. There’s bits about getting old, but he finds nothing about dying at all. It’s like the people who write the books don’t want you to know.

*

Harry’s grandma dies three weeks before his eighth birthday. His mum’s eyes are red for a long time, and Gemma cries and cries even when he hugs her or tries to comfort her. Harry doesn’t go to the funeral; he watches his mum and sister dress in black and then they drop him off at Sam’s house and he forgets about it for a little while until they pick him up again.

It takes him a while to fall asleep that night. His head starts thinking thoughts on its own and he can’t get it to stop. He wonders where Gran is now. He’s heard people at school say their grandparents are in heaven, watching over them. He looks up at the ceiling. It’s hard to imagine she’s up there. Maybe if he’d gone to the funeral he’d have found out. He’d ask his mum, but she looked so tired today, and he scared if he talks to Gemma he’ll make her cry again.

He wonders if he’s really never going to see Gran again at all. He wonders what dying feels like, if it hurts.

He falls asleep eventually, but has strange dreams, and when he wakes up the next morning he finds out he’s made the ceiling glow.

*

Harry has two parties for his eighth birthday: one for his friends and one for his family. Gemma helps him make decorations and make the guest list and his mum hangs the decorations up and makes two separate cakes, one chocolate and biscuit and one strawberry ice cream. The parties are both brilliant, and he gets lots of hugs and presents ranging from Lego sets to a raincoat, and he sings and dances and when he blows out the candles on one of the cakes he accidentally makes the air around him bright pink and everyone laughs. Harry goes to bed on both days feeling tired and happy, but just before he falls asleep he realises that both of these days are gone, that there'll be more days but he won't be able to live this one again. It makes his sleep restless.

*

When school ends for the summer, Harry realizes that Gemma won’t be going to school with him in September anymore.

She’s eleven now, two digits, and she’s always been taller than him but now Harry feels like a tiny garden gnome when he stands next to her. Her hair reaches halfway down her back, and she doesn’t put on her sparkly lipgloss anymore. Instead, it’s something pinker, less shiny, and he notices her eyelashes are longer and darker sometimes when she’s making an effort to look pretty. She looks old now, like a proper secondary kid, and Harry thinks he can’t remember when that happened exactly. It scares him, somehow.

*

It’s a warm night in July when he realizes:

He never did any magic to help Gran when she was ill. He never did any magic to save Gran when she died.

For the first time, he hopes Gran’s not in heaven, hopes with all he has that she can’t see him now. Because she’d know. She’d know everything, she’d know that it’s his fault, she’d know he saved the squirrel he found on the road back when he was six but he couldn’t save her. He wonders what’ll happen when Mum dies. Will she die because of him, too? Will she die because he didn’t do magic to save her?

He didn’t go to Gran's funeral, but he’s seen funerals on TV, he knows what they look like. He sees his mum lying in between bunches and bunches of flowers, her eyes closed, her mouth not smiling. He screws his eyes shut and buries his face into the pillow, but it’s no use; the flowers are still there, only this time it’s his Aunt Lydia. Miss Wheel from school. Gemma.

Gemma’s going to die too, isn’t she?

She’s so much older than him now, and she’ll eventually die, too. She’ll be gone forever and he won’t be able to see her or talk to her ever again, no one will, because he couldn’t do magic and save her.

Everything will go away. Everything. Even him. Even this house. Even the little babies that are being born right now somewhere in the world. Everything will go away, will leave, and no one will remember it.

Every second that passes, now, is one second that he’ll never live again, one second that takes him closer to the day his mum will die, Gemma will die, with nothing he can do about it.

He realizes he’s crying when he touches the pillow and it feels wet where his face was on it. He cries quietly, though, putting his hands over his mouth. If his mum comes to see what’s wrong he won’t be able to stop seeing her dead.

The flowers won’t go away. They’re there every time he closes his eyes. Harry falls asleep wishing he were anyone else in the world - someone who doesn’t know like he does.

*

Last summer, when school was over and his mum left him and Gemma home to go to work, Gran came over and watched them during the day. But she’s dead now, so this year Gemma and him are alone at home, and Gemma’s supposed to be taking care of him.

She has breakfast with him every day and she microwaves him the lunch his mum leaves for them in the fridge, but he has to catch her in a good mood to get her to play with him. So he really doesn’t have much to do all day if he's not at the town pool or at someone else’s house. He draws, he reads a book sometimes, he sits on the sofa and watches CBeebies, he counts his sticker collection, but eventually he does get bored and is reduced to taking naps or lying on his bed and staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars he stuck on the ceiling when he was six.

Today, that’s what he does. He’s not bored. He just feels too terrible to do anything else.

Gemma comes into his room mid-morning, sees him, and asks him what’s wrong. Her voice sounds concerned, almost like a proper mum voice, and hearing it makes it even worse. He tells her he’s feeling bad, because he technically is, and she feels his forehead even though Harry’s pretty sure she doesn't know how to tell if someone has a temperature or not. She kisses him on the cheek and tells him she’ll call Mum and ask her what to do. Harry nods, looking at the stars on his ceiling.

His mum comes home early, just before lunch, and feels his forehead too, more expertly than Gemma had done. She proclaims him temperature-free, even though he can see she looks concerned when she asks him what hurts. He just shrugs and buries his face into the sheets.

Together, though, they manage to persuade him to get up and go downstairs for lunch – it's macaroni cheese, so he can’t bring himself to pretend to have a tummy-ache. Gemma tells jokes and his mum tells him about all the various odd customers she had today at the till. Then his mum tells them she can help them to bake something this afternoon if they want, which of course leads to bickering, because Harry wants brownies but Gemma has a strange fascination with bread and always refuses to make anything else. They make half a tray of brownies and a small loaf of bread in the end, and eat the bread with dinner and the brownies for dessert. Harry’s kept so busy he almost forgets all three of them are going to die.

But at night, when his mum comes into his room to tell him a bedtime story and even Gemma comes to listen, snuggling in next to him, he can barely pay attention. His mind's too skittish to listen properly, always going back to the truth he’s spent all day trying to avoid. They both kiss him goodnight and he absently kisses back until the light is off, and they’ve gone, and he’s alone again.

There’s something about the house at night, like this, that makes it seem so big and so empty. In the dark, his room looks like cave walls, and when he looks out to the corridor a while later, when his mum’s turned off the light too, he sees the darkness at the end of it and feels like it could go on forever. The stars on his ceiling glow, but they seem much too far away. He curls up beneath the sheet even though the air is warm, careful to keep it tucked in.

When he starts crying it almost feels like a relief, like he’s been holding his breath all day and he’s only letting it out now. He turns his face into the pillow and lets himself think it all, all the bad thoughts, until he feels so so small, like he’s being crushed under them. He hugs his chest with his arms and sobs as quietly as he can.

Every minute that passes is a minute closer to his death, to everyone’s death, he knows that now. He knows that he shouldn’t waste them, but he can’t stop crying, messy hiccupy crying that makes him feel like a little kid. He wouldn’t mind being little now. Little kids don’t know anything, and they can play and do normal things without feeling guilty and bad all the time.

He looks up at the stars on his ceiling and suddenly they’re not enough. He hesitates for a moment, cheeks still wet, before tugging the sheet back and stepping out onto the carpet one foot at a time. He pads over to the window quietly and tugs the curtains out of the way; he struggles to open the window but manages it in the end, letting a gentle breeze into the room.

He usually can’t see the stars very well from his bedroom window. On cloudy nights you can see patches of the sky at most where there’s gaps in the clouds. On clear nights, the lights in the street below make it hard to see anything except for the really big ones, like the ones he knows make up the Big Dipper. But the streetlights don’t seem to matter today, because he looks out at the sky and there are so many of them. The whole sky, everything he can see, is tiny sparkling dots of light, some of them so close together it looks like bits of the sky are white instead of blue.

They’ve told him at school that stars die too. Not like people: people just… die and that’s it, but stars explode and sometimes turn into black holes that suck everything inside themselves. He’s never really understood why, but his mum likes to explain, too, that some of the stars we see are dead already even though they’re still in the sky – something to do with them being so far away. He looks up at the stars, wiping at his eyes messily with the back of his hand, and wonders which ones out of all of them are dead already. He wonders if any of them will die before he does.

He focuses on one particular star that seems like it’s right in front of him. It’s one of the smallest ones, just a tiny pinprick of light that you have to look hard to see. He looks at it, really looks at it… and suddenly, like a wave, he feels heat rushing through his body, the kind of heat that can only mean magic. But it’s strong, stronger than it’s ever been, strong enough to make him scared and to make him shut his eyes tight just in case. It gets hotter and hotter until it almost burns, and Harry wonders what magic like this could possibly do– but then, in a second, it’s gone completely, and he stumbles, leaning against the windowsill, his eyes flying open again. Suddenly, he feels tired, so tired, his eyes closing even though he doesn’t want them to, his body slumping. He doesn’t feel like crying anymore. He just wants to sleep, and forget about this, because even if it makes him feel a bit silly – it’s scary.

He looks for the star before going back to bed, but he finds nothing.

*

Things are different somehow when he wakes up. There’s still an uneasiness, still a horrible dread lingering inside his head, but it’s not like it was before. He doesn’t feel small anymore. It doesn’t crush him. It’s a Saturday, so his mum’s home, and when she asks him if he’s feeling better today he smiles and says yes and he feels he’s being honest.

He doesn’t think back to the feeling of magic last night at all.

*

There’s a park down the road that Harry’s allowed to go to on his own now that he’s eight, provided it doesn’t rain and he brings someone with him. Gemma won’t come with him anymore, but friends of his from school knock on his door sometimes and they’ll go together. Today is like that. It’s been a few days since the bad thoughts, and he’s feeling better now, so when Sam and Tess and Greg show up at his house and ask him to come with he says okay.

Still, once he gets there he finds he’s not really in the mood to play. No one will go with him on the swings because they’re too busy hanging upside-down from the monkey bars, and then some other kids show up with a football and of course a game starts up. Harry knows he’s terrible at football, but he still joins in on most days because it’s fun even when he ends up tripping and falling into the mud. But he hangs back today, kicks himself higher and higher on the swing until it starts to creak alarmingly and he lets himself swing slowly to a stop. He looks at the game going on a little further, but he stays where he is. It’s quiet here. It’s nice.

He hops off the swing, his shoes squishing into the muddy grass. He looks around and decides to go exploring. The park has the road and the rows of houses on one side, but on the other side, behind the park fence, the trees start. He heads over to them, clambers over the fence, and it's only a few steps until he’s in the trees properly. The earth is darker here, and damper, and when he looks up there are branches blocking out the cloudy sky.

He can barely hear the sounds of the game anymore. It's like he’s in a whole different world.

He steps quietly through the tall plants and pretends he’s in a proper forest. He stops and listens. Yes, he can hear it now, the evil forest-dwelling wizard that’s coming to get him. He doesn’t know what he's going up against, then. Harry breaks into a run suddenly, not daring to look back in case it slows him down, and ducks behind a tree. Slowly, he peeks his head out to see if he’s still being chased– and then he sticks his hands out and throws magic at the wizard, really powerful magic, thunder and lightning bolts. That’ll show him. When the magic clears, the wizard is gone and there’s nothing there. He pushes his sweaty hair out of his face and grins. He’s undefeatable.

But– wait! There’s something else coming! It’s bigger than the wizard, it’s a full-out monster. Harry flees and it chases him. He needs somewhere to hide, somewhere it can’t get him, so he can do magic and defeat it. He looks around, but there’s nothing– and then he sees a tree with thick branches lying low, perfect for climbing, and he thinks okay.

He jumps onto the branch and almost slips and falls, but he hangs onto the trunk, clambering onto the next branch quickly because he needs to be fast or it’ll get him. He edges along it sideways, carefully, and steps onto a higher branch a little to the side– but then he looks up, looking for the next branch, and stops abruptly. The monster falls away from his mind.

There’s a boy on the branch. Harry’s sure he’s a real, live boy, not a pretend one. Only– he doesn’t look like any boy Harry’s seen before. Because he glows. His skin looks like there’s a gentle light coming out of it, and if Harry squints– are those colours on the boy’s skin? He can’t see them if he looks directly, but he sees them out of the corner of his eye. They’re colours that change, and Harry suddenly thinks, looking at the boy, that he looks just like the sky.

(He also has no clothes on, but Harry doesn’t mind. He goes around naked at home a lot of the time anyway, especially in summer, so he can respect it.)

Harry’s staring, even though he knows it’s rude. It’s just– he’s seen nothing like this before, not even when he’s done magic. It’s so pretty.

His eyes meet the boy’s. They’re a lovely shade of blue, and it takes Harry a moment to realize that they’re narrowed straight at him. The look on his face blatantly says that he doesn’t trust Harry at all. Harry looks at the way he’s holding his body and notices he’s tense all over, like he’s ready to run away.

“Hi,” Harry says carefully, trying to sound as friendly as he can. “Who are you?”

“Who’re you?” the boy shoots back.

“My name’s Harry. You?”

The boy looks oddly taken aback at the question. He hesitates, and then carefully says, “Louis.” It sounds strange, though, like he isn’t used to saying it out loud. Harry wonders why.

“Louis,” Harry says. “Nice. What’re you doing up here?” Maybe he was playing like Harry was. Maybe if he was they can play together. Harry inspects Louis – he looks about as old as Gemma. He hopes that doesn’t mean he’s too old to play like she is.

Louis blinks. “I was– I don’t know. It’s just, I– it’s better. Than down there, I mean.” He frowns. “Nevermind.” He hesitates before speaking again, but then says, “What’re you doing here?”

Harry grins. “I was playing. D’you want to join in?” Louis blinks, and then shakes his head no. Harry can’t help but feel disappointed. He’d quite have liked to play with someone who looks so strange, and so pretty.

“Why’s your skin like that?” he asks suddenly. It’s rude, he knows, but he needs to know. Louis frowns and looks down at his bare arms. Then he shrugs. (Harry also feels a little disappointed at that – he’d sort of been hoping Louis could do magic too.) As an afterthought, Harry adds, “D’you want some clothes? You can borrow my shirt if you want. I can go without it.” Louis shakes his head again. Okay, then.

Harry hesitates for a moment before lowering himself down and sitting on the branch. He leans his back against the tree trunk and adjusts his bum until he’s sitting comfortably, and he’s pleased to see Louis does the same, even though he sits as far away from Harry as he can and still looks tense. Neither of them say anything for a while. Harry looks at Louis, at the lovely warm glow that comes out of his skin, and he wants to touch it just to see if it feels as nice as it looks. He doesn’t, though, because he wants Louis to trust him, and if he does that Louis will probably run away.

Instead, he just watches, and he’s so caught up he doesn’t even notice when a familiar warm feeling starts up inside him. In fact, he’s only aware he’s doing magic at all when he hears a faint rustling sound and sees the smaller branches on the trees around them growing, growing– and reaching out to Louis, trying to touch him. Harry can’t help the way his face grows hot.

He looks to Louis quickly, hoping he hasn’t chased him away. But Louis doesn’t looks alarmed at all. Instead, he’s looking at the branches in wonder, and he actually hold his hand out and touches a nearby one gently. It squirms, like Louis’s tickled it. Harry’s amazed to see the way Louis’s face slowly, slowly grows into a smile– and then he looks at Harry, still smiling, and asks, “Did you do this?”

Harry nods, face still hot. He thinks Louis will maybe ask him how, like everyone else does, but instead he just says, “It’s really nice.”

“Thanks,” Harry says, and honestly means it. He’s relieved to see Louis doesn’t look tense anymore, like somehow Harry’s magic has made Louis trust him more than Harry being nice to him. That’s never happened before. Maybe that’s why it feels so nice.

There’s a moment of quiet. The plants are still, now. Louis looks like he’s going to say something. But before he does, Harry hears shouts: his name being called, faintly, from somewhere that sounds far away. Louis tenses and doesn’t say anything.

“I have to go,” Harry says. He doesn’t want Sam and Greg and Tess to come here looking for him and he’s scared Louis will leave if they do. So he slides off the branch quickly and hops onto the next one, wanting to get out of here fast– but he can’t help himself, he stops and glances back up to look at Louis. He’s looking down at Harry. Harry really doesn’t like the thought of leaving him here all alone.

“Louis?” Louis blinks at him. “Are you sure you’ll be okay here by yourself?” Louis nods and says nothing. Harry doesn’t like it. “I’ll come back tomorrow, I promise. I’ll bring some clothes too.” Louis nods again. “Okay. Bye, Louis.” He waits in case Louis wants to say something back, but he doesn’t, so he hops down to the next branch and then off the tree.

He’s about to start running back when he hears a faint, “Bye, Harry!” He whirls around and sees Louis’s face peeking out from between the leaves. Harry waves, and Louis waves back, and when Harry gets back to the park he still has a grin on his face.

*

He doesn’t tell his mum or his sister about Louis. Instead, he dedicates the afternoon to thinking about what he’s going to bring him tomorrow. He takes a bag from the bag of plastic bags in the kitchen and sneakily goes around the house taking everything he thinks Louis might need. His biggest T-shirt and shorts and pants, neatly folded. A water bottle. A pear, and apple and two chocolate bars. A pillow to sleep on, and one of his comic books in case he gets bored. He hides it all under his bed and neither Gemma nor his mum suspect anything, and he goes to bed that night feeling very pleased with himself indeed.

*

“Louis?”

He hasn’t really sneaked out of the house. He told Gemma he was going to the park with his friends is all. Only the park is empty and he’s not really in the park anyway but in the bit with the trees, dragging his plastic bag and calling out to try to find Louis. He’s not having much luck so far.

“Louis? Are you there?”

Harry squints at the trees, trying to see if he can spot Louis anywhere among them. Uneasiness starts to creep its way in. Perhaps Louis isn’t there at all. Perhaps he’s gone already, or something’s happened to him because he spent the night here all alone. Or perhaps... perhaps Louis wasn’t even there in the first place. Who knows? Maybe Harry got so caught up in his game that he imagined Louis and thought he was real.

“Louis?” he tries again. His voice sounds wobbly. He listens, and then–

“Harry?” a voice says from above. Harry’s so shocked he drops the bag.

He scrambles to pick it back up and then cranes his neck in every direction. “Louis? Where are you?”

There’s a soft thud as Louis hops out of a tree and lands on the ground. Harry is so relieved to see that he’s okay, that nothing hurt him when Harry wasn’t there. “Louis,” he says breathlessly. “You’re here.”

Louis smiles at that, actually smiles at him. Harry feels dazed. It’s like looking right into the sun. “You came.”

“Well, I promised,” Harry says, frowning slightly. Louis wasn’t sure he’d come back? He looks down and remembers the bag in his hands. “Here,” he says, fumbling with it, “I brought you some clothes like I said. You don’t have to wear them if you don’t want to. They’re just in case.” He holds out the folded clothes and Louis steps closer and takes them, looking at them curiously. He unfolds them, though, and seems to like them okay, because a moment later he’s pulling the shirt over his head and tugging on the pants and shorts. Harry’s relieved to see the T-shirt only looks a little tight on him and the shorts fit okay.

“Thanks,” Louis says. He looks at the bag curiously. “You brought more things?”

“Well– just in case,” says Harry. “I brought you food, and some water in case you’re thirsty. And a pillow so you can sleep okay. And a comic book for if you get bored.”

He pulls everything out of the bag and hands it over; he considers for a moment and then hands him the bag too for good measure. Louis looks intently at all of it. It’s almost like he’s never seen any of it before, which is odd, but Harry doesn’t want to ask questions because he wants to make sure Louis stays. So he tries to explain what everything is, and Louis nods seriously and follows all of his instructions. Soon enough, they’re sitting on the ground, not quite side-by-side but closer together than they were yesterday. Louis drinks the water and eats everything, offering some to Harry every time. Then he tells him he liked the chocolate best of all.

“Me too,” Harry says, and Louis smiles at him. He doesn’t know why, but Louis’s smiling so much today, and it’s wonderful. He seems so much friendlier than yesterday and barely tense at all. Harry wonders if he’d like to play with him today, then promptly asks him, and this time Louis looks a little cautious but nods all the same.

*

Louis is brilliant.

It’s not only that he looks interesting, magic, almost. It’s also that he’s so much fun. Harry’s sure that’s not just because he’s older (although he doesn’t actually know how old Louis is), because none of the older kids he’s ever played with are this good at it. This is the best day ever.

He’d explained the game to Louis and Louis had understood pretty fast, but had suggested, what if we chase them instead of them chasing us? Of course. Harry doesn’t know why he didn’t think of that before. Now it’s not a chase anymore – it’s a battle. And he has Louis on his side. Fantastic.

Harry’s hair is sweaty and his clothes are muddy. He pays this no attention at all, because right now he’s also running, crashing through the trees, hoping Louis isn’t too far off. He needs to concentrate or he’ll get distracted from the strategy. Up ahead, he sees the tree they’d agreed to meet at once they’d thrown the monsters off. (This is Louis’s idea, too. A pack of monsters instead of just one is much more exciting.) He runs up to it and ducks behind it, panting. Louis is already there, glowing brighter than ever, Harry thinks.

“Hi,” Harry whispers breathlessly. “Are yours very far away?”

Louis shakes his head no. “I left them just there,” he whispers back, gesturing at the trees. “We don’t have much time.”

Harry nods. “Okay. I was thinking I could distract them, make a lot of noise, and you can run up behind them quietly and finish them off.”

Louis grins. “Brilliant.” He shuts his eyes, cocks his head and listens. “They’re coming,” he says quietly. “Okay, when I say so…” His eyes open again and he looks straight at Harry. “Go!”

Harry shoots out from behind the tree and deliberately stomps his feet as he runs, crashing through as many bushes as he possibly can. “Hey!” he yells. “Hey, over here, look at me!” He glances over his shoulder. They’re following him. Good. He spots Louis as they get closer and closer and grins breathlessly. They’re gonna show them.

He whirls around once the monsters get too close. They stop, looking confused. Harry faces them defiantly, sticking his hands out to the side to get them ready for magic. He sees Louis right behind the monsters. They haven’t noticed him. Louis looks at Harry, and as Harry watches, he nods.

Now.

Harry shoots lightning bolts at the monsters, and Louis shoots his own magic at them too, and in a second, that’s it, it’s over. The monsters are gone. They’ve won.

Yes!” shouts Harry, and Louis cheers back, and then Harry runs up to him and hold his hand out for a high five. Louis just blinks at him, so Harry, feeling giddy and brave, reaches out, takes Louis’s hand and smacks it against his own. Then he realizes it’s the first time he’s actually touched Louis (he feels just as warm and glowy as he looks) and quickly drops his hand, glancing over at Louis’s face. He doesn’t look worried or scared or angry at all, so Harry grins at him, still sweaty and excited from all that running.

He’s opening his mouth to tell Louis how great he is when his stomach growls. Is he hungry already? It’s only– wait. Harry looks up at the sky between the branches and realizes that the sun is bright and high up in the sky, which means it’s later than he thought, but he can’t know for sure because he doesn’t even own a watch, nevermind have one with him. He wonders how long he’s been here. If he’s not home for lunch Gemma will probably come looking for him. And she’ll definitely call Mum. That wouldn’t be good.

He doesn’t want to leave, though. He doesn’t want to leave at all.

“Louis?” he says tentatively. Louis looks at him, his eyes bright and blue. “I think I have to go now.”

He thinks Louis looks disappointed for a teensy moment, but then he just shrugs. “That’s okay,” he says. “Will you come back?”

“Of course,” Harry says immediately. Does Louis still think he won’t be coming back after all they played today? Maybe he didn’t have as much fun as Harry did. “Will you play with me again?” he asks a little shyly.

Louis’s face lights up at that. Harry is glad. “Yes! Also,” he adds as an afterthought, “you should bring more chocolate. It was nice.”

“I will,” Harry says, nodding. He hesitates. “Bye, Louis. I liked playing with you.”

“Me too.” Louis grins. Good. “Bye, Harry.”

Harry turns around and starts walking towards the park again. When he gets to the fence, though, before he climbs it, he can’t resist looking back and waving. Louis is right where he left him. He waves back. Harry looks at his glow and feels nice, happy, like he’s bubbly inside.

*

It takes about a week, but eventually Harry decides that he and Louis are really, actually friends.

Louis is fantastic. Louis is loud and fun and fast, and he can climb trees better than anyone Harry’s ever seen and he comes up with the best game ideas ever. Harry struggles not to tell his mum or Gemma anything about him, because he’s scared if his mum realizes he goes to the park alone with someone she doesn’t know she won’t let him go anymore, but it’s hard, because Louis is fantastic and does the best things sometimes and Harry wants everyone to know about him.

He visits Louis every day except for Sunday, when his mum takes him and Gemma up to Manchester to visit the zoo. Harry likes the zoo okay, because the animals are nice and friendly and they look like they have enough space to play in (he once read a leaflet about zoos who treat animals badly and it made him cry). But the whole time he’s there, he can’t help but wonder what Louis’s doing, if he expected Harry to come today too, if he’s disappointed. He brings Louis more chocolate than usual the next day to make up for it.

He goes to the park all the other days, though. It’s easier when his mum’s not at home because Gemma always lets him and is she asks about it it’s questions that are easy to answer. It’s harder when his mum’s home, but he makes up a different excuse every time and so far it’s going nicely.

And Harry loves it. He loves being with Louis and he loves playing with Louis. The games have evolved now, and they have allies as well as enemies and they aren’t just fighting for themselves now; they have a kingdom to protect. Harry’s glad they always fight together. He likes having Louis on his side.

Besides, Louis never treats him like some of the older kids Harry knows, Gemma’s friends or brothers and sisters of friends of his from school. He’s always right by Harry’s side, never trying to boss him around or treat him like he’s only a little kid. He likes playing as much as Harry does, and he always seems to be having just as much fun.

Also, Harry’s noticed that Louis loves it when he does magic.

He’d thought about it the first time they met, when Louis seemed to trust him when he made those branches grow, and he’s seeing it now. Harry is usually too focused on the game to do magic when they play, but it happens sometimes anyway. And as soon as it does, Louis stops playing immediately to stare at the way Harry’s making flowers bloom, or the earth ripple, or water sprout from a tree like a fountain. The first few times, Harry thought he did it because he thought it was weird, but then Louis had turned around and smiled at him, glowing brighter than ever, and Harry had known that wasn’t it.

But it still takes him a while to realize that Louis can do magic too.

They’re not attacking but hiding this time. The wizards have taken a little baby prisoner and they have to be quiet if they want to sneak in and rescue it. They’re flattened on the ground, dragging themselves through the undergrowth as silently as they possibly can, but when they’re almost there suddenly Louis jumps up and starts running. Harry wants to yell at him because now they’ve been hiding for nothing and Louis isn’t supposed to play like this, but– the moment Harry opens his mouth, Louis is gone.

What?

Where is he? Did he just disappear into thin air? Harry forgets about hiding and props himself up on his knees, looking around wildly. How did he do that? Where did he go? What if he doesn’t come back?

“Louis?” Harry calls out uncertainly. He gets no reply.

But then– Louis, somehow, is appearing again right next to Harry, in a different place than when he disappeared. He’s smiling widely and cradling an imaginary baby in his arms. “I did it, Harry! I got him!”

Harry scrambles to get up and looks at Louis, stunned. He reaches out and touches Louis’s arm to make sure he’s really there (he is) and then demands, “How did you do that?”

Louis frowns, dropping his arms. “Do what?”

“You were there, and then you disappeared, and– and now you’re here,” Harry explains, gesturing wildly.

Louis seems to realize what he’s talking about. “Oh,” he says. “I don’t know. I just did it. But it’s just like you, right? When you do things like make flowers appear.”

“But that’s different,” Harry says. “I can’t just…” He trails off suddenly, because he’s realized something. “Does that mean you can do magic too?”

He’s barely met anyone who can. He talked to the girl who used to go to his school once, but she was so much older than him so he felt too shy to say much, and once his mum took him to a sort of meeting with other kids and their parents, which was fun, but two kids got in a fight and one of them turned the other into a fox so they didn’t come back after that. But Louis doing magic is something else entirely. Maybe Harry should have suspected it already, seeing that strange light in his body. But if he really can, this is even better than he thought.

“That’s brilliant!” Harry says excitedly. “How does yours work? Is it when you want things too?” Louis looks confused, so Harry helpfully adds, “You should talk to your mum about it. Mine took me to see a doctor and we found out lots of stuff. Maybe it can help you too.”

“My mum?” Louis asks, looking more bewildered than ever.

“Well, you don’t have to talk to her if you don’t want to,” Harry says. “It might help, but maybe it won’t, I don’t know.”

“What?” Louis says. Harry’s excitement fades a bit, and he stops to look at Louis more closely. If Harry didn’t know better, because Louis is older and he doesn’t do that, he’d say Louis was going to cry.

Harry frowns. “Louis, don’t you have a mum?”

Louis suddenly grows tense all over again. “What are you talking about?” He looks defensive, and angry, and Harry wants to know so badly but the idea of Louis being angry at him is scary.

“I didn’t mean–” Harry says helplessly. “Louis, please don’t be mad at me. I was only trying to help.” Why is Louis acting like this? Why doesn’t he want to answer? What magic can he actually do? Harry doesn’t understand at all.

“It’s okay,” Louis says, but it’s not, because he doesn’t look friendly anymore at all and he’s glowing brightly, but not in a warm way like he usually does, and Harry doesn’t like it. But he says nothing else after that, and Louis doesn’t either, and Harry knows Louis doesn’t want to play right now so he leaves almost right away. Even though he can’t stop wondering about Louis’s mum, and about Louis’s family, and, for the first time, if he really is all alone, not just here but everywhere.

*

Harry’s known about the trip to Whitby his mum has planned since the start of the summer. He’s even been looking forward to it, because he hasn’t been to the beach since last year and it really is a lot of fun. But ever since he met Louis he’s started to forget about a lot of things, like seeing his other friends or the fact that he’s technically not allowed to take chocolate from the cupboard without asking his mum first. (She’s told him off about a week ago, and now he’s having to secretly buy it with his own pocket money.) So he more or less forgets all about the trip, too, until they’re having dinner one evening and his mum tells them, “You’re going to have to start packing for Whitby soon!”

Harry’s brain freezes unpleasantly. “What?”

“Whitby, silly,” Gemma tells him.

His mum takes a look at his face and smiles. “It’s okay, Harry, you don’t have to tell me you’d forgotten about it.”

Harry’s stomach feels twisty. “When? How long are we going for?”

“A week, remember?” Gemma tells him. “We’re leaving in two days, aren’t we, Mum?”

She looks to his mum for confirmation and she nods. “That’s right, Gem.”

“But–” Harry can’t get the words out. “But we can’t be away for a whole week!”

“Why’s that?” Gemma asks curiously. Harry says nothing.

“Harry, love, is something wrong?” His mum sounds concerned. For a moment, Harry wants so badly to tell her, tell her that he can’t go because then Louis will truly be all alone and what will he do then? But he doesn’t. He can’t. So he just shakes his head no and looks down at the table, feeling helpless and guilty and terrible.

*

He packs an extra big bag for Louis the day before they leave, with water, chocolate, a jumper and a raincoat. He feels a bit silly, but he also takes a picture he drew a few days ago of him and Louis chasing a spiky blue monster, folds it carefully, and slips it in the bag too. He doesn’t want Louis to feel alone.

He felt too bad to tell Louis anything yesterday. He’s going to have to do it today. A feeling of dread weighs him down on the entire walk to the trees.

The game isn’t very good today. Harry can’t get into it properly. When they stop playing and collapse to the ground, Harry can feel Louis’s eyes on him. He turns his head to meet them. They look like they’re asking a question.

Suddenly Harry can’t take it anymore. “I’m going away tomorrow.”

Something in Louis changes a bit. “Oh,” he says. “Okay.” He’s silent for a moment, and his eyes flit away to look at the ground. “Will you be coming back?”

Harry frowns. “What? Yes! It’s only for a week.”

Louis shrugs. “Okay,” he says again, and neither of them say anything for a while after that.

Harry feels like he needs to say something else. “Louis,” he tries. Louis doesn’t look at him, but Harry knows he’s listening. “I can ask my mum if you can come with us if you like. I bet she’d say yes.”

“No,” Louis says immediately.

Harry can’t help but feel hurt at that. “But why?” he says. “Why don’t you ever want to go anywhere that isn’t here?” He sees Louis tense up at that, but he’s tired of Louis not answering his questions, and he feels hot inside. “I just want to be proper friends with you, why don’t you want to?”

Louis is on his feet now. “Harry. Just shut up, okay? Just shut up.” He glows bright, but it doesn’t look friendly at all.

Harry feels his eyes start to get itchy with tears. “Why won’t you answer me?”

“Just– just because, okay?” He’s very very near to shouting, and Harry’s heard him shout before but never like this, never at him. He suddenly feels less angry, more scared. He tries to reach out to Louis, but Louis jerks his arm away. “Harry, just leave me alone, okay? Just leave me alone.

Louis turns away and Harry gets up, gets ready to chase him. But before he can, Louis just goes, disappears completely, and Harry can’t possibly follow.

*

Whitby is only a week, but it feels so long, the days going on and on and on. Harry’s distracted by the beach and the wind and the sea during the day, but at night he can’t get to sleep. It’s like as soon as he lies down in bed all the tired disappears and he starts to think and think. Like before with the bad thoughts, only now Louis is in them, too. He wonders what Louis is doing. He wonders if he’s all alone. He wonders if he’ll ever want to talk to Harry again. It doesn’t seem likely.

Dimly, he wonders if Louis will die too, someday. Where before he’d managed to imagine it much too clearly with Gemma and his mum, with Louis it’s much harder. Louis dying just doesn’t seem right. He’s much too bright to.

It rains during the whole drive back to Holmes Chapel. It’s a long trip, takes more than three hours, and Gemma sleeps through most of it. Harry tries to, but he can’t. He settles for watching the raindrops on the car window, making them race each other until he loses track and just stares, thinking, thinking.

*

The first thing Harry wants to do when he gets back is visit Louis. He’s halfway to asking his mum if he can go to the park when he realizes what a terrible idea that would be, and he retreats to his room immediately.

In the end, it takes him two whole days to muster up the courage to face Louis. Sam and Greg show up at his door and they ask him to come to the park with them: he panics at first, but then he gives in. He guiltily plays football with them for a while until he can’t stand it anymore and stops playing to sit on a wet bench a little further off, and he spends ten whole minutes staring at the ground after that (Sam comes to ask if he’s okay and he answers yes so she goes away eventually) before he finally picks himself up and trudges towards the trees.

He expects at least five minutes of walking around and calling out Louis’s name, if Louis even turns up at all. So when five steps in he looks up and Louis’s sitting on a tree stump right there, Harry doesn’t have a clue what to do with himself.

“Hi,” Louis says, like it’s the most normal thing in the world.

“Hi,” Harry says back, because he can’t think of anything else to do. Louis doesn’t hate him. Or does he? There’s no way Harry’s going to ask.

Louis stretches his arms above his head and grins right at Harry. His glow is happy and warm, and there’s no anger on his face at all. Harry’s never done magic on people before, but he wonders if it’s happened now. Maybe he wanted Louis to forgive him so badly that he made it happen. But no, that can’t be right, because he hasn’t felt the magic feeling once in the whole week. Maybe Louis’s just forgotten about it. In any case, he actually looks happy about seeing Harry again, and Harry doesn’t want to question it.

So he launches himself at Louis and yells, “Duck!”, because a wizard’s just fired a spell at them and he can’t let it hit either of them, and of course Louis goes right along with it, flattening himself to the ground until Harry tells him in a whisper that the spells have passed. Because it’s what he always does, and Harry can only feel relieved that it’s something he’s still doing.

*

Louis isn’t mad at Harry anymore. Harry knows because he asks him. Once. Louis goes very still, and says, “Why would I be mad at you?”

Harry doesn’t push it. If he’s forgotten, at least they’re still friends, and that’s enough.

*

They talk now, sometimes. They play, of course they play, they play all the time, but sometimes Louis collapses to the ground and drags Harry down with him, and either they just lie there (which makes Harry’s mum tell him off for getting mud all over the back of his clothes) or they sit on a rock or against a tree. And then, Louis asks him things. They’re everyday things, things that Harry would consider almost boring, but Louis listens intently every time, barely ever fidgeting or mucking around. (He does interrupt Harry a lot, though.) Things like what his house looks like, or how a washing machine works, or the stories his mum tells him before he goes to sleep. Harry rarely asks anything back, because he remembers what happened the other times he’d tried to get Louis to answer his questions. He tries to let Louis tell things of his own accord, but he never does. Harry doesn’t even know how old he is.

Once, though, after Harry’s done describing his mum’s dresses in meticulous detail, he says, quietly, “It’s okay if you don’t have a mum, you know. I don’t have a dad.” Maybe Louis’s figured that out on his own, because Harry’s mentioned other people’s dads, but never having one of his own. Still, he wants Louis to know.

There’s a pause. Then, Louis says, “I don’t have a dad, either.”

“Oh,” Harry says. “Okay. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

“I don’t think so,” Louis says. It’s an answer that’s a bit strange, but that’s not what Harry’s concerned about, right now.

“Are you– are you all alone, then?” Harry asks it quietly, because he’s not sure if Louis will want to hear it. Louis doesn’t look at him, and Harry, for a moment, is scared he’ll disappear.

But then Louis looks at him and says, “There’s you.” He glows a little bit brighter as he says it. For some reason, Harry is relieved.

*

Harry’d thought he was doing a good job keeping his visits to Louis from his mum. He’s fairly sure Gemma doesn’t suspect a thing, and he thinks his mum doesn’t, either, until he’s helping her fold the laundry and she casually says, “So what’s all this visiting the park nowadays, then?”

Harry’s so surprised he drops the sock he’s holding. “Um,” he says. “Sorry?”

She laughs. “I was just wondering, love,” she says. “I’ve noticed you go there a lot, and I talked to Sam’s mum yesterday and she told me you don’t play with Sam much these days. So, what’s it you do here?”

No no no no. This wasn’t meant to happen. “I, er,” he says, and before he can make something up he just blurts out, “I play with my friend. A friend I made.”

“Oh?” his mum says, sounding interested. “Who’s this friend you’re spending so much time with, then?” At least she’s not telling him off. Harry feels like crossing his fingers, though, just in case.

“Louis,” he says carefully. “His name’s Louis. He’s fun.”

“Louis,” his mum says. “I can’t remember if I’ve heard the name before. Does he live around here?”

Harry hesitates. “I don’t know,” he says, because he doesn’t. He doesn’t even know if Louis lives anywhere at all.

His mum looks thoughtful. “Okay, then,” she says. “You should invite Louis round sometime, then. I’d quite like to meet him. He sounds lovely.” She smiles at him and keeps on folding a shirt of Gemma’s, leaving Harry thoughtful, but mostly relieved.

*

“My mum said you can come over to my house someday if you want,” Harry tells Louis the next day. They’ve defeated the wizards again and they’ve slumped against a tree, trying to get their breath back. Harry tries to say it as normally as he can, but his heart is going thump thump thump inside his chest.

“That’s nice of her,” Louis says casually. For a moment Harry thinks he might leave it there, but then he says, “What’d you tell her about me?”

Playing with Louis is easy, straightforward, but when Harry talks to him he sometimes thinks he can’t figure out anything he does. “I told her you were my friend,” Harry says.

“Oh,” Louis says. Harry thinks he sounds a little bit relieved. “All right.”

Harry fidgets, scratching a nail against the tree bark. “Are you coming, then?”

Louis’s glow dims a little bit. “I don’t think so,” he says. Harry’s about to ask him why, but then Louis says, “Tell me more about Ben 10, then,” and Harry does, and that’s that.

*

August goes on. It’s sunny sometimes, and it’s cloudy on most days, and things stay as they are. There’s Harry’s life, and there’s Louis, and they’re separate things nearly all the time and that’s how it is. Harry tries suggesting to Louis that they leave the trees, even if it’s just to hop the fence and go over to the park, but Louis refuses every time. Then he starts talking about something else really fast so Harry can’t ask him why.

They spend a lot of time climbing trees. Louis is brilliant at it, halfway up the tree trunk even as Harry struggles to make it to the second or third branch. (He also ends up falling off a few times, disgruntled, as Louis hoots with laughter. Louis never falls, not once.) There’s a tree here that’s excellent for climbing, the one Harry had first met Louis in, and they climb that one high enough that Harry gets scared if he looks down. But then he looks at Louis, glowing bright against the green of the leaves, and he feels reassured somehow. Louis’s here, so he’ll be okay.

Louis seems happier up here, much less nervous. Harry thinks he’d love the swings, and resolves to get him on them one of these days.

*

Okay, Harry didn’t really think his mum had forgotten about Louis. He’d just hoped it was a long time before she brought it up again, is all. It’s not.

They’re having lunch one Saturday, his mum and Gemma and him. The rain patters against the window, and Harry’s looking at it worriedly while he eats his salad, hoping it stops this afternoon so he can go see Louis, when his mum says, “Will Louis be coming over someday, then, Harry?”

“What?” Harry says, panicking.

“Who’s Louis?” Gemma asks.

“He’s my friend,” Harry says defensively. He glances at his mum. “I don’t think he wants to.”

“Oh?” his mum says. “Why not?” Harry shrugs.

This is strange. The whole of it, it’s just– strange. Louis isn't something he talks about at the lunch table, that’s all. He never wants to go out of the trees, so it’s weird talking about him anywhere else. Even if he isn’t there.

Harry wonders if he was wrong about Louis. Maybe he can’t do magic, maybe he just is magic. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t want to leave the trees– because he’s one of those magic creatures, fairies of the woods, like in stories. Only Louis is a boy, not a lady, like they are. Also, he’s not green.

“What’s he like?” Gemma asks. “Is he your age, or is he older?”

“Older,” Harry says. Gemma asks him how old, but he tells her he doesn’t know. “You wouldn’t like him anyway,” he tells her. “He plays with me all the time, and you say playing’s for little kids.”

“He sounds like a good friend, then,” his mum prompts him.

Harry nods seriously. “He’s the best.” It might be weird talking about Louis to his mum and sister, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t secretly enjoy it a little bit. He wants to tell people how great he thinks Louis is, but he never gets the chance to, so. “He has the best ideas for games, Mum, you know? They’re so good. And he’s really cool. I mean, he even glows–” and then he claps a hand over his mouth, because he really should not have said that.

“He what?” Gemma asks, frowning.

“He– I mean–” Harry thinks wildly, panicked, trying to find an excuse for what he’s just said. He comes up with nothing. “Well, he glows,” he admits. his heart is beating so loudly he wonders if his mum can hear it. It’s the kind of thing he thinks she might be able to do. “I mean, his skin does. It’s actually quite nice. I think he can do magic too, but I don’t know for sure because he won’t tell me.”

He glances up from where he’d been looking at the table, embarrassed. His mum and Gemma are both looking at him, but they have odd looks on their faces. Why? Harry doesn’t understand.

Gemma is the first to speak. “Harry, is Louis actually real?” Harry recognizes her voice immediately. It’s the one she uses when she thinks she’s a proper grown-up. Harry hates it.

“What?” Harry asks wildly. “Why?

“Gemma, Harry, calm down, the both of you,” his mum says sharply.

Harry whirls around and turns on his mum. “Why’d she say that?” he demands.

“Because you’re making up stories about people in your head and saying they’re real,” Gemma says. She sounds calm enough, but when Harry turns to face her there’s something in her face that’s maddening. Like she thinks she’s right when she’s lying.

Liar!” Harry shouts at her. “You’re a liar! He’s real. Why would you say that?”

“Yes, but you only think he’s real ‘cause you’re the one who made him up,” Gemma says, and that’s it.

Harry runs right out of his chair and pounces on her. “You’re a liar!” he yells, and then he pulls on her hair, hard. She shrieks and slaps him, but he only pulls harder, because Louis is real, he is, he is

–but then he’s being pulled back sharply, and he lets go, and suddenly his mum is there, and she’s angry, really angry, like he’s almost never seen her. She doesn’t shout. His mum never shouts when she’s angry. Somehow, that makes it even worse.

“None of that,” she says. Her voice is cold, stern, deadly serious. “None of that here, or ever. Understood?” She looks each of them right in the eye. Harry shrinks back when she looks at him. “I won’t have my children acting like savages. Not in this house. Never do that again.” She pauses, lets them take it in. “Now I want you, Harry, to apologize to Gemma, and Gemma, you apologize to Harry. And then you’re both going to sit down, and behave, and neither of you are going out this afternoon. I don’t care what plans you’ve made. Understood?”

Harry watches Gemma nod sulkily. His mum turns to him then, but he doesn’t nod. He doesn’t say anything at all. He just turns away and runs, right up the stairs, into his room, slamming the door behind him. He throws himself against it and then it all wells up and it’s too much and he just sobs and sobs until his chest hurts and he can’t breathe.

*

It’s a while before he hears a knock on his door. He doesn’t answer.

“Harry?” he hears his mum say through the door. At least it’s not Gemma. He still scuttles further up against the door, though, leaning all of his weight against it so it can’t be opened. He’s not going to talk to his mum right now. He’s not.

His mum knocks again. “Harry, can I come in?” He hugs his knees and buries his face in them, doing his best to cover his ears with his arms at the same time.

Harry.” She doesn’t sound angry. She sounds concerned, and a little bit tired. Harry hesitates.

Slowly, he wriggles away from the door, settling against the wall instead. He doesn’t open the door, but it looks like his mum can tell he’s moved even from the other side. The door opens, slowly. Harry stares at the ground.

His mum walks up to him. He can only see up to her knees from here. She crouches in front of him and takes hold of his chin gently, making him look at her. “D’you want to tell me what happened down there, love?”

Harry feels his face turn hot. The tears come back, and dimly, he’s aware that some sort of mist is floating around him, shielding him. He can’t remember making that happen, but he doesn’t want it to go.

“I don’t want her to be right,” he mumbles. He wants to hide his face, but his mum won’t let go of his chin. The mist grows thicker.

His mum bats it away with a hand. “Harry,” she says. “Is Louis real? For you?” Harry doesn’t even hesitate before nodding, because he is. “Do you play with him, have fun with him?” Harry nods again. “Then he’s real. End of story. If you feel he’s with you, he is.

Harry tugs his face loose and wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand. He lets what she’s said sink in. “Yes, but–” he starts, and stays there. He doesn’t know how to explain. She hasn’t seen Louis. No one has seen Louis except for him. She doesn’t understand.

In the end, he just looks at her and asks, "Do you think he’s real?"

She smiles, warm and mum-like. “I believe whatever you believe is real, love.” It’s only a bit reassuring. Still, he can see the mist fading, little by little.

*

He doesn’t see Louis that afternoon. Even if his mum had let him go out after all (she’s not angry with him anymore, Harry thinks) it rains the whole afternoon and all through the night. Harry goes to bed listening to the rain on the window and worrying that the next time he goes to the park Louis will have somehow disappeared.

He hasn’t, he finds out the next day when it's stopped raining. He’s relieved, but he also can’t stop thinking about what Gemma said.

“Can we go out to the park?” he asks Louis, because he’s certain seeing Louis outside of the trees will prove he’s really there, that Harry’s not making him up. (He wants to touch Louis, too, see if that’ll clear it up, but that’s not something he’s going to ask. He’ll have to do it sneakily.)

Unfortunately, if they haven’t done that before it’s for a reason.

“Um,” Louis says. “Maybe not now? Hey, how about we do that bit where we climb up the trees and then drop down and attack?”

That sounds brilliant. Harry’s just about to say okay when he catches sight of Louis’s glow and remembers what he needs to find out.

Louis,” he whines. “Please can we go to the park, pretty please?”

Louis has stopped moving. He stays in one place now, but he still rocks back and forth on his feet, and his fingers fidget. “I like it better here,” he says, quieter.

“Come onnnnn,” Harry says in his best pretty-please voice. “I really want you to come on the swings with me, Lou. They’re the coolest. It’s like,” he makes a gesture, “it’s like, when you’re up here, right? It’s like you’re in the sky.”

Louis blinks. He blinks again. He’s quiet for long enough that Harry’s going to tell him more reasons why he should come, but then he says, “Okay,” like it’s no big deal. Harry’s eyes go wide and he’s immediately taking Louis by the arm (he’s so warm, and he’s there, he’s definitely there) and starting to walk towards the fence. Louis shrugs him off after a moment and bounds ahead. Harry has to run to catch up.

They make it over the fence easily. It’s easy-peasy for Harry now, he’s climbed it so many times, and it looks like Louis’s just good at climbing everything. He hops down, lands on the grass and looks around. Harry hadn’t really thought ahead to this moment, but he’s pleased to see Louis suddenly has a giant smile on his face, like he can’t wait to start exploring everything that’s out here.

They’re actually out in the real world. Louis hasn’t disappeared, and his glow is nice and bright. He’s here. Harry’s sure he is.

Louis turns to look at Harry. His smile is huge. “Let’s go!” he yells, and breaks into a run towards the seesaw. Harry follows. Of course.

They go on the seesaw (Louis isn’t very pleased by Harry always staying at the top and tries to kick himself up with very little result) and the slide even though it’s for little kids and they climb the monkey bars all the way to the top as soon as some kids that were there have left. Then Louis demands Harry come with him to the swings, so Harry does.

Harry swings higher than Louis, at first, but Louis gets the hang of it soon enough (Harry wonders if he’s ever been on a swing before) and starts kicking properly, higher and higher until the chain starts making a clacking sound. Louis whoops and cackles with laughter the whole time. Every time Harry looks, he’s smiling wide and bright, his hair all over the place. He looks happy, maybe happier than Harry’s ever seen him. He glows so much that Harry thinks of the sun.

They swing until their legs ache, until Harry looks at his watch (it’s actually an old watch of Gemma’s, all purple and flowery, but Harry doesn’t mind) and sees it’s past twelve. He remembers he said he’d help his mum cook dinner today, so he slowly swings to a stop, digging his heels into the mud below the swing. Louis notices and stops swinging too, eventually stopping just like Harry had done.

Louis looks at him. He looks messy and bright and real. Harry has no doubts left. They haven’t met that many people today, but he’s sure all of them have noticed Louis. He paid attention and saw them looking: not in a strange way, like the way he glows is weird, but just how they’d look at Harry. Also, Louis got into an argument with a girl on the monkey bars earlier. Harry’s fairly sure real people can’t argue with made-up ones.

“You have to go, don’t you?” Louis asks.

“Yeah,” Harry says. “Sorry.” His legs are really tired, but he’d quite like to stay. He hopes Louis knows this.

Harry stands up from the swing. His feet sink into the mud a bit. “Today was fun,” he tells Louis. Louis nods, still grinning. Harry’s about to turn away when Louis hops off the swing, too, and– he comes right up to Harry, but he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he hugs Harry, properly hugs him, wrapping his arms around him and squeezing a bit. It’s lovely, even though it’s quick. It feels like being out in the sun even though it’s cloudy today.

“Bye, then,” Louis says, and Harry says bye back, and he watches Louis hop back on the swing and start swinging again, the chain creaking a little. Harry walks away hearing it behind him. When he’s nearly home already, though, about to push open the gate, he cranes his neck a bit as he looks towards the park and thinks he can still see Louis there, swinging up and down.

*

The last week of August arrives, somehow. Harry only realizes this because his mum starts taking him and Gemma to try on school uniforms. Gemma’s going to secondary so she needs a whole new one, and Harry’s old sweaters and trousers are all too small on him. When he tries them on, his ankles and wrists stick right out.

Harry’s never really minded school all that much. It’s not boring all the time, and he makes friends there so he has people to play with. Also, he’s in Year Four now, which means his classroom is upstairs with the big kids. It’s all a little bit exciting.

He has one big thing on his mind, though, and that big thing is that he has no idea what’s going to happen with seeing Louis once school starts.

School means being out all morning and a bit of the afternoon. School means doing other things in the afternoon, too, like art or music or football lessons. (Even though Harry doesn’t think he’ll be signing up to those ever again.) School means, on the whole, a lot less time to be visiting Louis every day like he’s been doing all summer. So even though Harry generally doesn’t mind school, this year he’s actually not looking forward to it at all.

(Once or twice, he tries to do magic again, like he used to do when he was little. At night, he shuts his eyes tight and wishes for more days until September arrives. He never gets them.)

His mum takes them to buy new crayons and pencils and folders, pens and second-hand textbooks for Gemma, keeping last year’s school bags and lunchboxes because they’re in okay shape and it’s best if they don’t buy new ones. Everywhere Harry looks, it’s like it says SCHOOL in big capital letters. On TV, on the ads on the bus, in Gemma’s Girl Talk magazines. And he still hasn’t told Louis about it.

It’s actually Louis who brings it up in the end.

He’s been going out on his own, Harry can tell. Once or twice, he’s looked for Louis all over the park and the trees and found nothing. Also, he tells Harry about the things he sees, the people he talks to, the dogs he pets. Harry wonders if people are asking him any questions he can’t answer, like “who’s your mum and dad.” Grown-ups want to know those things sometimes, even if it’s someone they barely know at all. But Louis seems happy enough when he tells the stories, so Harry decides it’s okay. Even if he’s maybe a little bit jealous that other people get to spend time with Louis, too.

They’re sitting on top of the slide one day – ever since Harry first persuaded Louis to come out here they’re at the park a lot – and there’s three days to go to September 2nd, which is the day school starts, when Louis asks him, “So are you going to school then?”

“Yes,” Harry says glumly. He wonders how Louis found out, but he doesn’t ask.

Louis kicks the top of the slide. “D’you think I could go too?”

Harry thinks about it. It’s weird to imagine Louis in a school uniform sitting at a desk. Harry isn’t even sure he’d be able to sit still that long. Also, he realizes he doesn't actually know what you have to do to go to school. He’s never felt like he had to find out. It’s sort of like a mum thing. “I don’t know,” he tells Louis. “I think you have to sign up somewhere, but I don’t know where. You could just try going. Maybe they’ll let you in.”

Louis hmmms and kicks the slide again. “Maybe I can go to school with you.” He smiles at Harry as he says it. “Anyway, even if they won’t let me, you’ll still play with me, right?”

“Duh,” Harry says. He’d much rather be here with Louis than at school, anyway. He tells Louis this, and then adds, “Maybe I’ll skip,” with a smile on his face that he knows is naughty. Louis seems pleased by the idea. Then, he seems to decide the conversation is over, because he stops kicking the slide and pushes Harry down it instead. Harry laughs and Louis slides down too, and they get stuck at the end until Harry staggers forwards and collapses onto the ground. Louis follows, roaring with laughter. Maybe Harry will skip school after all. It definitely seems worth it.

*

Harry doesn’t like his new shoes. They’re too shiny and too stiff. He supposes the ones he had last year were like that too, but he’s spent the whole summer going around barefoot or in muddy trainers and these shoes feel like they’re not even his at all.

He also doesn’t like the fact that it’s only his mum who’s walking with him to school. Gemma goes to secondary now, and she’s old enough to walk there with her friends. It feels weird but in the bad way. Harry tries to cheer himself up by thinking of his classroom on the top floor. It works, a bit.

They’re at the gate now. His mum stops, and just for a moment, Harry wishes he could hug her legs and cry and tell her not to go like the little kids do sometimes on their first day. But he doesn’t, of course, because he’s big now and he doesn’t do those things. Also, Harry likes school. It’s just that he doesn’t really want to go.

He hugs his mum goodbye, and she gives him a big kiss on the cheek and tells him good luck. Harry nods. He walks past the gate then, all by himself, last year’s bag hanging off his shoulders even though there’s nothing in it yet. He sees people on either side of him but no one he recognizes and for a moment he feels scared, actually scared– but then he spots Tess over by the drinking fountain and it’s okay, everything’s okay, he can breathe normally again.

He sits with Tess on one side and Greg on the other during assembly, and later on when they climb the stairs (the stairs!) to get to class he gets put into the Cubes table with people he already knows and a new boy with nice eyes. Also, Sam is in the Prisms and the Prisms table is right next to the Cubes, so he’s not alone at all, he has friends and nice people all around him. So it doesn’t even make sense at all that his thoughts keep going back to Louis all day, over and over. Is he okay? Is he alone? Is he at the park or somewhere else? Harry doesn’t know, and he doesn’t like not knowing.

*

“I went to school today,” he tells Louis that afternoon. His mum had let him go out as soon as he changed out of his uniform, which was nice. He isn’t looking forward to later on in the year when she always asks if he’s finished his homework before letting him do anything else, though. But today he gets to be with Louis, and he doesn’t have to wear his uniform shoes until tomorrow, so everything’s okay for now.

“Yeah?” Louis is busy finding pebbles on the ground and tossing them at the tree opposite to the one they’re sitting next to. He isn’t looking at Harry, but Harry knows he’s paying attention. “How was it?”

Harry shifts. “It was okay,” he admits. “I saw my friends. My other friends, I mean. Also, we get a guinea pig for class pet this year.” Much better than last year’s goldfish. All it ever did was swim around and it got sort of boring in the end. “D’you still want to come?” he asks Louis curiously. It’d be weird to have Louis at school with him, but not a bad weird. He could talk to him all the time. Also introduce him to everyone else. Harry thinks they’d all really like him. He’s pretty sure it’s impossible to not like Louis. Plus, he glows.

Harry frowns. Although maybe Louis’s too old to go to school with him anymore. Maybe he’s supposed to go to secondary with Gemma already. Harry’s not sure he likes that thought.

Louis shrugs and doesn’t answer the question. Well, okay.

“D’you wanna play?” Harry asks him, because he’s spent the whole day at school already and he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, especially when he’s here with Louis. But Louis shakes his head no and throws another pebble at the tree. Harry would ask what’s wrong, except Louis doesn't like it when he does that, so he doesn’t ask anything at all. He just looks at Louis’s glow to try and figure it out on his own. It’s sort of dim today, and not as warm as usual. That’s really not a good sign. He hopes it’s better tomorrow.

*

Harry’s on the playground after lunch the next day when he sees something that makes him trip on the skipping rope.

He gets his knees dirty and everyone laughs, but he doesn’t mind because he’s not paying them any attention anyway. He jumps right back up and flat-out runs to the fence that goes around the whole of the playground, because he needs to see– and, sure enough, he gets right up to the fence and Louis’s face on the other side is unmistakable.

“Louis?” he whispers, stunned, because he doesn’t know what else to say. Louis looks sweaty, like he’s been running, and there’s something about his face that’s just off even though Harry doesn’t know what it is. Still, it’s Louis, here and with him. Harry squishes his forehead against the metal of the fence and hooks his fingers through the spaces in it.

“Harry.” Louis makes a face. “I tried to go in and they wouldn’t let me.”

Harry’s tummy feels heavy and unpleasant suddenly. He never told Louis, but he sort of expected that to happen.

Still, he needs to hear about it. “What?” he asks Louis. “Why? Did you try the–” he gestures, “the thing where you disappear?”

Louis nods furiously. “Yeah. I tried that the second time. Only I tried to go into a classroom and I accidentally did it so people could see me now.” He frowns. He glows, but not really in a good way. “I– they didn’t throw me out right away.” He fiddles with the metal on the fence, not meeting Harry’s eyes. “They tried to ask me some questions, you know? Like, what was I doing here, where were my parents, and that. So I ran away and they couldn’t catch me.” He looks pretty pleased with himself for a moment before he deflates again, looking down at the ground.

Harry– Harry doesn’t know how he feels. Just, Louis is sad, and that is not okay. He pushes himself closer against the fence, trying to get closer to Louis– and then he feels hot all over, and suddenly the bit of the fence his face was leaning on isn’t there anymore. Harry looks down. It’s melted, and it’s run down the side of the fence and is now making a puddle on the ground, like rainwater.

This could be a good thing. This could help Louis sneak into the school. The only problem is that the gap is barely big enough for Harry to put his head through.

Louis looks at the gap in wonder. “Brilliant,” he breathes. “Harry, that’s genius.” Louis fits an arm into the gap and wriggles it around, glowing brightly. Harry reaches out and tickles the palm, giggling. Louis swats him away, but he’s smiling too.

“Okay,” Louis tells him, “now you just have to make it bigger and then I can go in.”

Oh. Right.

Harry’s never been able to use magic at will, but he tries now, he does. He focuses on the gap as much as he can, he closes his fists tightly, he shuts his eyes and screws his face up – but nothing happens. The gap stays much too small. Harry’s eyes prickle with tears. Why can’t he ever do magic when it actually matters?

“Louis,” he says, blinking hard. He can’t let Louis see him cry. “Louis, I can’t do it.”

Louis looks at him blankly. “Of course you can,” he says. “You did it before, just do it again, right? It’s not that hard.”

“No, it doesn't–” he concentrates harder, but still nothing, he’s still letting Louis down, “it doesn’t work like that, Lou, I can’t, I can’t do it.” He’s going to cry. He’s going to cry right here in front of Louis and it’ll just make everything worse. He wipes at his eyes angrily.

“What d’you mean you can’t?” Louis isn’t smiling anymore. “Come on, Harry, you can. Just do it again. That’s all.”

Harry shakes his head miserably. He tries to breathe deep but he can’t, he keeps making stupid hiccupy sounds, and everything’s going wrong, everything's going wrong– and then he hears the bell go off. No. Oh no.

He glances back towards the playground. Katie and Zoe and everyone else who was skipping are putting the rope away now, and people are climbing off the monkey bars and stopping their football games, and he can’t leave Louis here.

“Harry?” Louis asks. If Harry didn’t know better he’d say he was scared. “What’s going on?”

“I have to go,” Harry tells him, panicky. Louis’s eyes widen. Then they narrow.

“You have to go where?” he says suspiciously.

“To class,” Harry says helplessly. “I have class now. I’m so so sorry.”

“Oh, right,” Louis says. He doesn’t look friendly at all. He looks mean. “To class. With your friends. And you won’t let me in.”

“Lou, no, it’s not–”

“Okay,” Louis says, as if he hadn’t heard Harry at all. “I’ll just go, then.”

“Louis!”

But Louis isn’t listening. He turns away even though Harry’s shouting after him and he starts running, really fast, even though Harry’s yelling at him to stop. Harry so desperately wishes he could make the gap bigger now so he could run after him, even though he’s never been able to outrun Louis, but the gap stays like it is so Harry stays where he is too, his hand reaching out through the gap and his eyes all wet and itchy.

*

Harry doesn’t see Louis for a week. He cries a lot on the first day and spends the whole time making apologies in his head. He has to make Louis see, he has to make Louis know that he didn’t mean it, that he’s so sorry, that he can try again and see if he can sneak Louis in. But he looks for Louis everywhere and he finds nothing.

Then, he gets angry.

Because he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t, and he told Louis, and Louis didn’t believe him and got mad at him instead. So he can stay mad. Harry’s not going to look for him anymore. He’ll make Louis come and find him instead and show him that Harry doesn’t need him around. He’s not going to chase after Louis anymore. That’ll show him.

(His resolve wavers a few times, though. What if Louis never wants Harry around again? What if he finds some new friends that aren’t little kids like him? What if he disappears? Each time, he tries to ignore it and immediately goes off to play with the other friends. See? Harry can have fun without Louis perfectly well.)

So he stops looking for Louis. He goes to the park with Sam and all the rest, but he pointedly does not look at the trees ever. Louis will come back and say sorry. Harry’s sure he will.

And so one day when Harry’s walking home from the park (he’s only sneaked two glances at the trees today, he’s getting better at it) he hears a strange sound and suddenly Louis is appearing right next to him. Harry jumps. Louis looks like he’s tripped on something because he falls to the floor in a heap right after appearing, and he lifts his head and sees Harry looking at him in shock. His eyes widen in panic and he screws them shut, presumably trying to make himself disappear again. He flickers a bit, but stays very much there, so he looks up at Harry again and groans.

Harry cannot possibly be mad at him anymore. “Hi,” he says. He can’t keep the smug smile off his face. “Were you following me around?”

Louis picks himself up off the floor and blinks. “What? No.” It’s really not very convincing. “I was just, um, practicing.” His face lights up then. “I got into school!”

Harry’s eyes widen. “What?”

Louis nods enthusiastically. “Yeah! Not yours, another one, but.” He pushes his hair out of his eyes. It’s getting quite long now. If Harry grew his hair that long his mum would have a fit. “I’ve been practicing. I can do this thing now–” He chews on his lip. “I mean, it’s not the same as the other thing. People see me. They just don’t remember me after. It’s easier.” He grins wide. “So now I can do whatever I like and no one notices.”

“That’s so cool,” Harry breathes. He’s envious for a moment. He’d love to be able to do that, do magic whenever he wanted. He’s wondered about Louis’s magic a few times, if it’s like his or different. Maybe this means he’s not like him after all.

“I know,” Louis grins. “So I just, like, go into whatever class I want and do what they do. The little kids are cool. They do colouring-in.”

“That’s much more fun than what I do,” Harry says, pouting a bit. It’s true. Being older is nice, but it also means school is much more boring. He misses when he used to do stuff like dressing up. Does Louis dress up if he goes with the little kids? He pictures Louis trying to fit into little-kid costumes and giggles.

Louis walks back home with him. Harry thinks this means they’re okay. Louis doesn’t say sorry for being mean to him, but Harry doesn’t say sorry for not making the gap bigger, either. Harry’s forgiven him anyway. Being with Louis again is so nice that it’s impossible for Harry to stay mad at him. In fact, he’s so not-mad now that when they get to the gate outside his house Harry tentatively asks him if he wants to come in. (He’s sure his mum won’t mind.) Louis says no, but Harry thinks it’s a different kind of no than usual. Louis doesn’t sound quite so sure of himself when he says it. Harry smiles secretly while he’s walking up to his front door. It’s only a matter of time.

*

The weeks pass like always. The days get shorter and the days get colder. The leaves start falling off the trees next to the park, and somehow it makes everything a little bit different from before. Being there is not the same. It’s harder to pretend, when they’re playing, that the rest of the world isn’t there anymore when the trees don’t have as many leaves and you can sort of see the roads and the houses through the gaps.

Harry goes to school, and he thinks Louis goes to school too, and they’re not together as much anymore because Harry does things like homework and art lessons and visits his school friends’ houses and Louis goes off to do things Harry still has no clue about. (Does he have other friends now? Harry wonders sometimes.) But they’re still friends. They’re very much still friends, and Harry hasn’t told Louis but he’s pretty sure Louis counts as his best friend now. Sam and Greg and all the rest – they’re okay, they’re nice, they’re fun. But it’s not like how it is with Louis. It’s never like how it is with Louis.

Because Louis is there always. He’s wild and he’s unpredictable but if he’s not mad at Harry Harry always knows he’ll be able to find him if he looks for him. And Harry thinks about it and realizes that it’s not just that he likes playing with Louis because Louis is good at it, but also because when Harry plays with him it’s like Harry gets better at it too.

There’s also the magic thing. Harry’s friends know about it, but Harry knows they don’t really get it. Okay, he’s pretty sure Louis doesn’t get it either, but Louis is magic. In what way, Harry still doesn’t know, but the important bit is that he is. And having someone like that is lovely. Whenever Harry makes something happen, Louis doesn’t ooh and aah like his friends do; instead, he just looks at it closely and smiles knowingly at Harry. It makes Harry’s insides feel all warm.

So being with Louis is different. It’s something Harry can’t really put a name on, but– he and Louis, it’s like they’re really good at being each other’s friends. Like how Louis can sometimes know what Harry’s thinking even when he doesn’t say it out loud or like how Harry sometimes knows what Louis’s going to do even if it’s something strange and crazy and unpredictable. It’s nice, it’s better than nice, and whenever Harry is with him he just knows Louis is his best friend, because anything else is out of the question.

But Louis doesn’t want to meet Harry’s other friends. Harry would think it’s because he doesn’t like them very much, but he doesn’t want to meet Harry’s mum and sister either. Harry’s told him to come over a million times and he’s always said no, and the one or two times Harry's asked why he’s refused to answer. It’s worse because Harry’s mum keeps nagging at him, too; ever since he told her about Louis she’s been telling him to invite him over and he’s always had to tell her that Louis doesn’t want to come. Whenever he says this and Gemma’s around she doesn’t say anything, but the look on her face says it all. Harry’s not stupid. he knows she still thinks Louis is a made-up person and that Harry makes excuses so he doesn’t have to admit it. Harry is dying for Louis to see his room and his books and his Legos and his Lord of the Rings posters, but he also kind of wants Louis to come over to prove Gemma wrong. He’s not having much luck so far.

“But why don’t you want to come?” he asks Louis while they’re both in the park, swinging idly. Louis shrugs. “No, real reason,” Harry says.

Louis starts kicking his feet into the ground and pushing himself higher. Harry reaches out and grabs the chain, stopping the swing. The chain clacks and Louis almost falls off. He glares at Harry. “What’d you do that for?”

“Answer me,” Harry pouts.

Louis huffs irritatedly. His hand comes up to run through his hair, which has been sitting on his head in uneven chunks ever since Harry tried to cut it for him last week with his school scissors. (See, that’s more proof that Louis is his best friend. Sam would never let Harry cut her hair.) “I’ve told you, I just don’t want to.” Harry opens his mouth to argue because he’s been thinking about this and coming up with the most persuasive arguments he possibly can, but then Louis mumbles, “Your mum’s gonna ask questions and I don’t like them, okay?”

Harry almost falls off his swing. “So if I make her not ask questions you’ll come?” he asks excitedly.

Louis shrugs and starts swinging again. Harry doesn’t stop him this time. His mind is racing. He needs a plan.

That evening, when his mum gets home, he asks her, “If I convince Louis to come over do you promise to not ask him any questions?”

She looks up from the spaghetti she’s cooking. “What?”

“I talked to Louis today,” he explains patiently. “He said he doesn’t want to come because he doesn’t like people asking him questions. So you just have to promise you won’t and then you can meet him.”

His mum looks amused. “What kind of questions?”

Harry thinks about it. “Well,” he says. “Questions like ‘are you staying for tea’ are okay, I think. Just don’t ask him about his mum and dad, or why he glows, or anything like that.”

His mum nods. Her face still looks like he’s said something funny, though. “Deal,” she says. “Bring him over whenever you like. On weekdays you know I don’t get home until six, though, so if he wants to come over–”

“I can make toast if he’s hungry,” Harry says quickly. “Or get Gemma to make anything else.”

His mum laughs. “Okay, then,” she tells him. “I do look forward to meeting him.”

Harry looks at her suspiciously. He still can’t tell if she thinks Louis is real or made-up. Well – it doesn’t really matter now, anyway. Louis’s going to come over and he’s going to prove all of them wrong. Harry will make sure he does.

*

“Come on,” Harry whispers, standing in front of his house. “It’s okay. My sister’s the only one who’s home and she’s never interested in my friends, so. She’s not going to bother us.”

Louis blinks and doesn’t move. It’d taken Harry a while to even persuade him to come (“I didn’t even say I’d go! I just said I don’t like people asking me questions”) and now he’s stock-still in front of the gate. He’s never this still. He must really not like questions.

“Come on,” Harry says again, and he takes Louis’s wrist and leads him through the gate and up to the door. Louis doesn’t complain, at least. Harry takes that as a good sign. He knocks on the door and glances at Louis. For a moment, Harry’s sure the look on his face means he’s going to disappear or run away. Or both. But then the door opens, and Gemma’s face pops out, and Louis is very much still there. Harry squeezes Louis’s wrist for reassurance. Gemma’s eyes are wide.

“Who’s this?” she asks Harry in disbelief. Beside him, Louis tenses. Wait, that’s right– he forgot to tell Gemma not to ask questions, too. Whoops.

“This is Louis,” he tells Gemma confidently. Gemma’s eyes go even wider. “Can we come in now?”

Very slowly, Gemma swings the door open and steps out of the way. She looks at them as they go in, Harry still holding Louis’s wrist. “But I thought he was…”

Harry grins, smug and wide. “I know you did. D’you wanna go upstairs?” he asks Louis, and Louis nods, looking relieved. Gemma’s still looking at them in disbelief as they go up the stairs. This is the best day ever.

*

“See? See, see? I told you you’d like it! I always tell you you’ll like stuff and you never listen!”

Louis jumps on Harry’s bed one more time and then collapses onto it, face-down and giggling. He’s sweaty and flushed and glowing bright and Harry knows jumping on the bed’s not allowed but his mum isn’t home yet and this feels like it’s worth it anyway.

“I know,” Louis mumbles into Harry’s pillow. “It’s funny when you’re annoyed at me, though.”

Harry kicks Louis’s foot from where he’s sprawled out on the bed a little further along. “You suck.”

Louis only giggles again and kicks him back. Then he looks at the bedding thoughtfully and starts to roll around in it, making himself a cocoon like a caterpillar-butterfly. He seems curiously fascinated with Harry’s bed, Harry thinks. It’s almost like he’s never seen one before.

Louis finishes rolling himself up and looks at Harry upside-down. “Hey, why’d your sister make that face when she saw me?”

“Oh, that’s just ‘cause she thought you weren’t real,” Harry says dismissively.

Louis’s face goes serious. “What? Why?”

“I–” Harry frowns and realizes he actually doesn’t know how to explain. “I think because I told her you glow? She wouldn’t believe me so she thought I was making you up.”

Slowly, Louis unrolls himself, and when he’s sprawled out on the bed again he inspects his own arms and hands. “But, like,” he says, looking like he’s concentrating hard, “you also do things, right?” Louis never calls it magic. “So does she think you’re not real either?”

“I think she doesn’t,” Harry says. He’s never thought about it, but it would be very weird for Gemma to think he was made-up too. “But she can see me, and she hadn’t seen you before, so.”

Louis looks at Harry. He looks like he really is trying to understand. “So am I real, then?”

“Yes,” Harry says immediately. If he had any doubts left, Gemma’s reaction proved everything.

Louis is now feeling his body, his arms, his chest. “But how do you know?”

Harry thinks about it. He supposes he could tell Louis about people seeing him, and about how people don’t actually see you if you’re not there. Or that him being here now proves he doesn’t just exist in the trees. But neither of those things sounds much like proof when he thinks about them.

So he does something else. He crawls up to Louis and he puts a hands on Louis’s chest, feeling around. Was it the right side or the left side? Harry can’t remember, so he feels all over, just in case. He finds it just as Louis asks him what he’s doing, and he grins wide.

He takes his hand off. “Okay, feel there,” he tells Louis.

Louis does and frowns. “I don’t feel anything.”

“You do,” Harry tells him. “You just have to pay attention.” He frowns, takes Louis’s hand and moves it around, pressing down. Louis’s eyes widen.

“Okay,” Louis says. “Okay, I feel it.”

“That’s your heart,” Harry tells him.

“I knew that,” Louis says. “I go to school, remember?”

Harry does remember. He doesn’t know what Louis actually does there, though. He’s asked him to come to his class a few times, but Louis always says that he likes it better when he gets to go in whatever class he likes and that he doesn’t go to Harry’s school, anyways. Harry just assumed he did colouring-in with the little kids all day. Do they learn about organs and bones and things in Reception?

Anyway. “If you can feel your heart beating you know you’re alive,” he tells Louis. “So there you go.”

“Cool,” Louis says, but there’s something like relief on his face. The next thing he does is jump up and start jumping on the bed again, though, so Harry can’t be too sure.

*

Louis’s still there when Harry’s mum gets home, because he doesn’t seem in a rush to leave and Harry wants him to stay for as long as possible. He’d managed to drag Louis off the bed, and Louis had promptly become fascinated by Harry’s Lego instead. So that’s what they’ve been doing, Harry carefully building following the instructions and Louis taking different pieces and putting them all together however he likes, even though Harry’s tried to explain that’s not how you do it.

Harry’s spent the entire afternoon expecting a chance to show off his toast skills, but Louis hasn’t told him he’s hungry, so.

Anyway, it’s past six now and Harry drags Louis down the stairs as soon as he hears the front door close, because Louis’s not getting out of meeting his mum. He doesn’t look too happy about it, but not in the panicky sense, just in the sulky one, so Harry thinks he’ll be okay.

And he is. At first, Louis seems – not shy, Louis’s never shy, but just, like, not wanting to talk at all. But Harry’s mum smiles at him in her mumsy way and says (not asks), “You must be Louis, then. Harry’s always talking about you,” which makes Harry’s face get a bit hot because that’s embarrassing and he doesn’t talk about Louis that much, anyway.

But his mum is lovely to Louis, actually, and before Harry knows it Louis’s right back to his usual chatty self. He somehow ends up staying for tea, and it’s amazing to see how nicely he fits. He joins the conversation like he’s been there forever and not just an afternoon; even Gemma seems to like him when she’s gotten over the shock. (Harry’s still smug about it.) It’s weird, but a good weird, because Harry’d never in a million years thought he’d get to see Louis sitting with his family and telling the story about petting that dog he’d told Harry the other day. But he is here. And he could be here more often, Harry knows. It could be like this – maybe not all the time, but. Enough times to get used to it.

Maybe. If his mum still agrees to not ask questions. If she still lets him be friends with Louis even though she knows nothing about him. Harry gets an urge to cross his fingers, just in case.

Harry’d say the only time he sees Louis get tense at all is when it’s time to go. He can’t stay the night here, Harry knows. He also knows he’d probably love to, judging by the way he was looking at Harry’s bed before. Has Louis ever slept in a bed? Does he even sleep? Harry’ll have to ask him at some point.

Anyway, so after they’ve finished his mum asks Louis, how’s he getting home? Will his mum pick him up? She can take him home if he wants. Harry sees the way Louis tenses up and decides that was probably one of the questions she wasn’t meant to ask. So he quickly says, “Oh, he lives right next to us, he’ll just walk home.” His mum, thankfully, looks convinced, so that’s how they end up where they are: Louis on Harry’s doorstep, Harry on the other side of the open door, not wanting to shut it. It’s just– it’s been the best afternoon in ages. He doesn’t want Louis to go.

“That was nice,” Louis says, quietly, like he doesn’t want Harry’s mum to hear.

“I told you,” Harry says. Louis smirks at him. Harry slaps him on the arm. Then, a bit more hesitant, he asks, “Where’re you gonna go now, anyway?”

Louis shrugs. “Just–” he makes a vague gesture with his arms and then drops them, and explains nothing else. “You know. Wherever.” What? Harry thinks, and he’s going to ask for details but then Louis says, “Can I come back, then?”

“Of course,” Harry says, shocked Louis even has to ask. He’s planning to sneak Louis in as often as he can now. If his mum liked Louis as much as she seemed to, maybe he won’t have to sneak him in at all.

They say goodbye, eventually, and Harry shuts the door but he can’t resist opening it a crack to watch Louis leave. His glow is visible as he walks all the way down the road. It’s nighttime already – the days are getting shorter and shorter, which Harry always gets excited about because short days means winter and winter means Christmas and snow – and the stars are out, twinkling high up in the sky like they’re saying hello. By the time Harry looks back down at the road, Louis is gone.

*

Harry hadn’t realized his mum not asking Louis any questions means he’s getting them all himself.

“So where does Louis live, anyway?” his mum asks him the next morning as she’s walking him to school.

Harry almost trips over his own feet. Oh no. If she starts asking him Louis questions he’s going to have to make everything up. “Just, you know,” he says vaguely. “Around.” A sudden flash of inspiration comes, and he quickly adds, “Near the park.”

“Oh,” his mum says. “Is that why you’re always so eager to go, then?” Harry nods seriously. He’s being convincing, isn’t he? He glances up at his mum and she’s smiling. Good. “I can see why,” she says. “He’s lovely. A little on the chatty side but…” She looks at him in her mum-way. “You look happy when you’re with him. He looks like a good friend.”

Harry fidgets a little and looks down at his feet. “He is.”

Is she going to stop asking him now? Harry fervently hopes she does, crosses his fingers inside his coat pocket, but it doesn’t seem to work, because then his mum is saying, “Do you think I could talk to his mum someday, then?”

Oh no. This is not good. Harry thinks furiously and tries to act normal. “Er,” he says, his heart beating fast, “um, maybe not.” He realizes he probably needs to explain why, so he hurriedly says, “I don’t think Louis would want you to, I mean.” Which is true. “I, um– he says she’s not very nice.”

Harry’s mum is frowning, but they’re finally at the school gates now, so Harry sees his chance. “Okay, bye, mum!” he says quickly, and hugs her goodbye. She hugs him back, and Harry goes into the school gates before she can ask him anything else. Good. That was close.

He’s walking into the playground when he realizes his mum hasn’t asked him how come Louis glows. He frowns. That’s probably the strangest thing about Louis, right? So why? Now that he thinks about it, how come he’s never seen anyone look at Louis like the way he glows is a weird thing? Maybe they’re used to it. Maybe there’s glowy people somewhere out there that Harry’s never seen. Either way, Harry’s not going to ask his mum about it. Just in case.

*

Much to his relief, his mum doesn’t ask again, not even when Louis keeps on coming around, as often as Harry can get away with it. Louis is very good at avoiding questions himself, Harry realizes. Whenever he gets one he doesn’t want to answer, he either changes the subject completely or makes something up on the spot, sounding so convincing that Harry’s left wondering if he’s telling the truth or not. Is Louis really ten years old? Is his dad really away for most of the year? He tries to ask Louis about it when his mum and Gemma aren’t there, but he just laughs and doesn’t answer.

Being at home is nicer when Louis’s there. Everything is nicer when Louis’s there. Even Harry’s magic works better, he realizes. He does more of it, and he changes bigger things. It’s even better than when he’s with Miss Wheel and she’s trying to help him use it. Harry doesn’t know why, but it doesn’t matter.

Harry doesn’t ask his mum if Louis can spend the night at home. She’s never let anyone stay without talking to their mum first, not even Sam, even though they’ve known each other since they were little babies. So he can’t risk it. Louis never asks, but Harry knows he wants to.

But then the snow comes.

Christmas is near now, but they’ve only had ice so far, not snow. Harry doesn’t like ice very much. He’s fallen and bumped his bum twice already, and his friends laughing at him hasn’t really helped. But he wakes up one Sunday and he looks out of the window and there’s snow, actual snow. The sky is white and the roofs of the houses are white and the backyard is white and Harry gets so excited he tries to run down the stairs and out of the door in just his pyjamas, because he wants to see. (His mum intercepts him and says where do you think you’re going, young man, though, so he’s forced to have breakfast and put on his coat and gloves and winter boots first.)

And then after he’s run around and made a snowman and thrown snowballs at Gemma, he suddenly thinks what about Louis?

Has Louis seen snow before? Does he even know what it is? And, wait, what’s he going to do now? Maybe there’s a reason people ask questions – maybe there’s a reason grown-ups want to know if Louis has a mum and dad, if he has a house. Because they’re things someone needs. For the first time, Harry tries to imagine living without a house, without anyone to look after him. It makes him shiver.

So – there are so many things Louis doesn’t have, then. He doesn’t have a family, he doesn’t have a bed, he doesn’t have any clothes apart from the ones Harry brings him – sweaters and gloves now, enough to keep warm during the walk home from school but definitely not to sleep somewhere all alone. Harry sits on the steps of the backyard door and thinks hard, panicking a bit. Does Louis eat anything apart from what Harry brings him sometimes and what he eats at Harry’s house? Did he ever have a house or a family or has he been living outside ever since he was little? How come he doesn’t have a mum or a dad? Harry’s such a horrible friend. Why did he never think of all this?

He doesn’t know what to do. He can’t even tell his mum. Harry doesn’t know what happens to children who have no house, but he’s never seen any of them here. If he tells a grown-up about Louis they’ll take him away. He can’t let them do that.

What’s Louis doing right now? He must be so cold. Harry has to go and find him.

But his mum catches him on the way out again. She tells him off for not taking his boots off to come into the house and leaving snow everywhere, and then she seems to realize what he’s doing and tells him there’s no way he’s going out in this weather. Harry looks outside and sees the snow has started falling, bits of white that the wind throws against the windows. He’ll try again this afternoon, then. He has to find Louis. Somehow, he has to.

*

He doesn’t.

He makes it past his mum after lunch, but the snow has really picked up now, and as soon as he opens the front door he gets hit in the face by freezing-cold wind and snowflakes. No. He squints, trying to see past the road, but he can barely make out the rows of houses on the other side.

He’s never going to find Louis like this. He wouldn’t be able to see him if he was outside the gate right now. Even trying is no use, he knows this, but when he steps inside and closes the door behind him it feels horrible. It’s like he’s giving up.

The snow doesn’t stop all afternoon. His mum checks the school website and finds out it’ closed tomorrow. Harry would usually be happy about this – it’s like early Christmas holidays – but today he goes to bed and cries until he falls asleep.

*

Harry jerks awake, clutching the covers tight around himself.

That was a horrible dream. He’s glad he can’t really remember it, because it was awful, awful. It was so cold. And there was also Louis, Louis and the cold, and something else, something terrifying… something that was coming to get them.

Then, there’s a noise.

It comes from the window. Harry’s s scared he can’t move at all. It’s coming, it’s coming to get him, maybe it’s gotten Louis already and it’s his turn now. Louis. Louis, who’s out there in the cold. Harry can hear his own heartbeat, fast in his ears and terribly loud. He dimly remembers he can do magic. Where’s the magic now? Why can’t he make it go away?

The noise of the window comes again, louder. Harry can’t move. He can’t get away–

–but then he hears something else. It’s not a tap like it’d been before – it’s a word. Harry’s shocked for a moment – it can talk?– but then he forces himself to look right at the window. Oh. He feels weak with relief, and he loosens his hold on the covers a little. It’s a person. And its messy hair and small-ish figure and the way it glows gently against the night very much confirms it’s Louis.

“Harry!” It’s one of those whispers that are like a shout at the same time.

Harry collapses out of bed and runs over to the window. The glass is cold. He fumbles with the latch and struggles to pull it open, and when he does, icy wind blasts into the room – he shivers furiously in his pyjamas – and Louis falls through it.

Harry slams the window shut, forgetting to be quiet in case his mum’s awake, and looks at him. Louis’s soaked all over. His hair is all stuck to his face and his clothes are dark and wet and he’s making a puddle on Harry’s bedroom floor. He’s not even wearing any shoes. But he’s not shivering and he’s glowing softly, like Harry’s night-light when it’s on: he lights the darkness up. It’s like he’s not even cold at all.

“Hi,” he whispers to Harry when he meets his eye. “Can I stay here tonight?”

“Of course,” Harry answers immediately. He looks around wildly. He doesn’t know how to handle this. Where’s he supposed to start? “Are you cold?” he whispers urgently. “Hold on, I’ll get you some dry clothes. And a towel.” He opens his wardrobe and squints into it through the dark. Louis comes up behind him, though, so he can see; he grabs dry comfy clothes and puts them down on the bed. “Those are for you,” he tells Louis. “I’ll get you a towel now, hold on.”

He quietly sneaks out of his room and brings a towel back from the bathroom for Louis, because he has so many questions, of course he does, but he has to help Louis get warm first; when he hands Louis the towel he takes it with a weird little smile and starts taking his clothes off and drying himself. (Harry doesn’t know what to do with the wet clothes, so he sneaks out to the bathroom again and dumps them all in the bathtub while Louis’s getting dressed. He’ll sort that out tomorrow.)

“Are you still cold?” he asks Louis when he gets back.

“What?” Louis says.

Harry frowns. It wasn’t that hard a question. “Are you still cold?” he asks again. “I mean, you can get in bed if you like. I guess you’d be warmer like that.”

Louis smiles. “I’m not cold.”

What? “What?” Harry says. He was in the snow all day. How can he not be cold?

“I don’t get cold,” Louis announces proudly. Harry just blinks. “Look,” Louis says, and he reaches out and touches Harry’s hand. Harry feels a jolt. Louis’s hand is warmer than Harry’d been when he was in bed. He doesn’t understand, but it’s wonderful.

Louis just smiles at him, and Harry holds his hand tighter. It feels so nice. Harry’s eyes suddenly feel droopy. “You can stay here,” he tells Louis. “‘Course. Come on.”

Harry gets into bed and Louis slips in after him, mumbling something about how the snow’s nice during the day, really, but he doesn’t like it at all at night so that’s why he came here. Harry only pays a bit of attention to it. He can’t remember if he’s ever slept in a bed with a boy before – Greg’s mum has always made him a separate one every time he’s stayed over – but it doesn’t really matter anyway, he decides, because this is Louis, not some other boy. He’s warm and glowy and safe. He’s not talking anymore, so Harry closes his eyes. He curls up into Louis without really meaning to, and Louis just moves a little so they fit better. Harry falls asleep like that, not even remembering there’s snow outside.

Louis isn't there the next morning. But Harry wakes up with a strange wonderful warmth inside, and there’s wet clothes in the bath and his biggest hoodie isn’t in his wardrobe anymore. It was real, then. Harry hopes he comes back.

*

He does. Every time it’s snowing outside, Harry will hear a tap at the window in the night. Louis doesn’t come in as wet anymore because he seems to have found a proper snow coat, so he’ll just take it off and dry off his legs and hair before getting into bed with Harry. Harry can’t remember a time where he’s slept this warm.

(He wakes up sometimes from nightmares in the middle of the night. Louis’s asleep most of those times, but he still glows gently. It makes the darkness not look so dark. It makes things better.)

Harry worries, at first, that his mum will notice. He doesn’t know what she’d do if she did, but he knows it’s better if it doesn’t happen. But then Louis explains that if she ever came in while he was there, he’d just do the thing he does at school. Harry thinks he understands now: it’s not that people don’t see Louis, it’s that they forget about him the moment they stop looking at him. It took a lot of practice, Louis explains, sounding quite proud of himself. Anyway, his mum comes in to check on him one time when Louis’s there, and she says hi to him as if it were completely normal for him to be there and doesn’t even look at him before she leaves, so. Harry knows that it works, even if he doesn’t know how.

Louis staying over becomes one of those things that happen so often you just know they’re going to be there, like breakfast in the morning or a bath instead of a shower on Sunday night. Harry sort of forgets it wasn’t always like this. He supposes, then, that it won’t always be like this. Maybe Louis will stop coming once it’s not so cold anymore. He doesn’t like to think about that.

But the snow goes away eventually, and Louis stays.

*

Harry doesn’t measure time like grown-ups do. He knows this.

He’ll sometimes catch bits of his mum’s conversations with her friends. They say things like oh, how long has it been since that? Six years already? It’s like they’re always surprised by time passing. Harry doesn’t understand how whole months, whole years can pass without you noticing. It’s such a long time. What do they do to make it go by so quickly?

The days pass and the months pass, and the weather changes, from sun to rain to snow and back again. He knows this. He notices this. But it seems so huge, all of it, especially when one year ends and the next one begins (it takes ages for him to stop writing the old year on the dates in his school notebooks). He goes to school and he gets holidays from school and he sees his friends and goes to their birthday parties, watching them turn a year older. He moves from Year Four to Year Five to Year Six, and his sleeves get too short and his shoes get too small and the pencil marks on the kitchen wall where his mum measures how tall he is get higher and higher up. Relatives tell him how much he’s grown, even though he looks in the mirror and sees himself exactly the same as always. And his birthdays feel a little bit strange, too, apart from hugely exciting; he has to spend at least a week after each one telling himself, I’m ten. I’m ten years old. I’m a person who is ten now. He grows, but he doesn’t feel like a person who is growing. He just feels like himself.

If he ever thinks of a future where he’s older, it’s hazy and far away. (He thinks, now, that he’d like to be a zookeeper when he grows up. Also, having lots of babies would be nice. But that’s for when he becomes an actual grown-up, and there’s so much time left that he doesn’t have to worry about it.) It’s something that grown-ups, he’s noticed, don’t really do. The future is as much a part of their lives as the moment they’re in now.

So that’s how it is. That’s how it happens. And as things change, slowly, without him really paying much attention to it, his magic also changes.

It becomes less strange, more focused. Harry doesn’t notice right away and can’t possibly tell when the change started, but it’s like this: it does what he wants it to more often now, instead of being strange and accidental and nonsensical. Where before he made trees twist and furniture float and and the pavement crack, now he can make the dishes clean themselves sometimes, or make Gemma’s bedroom door disappear when he’s mad at her. It’s great. (But he maybe worries every so often, in secret, because the big things – the really big things – he can’t do them anymore. He hasn’t made it snow in ages, and the things he changes look like they’re getting smaller and smaller. It can’t mean anything, though. Maybe it’s some sort of compensation? He gets to do what he wants now, but he can’t do really big things anymore. Or not. Whatever.)

He has no one to talk about it with, anyway. His mum doesn’t understand, and Miss Wheel, for all that she’s his magic teacher, has yet to do magic in front of Harry. She probably doesn’t even have any. His friends don’t really get it either, and he doesn’t talk to Gemma about these things. And then there’s Louis, of course, there’s always Louis, but– he doesn’t like to talk about that. Even though he’s magic himself (Harry assumes) it’s… not like that. They aren’t friends because of the magic, they’re friends because of everything else.

Louis still very much glows, though. It’s just who he is, he’s just like that, and Harry more or less takes it for granted after so long. It just– it makes sense for Louis to glow, Harry finds himself thinking sometimes. He’s loud and he’s bright and he’s unpredictable and magic and brilliant. If someone has to glow, that someone has to be Louis. Harry knows this even though he’s not exactly sure why he does.

Maybe it’s just because they’re best friends that he thinks it. Harry’s never had another best friend, so he’s not sure how the rules work. With Louis he doesn’t need them, anyway.

They don’t play as much now, maybe because they’re older and don’t do those things anymore. Every time they go back to the park, or the trees, the only kids they see are little ones – smaller than Harry, definitely smaller than Louis. They still have fun there, though, because they’re best friends and that’s what best friends do. And, privately, Harry thinks Louis still goes into the trees to sleep the times he doesn’t climb up to Harry’s window (he’s still very good at climbing) and sneaks into his room. His mum has never caught him there. Louis likes to brag about that whenever he can.

So it all goes on. Harry turns eleven, and he finishes his last year of Primary, which is exciting and a little bit sad, but other than that he doesn’t really feel like things are changing that much. He looks back a couple of years and there’s a difference, of course there is, because back then he used to be a little kid and now he’s not – but here, now, things stay mostly as they are. Knowing things have changed isn’t the same as things changing right now, and even though things changing is sometimes exciting, things staying the same is nice, and safe, and Harry doesn’t mind it at all.

*

Being older also means knowing things about Louis he hadn’t realized, before.

He’s never had a family. Harry thinks how terribly lonely that must have been. What did he do before he met Harry? What did he do when he was little and had no one to look after him? That’s why he’s so good at taking care of himself, Harry knows. If he always knows what to do and how to do it, better than Harry can, it’s because that’s what he’s always had to do.

Harry also knows that Louis isn't a normal person. It’s not really the magic or the glowing, because Harry can do magic too so he’s never thought of it as especially weird. But there’s other things: how he never gets cold or sick and rarely gets tired at all, how he doesn’t seem to need much food or water either.

Louis usually doesn’t like to talk about himself, but sometimes he’ll tell Harry little things at night when it’s just the two of them. He hasn’t always lived here; he comes from somewhere else. He likes being outdoors more than he likes being in buildings. (Harry doesn’t ask, but he does wonder how come he comes to sleep with him, then.) And he also asks questions that let Harry know how much he doesn’t know, how there are normal everyday things that he doesn’t quite understand. Maybe it’s because he never had anyone to teach them to him. Why do I sometimes see things happen when I’m asleep? What happens when people die? Why do people love each other? He asks them quietly, like he’s embarrassed about it. Harry explains as best as he can. It’s harder than it looks like.

So it’s like this, then, when he realizes:

The window is open because it’s summer and it’s dark outside and Harry’s lying belly-up on his bed and Louis’s looking out, leaning out of the window. They’re not talking. Harry watches Louis and wonders what he’s looking at. He cranes his neck and tries to see, but there’s nothing apart from the yellow light of the streetlamps and the row of houses opposite and the sky, big and dark blue and starry. Harry makes a grumbly noise and rolls his face over onto the sheets.

“Where I’m from,” Louis says suddenly, not facing Harry but looking out of the window, “it was different from here, you know?”

Harry rolls onto his back again and looks at Louis upside-down. “Yeah? How?”

Louis glances at him and shrugs. “Dunno. It wasn’t– not like this. It was different.” He sounds frustrated, like he can’t quite explain it properly. “Some things were better there. And the people, they were…” He trails off, looking like he’s thinking hard, and then shrugs again. “I can’t really remember much.”

“How come you’re here, then?” Harry asks, because Louis sounds like he doesn’t mind talking about it.

Louis half-turns his face, so he’s not quite facing Harry but not looking away, either. “I don’t know,” he says. “I just remember, like– I was there, right?” He glances out of the window, up at the sky, like he can’t help himself. “I remember being there. And I remember then I was here but– the bit in between?” He frowns hard. “I can’t– I mean, there was a load of light, I think, and then– I don’t know.

Which is weird, and not like any journey Harry’s ever heard of. Still, it should be easy to just pass it off as one of Louis’s strange things – there are a whole lot of them already, one more wouldn’t actually matter – but he can’t quite do it. It niggles away at the back of his mind, like it’s something he should be worried about. He has no idea why.

There’s a pause, and then Louis carries on talking. It sounds like something he wants to get off his chest. “I only remember the trees. You know, the ones next to the park?” Harry nods, because what other trees could they be? “Um, I was there for a while. And then you showed up, and then. You know.”

So– was Harry the first person to see Louis here? It makes sense. Harry doesn’t like it.

He thinks back to meeting Louis for the first time, back when he was eight. It feels like it was ages ago. Remembering it, he feels like he was such a little kid. He thinks back to going off into the trees and playing on his own. Why? He can’t remember. Was he upset about something?

He was, he remembers dimly. He was upset because… because, right, he’d had those nights he spent crying because he realized everyone was going to die. It was ages ago, but he still doesn’t really like thinking about it. He remembers the horrible helplessness, and the panic and guilt, and how lonely the house felt at night… and one of those nights, hadn’t something happened one of those nights that he should remember?

He looks at Louis, who’s leaning out of the open window again, his elbows on the windowsill, looking up at the stars. The sight feels oddly familiar.

“D’you miss it?” he hears himself say, even though he has no clue why he said it at all.

Louis turns to face Harry. He looks surprised at the question, but not upset. He glows gently, brighter than the streetlights outside. “It was… nice,” he says. “I just– yeah, sometimes I just want to go back.”

Harry knows him. He knows just from looking at Louis that that means he does miss it, very much.

Maybe, Harry thinks, that’s where Louis’s parents are. Maybe he’s here all alone because he doesn’t know how to get back to them. (Harry remembers going on his first overnight school trip back when he was little and crying all through the night because he missed home. He understands, then, why Louis would want to go back.) But why can’t he get back to them? How could he have travelled so far on his own and not been able to go back? Maybe he got lost, but it’s been ages now. He could have told a grown-up and asked them the way.

“Louis,” Harry says slowly, frowning, “where are you from?”

It’s the sort of question Louis usually refuses to answer. Harry finds himself hoping, for some reason, that he doesn’t answer it today either.

But Louis answers. He stretches out his hand a little and points up at the sky. “Up there. Why?”

Up there?

For a moment, Harry is completely baffled. What? How? What does he mean? Maybe he lived in a really high place. Like a tower, or a skyscraper. But as Harry’s opening his mouth to ask, frowning, it hits him.

It’s like putting puzzle pieces down into place. The glowing. The climbing. The magic. Louis always being confused by everyday things, normal things. Not getting cold, or eating; not being able to go back to where he came from. And that night, that night when Harry looked out of the window and saw so many stars, and did the biggest magic he’s ever done, and looking back and not being able to find the star he was looking for–

His stomach feels like it’s dropped out of his body. No. No.

“Harry?” he hears Louis say. He blinks, and he realizes Louis’s face is right up close to his, looking at him strangely. “Harry, are you okay?”

Harry looks back at Louis and forces himself to nod. He’s never felt more like a liar in his life. He hopes Louis doesn’t notice.

For the first time, he finds himself hoping Louis doesn’t stay the night. The knowledge weighs him down, heavy and terrible. A star. A star. Louis is a star, and he’s here because of Harry. How can Harry sleep next to him when he knows that now? But Louis stays, of course. When they get in bed, Harry has to roll over and face the wall to avoid looking at Louis, but he’s still terribly aware of the warmth beside him, of the glow Louis casts around the room.

Harry screws his eyes shut and tries to think about anything else. He can’t. Because the guilt he feels takes over everything, controls all his thoughts so he can’t get away. He curls in on himself, crossing his arms over his belly, the sheets rustling as he moves. He did this. He did all this to Louis. How can he ever make it right again?

He took Louis away from everything he knew. He made him come here, alone, without a home and without having any idea where he was at all. He’s the reason Louis has no family. He’s the reason Louis will never go back to where he belongs.

In that moment, Harry would do anything to fix it. Even if it meant Louis leaving him. He wants Louis to be back home again, wants it so badly he feels like he could burst with it– but nothing happens, no magic comes, because it never does when he really needs it, does it? Wasn’t it supposed to change things when he really wanted them to change? He knows that right now there’s nothing he wants more than to make things right. So why can’t he?

Harry wants to cry. He wants to cry so hard he shakes with it, wants to shout and kick things and rip things until this terrible ache inside him is gone. But Louis is here with him, his breathing already slow and steady, and Harry can’t do that now.

So he curls in further on himself and digs his fingers into his sides, and can do nothing but squeeze his eyes shut and try not to notice the warmth of Louis beside him, a star, a star.

Chapter Text

"O how he loves you, darling boy. O how, like always, he invents the monsters underneath the bed to get you to sleep next to him, chest to chest or chest to back, the covers drawn around you in an act of faith against the night."

– Richard Siken, from You Are Jeff

*

It takes a while to learn to live with it.

Sometimes Harry’s with Louis and he’ll be Louis, nothing more, just the boy he’s known for ages now, his best friend in all the world. But then he’ll find himself paying attention to Louis’s glow and he’ll suddenly remember everything. A star. It’s hard to get his head around it sometimes. Stars have always looked so tiny to him, so far away – something that he knows is there but sounds vaguely made-up, something that could be imaginary and it’d have the same effect on his life anyway. It’s hard to think of the teensy glittering lights up there in the way he’s told at school: giant fiery balls of heat like the Sun, bigger than the Earth many times over.

But where being with Louis sometimes is so normal, other times Harry looks at him and just knows. Louis is made of light. There’s no other way it could be.

Which is confusing, even if the knowledge fits so well. How can that be? Louis has a boy shape. He’s not a giant ball of fire. It makes everything Harry though he knew about stars become strange and abstract. But there’s no one he can ask about it; he’s old enough to know that no one will believe him when he tells them what Louis is. (He suspects that he’s the only one who can see Louis glow, for whatever reason, so he won’t even be able to use that as proof.)

So Louis is a star. Okay. He gets used to the idea eventually, like he’d get used to a new haircut or the change in number from one year to the next. It’s strange, it should be impossible, but it makes sense. The more time that passes, the more familiar the idea sounds, and the less it suddenly shocks him when he’s with Louis and he thinks about it.

The guilt is different.

Harry tries to learn to live with it, but it’s so much harder. It’s not something the just has to get used to – it’s something he can never escape, no matter how hard he tries. It sits heavy in his gut, and he can never ignore it for long. He forgets it’s there sometimes when he’s having an especially good time, when he’s with Louis and he’s laughing so hard he can’t breathe – but then Louis will make an offhand comment about where he came from, or Harry will have to go home and he’ll remember Louis has nowhere to go home to and it’s suddenly back again, stronger than ever. He gets better at shoving it away and pretending it isn’t there, but he can never fully escape it.

He can never tell Louis. That’s the one thing he knows. He can never tell Louis that Harry was the one who brought him here, because Harry’s certain it’ll make Louis hate him and he can deal with the guilt but he doesn’t think he could deal with that.

*

In Harry’s head, summer is when he gets to be with Louis properly.

He doesn’t know when he started thinking of it like that. He doesn’t really care to remember, either – that’s just the way things are. He sees Louis during the school year because he always sees Louis, but there’s so much other stuff in the way: school itself and homework and things he does after school and seeing all his other friends and having to go visit relatives on the weekend when he’s supposed to have the whole day to do as he likes. Summer’s different. Summer means travelling every so often, yes, but it also means weeks and weeks ahead of him where he has absolutely nothing to do. And “absolutely nothing” always has something to do with Louis.

Summer means the park and playing there like when they were little. (Because playing is a little-kid thing, yes, but Harry has so much fun he can’t bring himself to care.) Summer means Harry having the time to teach Louis football and Louis promptly becoming much, much better at it than him; summer means Harry having to go up to the ice cream cart and ordering two cones by himself because Louis stubbornly refuses to order his own; summer means Louis staying over and talking in whispers way past midnight and clear blue skies and sunlight in the day and no clouds to block out the stars at night. Summers are for them. Harry never wants them to end.

But they do, and things aren’t quite the same after.

This year is different. Primary’s over for Harry. Last year, his teachers tried to reassure him that the change wouldn’t be that difficult, that it’d feel strange at first but he’d get used to it. Harry’s not convinced. The thing is, he doesn’t know. He knows nothing about Secondary except for what he’s heard from the people in his class – who make things up a lot of the time – and what Gemma’s told him, and it feels grown-up and unfamiliar and somewhere Harry doesn’t belong in. He’s not scared, because it’d be stupid to be scared about something like that, but–

–but then the summer’s ending like it always does, and Harry never wants it to but this time there’s a little bit of dread in the wanting as well.

He tries to tell Louis about it in an offhand way. Louis just hmphs and says nothing else on the subject. Louis’s old enough to go to Secondary now too, but Harry knows better than to suggest it or ask about it, because Louis’s glowing faint and sulky today and he always does exactly as he likes anyway. Harry doesn’t even know if Louis still goes to school. The magic thing he does where people don’t notice him is as strong as ever – he likes doing it when he’s with Harry somewhere other people can see him, for whatever reason – so he probably can still go. The thing is, Harry knows Louis probably just goes whenever he feels like it, and there’s no way to tell how often that happens.

(Worrying about Louis is a familiar feeling. Harry’s being doing it forever, even if he sometimes isn’t very good at being responsible. But he usually worries about clothes or food or showers – school is a valid thing to be worried about too, he supposes, but he kind of forgets about it a lot of the time.)

So when September comes, even though he walks to school with Gemma again, he starts Secondary more or less alone.

Things are different. Holmes Chapel is a small town, and there shouldn’t be that many new people even if he’s changing schools. But it feels like there are: people from the other primary school in town, older people he’s seen around but has never really talked to, people he technically knows but have somehow changed in the time between leaving Primary and starting here. (Perhaps, he reasons, he never really knew them at all.) Harry gets to know a lot of them fairly quickly, because he’s actually quite good at that, at talking to people and making friends with them, but there’s still so many people left that are strangers to him. It makes him a little uneasy.

Also– no one knows that he does magic. (He hasn’t told anyone, at least. His old friends should know, but maybe they’ve forgotten about it? He doesn’t particularly want to ask.)

He realizes this about three weeks in –which is, coincidentally, the first time he does magic at school. He’s hurrying to copy down the maths exercises before Mr Lofthouse wipes the board clean when he suddenly feels it; before he knows it, his numbers are squiggling all over the page and flashing bright blue and green. (Which is stupid. What could he possibly want that would make that happen?) And his first reaction is to quickly flip the page and look nervously over at the boy called Mark who’s sitting next to him to make sure he hasn’t seen. He doesn’t question it until much later.

“Louis,” he says the next time he and Louis are hanging out. Harry’s distracted, so it more or less slips out on its own. “Does anyone else know that, like… you can do stuff? Like I can?”

They’re practicing their football in the spot behind the factories. Louis looks up at the question, and the ball falls to the ground from where he was balancing it on his foot. “What?”

“I mean.” Harry looks down and picks at the bits of grass that grow between the cracks in the pavement he’s sitting on. “Like, the thing you do when you go to school? Does anyone know about that? I mean, apart from me.”

Louis picks the ball back up. “I don’t really go to school anymore. ‘S boring.” He tosses the ball in the air, catches it on his foot and starts balancing it again.

Louis,” Harry says. “You know what I mean.” Louis concentrates on the ball and doesn’t answer. Fine. Harry slumps back on the ground, annoyed. He should be used to Louis not telling him stuff, but, like– they’re best mates. It doesn’t seem fair. Harry considers asking him about how he glows, just to be spiteful, but breathes in deep and decides it’s not a good idea.

The conversation leaves him feeling weird. The next day, at school, he decides he’s not going to tell anyone about the… about the things he does. Just the separate teacher he has for that, and that’s it. It’ll be easier that way, and no one will think he’s weird.

*

Louis has changed.

Harry doesn’t realize this properly until his own twelfth birthday in February. Before, he’d kind of thought they weren’t together very often because of school, but once it was summer again things would be the same as ever. Then– well, Louis doesn’t so much forget about Harry’s birthday as completely disappear for the whole weekend (Harry can’t remember when he stopped being able to find Louis no matter where he’d hidden) and it’s stupid, it shouldn’t matter this much, but it hurts. And it makes Harry realize that maybe things aren’t the same now, and that maybe it’s not something that summer can fix after all.

Well. Okay, then. If Louis doesn’t want him around, Harry’s not going to sit around waiting.

He hangs out with his other friends instead, the ones he already had before and the new ones he’s made this year. They’re fun and they’re nice to be around, and Harry never has to worry about them getting enough food or about asking questions he shouldn’t. They’re normal, and they think he’s normal too, and things are okay.

Harry barely thinks about Louis at all, actually. Except for, like, when he’s with his friends and accidentally does some magic he has to cover up and thinks, I wouldn’t have to do this if I was with Louis. Or when it’s night-time and he’s in bed and his feet are freezing cold and he can’t get them to warm up. But they’re not important thoughts. They shouldn’t be. Because Louis clearly has no interest in being Harry’s best mate anymore. He probably has some new mates, people like the ones Harry sees at school that treat younger kids like they’re stupid little six-year-olds. Maybe Louis does that too.

(Even though every time Louis shows up, sneaking in through Harry’s window or waiting for him outside the gate when he gets home from school, Harry can never help but go right along with whatever Louis wants to do. He never tells Louis he’s sort of angry at him either, because whenever Louis is actually there in front of him Harry can’t even remember why he was annoyed. That bit comes later, when the brightness of being with Louis has faded and Harry hasn’t seen him in a week. Next time, Harry tells himself, next time I won’t talk to him and make him see just how mad I am, but next time comes around and the only thing Harry can do is follow Louis’s glow.)

*

By the time summer comes around, Harry’s passed all his classes and has gone from being shorter than half the girls in his class to being about the sixth tallest boy. (It looks like the growth spurt his mum spent so long going on about has turned out to be real. He’s still shorter than Louis, who’s the tallest of his friends, and he has no muscles yet, but he supposes that’s just a matter of time.)

There’s a problem, though. And the problem is that Harry doesn’t know what to do now that it’s summer and he’s barely seeing Louis at all.

There’s so much time to fill suddenly. He meets up with his friends from school as much as he can until it’s generally agreed that they’re going to see each other every day, and a sort-of group is formed where they hang out every afternoon next to the train station. He goes swimming in the mornings. He bakes cakes. He gets so bored he even starts borrowing books from the library. But it feels like he’s just passing the time, waiting for something else to come along – and he refuses to be waiting for Louis.

He also refuses to admit that the days when Louis shows up are the best he has.

Harry feels so stupid after, but when he’s with Louis it really feels like nothing’s changed at all. And maybe that’s why he’s so bad at staying mad at Louis – because he doesn’t want to say something that would make that go away. Because he wants things to be like they were before, when they were just friends, and it didn’t look like Louis had gotten tired of him. And each time Louis appears, he still kind of hopes it’s going to be like that now – but Louis always leaves, and Harry eventually stops hoping.

*

There’s a guy from the group called Alec who thinks he’s so cool just because he can do twenty keepie-uppies. He’s taken to carrying a ball around and demonstrating whenever he can. He’s in the group so they’re kind of friends, Harry supposes, but he privately finds Alec just bit annoying.

He’s bouncing the ball and counting yet again today. Harry’s not really in the mood for this. “Please,” he scoffs at Alec as soon as he’s dropped the ball at nineteen. “Twenty’s nothing. Louis can do fifty easy.”

He realizes what he’s said a little bit too late.

Niall, who’s leaning on a wall and doing nothing apart from absorbing the sunlight, opens one eye and looks at him. “Who’s Louis?”

There was a time when Harry used to jump at the chance to talk about Louis, at the idea of him getting to meet his friends. Now, he hesitates, and then shrugs. “No one,” he tells Niall. “Just– no one.”

Niall grunts and says nothing else. Harry’s glad.

*

He has his first proper fight with Louis in late July.

It hasn’t been a good day. His mum yelled at him three different times this morning, he got in a fight with Gemma over toast, Alec was especially annoying today and also called him an idiot and he’s been weird and on edge all day, snapping at anyone who’s tried to talk to him, reasonably or not. Also, it started raining as he was coming home from the train station, and now his t-shirt is soaked through and there’s water in his trainers and he just wants everyone to leave him alone.

Which is, naturally, when he sees Louis sitting on his front steps.

Oh, right. He thinks he can just show up here when he hasn’t been around properly for months? He thinks he can ignore Harry like he’s a silly little kid but come back to his house whenever he feels like it? He’s probably just here to get out of the rain, Harry thinks bitterly.

So he unlocks the gate, walks right up to the door, and starts rummaging through his pockets for the key without even a sideways glance at Louis.

“Hi,” Louis says. Harry says nothing. “Hey,” Louis says, a little louder. Harry ignores him.

He finds the key and aggressively jams it into the lock. He doesn’t actually know what he’s going to do now, because going inside and leaving Louis out here in the rain seems a little extreme, but before he has to make a decision Louis scrambles to his feet and tugs on Harry’s sleeve.

“What’s going on?” he says. He sounds annoyed. Good. Harry shrugs his hand off and pointedly does not look at him.

Harry.” Harry sneaks a glance. Louis’s frowning, looking like he doesn’t believe whatever he’s seeing. “Are you mad at me?

He says it like it’s this completely unbelievable thing. It just makes Harry angrier. “So what if I am?” Harry shoots back, gripping the keys so tightly they dig into his fingers.

Louis still isn’t taking him seriously. Harry can see it on his face. He hates Louis’s stupid expression, Louis’s stupid glow, Louis’s stupid everything. “Why are you mad at me?” He says it like he can’t figure it out for himself.

“Oh, let’s see, why would I be?” He tries to make it sound clever and sarcastic, but it just comes out angry. “You’re never around. You’re always disappearing. You never want to be with me anymore. And even if you did, you’re a rubbish best mate!” He’s talking too fast, stumbling over the words. “You always do what you want and expect me to do what you say. You never tell me anything even if we’re supposed to be best mates. You never want to listen to me properly when I want to tell you about something.” Which is a lie, he knows it’s a lie, but he can’t take it back. “I don’t want you here. So you can leave.”

Louis doesn’t look surprised anymore. Instead, his eyes are narrowed, his body’s tense, and his mouth is sharp and angry. When he talks, it’s nothing like Harry does. He doesn’t just blurt things out – it’s like he has time to think each one of them through.

“You know what?” he says. “Maybe I was never your friend in the first place. Maybe I don’t want a friend like you.” He glows menacingly. Harry feels a sort of quiet fear when he remembers he’s made a star angry. “You’re just an idiot little kid, you know that? Why do you think I’d ever be friends with you?”

Harry feels his cheeks heat up with anger and shame. His eyes sting. “Fuck you,” he says fiercely. He’s never said that to anyone before in his life. He’s not taking it back.

Louis just laughs at him. He laughs at him. Harry feels ashamed, humiliated, wrong. So without even thinking about it, he launches himself at Louis and punches him in the face.

Louis stumbles backwards, caught completely off guard, and for a moment Harry’s scared they’re both going to topple over backwards – but then Louis regains his footing and shoves Harry off, hard. He looks at Harry, rubbing his jaw and glowing bright and angry and dangerous, but makes no move to fight back, which makes no sense. And is also frustrating, because Harry needs it, all the pent-up rage inside him bubbling, looking for a way out. He stands there for a moment, looking right at Louis, breathing hard – and then, oh. Of course. Of course Louis doesn’t want to fight him, because he thinks Harry’s just a little boy and he wouldn’t be worth it.

He can’t have Louis think of him like that anymore.

So Harry lunges forward again, fists brandished, and this time Louis’s waiting for him. He catches both of Harry’s fists easily, latching onto his wrists and not letting go even when Harry thrashes and twists his wrists painfully. Harry’s eyes burn. He struggles for a moment, Louis pressed right up against him, his shoes scuffing on the ground– and then Harry jerks his knee up, Louis avoids it smoothly and Harry uses the distraction to heave himself forwards with a grunt and topple them both over. Louis hits the ground with an oof, Harry right on top of him.

There’s a moment of blind struggling. Harry wrestles an arm out of Louis’s grip, but the other one is still caught – he can see nothing, his face squished into Louis’s shoulder – he tries to shove, to hit, but Louis’s holding him more or less still and he can do nothing – and there’s Louis everywhere, fingers tight on Harry’s wrist, body pressed all along his as he struggles, everything glowing. And then Harry isn’t on top of Louis anymore but suddenly pinned below him, his back against the ground. Louis holds him down as Harry tries to twist out of his grip, pressing both of Harry’s hands against the ground by his wrists.

Harry feels so infuriatingly trapped.

Louis’s legs are on either side of Harry’s body, his weight solid on Harry’s hips even as Harry tries to struggle. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. Harry feels his cheeks heat up with shame at how easily Louis beat him like it was never an effort for him at all, because he was right, wasn’t he? Harry isn’t worth the fight. Harry has nowhere to look at except for Louis’s face right above him, can feel nothing but the ground against his back and Louis’s body on his. He knows he’s… he’s hard. Louis has to feel it the way he’s pressed up against Harry. But Harry can’t think about that now, because he fought Louis and Louis beat him and that’s so, so much worse.

Louis moves against him a little. It must be digging into his leg, but he says nothing. The look on his face is strange, so angry but also something else Harry can’t figure out, but he’s glowing so blindingly bright that Harry doesn’t dare speak. Harry feels his own heartbeat everywhere. His throat, his wrists where Louis’s holding him down, the place where he’s hard. What now?

But Louis speaks. “I’m leaving now.” He doesn’t sound angry and he’s not gloating because he’s won. It’s something else, and it sounds cold and empty and doesn’t give away any emotion at all. It’s not scary. It’s not. “Goodbye,” he says, and he’s suddenly clambering up from on top of Harry and walking away without looking back once. Harry doesn’t even try to chase after him. He stays where he is, with hot tears in his eyes and an erection that hasn’t gone away and all full up with horrible shame.

*

Louis doesn’t come back.

For the first week or so, Harry’s mad enough to be happy about it. (He doesn’t even stop to think about why he’s mad. He just is. Every time he thinks about Louis, blind, hot rage wells up in his stomach, and that’s enough.) He doesn’t want Louis anywhere around here and Louis obviously doesn’t want to be here either, so. He can never come back for all Harry cares.

He sees his friends and he does other things that have nothing to do with Louis at all, and he’s never bored, ever. He can get on like this perfectly well.

But still, even though he barely thinks about Louis at all, really, he sort of keeps track of the time he’s gone without seeing him. Two weeks pass. Fine. Whatever. Louis’s probably hanging around town anyway – maybe he’s avoiding Harry, that’s why he hasn’t seen him. Either way, he doesn’t care. Three weeks. Maybe he isn’t here after all? Maybe he went somewhere else and Harry’s never going to see him again. Which is… fine, he’s not as mad as he was before. Maybe he still doesn’t want to see Louis, but, like, that doesn’t mean he won’t want to see him ever. A whole month. Well… okay. Where is he? He’s never been away for this long. Harry shouldn’t care, but not caring is getting more and more difficult.

It’s almost September and there’s no sign of Louis. Harry’s pretty sure by now he’s not in Holmes Chapel anymore. (He’d never admit it to anyone, but once he went looking in the trees next to the park to see if Louis was hiding there. He found nothing.) And it’s fine. It’s fine because Louis shouldn’t be here if he doesn’t want to be, and it’s fine because Louis can take care of himself. He’s more or less fourteen by now, Harry guesses, and also he can do all sorts of things by himself that Harry can’t do. He doesn’t need Harry for anything, so worrying about him is no use.

(Not that Harry’s worried. He’s just, like. Thinking about it.)

So when school starts again and Louis isn’t back, Harry tries very hard not to be bothered about it. It’s not all that different from last year, he reasons. Just that instead of not seeing Louis very much he’s not seeing him at all. He keeps himself busy enough that there’s not really much time to think about it – but it catches up to him when he lies awake in bed, restless and fidgety, eyes scanning the darkness of their own accord. Louis might be able to take care of himself, but he’s alone. And he’s been here for ages, but Harry can’t forget that Louis isn’t a person, that he doesn’t really belong down here. What if he’s lost? What if he got hurt? Fear makes his lungs go strangely tight. If something bad’s happened to him and Harry was the one who made him leave…

Sometimes he dimly imagines what it’d be like, right now, if Louis was here in bed with him. (He doesn’t think about the boner, because it’s a thought that right now seems too much, for some reason.) But one night he gets a familiar hot feeling and suddenly his fingertips are lighting up in a faint echo of Louis’s glow, so he stops imagining it. Before, he might have been excited about making something like this happen, but now it just makes him sad, and he doesn’t like it.

Louis has to come back. He can’t be gone forever. Can he?

*

It’s a late September night and Harry can’t sleep again. Closing his eyes is no use, and trying to leave his mind blank doesn’t work either – he’s wide awake, a restless feeling inside him even though he’s been up since seven thirty am. He lies on his back beneath the blankets – it’s not just sheets anymore, the weather’s getting colder – and stares blankly at the ceiling. It’s faintly visible, because he still hasn’t gotten into the habit of closing the shutters before he goes to bed, even if it lets the heat out.

The house is quiet. A car goes by outside, and the noise it makes gets fainter as it gets further and further away. There’s silence again. Harry tries not to think about why he can’t sleep. Then– there’s a noise from the window.

Harry scrambles upright so fast he almost falls out of bed.

It can’t be. It can’t– but then Harry jumps out of bed and more or less runs to the window (the thought that Louis usually comes straight in crosses his mind before he remembers that he shuts the window properly now so it can’t be opened from the outside) and gets right up close to the glass, and Louis’s face stares back at him from the other side, glowing gently.

A million questions run through Harry’s mind one after the other. What’s he doing here? Is he still mad? Where was he? Harry’s hands shake a little as he fumbles with the latch. Is he okay? He looks okay, even if his hair’s a bit long and the clothes he’s wearing aren’t Harry’s, but. Harry needs to make sure. There’s a strange urge to touch him as he clambers in easily through Harry’s window and his bare feet hit the carpet, to make sure he’s really there, that he’s not going to leave. He obeys it without thinking, puts a hand on Louis’s arm and feels him solid and warm beneath. Harry gets an odd nervous feeling in his stomach.

Louis’s looking at him without saying anything. Harry drops his hand from his arm.

“Hi,” he says. It sounds too quiet and not enough. So he does what he actually wants to do because there’s no reason why he shouldn’t – he launches himself at Louis and hugs him tight, unable to help himself, burying his face in Louis’s shoulder and letting himself feel him, real and here. Louis hugs him back, his arms snaking under Harry’s armpits and around his middle, and everything is warm and glowy and for a bizarre moment Harry feels like crying.

Instead, he breathes in deep against Louis’s shoulder and mumbles, “Missed you,” because it’s the truth, and Louis says nothing but he squeezes Harry tighter like he doesn’t want to let go.

*

“Louis,” Harry says quietly when Louis’s slipped into his bed like it’s the most normal thing in the world, dragging Harry behind him. (He’d hesitated for a second before getting in, telling Harry he didn’t want to get it dirty. Harry hadn’t liked the flicker of doubt on Louis’s face, so he’d just shoved him on the bed and told him he was dumb.) Now their feet are tangled together and Harry feels warm inside even after he asks a question that he knows might be tricky. “Where’d you go?”

He hasn’t asked until now. They’ve fallen right into step like nothing’s happened, and it’s not weird or uncomfortable at all but Harry needs to know, hasn’t forgotten why they fought in the first place (Louis didn’t tell him things and most importantly Louis wasn’t there and Louis’s been not there for two months). His chest gets a bit tight when Louis stops facing him and rolls over to lie on his back, taking his feet away so they’re not touching anymore. But Harry doesn’t push him, and when Louis starts talking he doesn’t sound tense or like he wants to change the subject.

“Well.” He clears his throat. His voice is quieter than Louis’s used to hearing it. “I guess at first I just wanted to get away? ‘Cause I was really mad at you and I kind of thought I never wanted to see you again.” It’s hard to tell in the darkness, but he thinks he sees Louis’s eyes dart towards him before moving to stare resolutely at the ceiling again. “So I went to the train station, got on a train and didn’t get off until it stopped. Which was in Manchester. And I’d never been to Manchester before, so, um…” He trails off for a second and his glow wavers a bit. “I was really kind of lost at first, and, um, sometimes things weren’t so good? So I got upset and stopped concentrating on people not seeing me so someone took me to the police and they put me in a home, but–”

Harry’s eyes widen immediately. “What?”

Louis squirms a bit like he was hoping to avoid the subject. Harry’s heart thuds. Louis’s not, like, homeless. He has Harry’s house. That’s enough. Right? Also, what happened?

“It wasn’t too bad, I mean–” Louis starts, and cuts off abruptly, still staring right at the ceiling. “Well, actually, it was. It’s just– there’s no real reason for it, really, I just– it felt like I was trapped there, you know? Like I couldn’t breathe, like I–”

Harry can’t help himself: he reaches out a hand and squeezes Louis’s arm, gently, just to let Louis know he’s listening. He wonders if it’s easier for Louis to say things in the dark. He never sounds like this when Harry can see his face clearly. He sounds strangely young, and vulnerable, and Harry knows Louis can look out for himself but that doesn’t mean Harry doesn’t get a strange urge to protect him when he’s like this, to make sure nothing bad happens to him.

Louis blinks hard. “I mean, I know it sounds stupid, but–”

“It doesn’t,” Harry interrupts, because Louis needs to know that. (Louis is a star, he reminds himself. It makes sense that he can’t be held down like that. Harry knows how Louis gets a little bit uneasy if he even spends too long away from the open sky.)

Louis glances at him. “Okay,” he says quietly. “So, I just needed to get out. But it’s much harder to stop people from noticing me when they’re actually looking for me, you know? So it took me a while to get out of there, and then I sort of got lost trying to get back here, messed up the trains.” Harry doesn’t want to think about it, doesn’t want to imagine Louis lost and upset and alone and not being able to find his way back here. Louis carries on talking. “And I only just got here, so. Sorry for barging in in the middle of the night like this.”

Harry can’t hold back any longer. He’s given Louis his space; now he wiggles over to him and hugs him fiercely. Louis seems a little surprised, but he hugs Harry back. “You can come here whenever, stupid,” he tells Louis, the words muffled a bit by Louis’s hair. “I’m glad you’re okay.” He pulls back and adds, a little embarrassed, “Also, sorry I hit you.”

Louis laughs and it’s wonderful. “It’s okay. I hit you back, anyway.” He kicks Harry in the knee without any real force behind it. “Also, um” he clears his throat, “you were right, sort of. I’m a rubbish friend.” Harry opens his mouth – he’s not sure what he’s going to say, possibly something about how that’s not true at all – but Louis kicks him again. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here very much. I had to think about some things, but… I will be now. Promise.”

“Okay,” Harry whispers, because he’s not going to argue against that. He wonders what things Louis had to think about. He wonders if he remembers Harry got hard when he was fighting him. But he doesn’t say any of it out loud; instead he bumps his feet against Louis’s again and stays like that.

Louis’s staying here, is the last thing he remembers thinking. Harry’s going to take care of him. He’s never going to let something like this happen again.

*

Louis keeps his promise.

He isn’t there when Harry wakes up to go to school the next morning, but when he gets back and goes into his room Louis’s lying on his bed with damp hair and wearing one of Harry’s hoodies that’s a bit too small for him, and that’s it. He’s back, and Harry gets to have a best mate again, and he feels like he could punch the air.

And he doesn’t leave again. He isn’t there always because he has his own stuff going on as well (Harry thinks maybe he’s made other friends around Holmes Chapel, but for some reason it’s not a suspicion he really wants confirmed so he doesn’t ask about it) but he’s there whenever Harry needs him to be, which takes a bit of getting used to. And Harry might be biased, but he thinks this is the most fun he’s ever had with Louis, because apparently he’s gotten into his head that his mission is to corrupt Harry. Harry doesn’t mean to, but he always ends up going right along with everything Louis comes up with – which is completely unfair, because he’s the one who gets told off by his mum whenever it goes wrong. Louis just grins and runs away. Tosser.

It gets to the point that they actually end up climbing one of the old abandoned factories out on the edge of town – no, not going inside and exploring like Harry suggested, but climbing it, because Louis is obsessed and also probably insane. When they get to the top, climbing up a pipe that gets shakier and shakier the higher up they get, and collapse onto the roof, Louis says this is the highlight of their career while glowing bright and smug. Harry looks out at the rooftops thoughtfully and tells him everything the light touches will be his. Apparently, Louis has watched The Lion King at some point, because instead of looking confused he calls him a prat.

Then, half the roof caves in, and Harry almost falls straight through with it. Louis grabs him in time, though, and tugs him to the safe bit (even if there is no safe bit and they should most definitely get out of here as soon as they can). Harry’s gasping because oh my God but he’s also laughing breathlessly for some reason, and when he looks at Louis Louis is too, and it’s suddenly very very hard for Harry to be scared.

*

When he thinks about it, Harry realizes he’s never really cared very much about dating. His guess is that he’s not there yet. He’s old enough to have had the sex talk at school that everyone in his class giggled through, and he’s definitely old enough to wake up in the morning and find his dick sticking out through his pyjama bottoms, but… girlfriends. That’s something that seems strange and abstract, and after some conversations with his mates he’s found himself staring thoughtfully at the backs of girls’ heads in class, trying to imagine maybe kissing them or even doing some of the other stuff all his mates seem so eager to do. It’s… interesting to think about, but Harry doesn’t think it really explains why everyone else is so obsessed with it.

Which is probably why it takes a while for him to notice that Sophie Watts who sits behind him in English apparently fancies him.

Actually, it’s Niall who does it for him. “Sophie was lookin’ at you again today,” he tells Harry casually while they’re waiting in line at the drinking fountain at break.

Harry’s head snaps around from where he’d been watching the football game going on distractedly. “What?”

Niall shrugs. “Just sayin’. I sit next to her in Maths, right, and she just kept starin’ at you the whole time. She never even talked to me once.” Niall looks vaguely offended by this. “Think she proper fancies you.”

Harry is– Harry is confused. “What?

“‘S what everyone’s saying,” Niall says. “Anyway, she’s fit, so good for you, right? Your turn,” he tells Harry, gesturing with his chin to the fountain, where everyone in front of them’s left already. Harry obeys, dumbstruck, slightly grateful that the conversation’s over but also with the strange urge to interrogate Niall about everything he’s just said. Sophie fancies him? Everyone’s saying so? Really? Why?

He pays extra attention to Sophie for the rest of the day, trying to figure it out. Niall’s right, she’s not bad-looking. Her hair is lovely, hanging in waves down her back, and she has a nice nose. What does it mean if she fancies him? Is she going to ask him out? Harry can’t for the life of him imagine going on a date with her. They’ve barely even talked.

Of course, that’s when she looks up from her work and sees him looking.

Harry freezes. Crap. He can’t look away now because she’d think he was embarrassed about being caught staring, which means he must fancy her, but if he keeps on looking doesn’t that also mean he fancies her? He’s trying to think of a way around it when she smiles right at him. Oh. Right. He looks away hurriedly. She does fancy him. What’s he supposed to do about it?

He sneaks a glance at her. She’s still looking. She smiles at him again. He’s probably in trouble.

*

Sophie catches up to him outside the school where he’s waiting for Gemma to come out. By the time he notices her coming up to him, it’s too late to pretend he hasn’t seen her and leave, so he stands there nervously as she gets closer, his fingers fidgeting and pulling down at his sleeves.

“Hi, Harry,” she says as she gets up close to him, smiling brightly. Harry smiles back automatically. She’s put her hair up. It looks nicer when it’s loose, Harry thinks.

“Hi,” Harry says back. Her smile gets wider. Harry’s kind of in awe at how confident and relaxed she looks. If he was going to ask out someone he fancied, he’d probably get all nervous and muck it up.

Not that she’s going to ask him out. Maybe she just wants to say hi.

There’s a moment of slightly awkward silence, and Harry’s wondering if he was wrong about her when she speaks up again. “So, I was thinking maybe we should hang out sometime?” She smiles again. Harry thinks it looks hopeful. And–

And the thing is, looking at her like this, Harry’s noticing how pretty she actually is, how she has really nice blue eyes, and maybe he wouldn’t mind kissing her at all, just to see what it’s like.

“Sure,” he says. “Sure, okay.” He doesn’t really realize what he’s said until the words are already out of his mouth. Oh. Oh no. What’s he doing?

His eyes flit around nervously, and when he catches sight of Gemma finally, finally coming up towards them his stomach floods with relief. “That’s my sister there,” he tells Sophie. “I should probably, um–”

“That’s okay,” she tells him. “I’ll message you, yeah? And we can, like, decide on a time and place?” Harry nods dumbly, and she beams at him before saying a quick bye and whirling away. Harry spots her group of friends huddled outside the gate waiting for her. Oh no.

“What’d she want?” he hears Gemma say. He looks up and she’s there, frowning thoughtfully at Sophie as she walks away.

“Nothing,” Harry says back quickly. Gemma doesn’t look convinced at all, but she doesn’t push it. Harry’s glad.

*

They talk on Messenger and decide to go see the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel on Saturday evening. Harry has no reason to be nervous. He doesn’t even fancy her. Does he? Why’s he going on a date with her, then?

He doesn’t tell anyone (even though word gets out pretty fast at school, much to his distress). Not Louis, because for some reason he really doesn’t want Louis to know right now, and not Gemma or his mum – even though his mum grins at him unsettlingly when he tells her he’s going to Crewe with some friends this afternoon. That means he can’t ask for advice from anyone, but he doesn’t need it, because he’s not nervous. He ends up wearing jeans and a hoodie under his jacket, which is what he wears on a normal day anyway (although he does try to tidy his hair up a bit).

The February wind is cold and biting as Harry makes his way to the bus stop where he’s meeting Sophie. (There’s only one cinema in Holmes Chapel, and it only shows, like, a film a month. You have to catch a bus to Crewe to see anything decent.) She’s waiting for him when he gets there and she’s looking much nicer than him even bundled up in her jacket. It’s a little uncomfortable at first – Harry has no clue what he’s supposed to do, is he meant to hold her hand and kiss her cheek and do date-y stuff or should he just act like they’re mates hanging out? – but they start talking while they’re on the bus and she’s nice and she’s funny (although not as funny as Louis) and Harry decides he likes her just fine.

The film is cool, even though Harry gets slightly nervous when he starts side-eyeing all the couples around them and seeing all the boys have their arms over the girls’ shoulders or are just straight-out snogging them. Harry really, really hopes he isn’t supposed to snog Sophie like that. He’s relieved when the only things she does is take his hand; he hold it for the rest of the film and doesn’t mind too much.

It’s dark already when they make it back to Holmes Chapel. They get off the bus and the wind blows around them, freezing cold and making them huddle in their coats. Harry wonders if he’s supposed to walk her home. Is this how dates usually go? Was this not date-y enough? He supposes that except for the hand-holding this could have been like hanging out with a friend, so– wait, why’s she getting so close to him? What’s she going to– oh.

Sophie kisses him gently, and it’s not a very long kiss or a very steamy one but the press of her lips on his makes Harry’s stomach feel all warm despite the cold. She draws back, and Harry notices, again, how nice her eyes are, clear and blue and shiny. He can see her breath in the air when she talks. “Bye, Harry,” she says, smiling. “Thanks for this. I had fun.” She leans in again. Harry’s hoping for another kiss, but he gets one on the cheek instead. Fine. That’s… fine, he thinks as he watches her walk away. He touches his lips. Maybe he’ll get to see her again soon.

*

“Lou, you ever been kissed?”

Harry’s homework is scattered all over the floor. (He thinks he might be lying on some of it.) He can’t concentrate at all, though; his thoughts keep going back to last evening, and is Sophie going to ask him to be her boyfriend now? Does that mean he’ll get to kiss her again? Because she’s nice and fun to be around, but Harry thinks what he might like the most about her is that he can probably get to kiss her again.

Louis glances up from where he’s concentrating furiously on Harry’s second-hand Nintendo. “What?” he asks, and then he looks down at the screen again and curses, pressing buttons forcefully. It doesn’t seem to work. He tosses it aside and huffs.

“I said,” Harry says, dragging the word out, “have you ever been kissed?”

Louis frowns. “What’re you asking that for?”

Harry shrugs. “Dunno,” he mumbles. “I mean, um. I think Sophie from school might want me to be her boyfriend.”

Harry doesn’t know what he was expecting, but he thought Louis would look, well, at least a little bit happy for him? He doesn’t. Harry wonders why. “Oh,” Louis says. “That’s nice.” Harry doesn’t like his tone – it’s the one that makes him remember Louis’s at least two years older than him. “What’s that have to do with the question?”

Harry squirms a bit. He can feel himself blushing. “I just, um. I went on a date with her yesterday. And she, like, kissed me, and I think I might be rubbish at kissing?”

“You went on a date and you didn’t tell me?” Louis just looks offended now. Harry shrugs. Louis regards him for a moment before hmphing and continuing. “You want some advice on kissing, then?”

Harry blushes deeper. “It might come in handy?”

Louis taps his fingers against his thigh thoughtfully. He’s gotten better at staying still throughout the years, but there’s always some sort of movement about him, hands fidgeting or feet swinging. “I dunno, the best way to do these things is just to practice, right?” So Louis has snogged someone. It sits strangely in Harry’s stomach. “But if you’re going out with her you aren’t gonna be kissing other people.”

“I guess not,” Harry says. It comes out quiet. He doesn’t know why.

“Right,” Louis says. “Then… I guess the best thing you can do is not get nervous. If you’re nervous, it’s gonna show. Just–” And then he’s scooting closer to Harry, crumpling some of his homework beneath him in the process. Harry’s heart thumps. What’s he doing? “You’re like this, right?” His face is inches away from Harry’s, and Harry can feel the heat from his skin. Louis’s eyes are really blue, Harry notices dimly. Like Sophie’s. “And even if you’re crapping yourself you need to pretend you’re really calm. And then you just…” His fingers touch Harry’s chin lightly. They’re glowing so bright. “You just do it.”

Harry feels heat build up inside him. He remembers getting a boner when he was fighting Louis – it jumps into his head for no reason he can figure out. He wonders if Louis remembers. Louis hasn’t taken his hand away. And then– then harry hears a miniature explosion and he and Louis jump apart and it turns out Harry’s just made tiny fireworks appear in the room for no reason whatsoever.

Louis bursts out laughing, and Harry doesn’t know why but it gets him laughing too, and by the time the fireworks disappear they’re both breathless with it. Louis looks at him like he’s going to say something, and Harry gets a weirdly nervous feeling in his chest – but then Louis opens his mouth and says, “Also, try not to do any magic while you’re at it, yeah? It might freak her out.”

Harry shoves him and calls him a tosser. He doesn’t know why he feels relieved.

*

So. Yeah. Sophie is Harry’s girlfriend.

Harry– Harry doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but he supposes he fancies her, right? So he doesn’t mind. It feels odd being someone’s boyfriend, but when it leads to really nice snogging whenever they have a moment to themselves, Harry thinks it’s an absolutely smashing deal.

Harry likes kissing. Harry really, really likes kissing. It feels like he finally understands what the big deal’s about: he can join in those conversations his mates have now (even though, for some reason, he feels like it’s a little bit different for him than it is for them – he can’t quite put his finger on it) and he finally feels like he has something substantial to wank to, rather than just doing it because it feels good. Sophie seems to like it just as much as he does, so being her boyfriend just kind of means having a person he likes around all the time and being able to kiss her whenever he feels like it. Which is fantastic.

(They haven’t gone any further than kissing. Oddly enough, Harry doesn’t mind. He knows a lot of the boys he knows are desperate to touch a girl’s boobs, but Harry’s absolutely fine like this. He feels them against his chest while they snog, and it’s nice and more or less enough for him.)

Gemma and his mum find out soon enough, of course, because Holmes Chapel isn’t a big village at all and because there’s only so many times he can claim he’s going out somewhere with a friend. Gemma tells him to be nice to her, and Harry gets home once to the terrifying sight of his and Sophie’s mum chatting animatedly in the kitchen over tea.

And Louis… well.

Louis doesn’t like Sophie. Harry knows this much without even having to introduce him to her. Whenever Harry mentions her Louis either completely ignores what he’s said or makes fun of him. (When Harry asks him why, indignantly, he just laughs. It’s annoying.) And Louis never really says it, but a few weeks in Harry realizes that ever since he and Sophie started going out Harry’s spending much, much less time with him, and couldn’t that be why Louis doesn’t like her? It probably isn’t very nice to be pleased about Louis not liking that, but Harry sort of is anyway.

(Harry also wonders if that’s what Louis was doing last year when he wasn’t around. Because Louis has apparently snogged girls before, so when else could he have gotten a girlfriend without Harry noticing? Maybe it’d just be easier to ask him, but Harry reasons that if Louis hasn’t told him by now it must be because he doesn’t want to.)

Louis gets more and more annoying about it as the weeks go by. “You’re thirteen,” he tells Harry with the air of someone who’s absolutely full of it. “When you’re thirteen, relationships aren’t supposed to last longer than two weeks.” Harry shoves him and calls him a prat, because he and Sophie have been together for three months, thank you very much, and since when is Louis an expert on relationship advice anyway?– and is promptly proven wrong when Sophie breaks up with him by the end of the week.

She doesn’t feel like she’s important to him, apparently. She wants a proper boyfriend that takes her on dates without her having to suggest it first and who doesn’t spend half his time with his mates (what’s she talking about? She’s the reason he barely sees Louis nowadays) and who’s interested in more than just snogging her. Harry defends himself as best as he can. It doesn’t really work.

So– that’s it, then. Harry goes home and doesn’t know how to feel.

He’s not anyone’s boyfriend anymore. It’s weird to think about in the same way that it felt weird being someone’s boyfriend back in February. And he’s never going to be able to be proper friends with Sophie again, which kind of sucks, because he really did like her– and also now he has no one to hold hands with and no one he can out his arm around and no one he can kiss.

He tells Louis because he has to tell someone, tells him about how he doesn’t like feeling alone and how he didn’t mean to be a bad boyfriend and how he hopes he didn’t make Sophie feel bad. Louis is unusually quiet throughout the whole thing. Harry’d expected him to be smug about it and say I told you so, but the only thing he does is try to make Harry feel better: first by cracking jokes, then by tackling him to the ground, and when none of those works he makes Harry go get the laptop and introduces him to internet porn.

It– it should be weird, his best mate since he was eight (who happens to be a star, Harry still forgets sometimes) pulling up a site called Pornhub and starting to give him tips on how to tell the good videos apart from the bad ones. It’s not. It’s like it’s the most normal thing in the world. Harry knows a lot of his friends watch porn, has known for a while that theoretically he could do it too, but between all the vague fantasies he got from snogging Sophie and all the other stuff he kind of comes up with it’s never really seemed necessary. But this– this is new and strangely exciting with how dirty it is. Watching actual people have actual sex on the internet. It makes Harry feel older.

It’s only when Louis pulls up a video to “try it” that Harry wonders what the hell they’re going to do now. Because he’s hard already just from Louis scrolling through the website– is he, like, supposed to have a wank? Right here in front of Louis? The idea should be embarrassing, and it is, but it also somehow makes Harry feel like he’s getting even harder. Anticipation makes his breathing a bit shaky. Louis glances at him as the video starts. Harry’s palms feel sweaty.

The man and the woman are already kissing onscreen, and they take each other’s clothes off surprisingly fast. (Is it like this in real life?) Harry watches, a little bit in awe, as the man gropes at the woman’s breasts and she actually moans. By the time she’s sucking his cock, Harry’s shifting self-consciously on his chair, his fingers digging into his own thigh, and when the man groans and comes on her chin he can’t take it anymore and presses his palm down on his crotch, breathing out hard.

Louis’s still there. Harry hasn’t forgotten for a moment.

He glances at Louis uncertainly, hand still on his crotch. On the screen, by the sounds the woman’s making, it sounds like they’re having proper sex now. Harry doesn’t know what he’s expecting Louis to do, only that he feels all hot inside (he really, really hopes he doesn’t accidentally do magic now); when Louis meets his eyes, Harry’s scared for a second that he might come right there and then.

Louis looks at him, and then his eyes drop straight to Harry’s crotch. Harry has to bite down on his lip. “Go on, Hazza,” Louis says quietly. “You can touch yourself.”

Harry takes his eyes off Louis and obeys. His hand reaches into his pants and he grips himself properly – he’s close, really close – and he squeezes his eyes shut as he begins moving his hand up and down a tiny bit. His breathing is shaky. He hears the little cries of the woman in the video, his hand moves faster and he bites his lip hard, he realizes Louis is definitely watching him – and then he opens his eyes, meets Louis’s blue ones and comes all over his hand with a shaky gasp.

For a moment neither of them says anything, the only sound in the room the tiny moans from the laptop speakers. Then Louis jumps up from where he’s sitting. He’s glowing so bright it reminds Harry of a blush, and through his trackies it’s impossible to miss that he’s hard. Harry feels another jolt of heat.

Louis clears his throat. Harry’s hand is still in his pants. “Okay, just make sure you clear the browser history when you’re done,” Louis says quickly. His voice is a little high-pitched. He clears his throat again. “Um, have fun, sorry about Sophie, I’ll see you later, yeah?” And with that, he pulls the window open and jumps straight out. (It’s not the first time he’s done it.)

The video’s still playing. Harry closes it and pulls his hand out of his pants slowly. Ew. He takes a Kleenex from the box on his desk and wipes it clean. Then, after thinking for a moment, he turns back to the computer and pulls another video up.

It’s not until two orgasms later (none of them are as good as the first for some reason, and he can’t get Louis watching him out of his mind) that it occurs to him that, wait, where did Louis learn to find porn from?

*

Things are different after he breaks up with Sophie.

Harry feels different. He feels restless, like there’s something about himself he can’t quite get to, an itchy spot he can’t scratch. After a couple of weeks go by, he realizes he’s going into what he mentally refers to as a quiet time– things aren’t happening, he isn’t doing anything, and he has way too much time to, like, think. He doesn’t like it.

He needs to make things happen. He needs to fill time up and not start thinking weird thoughts. Other times he’s gone to Louis because the one thing he knows Louis always does is make him laugh, but it somehow doesn’t feel right now.

So he dates.

It’s easy, really. He’s noticed girls at school looking at him interestedly ever since he started going out with Sophie. Maybe they see him as someone boyfriendy now, not just another guy from school they’re not interested in? Either way, there are heaps and heaps of pretty girls now he’s noticing them properly, and most of them are quite nice to be around once he gets talking to them. Harry’s always been best with people when he’s alone with them. He likes people, is the thing, likes being with them and getting to know who they are and what they like and what they think like. He pays attention to them, and it’s easy to notice girls like that. He’ll talk to a girl and then see her go off with her friends and whisper to them and suddenly they'll all be turning their heads and shooting looks at him and he can’t help but feel a little bit pleased.

So there’s Leah, who has blonde hair and a lovely laugh and who he’s with until the end of summer, when they both have tan lines from sunbathing together and she tells him she likes him but she likes Alec better. Then there’s Mandy for two weeks in September, Nicole for most of October, a few dates in November and December with girls he doesn’t see again and then Jenna, and Nat, and…

It starts out new and exciting. It’s nice to be wanted, and it’s nice to be with someone he likes who likes him back. He likes being kissed goodbye, likes texting until it’s past midnight and his phone’s run out of credit, likes smelling girls’ hair and holding their hand and have them look at him like he’s the best thing. He likes being with someone, likes how it’s like having a friend that’s just a little bit more. And he likes the girls themselves, of course he does, likes getting to know each one’s little habits and quirks, like how Mandy is more ticklish than anyone he’s ever met or how Nat likes to put her hands under his t-shirt when they snog and run them up and down, feeling his chest. He likes feeling their mouths on his, warm and slick, and he likes the feel of their bodies when they're pressed up against him or underneath him on his bed. Girls are wonderful. Harry feels lucky to have this. But–

–but nothing, really. It’s not a big deal. He shouldn’t be thinking about it. He’s not thinking about it.

Louis doesn’t much like any of his girlfriends, though. Harry introduces him to Leah and it’s such a disaster that he doesn’t try again. Given that he never actually meets most of them but still makes a face every time Harry mentions them, Harry only gets more certain that Louis doesn’t like them because they take up Harry’s time. (It’s a bit frustrating, though, because with some of them, like Mandy and Nat, he’s reminded a little bit of Louis, and he’s sure that if Louis stopped being a prat about it they’d get on really well.) But even though Louis doesn’t like them, he’s surprisingly understanding when Harry needs him to be. When Leah breaks up with him, he lets Harry cry angry embarrassed tears onto his chest and hugs him tight while he glows angrily, calling Leah all sorts of names under his breath and muttering fiercely that she didn’t deserve him, that Harry shouldn’t cry over someone like that. Harry sniffs and burrows into Louis’s chest and, for a moment, feels so lucky he gets to have Louis here with him.

(Then he feels guilty. Because Louis is somewhere he doesn’t belong in because of Harry. Harry can never quite manage to forget it.)

It’s not until Louis shows up one day with two lovebites on his neck that Harry realizes Louis might be seeing someone too.

He’s spent the weekend busy with Nat and revision and he’s barely seen Louis at all; when he shows up at Harry’s window on Sunday night because it’s pouring outside Harry just yawns, lends him some dry clothes and goes back to bed, Louis slipping in after him. Harry’s falling asleep when he squints and sees them: two purple bruises on Louis’s neck, one under his jaw and the other just above his collarbone. They look strange on Louis’s gently glowing skin, like tiny galaxies.

He feels a jolt. Someone’s been giving Louis lovebites. The thought sits oddly in his stomach.

“D’you have a secret girlfriend you haven’t told me about?” he mumbles sleepily. He hopes it comes across as casual. Louis looks a bit confused – Harry isn’t sure if it’s genuine or if he’s just pretending not to know what Harry’s talking about – so Harry gestures to his neck. There’s a strong impulse to touch. Harry manages to hold it in, but he can’t stop himself from tracing the shapes of the bruises in the air, like he’s touching them from two inches away.

Louis follows his hand with his eyes. “Oh,” he says. His eyes flick up to Harry’s face. “No, Hazza, I don’t have a secret girlfriend. You don’t have to worry about competition.”

Harry ignores the joke. “Who’d you get those from, then?”

Louis rolls over so he’s not facing Harry anymore. “Someone I’ve been seeing. Not my girlfriend.”

“But–”

“But nothing,” Louis says, sounding grown-up and something else Harry can’t put his finger on. “Goodnight, Harry.”

Harry frowns. Okay, then, if Louis doesn’t want him asking he can just say. He rolls over so he’s facing the ceiling, then sniffs. That’s weird. It doesn’t smell like Harry’s deodorant. That sometimes happens when Louis forgets to borrow it so he ends up smelling like boy-sweat, which Harry doesn’t really mind unless it’s more than, like, three days old. But the familiar Louis sweat-smell isn’t there. It’s just the fabric softener his mum uses for the sheets and… someone else’s deodorant?

Harry sniffs again. it’s definitely boy deodorant – it has that musky sort of smell, not girls’ clean fruity one. So Louis is using someone else’s deodorant, someone that’s not the person who’s giving him those lovebites. Or… is it?

What would it mean if Louis was seeing a boy? Harry doesn’t know why, but he doesn’t want to think about it.

He resolves to make sure Louis uses his deodorant tomorrow. He doesn’t want Louis smelling different. It makes it seem like he’s getting further and further away from Harry, and Harry doesn’t want to get left behind.

*

After that, he develops a strange fascination with giving girls lovebites. It’s something he’s done and had done to him once or twice, but never like this– he’s never been this eager to, he’s never looked at them after and marvelled at the fact that he’s left a mark on someone else, that now everyone will know he was here. He can’t get the way Louis’s neck looked with the bruises on it out of his mind.

(He still doesn’t know who Louis got them from. He hasn’t asked again.)

*

Around April, he realizes he doesn’t have to date a girl to kiss her.

It starts at Sam’s birthday party. He was very good friends with her when she was little (she’s one of the people who knows what he can do) but now they’ve sort of drifted apart; he has his own mates and she has hers. So the party’s full of friends of hers Harry barely knows at all, including some girls who are maybe a year or so older. In particular, a very pretty girl called Eve.

She likes him. Harry notices soon enough. She comes up to him an hour or so after the party starts, smiling and sneaking these sly looks at him, and they end up in Sam’s yard chatting as the sky grows darker (she knows a lot about music; it’s really interesting to talk to her). When the first stars are coming out, she takes hold of him and kisses him against the fence.

She knows what she’s doing, that much Harry can tell, aside from the fact that she’s really good at it. After they’ve snogged for a while he’s about to ask her for her number when she pulls back, kisses him on the cheek and tells him she has to go now, but this has been lots of fun. And she’s gone before Harry can even ask her wait, what?

When he finds Sam and asks her about Eve, she laughs. “She told me she was leaving at eleven,” she tells him. “She does that. She always has other stuff going on.” Then she takes a proper look at him and laughs like she’s surprised. “Oh my God,” she says. “You hooked up with her!”

Harry tries to deny it, but the fact that he’s blushing bright red is probably what gives him away. So Sam just laughs at him and tells him Eve hooks up with lots of boys but doesn’t really date any of them, because she doesn’t like to get involved with anyone. Which sounds very grown-up, even for someone who’s older than him. And then Sam gets this sly grin on her face and asks him if he’d like her number.

And it all goes on from there. He texts her, she texts back, they hang out, they snog. She’s not his girlfriend and Harry doesn’t ask her to be. He knows she hooks up with other people, and is strangely unbothered by it– why should he care when he still gets to be with her? It’s different to anything he’s ever done with a girl before, and it’s so exciting– especially because she knows so much stuff he doesn’t. Like sex stuff. They never really do anything – Harry’s not sure he wants to – but she’s very very good at groping him through his jeans, which is a learning experience. Even if it makes him come once or twice and makes his pants all gross after. When they stop seeing each other it’s June; she calls and tells him she thinks she has a proper boyfriend now and they’ve agreed not to see anyone else, and that it was cool getting to hang out with him, yeah? It’s all surprisingly friendly, which works just fine for Harry, and later, when he thinks about it, he realizes he’s not really upset.

Just… excited. Excited because this feels like something has changed and change means new things. Because he wants to get to know as many people as possible and for the first time it feels like he doesn’t need to limit himself, like he doesn’t need to be someone’s boyfriend to get to know them and kiss them. It almost feels freeing.

*

He tells Louis all this, because he thinks his mates from school will just laugh at him. Louis doesn’t do that, exactly. He just snorts and says, right, so you think you’re gonna get a bunch of girls now without even having to date them? You really are quite full of yourself, aren’t you?, which stings a bit until Harry realizes he’s probably right and just kind of laughs at himself. But, like, in a good way, because it’s Louis, and Louis never makes him feel bad about himself on purpose. He just, like, puts things into perspective. It’s nice. He’s possibly the best mate Harry could ask for.

Now it’s summer and Harry doesn’t have a girlfriend, he’s hanging out with Louis a lot. Louis seems quite happy with this, which inevitably makes Harry pleased, because it’s what always happens when he has direct evidence that Louis likes being with him. And really– sure, kissing someone is great, but sometimes when he’s with Louis Harry catches himself wondering how the hell he missed out on this because he was busy dating. It just– at times, it doesn’t seem worth it.

He doesn’t tell Louis that. It’s embarrassing.

(They don’t talk about the lovebites or the person Louis got them from. Harry doesn’t spot any more of them, but he still wonders. Who was it? Was it a boy? The thought makes him feel something he can’t place. Was it a one-off thing, or has he seen them again? Is he seeing them now? Louis’s pretty much always around when Harry looks for him – so could he have time to be seeing someone without Harry finding out? It’s not important, but the questions still niggle at Harry, so much that when he thinks about them for too long he finds himself doing odd bouts of unexpected magic like he used to when he was little.)

Louis’s sleeping in his bed a lot too on all sorts of nights, not just during bad weather like he does when Harry’s dating someone. It reminds Harry of being younger and being used to Louis sleeping next to him all the time, glowing in the darkness like a night-light. It’s comforting, remembering that there are things from when he was eight that feel the same now, and he wonders if it’s like that for Louis too. How do stars feel time? Louis measures time in hours and days and years just like everyone else does, but Harry wonders if it’s just because he’s learned stuff from being here. How would he measure it if he was still in star-shape? Stars live for hundreds and thousands of years, even if Louis’s boy shape seems to be getting older just like any other person would. If he was still in the sky, Harry would just be a tiny little thing to him. His whole life would be like a day.

It’s unsettling to think about. He doesn’t do it often.

Instead, he curls up in bed next to Louis and lets their feet bump together. Even in the sticky summer heat, Louis’s warmth never bothers him, and he feels it on his own skin all over and falls asleep calm and safe.

Of course, he’s not eight anymore, so the fact that Louis is more and more often still there when he wakes up is a problem, sometimes.

The first time it happens, Harry wakes up early in the morning with Louis’s leg touching his and pale light slanting in through the window – and, of course, a boner poking up through the worn fabric of his pyjama bottoms. Harry panics, then thanks God Louis hasn’t woken up yet, and then hurriedly goes off to the bathroom and has a wank with his forehead pressed up to the tile wall, his leg still warm from Louis’s skin. The second and third time are more or less the same, and it happens about five more times before he manages to stop panicking. (It’s useful that he always goes right back to sleep after. That way, he doesn’t really have time to think about it.)

Louis never wakes up, thankfully. Never ever. Not even that one particularly embarrassing time when Harry wakes up and there’s already a dark wet spot on his pyjamas because he’s already come all over them. Harry knows Louis’s asleep not because he checks – most times he doesn’t dare to – but because if he was awake and had noticed, he wouldn’t stop teasing Harry about it ever. What reason could he have for pretending to be asleep anyway?

*

Through the summer, he sees girls sometimes – but it’s not what it was before.

Maybe it’s what happened with Eve, maybe it’s being off school and with Louis all the time, maybe it’s a completely different thing. For whatever reason, he doesn’t feel like dating girls anymore, and he’s not sure if it’s the dating itself that he doesn’t want to do or if it’s just that he can’t find a girl he fancies enough.

He’s still very much into the idea of hooking up, though, so that’s what he does.

It’s hard to meet new people in Holmes Chapel, especially people who are willing to snog and then not date, but he makes do between friends of his friends he hangs out with sometimes and people he gets to know outside the village. It’s nice, hooking up with people who don’t expect anything from him, but– for some reason, by the end of the summer it’s lost the appeal. He can’t help but feel it’s the same thing over and over, and what does that mean? Shouldn’t it be exciting to meet new people and kiss girls he likes, shouldn’t that be enough? Because it makes no sense, then, that he’s constantly feeling like he needs to find something more.

So by the time summer’s over, the only thing he really does it hang out with Louis, because being with him makes that feeling go away. Being with him is easy and familiar, and he never has to think about it – at least, not until he’s gone.

*

Harry isn’t drunk.

Yes, okay, it’s one of the first times he’s tried alcohol, he feels a strange kind of tingly energy all over and he keeps laughing at everything, so what. He’s only had, like, a beer. And a half. Surely that’s not nearly enough to get someone drunk, even if he’s fourteen and not very used to drinking. He’s fine.

Okay, he’s maybe a little tipsy. But that’s all it is.

He sighs and flops back against the cushions lying all over Jess’ attic floor. (Some of the boys had laughed when they’d seen them and asked if they were having a sleepover, but Harry is very very glad they’re here. Genius idea. He’ll have to tell Jess that.) Lying on his back, he thoughtfully inspects the situation. This was supposed to be “the last great party before school really starts up and we all get screwed over!” – because teachers have spent all of September drilling the importance of GCSEs into their heads and no one wants to admit it but they’re all kind of scared – and that’s why there’s so many people here. Most of them he’s friendly with but doesn’t really know all that well, which would be a great chance for Harry to get talking to a few of the girls but the truth is that right now he really can’t be bothered.

Anyway. So, in theory it should be a fun night. But no one’s really doing much, Harry notices. In fact, most people seem to be more or less in the same situation he is: leaning on cushions and looking generally inactive.

It turns out Jess isn’t having that. Suddenly, she claps her hands. A few people startle. “Okay, people, what is this?” she says. “This is no fun at all. If I knew you lot were this boring I wouldn’t have invited you.”

This gets a few glares, but people start sitting up on their cushions. “Right, so what’d you say we should do then?” asks a boy Harry’s pretty sure is called Matt.

Jess frowns. “Well, I dunno. We could play a game? Truth or dare?” she suggests halfheartedly. Someone groans. “All right then,” Jess says back snappily in their direction, “you come up with something, if you’re so full of good ideas.”

Harry props himself up on his elbows and grins. “Spin the bottle,” he says. It’s meant to be a stupid comment, because does anyone play that in real life anyway or is that just from, like, films like High School Musical? But then he sees a few faces looking thoughtful and a faint, “Cool,” from across the room, and before Harry knows what’s going on Jess is clapping her hands excitedly and calling him a genius. And then people are scooting over on their cushions to make a sort-of circle and Jess’ fetching an empty beer bottle from somewhere and wait, what?

Jess clears her throat before Harry can grasp the full implications of what he’s done. “Okay, so we all know how the game works, don’t we? Everyone gets their turn with this here,” she holds up the bottle, “and they have to kiss whoever it lands on. So, for instance…” She gives the bottle a twist with a flick of her wrist and it spins, spins, slows down and ends up pointing at Tony Hall. There’s a few wolf-whistles, Tony blushes, Jess looks disgruntled but she says, “Fine, shut up,” and crawls across the circle to Tony. She gives him a quick peck on the lips, and when she pulls back Tony’s face is even redder. “Next,” Jess announces, and passes the bottle to Kat Miles on her right.

And that’s how it starts. The bottle moves around the circle, girls giggle and boys wolf-whistle, the air in the room feels heavier and Harry kisses Jenna (which is a bit weird since she used to be his girlfriend), then a girl called Harriet and then Jess herself. After three rounds, the initial awkwardness is gone, and people start upping the rules. Two more rounds – Harry gets Anita and then Harriet again – and the kiss has to be at least three seconds long. And then Kat spins the bottle and it lands on Miranda and it’s decided that girls have to kiss girls now if the bottle lands on them; the girls protest and say they’ll only do it if boys have to kiss boys too. It’s agreed a bit reluctantly.

Harry watches Kat and Miranda kiss to a chorus of ohhhhs and watches the bottle come closer and closer and glances around at all the boys in the circle. His palms feel sweaty. He wipes them on his jeans, but it feels like the sweat isn’t going away. And then it’s his turn, and he’s spinning the bottle a bit sloppily, and it slows down down down until it’s perfectly still and pointing at Dan Nicholls.

Harry’s lungs feel tight.

There’s no whistles like there was with Kat and Miranda, only the sound of a few whispers here and there. Harry wipes his hands on his jeans again. “Go on, Harry,” he hears Jess say, and he feels like he wants to get up and bolt, but there’s no way out of this, is there? It’s the rules. So Harry flicks his eyes up to Dan’s face nervously, then pushes himself up on his hands and knees and crawls across the empty space in the middle of the circle, heart thudding.

Everyone’s watching. Harry meets Dan’s eyes, then glances away nervously. They’re blue. He flicks his eyes down to Dan’s lips instead, and there’s a moment that feels so long where he’s sure he’s just going to sit there frozen and not be able to do it. And then he’s moving forwards and pressing his lips against Dan’s for a full three seconds and it’s nothing like kissing all those girls before, nothing at all, and Harry’s stomach feels warm from the inside and his crotch feels warm from the inside and he realizes that unless he pulls away now he’s going to have a very serious problem very soon.

So he does. He sits there and he looks at Dan and Dan looks back at him and his face feels like it’s burning. Harry’s heartbeat is thudding like crazy and he feels like something’s happened, something big, something scary. Then Dan blinks at him and Harry jolts back to reality and turns around and scrambles back to his spot in the circle without a word. no one’s saying anything. Harry passes the bottle to Anita on his right and hopes everyone gets distracted, because the thought that everyone was able to see that makes his cheeks burn even hotter. He glances around the circle, meets Dan’s eyes, drops his gaze immediately and tries to will his half-hard dick back down.

He needs another beer.

*

Harry stops kissing girls after that.

He doesn’t want to think about it, doesn’t want to know what it could mean should mean maybe possibly means. He doesn’t. It’s not– he doesn’t.

It’s not him. It can’t be him.

He has to stop himself from thinking. If he does, he’ll be fine. It’s the thinking that’s the problem, he’s thinking too much and screwing all his thoughts up, yes, that’s it. It’s nothing. It has to be nothing.

Because if it’s not nothing, he has no clue how he could possibly deal.

*

It’s late October when Harry gets woken up at three am by someone falling through his window.

He jolts awake and sits up in bed, heart pounding. Louis’s always quick and noiseless when he comes in. What’s this? What’s going on? He panics for about three seconds before the shape on the ground starts moving and his eyes fix on it and he realizes that yes, it’s glowing faintly. Which is a relief, because it means no one’s coming to kill him in his sleep, but what the hell is Louis doing on the floor?

“Louis,” he whispers. He watches the Louis-shape on the floor move around but not get up; he frowns and slips out of bed, cold air hitting his bare feet when he sets them down on the floor. He pads up to Louis and crouches down beside him. “Hey. Hey, look at me. Are you okay?”

“Yep!” Louis says, too loud and cheerful, startling Harry. “Yep, I’m fine, I just need to–” He pushes himself up suddenly, getting up on both feet, and Harry isn’t quite sure how he manages it (he’s still a bit sleep-clumsy) but when Louis stumbles and sways dangerously he gets up too just in time to catch him.

Louis hits his chest – solid, warm, glowing bright and happy in the dimness of the room – and giggles, giggles, as his arms snake around Harry’s middle and hold him tight. He’s taller than Harry, but when he fits his head onto Harry’s shoulder it doesn’t seem like it at all. It’s only when Harry’s staggered a bit and recovered from the slightly overwhelming feeling of having Louis everywhere that he smells the alcohol on Louis’s breath and realizes what’s going on.

He tries to pull Louis away because he can’t concentrate when he’s all over Harry like this, but Louis isn’t having it, tightening his fists in Harry’s shirt and making a little clingy noise in the back of his throat. Harry swallows. Louis probably has no clue what he’s doing right now, he reminds himself. “Louis, are you drunk?” he asks quietly, even though he already knows the answer.

Louis giggles again – Harry’s never heard him like this – and then, oh, he presses his mouth up to Harry’s ear so that Harry can feel the warmth of his breath on it. Heat floods his stomach. “Maybe I am,” Louis whispers conspiratorially. His mouth doesn’t move from where it is. Harry needs to do something.

So he pulls back from Louis, more forcefully this time, glancing away from the confused look on Louis’s face. “All right, let’s get you to bed,” he tells him. Louis’s frown eases and he nods seriously, but he’s barely taken three steps before he trips on the carpet and Harry has to snake a hand around his waist to steady him, whispering hey, careful. “Whoops,” Louis laughs, and Harry lets him lean on him all the way to the bed, his stomach feeling heavy.

Louis launches onto Harry’s bed as soon as he can and smiles wide, wrapping all the covers around himself like a cocoon. “Stay there, okay?” Harry tells him, and dashes to the bathroom to get a glass of water because he’s heard it’s what you have to do to not get hungover. He can’t stop the questions running through his head as he fills a glass from the bathroom sink, the sound of the water echoing off the tiles – where’s Louis come from? Who was he with, and why did they let him go home alone if he’s like this? How the hell did Louis manage to climb up to his window without falling and breaking his neck? His heart thuds at the thought, because he knows that even though Louis is, strictly speaking, not a person, he can get hurt just like everyone else can. He tries not to think about it.

When he gets back, glass in hand, Louis seems to have decided he’s actually not cold at all, because he’s thrown all the covers off. His head is tilted back, his neck is all exposed – Harry’s eyes linger on it instinctively for a moment – and, oh. Okay. And he also has a very large and very obvious boner. Harry sees it and nearly drops the glass.

“Louis,” he says softly. His chest feels tight, and it shouldn’t, because there’s no reason for it to be. Louis opens his eyes slowly, eyelashes fluttering as he blinks and squints at him. A wide smile spreads over his face. “Harry,” he whispers, and makes grabby hands at him.

Harry puts the glass down on the bedside table – for later, he reasons, for when he can convince Louis to drink it – and slips into bed with Louis, pulling the covers over both of them. It’s a tight fit nowadays, because they’re not little kids anymore. Harry wonders if it should be weird. Then Louis sighs happily and curls up into him, fitting a leg between Harry’s, pressing his face into Harry’s neck. Harry freezes. Louis’s boner is insistently obvious against Harry’s thigh, and he shouldn’t, he shouldn’t, but Harry watches on helplessly as he starts getting hard too.

He grits his teeth, screws his eyes shut. This doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t–

He feels lips on his neck before he really registers it, and then Louis is pressing a wet, sloppy kiss into the skin there. Harry’s eyes fly open. He wants to tell Louis to stop, but he can’t find his voice. Louis presses another kiss to his neck. Harry can tell his mouth is open. He’s fully hard now, of course he is, because Louis’s lips are warm warm warm and they make Harry tingly all over and this has to stop.

It doesn’t.

Another kiss, longer this time, lingering. Harry fight the urge to shiver and doesn’t quite manage it. Louis draws back then, eyes shining. They’re so blue. “Hazza,” he murmurs, the syllables all slurred into one another. “Hazza, I– I always–” His lips go back to Harry’s neck, and they detach this time with a wet sound. Hearing it jolts Harry into action.

“Louis,” he says, trying to stop his voice from shaking. His throat feels like it’s all sealed up, like he can’t get enough air. He pushes Louis back, gently but firmly, and ignores the way his body feels all cold after. “Louis, you’re drunk.”

Louis frowns. Harry hates to look at it. “No, Hazza, I always– I just–”

“You’re drunk,” Harry repeats. He feels like it’s someone else speaking through his mouth. “Go to sleep now, okay? You’ll feel better in the morning.” And then he turns his back to Louis, hands shaking, because if he doesn’t stop this now he doesn’t know what will happen and it’s terrifying.

He screws his eyes shut. He hears Louis shifting around next to him until he’s facing away from Harry too, but their backs are still touching, because the bed’s not big enough for the two of them. Harry breathes in and out, in and out, trying to stop himself from thinking so he can fall asleep. But he can’t, so he lies there staring out at his bedroom in the dark, his cock throbbing from how badly he needs to be touched.

He turns to look at Louis just once, when his breathing has levelled out and his glow has dimmed and Harry knows for sure he’s asleep. But as soon as he does, Harry feels hot all over, and then he notices Louis’s shirt moving, gravitating towards him of its own accord, clinging to his fingertips. He shakes it off and turns over immediately, heart hammering. He doesn’t fall asleep for a long, long time.

*

When he wakes up, Louis is gone, and it’s three days before Harry sees him again.

*

They don’t talk about it. How would they? Louis never brings it up, not once, and Harry clings to the hope that maybe he’s forgotten about it, because it’s him who was drunk. Harry wasn’t. Harry was perfectly sober, and he let Louis kiss all the way up his neck, he got hard from it. What kind of friend was that? How could he ever tell Louis about it?

So they don’t talk about it, and they’re still best mates, and it’s for the best. And if Harry’s wanking sometimes and the memory of wet lips on his neck is enough to send him over the edge immediately it doesn’t have to mean anything at all.

*

Harry goes to each and every party he can find nowadays. (It’s not a lot of parties; it’s a small village.) They’re fun, and they’re distracting, and he can get as tipsy at he wants, so. It’s a win-win situation, really.

Today was the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, which means no more exams, which means they’re all more or less free now and Niall can invite people over to his place and have them actually come. Harry doesn’t know if tonight was meant to be Christmas- themed or not, because there’s mistletoe hung half-heartedly in a corner of the living room but not much else.

Harry contemplates it while sipping his drink and then sighs. He’s bored. There’s some sort of intense card game going on on the other side of the room, but getting off Niall’s sofa to have a proper look doesn’t feel like it’d be worth the effort. He squishes his cheek into a sofa cushion and looks out of the window. If this doesn’t get more interesting, he thinks vaguely, it’s dark enough outside to sit in Niall’s yard and do some stargazing.

He’s startled out of his thoughts by the sofa dipping and someone sitting down beside him. Harry looks up and blinks. There are fifteen people here at most, but he’d forgotten Dan Nicholls was here too. (Also, that thing with the bottle and the kissing was two months ago. There’s literally no reason for Harry to still be flustered about it. None at all.)

“Hey,” Dan says casually. Harry says hi back and tries to puzzle out what he’s doing here. They’ve never really talked much. Come to think of it, Harry doesn’t know why.

“You look busy,” Dan says. Harry looks at him and sees he’s smiling a little.

Harry yawns theatrically. “This is so boring,” he says dramatically. “Everyone’s playing cards. Cards! I think they just discussed it and said, hey, what’s the dullest game we can possibly find? Let’s play that!”

“Oh, like you’re one to talk. All you’re doing is lying there.”

He’s– he’s teasing him. Harry’s two minutes into this conversation and he’s already being teased. “Yeah, so why are you sitting here talking to me? Don’t you have better things to do?”

Dan meets his eye and grins. Harry feels his stomach give a little twist. “Maybe I don’t.”

*

“I like you,” Harry tells Dan very seriously after… how long has it been? Harry’s sort of lost track of time, to be honest.

Dan’s really nice to be around. Like, really nice. Harry always assumed he was sort of shy, but Harry’s been talking to him nonstop for ages now and maybe it’s the beer or whatever but he’s giggly and smart and teases Harry a lot and doesn’t seem even a little bit self-conscious. His hair gets in his eyes a bit, and every time he brushes it off his forehead Harry finds his eyes tracking the movement.

Harry’s a bit tipsy, so that’s probably why they’ve ended up doing what Harry was considering just before, sitting on the sparse grass in Niall’s yard and squinting up at the sky. Harry’s weirdly fascinated by it. Like… they’re sitting on a rock that’s floating right through space. Space is out there. It’s huge to think about. Harry’s been staring up at it for a while when Dan turns to him and tells him, isn’t it crazy that all those stars are millions and millions of miles away but we can still see them from here?, which is along the lines of what Harry himself was thinking. Harry looks away from the sky and beams at him. I like you.

Dan nudges his shoulder against Harry’s and leaves it there. Something jolts in Harry’s stomach. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

Harry, because he’s tipsy, turns his head and looks at him again, really looks at him. He can see how blue his eyes are even with the faint light coming from Niall’s house. He remembers noticing that back in October, when that happened. Harry liked it. No, he’s going to think the words now, because he’s tipsy and he can. He liked kissing Dan.

He thinks about how Dan came to talk to him specifically, how he’s been finding excuses to touch Harry all night, and lets himself think that perhaps Dan might have liked kissing him too.

They’re looking at each other now and neither of them is saying a word. Harry feels like he’s teetering on the edge of something, like this moment could somehow be what pushes him one way or the other.

So he makes a choice.

“Remember when we kissed that time?” Harry whispers, making the words just loud enough to be heard. Dan nods after a moment, and Harry thinks he might have moved forward a little. Before Dan can say anything, Harry carries on. “It was nice.”

There it is. It’s out there and it’s terrifying. Harry feels his stomach clench with nerves, because this could be it, this could be the moment when Dan pushes him away and calls him that word and goes inside and tell everyone what he’s just said. It could happen. It doesn’t.

“Really,” Dan says, just as quietly. Harry feels relief so strong it almost overwhelms him, but there’s no time for that now – not when Dan’s lifting a hand up and placing it on top of Harry’s so gently. He’s nervous, Harry realizes. His hand is gentle and his eyes are flicking everywhere and he’s just as nervous as Harry is.

Harry doesn’t think. He just mumbles, “D’you think we could do it again?” His heart thumps frantically, he moves his face closer, Dan’s hand tightens on his own– and then their noses bump and they’re kissing, right there in Niall’s yard with the open sky above them. Dan’s lips are warm and slick and gentle, and it should feel like kissing a girl does but it’s nothing like it. Harry feels tingly down to his toes, feels himself nervous and shivery and happy, and it’s almost like the feeling that comes when he does magic only there’s no magic this time. Just this, Dan’s lips and Dan’s hand on Harry’s and kissing Dan.

They pull apart. Harry’s eyes flick up to Dan’s and he comes back for more. They kiss again, and again, not talking at all, Harry letting Dan’s tongue brush at the edges of his lips and then slip in between them. There’s nothing else. Harry’s free hand tentatively moves to Dan’s neck, feeling the skin beneath his fingers. There’s the feel of the shorter hairs at the back of Dan’s neck and feeling a chest that’s solid and flat and the small short kisses every time they draw apart, not wanting to stop. There’s only that. Harry doesn’t even remember the stars anymore.

*

Harry gets home unable to stop tracing his lips with his fingers. He gets into bed – Louis is nowhere to be found – and for the first time in ages he falls asleep without thinking.

*

Things should change.

Harry kissed Dan. He kissed Dan because he wanted to. It should feel terrifying, it should, because he can’t– he can’t just do something like that and not expect anything to happen. But Harry can’t let himself think about what it means, not now. He can only remember what it was like, how it felt like nothing he’d done before, and wonder, is it supposed to be scary when it felt so good?

Things should change, but they don’t, not really.

This is what he knows: he doesn’t want to be with girls anymore, not when there’s this. (He isn’t sure if he wants to be with anyone. The next day, Dan texts him I broke up w my gf a couple days ago i think i need some time to think is that ok ? Harry texts back sure. friends? x and gets the answer Obvz, so. Harry’s… a bit relieved.) But. Now what?

He kissed a boy. He’d maybe like to kiss more. That’s all there is to it. It doesn’t change anything about who he is, because he’s not– he’s just Harry. Just Harry.

And if it doesn’t change anything about who he is, it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t tell anyone, right?

*

It does. It does matter if he doesn’t tell anyone.

It’s been a week, Christmas is over, and Harry feels like he’s going to burst. It’s like there’s this huge thing growing bigger and bigger inside him and he’s trying to hold it all in. This shouldn’t be happening, not telling people things shouldn’t be a problem, but– but he fantasizes sometimes about just talking about it all with someone who won’t make a big deal out of it, just talking so he can sort out the mess in his head. That’d be nice. But he stops imagining it every time he remembers that talking about it would mean telling someone.

If he’s being honest, the problem is Louis.

Because, like– he can’t just go around telling people things he hasn’t told Louis. It doesn’t work like that. No one gets him like Louis does, so what would be the use?

But. But just the thought of telling Louis makes Harry’s brain freeze, makes him feel like he’s going to throw up. It’s– no. What would Louis think of him? He’d remember that time, that time with the boner – and that other time with the porn – and the night with the, the kissing Harry’s neck, if he ever remembered it the next day – and, just, maybe he wouldn’t do anything outright but he’d know, and he’d know when they slept in the same bed and he’d know every time Harry hugged him and the thought is so huge and terrifying that Harry shoves it away as soon as it comes.

But they’ve been friends for years and years, and now it’s the holidays and there’s snow outside so they’re spending more time together than ever, and Louis can always tell when there’s something wrong.

He never says anything. He just acts especially loud, drags Harry along to whatever he’s come up with with particular enthusiasm and then keeps shooting him these small worried looks whenever he thinks Harry’s not looking. It’d cheer Harry up if his stomach didn’t feel all heavy whenever he’s with him.

He’s already keeping one thing from Louis. He doesn’t know if he can deal with another. Especially not when it feels like this, like it’s dragging him down, like it’s something to be ashamed of. He doesn’t know how much longer he can take it for, how long it’s going to be before he cracks.

*

Louis want him to climb a tree. Louis wants him to climb an icy tree. Harry doesn’t know how someone could ever think that’s a good idea.

(To be honest, if he were in a better mood he’d probably do it anyway. But he’s not. He’s in a horrible mood and he’s cold and he feels awful and tense and a liar and he has to tell Louis but he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to.)

“Harryyyy,” Louis calls from above, because of course he’s already up there. “Come on! Don’t be boring.”

“Because falling and breaking my neck is so much fun,” Harry mumbles under his breath. Somehow Louis hears it, because the next thing Harry knows a branchload of ice is being dumped right onto his head. Ugh. Harry blinks. There’s snow on his eyelashes. Also, he thinks some of it might be sliding down the back of his neck.

Fine, then.

Harry stares blankly ahead to where the river flows. He’s not in the mood for this. He’s never really in the mood lately, but today is especially bad, because he feels weighed down and fed up and mad at himself for getting upset over nothing. He just wants to go home. He wants to go home and sleep for as long as he wants and not have to worry about anything, about not telling people things and what would happen if he told people things and–

“Harry?”

Louis plops down next to him so suddenly it’s like he’s fallen out of the sky (ha). Harry doesn’t want to look at him. He’s fine, he is, it’s just that climbing trees is stupid anyway and–

“Harry. Hey.” Louis nudges his shoulder with his own. He’s barely wearing any winter clothes, just a sweater of Harry’s. Still, he’s warm even though the air is icy. It’s not just that you can see his breath when he talks, but also a faint faint steam that seems to come from his skin. “D’you wanna head back home?”

Harry blinks at him, a little stunned. He was expecting to have to brush off an are you okay? Instead, Louis’s somehow figured out exactly what he wants to do right now and hasn’t asked Harry for a single explanation. How does he do that?

“Yeah,” Harry says. His throat feels a little hoarse. He clears it. “Yeah, I’m not really feeling so good.”

“Okay,” Louis agrees easily, and in a moment he’s hauled himself up and is holding a hand out to Harry. Harry takes it and lets his fingers linger for a moment even after Louis’s pulled him up. The warmth is nice is all.

*

The walk back home is unusually quiet. Harry’d say something to lighten the mood, but he’s so furiously stuck in his own head that the outside world is lost to him. Even Louis. (Even though Harry knows without even having to look that he’s doing that worried-looks thing. It makes his skin prickle.)

It’s only Gemma in the house, which probably means she’s studying like crazy and he won’t see her all afternoon. Still, Harry locks his bedroom door behind him after they both come in. It feels like the thing to do somehow.

He stands there for a moment and then paces the whole of his room once or twice before he gets to the window and looks out, eyes fixed on a point in the distance. The glass is misty. He’s dimly aware of Louis sitting down on the bed somewhere behind him, of his own fingers digging into the wood of the windowsill, but he only snaps out of it when he hears Louis’s voice. “So are you gonna tell me what’s wrong or what?”

Harry whirls around and crosses his arms over his chest defensively. “What?”

Louis sighs and just keeps looking at him. Harry doesn’t like it. Louis’s eyes feel weirdly searching, and for a moment, Harry’s irrationally scared that Louis might be able to read everything on his face without him saying it.

Harry turns away abruptly. He doesn’t know how Louis does that. He makes Harry feel like spilling everything out and he hasn’t even said a word. Harry hates it; it makes him feel vulnerable and helpless and stupid.

Louis’s eyes are still there, fixed on the back of his head. Harry doesn’t need to look at him to know that.

“Louis,” his voice is rough, and it feels like it’s someone else speaking, “what do– what do you do if you think you’re into boys?”

He hears himself say the words. His heart thuds, hard. Shit. Shit. It’s out there and he can’t take it back. His hands tighten on the windowsill. He can’t look at Louis, it feels like he’s never going to be able to look at Louis again–

A hand touches his shoulder gently. Harry almost jumps, then recoils into himself because of course it’s Louis, who else would it be? He tries to turn his face away. “Harry,” he hears Louis say. “Harry, hey.” His hand starts rubbing circles into Harry’s shoulder. Why’s he doing this? “Harry, breathe. It’s okay. You’re okay.” Harry turns his head a little, meets Louis’s eyes, blue and fixed straight on him. He looks away again. “You wanna sit down and tell me about it?”

No, there’s nothing in the world that Harry wants less, so why’s he going along with it, why’s he padding away from the window and gingerly sitting on the bed? Louis follows him. Harry looks at his feet moving closer and says nothing.

Louis sits next to him, his back against the wall. Harry hugs his own knees and stares straight ahead. Louis’s still pressed up against him, all along his left shoulder and arm, and Harry isn’t sure if he wants to move away or lean into it. He doesn’t move.

“Tell me about it?” Louis prompts.

Harry breathes deep. Okay. It’s okay. Louis said so. He can hear his pulse inside his ears. “I, um,” he starts. He stays there, lost. What’s he supposed to say? He can’t figure it out at all. “You know who Dan Nicholls is? He goes to school with me. He lives around here, I think…” He trails off blankly. One of his hands curls into a fist.

“Think so,” Louis says. “What about him?”

Breathe. Breathe. Harry hugs his knees tighter and tries to curl into himself. “I,” he says. His chest is tight. “I, um, I kissed him. The other day.” He screws his eyes shut for a moment. “I liked it.”

Shit.

His eyes are burning. He can’t think. Louis knows now, Louis knows, he can’t take it back. He’s changed things. He’s changed things forever. Louis might pretend to want to be his mate but he won’t be, not anymore, because oh God he’s going to think Harry fancies him and that’s–

“Harry.” Louis’s hand is on his shoulder again. Why? “Harry, it’s okay. Hey. Look at me. Come on.”

And Harry thinks that’s probably the last thing he can do right now, but. But he still turns his head around to face Louis and he still meets Louis’s eyes and there’s nothing in them – no weirdness and no sign he’s uncomfortable around Harry. He looks as serious as Harry’s ever seen him, and he’s glowing so bright it makes Harry want to squint against it.

There’s a moment where nothing happens.

Louis says nothing. Harry can’t say anything. There’s a sudden tug of nerves in his stomach. What’s going on? What does this mean? He looks at Louis, and Louis looks back, and then– then there’s a jolt, hot and strange and powerful. It’s like he’s about to do magic – like when he kissed Dan, Harry thinks wildly – and it overwhelms him for a moment. So much that when he jolts back into reality he’s staring right at Louis’s lips.

There’s a long silent moment where Harry just stares, frozen. Then he draws his eyes back up as quickly as he possibly can. It’s not quick enough. Louis’s eyes are trained on him, and he’s seen everything. He’s seen everything and he’s not moving.

Harry feels like he shouldn’t understand at all, but before he can even begin to get confused he understands it all. Easy. Clear.

This he’s feeling– it’s want.

It doesn’t shock him. It doesn’t affect him at all. He just blinks, and he sees Louis’s face inching just that tiny bit closer, and for the first time he doesn’t think. He just does it. He just moves forward suddenly until his and Louis’s foreheads are touching and Harry’s close enough that he can see the tiny gold flecks in Louis’s eyes and feel the heat pulsing off his skin. Louis doesn’t move. Harry doesn’t either. There’s a long, long moment.

Then, Harry whispers, “Can I?” and Louis seems to jolt into action, and where before his lips were barely an inch away now they’re closer and closer and oh.

Louis’s lips are warmer his skin is. It’s the first thing Harry registers. He kisses Harry gently, like he’s something he’s uncertain of. Harry feels the heat in his gut grow and grow. He’s kissing Louis, he realizes somewhere in the back of his mind, he’s kissing Louis, and that thought is what makes him start kissing back fiercely, messily, opening his mouth up. Louis makes a surprised little sound but then scoots over so his whole body’s facing Harry and he can hold Harry properly, snake an arm around to his back and inch a hand up the back of his shirt. Harry pulls back, shivers without wanting to and immediately comes back for more.

The kissing is wetter this time, dirtier. Harry can smell Louis everywhere. Their mouths make a slick sound when they slide against each other. Louis’s hand moves further and further up until it’s splayed out on Harry’s back, making Harry arch and press into Louis. He’s hard, of course he is, and he feels a jolt when he pulls Louis against him and realizes Louis is too, his cock pressing into Harry’s thigh. Harry makes a sound into the kiss. Louis rubs up against him and Harry breathes out hard.

Harry pulls away and tugs Louis towards him. “Come on,” he pants, “come on,” and then he’s dropping backwards, landing face-up on the bed, tugging Louis down with him so that he ends up right on top of Harry, their boners pressed together. Harry moans. Louis looks down at him, glowing bright and blinding, and then presses his lips to Harry’s neck, wet and sloppy, just like he did that other time. Harry writhes and grinds up against Louis. He’s close already, and he can tell Louis is too by the way he’s grinding down frantically. It’s hot, it’s so hot that he was the one to get Louis like this, he was the one to make him lose control, to mouth at Harry’s neck like this, fierce and slick. He thinks he might have said Louis’s name out loud, but it doesn’t matter, nothing matters except for Louis’s lips and Louis’s cock and the way it’s rubbing down against Harry’s. He tugs Louis off his neck. His hips snap. God, he’s so close.

He looks up at Louis’s blue blue eyes on top of him and surges up to meet his lips, and then Louis sucks his tongue into his mouth and grinds down particularly hard and that does it– Harry arches off the bed and into Louis, moaning, hips rutting desperately, burying his face in Louis’s neck because it’s too much oh God as he feels himself come. Louis follows straight after, and Harry slumps back and watches in wonder, breathing hard, ears ringing. Watching Louis come is like nothing he’s ever seen.

Louis’s mouth falls open, and his eyes screw shut, and he shudders and glows so bright Harry has to close his eyes for a second. It’s the hottest thing Harry’s ever seen.. But it’s also huge, and like this, below him, still grinding out tiny aftershocks, Harry feels for the first time so tiny – so human.

Louis is a star. Louis is here with him.

Louis collapses down on Harry then, and Harry kisses him because he can, even though he feels tiny, barely important at all next to something like this. Louis rolls off and drops down next to him and they look at each other for the tiniest moment, still breathing hard, Harry’s heart racing. Then Louis surges forward and wraps his arms around him, holding Harry tight and fierce, burying his face into Harry’s neck without words. Harry thinks he feels more there than he’s ever felt.

Then, he feels something cold on his nose. He squints, looks up, and– it’s snowing inside his bedroom. Harry blinks, and a snowflake lands on his eyelash.

“Hey, Lou, look,” he whispers, and Louis disentangles from him and looks up. His face cracks into a gigantic grin. “Well done, Hazza.”

Harry hasn’t made it snow since he was nine. He doesn’t wonder about what made him do it now. Instead, he just turns to face Louis. The snowflakes melt before they land on him. Harry tucks his head in between Louis’s chin and shoulder and stays there.

*

It’s dark outside and the house is silent and Harry’s made Louis come two more times and is feeling quite pleased with himself. (They’d taken turns to shower after because they were both all sticky and gross. Louis’s hair is still wet, drying against the pillow.) Harry’s mum comes home late tonight, so they’d had dinner with Gemma, who’d looked exhausted and didn’t even bat an eyelid at seeing Louis there too.

And now they’re in Harry’s bed, Louis’s foot kicking against his, the snow hitting the window silently from the outside.

Tentatively, Harry scoots over a bit and fits his head on Louis’s shoulder, chasing the warmth there. Louis lets him. Harry closes his eyes and lets his thoughts drift. He briefly considers more kissing, but they’re in clean clothes now and he feels it’d be a bit of a shame to get them all gross again.

He blinks sleepily a few times and then a thought comes to him. “Lou?”

“Yeah?” Harry can feel the vibrations in Louis’s chest from his voice.

“You know– those lovebites you had? Who did them?” Harry doesn’t know why, but he’s been more or less wondering about it since the day he saw them, so. It can’t hurt to ask.

Louis is quiet for a moment. Harry thinks he might not answer. Then, “Friend of mine.”

“Oh.” Harry considers it for a moment. “Guy or girl?”

Louis shifts a bit. “Guy.”

“Oh,” Harry says again. Fine. That’s– fine.

Then he moves suddenly and he’s straddling Louis, his hands on Louis’s chest and his knees on either side of him. Louis makes a surprised noise. Harry smirks down at him and, before Louis can say anything, Harry leans down and puts his lips to his neck.

He’d kissed all the way down Louis’s throat a while ago, but this is different, because he’s doing it with a purpose. Louis’s skin is soft and having it against his mouth makes Harry feel glowy himself. He sucks on a spot, gently at first, getting bolder and bolder when Louis starts reacting to it: he doesn’t say anything, but he keeps shifting against the sheets and Harry can hear his breathing getting heavier. Harry sucks on the skin particularly hard and then lets go with a wet sound; he goes back right after and grazes his teeth against it. Louis hisses.

When Harry pulls back to admire it he has to blink a few times. It’s a deep glowing purple; in this light, it almost looks like it’s changing shapes. He can’t stop himself from reaching out to brush his fingers over it in awe. He can hear Louis breathe out when he does. He did this. Harry did this to him. It’s hard to get his head around it.

Speaking of hard. Ha.

Harry draws back and does his best to cock an eyebrow at Louis. “Again?”

“Shut up,” Louis laughs. “I can feel yours too, you know.” He probably can, yes. It doesn’t matter that Harry hasn’t been touched or kissed at all – seeing Louis’s neck like this is hot.

Harry bites his lip, considering. Louis’s eyes fix on it.

Okay. To hell with the clean clothes, Harry thinks vaguely as he puts his hands up Louis’s shirt. They can shower tomorrow anyway.

Chapter Text

"There are
some feelings
you will never
find words for;

you will learn
to name them
after the ones
who gave them
to you."

- Maza-Dohta

*

Harry thought, – after… six years? It’s been six years, hasn’t it? – that he knew everything there was to know about Louis. Or, at least, that he knew more about Louis than anyone else did. It’s strangely exciting to discover that he was so, so wrong.

He already knew that he’ll somehow end up laughing whenever Louis does and that Louis likes looking up at the sky and that he nicks Harry’s things whenever he can get away with it. He’s still sure there’s that thing he knows about Louis that nobody else does. But it’s the first time he gets to figure out that Louis kisses like it’s the easiest thing in the world, that he sometimes giggles for no reason when he’s sucking on Harry’s neck, that he gives absolutely fantastic handjobs.

(He discovers this the day he’s sulky about having to go back to school after Christmas holidays, and Louis takes it upon himself to “cheer him up.” Louis has to have done this before, there’s no other explanation for how smooth he is about it, but Harry finds he doesn’t particularly mind – not when he’s so good at it Harry’s coming in about five seconds with Louis’s hand on his cock and is left gasping and trembly. Harry insists on having a go at it right after. Having his hand on Louis’s cock should be a bit weird but it’s mostly just really hot, especially because his sort-of clumsiness at this is still enough to get Louis writhing and have him coming all over Harry’s hand soon enough.)

So it’s a thing that just sort of… happens. Louis is absolutely still Harry’s best mate and they snog a lot and get each other off whenever they possibly can and when Harry thinks about it it’s a bit like having a girlfriend – boyfriend? – but one that’s just, like. Just Louis. So they’re technically the same as they’ve always been only with this new thing they never really talk about, that’s just there – they’ll be wrestling on the ground and when Louis has him pinned down instead of just grinning smugly he looks at Harry for a moment and then kisses him – and anyway, Harry reasons, it works just fine, doesn’t it? Why should they talk about things and risk it getting weird when they can just carry on as they are without it being, like, a thing?

Anyway, thinking about a thing with Louis is strangely unsettling. It’s… it’s Louis. They don’t work like that. Do they?

Whatever. This he only thinks when he’s alone. Being with Louis is nice because he never has to think about it.

He’s stopped dating girls for good. That’s not even a question. It doesn’t matter that he and Louis aren’t anything, because the idea is just– it’s wrong. As the weeks go by, one or two girls try to approach him tentatively, and he turns them down every time. (He’s sort of friends with Dan now, but that’s all it is.) He barely hangs out with people from school now anyway because he’d much rather go home and find Louis and snog him for a few hours. When would he even have time to date someone?

It’s like– since Louis’s barely met anyone Harry knows apart from Gemma and his mum, it’s like whenever he’s with him it’s something completely apart from everything else in Harry’s life. And now that feeling’s only gotten stronger. Harry doesn’t do it on purpose, exactly. It’s just really, really hard to remember anyone else exists at all when Louis has his shirt off and a hand in Harry’s pants– and for some reason it happens a lot of the other times too, even when they’re not doing handjob things. But really, how is Harry going to think about anything that’s not what’s here when he has Louis glowing warm next to him?

They don’t only do things in Harry’s room. Harry kisses Louis down by the river a lot, and that’s out in the open even if there’s barely ever anyone there. It seems daring at first, makes Harry’s hands shake a bit when he pulls Louis in and makes his heart beat even faster than when they usually do this. But they move on to riskier things when Louis won’t stop touching his leg under the table when he stays over for dinner, or when he insists on going with Harry to buy groceries and kisses him next to the canned food where anyone could walk in and see; before Harry notices, it’s become a game to see just how much they can get away with. (Harry knows it’s dangerous, that if anyone from the village saw them at all it’d take less than a day for word to get out, but that only seems to add to the risk and adding to the risk means adding to the fun.) Harry’s pretty pleased with himself when he manages to top Louis’s sneaking into school and snogging him behind the gym by dragging Louis into the trees next to the park and getting him off right then and there.

It’s exhilarating. It’s probably a combination of that and all the orgasms that’s making Harry grin so much these days.

*

It takes Harry more than it probably should to start to wonder if all of this means anything.

Because he’s– he’s not. He can’t fancy Louis, can he? They’re just really good mates. And, like, they get off because it’s fun, it’s a game. He slips into the habit of kissing Louis goodbye on the cheek each time without noticing, and when he does he starts to puzzle over it. Should it be weird? But Louis never says anything about it even if he never kisses Harry back, so that means he’s okay with it, doesn’t it?

It’s a while before Harry puts the words “Louis” and “boyfriend” together in his head, and he finds himself considering them more and more often even if sometimes they seem so scary he never wants to look at Louis again. It’s– it wouldn’t be that different from what it is now, would it? Would Louis mind? Harry finds himself hoping he doesn’t. He thinks it wouldn’t be any more – he forces himself to think the word and it sends a jolt through him – any more gay than it already is, if Louis is worried about that. Can stars, like, have crushes? Logically, Harry supposes they can’t, but he’s fairly sure they don’t have orgasms either, so you never know.

Whatever. It’s stupid. He should keep things as they are, he tells himself firmly, and not mess it up. It gets kind of… unsatisfying, though, after a while.

*

It’s an afternoon in March, so Harry supposes it should be getting warmer. Her blows on his fingers to try and heat them up. Spring, right, and all that? When’s that supposed to start?

It’s been raining until just a while ago, so the earth is squishy and the air smells like cold and that after-rain smell. Harry’s fairly sure his jeans are getting all muddy even though he managed to find a rock to sit on. He looks at the river for a moment, then glances up at the viaduct that’s a little further off and tilts his head backwards to look up at the sky. The clouds are mostly gone now, gathering along the horizon and leaving a wide patch of pale sky in the middle. The sun’s going to start setting soon now. Harry thinks, absently, that the sky always looks especially huge from here, somehow bigger than all the trees and houses and fields he can see from here.

Harry’s nose is getting numb. He sniffs. Then, he turns to Louis and sticks his face in his neck to warm it up, more or less a reflex action by now. Louis only reacts to lift a hand up and pet Harry’s hair vaguely.

“‘M cold,” Harry mumbles.

Louis sighs dramatically. “Imagine if all of us were that lucky.”

Harry lifts his face, smacks Louis’s arm, reconsiders and puts his face back in Louis’s neck. Louis’s hand comes back like it’s nothing. It’s a gesture that’s so casual that it stuns Harry for a moment, makes him suddenly wonder is this what friends do could it mean something does it mean something? And then, without lifting his face from Louis’s neck, Harry blurts out (because he’s an idiot), “Will you be my boyfriend?”

He screws his eyes shut here where Louis can’t see; then, he draws back and blinks at Louis, hope and dread pooling together in his stomach. Louis blinks back. “What?”

“I, um, I just thought that, like, we’re doing all this stuff, right? And maybe, I dunno,” Harry doesn’t know why he’s still talking, how he hasn’t run away to hide forever, “it’d be nice? If you wanted?”

A train rattles by over the viaduct. There’s silence and Harry’s stomach sinks sinks sinks– he’s such an idiot, how could he ever let this happen–

“Can’t,” Louis says easily. “I’m your best mate already, and if I give up the title who knows who’ll get it.” He wrinkles his nose. “Probably one of those people you go to school with, right?”

Harry can’t breathe. “But–”

“Hey,” Louis interrupts, “how about we go back to yours and get off?”

Harry shuts his mouth. Yes. Yes, okay. This is– this is probably the best thing that could have happened, Louis letting him down easy, because things can stay the same now but Harry can get that (stupid, stupid) idea out of his head for good. Yes. It’s fine. It is absolutely no big deal.

After, though, he can’t stop himself from kissing a giggly path up Louis’s neck after they’ve both come and are lying there all sweaty, trying to get their breath back. Louis squirms and smiles underneath him even it’s more a boyfriendy thing than a getting off thing, so Harry figures it’s fine. He doesn’t have to be Harry’s boyfriend if they can keep doing this, this thing that they have. There’s no real reason for him to feel disappointed.

*

Harry has this habit, right, of doodling on his hands in class. It’s not something he really thinks about. He’ll be sitting there trying to pay attention and then suddenly he’ll have completely spaced out and by the time he comes back to himself there’ll be scribbles and patterns and tiny constellations drawn all over his left hand.

It happens in History today, but there aren’t any vague doodles this time. Harry looks down at his hand and there’s only a tiny L written in the middle of his palm.

He panics for a moment. When he’s stuck his thumb in his mouth, though, and is about to rub it off, he stops and reconsiders. He wipes his thumb off on his uniform trousers and sticks his left hand under his leg, palm facing up. It’ll rub off on its own soon enough, he reasons. He likes having it, anyway. It’s like… it’s the same feeling he gets when he gets a lovebite, actually. Proud and smug and claimed. Only with this it makes no sense.

He takes his palm out and looks at it again. He lets himself imagine, for a moment, that Louis was the one who drew it, and he lets himself imagine what it’d be like if Louis let Harry give him a matching H. Then he stops, because it’s stupid. He licks his thumb again and wipes the L off for good measure.

*

Harry’s had ages to get used to the idea that Louis has other friends that aren’t him. He wonders who they are sometimes, because Holmes Chapel is tiny and Harry’s sure he has to know at least one or two of them. But he’s sensed it’s one of the things you just don’t ask Louis about, and Louis’s never told him anything about them. Which is why it’s especially weird when one day when they’re hanging out in Harry’s room, Louis casually asks, “Hey, would it be okay if I took you to meet a mate of mine?”

It’s such a strange turn from the conversation about lobsters they’d been having and such a weird thing for Louis to say that Harry needs a moment to process it. Once he has, the next thing out of his mouth is, “What?”

Louis shrugs. Yes, Harry reminds himself, it’s absolutely no big deal. Everything weird Louis does is absolutely no big deal. “I just think you’d get on is all,” Louis says nonchalantly.

“Okay. Cool. Of course,” Harry says immediately. Then he stops and thinks about it. “Who is it? I mean, um, do I know them?”

Louis kicks his feet out and hums. How he can be so normal while doing things like this, Harry has no clue. “His name’s Zayn? He goes to school with you. I mean, everyone in this village goes to school with you, but–“

“I know him,” Harry interrupts. Of course he does. He’s in Year Eleven and, like. Cool. Even though Harry’s never heard him say a word. “I, uh, I never thought he’d be a mate of yours.”

It’s true. Harry has to blink a few times to process it. It’s just– there’s always been his life, right? Home, school, Holmes Chapel; pretty much everyone he knows fits into one of those. And then there’s Louis. Louis who is a star, who is from somewhere else entirely, who can do magic and who he’s known since forever and is almost always alone with. It’s difficult to make Louis fit into what’s outside of just the two of them.

(Least of all Zayn from Year Eleven. Harry sees him every day when he walks into school. How long’s he been friends with Louis without Harry knowing?)

“Well, yeah,” Louis says. He glances sideways at Harry. “Anyway, if you already know him or whatever you don’t have to–”

“Lou, are you joking, I’ve been wanting to meet your friends for ages but you’ve always been such a twat about it–”

“–or maybe I’ll drop the offer because hey, maybe Zayn and I have better things to do than hang out with a massive prat–”

Harry shoves him, Louis shoves him back, and they somehow end up in a grappling tangle of limbs and then they’re both hard, which is a bit distracting. It’s only after they’ve both thoroughly come that Louis brings it up again. “I’ll tell Zayn you said okay?” he asks, breathing a bit hard still. Harry nods from where his face is burrowed into Louis’s (slightly sweaty) chest and accidentally bumps Louis’s chin with the top of his head in the process. Louis swears and kicks him. The usual, really.

*

Zayn is… great.

He’s quiet at first but then Louis tosses the football he’s brought into the air and then all three of them are scuffling for it (Harry failing miserably); when they collapse on the ground after all the running a while later he’s funny and clever and thoughtful and apparently gets on with Louis spectacularly well. Zayn is great. That’s the problem.

He’s also, Harry notices, making a genuine effort to include him in the conversation. He and Louis obviously have inside jokes and topics only they understand and Zayn seems to be changing the subject whenever he can when one of those comes up. It’s like he really does want to get to know Harry. It’s nice, and it’s also not working.

“So how’d you know Louis anyway?” Harry asks Zayn conversationally in an effort to stop them from debating the pros and cons of getting their hands on some weed and trying it.

Zayn blinks at him. “Um, actually, he just used to follow me around for ages, but, like, I never said anything because I didn’t know who he was and I thought he might not actually be real.” He glances at Louis, who’s grinning smugly. “Shut up. I was, like, twelve.”

Harry frowns a little. Okay. So Louis goes around following people on the street. Is that, like… is that a normal thing to do? Harry knows Louis does stuff on his own, but he doesn’t like thinking that there’s something outside of, like, this. That Louis has this whole other life Harry never hears about.

Zayn’s still talking. Harry thinks, vaguely, that it might be the most words he’s ever heard him say put together. “So I really just kind of ignored him until he walks up to me one day and asks me if I have any spare socks.” (“It was raining!” Louis says, like that’s meant to explain anything.) “And it just kind of, um, went on from there, I think?”

Harry resists the urge to narrow his eyes suspiciously. Because there, that’s the problem, that’s why he feels a little uneasy around Louis and Zayn (apart from the fact that they make him feel like he’s ten). He thinks– but he can’t really be sure, can he? He can’t be sure if Zayn’s the friend Louis was hooking up with.

And that’s– well. That would open up a lot of new questions. Harry’s already wondering if Zayn knows what Louis can do, what Louis is. Can he see him glow? Does he know Louis doesn’t really have a house or a family that isn’t Harry’s? And this also means he’s asking himself, did they just snog or did they do something more? Did Louis know how to find porn, how to give a proper handjob because of what he did with Zayn? When did it start? Are they still doing stuff now, only Harry doesn’t know about it?

Louis wouldn’t do that, Harry thinks automatically. But would he? He’s not Harry’s boyfriend. He’s made it clear he doesn’t want to be. So what’s stopping him from going off and doing stuff with Zayn too? (He wouldn’t blame Louis, Harry thinks a little bitterly. Zayn’s cool, and Harry can’t help but notice he’s really, really fit. So.)

He suddenly wants to grab Louis, right here, and snog him where everyone can see. Not just Zayn. The whole of Holmes Chapel. Everyone. Lovebites aren’t enough. He wants everyone to know what he and Louis do, wants them to see so no one could possibly have any doubts left.

Heat builds up in him before he knows it. Shit.

Zayn and Louis are talking now but he’s not listening, because he can’t do magic now, not with what he’s thinking. He clenches his hands into fists. Stop. Stop. But wanting it to stop is never enough. His nails dig into his palms so hard he thinks he might draw blood, but as he watches, the tiny weeds that grow between the cracks in the pavement start to grow and grow, their roots growing upwards, widening the cracks, making new ones. Shit. But just when a crack starts spreading ominously to where Zayn and Louis are sitting and Harry thinks well, that’s it, they’ll notice now and I’m screwed, it abruptly stops. Harry’s body drains of heat suddenly and he feels exhaustion slump down on him instead, even though he hasn’t made anything particularly big happen.

He blinks hard, trying to clear his head. Everything’s the same as it was five minutes ago. Zayn and Louis are back to talking about weed. Harry sees Zayn shoot him a look like he’s worrying about him being left out, but Harry doesn’t feel like talking anymore. He’s struck by the sudden unexplained urge to run away and then shout for a bit until he’s not feeling any of this anymore. The magic has stopped, but both his fists are still clenched tight. They feel like they’re someone else’s.

He shifts his bum around, suddenly aware of how cold it’s gotten from sitting here on the pavement. He looks up at the sky absently, Zayn and Louis’s voices fading to background noise. The sun’s about to set and the clouds are glowing pink at the edges. Which means–

He pulls his phone out of his pocket and checks the time. Crap. He promised his mum he’d be home at eight to cook dinner, and his phone screen blatantly says 20:23. Fantastic. He stands up abruptly and Zayn and Louis both turn to look at him. “I, um, I have to go now,” he says.

Louis pouts exaggeratedly. “Aw. Don’t go. You can tell your mum you’re fifteen now and you don’t have to be home by eight.”

It’s probably supposed to be a stupid throwaway comment – it has to be, right? Louis never says hurtful things to him on purpose – but it makes Harry’s gut feel heavy suddenly and his cheeks flare. Right. Right, he’s just a stupid little kid who has to be home to Mummy before dark.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, aiming for nonchalant. “Nice meeting you, Zayn.” Zayn grins at him a little and says it’d be nice to hang out again. Yeah. Nothing against Zayn, because Zayn is great, but, like– fat chance.

Such an idiot, he can’t help but tell himself on the walk home over and over. His footsteps thump rhythmically on the ground. Such an idiot. Because, like, he already knew he and Louis aren’t anything, right? He already knew Louis doesn’t want to be with him. But– this has proved what he’s been scared of since forever. He scuffs the concrete with his shoes as he walks, his jaw tense. He’s just a kid. There it is, that’s the truth. Just a stupid little kid who thinks he’s cool enough to, like, have someone like Louis pick him first. Louis, who is a literal star, who has fit friends like Zayn he probably gets off with too, who could have anyone he wanted. What reason could there possibly be for him to stick with Harry? Absurdly, humiliatingly, Harry feels tears start to prick at his eyes.

It turns into sniffing, then into little choked sobs, and by the time he gets home he’s full-on crying like he’s ten years old. The first thing he does is head straight into his room and fling some pillows around until he feels better. (He still leaves the window half-open that night, though, because he’s terrible at staying mad at people and especially terrible at staying mad at Louis.)

*

Harry trips and hits the doorframe, giggling. He feels Louis stumble and bump into him too, and that only makes him laugh harder, uncontrollably. He claps a hand over his mouth to stifle it, but it doesn’t work, because now Louis is laughing too and whenever Louis laughs Harry can’t help but laugh too. It’s, like. Insinctive? Instinctive.

The thing is. Reasonably, Harry knows he’s laughing this much because he’s drunk (he and Louis sneaked down to the river with a six-pack of beer Louis got from who knows where, and this is more or less what’s come of it). But, like, even though he knows it, he can’t seem to stop doing it, because he’s with Louis and they’re both bumping into things and it’s so funny.

He leans over and buries his face in Louis’s chest. “Shut up,” he whisper-mumbles, still giggling, “oh my God, shut up, my mum’s in there.” Harry’s face feels nice. Warm. Is Louis’s face warm too? He pats it to check and it is. Good.

Louis pokes him. “You shut up, it’s you that’s making all the noise, you tosser–” Then Harry pokes a finger into his hip and he squirms away with a little shriek. “You arse!” he says indignantly. Harry giggles.

He leans back against the doorframe, his face tilted up. His cheeks ache from grinning. The sky is big big big and blue and the stars are like teensy pinpricks on it; if he looks at them for too long it feels like they’re spinning. The night wind is cold. He shakes his head a bit to clear it, blinks hard and focuses back on Louis. He’s not touching Harry anywhere. Harry has to fix that.

He reaches an arm out and takes Louis by the wrist, pulling him in. Louis sways and lands on Harry’s chest, giggling, glowing warm and happy. His face is so close. Harry can see the tiny little freckles on his nose. They’re nice. He touches them lightly with a finger. Louis wrinkles his nose and bats him away, but he’s still grinning, so that means he doesn’t mind that much. Harry looks at him and he wants to kiss him, so he does. His aim is a little off and it lands on the side of Louis’s mouth, but Louis doesn’t seem to care at all. He kisses back wet and enthusiastic, his hands immediately coming up to tangle in Harry’s hair. Harry loves it when he does that, so the garbled moan he makes into Louis’s mouth is really not his fault, is it?

He pulls back and blinks, holding Louis close because he thinks the ground might be moving a bit and he wants to keep him safe. He can feel Louis hard against his hip, and the feeling’s so good he shudders.

Louis’s head is buried into his neck. And, oh, his mouth is open, and he’s sucking on the skin there. Harry moans again. For some reason, he focuses on Louis’s ear, which is right next to Harry’s mouth, in a perfect position for Harry to whisper something into it. Harry puts his mouth against it without thinking about what he’s doing at all and mumbles, “Wanna make you come so bad.”

Louis pulls away from his neck, stares at him for a moment – Harry shudders again – and says, a little breathlessly, “Want you to.” He goes right back to Harry’s mouth, licking it open, biting at Harry’s bottom lip. Harry’s hands grab at Louis’s back and slide under his t-shirt, wanting to feel him. Louis pulls back. “So hot, Hazza,” he mumbles, “you make me so horny–” Harry’s dick twitches at the praise. Another kiss. “So good at making me come.” He kisses Harry again, and when he pulls back Harry can see a thread of saliva hang between their lips for a second. Harry ruts his hips up into Louis’s cock.

“You wanna come like this?” Louis whispers. At the thought, Harry breathes out hard. It’d be so hot, the two of them getting off like this, right here, where anyone could walk by, anyone could see. He’s about to moan yes and kiss Louis again when an idea pops into his head, so daring and terrifying that his stomach suddenly feels tight. God.

He pushes Louis off gently. Louis clings and looks confused, but Harry shakes his head and tells him, “up to my room, okay?” He blinks hard a few times and feels his pockets for his keys. Louis bats his hands away and pulls them out himself, his fingers lingering unbearably close to Harry’s crotch, making him squirm. (“Stop teasing,” Harry tells him huffily. Louis just grins and kisses him on the cheek.)

It takes a few tries to get the key into the lock, especially when Louis’s clinging to him and whispering all sorts of stuff into his ear, wanna touch you and so pretty and get you off. Harry manages, though, and somehow drags Louis up to his room without tripping over anything or falling down the stairs. When the door to Harry’s room shuts behind them, Louis’s all over him immediately, kissing him sloppily, a hand inching into Harry’s pants. Yeah. Harry’s about to slump on the door and let Louis do whatever he wants to him when he remembers the plan and draws away abruptly. Louis looks confused for a moment, but then Harry tugs his shirt and sweater over his head as quickly as he can manage, drops his jeans and pants in one go and steps out of them.

Louis looks Harry up and down, eyes wide, because– yes, okay, they’ve never really done this before, never gotten naked in front of each other like this. Of course Harry’s seen Louis naked, and of course Louis’s seen him too, but– but whenever they’ve, like, done stuff it’s always been shirts pulled off and pants hurriedly shoved down to the knees, never anything more. Harry feels himself hard against his own stomach and his cheeks flare. His belly does an anxious little squirm.

Before he can get properly nervous, he leans in towards Louis and whispers, “D’you mind getting your clothes off?”

Louis just stares at him for a moment (specifically, stares at Harry’s dick; Harry’s face burns hotter). Then, he nods frantically and starts taking his clothes off. His t-shirt goes first – he gets it tangled over his head and Harry has to step in to help, giggling – then his shoes, then his sweats and pants in one go. And then they just stare at each other, Louis looking at Harry’s face this time, and Harry– Harry just standing there, in awe, because it’s Louis in front of him and there’s so much skin everywhere that’s glowing and flickering and his cock is hard and Harry’s hands shake from how badly he wants to touch him.

He reaches out and takes Louis’s hand. Touching it makes Harry shiver. “Come on,” he whispers, and tugs Louis towards the bed gently– and then Louis starts running, giggling like crazy, and Harry follows. Louis pounces on the bed and Harry pounces on Louis and then they’re kissing again, fast and messy, hands everywhere. Harry’s head is a blur of different sensations: Louis panting against his ear, Louis’s hands pressing down on his bum, Louis’s warm hip against Harry’s cock. Harry starts kissing more fiercely, down Louis’s neck, on his collarbones, his chest. It feels like he’s biting instead of kissing. And there’s the press of Louis’s cock against Harry’s stomach which makes Harry feel hot from the inside and remember, and before he can stop and think about it he looks up at Louis and blurts out, “Can I blow you?”

Louis’s eyes go wide and he moans at that. He actually moans. For a moment, Harry feels tremendously pleased with himself. “Fuck,” Louis says, “fuck, Hazza, of course you can, but are you sure, I don’t–” Harry ducks down to suck on Louis’s nipple; Louis stops talking for a moment, and then continues hurriedly, “don’t do this because you’re drunk, I don’t want–”

Harry frowns a bit. “I want to,” he says stubbornly. No, that’s not how it works– he’s going to get to show Louis how good he can be at this, how he’s not just a little kid. To show Louis how much he really wants to, he leaves a trail of wet kisses from his nipples and all the way down his chest and stomach to where his cock’s lying. Louis makes a noise.

Harry looks at it for a moment, blinking. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen a cock from this up close. It glows gently, just like the rest of Louis, and Harry finds that so funny he has to stifle a giggle. Then he looks up at Louis and finds his eyes are fixed on him, and he doesn’t feel like laughing anymore. Okay. Okay.

He wraps a hand around it first, giving it slow pulls. This he knows how to do. He knows how Louis likes it by now, knows he likes Harry to go slow at first, likes him to pay more attention to the head. Louis moans quietly. It makes Harry want to give him more.

He gets his face closer. He wonders if Zayn ever did this to Louis. He wants to make this better than anything Louis’s ever done before.

He keeps his hand on Louis’s cock, guiding it towards his mouth, and takes one deep breath. Then, he lowers his face down and gives the head a wide, tentative lick. Louis moans again, louder this time. Harry glances up. Louis’s looking at him in a way that makes him want to take it all the way down. The nerves in his stomach fade a little, and the alcohol fuzziness starts to take over again. It’s okay. It’s okay, he can do this, and he’s going to make Louis feel so good he’ll remember it forever.

So he lowers his face down again and takes the head into his mouth, properly this time, sucking on it a bit. Louis breathes out shakily. Then, Harry thinks okay and, carefully keeping his lips over his teeth, he goes down down down, as far as he can go, until it feels like he might gag. He slides up carefully and pulls back for a moment, trying to get his breath back. He doesn’t think the back of his throat has felt this weird in his life. He feels a hand slide into his hair and pet it gently. Harry looks up at Louis, Louis’s cock bobbing right in his line of sight. “Hazza,” Louis says. He sounds breathless already. Harry did that. “Hazza, you’re doing great, you’re so good at this, fuck.”

It’s all Harry needs. He shoots Louis a grin, feeling pleased down to the tips of his toes, and then gets right back to it determinedly. He slides down again, trying to get it as deep as he can, his eyes watering a bit, and then when it feels like he’s adjusted he starts bobbing his head up and down the slightest bit. Louis’s hand stays in his hair, not guiding him, just there. It’s strangely reassuring. Harry, tentatively, starts building up a rhythm– faster now, pulling almost all the way off before sinking back down again. It’s a bit sloppy, but Louis doesn’t seem to mind; he gets louder, making little choked-off moans that get clearer and clearer. Harry knows he should be worried about being heard, but it just makes his own cock throb between his legs. His jaw starts aching from the stretch, but he carries on, determined to make Louis come like this.

Because Louis’s getting close. That much Harry can tell. He’s not thrusting into Harry’s mouth (which Harry appreciates, because he thinks he’d just choke on it) but his hips are making tiny little circles into the sheets like he’s holding back. He gets louder and louder, moaning every time Harry sinks down. When Harry glances up, Louis’s chest is heaving. An idea pops into Harry’s head then, and the next time he sinks down he drags his tongue down as well as his lips– and Louis actually curses out loud at that, so he does it again. And again. And then Louis’s saying, “Fuck, Haz, I’m gonna–” so Harry pulls off because he’s not all that sure he wants to swallow it, but puts his hand back on Louis’s cock and wanks him off until Louis’s hips are bucking and he’s coming into Harry’s hand.

There’s a moment where Harry just stays there, his hand still on Louis’s cock, Louis’s fingers tangled in his hair. Wow. He’s just sucked a cock. It’s hard to get his head around it. But then he blinks and comes back to reality, and it’s a reality where his head’s a little fuzzy and he’s just made Louis come and he’s still very, very hard.

He grunts a bit and starts rutting against the sheets, letting his mouth fall open, but then Louis tugs gently on his hair and Harry jerks his head up. Louis’s looking down at him, all lovely and flushed and messy. He gestures to Harry. “C’mon,” he says, “up here.”

Harry obeys immediately. He crawls up Louis’s chest, feeling Louis’s come get smeared on his own belly, and kisses him as soon as he gets up to his mouth, moaning into it. Louis kisses him back hard and sloppy. (He doesn’t seem to mind the fact that Harry just had his cock in his mouth, Harry thinks hazily. He wonders if he can taste it.) Harry’s half expecting him to reach for his cock and finish him off right there, because he knows he’s not going to last long at all. But Louis doesn’t touch him. Harry’s starting to wonder why when Louis grabs his wrists and clumsily flips them over so he’s on top of Harry. Harry doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he moans anyway because it’s hot.

And then– fuck. Then Louis leans into him and mumbles into his ear, “Let me do you, yeah?” And before Harry can figure out what he’s said he’s crawled down and pushed Harry’s legs apart, sucking at the inside of his thigh.

Shit,” Harry croaks out, garbled, automatic. Louis keeps sucking. God, he’s going to leave a bruise. The thought makes Harry’s fists curl into the sheets and his hips jolt up helplessly. His cock brushes against Louis’s cheek. Oh God. He looks down, and just the sight of Louis’s face between his legs makes him shudder violently. “Lou–”

He doesn’t know what he’s going to say, but he doesn’t need to figure it out. Because then Louis takes the head of his cock into his mouth and Harry stops remembering how words work.

Shit. Shit. Louis’s mouth is wet and warm and it feels so good around his cock Harry thinks he might cry. “Nngggh,” he gets out, fists curled into the sheets, fighting the urge to thrust his hips up. Louis gets straight to it, taking him down until Harry’s gasping and then coming back up without pulling off. Harry can’t take his eyes off him. His hair’s sticking up everywhere, he’s rumpled and bright and he has Harry’s cock in his mouth. Harry can’t stop himself from reaching out a finger to poke Louis’s cheek experimentally, and when he realizes he can feel his own cock through Louis’s cheek he shudders and almost comes right then and there. Louis pulls off, catches his breath, grins up at him for a moment and gets right back to it.

He’s building up a rhythm, and Harry wants to tell him he doesn’t need to do that, that he’s close already. “Lou,” he gets out instead, more a moan than a word. Louis doesn’t pull off. He bobs his head faster and faster, taking him deeper. Harry whimpers and screws his eyes shut. It’s almost too much, all of it– he starts noticing every little thing, all at once, until it almost overwhelms him. The sheets against his back. His own breathing, loud in his ears. The ache in his jaw from Louis’s cock, the small wet sounds Louis is making– and, of course, Louis’s mouth around his cock, the slide tight and hot and wonderful. Harry’s fingers tangle blindly in Louis’s hair. “Gonna come, Lou, fuck–” he manages, but Louis just keeps going. Fuck. Harry feels like he’s floating. This has to be what love is, he thinks hazily. This has to be– and then he’s letting out a ragged gasp and coming right into Louis’s mouth, hips bucking uncontrollably. Louis just swallows it. Holy shit. Holy fuck.

He comes down from it breathless and sweaty and hazy. He vaguely notices Louis crawl up next to him, and as soon as his face is in Harry’s line of sight he grabs hold of it and kisses him. He tastes slightly bitter, and it’s a moment before Harry realizes that’s the taste of his own come. Wow. Wow.

Harry draws back and pulls Louis in. He’s sweaty and so warm. “Holy shit,” Harry mumbles. “I can’t believe you swallowed it.” I think I love you, he thinks fuzzily. I love you I love you I love you.

“Wanted to,” he hears Louis say back. “For you.”

Harry feels something hot inside that has nothing to do with his orgasm. His thoughts are slow, scattered. He holds Louis closer when Louis tries to move away to get something to clean up with. Whatever, Lou, it’s just spunk, we can do that tomorrow. His heart thuds in his own ears. It feels sluggish. “Stay,” he mumbles into Louis’s shoulder. It’s the last thing he remembers.

*

May is dreary. Harry thinks huffily to himself a few times that isn’t it supposed to be spring, fuck England as he gets drenched on his way to school in the morning. He supposes it doesn’t actually matter all that much when he’s spending most of his time in his room revising for his mock GCSEs and trying not to let Louis (and blowjobs) distract him, but. It’d be nice to see the sun every once in a while when he’s looking wistfully out of his bedroom window.

(Louis doesn’t like it when he studies. He says it’s boring and Harry should be paying attention to him instead. Once or twice, Harry’s caught him trying to hide his books. It’s oddly flattering.)

But May passes, and June rolls in, and it’s a hellish two weeks of exam after exam and hurriedly handing in coursework before he’s finally, blissfully free. “I’m free!” he declares to Louis triumphantly the day his last exam is over with, and celebrates by blowing him three times in a row “to compensate.” God. No one breathing down his neck about GCSEs anymore, no waking up at seven, absolutely no coursework at all, and Louis right here next to him, making him laugh and getting him off and kissing him and sometimes even holding his hand. It’s going to be the best summer ever.

It sort of is.

Harry doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking back on the past, because the now is here and there’s so much to do. But when he does, it’s like he’s looking through a strange sort of haze. Were things really like that back then? They seem so boring. He can’t remember the sun ever being this bright or colours and sounds ever being this vivid; he can’t remember ever feeling like he does now. He has everything he could want right there in front of him – the whole world is out there. Louis is with him. He can do anything.

(It’s a feeling that reminds him of doing magic, strangely enough. But the magic barely happens at all these days, and it usually leaves him exhausted after, and he doesn’t like to think about it.)

Louis is everywhere. Harry has never been more thrilled. Ever since they started this thing Harry’s been seeing him more than ever, but now it’s like it’s on a completely different level. Louis wakes Harry up with a hand on his cock and hangs out in his house at all hours of the day and sneaks into the bakery Harry’s started working at to duck behind the counter and pull faces at Harry every time a customer comes in. (He likes to tease Harry, sneaking quick kisses when there’s no one there to see, ghosting fingers up Harry’s thighs from behind the counter. Once or twice, Harry gets so worked up he has to drag Louis into the tiny bathroom, push him up against the door and rub up against him until they’ve both come.) Harry blows Louis a lot, with particular enthusiasm after the few times they hang out with Zayn again, but it never goes beyond that, even with all the times they have the house to themselves. Thinking about it makes Harry uneasy. Does Louis want to? Are they supposed to have done it by now? (But he and Louis aren’t boyfriends, and that seems very, very boyfriendy.) How does it even work? Harry’s watched enough porn to know some things, and a few Google searches inform him of all the rest. But it’s still weird; scary, even. It doesn’t sound like something they do. Harry doesn’t mention it.

(He never wonders if this thing is love. Not sober, anyway.)

They go down to the river and get drunk and watch the sun go down, Louis sleeps in his bed and never comments on it, they kiss and touch and get their mouths on each other and it’s enough. Only the now matters, the now and the huge wide-open future Harry knows is out there. It’s still such an abstract concept, though, that he can’t pause to think about it. Louis is a star, he remembers sometimes with a tiny jolt. That doesn’t mean he’ll have to go back to the sky, does it?

*

Louis’s head breaks the surface of the water. He shakes the wet hair out of his eyes, the water shimmering around him, and grins right at Harry. Harry knows it’s a grin that means he has about five seconds to get his kit off and jump in the river or he’s getting dragged in. Which he does, willingly, because he doesn’t like being upstaged. He’s stark naked as soon as he physically can, and he runs to the shore and barrels into the water without tripping over his own pants in the process. Smooth, that.

He emerges spluttering, his hair in his eyes and water up his nose. “Oh my God,” he gets out. “Oh my God. Why’s it so cold? It’s July!” Louis just cackles at him, because of course he does. Also because he is an arsehole.

Harry ducks back down into the water, the cold washing over him, the silent rush of the river filling his ears. He kicks out against the current and his foot brushes against the pebbles at the bottom. Slowly, he squints his eyes open. He can see Louis up in front of him, stark naked; through the water, he gives out a strange flickering glow, like faint sunlight.

He comes up for air and doesn’t notice Louis’s moved until a hand is gripping at his ankle and tugging him down hard. He gets water up his nose again, and when he tries to get revenge it ends up leading to all-out war; when Harry emerges from the water he’s breathless and feels like he might have accidentally swallowed half the water in the river. They flop down on the riverbank to dry out in the sun, because of course neither of them thought to bring a towel. Harry lies on his front, his cheek resting on the back of his arm, and Louis stretches out beside him, close enough to touch. Harry squints at him through the sun in his eyelashes. Louis’s skin is damp and glows gently in the sun, his wet hair runs droplets onto his bare shoulders and his eyes are half-open and clear blue. Harry grins a little for no reason, reaches out to run a single fingertip down the line of Louis’s spine, shrugs when Louis mumbles a what was that for? It’s a good thing they’ve put their pants back on, Harry thinks vaguely as his eyes slide down to the curve of Louis’s arse and stay there. He doubts he’d be able to control himself otherwise, and if someone caught them doing sex stuff right here in broad daylight his mum would definitely hear about it.

He idly wonders what would happen if he were to ask for a kiss right now. Then he puckers his lips at Louis just to see. Louis looks up, raises an eyebrow and moves in immediately. It’s short, just a quick press of lips, and when Louis pulls back he drops his head down to the exact same position he was in. Harry smiles a little, feeling strangely smug. (Louis wants to kiss him even when it’s not for orgasms. It’s a nice thought.)

Harry lets his thoughts drift. He listens to the rush of the river behind them, thinks of them both spread out on the ground like this, and the thought of the beach pops into his head. Has Louis ever been to the beach? Harry hasn’t been that many times, but he remembers looking out at the sea when he was little and marvelling at all that water. Sometimes, he liked to stare for long enough that eventually he wouldn’t be able to tell where the sea ended and the sky began. He has a feeling it’s a thought Louis would like.

“You ever been to the beach?” he asks Louis.

Louis glances up at him. “Nah,” he says. “Why?”

Harry shrugs one shoulder. Now that he thinks about it, that was probably a stupid question. This is Cheshire, Louis can’t drive and he’s never been away for long enough to have caught a train there. “Just curious,” he says. “But, like, d’you think you’d want to? Someday? We could go together.”

Louis props his chin up on his elbows. “Maybe fifteen is a bit too young to start planning trips across the country, Hazza.”

Harry kicks him. Gently. “Shut up. I wasn’t saying now. Just, like, someday.” He frowns a bit, thinking hard. “I don’t think I’ll be allowed to travel on my own till I’m eighteen, but… I dunno, maybe we could go somewhere the summer after I finish school?” He lets the idea run along his mind, picking up speed. “It doesn’t even have to be England. We could go to Wales. Or Europe. I mean, it’s just catching a few trains, and the beaches in, like, Greece and Spain are supposed to be really nice…”

“And then we could get on a plane and fly to Brazil.” It takes a second for Harry to realize Louis is making fun of him. Harry kicks him again.

“Shut up,” he says huffily. “People do that.”

“I’m sure,” Louis says. He’s smiling a little but it’s not his making-fun-of-people smile, so Harry lets it slide. “Gemma finished school this year, right? Where’s she at now, Amsterdam?”

“Well, no,” Harry admits. A thought pops up. “She did go hiking in Scotland for a week, though.”

“Oh, sounds exciting.

“Shut up.”

Louis says nothing back, just lets his eyes drift shut. Harry lets his thoughts wander, and they go in a different direction this time. Gemma finished school. It’s been over a month, and he’s still not completely used to hearing it said out loud. It’s not news, of course it’s not, she’s spent most of the year revising for her A-levels and stressing over uni applications, but what’s more unsettling is the fact that it’s something that’s real and happening now. She got into Birmingham like she wanted, and it’s only a train ride away – but she’s leaving all the same. She’s leaving, and it’s just going to be him and his mum at home. It’s a thought that Harry isn’t quite sure how to handle.

“Gemma’s leaving,” he says out loud, to see if it sounds less weird outside of his head. It doesn’t.

Louis hmms and his eyelids flutter open lazily. “Is she?” Harry can’t remember if he’s mentioned this before or not, so he can’t tell if Louis is being curious or non-committal.

Harry nods. “Yeah. Beginning of September.” He pauses, not sure if he wants to talk about it. “It’s just weird, you know?”

Louis just looks at him. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Harry frowns a bit. “I mean, it’s gonna be weird not having her around, but…” There’s a thought floating around his head he can’t quite put into words. “It’s just, like, she’s going to uni. She’s gonna be a proper adult now.”

“Well, she is eighteen,” Louis says lightly.

“I know that,” Harry says back. “But there’s a difference, right? Between, I dunno, age as a number and actually growing up?” Louis says nothing, so Harry continues. “Like, I can’t imagine going to uni and leaving home. I’ve thought about it, but I can’t actually imagine myself doing it, you know?”

Something passes over Louis’s face, but it’s gone before Harry can figure out what it is. “I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Right,” Harry says. There’s a silence. Louis’s back is completely dry now, and his hair is drying at the ends. It lies at the nape of his neck, flat and soft. Harry wants to touch it. But he can sense something about Louis is off (the way he’s not saying anything, maybe? Or maybe it’s that his flow has dimmed a bit, but out here in the sunlight it’s hard to tell) so he holds back. He gets comfortable on his front, closes his eyes, considers falling asleep here, deems it too boring and yells, “Race you back to the river!” instead. Louis jumps up immediately and ends up winning. It’s really not surprising.

*

Summer rolls on. It almost feels like it could last forever.

Harry sort of wants it to.

And it’s strange, because when he looks back on it nothing’s really happened. There’s no stand-out moments in his mind, no holidays or days out or big parties – nothing he can look back on and remember precisely. It’s just Holmes Chapel, just the bakery and the spot behind the old factories and the river and his bedroom; Niall and all the rest, who he sees every once in a while, the occasional Zayn, his mum, Gemma, who’s packing her bags already. And there’s Louis throughout it all like there’s always been, separate from everything, but little bits of him finding their way into every corner of Harry’s life. It’s enough.

Harry’s too busy living it to think about it, but vaguely, he imagines this might be a summer he’s going to remember for a long time.

Why’s that? He’s not sure, because there’s no rational reason for it. Won’t holidays be better when he’s older? Won’t he be able to travel, meet new people, see the world? There’s nothing he has now he won’t have in the future, except– no, that’s stupid. Louis isn’t going anywhere. He’s been here for years and years and there’s no reason why he wouldn’t stay, and besides, why should Louis matter that much? They’re friends. They’ve always been. There’s nothing different this year, except– except that, and that’s not important, it shouldn’t be, it’s not–

See, the thing is, Harry knows how things work. He knows that it says something about him when he kisses guys and he likes it, when he hasn’t stopped sucking Louis’s cock all summer. But it doesn’t have to change things, does it? It doesn’t have to change how his life’s meant to go. He can kiss Louis all he likes now, and eventually– eventually he’ll go off to uni and, who knows, he might meet a girl and he might fall in love and they’ll get married and move in together and have at least three kids. That’s part of how things work too. The thought is strange, abstract, in the same way that it’s abstract to think about Gemma going off to Birmingham and never coming back. But it’s what makes sense, and that’s what matters.

Except. Except sometimes he’ll be lying awake at night with the window open and Louis asleep next to him and he won’t be able to bring the thought to mind. The future fades away until there’s nothing but this, Louis’s glow in the darkness and his calves touching Harry’s under the sheets and nothing outside of this room and the both of them. How’s he supposed to not have this anymore? How’s he supposed to let go and move on to the things that make sense? Harry doesn’t know, so he burrows into Louis’s chest and waits for sleep to take the thoughts away.

*

And summer ends, like always, no matter how badly Harry wants it to last.

September comes and it’s back to school; usually, Harry doesn’t mind the first week or so because they don’t do much and he gets to see everyone again, but this year he has to drag himself there from the very first day. Louis isn’t very encouraging – he’s not very pleased with Harry having to go back, and even though he tries to hide it Harry can tell. And school feels less like a beginning and more like getting shoved back into the whole GCSE mess. By the third week of September Harry’s already spending weekday afternoons locked up in his room or the library, a medium-sized pile of books in front of him. Sometimes, he feels like burning them all.

The fact that Harry’s walking to school on his own for the first time in his life doesn’t help. Gemma visits on most weekends and tries to Skype at least once a week, but that doesn’t make the house feel any less empty or the walk to school any less lonely. It takes some getting used to. Harry has to keep reminding himself that this is how things are now, that it’s not just something temporary. People grow up and they leave. The idea still seems slightly abstract. Harry wonders if it’s him who’s going to be next. He’ll leave home to go to uni, he knows that. He’s not staying in Holmes Chapel. But in his head, it’s never him who leaves; it’s an unfamiliar older version of him, taller, broader, more handsome, who knows what he wants and doesn’t have a Louis to say goodbye to.

Maybe Louis will be the next one to leave.

Harry tried not to think about it during the summer, because he had Louis with him and it all seemed so far-off and improbable. But now things have changed; Gemma’s gone and he’s going to school again, and his thoughts seem to keep going back to it. Because the more he sees Louis the less he thinks about things, and now he’s not seeing Louis all that much his thoughts scatter and go off of their own accord. There’s a tiny voice inside his head that’s asking what this means, why the idea of being without Louis scares him so much, but he’s learned not to pay attention to that one. The one that’s growing insistent is the one that’s asking how much longer this is going to last for. It’s outside of how things are supposed to work, so it has to end at some point, doesn’t it? And every time Harry looks at Louis and sees him glow, he’s reminded that Louis is a star. (Does Louis himself know that? Harry hasn’t told him. Harry can’t tell him.) He doesn’t belong here with Harry. And Harry’s known that for years, so it makes no sense to worry about it now.

Harry tries to tell himself that it’s okay, he’s fifteen and Louis is… however old he is, they still have plenty of time left until whatever has to happen happens. It doesn’t really work. Why is that? Things are the same and there’s no reason to worry. Harry’s thinking too much, is all. And if he’s seeing Louis the slightest bit distant, the slightest bit quiet, it’s because he’s gotten used to being with him always and now they’re not spending so much time together it feels like things are different even though they aren’t. There really is nothing to worry about.

*

A Sunday early in October, Harry walks into the bathroom to find Louis in front of the mirror, the scissors from Harry’s pencil case in his hand and his tongue sticking out in concentration. It’s still early, the morning sunlight slanting in sideways through the window. Harry, eyes still a bit heavy, sidles up behind Louis and kisses him on the cheek, small and easy. He’s moving away to the toilet to pee when his sleep-slow brain registers that Louis is cutting his hair. Right. That explains the scissors and the fact that there’s a few snipped-off bits of hair now clinging to Harry’s shirt.

Harry lifts up the toilet lid and starts peeing, still blinking sleepily. They’ve never had any problem with physical boundaries, but during the summer they somehow disappeared completely and they started going to the bathroom together in the morning, not necessarily in a getting-off way. Harry will fix his hair in the mirror while Louis sits on the edge of the bathtub and waits for him to finish; Harry will brush his teeth while Louis pees; sometimes they’ll even shower together. It’s nice, and it’s comfortable, and Harry never comments on it for fear that it’ll somehow stop.

When Harry flushes the toilet and glances at Louis again, he sees him twisting his neck at the mirror and snipping at the bits of hair at the back of his head. Harry automatically moves to help. “Want me to do that for you?” He expects Louis to hand the scissors over and let him do the back of his head, because it’s hard for Louis to see it in the mirror and it’s what they always do.

But Louis doesn’t let go of them. He just glances at Harry with a weird look on his face. “It’s okay, Harry,” he says after a moment. “I can do it.”

Harry blinks, but he doesn’t push it. He feels it’d be weird to stay in the room, though, so he mumbles a quiet, “Okay,” and slips out of the room. He goes back to bed and forgets about it soon enough, especially when Louis comes back after a while with choppy short hair and gives him a morning handjob. It’s probably nothing anyway.

*

It’s mid-November when Harry starts getting bouts of sudden, inexplicable horniness.

Talking about horniness with his mates from school would be a normal enough topic, Harry supposes, but the problem is that it almost always ends up leading to sex life. (Which means that one or two of the guys start enthusiastically talking about that one time this one girl let them put fingers up her vagina, and Harry sort of wants to brag about that amazing blowjob he gave Louis the other day before remembering he’s supposed to be doing stuff with girls, not Louis. It makes him feel a bit like a liar.) So it’s a subject Harry tries to avoid when he can, and the result of that is that he doesn’t have all that many people he can compare horniness with – has no idea if this is just a normal fifteen-year-old thing or if it’s something weirder. The thing is, it’s there, and it’s driving him a little bit crazy.

He’s still doing stuff with Louis, of course he is, but Harry’s always stressing and always busy and it feels like it’s never enough. He mentions it to Louis, trying to sound casual (even though he thinks the way he’s blushing might be giving it away) and Louis just kind of looks at him and says, very reasonable, is there anything in particular you want to do? And Harry shrugs automatically and says nevermind, but.

But the thought pops into his head that evening while he’s wanking in the shower and it’s suddenly very, very obvious what Louis was referring to and, inexplicably, it makes Harry come with a gasp as soon as he realizes.

Oh. Oh. Other things. As in, sex sex. It’s a thought that’s both terrifying and strangely exciting. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t know for sure that’s what Louis was talking about, because once the idea’s there it doesn’t go away. Each time he watches porn now he does it with a special kind of interest; he does another round of Google searches like he did back in summer and ends up hard after all of them. The more he thinks about it, the more weidly fascinating it is – and the more weirdly adult.

Because he’s going to have to talk to Louis about it. That much is obvious. What’s he going to do if Louis doesn’t want to? Maybe the weirdness Harry’s been noticing lately isn’t all in Harry’s head– maybe Louis doesn’t really want to do this anymore, and maybe suggesting it will be the final straw and this thing will be over for good. Maybe that’s not what he was talking about at all and he’ll just laugh at Harry. More often than not, Harry’s stomach twists up in nerves just from thinking about it.

Fine. Fine. He doesn’t have to do this right away. He can take his time, psych himself up and do some proper research.

He manages about a week of trying to think about it calmly and maturely and not in the middle of class before he breaks and, on a whim, runs to Tesco’s when he’s in Crewe with some friends and buys a box of condoms and the most neutral-looking bottle of lube he can find. (The Internet said lube was important.) It feels like they’re burning a hole through his coat pocket the entire bus ride home, like anyone will be able to take one look at his face and tell what he’s just bought; once he gets home, he hides it all at the very bottom of his sock drawer hurriedly. What’s he meant to do with it now? He’s not going to have sex right now, that much he knows, but– but he read what it said on the Internet, and lately when he’s having a wank he’s sometimes pushed a finger experimentally against his rim, and– yeah. He could maybe try something, maybe. And that’s how he ends up naked on his bed on a Sunday morning, his bedroom door firmly locked and the bottle of lube on his nightstand. Each time Harry glances at it, it feels like it’s looking at him accusingly.

Okay. Okay. He’s doing this.

Harry lies on his back, props his knees up, shifts his bum around and gets comfortable. His hand feels up and down his chest; he tweaks his nipples a bit, rolling his hips, and lets his hand trail down. He rubs down once, slowly, before taking his cock in his hand and starting to give it long, lazy pulls. His eyes flutter shut. He lets himself imagine it’s Louis’s hand on him, that Louis’s lying on top of him and mouthing at his neck, and he feels his cock start to fill up almost immediately.

He rolls his hips again, his hand speeding up a little of its own accord. Louis has left his neck behind and is now kissing wetly down his chest, his stomach. Harry lets his legs fall open; Louis grins cheekily up at him and ducks his head to suck at the crease on the inside of his thigh. For a moment, it feels so real that Harry lets out a whimper.

Then – Harry’s stroking himself properly now, working himself up as much as he can – then Louis moves to the left and takes him down in one go, making Harry’s cock sink down into soft wet heat. Harry breathes out hard, his hand moving faster. Louis starts bobbing his head up and down, and then his fingers are prodding at Harry’s hole and Harry’s eyes fly open. Yes. Yes, he wants this, he wants this– he fumbles blindly for the lube on the nightstand, takes his hand off his cock, pops the bottle open and watches nervously as the lube oozes out onto his fingers, thick and clear. He squeezes it out until he feels like he has more than enough, puts the bottle back and spreads the lube along his fingers, trying to warm it up. Then he takes a deep breath and puts his left hand back on his cock, his right hand hovering.

He gives his cock a few tugs, bringing himself back to full hardness. The glide of the leftover lube makes it slick, and it’s easier to imagine it’s Louis’s mouth on him. He tries to lose himself in the feeling, moving his hand faster, letting it get more and more intense; and then, all in one go, he spreads his legs wider and moves his right hand so it’s between his legs, his fingers resting right on the rim of his hole.

The lube’s mostly warmed up, so it doesn’t come as a shock; the point of contact is slick, insistent, and feels surprisingly nice. Harry’s left hand stutters on his cock. He starts rubbing the pad of his middle finger over his hole, coating it all in slickness, pressing down harder as it starts feeling better and better. Then, he lets his eyes flutter shut, swipes a thumb over the head of his cock and pushes his finger in.

He goes slow, tentative, feeling the muscle stretch unpleasantly; he remembers what he’s read and breathes out deep, trying to make himself relax as he pushes his finger in deeper and it starts to burn a bit. His left hand moves on his cock, trying to keep himself as turned on as he can, and he pictures Louis again, Louis with Harry’s cock in his mouth, Louis pushing a finger up Harry’s hole. Harry whimpers and his hips jerk up instinctively. It makes his finger go in deeper, and it’s a moment of pain that makes Harry’s eyes screw up– but then he feels it, feels his finger brush up against something inside, and it makes him feel so unbelievably good all over that he has to try it again. He pushes his finger back in, almost as far as it’ll go. Oh. Oh God, that’s it. He can’t get the angle quite right, can’t manage more than a brush against it, but it makes heat jolt in his belly, makes him feel squirmy all over. He drives his finger in again without even thinking about it. This time, it barely hurts, and the way it brushes against that spot makes it entirely worth it.

He’s moving his finger now, tiny little thrusts that still stretch him, but it’s just one finger and it’s fading fast. The strange feeling of fullness is still there, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing anymore; with every jolt of pleasure it makes him feel hot all over, filthy, amazing. Dimly, he notices his own hips have started moving to keep up with the pace. His left hand gives his cock faster and faster pulls, and the double sensation, even with just the little brushes against that spot, feels more intense than anything he’s ever done before. He moans quietly without even realizing he’s doing it and spreads his legs wider, pushing his arse into the air shamelessly. The change in angle makes his finger hit the spot better. His hand stutters on his cock.

He needs more. He needs more now.

Without stopping to think about it, he runs his index finger along the rim of his hole and, after a moment, pushes it in alongside the first one. Even though it’s still slick with lube, it burns slightly as it pushes in. But there’s one finger inside him already, and he’s all worked up, panting and sweating and desperately wanting more; the burn doesn’t scare him anymore, it just makes him feel stretched-out and full and hot. He slides the second finger up to where the first is buried and then thrusts both of them in together. They touch the spot, both of them at once, and Harry bites his lip to keep from moaning.

He’s worked up a rhythm before he knows it. It’s like nothing he’s ever felt before, the glide and the stretch and the pleasure; he opens his legs as wide as they’ll go and his hips start making tiny circles, trying to get his fingers in deeper. He’s trying to hold back from making noise, but he’s panting hard, chest heaving. His other hand works his cock faster and faster as he throws his head back and lets it wash over him. He’s thrusting in properly now, so that if he listens he can hear the wet sound of the lube as he fucks himself. God. He’s close, he’s so close. It’s building up inside him, slower and more overwhelming than any orgasm he’s ever had. God, he can’t even imagine what it must be like to have Louis’s fingers inside him– to have Louis’s cock inside him–

There’s a noise at the window.

Harry freezes, blinking his eyes open. His fingers still, but his hips keep moving of their own accord, desperate for it. In that moment, stretched out on the bed, legs spread, two fingers inside himself, he’s suddenly aware of how absolutely filthy he looks– and, like Harry knew would happen, as soon as his eyes land on the window he sees Louis on the other side, crouched on the windowsill and staring, eyes wide, right at Harry.

Harry clenches down on his fingers and almost comes right then and there.

He stares at Louis and Louis stares back, and for a moment neither of them moves– and then Louis’s fumbling at the window and pulling it open, almost falling through. Harry’s hips roll of their own accord and he moans involuntarily; Louis’s eyes go dark, and he hurriedly shuts the window and walks up to Harry’s bed. Harry can see the hard outline of his cock through his sweats.

Slowly, so slowly, Louis sits down on the edge of Harry’s bed. There’s a look of awe on his face that Harry relishes through the haze of need in his brain. Louis reaches out, and he tentatively lays a hand on the inside of Harry’s thigh. Harry moans. Louis’s fingertips dig in just the slightest bit.

“You can keep going, Hazza,” Louis says quietly. It’s all Harry needs.

He starts pumping his fingers in and out again, slowly at first, opening himself back up from when he’d clenched down. They brush against his spot and his whole body shudders. He’s incredibly aware of Louis’s eyes on him as he starts moving his fingers faster, deeper, working towards the rhythm he’d been at before. Louis watches him unblinkingly, hand still on his thigh; Harry can’t tell if the heat there comes from Louis or from the fact that Harry’s so incredibly turned on. He gives his fingers a little twist as they sink down, hitches his arse higher into the air, and Louis’s eyes follow it and stay there. It makes Harry feel hot and filthy and wanted. He stretches his neck out purposefully, lets little moans spill out from his lips without holding back, and watches with a tiny flare of satisfaction as Louis grinds his hips down against the sheets.

He has the rhythm now, his fingers pumping in faster and faster, brushing his spot every time they sink down. Harry wants so badly to screw his eyes shut but he can’t stop looking at Louis. He puts a hand back on his cock because it’s getting overwhelming and he needs something to hold on to, but Louis jolts into action and bats Harry’s hand away, replacing it with his own. Harry moans involuntarily.

Slowly, unbearably, Louis’s hand starts moving up and down Harry’s cock. Harry whimpers and twists his fingers inside of himself. It’s too much, Louis touching him and this; as Louis starts moving his hand faster, Harry’s hips start jerking up, trying to get more. Louis moves forward until he’s hovering above Harry, faces inches away. Harry can feel the heat radiating off his skin.

“Are you close?” Louis whispers. Harry nods helplessly. Yes, yes, he is, there’s something hot and shuddery building up in his lower belly, more intense than he’s ever felt it. Louis’s pumping his cock fast and it’s so good and Harry feels like he’s going to cry. His hips are making shameless circles now, desperately chasing the feeling. He gasps out, thrusts his fingers in as deep as they’ll go, feels himself stretched out around them and Louis’s hand hot on his cock and there, that’s it, he’s gone. He clenches down on his own fingers as he comes, moaning unrestrainedly, screwing his eyes shut; when he opens them and comes back to himself, breathing raggedly, the first ting he sees is Louis staring down at him, eyes still wide. Harry pulls him in for a kiss immediately, feeling himself loose and pliant.

When Louis draws back, Harry slips his fingers out of himself carefully. The emptiness they leave behind feels strange. Harry reaches down to grab at Louis’s crotch, wanting to get him off too, but when he shoves a hand into Louis’s pants they’re all sticky and Louis’s dick is already limp. Harry’s eyes widen in surprise and he pulls back to look at Louis, grinning incredulously. Louis just smiles self-deprecatingly and buries his face in Harry’s neck, rolling them both over sideways.

“I can’t believe you came from that,” Harry mumbles into Louis’s hair once they’re both settled.

Louis looks up at him and half-shrugs. “It was hot.”

Harry feels his face flare at that. Louis found it hot. Louis found it hot enough to come without Harry touching him. It’s a wonderful thought, and one that sparks something else– and suddenly, Harry can’t understand why he was scared to tell Louis what he wanted. It’s Louis. Louis who likes getting off with him, who Harry’s known since he was eight, who knows him better than anyone. There’s nothing to be scared of. Harry feels light, floaty, safe.

So he looks at Louis and tells him, “D’you mind, would you, um–” His face gets hotter, but he barrels on determinedly all the same. “I want you to fuck me, like, properly. D’you think we could do that?”

It’s out there. Harry can’t take it back now. It’s okay, Harry has to remind himself; it’s okay.

And then Louis’s looking at him, looking so hilariously shocked that Harry has to giggle. It’s somehow a relief. “What, now?”

Harry shakes his head hurriedly. “No! No, I mean,” he trips over his own words, “not now, but, like, soon? Would that be okay?”

“Are you–” Louis cuts himself off and shakes his head a little, looking torn in about two million directions. Harry fights a smile. Louis starts again. “Harry, are you sure you want to do this? Because, like, you don’t have to or anything, I mean it, I don’t–”

This is as weird for Louis as it is for him, Harry realizes with a jolt. It feels like a weight’s been lifted off his chest. It’s good. It’s all good. They can figure it out together.

“D’you think I’d have been doing what I was just doing if I didn’t want to?” Harry interrupts, and Louis looks at him for a wide-eyed moment before bursting into startled laughter. It’s strangely contagious.

“Oh my God,” Louis finally gets out. “How long have you been thinking about this for?”

“A while,” Harry admits sheepishly. “I mean, I’d never tried the, you know.” He feels himself blush, but forces himself to say it. “Fingers up my arse. But it felt so good, Lou, I– I couldn’t stop thinking about what it’d be like if it was you inside–” and then there are fingers tightening on his arm and Louis suddenly looks so turned on that Harry can’t help but feel pleased with himself. “Can we do that?” he finishes, quieter.

Louis just looks at him. “Harry. Jesus. You say those things and expect me to say no?”

Harry grins. “Is that a yes?” Okay. Okay. This is happening. He’s going to have Louis’s cock inside him, oh my God. His arse clenches just from thinking about it.

But then Louis’s face gets a little more serious, and Harry comes back to reality immediately. “Harry. Are you sure about this? I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I am,” Harry says. He’s also nervous and excited and mildly terrified, but he is. “Anyway, it’s not supposed to hurt. Not if we do it properly. Like, fingers and lube and stuff.”

A grin cracks across Louis’s face, getting wider and wider. “Oh my God. You have been thinking about this.”

Harry blushes, still grinning. “Shut up.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

“I’m telling you now. Would you rather I just hadn’t mentioned it at all?”

“You wouldn’t have done that;” Louis says smugly. He’s absolutely right. Because this is Louis and Harry trusts him more than anyone in the world. There’s only one secret he can keep from Louis. The rest will always come out eventually, and Harry knows that.

It’s okay. It’s all okay. They’re doing this together and that’s all that matters.

*

They experiment.

Harry finds that once he’s had fingers up his arse it’s difficult not to want them there all the time. He loves it, loves feeling dirty and full and stretched out, and the orgasms leave him shaking afterwards. He makes Louis do it every time he gets him off and they’re not in a hurry, starting with two the first time, working on it until Louis can fit in three and there’s no burn, just mild discomfort at the beginning. It’s infinitely better than his own fingers. Not just because it’s Louis (even though the oh, God, Louis is inside me feeling still hasn’t gone away), but also because he can reach deeper than Harry can and find a better angle. And once Louis learns how to find that spot, the orgasms become absolutely mind-blowing.

It’s fun and it’s hot and it’s exciting and even though Harry’s in the middle of exam season it’s making him forget about school completely. It’s like summer all over again. Louis is everywhere and Harry wants him around always and they can’t keep their hands off each other. The weird distant moments Harry’s noticed in Louis aren’t happening anymore, and Harry doesn’t want to ask because he might screw it up but he hopes this means they’re gone for good.

They fix a date. Harry’s mum isn’t home on the second weekend of December; he’ll have the house to himself and his exams will be over with until January. Harry buys more lube just in case and checks that the condoms at the bottom of the sock drawer haven’t mysteriously disappeared. (They haven’t.) There’s a perpetual nervous buzzing in his gut, his fingertips; the only thing keeping him more or less steady is the knowledge that Louis is nervous too. As the date gets nearer and nearer, it gets harder for Louis to sit still, and he goes back and forth between loud and insufferable and strangely quiet. Harry knows how to read him and he knows what that means. (He’s also weirdly affectionate with Harry. He keeps mumbling things about not wanting to hurt him and wanting to make him feel good, keeps touching him when it’s not strictly necessary and, just once, presses a tiny kiss to Harry’s forehead when he thinks he’s asleep. It makes Harry feel like he’s glowing from the inside.)

The days go by. Harry can’t decide if they’re going too fast or maddeningly slow. The week is here: he finishes with his exams, his mum gives him a kiss and a hug on Saturday morning and tells him to be careful and call her if he needs anything, and then the hours have slipped by in a blur and it’s the afternoon and Louis is coming in through Harry’s window. It’s happening.

Harry’d though that at first it’d be– not awkward, because he and Louis don’t do awkward, but… a bit weird, maybe? Because they’re not boyfriends, they’re not anything, but they’re about to have sex and Harry’s never done this before and he’s so nervous he feels like he could crawl out of his skin.

It’s not weird. Louis comes up to him, kisses him hard, draws back and asks him, easy as anything, “Shall we get to it, then?” Harry feels a relieved grin break across his face and tugs Louis to his bed without a word.

They make it work. The nerves don’t go away, not really, but they’re less overwhelming; they don’t make Harry feel like he’s going to freeze anymore. Louis kisses him and his hands slip under Harry’s shirt, warm against his skin. It’s a feeling that’s easy to sink into. Louis is everywhere, his breath hot on Harry’s neck, his hands roaming Harry’s chest, his cock pressed against Harry’s and half-hard already. Harry doesn’t stop to think about what they’re going to do as he reaches for the waistband of Louis’s sweats and shoves them down, as he tugs his own shirt up over his head. He just lets himself go along with the need to have Louis closer and touch him everywhere. This part is easy. They’ve done this before.

There’s a moment after they’re both naked where the only thing they do is stop and stare. (They get naked all the time, but not when they’re going to do this.) Louis looks at his body openly, eyes just a fraction too wide, and Harry gets the strange urge to roll into the sheets and hide. But there’s awe, too, when he looks at Louis, because seeing Louis naked is something he’s not quite sure he’s used to yet. He’s all light, every inch of his skin. It pulses off him like waves. Harry wants to touch and he follows the urge blindly; his hand comes up to trace Louis’s jaw and Louis shifts into it, still looking at Harry. Then Louis surges down to kiss him but ends up missing the spot so that Harry gets a mouthful of his teeth instead, and just like that, it doesn’t seem so serious anymore. Harry winces and rubs at his bottom lip, Louis cackles at him, Harry calls him a prat, an it feels so normal that when Harry pulls Louis back into a kiss he does it thoughtlessly.

The kiss is hungry, thorough, Louis’s tongue slipping into Harry’s mouth and making him arch into it. Their cocks rub together and want floods Harry’s stomach. There’s no noises now except for the wet sound of their mouths and their heavy breathing; Harry’s hand tangles into Louis’s hair and the other roams his chest, tweaks a nipple. Louis draws back and Harry’s mouth chases his, nipping at Louis’s bottom lip with his teeth. Louis breathes out audibly.

Harry settles into the sheets, tugging at Louis so that he’s right on top of him, their legs fitting together. It makes their cocks line up, sliding against each other wonderfully. Harry makes a noise and brings his mouth up to Louis’s neck, because having Louis stare right down at him makes him weirdly nervous. There’s not much of a technique to it, just open-mouthed kisses and wet sucking. But Louis seems to like it all the same, because before Harry knows it his hand is snaking down and he’s touching Harry properly.

Harry moans against Harry’s neck. God, it’s just– it’s just handjobs, they do this all the time, but the knowledge that this is a handjob that’s leading to something makes it weirdly intense. He’s going to have Louis inside him. The thought makes him squirm. His hips make tiny circles as Louis moves his hand up and down his cock. He sucks harder on Louis’s neck, finding the spot between his neck and collarbone and sucking on the skin until he knows he’s left a bruise. Louis breathes out shakily and his hand speeds up. But suddenly it’s not nearly enough, and Harry detaches his lips from Louis’s neck and blurts out breathlessly, “Can we do fingers now?”

Louis blinks at him. His mouth’s fallen open a little bit, and Harry moves up to kiss it quickly. That seems to make Louis react, and he answers hurriedly, tripping on the words as he gets them out. “Yeah, yeah, of course we– where’s the lube, hold on–” Harry reaches blindly for the bed stand, finds the bottle and holds it out to Louis. He feels his heartbeat thud in his ears as he watches Louis uncap the bottle and squeeze lube onto his fingers. Harry thinks, dimly, that his hands might be shaking. (Each reminder that Louis is nervous is reassuring.)

Harry reaches out; his fingers find Louis’s wrist and he gives it a tiny squeeze. Louis looks at him like he’s startled and Harry just smiles at him, wanting Louis to understand everything he doesn’t quite know how to put into words. We’re in this together. I want this. I want you. He’s not sure the message gets across, but it seems to work all the same, because Louis smiles back and his hands look steadier as he spreads the lube over his fingers. Harry looks at them and feels his skin prickle.

“Come on,” he mumbles. Louis draws back a little, his gaze trailing down Harry’s body. Harry lets his legs fall open even as he feels his face heating up. He watches Louis’s chest rise and fall. Then, Louis’s moving down and settling between Harry’s legs and there’s a slick touch to Harry’s rim and oh.

Louis’s finger is gentle, putting just the barest amount of pressure on Harry’s hole, not even trying to push in. It drives Harry absolutely crazy. His hand flies to his cock, trying to get some sort of relief. The pressure of Louis’s finger on his hole increases, but only by the slightest bit. Harry fights the urge to squirm. Instead, he jerks his hips up, trying to get more; Louis seems to get it and finally, finally, his fingertip starts to push past Harry’s rim.

A whimper slips out of Harry’s lips at that. There’s mild discomfort, but nothing he can’t handle, and the feeling of being filled up is so good that Harry doesn’t mind it. Louis’s finger slides into him slowly, and once Louis has it inside as far as it’ll go he starts moving, not even thrusting, just maddening little circles. Harry’s eyes flick up to Louis’s face. There’s a tiny smile playing at the edges of Louis’s lips, and– oh my God. He’s doing this on purpose.

“I hate you,” Harry says as vehemently as he can manage with Louis’s finger twisting inside him. “Get on with it.”

“Ask nicely,” Louis tells him with a playful grin. Harry opens his mouth to tell him to fuck off, but then, oh, Louis’s pulling his finger almost all the way out and pushing it back inside, and as it grazes Harry’s spot the words fade from his mind completely. A ragged breath slips out of his mouth instead. Louis starts pumping his finger properly now, in out in out, and he has a rhythm going before Harry knows it. Harry moans and spreads his legs further. Louis’s brushing his spot on every thrust, and it feels so wonderful and at the same time so maddeningly insubstantial. It’s not enough. “Another,” he tells Louis breathlessly. Louis doesn’t even hesitate this time, and as soon as Harry’s asked for it there’s another slick finger pushing at his hole, pressing in gently past the ring of muscle.

Harry gives his cock slow tugs as it pushes in. Two fingers make the stretch slightly more uncomfortable, but they’ve done this before, and Harry knows it doesn’t last for long. Louis’s spare hand is spread out on the inside of his thigh, and Harry focuses on it, on the way it makes his skin feel hot underneath. Louis’s fingers bottom out and stay there for a moment, letting Harry adjust. Harry wriggles his hips, trying to get them in deeper. Then, Louis starts moving them. It’s small at first, just little pushes back and forth, but the movement makes Harry breathe out shakily and move the hand on his cock faster. Slowly, giving Harry time to get used to it, Louis’s fingers start thrusting in properly, pushing little moans out of Harry’s lips. Harry could come like this and he knows it. But he needs to draw it out because oh, God, Louis’s going to be inside him; his hand stills on his own cock and he focuses on the side of Louis’s fingers, feeling like there’s something buzzing under his skin. They hit his spot almost full on, both of them at once. Harry gasps out shakily.

Louis notices, because the next few thrusts come from the same angle, hitting his spot one after the other. Harry whimpers and spreads his legs wider. The discomfort is barely there by now; all he can think of is chasing the feeling. He never wants it to stop. But Louis’s thrusts are still gentle, even though he has a sloppy rhythm by now, and it’s absolutely maddening. He hears tiny moans fill the air without really registering they’re coming from his mouth, and, as he grabs a fistful of the sheets involuntarily, realizes what he must look like right now: spread out on the bed, panting, desperate, his forehead all sweaty and his legs wide open. Louis, Harry notices with a flash of heat, has his eyes glued right to the spot where his fingers are pumping into Harry. God, Louis’s seeing him like this– Louis’s seeing him like this and it’s turning him on, if the way his cock is flushed and hard is anything to go by. Harry wants his hands on it, his mouth on it, wants it inside him so desperately that for a moment it shocks even himself.

“Lou,” Harry hears himself say. Louis’s head snaps up. “I can take another.”

“Yeah?” Louis asks. Harry can see his pupils black and dilated inside the blue of his eyes. They’ve done three fingers before, but Harry supposes it’s different now that it’s actual prep and not just for the sake of it. Louis doesn’t look nervous anymore, but the glow coming from him is ever so slightly pale. Harry knows what that means. So he nods jerkily and hitches his bum up, breathing hard, wanting to show Louis how much he wants it without having to find the words.

A moment later, there’s the touch of a third finger at Harry’s hole. “Yeah,” Harry mumbles, wanting to feel them moving inside him again. Louis’s eyes flick up to his and back down to where his fingers are, and then Louis’s finger is sinking in, pushing in gently past his rim. Harry whimpers. The stretch is uncomfortable, but Harry’s so far gone he barely registers it. There’s just the wonderful feeling of being full and spread out, desperate, breathless, his hair sticking to his forehead with sweat. Louis’s fingers start moving again. Harry has to fight the urge to writhe on the bed.

When Louis’s fingers, all three of them, hit his spot, Harry’s back arches off the bed and he feels like he could come right then and there. He doesn’t, because he’s only barely touching his cock and there’s nothing to hold on to. But the next thrusts get better and better until he’s squirming, moaning with each push of Louis’s fingers inside him, desperate for something to push him over the edge but knowing he can’t come yet. Because it’s Louis’s cock next. It makes his stomach twist with sudden nerves, but he’s ready now. Harry knows it. Louis’s fingers are gliding in and out of him and there’s nothing except the stretch anymore, no discomfort, no resistance.

So Harry reaches down and grabs Louis’s wrist blindly. Louis’s hand stills. He looks down at Harry, and Harry looks back at him, and there’s a moment where Harry’s sure he’s not going to be able to say it. But he feels Louis’s hand stroke at his thigh gently, feels the warmth radiating from it, and the moment is gone.

This is Louis. There’s nothing to be scared of.

“I think I’m good now,” Harry blurts out. His chest is heaving and his voice sounds breathless. “Lou, I think I’m ready, can we do it now?” He’s acutely aware of Louis’s fingers still inside him, not moving, but stretching him out all the same.

Louis’s silent for the tiniest of moments. “You mean–” Harry nods jerkily. “Yeah, okay, that’s what you mean. I– if you’re sure, Harry–”

“–of course I’m sure, God, Lou–”

“Okay,” Louis says quietly. “Okay, then.” They look at each other. Harry hears his heartbeat thud in his ears. “I’m gonna take them out now, okay?”

Harry swallows. “Yeah,” he whispers. “Yeah, okay.”

Louis’s fingers pull out, dragging inside him; they ease out of his hole gently, leaving Harry feeling strangely empty. He clenches down against it unconsciously. Louis stares between his legs for a moment, eyes wide, and then seems to come back to himself and scrambles for the condoms, his glow flickering slightly.

Dimly, Harry watches Louis tear open a condom wrapper (it takes him three tries, and if this were any other situation Harry’d be making fun of him already). When Louis takes it out and looks at it, Harry feels the sudden urge to touch him, to make this good for him too. So he tries to pull himself together, props himself up and leans forward, batting Louis’s hands away, mumbling a, “Let me.” He kisses Louis once and takes the condom from him, squinting at it; he pinches it at the tip like he was told in sex ed and rolls it onto Louis’s cock as best as he can. As soon as Harry’s hands are on him, Louis lets out a little sigh. When the condom’s on, Harry gives Louis’s cock a few slow strokes, just to tease. The way Louis’s lips fall open makes heat flood Harry’s stomach, makes him suddenly aware of the uncomfortable emptiness inside him. They’re doing this. They’re doing this now.

So he flops down on his back again, breathing hard, hearing the snick of the lube bottle and fighting the urge to shudder. He watches unblinkingly as Louis spreads lube on his cock. His heartbeat feels too loud and everything around him too vivid, almost surreal. He closes his eyes and breathes in deep, trying to relax. A moment later, there’s a soft touch to his wrist. Harry’s eyes fly open. “Hazza,” Louis says. “You okay?” His touch is steady, but his glow is uncertain.

“Yeah,” Harry gets out. “Yeah, Lou, I’m ready– do it, come on–”

Louis nods slowly. “Okay,” he mumbles under his breath, so quietly that Harry isn’t sure if he was meant to hear it. Then, louder, “Okay, I’m just going to–” and then, so gently, he’s pulling Harry’s legs up and settling between them. Harry swallows. There’s nervous energy pulsing underneath his skin. He nods shakily, because he knows that if he doesn’t Louis will never get on with it– and then there’s pressure at his hole, a pressure that’s Louis’s cock. Harry reaches for Louis’s hand blindly and holds on.

“Come on,” Harry whispers, and Louis squeezes his hand once and starts pushing in.

It’s slow, and it’s gentle, but Louis’s cock is wider than his three fingers and for a moment the burn comes back like it’s his first time having anything inside him. Harry bites down on his lip and tries to steady his breathing. Louis’s hand squeezes his own again. Harry meets his eyes, and they’re wide and blue and concerned. “You okay?” Louis says breathlessly.

Harry nods. “Keep going,” he says, because they’re the only words he can manage. Louis obeys. He pushes in, deeper and deeper, until Harry’s gritting his teeth and wondering how much of it there is– and then Louis’s hand is on his cock, and it’s so unexpected that Harry gasps and his hips jerk involuntarily. He braces himself for the burn as Louis’s cock nudges deeper inside him, but it doesn’t come. There’s only what was already there, and even then it’s becoming more tolerable. Harry blinks in surprise, then moans quietly as Louis’s hand moves on his cock, giving it a few slow tugs. He wriggles his hips, trying to look at what’s going on, and– oh. Louis’s cock is almost completely inside him, oh God, their hips almost lined up, and the sight is so hot that Harry has to bite down a moan.

Louis notices. “D’you want me to move now?” he asks, a little tentatively. His glow is getting brighter. Harry wants to watch it forever.

“Yeah,” he gets out. He feels more full than he’s ever done in his life, but the burn is fading to discomfort now and it makes Harry want more. So when Louis eases out the tiniest bit and pushes back in, it’s uncomfortable, but it also makes Harry breathe out heavily, holding onto Louis’s hand. His mouth falls open of its own accord. “Keep going,” he whispers to Louis. Louis does it again. It’s better than the first time. Harry screws his eyes shut and waits for it to build up.

And it does. Louis’s thrusts stay slow but they get harder, Louis pulling almost all the way out and pushing back in, making Harry squirm. The pain is gone, and the pleasure gets more and more intense each time. Harry pens his eyes and there’s nowhere to look at but Louis’s face. So Harry looks straight into Louis’s eyes as he thrusts into him, and it’s almost overwhelming, Louis’s closeness, Louis looking at him and touching him and inside him. Even if Harry wanted to, there’s nowhere to hide. Every little emotion on his face is there for Louis to see. It should make him feel vulnerable, but all it does is make him feel safe.

Then Louis changes the angle the slightest bit and Harry feels him hit that spot inside him and for a moment the pleasure’s so much that he arches off the bed and moans.

Louis’s eyes go wide, but there’s a breathless smile playing at the corners of his lips. “Again?” he asks, and Harry can only nod desperately because yes. Louis pushes back in and it feels even better, the pleasure radiating inside him from fingertips to toes. There’s nothing else. Just him and Louis and this, there’s nothing else that matters. Louis pushes in again and an ah falls out of Harry’s mouth, involuntary, desperate.

Louis’s building up a rhythm before Harry knows it, and it’s almost overwhelming but Harry never wants it to stop. It builds up until Harry’s moving his hips in circles, chasing the feeling, moaning shamelessly every time Louis thrusts in. Louis’s eyes are still on his face, and Harry looks back at him, because what else can he do? And through the blur of pleasure and want, Harry realizes that this way he can see every little thing on Harry’s face as clearly as Louis can see them on his. There’s want, yes, but there’s also something behind it, something Harry can’t focus enough to put a name on but that makes him grab onto Louis’s hand tighter. Harry feels something deep and nameless well up inside him. I love you. I love you. He wants to say it so badly it feels like his chest might burst from holding back. A moan comes out of his mouth instead, filthy and drawn-out.

Harry can’t look at Louis anymore, can’t stand it, so he pulls Louis in clumsily and kisses him, sloppy and fierce. Louis kisses back, all tongue and teeth. He thrusts in hard. Harry’s thighs shake and he makes a noise into Louis’s mouth. Then Louis’s hand speeds up on his cock, giving it fast messy tugs, and Harry has to draw back to bury his face in Louis’s neck. It’s too much. He’s so unbearably close, and he’s hypersensitive to everything: the pleasure inside him flooding every part of his body, the wonderful stretch of Louis’s cock, Louis inside him and on top of him. He glows bright and powerful, and Harry feels like it’s a part of him too, like they’re both the same thing. He edges closer, closer, until he feels like he has to come or he’ll lose his mind– and then his orgasm hits like a wave, rising and rising and crashing over Harry and making him cry out and screw his eyes shut, lost to the force of it. Louis jerks him off through it until Harry’s left shuddering out tiny spasms and whimpering. There’s a faint ringing in his ears. Harry barely registers it.

He collapses on the bed, his vision blurry. Louis pulls out of him and it leaves behind an uncomfortable emptiness. Harry’s dimly aware of Louis giving himself fast strokes and coming into the condom, but can’t even bring himself to lift a hand up and help; his limbs are heavy, dragging him down.

He thinks Louis might have tied up the condom and tossed it somewhere off the bed, but his thoughts are too hazy to really pay attention. He only registers Louis rolling off him and snuggling in beside him. He lifts up an arm and Louis slips in beneath it. Harry arm fits it around his shoulders. He can feel little bursts of heat pulsing off Louis’s skin. He tilts his head sideways and buries his face in Louis’s hair. The smell is familiar and faintly comforting.

“Was that good?” he hears Louis mumble. His voice sends vibrations through his chest. They’re so close together that Harry can feel them too.

Harry finds his voice, “Yeah.” It sounds rumbly, slower than usual. “Yeah, it was…” His voice trails off. It’s difficult to string words together. “It was amazing, Lou. We have to do that again.”

“Yeah?” mumbles Louis. Harry nods sleepily. It’s the middle of the afternoon, but orgasms tend to make him pass out, especially when he has Louis next to him. “Yeah,” he says back. “Loved having you inside.” The words slur together, blurring into one. “Can still feel it.” His brain-to-mouth filter has completely disappeared, but he can’t bring himself to be concerned. “Nap?” he says hopefully. His eyelids are already drooping.

“Always,” Louis says back. He isn’t being serious, Harry knows it, but as he settles into sleep the word makes something warm and glowing bloom inside his stomach.

*

Harry’s mum doesn’t come back until Sunday morning, so they spend most of Saturday night messing around, discovering new things. Harry wants desperately to do it again, but his bum’s a little sore and Louis says they should probably try another day. Harry huffs, but gives in. It’s not like there’s nothing else to do anyway. They blow each other and then Louis asks curiously if it’s really that good having something up your arse; that’s more or less how Harry ends up with two fingers inside Louis, watching him come with wide eyes.

By the time they’re both too exhausted for any more, the moon is high in the sky and the windows have misted over. This is how it should be, Harry thinks hazily. This is how he wants it to be forever. He’s too tired for the thought to be scary.

*

Louis has nowhere to go on Christmas. Harry’s known that for years. He’s never officially invited him over, because Christmas is for family and he knows if Louis’s there there’ll be questions, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t stay in the house. They’ve been doing this for years now: Harry’ll go downstairs when he has to, and whenever he can he’ll sneak upstairs and bring Louis leftovers from Christmas dinner or a mug of hot chocolate. They do it this year, because what else would they do?

The thing about Christmas, Harry thinks, is that every year it feels like less of a thing. When he stops to think about it, he supposes it’s really kind of sad. Because he loved it when he was little, and he loves it now, he does, but– it’s not the same, is it? If it weren’t for all the memories he has, it’d feel like almost nothing.

But it’s okay. It all turns out okay in the end, because it’s Christmas. Gemma comes home and she’s here every day and Harry can almost pretend she never left; Aunt Lydia and her husband and kids visit, and his mum looks wonderfully happy the whole time. It might not be what it was before, but it doesn’t matter. They light the fire in the living room and watch Love, Actually and Harry falls asleep on the carpet on more than one night, because he’s full and warm and surrounded by people he loves.

And when he comes back to his room at night Harry’s there most of the time, even if Harry can tell by the state of his hair that he’s come in through the window not very long ago. Seeing him, for some reason, always makes Harry feel safer, more settled. They don’t do much, but it doesn’t matter. (At least it doesn’t matter to Harry, and Louis still comes so he can’t mind to much either.) Falling asleep next to Louis is something Harry’s been doing since he can remember. It’s easy and it’s familiar and Harry could swear it makes him sleep better.

He doesn’t get a New Year’s kiss and it doesn’t particularly matter. They go out to see the fireworks together, his mum and Gemma and him; Harry watches them and only half pays attention. What’s Louis doing? Can he see them too? So he enters the New Year without really realizing it; oddly enough, he can’t bring himself to care very much.

It’s freezing outside. By the time they come back home, Harry’s flexing his fingers to make sure he can still feel them, and he’s sure his cheeks and nose are all red from the cold. Louis’s always warm, though, so whenever Harry gets cold all he has to do is come right up to him and stick his hands up Louis’s shirt. But when he opens the door to his room, Louis’s not there.

He’s not there?

Well. Okay. It’s not like Louis’s supposed to be with Harry all the time anyway. They’re not– they’re not anything aside from best mates. Harry has to remind himself sometimes. He slips into bed alone and tries not to think too much of it. He fits his hands under his armpits to try and warm them up. It takes him a long time to fall asleep.

*

January is… strange.

The thing about coming back to school after the holidays is that you get into a routine again surprisingly fast. A week into the term, Christmas feels like it was never really there at all. Harry doesn’t like it. Because he’s growing to sort of hate school and the way all it does is make him stressed, and because Christmas was great and he doesn’t want the memory to go away. He can already feel it fading, little by little. But the days go by, and then the weeks, and Harry lets it go, because there are more urgent things to worry about.

His mock exams are in March. Harry took them last year too, but he remembers it all much more peaceful and far less panicky. But now they’re suddenly a terribly big deal because it’s the last thing before the real GCSEs and those are supposed to decide his future and even though Harry’s never cared that much about school stuff, he finds himself getting caught up in it all. By the time February rolls around, there’s not much time for anything else. (He doesn’t even want to think about what it’ll be like in June when they take the real exams. Harry just wants it all to be over already.)

And less time means seeing less of Louis. Harry finds himself looking back to Christmas break almost nostalgically. Did Louis really sleep in his bed every night? The thought seems so far-off. Louis will mostly come now on weekends, and Harry will snuggle up to him gratefully against the cold, Louis’s arm over his shoulders. He’ll sometimes daydream about what they’ll do once this whole mess is over, once it’s the summer and there are no exams to worry about at all. It’s going to be even better than last year. Harry’s making sure of it. Sixteen is probably still too young to travel alone, so no beach, but he could definitely find a lake around here, and that’s… more or less the same thing, isn’t it? He mentions it to Louis sometimes when he’s around and they’re not getting off. Louis just says we’ll see.

(It’s school that’ making them not see so much of each other lately, isn’t it? Louis isn’t… he couldn’t be staying away from Harry on purpose. They’re best mates. Why would he do that? Harry shoves the thought out of his head as soon as it appears.)

The cold leaves eventually. There’s frost on the windowpane less and less often in the morning, and the pavement isn’t slippery with ice anymore. The days get longer. The sky’s now pink and gold when Harry walks to school in the morning. And March comes, which means exams, which means the barely in barely no free time disappears. The good part is that they last for a week, which means he gets them over with fairly quickly; the bad part is that that means they’re all crammed together. Two hours of History in the morning, then two normal class periods, then the oral French exam, then the written French, Maths at nine the next day… it’s hectic, and it’s awful, and by Thursday Harry’s right hand hurts from writing. His mum’s lovely and understanding: she’s constantly making sure he’s getting enough sleep and telling him grades aren’t worth suffering over and she brings chamomile tea up to his room every night to “help him relax.” Louis is nowhere to be found, but Harry expected that anyway.

And then it’s over and Harry does nothing for an entire weekend except stay in bed and sleep. Spring is coming. Harry can see it in the new leaves on the trees, in the way his backyard is more green than brown now. Spring, and then summer. It feels like Harry could brush it with his fingertips if he reached out far enough.

*

Harry doesn’t see it coming.

Who would? It’s not like– it’s not like there’s anything weird going on. Things between Louis and him are okay, they haven’t been fighting, they’re perfectly good mates– and if they haven’t been seeing each other it’s because Harry’s been busy and it’s not his fault.

It’s not fair. It’s not fair that Harry has to be the one always saying things or the one that’s never supposed to ask questions about what’s going on. It’s not fair that he never knows what Louis’s thinking and it’s not fair that he feels things sometimes but never knows if Louis is feeling them too. If anyone should be mad, it’s Harry. But that’s not how things work, is it?

And the way it happens is stupid, anyway.

Now that Harry’s done with exams and he has a nice one or two weeks of not being horrendously busy, he’s hanging out with Louis again when he can. Things are the same as always, Harry’s relieved to see. Louis doesn’t sleep with him every night, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped doing it, and he still lets Harry kiss him and gives him handjobs and has sex with him once or twice, so– things haven’t changed. Not that Harry, like, expected them to, but it’s a relief all the same.

They end up behind the factories one afternoon, Louis kicking a football around, Harry sat on the ground and leaning back against a brick wall. Harry follows the football with his eyes as Louis kicks it higher and higher into the air. His thoughts are scattered, vague. “Did you know,” he tells Louis, “I was talking to Dan the other day and he said dead people sometimes fart.”

Louis glances over at Harry. His concentration breaks and the ball falls to the ground. “What?”

“I know, right?” Harry says. “Apparently it’s not really farts, it’s just gas ‘cause they’re rotting inside, but yeah. Sometimes the fingernails grow too.”

“Cool,” Louis says. He kicks the ball up into the air again with the tip of his shoe, but when he goes to lift it to his knee it rolls off. He looks over at Harry, a tiny crease between his eyebrows. “You’re friends with Dan?”

Harry’s silent for a moment. “Yeah,” he says lightly. “He goes to school with me. Why’re you asking?”

Louis just shrugs. Harry watches him turn for the ball again, but he seems to change his mind halfway and turns back to face Harry. “Maybe you shouldn’t be friends with him,” Louis says casually.

Harry frowns. “Why?”

Louis shrugs again. “Dunno,” he says. There’s a weird kind of glow to him. It makes Harry uneasy. “But, like, didn’t he kiss you once? Maybe he’s getting the wrong impression.”

What?

“What are you talking about?” Harry gets out.

Louis just blinks at him. “Just a suggestion. I mean, do whatever you like.”

For a moment, Harry has no clue what to say. “Why do you even care?”

“I don’t,” Louis says back quickly. “I just said.”

“Then why’re you asking about it?”

“I’m just looking out for you,” Louis says defensively.

Harry knows this conversation shouldn’t be going where it’s going, but it’s like something’s welling up in his chest, pushing him to keep going. “That was a year ago.” Does Louis really– does Louis think he’d go off with Dan now? That happened one time, and he and Louis weren’t even doing anything back then, and they– they’re just mates.

Then again, he’s mates with Louis too, isn’t he?

“Well, who knows, maybe he still wants something, I’m just saying–”

“I mean,” Harry interrupts, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing, only that there’s something hot in his chest that’s pushing him to keep going, “from what I’ve heard, didn’t you do more than kissing with Zayn? And you’re still mates with him, aren’t you? Maybe he’s getting the wrong impression.”

As soon as the words are out, Harry regrets them.

He hasn’t seen Louis like this in years. He glows in a way that’s bright and hot and terrifying, and for a moment, Harry feels incredibly small. His anger drains away instinctively until he remembers why he’s mad and can bring it back– and then Louis says, in a voice that’s quiet and terrible, “Don’t act like you know anything about that.”

“Yeah?” Harry says. His voice gets louder and louder, because his anger has to take up space to free everything that’s jammed up inside him, to make Louis stop using that awful quiet voice. “I know you did stuff together. I know he gave you lovebites, at the very least. I know you still hang out with him. And if I don’t know anything else it’s because you never fucking tell me anything that’s going on!”

“Oh?” Louis’s eyes feel like they’re burning a hole through Harry, but at least his voice isn’t quiet anymore. “And why should I tell you anything.”

That one stings. Harry falters. There’s nothing he can say back. Because he’ll look like an idiot, and isn’t that what he is? Because I care about you. Because I never know what you think or what you want or how you feel. Because I think I’m in– “Because we’re friends!” Louis raises his eyebrows, and it feels like being punched in the stomach. Friends. It’s stupid and it’s childish and it means nothing. This isn’t because Louis is his friend. “We’re friends and I never know what’s going on inside your head!”

“So you think because we fuck I’m supposed to tell you everything.” It’s oddly final. Humiliatingly, Harry feels his eyes start to prickle.

This isn’t Louis.

This isn’t the Louis he’s grown up with. Harry knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that he’s not saying this because he means it. But this has flown so wildly out of his hands that Harry doesn’t know how to fix it, can’t stop it from spiralling into something worse than it already is. And when Harry looks at Louis and tries to find any clue that he doesn’t mean what he’s saying, there’s nothing.

“Louis,” he says. There’s no anger anymore. Now, he’s just pleading. “You’re my friend and I care about you.” The words feel artificial. Harry knows this is only scratching the surface, and he wonders if Louis can tell too. “I just– I’m worried, okay? I’m worried because I don’t know what’s going on. I want to know because I care, not because, like–” Embarrassingly, he stumbles over the words. “Not because I think you’re supposed to tell me.”

Louis just looks at him.

Harry’s felt like this before. When Louis looks at him like this, it’s like all of his insides are transparent, like Louis can see everything Harry could possibly want to hide. Harry wonders if he knows everything Harry’s feeling, everything that Harry’s not even sure of himself. He wonders if Louis knows where he comes from, what he is.

Then, Louis says quietly, “You’re the person who knows the most about me in the world.”

Harry blinks. What does that mean? What’s Louis trying to say? “Louis–” he says helplessly, not even knowing what he wants to say. But Louis isn’t talking anymore. Instead, he’s turning around, and Harry knows what’s going to happen before it happens. “Louis,” he sees again. He can hear the edge of desperation in his own voice. Louis’s walking away. Harry tries to go after him, but the moment he does, it’s like Louis’s figure starts to melt away, disappearing into the afternoon sunlight. “Louis, please don’t leave.” But Louis is already gone. Harry can’t see him anymore. “Louis,” he tries again, but it’s no use at all, and all Harry can do is stay there, calling out helplessly, the abandoned ball lying at his feet.

*

Louis doesn’t come back.

It’s like Harry’s twelve all over again, and if he wasn’t so worried he might even find the irony in it. Because nothing has changed. He’s not any less panicked or any more reassured that Louis’s going to come back. And the guilt is back again, guilt that’s hideous and corrosive and eats away at Harry while he’s trying to sleep at night; there’s no getting away.

He looks everywhere. His own backyard, the park, the trees, the train station, the river, the factories; up and down the village, even with the sinking certainty in his gut that if Louis doesn’t want to be found there’s no way that Harry’s going to be able to. And when there’s nowhere else to look he looks everywhere again, just to keep himself busy, because anything’s better than staying put and thinking. He even asks Zayn a week in when he’s getting desperate, but Zayn just blinks at him and tells him the last time he saw Louis was two weeks ago. There’s nothing else Harry can do.

The uncertainty is the worst part.

Harry can live with the guilt. It fades away a little after a while, because– because the fight wasn’t his fault. The two of them made it happen, only Louis was the one who left. No, the worst part is the uncertainty, because he can’t be sure about anything at all, can he? Louis could be right in front of him and he’d never know. He could have left Holmes Chapel for good. They aren’t twelve anymore. Louis could leave and he could build a life away from here. Harry has no phone number, no address, no way to get in touch with him. If Louis decides not to come back, Harry will never hear from him again.

He wonders, not for the first time, if Louis could ever go back to the sky.

The thought is terrifying. Harry can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a world where Louis didn’t exist. It’s not rational, it’s not in any way explainable, but Harry thinks he’d do anything he possibly could to keep that from happening. It’s selfish, of course it is. But it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t let Louis go – it means Harry would find a way to go after him.

Maybe he’s gone back to the sky already. Maybe that’s why he’s not coming back, and Harry will never know.

The days pass, then the weeks. It doesn’t get any more bearable. Harry’s constantly on edge, jumping at the tiniest unexpected thing; there’s something fizzing under his skin that makes him restless and keeps him awake. When two weeks have gone by, he starts looking again, just in case. And again, there’s nothing. The weather’s getting warmer, but Harry feels like his hands are always cold.

He hasn’t gone this long without seeing Louis in years. The memories of him are tied up too deeply in Harry’s life to fade, but the most recent ones start to become slightly hazy at the edges. They’re not going away; what’s happening is that they’re becoming a definite past. Harry can’t have that. He can’t have Louis stop existing in the now.

He brings him up sometimes. He never used to do it before, because the less questions people asked about Louis the better, but it starts without him realizing, tiny mentions of “a friend” when he’s talking to people at school, a “Louis” every now and then when he’s talking to his mum. (She never asks any questions. Harry doesn’t know if she’s doing it on purpose, but he’s grateful all the same.) He can’t let Louis go. It’s not going to happen. If he stops believing he’s going to come back he’ll have nothing left of him at all.

He thinks about Louis in a way he hasn’t done in ages, in a way that’s strange and analytical and that would never happen if Louis was around. He’s a star. He’s a star and he’s here with Harry. When Louis is here, the thought makes sense, because Harry looks at him and thinks, what else could he be? But now it seems abstract, surreal, like something out of a dream. Stars aren’t people. What kind of force would be able to make them into one? Can stars feel, can they get hurt or scared or lost? Can they love?

(The word love isn’t a taboo in Harry’s mind anymore. It’s as abstract as the thought of Louis being a star, but he allows himself to think it now.)

He wonders what Louis’s doing. He thinks back to that one time when they were both little and Harry caught Louis following him around when they were mad at each other and wonders if Louis’s ever been around Harry without Harry noticing. He wonders where Louis is, and what he is, and if he’s ever going to see him again, and throughout all of it Louis stays gone.

*

He comes back in April.

April means rain. April means water droplets racing down the windows and pattering on the roof when he’s lying awake at night; it means his feet getting soaked as he walks to school because his wellies don’t fit him anymore and his trainers have holes in them. April is as dreary as February. And it’s also the month where Harry hears a knock on his window in the night and feels his heart jolt in his chest.

He’s at the window in a second. He looks out and the déjà vu takes over. (How many times has he done this, found Louis at his window after weeks of him being away?) Because, of course, Louis’s there; his glow lights up the window faintly from the outside, even through the sheets of rain that are black in the night. For a bizarre second, Harry’s sure he’s going to cry.

He doesn’t cry. He unlatches the window with shaky hands and opens it just wide enough, expecting Louis to come in. He doesn’t. He just stays outside and looks at Harry, and his eyes are wide (and blue blue blue, how can Harry have forgotten how blue they were? It’s been less than a month) and strangely tentative.

“I’m sorry,” he says instead of coming in. Harry blinks at him, confused, because why does he want to do this out there in the rain? Maybe he’s leaving again? But before Harry can panic, Louis carries on talking. “I’m sorry, you don’t have to let me in, it’s just– it was raining so hard and there’s nowhere else to go, I can leave if you want–”

Harry just looks at him, dumbstruck. Louis– Louis thinks Harry doesn’t want him back.

He’s not sure he can speak, so he just opens the window wider, hoping it gets the message across. It doesn’t. Louis looks a little surer of himself, but he still doesn’t come in. So Harry gestures instead, fighting to keep the smile off his face, because even though he gets the feeling there’s still so much they haven’t solved Louis is here with him and that’s all that matters.

Louis drips all over the carpet as he clambers in through the window, and Harry could not care one bit less.

For a moment, all Harry can do is look at him. His glow is faint but it’s there: steady, familiar. The clothes he’s wearing aren’t Harry’s and Harry doesn’t think he’s ever seen them before. There are traces of mud on them, but they look like they’ve mostly been washed clean by the rain; they stick to his skin, dark and soaked through. His feet are bare. He looks at Harry, and Harry’s struck by how uncertain he looks; Louis doesn’t do vulnerability, doesn’t let things show plainly, only lets show glimpses that Harry has to figure out on his own. But there he is, dripping on Harry’s floor and with a look on his face that Harry isn’t sure he’s ever seen before.

Harry should get him a towel. Harry should get him a towel and clean clothes and make sure he’s okay. Rationally, he knows this. But right now, he takes a step forward and does the only things he can think of: he takes hold of Louis’s soaked-through shirt, tugs him forwards and kisses him.

They’re almost the same height now, Harry thinks somewhere in the back of his mind, because he barely has to tilt his head up at all to kiss Louis. Because he’s kissing Louis, he’s kissing Louis again, and it takes a moment but then Louis’s kissing back, his tongue darting to flick at Harry’s bottom lip. Harry sighs instinctively and holds on to Louis tighter, his hand coming up to tangle in Louis’s wet hair. The rain comes down hard against the window, the water from Louis’s clothes seeps through to Harry’s skin, and Harry thinks it’s a kiss that deserves music in the background. It’s a kiss that means hope. Harry isn’t sure if that’s what it is or what he desperately wants it to be.

They pull back. They look at each other. Harry leans back in again, unable to help himself, and it’s a kiss that’s short and small but that makes something warm well up in Harry’s chest.

“Hi,” he whispers when he pulls back, unable to keep the grin off his face. Louis just looks at him and says nothing, so Harry continues. “You’re always welcome here. You know that. I’m not mad at you.”

“Really?” Louis says, too quietly. A little of the bubbly hope drains away. Louis’s voice makes Harry strangely uneasy. Because Louis’s never quiet, and– and if he’s like this now, Harry has no way to predict what he’ll be like tomorrow. He forces the thought away.

“There’s nothing to be mad about,” he mumbles. A thought crosses his mind, and his heart rate picks up, because these are the kinds of things they don’t say, but– but it doesn’t matter, because Louis’s back and Harry knows saying it won’t make him leave again. “Just– please don’t leave without telling me again. I–” He looks at Louis and falters. “I get worried.”

Louis’s eyes are a fraction too wide. “You do?” Harry swallows, but nods. A serious look comes over Louis’s face, and he seems to be considering something for a moment until he says, “Okay. Okay, I– I won’t leave without telling you. I don’t want you to worry.”

Harry blinks. “Thank you,” he whispers. A tiny grin plays at the edges of Louis’s mouth, and as it grows into a full one Harry feels like he has to kiss him again. Because now Louis’s here and he can.

They get into bed together after Harry’s remembered to get Louis a towel and give him dry clothes. (It only makes the déjà vu intensify. For a moment, Harry’s convinced he’s eight years old and Louis’s coming into his room from the snow outside for the very first time.) Louis’s hair is still a bit damp, but it’s not cold anymore. None of Louis is cold. He’s warm all over, warmth itself. Harry slips into bed and falls asleep as soon as Louis’s arms settle around him.

*

Louis isn’t there when Harry wakes up the next morning. Harry tries not to pay attention to the heavy feeling of dread sinking into his stomach. He doesn’t quite manage it.

*

Things aren’t the same after that.

Harry knows, rationally, that things between him and Louis have been changing for a long time. He knows there have been moments where Louis won’t talk to him that go beyond the usual, and he knows that Louis not being around is never a coincidence when it happens over such a long time. But up until now, he’s managed to avoid facing it directly, squirreling it away into a corner of his mind to deal with later. It’s not like that anymore. Because even though things have already been changing, now it’s in a way that Harry can’t ignore.

It starts with staying in Harry’s bed in the morning. Louis usually sleeps somewhere else on weekdays, but before, he’d slip into Harry’s bed on Friday and Saturday nights and when Harry woke up he’d be there, sometimes still asleep, sometimes squinting sleepily at Harry, sometimes with a hand on Harry’s cock. Bit by bit, that starts to go. Harry tells himself at first that Louis probably had something to do today, that next week it’ll be different; but next week comes, and Harry invariably wakes up in a bed that’s empty. Sometimes, it’ll still be warm.

Harry doesn’t ask about it, because Louis still sleeps with him at night, and they’re not anything, and– and sleeping in each other’s beds is not something mates do in the first place, is it? It should be enough. Harry tries his hardest to make it feel like it’s enough.

Then, Louis starts disappearing.

He doesn’t leave. Harry clings to the promise that he won’t leave without telling him first. But he’s never around, and Harry knows that this time it’s not his imagination and it’s not because he’s busy with school either. Because before, even when they barely saw each other– even when Harry was barely around he knew that when he had a free moment Louis would be there, and if he wasn’t, Harry would know how to find him. But now– now Harry doesn’t know how. And that leads to afternoons spent alone, waiting in his room in case Louis wants to find him, his schoolbooks spread out in front of him but his mind unable to take in a single word. This shouldn’t be happening. This wasn’t how it was meant to happen. Because he’d have to let go of this eventually, he knew that, but– but he’s sixteen. There were still supposed to be two whole years left. Weren’t there?

He can’t let go of this yet.

But there’s nothing he can do to stop it. It feels like walking in a dream, like watching sand fall through an hourglass. He sees less and less of Louis, and he keeps telling himself that next time he’ll bring it up, he’ll ask Louis what the hell is going on and they can sort things out. He doesn’t. Because saying something– wouldn’t that make it into a subject they can’t avoid? If Louis doesn’t want this anymore, won’t saying something end it completely? If this is all Harry has now, it’s okay. At least there’s something. At least Louis hasn’t left.

And when he’s with Louis, sometimes he can even pretend that nothing’s happened, that everything’s just like it was before. It’s just– Louis is his best friend, and that’s not something that goes away. He still makes Harry laugh like no one else and knows what he’s going to say before he says it and knows just how to twist Harry’s cock so that he comes on the spot. All of that’s still there, and Harry doesn’t understand. when he’s with Louis and not thinking things over and over at home everything seems simpler. It’s easy. It’s not something he has to worry about. They’ll work things out once Harry’s done with school.

Then, Louis stops letting Harry kiss him.

At first, it feels like it’s nothing. Louis doesn’t kiss him all that much, but it’s okay because every time Harry ducks in and kisses him, even if it’s not during sex, Louis will kiss back. But then, sometime in May, Harry goes to kiss him on the cheek and Louis ducks away casually. It makes something drop in Harry’s stomach. Because what’s he going to say? Why won’t you let me kiss you? Louis doesn’t want this anymore, he’s made it obvious, but still– still Harry can’t find it in himself to do anything other than hold on for as long as he can.

(They’ve been best friends since they were eight. It’s okay that Louis doesn’t want this, but are they going to stop doing anything and pretend that nothing’s happened or does Louis not even want to be friends with him anymore? He can’t leave. He can’t leave without telling Harry, he promised.)

After a few times when Louis moves away when Harry wants to kiss him, Harry gets the message and stops altogether. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Harry shouldn’t be letting it matter.

*

A Saturday afternoon, Louis comes in through Harry’s window unexpectedly and, without saying a word, pulls a joint out from behind his ear.

Harry blinks at it. So he and Zayn really did get their hands on some weed, then. He’s about to ask Louis what the hell he’s doing with that here when Louis looks at him and says, “C’mon, smoke it with me.”

You don’t want to be with me anymore but you still want to smoke in my house? Harry doesn’t say it. “Lou–” he starts instead.

“Come on,” Louis interrupts. “I want you to try it. It’s good, I swear. It makes you all, like, weirdly relaxed.”

And the thing is, how long has it been since Louis’s tried to convince him to do something? It feels like it’s been ages since Harry’s had to say no to, like, jumping in the river in the middle of winter or climbing onto a roof. It feels nice to have all of Louis’s attention focused on him like this. He can already feel himself giving in.

“My mum’s home,” he attempts.

Louis shrugs. “Just lock the door.” There’s a tiny glint in his eyes that means he already knows Harry’s going to say yes. Harry forgets, sometimes, how well they know each other.

The thought makes inexplicable sadness well up in his chest. He pushes it away.

“It’s going to smell,” he protests weakly. He’s never tried weed before, but he’s witnessed the smell cling to other people more times than he can count.

“We can do it out the window,” Louis says carelessly. He pulls a lighter out of his pocket. “Shall we?”

And that’s how they end up with their elbows on the windowsill, the window thrown wide open, passing the joint back and forth. Harry coughs a lot at first and can’t quite get the smoke to where it should probably go, but then Louis shows him how to do it properly and it’s not so bad. After a while, when he looks out at the trees outside his window it’s like the leaves are moving much more slowly than they should be. “Is this supposed to make things go slower?” he asks Louis, frowning slightly, and Louis laughs and says yes.

It’s not hard to notice what it’s doing to him. Before long, his vision is fuzzy at the edges, and he can’t seem to make his limbs move as quickly as they should. Louis is blinking at him. It’s nice to have his eyes on him. He tells Louis that because why not, and Louis doesn’t seem to think what he’s said is weird at all because he just smiles.

Another few hits and there’s nothing left of the joint at all. Louis flicks the butt out of the window and Harry scolds him for littering. Louis tells him to go pick it up, then. Harry tells him to fuck off. His own voice sounds distant, like it’s coming from somewhere far far away; his thoughts feel sluggish. He’s giggling at everything Louis says, only half aware he’s doing it. He looks sideways at Louis and gets caught up in the blue of his eyes, the slope of his nose. If Harry squints, he can see Louis’s glow through his eyelashes, like he’s staring at the sun.

Louis’s mumbling something about what do you do when you don’t even know who you are. Harry’s only listening vaguely. There was something, something important he kept thinking about before, what was it? And as Louis turns to face him, he remembers. “You look hot when you smoke.”

Louis blinks at him. “Really?” Harry nods wisely. Louis looks at him for a moment like he’s hovering on the edge of something; then, he suddenly yanks Harry in by the shirt and kisses him until he’s breathless.

All thoughts of but I thought you didn’t want to kiss me anymore evaporate from Harry’s head instantly. His mind goes blank as Louis kisses him, because it’s been so long, and– and his body feels loose and slow and he wants this more than anything. He pulls back, closes the window hurriedly and then grabs hold of Louis and pushes him up against it, kissing him hard, grinding down against whatever part of his body he can. His lips detach from Louis’s wetly. “Fuck me,” he mumbles, the words slurring together, “fuck me, please,” and it’s only a moment later that he realizes what he’s said. Louis’s eyes are a fraction too wide, questioning. Harry hesitates and then nods.

So he walks backwards to the bed, pulling Louis with him, and they undress each other quickly, like they’ve done this a thousand times before. There’s no words this time, no giggling or uncertainty or reassurance. It’s just messy and fast and almost thoughtless, the weed fogging Harry’s head up, blocking his thoughts out; when Louis gets his fingers inside, he pants and squirms and moans and doesn’t say a word. It’s hazy, almost, lips on lips, fingers on skin, legs tangled together. It’s easy for Harry to get lost in it. He thinks of nothing but the feeling, Louis everywhere, on top of him, inside him; he lets it wash over him until it drowns out everything else. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. There’s just this, this feeling he’s chasing that makes his toes curl up and heat swoop in his stomach and moans come out of his mouth without him noticing. When he closes his eyes, he thinks he can see Louis glow from behind his eyelids.

There’s a moment after they’ve both come when uncertainty lingers in the air. Harry doesn’t know if he can kiss Louis or not, doesn’t know how far he’s allowed to go, so he just flops down on the bed, his left arm outstretched so that Louis can cuddle up under it. Louis looks at it for a long moment. Harry’s breath catches in his throat.

Louis shakes his head as if to clear it. “Harry,” he says. His voice is… pleading? “Harry, I’m sorry, I have to go.” Then he’s turning away, hurrying to the window, pulling it open. He turns back to Harry like he’s going to say something else, but after a long moment he just turns back and slips out of the window. Harry’s left to watch him leave like he’s been doing for years.

*

If Harry thought having sex with Louis would change anything, he was wrong.

*

It’s kind of funny that he’s spent two whole years preparing for his GCSEs and, now they’re here, Harry could not care one bit less about any of them.

(Fine. It’s not exactly funny. It’s more like ironic. Harry feels like right now is maybe not the right time to appreciate it anyway.)

They’re a welcome distraction, though. He has to keep busy, has to keep moving. Not doing anything means waiting for Louis and Louis never comes. If he’s revising, Harry can tell himself that it’s okay, that he’ll sort it out later; when it’s exam season you’re meant to put everything else aside and focus on this until it’s over, and Harry does it gratefully. Even though at times he can’t quite manage it, and even though he can’t ignore the fact that it takes hours for him to fall asleep at night because his head is full of thoughts and he can’t make them stop.

(Is this all it takes to destroy years and years of this? Is it possible that it’s really all over, just like that? What did Harry do wrong?)

He’s only seen Louis twice since he brought the weed over, and both times have been short and uncertain and strange. It’s because of all the revision Harry’s been doing, Harry’s sure. Once his exams are over with he’ll make things better. Maybe this… this thing between them is gone, but that doesn’t mean Harry can’t still save the rest.

His GCSEs are at the beginning of June, when it’s already warm outside. They’re spread out over three weeks, longer than his mocks, and it’s mildly frustrating because Harry just wants them over and done with. But they start, and it’s three weeks of cramming and watching other people panic and having one or two mild breakdowns; it’s sweaty palms and fingers that ache from writing and every single black pen he owns somehow going missing the night before his Physics exam. (For some stupid reason they won’t let you do them in blue.) And Harry gets through them. He gets enough sleep, he’s fairly sure that he passed almost everything except History, and he doesn’t see Louis a single time in the whole three weeks.

It’s okay. It’s okay. Exams are over and he can fix this. It’s okay.

*

It’s not.

Because the Sunday after Harry’s finished his exams, a little past seven in the afternoon, Louis comes in through Harry’s window with a look on his face that’s completely devoid of emotion and says in a quiet voice, “I’m leaving.”

Harry just looks at him. Harry look at him and says nothing because there is no way on Earth that he’s just heard what he’s heard.

Louis keeps on talking. His voice is steady. It almost sounds rehearsed. “I’m leaving and I’m not coming back and I just wanted you to know.”

Everything feels too bright, too real. Harry feels like he’s only vaguely in control of his body. It feels like it’s someone else’s; everything about this feels like it belongs to someone else. Louis isn’t leaving. Louis can’t be leaving. Harry blinks, but nothing falls into place. This isn’t happening.

Why?

A tiny crease forms between Louis’s eyebrows, like he wasn’t expecting Harry to ask questions. Why would Harry not be asking questions? “Because I have to.”

Harry can hear his own heartbeat thudding in his eardrums. “What do you mean?

“Nothing.” Louis’s glow flickers, and his eyes dart all around the room like he’s looking for a way to escape. Harry notices this because he’s hyperaware of every little thing around him, and especially every little thing that’s crossing Louis’s face.

“Tell me,” Harry says. He wants to take a step towards Louis, but his feet are rooted to the ground. He can’t breathe.

Louis shakes his head. His face is still carefully neutral. “I can’t.”

“What’s wrong?” Louis doesn’t answer. Harry sees his eyes dart around the room again, his expression still empty, and something hot and fierce surges up inside him before he knows it. Louis is not doing this. He’s not leaving and he’s not refusing to explain. Harry feels his heartbeat hot in his ears, his chest, the tips of his fingers. Does he think Harry’s going to accept it, just like that? Is he supposed to just let this go without a word?

“Is this why you’ve been all weird lately?” The words spill from his mouth of their own accord. “Have you just been dragging this out all this time just to tell me you’re going to leave? Why didn’t you fucking say so, then, instead of playing games with me since January?

Louis’s face isn’t neutral anymore. It’s tense, and his eyes feel like they’re blazing. Harry feels a wild surge of satisfaction. “You don’t know shit.

“Then tell me!” Harry bursts out. “Louis, God, tell me, I never know what’s going on with you, I have to figure everything out on my own, I just–” He falters, stumbling over his words. “I just want to know why.

“Yeah?” Louis says. His tone is savage. “You know what? I shouldn’t have bothered coming here to tell you. I should’ve just left. I doubt you’d even have noticed anyway. Or wait, now your exams are over–”

“Don’t you fucking make this about that.” The feeling in Harry’s chest is seething, spilling over. “Don’t you– don’t act like this is my fault when you were never around. I waited for you, shit, Lou, I never knew where to find you, I never knew what I’d done wrong–”

“Go ahead, play the victim, yeah, that’s absolutely going to work–”

“I’m not fucking playing the victim–” Harry can’t remember when his hands curled into fists, but now his fingernails are digging into his palm so hard they sting. “Louis, what the fuck, what have I done to you, how am I supposed to know if you don’t tell me–”

“–maybe it has nothing to do with you–”

“Then what the fuck is your problem with me, oh my God–”

“–yeah, maybe you should just leave me alone so I can get the hell out of this place–”

Harry takes an involuntary step towards Louis and reaches out to touch his arm. Louis jerks back like he’s been burned. For a moment, they just stare at each other, and in the back of his head Harry wonders how they’ve managed to come to this. What happened? When did Harry let this spiral out of control? The feeling in his chest is less powerful now, less fiery; he feels the anger seep out of his body all at once. He can’t do this. He can’t be angry at Louis.

“Lou,” he says, the nickname slipping out by accident. He sees Louis’s glow flicker, burn less angry. “Please just answer the question.”

Louis crosses his arms over his chest, his hands clutching at his sides. “What question?”

You know what question, Harry wants to say, because he gets the vague notion that this whole thing has just been a way to derail it. He doesn’t say it. Instead, he looks Louis straight in the eye and asks him, slowly, “Why d’you want to leave?”

It’s like Louis curls into himself when he hears it. For a fraction of a second, Harry’s convinced he’s going to run to the window and leave then and there. But it passes, and Louis just fixes his eyes on the ground and says, quiet, unbearably clear, “I don’t know who I am.”

It’s a jolt to Harry’s gut. He stays silent, expectant.

Louis continues without looking at him once. “I don’t know where I come from, I don’t know how I got here, I don’t know how I can do the things I do. I don’t have a house. When I sleep outside, I do it underneath the viaduct.” Harry feels a stab of guilt. He never knew that. He never asked. “I have nothing. I have no money and no family and barely any friends. You know where my name comes from?” Harry sees his fingers curl into fists around the fabric of his shirt. “One of the first days after I got here, I went to the edge of the trees and looked out at the park. There were some kids playing out there. I watched them ‘cause I was curious about what they were doing but I knew I couldn’t go outside the trees. And then–” Louis’s jaw tenses, “and then, when it was time for them to go, a woman called out to them. Louis, she said, and she repeated it two or three times. I thought it was a nice word. I thought, since I didn’t know what I was, I could use that for my name.”

“Lou,” Harry says softly. It’s all he can manage. There’s something bitter sinking down into his stomach; the word is heavy. He’d never even thought about this. He’d never known.

But Louis carries on. “I have nothing,” he repeats. Harry bites the inside of his lip to keep quiet. “There’s only–” and he glances up at Harry just once before fixing his eyes back on the ground, “there’s just you.”

What?

Before Harry can say anything, Louis carries on talking. It’s halting now, less steady, like he isn’t quite sure what he wants to say. “You’ve been there always. Ever since the first day. And I– I don’t know what I’d have done without you, I–” He shakes his head. “You’re all I have. I wear your clothes, I sleep in your bed, I wait for you to get home from school, I’m with you always.” His eyes look everywhere but at Harry. “I don’t know who I am. I can’t stay.”

This time, when he says it, there’s nothing but raw emotion in his voice. Harry doesn’t need to wonder what it is: it’s fear. He’s never known Louis to show any kind of fear at all and yet there it is, written plainly on his face. All this time. This is what’s been going on all this time and Harry’s never noticed.

And the next thing that comes out of Harry’s mouth comes from somewhere deep, unexpected, somewhere Harry’s taken care to never tread. “I love you,” he says. It feels like it’s making the earth shake. He realizes how true it is as he says it, and he feels it radiate through his whole body, down to his bones. “I love you. You don’t have to leave. We can figure this out together.” It’s how it works. This is love. He knows it with all his being. And if it’s love there’s nothing they can’t get through; there’s nothing they can’t work out together. Harry feels goosebumps erupt on his arms and feels the certainty settle inside him.

But he looks at Louis and the whole thing wavers.

Because Louis is staring at him, wide-eyed; the look on his face hasn’t changed at all. The fear is still there on every inch of his face. For a second, it looks like he’s completely speechless. “Harry,” he says. The single word is enough to make Harry wary. “Harry, you don’t understand.”

Harry blinks. His whole body feels light. “What?”

Louis’s whole expression shifts into something pained. Dread seeps into Harry’s gut. “That has nothing to do with it,” Louis says. Harry can only stare. “Please just– please don’t do this. I’m leaving. I’ve told you why, and–” He cuts himself off and all Harry can hear is his own heartbeat. “I’m sorry. Goodbye.”

Everything’s happening too fast. It’s like the room’s whirling around Harry, like everything’s moving away from him and he can’t keep up. “Louis.” Louis says nothing. This isn’t happening. Louis’s turning away and this isn’t happening. He’s leaving for good and there’s nothing Harry can do that will make him stay. “Louis, wait.” It doesn’t work. Harry watches Louis head to the window and feels the panic rise in his chest, drowning everything out.

And then a sudden thought comes, a thought that had been buried for years and years, and Harry makes a decision.

“Louis, there’s something I need to tell you.”

Slowly, silently, Louis turns back to face Harry.

“Yeah?” Louis says. His voice is wary. Harry has to do this. He has to, or he’ll never get the chance again.

He takes a deep breath. The air fills up his lungs, but it does nothing to calm him down. “There’s something you don’t know,” he says, and he falters. Where does he start? How can he explain it? “I– I think I know why you’re here.”

Louis looks at him unblinkingly. There’s silence in the room. It feels unbearable.

The words tumble out of Harry’s mouth. “I was eight. It was just before I met you. I remember–” What does he remember? The memory feels so distant it doesn’t feel like it’s his anymore. “I remember I looked out at the sky and there was a tiny star there, and– I don’t know, I don’t know how it happened, but then this huge feeling came, like I was doing magic but the most powerful it’d ever been. And then I looked up and the star was gone, and then you appeared.” He feels empty, hollowed-out. He’s been hiding this for so long it leaves a space behind as it comes out. “I think you’re here because of me.” It’s the last thing he has. “I think that star was you.”

For a moment, all Harry can focus on is the thud of his heartbeat, the rise and fall of his chest, the rush of air as it fills up his lungs. In and out. In and out. There’s nothing left for him to say.

Louis’s eyes are fixed on him, and it feels like they can see straight through him.

“I’m sorry,” Harry whispers miserably. It’s not enough. How could it be enough? He made all this happen. He was the one who took Louis away from everything he knew, from everything he was. Louis looks at him and doesn’t say a word. Harry can barely see his glow.

There’s a moment of silence that stretches out. Harry can’t think, can only wait for Louis to do something, to shout at him or use that terrible quiet voice or turn around and leave. The tension feels sharp, unbearable.

Then Louis does the most unexpected thing of all.

He reaches out and takes Harry’s hand. His thumb runs over the knuckles. The touch is soft, barely there, but it makes a chill run down Harry’s spine. Harry waits with bated breath. Then Louis surges up to him, grabbing hold of him, his arms wrapping around Harry’s torso and holding on tight; it’s crushing, powerful, glowing, and Harry can only shut his eyes tight and hold on to Louis as desperately as he can. It feels like it could last forever.

It doesn’t.

Because after a few seconds that feel like years Louis’s pulling back. Harry’s hands cling helplessly to the fabric of his shirt, but it’s not enough; they’re not touching anymore, and the distance between them gets wider and wider with every step backwards that Louis takes. Harry wants to make it all stop, wants time itself to freeze in place so that Louis won’t walk away from him, but the seconds pass inexorably and there’s nothing Harry can do but watch. “I’m sorry,” he thinks he hears Louis whisper, but his mind doesn’t register the meaning of the words. There’s nothing left, only Louis, Louis moving away, Louis already at the window, and Harry doesn’t even have time to etch the image of him into his mind before his figure blurs away and he’s gone.

*

Harry closes the window and doesn’t leave his bed in three days.

Chapter Text

"The universe doesn't care about us. Time doesn't care about us. That's why we have to care about each other."

– David Levithan, from Every Day

*

He tells his mum he’s sick. He’s not sure she believes him, but she doesn’t question him, and as long as she doesn’t Harry doesn’t particularly care.

The world narrows down. It’s only the house at first, then his room, then his bed; anything beyond it feels distant and faraway, like Harry’d never be able to reach it no matter how hard he tried. Thinking makes his head spin. His body feels numb, like his brain can’t connect with it properly; his mind feels like a black hole, gaping, empty, dragging him down. He cries once or twice, but it’s tears that feel like they’re being forced out.

None of this is real. The house, the room, his body, his mind; what’s telling him they actually exist? It certainly doesn’t feel like it.

Sleep feels like the realest thing of all.

He dreams of grey corridors with dead ends. He dreams that he’s chasing something, but at some point it all blurs together and he can’t tell if he’s doing the chasing or if he’s the one being chased. He dreams of floating in the night in a sea of white pinpricks; of fiery balls of light that expand and swallow him whole; of darkness that takes over and makes his skin melt away. He wakes up with his heart pounding. For a second, it makes him feel alive.

Then the numbness drags him down again, and he gets lost in it gratefully.

*

Harry doesn’t know how long it’s been, but eventually his mum comes to talk to him.

When there’s a knock on his door, Harry’s startled out of his half-asleep daze; he mumbles a, “Come in,” just loud enough to be heard and buries his face in the sheets, curling into them. He hears his mum come into the room and close the door softly behind her, hears the fall of her footsteps on the carpet, feels the bed dip slightly as she sits down. After a moment, her hand come sup to stroke gently at Harry’s hair. Harry moves his head into the touch and doesn’t turn around to face her.

“School’s over,” his mum says. Harry feels a faint flicker of surprise. That means it’s been… how long? A week? He has no way to measure time anymore.

There’s a silence. He thinks she might be expecting him to say something. When he doesn’t, she continues. “Are you going to tell me why you haven’t been going?”

Slowly, Harry rolls over until only half his face is buried in the sheets. He looks at his mum sideways. She doesn’t look mad, just… concerned. It doesn’t change things. He doesn’t want to talk. “I’m sick,” he mumbles. It doesn’t sound convincing at all. He doesn’t care.

His mum just keeps looking at him in a way that says he’s not fooling anyone. “And why is it you’re sick?” she says gently, leaving no doubt as to what she’s really asking. Her eyes are warm, comforting. Harry hadn’t planned to say anything, hadn’t even planned to talk to her properly, but something unfamiliar and powerful is welling up inside him against his will and all of a sudden he’s lost, hideously alone, and his mum is familiar and reassuring and there and before he knows it he’s throwing himself into her arms without a word.

It doesn’t catch her off guard. She wraps his arms around him like she was expecting it all along. A hand moves up and down his back soothingly. “It’s okay, baby,” she whispers. “It’s okay if things are hard right now. You know nothing lasts forever, don’t you? Not the good things, but not the bad ones either. You’re going to be okay.”

And that’s what makes Harry break.

The tears start spilling over before he registers it. “Mum,” he says weakly. “Mum, Louis left and he’s not coming back,” and then it all comes out at once, everything he’s been holding back behind the numbness, all the confusion and fear and helplessness. He holds onto his mum as tight as he can and buries his face in her chest, the sobs wracking his entire body like they’re being ripped out. He cries into his mum’s chest until he feels empty, limp, like he has nothing else he could possibly let out. She holds her through it, rubbing small circles into his back, his hair; and even though nothing is okay, he’s not alone anymore.

That night, for the first time since Louis left, his sleep is dreamless.

*

Louis left. He can think the words now. They hurt, because he’s always hurting, but at least they’re something to hold on to.

He’s not lost anymore.

He replays his last conversation with Louis a thousand times, thinking about how it could have gone, how Harry could have managed to make him stay. Each time is worse than the last, but he can’t make himself stop. He clings to the memory of Louis, keeping it alive and present however he can, because if he lets go – what will he have left? He lies on his bed and can almost pretend he’ll roll over and Louis will be there with him; he closes his eyes, feels the warmth on his bedsheets and tells himself it’s Louis’s body heat. It almost works.

I love you. He wonders if he should have said it at all. He wonders if it was true, and knows with every part of himself that it was. And through the haze of it all, through the hurt and the horrible loneliness, the only thing he can think of is this wasn’t meant to happen.

Because he’s always been certain that love can make it through anything; that as long as you love someone, everything will turn out okay. He thinks about Louis, and– and wasn’t that what was supposed to happen? Isn’t that what it’s always been like? As long as they have each other, they can get through anything. Harry’s been sure of that for as long as he can remember. So what does this mean? It feels like everything Harry knows is crumbling and there’s no way to make it stop. What does he do now? What does he have left?

Nothing. There’s nothing anymore. There’s no reason to ever leave this bed. Nothing’s ever going to be the same, and Harry knows it down to his bones. The only thing left to do is to hold on, and to remember, and to hope that someday the hurt will stop.

*

There are flickers of Louis in his dreams sometimes. Harry chases him through empty rooms, following the glow ahead, but he can never catch up, and he can never catch more than a glimpse of him.

*

Summer goes on. Harry barely notices.

The light from the window wakes him up in the morning, and some days the heat in his room makes him throw the window open. Aside from that, nothing really changes. His mum tries to get him to go out more, to see some friends; apparently, Niall and Sam have been calling. Harry refuses every time. He goes out of the house to help his mum run some errands every once in a while, blinking in the sunlight, but every time he goes back home it’s like a sigh of relief.

At home, Louis’s presence is in every corner, printed on every wall. Eight years’ worth of memories belong in this house. At the kitchen table, Harry can see himself bringing Louis to dinner for the first time; in the living room, knocking a coffee table over and leaving it wobbly to this day; in the upstairs bathroom, sloppy kisses in the shower. And Harry’s room has the most vivid ones out of all the rest. There, Harry can see both of them at every age, and in his bed there’s more nights of sleeping together than Harry could ever count. Harry has grown up in this room, and he’s done it with Louis. Louis’s tangled in ever aspect of his life and it’s impossible to separate the two. And with every second Harry spends looking back, he’s invariably reminded that the only place he can find Louis anymore is the past.

He’s not coming back. Harry knows it now.

He knows it, and the knowledge stays with him every second of every day. He’s never going to get this back. It’s gone forever. Sometimes, when it’s past midnight and he can’t seem to stop sobbing into his pillow, he thinks back for the numbness that was there at the beginning and almost misses it.

*

Gemma arrives halfway through July.

She was away for the first two weeks of July, but she’s staying at home for the rest of the summer. Harry thinks his mum probably had a word with her in private, because she hugs him extra hard as soon as she sees him and smacks a kiss to his forehead, which she only ever does when she’s concerned about him. Harry hugs her tight and breathes her in.

It turns out having Gemma around is a welcome distraction. She’s full of stories from uni to tell, is snarky and funny and kind in the best of ways, and Harry thinks at some point he forgot how much he missed having her around. But the days go on, and Harry gradually stops making an effort to not make it look like his entire life is a disaster; he shuts himself up in his room again and lets it all wash over him, pulling him under, Louis’s absence taking over him until it feels like it’s spread to every part of him, fingertips to toes. He thinks of the world outside only briefly.

But one night Gemma seems to take a strange initiative and pesters him to do movie night with her until Harry eventually gives in. It turns out she’s even made popcorn but she hasn’t got an actual movie to watch, so they just end up watching whatever’s on TV, which means a frankly terrible movie called Raise your Voice. Harry’s thoughts are scattered and he barely pays attention to any of it, and Gemma ends up getting fed up halfway through and turning it off. It’s strangely peaceful.

These days, Harry tends to make an excuse to get out of spending time with his family whenever he can, but he’s warm and settled and his eyelids are droopy and he thinks he might make an exception. It’s nice here. It’s nice not being alone. Gemma sighs and props herself up, but she doesn’t get up like Harry thought she would; instead, she just stretches out on the sofa and drops her head down onto Harry’s lap. She smiles at him with her eyes closed. Harry’s hand automatically comes up to stroke through her hair. She nuzzles into it like a kitten, and Harry smiles.

He’s missed this. He loves physical contact, loves snuggling and cuddling up and having his hair played with, but now he never gets to do it, not since–

“Harry?” Gemma’s voice cuts the thought off. Harry focuses on her, trying to push it away. “Did I ever tell you about when I broke up with my boyfriend?”

Harry immediately tenses. He knows where this conversation is heading. (He tries not to look into the fact that she’s trying to get him to talk about what’s going on by bringing up her boyfriend.) “I didn’t know you had a boyfriend,” Harry says, trying to keep his tone light.

Gemma lets out a hmph of laughter. “I know. That was on purpose. I wanted you lot to know as little about him as possible.” If this were any other moment Harry’d put on a mock-annoyed act, but right now he’s on edge, bracing himself for what she’s going to say. “It was during upper sixth. We made it through most of the year, actually, but in spring we broke things off. It wasn’t even on bad terms. Things just… happened, and we drifted apart, and then he told me he didn’t love me anymore.”

She says it easily, and her face says it doesn’t matter, but Harry knows her, and he knows that says nothing about what it meant for her. He feels a stab of guilt. He never noticed anything was wrong. “And it completely destroyed me. I tried to not let anyone else find out, but when I was alone I’d just lose it, you know? What had gone wrong? What had I done?” Harry swallows, breathing hard. “I tried to cling to him however I could. All my memories of him were there, and I repeated them in my head over and over until I was sure I’d never forget him. I was sure I couldn’t live without him. I didn’t let myself move on.”

Harry’s chest feels tight. Gemma’s words echo inside his head. For a moment, he’s sure he’s going to cry.

Gemma looks right at him now. Her gaze is serious, and Harry feels it down to his bones. “And then I realized I couldn’t keep on living like that. I couldn’t live for a person that wasn’t going to come back. Because love isn’t– it isn’t something like destiny, you know? There isn’t one person you’re meant to be with. You just fall in love and you do what you can, and if it doesn’t work out you find someone else, and if that doesn’t work out either you have to keep going. You can’t stay there forever. You don’t survive.” She looks at Harry as she says it in a way that means she knows exactly what’s going on, she doesn’t say anything else: no questions, no attempts to find out what’s wrong. Harry loves her for it.

“You’ll be okay, baby bro,” she whispers, and something uncontrollable wells up inside Harry, something that’s in equal parts love and fear and gratitude. His vision is blurry. He blinks the tears away as best as he can and smiles down at Gemma shakily, hoping she understands everything he isn’t saying. Her steady answering smile tells him she does. You’ll be okay. For the first time, he lets himself start to believe it.

*

After that, it gets a little bit better.

Louis’s absence is there always. Harry feels it in the back of his head like a phantom limb, persistent, unforgiving. He’ll turn around to say something, only there’ll be no one there to say it to; he’ll see a shadow at the window and his heart will jump into his throat; he’ll wake up in the morning and, in that blurry moment between sleeping and waking, he’ll reach out for Louis next to him and find nothing. There are still moments where the hurt drags him under and he can do nothing but sob into the pillow and wait for it to be over. But he’s getting better at living with it, and isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in the end? He doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to stop missing Louis. It’ll be a constant in the same way as Louis used to be a constant in his life. But that doesn’t mean it’ll always have to be like this, and it’s a hope Harry clings to as the days go by. It gets him out of bed. It pushes him to keep on moving. That’s all he can ask for.

And, bit by bit, he starts to let go.

Gemma’s words stay with him. It takes him a while for them to sink in. Because, if he lets go of Louis, what will he have left? What will life be like without him? He wants to go to Gemma and ask her to please please tell him all the ways life means something, all the reasons to keep on living. He doesn’t. But he thinks about it himself, and it feels like every day it’s a little bit easier to think of answers.

Slowly, terrifyingly, he stops trying to keep the memories of Louis alive. He puts them back where they belong and lets them fade into the past. He stops looking for Louis in his dreams. He stops pretending Louis is here with him; he stops pretending he’s going to come back. It leaves him feeling hollow inside. But he remembers Gemma’s words: you can’t stay there forever, you don’t survive. They’re soothing somehow, and Harry holds on to them until the worst has passed.

The days go by. The memories of Louis become hazy around the edges, like they’re settling into the past. Harry resists the urge to drag them back up again. Because he pictures Gemma’s face, calm and steady even when she was talking about the person she’d lost, and he hears her words, you’ll be okay, and he knows– he knows it’s possible for him to get there too. It’s a hope that’s tiny and flickering, but it’s hope all the same.

*

His GCSE results come halfway through August, and when he gets the letter he’s at a point where he’s actually nervous to open it. (He cares about his exam results. A month ago, he wouldn’t have thought it was possible.) He pulls the letter out of the envelope with shaky hands, his mum and sister looking on expectantly, and feels his face break into a grin as he reads the grades. Six Bs and three Cs, oh God. He’d been in such a bad place when he took the exams that he seriously doubted he was going to pass them all.

Gemma makes grabby hands for the letter and Harry jerks it out of her reach, his grin feeling like it’s going to split his face in two. (How long has it been since he smiled like this?) He reads it to them out loud, and before he’s even finished he’s being dragged into two separate hugs. They merge into a single bear hug, his cheek squished into his mum’s hair, his right arm trapped somewhere between the side of his torso and Gemma’s chest. Harry closes his eyes and lets it all wash over him, the feeling of being surrounded by two of the people he loves the most in the entire world, their body heat and breathing and love. And, in that moment, he makes a decision.

He doesn’t tell his mum or Gemma about it straight away. He does some research on his own and he thinks it over for one or two days; it’s the fact that his heartbeat speeds up with nervous excitement each time he considers it that makes him decide in the end. So a week later, when he’s in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher, he turns to his mum and tells her, the words rushing out in a single breath, “I want to go to college in September.”

His mum puts down the lettuce she’s chopping and turns to face him fully. There’s a spark in her eye Harry can’t quite place. “Do you?”

Harry nods. Saying it out loud makes it unavoidably real, but Harry ignores the nerves coiling in the pit of his stomach. “Yeah. There’s one in Northwich and one in Stoke-on-Trent, so I could get there by bus.”

His mum nods seriously like she’s taking it all in, but Harry doesn’t miss the hint of a smile that’s playing at the corners of her lips. “And why the sudden decision so late in the summer, may I ask?”

Harry shrugs and feels his shoulders loosen with it. “I want to find something new.”

“I understand,” his mum says. She manages about a second of keeping a serious face before the smile is finally breaking out, lighting her face up like sunlight parting clouds. Harry’s seen the look on her face before. He recognizes it instantly. His mum looks proud.

*

It turns out Northwich is still accepting applications this late in the summer. Harry applies to Sociology, Psychology, Photography and Media Studies classes, sends his GCSE results and keeps his fingers crossed.

He gets an email reply the last week of August. He opens it with his heart thumping in his chest. He’s in.

*

The thought that come the seventh of September he’s going to be at a school he’s never been to and surrounded by people he’s never met takes a few days to get used to.

Harry loves people. He loves finding out their quirks and habits and what they like and what they don’t, loves sharing parts of himself with them, loves making them feel comfortable and happy and safe. New people are the challenge he enjoys the most. The thought that in less than two weeks he’ll be surrounded by them makes excitement bubble in his belly. But–

–but finding something new also means leaving everything else behind. He thinks of the hallways and teachers and students at Holmes Chapel Comprehensive, thinks of their familiarity and the way he knows it all inside out by now, and a quiet sadness edges its way into the excitement. He never considered he’d be leaving at the end of last term. He never got to look at it all with the knowledge that he was saying goodbye. He tells his mates when he sees them, and they all go aww and scold him but then tell him it doesn’t matter, that they’ll still see each other around all the time. Harry doesn’t say it, but he knows deep down that when he leaves, things won’t go back to what they were.

But that’s how it happens, isn’t it? That’s what it means to get older. Nothing lasts forever, and it might not be okay now but that doesn’t mean it never will be.

He knows why he’s scared of things changing. He knows that even though he’s stopped trying to keep Louis present he’s still there in every corner of his house, in every street in the village. He knows he’s still trying to hold on.

When he looks back on his life, he sees patterns ingrained into it, things that have been there for so long that they feel worn like an old sweater. And the memory of Louis is tied up with every single one of those patterns. He might have walked home from school alone, but he did it with the knowledge that Louis would be waiting for him as soon as he got there; he can’t go to bed at night without the knowledge that there’s something (someone) missing. There isn’t a single article of clothing in his wardrobe that he can’t remember Louis having worn at some point. And breaking free of some parts of this life– doesn’t mean losing some of Louis along the way?

Harry can admit it to himself: it’s scary. It’s terrifying. But there’s a new determination in his chest that’s telling him to push forward, to carry on even if he’s scared. He’s not backing out. So he watches the seventh of September get closer, tries to ignore the edge of dread in his thoughts, and doesn’t consider going back on his decision for a moment.

*

It turns out okay in the end, like so many things do.

Gemma’s already gone back to Birmingham the morning of his first day of college, but his mum’s awake, and she sends him off with a hug and a kiss and a smile that makes his insides feel marginally less squirmy. As he walks to the bus stop, he can almost pretend that he’s headed to school just like any other day; but the direction is all wrong, left at the post office instead of straight ahead, and after a moment he stops trying.

It’s fine. It’s all going to be fine. He’s never had a problem with getting to know people and changing schools doesn’t necessarily mean that everything else is going to change and it’s fine.

The bus ride feels too short. Before he knows it, its’ dropping him off at the Northwich stop and it’s only a five-minute walk until he’s at the college gates. He doesn’t let himself stop and reconsider. He follows a head of blonde hair in a messy bun through the gates and for the first time it feels like he’s in too deep to turn back at all. It’s almost a relief.

It’s only a few minutes to eight, so he follows the trickle of students heading into the building and ends up in what looks like an assembly hall. He finds a seat near the back, between a girl with dark curly hair and a boy wearing what looks like a shirt with a pineapple print, and looks around curiously, taking it all in. He can barely see any faces, just a sea of heads, but even then there are heads that look more interesting than the whole of Holmes Chapel Comprehensive put together. Harry spots a flash of purple hair on the left side of the room and makes a mental note to look more closely later.

A woman stands up at the front of the room. There’s a smattering of applause. She’s the head of studies, apparently, and before any of them can process it she’s launching into a speech about AS Levels and impeccable behaviour and general school rules. Harry tries to pay attention, he does, but he’s woken up at seven for the first time in months and his eyelids are drooping.

Pineapple Shirt Boy leans in. Harry blinks awake. “How many people,” Pineapple Shirt Boy whispers, “d’you think are taking in a word she’s saying?”

Harry looks around the room and considers it. “I’d say no more than ten percent,” he whispers back.

Pineapple Shirt Boy smiles at him like he’s amused by Harry’s answer. He has brown eyes, Harry notices. They’re really quite nice.

*

Pineapple Shirt Boy is called Mark; Curly Haired Girl is called Erin. They’re both new here (which, um, since it’s first year, could probably be said for most people in this room) and don’t know anyone here yet; by the time the assembly is over, they’ve all agreed to meet up at some point during the day. Harry tries to hold back his grin, but doesn’t think he quite manages it. He knows how to do this. This is easy.

Erin heads off to Physics and Mark heads off to English and Harry’s left to locate his Sociology classroom on his own. When he comes in through the door, his school bag dangling off his right shoulder, he can tell he’s one of the last to come in. Almost all the seats are taken. Harry’s eyes are drawn to a flash of purple, and he recognizes the head of purple hair he’d noticed in the assembly before. It belongs to a girl wearing eyeliner and a sleeveless black top. Her bag is on the desk, and Harry can see a rainbow patch sewed on it.

The desk next to hers is empty. Harry walks up and drops down on it without a second thought.

*

The purple-haired girl is called Chloe, has a tongue stud and a girlfriend called Elle who’s in Design class right now. (“But girlfriend as in girlfriend, you know? Not as in friend who’s a girl.”) She’s from town, so she apparently knows a fair amount of people here, but “most of them are dickheads anyway” and she maintains it’s nice to have some new people around. Harry tells her to stick with him, then, and she throws him a thoughtful look and says, “Maybe I will.” Harry grins at her and she sticks a finger in one of his dimples. It feels like a nice start to a friendship.

*

At lunch, Harry finds a table with Mark and Erin, plus a few more people they seem to have met around and stuck with. (Josh, Eve and Jason. They seem nice enough.) Harry’s taking his lunch out of his bag when he glances up and sees Chloe standing next to the table with a cute blonde girl Harry assumes is Elle. “Don’t suppose there’s any spare seats here?” she asks casually. When she looks at Harry, there’s a playful twinkle in her eye. Harry supposes it’s too early in their relationship to pretend to tell her to go away, so he scoots over to the left and makes room on the bench. He introduces Chloe to the table and gives himself a mental pat on the back for getting all the names right.

And it’s like that the next day too and the one after that (give or take a few tiny differences; Jason seems to have found better people to sit with and a friend of Chloe’s called Damien starts hanging out with them) and before Harry knows it a week has passed and it’s become a thing. Phone numbers are passed around; a WhatsApp group chat is created. They meet up one Saturday and have lunch at a park teeming with overfed ducks. It’s… refreshing, almost. Harry hadn’t realized how much he needed a change of air until now.

Harry supposes it shouldn’t make this big of a difference, but it feels like it does; when he gets back to Holmes Chapel after class, he walks home from the bus stop wondering how he ever felt like this was his entire world. Looking at it now, it feels laughably small.

(In Holmes Chapel, Louis’s presence is still there everywhere he turns, but it feels different to what it was. It’s not an open wound anymore; it’s more a dull ache. It still hurts, but it feels smaller somehow, and it doesn’t make him flinch each time he touches on it. The memories aren’t alive like they once were. They feel like a photograph: still tangible, still real, but easy to pack up and put away.)

So the days go by, and the more time that passes the more Harry settles into this. The excitement of college, of new beginnings, fades into a routine that replaces the one that was there before. The twenty-minute bus ride to Northwich and back feels like a blip in his day where at the beginning it seemed to drag on and on. School gets more intense. Harry can already feel that last year’s GCSEs are going to feel like nothing compared to this year’s AS Levels, but oddly enough, he doesn’t mind too much. One step at a time. One step at a time, and everything will turn out fine.

*

It’s October when the realization comes, with a jolt like lightning.

(Why didn’t he notice it before? Harry has no answer. It was there all along, the little hints stretching back years ago. Was it that he didn’t want to see them? Did he just not notice them at all?)

It’s this: Harry hasn’t done magic in over a year.

*

Harry’s never, not once in his life, been able to do magic on purpose. It’s never stopped him from trying. It doesn’t stop him from trying now.

He tries and he tries, as hard as he can, and it doesn’t work a single time. There’s no flash of heat, no tiny ripple in reality as something changes. Isn’t he more mature now? Isn’t he supposed to know what he really wants? He tries it with everything that he thinks might have the slightest possibility: passing the Psychology test on Monday, his mum recovering from the stomach flu, making the cute boy who sits two seats over from him in Media Studies look his way. It never works.

(When he’s alone in his bed in the dead of night, he wishes for Louis to come back. He wishes so hard and for so long that sometimes it rips sobs out of him. There’s nothing in the whole world he wants more. There’s no doubt whatsoever in his mind. Why is it not working? Why?)

He lets the weeks pass, telling himself that he can’t force it, that it needs to come out on its own. He holds on to the hope fiercely, because he’s already lost Louis and he can’t lose this. But the magic never comes, even though Harry looks for it inside him, tries desperately to dig it up; the hope starts slipping away, and Harry forces himself to look at the cold hard facts. The last time he remembers any magic happening is in June last year, and Harry tries to tell himself well, it hasn’t been that long– but then he starts remembering the rest of it, how towards the end he could only make small changes happen, how it left him exhausted each time, and dread slowly starts to pool in his stomach.

And eventually, he has to face the possibility that it might have gone away for good.

He tells his mum over dinner one evening when it feels like his ribs might crack from holding it in. It bursts out of him like a flood, the words rushing out and stumbling over one another, and when he’s finished explaining everything he has to stop and breathe for a moment because it feels like everything’s crashing down on him. He looks up at his mum. Her face is deadly serious. And in that moment, Harry knows beyond all doubt that she knows more about what’s going on than he does.

She starts talking. Harry listens, his heart beating double-time, his breath feeling like it’s on hold. And then she starts explaining, how the specialist he’d gone to when he was very little had told her that the reality modifications disappeared with puberty a lot of the time. There were barely any cases where it carried on happening all the way into adulthood; they were still investigating the causes, but there’d been no results as of yet. She’d been advised against telling him; it didn’t always disappear, and if it didn’t, telling him might be harmful to him. There was nothing to do about it if he did, so it’d be better if he found out in his own time.

And as she looks at Harry with eyes that are serious and sad, Harry sees every line on her face, and perhaps for the first time, he’s aware of just how old she looks.

“We can go and see the specialist again and see what she makes of it,” she finishes quietly. A moment later, she adds, “I’m sorry, Harry.” Her voice is subdued. Harry barely hears it.

Because it’s gone. Harry doesn’t need to see any specialist to know that. It’s gone forever. Slowly, unbearably, he lets it sink in, and as it does he feels the cold clear certainty that a part of him is dead.

*

They drive to Manchester all the same, back to the clinic Harry went to all those years ago. There are no children over the age of ten in the waiting room. Harry wonders how many of them will end up losing their magic; wonders how many of their parents know they will.

The specialist is the same lady Harry remembers, even though her face is more lined, her eyes more tired. Harry describes the symptoms, and she tells him, quietly, what he already knows; for some reason, hearing it from her feels like a death blow, like being knocked back down when he was starting to get to his feet. “I’m sorry,” she says, sounding like she genuinely means it. Harry can’t bring himself to say anything back.

*

Harry goes back to Holmes Chapel and grieves.

It’s different to how it felt to lose Louis. Louis was someone he thought he couldn’t live without, but this is – was – a part of him. This was something he never for a moment though would be taken from him. He feels the loss down to his bones, and it leaves behind a profound, bitter ache that hovers on the edges of his mind and refuses to let go.

Why did it take this long for him to notice? Did he really never consider that something might be wrong? No, Harry realizes, he didn’t because he was so focused on trying to keep up with Louis that he never once stopped to think about it. Louis went blazing through the last two years of his life, and only now that he’s gone can Harry see everything else, everything he didn’t even notice was there before.

He can’t remember what he changed the last time he did magic. It hits Harry like another tiny loss.

He thinks back to when he was six and it all came so easily to him. He remembers feeling like nothing could stop him, like he could do anything in the world. And he could, couldn’t he? He made a star fall from the sky. Will he ever be able to get his head around that? He looks at his hands, slowly turning them over and over. These are the hands that could make magic happen. The thought feels dreamlike already.

These are the hands that will never do magic again.

Because it’s gone. Harry knows it without a shadow of a doubt. He can recognize it in himself, knows with a certainty that’s deep and instinctive that it’s not coming back. Harry supposes that it’s easier this way, that at least there’s no uncertainty to torture him, but– but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like a death sentence. There’s nothing left for him.

Louis is gone and the magic is gone and Harry looks at the future and can only see it bleak. What does he have? What’s going to make it all mean anything? It’s strange that where before he saw the whole world out there waiting for him now it all looks grey and uncertain. There’s no grand scheme of things. Harry sees that now. Things don’t happen because they were meant to be, they just do, and sometimes there’s a reason for it and sometimes there’s not and that’s just how things are.

There’s nothing to do but keep going.

*

It gets better after a while. It becomes another thing he’s lost; another constant.

Still, at the same time, it feels like everything is different – not in a way Harry can pinpoint, but not in a way he can shake off either. It feels like he’s seeing the world from a different place. There’s the realization that things changed and he never noticed, the knowledge that he’s not who he used to be, that he’ll never be a child again. There’s things he’ll never get back. It’s slightly nostalgic, slightly bitter, and it seeps through his thoughts and colours the way he sees everything around him.

His mum notices. He knows she does. Everyone else– he’s not so sure. Because he doesn’t know if he sees his old friend enough for them to notice something off about him, and his new friends– well, they don’t really know him all that much yet, do they?

(Louis would have noticed. Louis always noticed.)

But it’s a nice distraction being around them all the same – Eve is hilarious, Erin is shy and lovely, he and Mark seem to be on the same wavelength a lot of the time. Chloe is one of the people he feels the most comfortable around at this point, and together with Elle and Damien and Josh they make a group that’s fun and light and easy to get caught up in. And it’s nice to swap banter; it’s nice to be around people that make him laugh and make him feel like he’s a part of something. On some days, it almost feels like a relief.

And it means he can do what he never did over the summer – he can go out with them, forget everything that’s going on and get absolutely smashed.

Harry knows he’s a happy drunk. He’s a lightweight too, which means that, one or two drinks in, his veins will be buzzing and his head will feel bubbly. He knows it’s not real happiness, he knows that when he comes down from it he’ll feel terrible, but he’ll take what he can get anyway. There’s not much of a nightlife around here, but they don’t need it. They make do with the less frequented parks in Northwich and Chloe’s basement when her parents are out. It feels good to loosen his thoughts, to stop them from going in the same patterns they always do; it feels good to let go.

It’s a cold clear night in late October when Harry finds himself more than a little bit tipsy and holding on to Chloe as they make their way down a deserted street. Harry has no clue what time it is and doesn’t particularly mind. The wind is icy, snapping around their ankles. Harry wonders if it could trip them up, and holds on to Chloe tighter, just in case. Her purple hair brushes against his face. It tickles.

Suddenly, a thought pops into his head and his face snaps up, his nose almost whacking Chloe in the face. “Where’d everyone go?” He whips his head around, trying to look for them, but stops when everything starts spinning a bit too fast.

“Stop doing that,” Chloe giggles. “You’re getting hair in my mouth.” Then, she seems to realize he’s asked her a question. “They went home, remember?”

Harry furrows his brow. Yes, he thinks he might recall that. “So where are we going, then?”

“You’re sleeping over at mine,” she tells him. Oh. Right. He does remember that. They walk in silence for a moment, Harry concentrating hard to make sure he’s going in a straight line. A thought appears. “Will Elle be there? Am I gonna have to watch you all over each other again?” They’re cute and all, but Harry doesn’t like being with them sometimes, because it reminds him that he has no one he can hold hands with and no one to give him a kiss when he asks for it. Not anymore.

He’s a bit startled when Chloe laughs. “Oh my God. You really are out of it, aren’t you?” Harry’s confused for a moment. Is she laughing at him? “Elle isn’t here this weekend. I told you that. She hasn’t been here all day, remember?” Oh. That’s right. That’s what Chloe’s spent the whole night whining about. Harry’s about to open his mouth to tell her that yes, he remembers, but she doesn’t look like she’s paying attention to him anymore. “I wish she was here,” she mumbles, so quietly Harry struggles to make the words out. He glances at her and finds she’s staring straight ahead, eyes vaguely unfocused. Suddenly, she’s clutching onto Harry tighter, leaning on him. It knocks Harry’s balance off, and for a moment Harry’s convinced they’re both going to go crashing to the ground. Thankfully, all they do is stumble a bit.

“Chlo?” Harry says tentatively, the word sounding a bit fuzzy.

Chloe sighs. “I just love her so much, Harry,” she whispers like she’s telling him a huge secret. She nuzzles her head into his shoulder, and Harry puts an arm around her shoulders. There’s a strange feeling stirring inside him, and he suddenly feels a lot more grounded. “So so much,” Chloe continues. “You think she knows that?”

“I think she does,” Harry says. The words leave his mouth without even having to think about them. “I think you should tell her, though.”

Chloe tilts her head up to look at him. “You think so?” she asks like she’s startled. Harry nods, and she nods back seriously. Then, quietly, like an afterthought, she asks, “You ever been in love, Haz?”

Harry swallows.

He could say anything. He could say no or he could make something up. He could brush it off and make a joke out of it, but when he casts around for the words he finds nothing.

“Yeah,” he says. The word feels heavy, and acknowledging it makes everything a little bit serious, a little bit sad. “Yeah, I have.”

Chloe blinks at him. Harry notices it only vaguely. “Yeah? What happened?” Harry wants to ask her how she knows it turned out badly, but then realizes it might not be that difficult to tell on his face.

“He left,” Harry says simply, and the words sound so bitter and so real that it takes a moment for his brain to catch up with what he’s actually said. It echoes in his mind. His heartbeat picks up.

For a moment, neither of them speaks, and there’s silence except for the sound of their footsteps on the pavement.

Then, softly, Chloe says, “He?” Harry looks down at her, his cheeks heating up involuntarily. Her face looks perfectly neutral, just slightly curious, and Harry thinks why the fuck not even though his heartbeat is skyrocketing. He gives a nod, just a tiny one, but he thinks he sees something spark in Chloe’s eyes all the same. “Girls and guys or just guys?”

Harry swallows. “Um.” His heart thuds against his ribs. “Um, the second one.”

Chloe just look at him, and there’s a moment of sheer involuntary terror – but then a tiny smile appears at the edges of her lips and it grows and grows until she’s smiling ear-to-ear. “Knew it,” she says triumphantly, and presses a sloppy kiss to his cheek; when she drags him to a stop and hugs him hard Harry feels like, for the first time, he can breathe properly.

*

The world doesn’t tilt on its axis. (The world never really does tilt on its axis when he thinks it’s going to, does it?)

The thing is, Harry never really considered what would change once he told somebody, because he never envisioned himself telling someone at all. Because – and Harry can admit this to himself now – because he never really acknowledged that was something that was there, did he? It was just something that he didn’t need to think about, something– something that wasn’t a part of him. That wasn’t who he was.

It is. Harry can see that now. It is. It matters.

Putting a name on it is tentative at first. He keeps going back to what Chloe said. Just guys. Why didn’t he even hesitate before saying yes? It’d be easy to chalk it up to the fact that he was drunk, but– but it feels uncomfortable somehow. Who’s he trying to fool? Why can’t he seem to stop lying to himself?

He recalls the smile on Chloe’s face when he told her and tries to breathe. It’s okay. It doesn’t matter if this is who he is. It’s okay.

The first time he allows himself to think the word gay, he recoils against it immediately. There’s a moment of overwhelming terror before he forces himself to think about it logically. Okay. Okay. One step at a time. He banishes all thoughts of who he imagines himself marrying and tries again.

Is he into guys? The first thing that comes to mind is Louis. There’s a wrench in his gut. He pushes it away. Is he into guys that are not Louis? He recalls the feeling of a flat chest under his fingers, the weight of a cock in his mouth, and a thrill runs down his spine. He thinks of the first time Mark smiled at him, of the fluttering in his stomach whenever he catches the eye of the cute guy who’s on his bus every morning. He thinks of all of it and lets it sink in, lets it settle.

He’s into guys. He’s into guys, it’s nothing new, and it’s okay.

But then the hard question comes– is he into girls?

He doesn’t answer it right away. It lingers in the back of his mind, and as it does, he lets himself observe. He pays extra attention to the girls at school, tries to imagine what it’d be like to kiss them and doesn’t quite manage it. He hangs out with his mates from Holmes Chapel and listens to them talk about which girls they’d fuck. (Harry privately thinks that it’s all a bit cringey.) And he looks up porn and examines it thoughtfully, taking extra care to focus on the girl, and the fact that it takes him a good long while to get hard brings up a small stab of panic in his stomach. Harry tries his best to stifle it.

Deep down, he knows, and when he lets himself think about it properly it almost feels like he always has.

He doesn’t think the word yet. He can’t do that. But he goes over the conversation with Chloe yet again – just guys – and he knows it to be true, knows it with unshakeable certainty. It doesn’t have to change who he is; Harry knows that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a part of him, and if it is– if it is and it’s been there all along, it means he can live with it.

It doesn’t make it any less terrifying, but despite everything, Harry feels like something inside him is falling into place.

*

It’s not a huge life-changing realization, but things are different after it.

It’s different because he knows. It’s different because none of the people around him do. (Or do they? Harry can’t quite shake off Chloe’s knew it.) It’s different because he has no clue how any of them would react if they did know. What would his teachers think? Would guys be more careful when they talked to him? Would any of them avoid him altogether? It’s too many questions he has no answer to.

And at the same time, there’s the small things that were there before, but that were never this stinging – it’s a no homo passed between his mates in the village, a so gay overheard in the school hallways. It’s a friend of the family asking whether there’s a girl in the picture yet or being asked what he likes in a girl by josh at the lunch table and doing his best to keep his answer gender-neutral. But he can feel Chloe’s eyes on him, and when he turns around to face her, her face is full of understanding. There’s no trace of judgement on it, no accusation that he’s hiding who he is. It makes Harry breathe easier; it relieves some of the crushing pressure. Harry shoots a tiny grateful smile at her and hopes she understands.

Because he’s not alone in this. Because someone knows, and it’s someone who understands it perfectly. When they’re alone, he confesses to her that he’s only just figured this out, that he’s not sure if he wants anyone to know yet, and she nods seriously. “Don’t worry,” she tells him, “it took me ages to admit it to myself, let alone tell anyone else, you know?” Harry just blinks at her and hugs her on impulse until she’s laughing and telling him to put her down. And it sort of becomes a thing after that, Harry going to her with something he’s scared about or not sure of; and even the times where she can’t solve it, there’s something about saying it out loud and having someone listen that’s an immense relief. Harry wonders how he’d have managed without her.

(He wonders why he never let himself think about this when Louis was around. He wonders what would have happened if he had. Would Louis have been willing to talk about it? Would he have just avoided the subject? Even now, Harry doesn’t have an answer.)

It goes on. Harry feels more comfortable in his own skin than he’s done in ages. He feels older, somehow, and where before it’d have felt like a bad thing, now it’s just… interesting. He’ll never see Louis again. He’ll never do magic again. He’s into guys. It feels important, all of it, even if some of it is scary and exciting and some of it is old, dull hurt. He lets his hair grow out and finds out it’s curly now rather than just wavy. He buys skinnier jeans and doesn’t even blush when Chloe teases him about it. He notices he’s smiling more and thinking less about what he’s doing; he lets himself get carried away with whatever’s going on and doesn’t think about what it’ll mean or how other people will see him. When he first thinks the words I’m happy they shock him for a moment – before he realizes that they’re absolutely true.

*

The first weekend in December, a girl called Shireen in his Photography class organizes a party. Her parents are out, apparently, and she wants to get as many people to come as possible. “Just bring whoever,” she tells Harry when she’s inviting him, “my brother bought enough booze to get a herd of cows drunk, and I was thinking I want to meet some new people anyway.”

Harry obliges, of course, and that’s how he ends up showing up at Shireen’s house with his entire group of friends in tow. Shireen looks ever so slightly tipsy as she opens the door and waves them all in with a grin. Harry smacks a kiss on her cheek as he walks in, and she just laughs and swats him away.

It’s easy to get caught up in the party, especially as Harry gets progressively tipsier. There are enough people he knows here for him to be comfortable, but enough people he doesn’t know for it to be interesting; he sticks with his friends at first, but before he knows it he’s drifted away somehow and is dancing, ridiculously over-the-top, with a group of girls from his Photography class. Harry mixes himself another fruit-juice-and-vodka concoction (which tastes a bit gross, but does its job of getting him drunk nicely enough) and mingles. Everyone’s so nice. The alcohol makes everything brighter, more vivid, and even though it’s hard to focus sometimes he laughs a lot and hugs a lot people he barely knows but that are very nice huggers.

His coordination isn’t the best on a regular day, let alone when his head is swimming, so of course he manages to trip on every single object that gets in his way, inanimate or not. He’s laughing at something this one dark-haired girl said when it happens again, shit, his balance getting all wobbly and being unable to stop himself from toppling into the nearest object, which is– oh. Right. It’s a person.

“Whoops,” Harry says cheerfully, taking an unsteady step back. His eyes flick up to the person’s face. “Hi,” he says with an automatic grin. The boy is taller than him, with eyes that seem to shimmer. After a moment, Harry suddenly remembers that he fell on him, and his brain starts working again. “Um. Sorry about that. I might be a bit tipsy.” He can’t stop the smile from spreading across his face again, though, because it’s funny.

The boy seems to think so too, fortunately enough. “Hey, at least you didn’t spill anything on me.” For some vague reason, Harry waggles his eyebrows ridiculously. The boy just laughs. “Have I seen you around?”

Harry blinks at him. “Maybe,” he says. He doesn’t mean to look the boy up and down like he does, but it comes out like that anyway. “Actually, I don’t know. I think I’d remember.” He feels his own smile grow a little bit wider.

The boy’s looking at him in a way that’s just the slightest bit odd, but he looks amused, so Harry doesn’t bother figuring it out. “Really? Why’s that?”

Harry shrugs. “Dunno. I think you’re just, like… remembrable.”

The boy laughs. Maybe he’s realized that remembrable isn’t a word. “Very flattered. I’m Eric.” His eyes crinkle the slightest bit at the corners when he smiles at Harry. Harry feels warm, and he’s not sure it’s from the booze.

“I’m Harry,” he says, sticking his chin out. Eric nods mock-seriously. “Wanna get another drink?” Harry says, and turns on his heel and heads off to the kitchen without looking back. He’s pleased to hear Eric’s footsteps behind him.

He likes Eric, Harry decides soon enough. He’s nice and he’s easy to talk to and he doesn’t groan at Harry when he makes puns. (It turns out he’s Shireen’s cousin, so no, Harry hadn’t seen him before.) He likes that when Eric’s talking to him it’s like he’s really, really focused; like out of all the things going on around them, he’s only paying attention to Harry. Harry finds himself leaning closer, wanting to catch every word. Eric’s eyes seem to shimmer more brightly when he does.

Harry should tell him that. “Why do your eyes sparkle?” is what comes out of his mouth instead. Close enough.

Eric looks sideways at him. They’re both leaning up against, presumably, Shireen’s living room wall; they’re side-to-side, shoulders almost touching. Harry wonders what would happen if he nudged closer. Eric looks very, very amused, and Harry’s about to indignantly ask why when Eric says, “You think my eyes sparkle?”

Right. Harry’d forgotten he’d asked. He squints at Eric. “Well, now you mention it, I’m not quite sure,” he says, with as solemn an expression as he can manage. “I’m gonna have to look closer.” He does it without thinking twice, turning to face Eric fully, peering up into his eyes, their noses almost touching. “Hmm,” Harry mumbles. He’s not really registering what’s coming out of his mouth. “Think it might just have been a trick of the light.” He doesn’t pull back.

He’s suddenly very, very aware that Eric’s lips are ever so slightly parted, and that Harry can feel Eric’s breath against his own mouth.

His heart jolts, kicking into action. It sounds deafening inside his own ears. Surely Eric will be able to hear it? Neither of them moves, and through the haze in Harry’s brain, it feels important. A memory flickers through Harry’s mind: years ago, a different house, a different party, but with Dan up close like this, Dan about to kiss him. The thought make shim bite down on his lip. Almost in slow motion, Eric’s eyes follow the movement and stay there.

A shiver runs down Harry’s spine, and he fights the urge to shudder.

Eric blinks at him. Harry thinks, dimly, that from this close he can tell apart every one of his eyelashes. The movement – even though it’s something as tiny as a blink – is startling. It makes Harry consider the possibility that Eric might move away. Harry doesn’t want him to.

Slowly, gently, Harry lifts a hand up and rests it on Eric’s wrist. Eric stays completely still as Harry’s fingers circle his wrist, running over the bones there. The room spins around them, but Harry focuses on this and feels steady. For a terrifying moment, he thinks Eric’s going to pull away – but then he leans in closer instead. Harry lets out a shaky breath. Relief and nerves flood his stomach, both of them at once. Impossibly, his heart beats louder.

Then Eric’s hand comes up to rest on the side of his neck, a thumb brushing over the corner of Harry’s lip, and Harry can’t stop the shudder this time.

Even in this state, he knows what’s going to happen. His skin prickles with it. There are people all around them, of course there are, people who don’t know, but Eric’s hand feels hot on his skin and his eyes are fixed straight on Harry and it doesn’t matter.

Harry doesn’t stop to brace himself before leaning in.

It’s immediate, the press of Eric’s lips on his, the way he’s kissing back. Harry closed his eyes at some point, so there’s nothing to focus on but this – the wet warmth of Eric’s mouth, his fingertips firm on Harry’s skin, their chests somehow aligned, pressed together. Harry opens his mouth and lets Eric’s tongue slip inside. He doesn’t think about how the smell is unfamiliar, how the fingers that are tangling in his hair feel much too hesitant. He just lets the fuzziness in his head take over as he kisses Eric like they’re alone, like there’s no before at all and certainly no after, and by the time they draw apart Harry’s head is spinning in an entirely different way.

He stays close, pressing his forehead against Eric’s temple, and looks at him until the shape of him gets blurry. “That was nice,” he mumbles. Eric grins at him and his fingers, gently, untangle from Harry’s hair. Harry closes his eyes, moves in again, and ignores the weight of all the pairs of eyes he knows are on them.

*

It spreads.

It spreads, and Harry knows it. Even though barely anyone asks him outright, he sees it in the sideways glances he gets: they’re not wary like he’d irrationally feared, just… curious. The girl who sits next to him in Psychology asks him if he thinks Mr. James is fit. (Harry says yes.) A guy called Oliver he’s more or less friends with casually asks him if he and Shireen’s cousin are a thing. (Harry says no, because that ends up not lasting more than a week or so and not going much further than a couple of handjobs.)

His friends, who Chloe claims witnessed the entire thing, mostly react with amusement or get vaguely offended (“you could have told us, mate, you know that,” Josh tells him in a weirdly earnest way). And– and people know now, they know when they walk past him in the hallway or when they see him talk to another guy. They know, and the vast majority of them act like it doesn’t even make a difference. By the time the novelty’s worn off, no one really cares anymore.

They know. They see him as he is. Harry doesn’t know if he’s ever felt this overwhelmingly free.

*

Harry stretches out on the bed and feels Chloe’s disapproving gaze even through his closed eyelids. He opens them slowly and grins to himself when he’s proved absolutely right. “That’s my bed,” she says, “and I know you’re going through a growth spurt, Harry Styles, but please stop taking up all the space.”

Harry just grins wider. Chloe sighs and plops down on the bed. “I was supposed to set up an extra bed for you, you know.” They’ve been working on a Sociology project at Chloe’s house, and none of the parents involved had any objections to letting him stay the night.

“Tell your parents they don’t have to worry about me impregnating you,” Harry tells her.

She punches him in the arm. It’s not a hard punch. “I think they already know that, asshole.”

Harry pouts at her and spreads his arms. “Come on. Come cuddle.” She makes a show of rolling her eyes and shoving him aside to make room, but settles down beside him and snuggles into his side all the same. Harry tugs the covers over both of them. Chloe’s hair tickles the back of his neck. It’s faded to lilac now; she’ll have to re-dye it again soon. Harry rolls over onto his front and throws an arm over her torso, chasing the body heat. It’s always easier to fall asleep when he has someone beside him.

“Are you coming on to me?” he hears her mumble. Harry laughs quietly into her shoulder.

There’s a moment of comfortable silence. Harry wonders if he should turn the light off. But then Chloe’s speaking again, shifting around so she can look him in the eye. “Hey, I never congratulated you on coming out to half the school and sucking face with a cute guy in the process.”

Harry feels his cheeks flush even as he grins. “Shut up.”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Chloe says. “What happened to him, anyway? Haven’t seen much of him around.”

Harry half-shrugs. “Dunno. Apparently the chemistry there had a lot to do with the booze.” It’s not a lie. Things weren’t quite so nice when they met up later and both of them were sober. But perhaps it’s not the whole truth, either; perhaps it also had something to do with the fact that there was something missing, something not quite right. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Eric wasn’t Louis.

The thought is uneasy; it feels like unearthing something that’s been locked away for too long.

When he glances at Chloe’s face, she doesn’t look entirely convinced. Harry scrambles to think of a better excuse and comes up with nothing. But she doesn’t push it; instead, she rolls over onto her back and stares at the ceiling thoughtfully. A moment passes. “You know Mark’s really into you, right?” she asks.

Surprise dispels Harry’s thoughts. “He is?”

Chloe’s eyes widen as she looks at him. “You didn’t know?”

“How was I supposed to know?” Harry fires back.

Chloe fixes him with a Look. “Harry, I assumed you were less thick.” Harry blinks, still too shocked to protest. “I mean, I haven’t talked to him, you know? He hasn’t told me anything about being, whatever, not straight. But you should have seen the look on his face when you were snogging Eric.”

“What look?” Harry demands. Chloe looks at him like the question is too obvious to answer, and Harry sighs in defeat. Mark. Well. He tries not to consider it, but he can’t stop himself from recalling Mark smiling at him, Mark absently dragging a thumb over his own bottom lip, the line of Mark’s shoulders from behind. The way his heart speeds up mixes strangely with the unexplained dread that pools in his stomach.

Chloe’s voice snaps him out of his thoughts. “Harry?” The word is soft, softer than usual. There’s a moment where she doesn’t seem quite sure of what she’s going to say. “Remember when you told me you used to be in love with someone?” Harry nods wordlessly. “Are you still hung up over him?”

Harry blinks in surprise. Hearing the words come from Chloe’s mouth is slightly surreal; Louis doesn’t belong here, doesn’t belong in this part of his life. The uneasiness from earlier intensifies. He doesn’t know if he can talk about Louis. What’s he going to tell her?

Are you still hung up over him?

God, he’s in love with Louis. He doesn’t think he’ll ever stop being in love with Louis. (It’s been months, and the thought still feels like a punch to the stomach.) But – has he accepted it? Is he ready to let go? Harry doesn’t know how to answer that.

“I’m not sure,” he tells Chloe quietly, and his voice sounds less sure than he’d like it to.

Chloe doesn’t say anything, just holds him closer. Her skin is warm, but Harry somehow feels like it’s not warm enough. He’s not– he refuses to cry about this. He blinks hard, and if Chloe notices she doesn’t say anything.

He considers telling her about Louis. He can’t, of course, not without explaining the whole bizarre thing – how’s he going to tell her the person he was in love with was actually a star? But the desire to tell builds up inside him until his chest feels tight from holding it all in. How many people does he not keep secrets from? How many things does he have inside him that no one’s heard about?

He doesn’t register the decision to start talking.

“Chlo,” he says, and Chloe’s face comes up to look at him instantly. “You ever heard about those kids that could, like, change things with their minds?”

A tiny crease forms between Chloe’s eyebrows. “I think I might have. Like, those people that could do this weird sort of magic? Why?”

Harry clears his throat awkwardly. “Um. I was one of those.”

Chloe’s eyes widen a bit in surprise. Harry feels oddly self-conscious. “You mean you can do magic and you’ve been keeping it from me?”

There’s a weight in Harry’s stomach suddenly. Another reminder of what he’s lost. Chloe must see something on his face, because her expression immediately smoothes over, becomes serious again. “Not really,” Harry says, and even saying it out loud makes him want to curl up and hide from the world. “I mean, the thing with this is that they don’t really know much about it? But apparently when a kid gets older it’s really common for it to disappear, so, you know.” He darts a glance at Chloe’s face. “Not anymore.”

There it is. He’s known for months, he’s had time to accept it, but saying it out loud still feels deathly final. He fights the emotion choking him up, clogging up his throat. “Just wanted you to know,” he manages.

For a moment, and probably for the first time that Harry’s witnessed, Chloe seems at a loss. Her eyes are wide, though, like she gets it, gets just what this means to Harry. Harry buries his face in her shoulder again so she won’t have to say anything, and they stay there for a while. Harry screws his eyes shut and breathes her in. Her smell has become familiar now, and it helps calm him down; he takes deep breaths until it’s all gone away, until he feels like he can function, and he doesn’t let go.

“Thanks for telling me,” he hears Chloe mumble somewhere near his ear, and he huffs out a watery laugh.

“Thanks for listening,” he tells her, and he thinks he understands what she’s trying to say when all she does is squeeze him a bit tighter.

The pressure on his chest has gone now. The weight in his stomach is there, but fading. It’s strangely soothing to know that someone else knows too; not every part of it, perhaps, but it’s not just his anymore. He’s not alone. Chloe runs her fingers along his scalp, and he shifts into it. Maybe not everything is okay yet, but as he feels the warmth from Chloe’s skin, hears the soft whisper of, “Goodnight, Harry,” as she reaches out to turn the light off, he feels like he’s on his way there.

*

The feeling of relief that comes with confessions lingers in the back of his mind. It’s… liberating, almost. How did he never notice he was keeping all these things a secret? He thinks about the fact that someone apart from his family knows he could do magic, and about the fact that everyone at school knows, and it’s– it’s like letting out a breath that, all this time, he never knew he was holding.

Harry’s a person who thinks about things. He considers them from every angle and he goes over the possible consequences and he worries for days on end; and then, more often than not, by the time he’s meant to act he ditches everything he’s thought about and does what impulse tells him to instead. And perhaps that’s why it happens the way it happens.

Because one afternoon mid-January, when he comes home from college, slips his shoes off and hangs his coat up on the rack, he lifts his head up and his mum is there, watching from the kitchen doorway. Kissing her on the cheek when he comes home is a reflex action; but today he just looks at her for a moment and he doesn’t do it. He takes her in, all of her, the way her hair hangs down and barely brushes her shoulders, the creases that are starting to etch themselves around her eyes and mouth, the gentle smile on her face. He blinks. For a moment, sudden emotion overwhelms him.

So he walks up to her and engulfs her in as big a hug as he can manage, burying his face in her shoulder even though he’s taller than her by now, letting her familiar warmth envelop him. “Hi, mum,” he mumbles, his mouth squished against her shoulder, and she kisses him on the cheek in return.

“What’s all this, then?” she says as she pulls back and looks at him, and a thought appears in Harry’s head, so exciting and terrifying all at once that he follows it without thinking twice.

“Mum?” The word seems too small for what’s going through his head, but he ignores it, ignores everything, even the incessant pounding of his heart against his ribs. “I’m gay.”

It’s out there.

For a moment, Harry feels like the world might stop. There’s his mum, looking at him; there’s his heart in his throat, the feverish nerves that have built up in a second inside his chest. It’s out there. There’s no taking the words back. The word, oh God, the word; the word he’s never used for himself ever, even though saying it out loud has left him no doubt that it fits. Harry blinks, and everything feels like it’s spinning.

Then, his mum is tugging him in again, and as she wraps her arms around him and holds him tight, Harry forgets how to breathe.

“Harry,” she’s saying, and it takes him a moment to process each individual word. “My wonderful boy. I’m so proud of you, darling.” Harry feels his hands start to shake involuntarily, feels his eyes itch with something he can’t control. “I’m so proud of you. I always have been and I always will be. You know that, don’t you, love?”

For a moment, Harry forgets how words work. “It’s okay?” he manages to choke out, and his mum squeezes him like what he’s said is completely out of the question. “Of course it’s okay, baby.” She kisses his hair once. “Of course. I love you for being the boy that you are, and I love whatever’s a part of that, understand? I’m so glad you decided to let me know.” And she holds Harry as he sniffles into her shoulder, not even trying to hide it; she sways them back and forth like she used to do when he was little and he wouldn’t stop crying. It’s soothing and it’s peaceful. Harry feels as airy as a cloud.

When the tears stop, he pulls away to face his mum properly, and the look on her face is almost enough to make him start crying again.

“I was in love with Louis,” he blurts out instead, because if he’s letting this go he’s letting go of all of it and also because why not. This is different. This is something he’s said out loud before and something he’s been certain of for months. It doesn’t stop a tiny bubble of trepidation from blossoming in his stomach, but it’s enough to make him clamp down on it.

His mum just smiles, looking so very wise. “I know you were.”

Harry blinks. “You do?”

His mum hasn’t let go of him yet. Her hand traces little circles against the back of his arm. “Harry,” she says, her voice soft, “when you feel something, you throw yourself into it. You love with every part of yourself. It’s hard not to notice.” Her eyes feel like they can see straight through him. “And there’ll be others, you know that? You have so much love to give, darling. Any boy would be lucky to have you.” Her eyes are unbelievably fond. Harry lets the words sink in. They make him feel warm down to his toes.

His mum looks at him with a hint of curiosity. “Just wondering, though– Louis had something to do with your magic, didn’t he?”

Harry’s momentarily stunned into silence. “What?”

“I don’t know,” she says thoughtfully. “He had an air about him, I think– like he was something a little bit out of the ordinary. Also,” she adds like an afterthought, “there was the fact that he seemed to have no one to live with.”

“You knew that?” Harry gets out. He doesn’t know how he forgets sometimes how incredibly perceptive his mum can be. A little bit out of the ordinary. He’d never have guessed.

“I knew him for eight years, love,” she says, “and in all that time, he never mentioned having a family or a house. Not once. Why do you think I let him stay over as often as I did?”

And they thought they were being sneaky. For a fleeting instant, Harry wants to have Louis in front of him; wants to tell him look at this, oh my God, we thought we were fooling her. But, of course, he’s never going to have Louis in front of him again. It stings even now.

“He was a star,” he says quietly. The words feel too improbably and too real all at once. “He was a star and my magic brought him here. He never belonged here in the first place.” His throat closes up. “That’s why he left.”

His mum’s eyes are wide; a little incredulous, maybe, but not disbelieving. “A star?” she says softly, like she wants Harry to confirm it. Harry nods. “God, Harry, when they told me my son could do magic I thought anything was possible, but– a star,” she repeats to herself, her tone marvelling. It’s beautiful to hear, and also so incredibly sad. Her eyes fix on Harry again, and there’s a spark of curiosity in them. “Are you sure about this? Is this why you were scared he wasn’t real when you were little?” Another thought seems to occur to her. “Is that why you said you could see him glow?”

The question throws Harry off guard. He didn’t even remember telling her that. “I saw him glow, mum,” he says. “Every time I looked at him. Right until he left.” The image of Louis at the window, Louis disappearing, is unbearably clear in Harry’s mind. “It was just like– this golden light on his skin, like it was coming right out of it, you know? It changed with his mood, but it never went away. I’ve never seen anything like it.” For a second, Harry misses him so much his chest aches with it. “It’s what he was. There’s no other explanation. He was– he was too much to just be a person.”

His mum just looks at him unblinkingly for a moment. “I think I know what you mean,” she says, softly. “I just wonder why no one but you could see him glow.” There’s a moment of silence, and she seems to shake herself. “Thank you for telling me this, darling. All of it.” I did it for me as much as I did it for you, Harry could say, but he keeps quiet. “Please remember what I told you,” she continues. Her tone is soft, and her eyes are gentle. “You have so much love to give, baby. There’ll be others, just you wait and see, and– and it might be different, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be just as good.”

Harry lets himself believe it.

So he holds his mum close one last time and gives her a kiss on the cheek as he pulls away, and it’s like whatever was weighing him down has melted away without him even noticing. He fills his lungs with as much air as they’ll hold, aware of his mum’s steady gaze on him, and lets it out all at once. It rushes up his throat, out through his nose and mouth. It feels like relief. It feels like growing up.

*

For his seventeenth birthday, Chloe gets him a bracelet made out of rainbow beads. She winks at him as he opens it (“I’m just trying to help you get laid, mate”) but Harry thinks back to the rainbow patch on her school bag, how she’s changed her bag since Harry met her but sewed the patch onto the new one all the same, and knows she understands what it really means.

He slips it on his wrist straight away. It feels like it’s burning at first, like everyone’s eyes are on him, looking at it and knowing and mistrusting; but it gets easier not to care, and when the cute boy on Harry’s bus looks at Harry’s wrist for a moment before purposefully looking him up and down, the way his chest bubbles with excitement is worth all the rest.

*

You know Mark’s really into you, right?

Ever since Chloe said it it’s been floating around the back of his mind; and somehow, the more time goes by, the more insistent it becomes. Mark’s into Harry. Mark’s into Harry? Harry tries to reason with himself that maybe Chloe pulled the whole thing out of her arse, that it was just what she’d thought from looking at him, that it doesn’t need to mean anything– but then he’ll somehow get sidetracked by the way Mark’s eyes glint as he leans in to tell Harry something and Harry’ll have to remind himself all over again.

He can’t stop himself from watching, though. He can’t stop himself from stealing tiny glances at Mark out of the corner of his eye to try and check if what Chloe said was true, because– what if what if what if.

Mark is cute. Logically, Harry knows this. He has a lovely jaw, his hands are graceful and smooth, his eyes are brown and wide and look like they belong to someone you can immediately trust. But¬– but God, the thing is that he’s wonderful too, he’s caring and smart and has these bouts of weird humour that seem to come out of nowhere and make Harry laugh until he’s breathless. How’s he supposed to deal with all of it at once? He can snog Eric knowing it’s likely they won’t see each other again. He can ogle the cute guy on the bus because it’s not like there’s a possibility there. But Mark is a person he knows, someone he’s close to. Mark is– Mark is someone he can’t just fool around with and pretend nothing happened afterwards. There’s something there.

Harry doesn’t know, exactly, what that something is, but it’s enough to make him panic and consider avoiding Mark altogether. (Which he doesn’t do. Of course.)

So– so it’s how things are now, stuck in a vague sort of limbo, none of them making a move but none of them pulling away. Harry can’t bring himself to do either. He settles for watching Mark out of the corner of his eye when he thinks Mark isn’t watching, for locking eyes with him across a room only to look away hurriedly, and it’s enough for now. Chloe’s noticed if no one else has. Harry can see it in the pointed looks she shoots him sometimes, and he ignores every single one of them.

He can’t talk to her about this, can he? There’s something else she said that echoes in his mind. Are you still hung up about him? Because– because what if he tells her everything that’s going on in his mind and she figures out what he can’t figure out himself? He knows why he’s scared of getting into anything with Mark. He knows why things with Eric never really worked out. But– but he doesn’t want Chloe to know that, doesn’t want her to tell him that he’s never going to be able to care properly about someone who isn’t Louis. He doesn’t want his fears to be proved right.

So he gravitates towards Mark and he waits, even though he’s not exactly sure what he’s waiting for.

*

It happens at some point in March.

There’s not even any alcohol involved. There’s no logical reason why Harry lets it happen. It’s like this: Mark suggests hanging out together Friday after school, Harry manages to convince himself that he means it as a totally platonic friends’ afternoon, and it’s not even mid-afternoon before they’re already kissing on a park bench. Mark is as nice a kisser as Harry imagined, and Harry’s lips feel all tingly after.

He kisses Mark goodbye when he gets on the last bus to Holmes Chapel, and Mark kisses him back and suggests they should hang out some more with a half-smile on his face. As Harry plonks down on a bus seat and twists his neck around to watch Mark get tinier and tinier the further away the bus gets, he can’t for the life of him remember what he was so scared of.

*

Harry’s had a lot of firsts in his life.

He’s a seventeen-year-old boy; of course he has. He’s had first words, first steps, first days of school and first teeth falling out; first jobs and first dates; first crushes, first kisses, first orgasms. He can’t remember all of them, but he knows they’re there. And, the thing is– there aren’t a lot of firsts that aren’t intrinsically tied up with Louis.

And even with all the firsts he’s had, he’s never had a first boyfriend.

He’s had girlfriends, but that’s not even remotely the same thing, is it? Not when he knows what he didn’t know about himself before. Being someone’s boyfriend was a strange enough thing to get used to; but having a beautiful boy he can kiss and hold hands with and touch whenever he wants and being able to call him his boyfriend makes Harry feel like a giggly fourteen-year-old. He doesn’t particularly mind.

Because being friends with Mark was lovely, but being his boyfriend is a thousand times better. He looks at Harry like he’s the only thing that matters, and he lets Harry borrow all of his sweaters, and even though Harry doesn’t think he was actually out before this he has no problem holding Harry’s hand as they walk down the street or kissing him in front of whoever happens to be there. It feels daring, but it also feels like freedom. Harry sits on the bus with his head on Mark’s shoulder and can’t even bring himself to worry about whoever might be looking at them.

(Chloe calls them vomit-inducing. Chloe can shut her face.)

“You make me so happy,” Mark mumbles in the darkness one night Harry’s staying over. (Mark had introduced him to his mum as a friend and insists she doesn’t know he’s into guys yet, but the scrutinizing look she gives Harry as soon as she sees him makes him doubt that slightly. She lets them sleep in the same room, though, so Harry doesn’t really mind.) Mark’s lying behind him on the bed, spooning Harry, an arm thrown over Harry’s chest, Harry curled up into it. His breath is warm against Harry’s neck. Harry closes his eyes and feels loved; safe.

“You make me happy too,” he whispers back, and knows Mark is smiling even if he can’t see it. It’s the absolute truth.

Because he is, he’s happy, happier than he can remember being in months, and he doesn’t want anything to ruin that. There are things he doesn’t want to think about. This thing with Mark– it’s like nothing he’s lived before, and it makes him feel like things aren’t spiralling out of control anymore, and– and it’s not fair that Louis gets to mess that up even when he’s not there anymore. Harry won’t let that happen.

So he closes his eyes and lets Mark kiss his ear gently and nudges all thoughts of Louis out of his mind; and, as he drifts off, he’s surprised to find he’s not wishing it was someone else holding him.

*

He doesn’t let go of Louis. Not completely. But the more time he spends with Mark, the more he finds himself putting those memories to rest, completely this time. He can’t remember when he accepted that Louis wasn’t coming back, but the knowledge lives with him, and every day the sting of it is duller. The memory of Louis is like the memory of being younger, of doing magic, of a time when everything was brighter and simpler. It’s blurry at the edges like a fading photograph. Remembering Louis sometimes feels like remembering a dream.

He doesn’t want to spend his life caught up on a dream.

The first time he has sex with Mark, it’s not in Harry’s bed. (Harry, privately, can’t help but be grateful, because even if the memory of Louis is faraway and Mark is immediate and here, he’s not sure what would happen if they were to do it somewhere that has Louis printed on every inch.) They do it on a Friday afternoon where Mark’s mum is out instead. It’s nothing like Harry remembers sex with Louis being like. The logistics are the same, definitely, but– but Harry knows what he’s doing now, isn’t just a terrified fifteen-year-old who’s mostly guided by how much the other person turns him on and what he’s read on the Internet. When he slides his hands under Mark’s shirt, when he strips in front of him, when he rolls the condom onto Mark’s cock, his movements are sure, his hands steady. And God, just the fact that this is a completely different person with a body Harry can discover for the first time feels strangely exciting. He wants to put his hands all over Mark, to learn all the ways to make him shiver and come apart, and Mark touches him with hands that are slightly tentative but that seem to have the same intent.

They have time. Harry knows Mark won’t leave without telling him, won’t hide things from him that Harry will have to figure out on his own. It feels like an anchor; like it’s okay to let himself trust.

(Harry doesn’t let himself wonder whether he loves Mark or not. It doesn’t feel like he needs to. He lets himself enjoy the tingly feeling whenever Mark touches him, the warmth in his stomach when he glances at Mark and sees him already looking his way, and it’s enough. Worrying has no place here. Whatever happens will happen, and it’ll be okay either way.)

*

Spring fades and summer comes in. Harry takes his AS Levels and comes out of them fairly certain that he’s done okay. June comes around, college ends for the summer, and Harry and Mark break up around the same time Chloe and Elle do.

It’s mutual. Because at some point it stops being quite what is was: Harry’s convinced it’s in his head at first, but as time goes on and the only thing they seem to do is drift further apart, it becomes apparent that it’s something Mark’s aware of, too. They don’t talk as much and they don’t kiss as much and they definitely don’t do things like stay up past midnight texting anymore; when school ends and they stop seeing each other every day, Harry knows it’s no use trying to hold on to it, that sooner or later it’ll fizzle out. They have the talk at the beginning of July, and even though it’s supposed to be a friendly breakup Harry still goes home that night and sobs into the pillow until he passes out.

(Chloe and Elle’s breakup happens around the same time, but the way it does is radically different. It’s not on good terms. Chloe tells him, after, that they were constantly fighting and making each other’s lives miserable; she tells it like a breakup was the only way to solve it, but Harry doesn’t miss the hint of what if in her voice, and he understands. She doesn’t put up walls when she tells him. She just tells it like it is, all the hurt left bare on her face, enough that Harry knows it must be tearing her up inside. He knows this is Chloe letting him in, and he knows it to be rare enough that he’s grateful.)

Breaking up with Mark is different to what it was like when Louis left. It’s only logical, isn’t it? No part of being with Mark was like what he had with Louis. Louis was all but torn out of his life, and ending it with Mark feels like another step forward, a natural progression of things. He can accept that and still acknowledge it hurts. Because it hurts, there’s no denying it; it’s not quite so visceral, not quite so deep, but it’s still sharp and stinging and bitter to have lost something that made him so, so happy.

It fades. Of course it fades. He tells his mum and has a cry about it on her shoulder; he goes over to Chloe’s house and they do nothing but wallow and feel sorry for themselves. Each of those things seems to smooth it over slightly, to dull the edge. When he realizes that means he’s moving on, it’s an unexpected bubble of hope in his chest.

And he does move on. He stops wishing there was someone beside him when he goes to bed, he stops missing the way Mark’s eyes crinkled up when he smiled at Harry, and he stops feeling like the world has stopped in its tracks. It goes on. Harry goes with it.

*

There are things in Harry’s life that he’s always taken for granted. He supposes it’s just human nature to stop paying attention to things when you’re used to them, that having them fade into the background isn’t on purpose, just something he can’t control. So it’s jarring, really, to suddenly notice them and realize they’re different to what you thought they were.

He never thought it would become something that he could apply to the house he lives in.

He’s not quite sure how it starts. Maybe it’s a moment of realization when he’s having breakfast at the kitchen table, or maybe it’s something that dawns upon him gradually, the idea planting itself into his brain and unfolding little by little. Either way, it comes, and it’s this: he knows this house, but at some point in time, it stopped being his.

He walks through the rooms as if in a daze, looking around at everything, taking it all in like it’s the first time he’s seeing it. Were those shelves on the living room wall always this low? He passes a hand over them and distinctly remembers having to drag over a chair and stand on it every time he wanted to look at what was up there. Were the kitchen walls always off-white? How long have those drawings on the fridge been there for? The felt-tip ink has faded now, the colours barely visible. He drags a hand over the hand rail as he climbs up the stairs, feeling the wood worn smooth beneath his palm, and reflexively ducks when he’s at the point where the ceiling hangs low before realizing that he can’t remember when he started doing that.

All of it is familiar. All of it is home. But, looking at it now, Harry can’t seem to make it all belong to anyone other than a memory of himself.

He pushes his bedroom door open slowly and gets a good look at it for what feels like the first time in years. The posters are a little lopsided, there are pictures tacked on the walls that look like they’re falling off, the bed is unmade and the sheets have a ridiculous teddy bear pattern on them that’s possibly slightly more embarrassing than Harry’d originally thought. (He distinctly remembers blowing Louis on top of those sheets what feels like years ago.) There are books on his bookshelves he doesn’t remember reading. His desk is piled high with all sorts of crap, posters and envelopes and discarded to-do lists and this year’s textbooks. When he glances up, there are glow-in-the-dark stars stuck on his ceiling.

It strikes Harry now that he has no real association with any of these things at all. Who’s to say they belong to him? They belong to a different time: a time when he was fifteen and stupid and had Louis beside him, a time where the future was just a vague far-off thing it didn’t make sense to think about. That’s not who he is anymore. There are parts of that person that still live inside him, but fifteen-year-old Harry is someone that’s never coming back again.

He could keep living in fifteen-year-old Harry’s room, and he chooses not to.

He starts by clearing up everything on his desk, then the drawers, then the bookshelves. He throws away about as much as he keeps. And with every small thing that emerges, every scribbled note or printed-out photo or forgotten relic, it’s like a snapshot from his past is passing in front of his eyes. It’s a past that he recognizes, but can’t make entirely his. And even with the detachment, he finds himself wondering sometimes – did all of this really happen? Has he gone through so much in seventeen years of life? How’s he managed to forget most of it?

He clears out the wardrobe and finds that most of what he used to wear a year ago doesn’t fit him anymore. He sweeps under the bed and finds dust balls, pens, a single discarded condom wrapper. He takes everything down from the walls and surveys the room that suddenly feels so empty– and then he marches out to the one DIY shop in the village, comes back with a paint roller and a tin of green paint and spends the next two days painting the old pale blue of the walls over. When he’s done, it looks like an entirely different room – but Harry feels more present in it that he’s done in months.

(He keeps the stars on his ceiling. They feel like a reminder.)

*

He finds himself looking up at the stars more and more often. It starts as a meaningless habit he develops, looking out the window to watch the sky before going to bed; but he gets annoyed by the street lights eventually because their light blocks out all the stars except for the brightest ones and ends up specifically going out at night to do some stargazing. The spot down by the river, he’s found, is one of the nicest places to do it.

He prints out a star chart and does his best to find the summer constellations. There’s the Big Dipper, like always, and the North Star; Hercules, Draco, Scorpius. He thinks about the fact that even though he can see them, there are stars up there that don’t exist anymore. He looks out at the vastness above him, at the sky that opens into space and out into the void, and feels infinitely tiny. He is momentary. The stars don’t care about his existence.

He wonders where Louis is. He wonders if he’s somewhere on the surface of this Earth or has managed to return to the sky. He imagines him out there, light years away but still looking down on Harry, and a chill runs down his spine that has nothing to do with the night air.

Wherever he is, Harry hopes he’s found himself.

*

He and Mark had talked about going to Leeds Fest in August, and Harry decides that he’s not about to miss out on that just because he broke up with Mark. He drags Chloe and Erin there instead, and it’s three days that will stand out in his mind, later, as one of the highlights of the summer: it’s struggling to put the tent up, it’s sweat and body paint and alcohol stickiness; it’s the music blasting inside his head and buzzing in his veins, it’s dancing until he’s about to collapse from exhaustion. It’s drunk making out with both Chloe and Erin and all three of them giggling like idiots after. It’s the long-haired boy he drags back to the tent only to find Chloe and Erin in there and apparently very busy, and blowing the boy in a clump of trees instead. It’s being alive, It’s making memories to replace the old. Harry doesn’t think he’s ever experienced anything quite like it.

*

At some point between going back to college in September and the UCAS deadline in January, Harry decides he’s not going to uni.

It’s something that’s been on his mind for a while, lingering, untouched, but the buzz of activity that comes with the first term of college makes him consider it seriously for what’s perhaps the first time. Suddenly, there’s courses being considered and applications being written and sent off and open days being booked, and Harry feels a little like he’s lagging behind, like he’s not heading in the same direction that everyone else seems to be.

Why should he go to uni, anyway? What would he even study? Harry picked his A Level subjects purely on the basis of what seemed more interesting, not planning for a specific uni course in any way. The thought of spending three more years as a student is… not daunting, exactly, but it feels like he’d be settling for something, like letting what he’s expected to do get in the way of what he could do. There’s a world of possibility in front of him, and he can’t help but feel that going to uni, in some way, would be like giving it up.

And, gradually, an idea begins to take shape in his mind. He’s hesitant at first, but as he lets himself consider it more and more seriously, it starts taking root. What’s holding him down? What’s stopping him from leaving? Gemma left Holmes Chapel for Birmingham, but– but what’s stopping Harry from taking it further? There’s so much he could experience, so much he could miss out on. He could leave Holmes Chapel behind and he could go anywhere.

The urge to redraw himself, to redefine himself, stirs inside him restlessly.

The first time he looks up train fares to London is also the first time he acknowledges completely that this could become a reality. It’s unsettling, but it also makes a part of him fizz with nervous excitement. This could be real. This could be the future that he’s never quite managed to picture. He could take a train to London, and then… what? It doesn’t have to stop there.

Heart beating fast, he opens a new browser window and searches for train fares from London to Paris. They’re not as expensive as he thought they would be. A sort of recklessness seizes him then, and before he can stop himself he’s looking up all the European cities that can be reached by train from Paris: Amsterdam, Milan, Barcelona, Brussels. A strange, wistful longing buries itself into his chest before he can realize it, and he can’t quite get it to go away: it’s there the next day, it’s there a week on, and it’s there a month later, when he tells his mum for the first time that, just maybe, this is something he could do.

It’s decided by the end of the year. Come August, he’s taking a train to Paris and seeing where he ends up. There’s no mention of permanence, of course, but there’s no mention of coming back to Holmes Chapel either. He could do it a month after leaving, two months, half a year. Harry doesn’t let himself consider the possibility that he might not come back at all. Not yet.

*

Winter turns into spring; spring fades away into the earliest hints of summer.

The months feel like they’re going by unsettlingly fast. Routine drags Harry down, and by the time he looks around him and realizes how much time has passed it’s invariably a shock. August still feels faraway, but sometimes the irrational terror of leaving home seizes him, and then it feels like August is looming over him, immediate and present and very much real.

Because it is real. Harry’s made his choice already. The UCAS deadlines come and go, and he pays them no mind. It’s like he’s holding his breath, like he’s living these last months here with the perpetual feeling that his life is on hold.

And, unconsciously, he begins to say goodbye.

It’s like all of a sudden he’s aware of the fact that everything around him is temporary. Putting a limit on it all, a precise time constraint, brings about the painful realization that there’ll be a time – and that time will be soon – where he won’t have any of it anymore. How much time does he have left to live in the house that has been his home for the past eighteen years? How many weeks does he have left of waking up in his own bed in the morning, of looking around and knowing that everything he sees around him is familiar and unchanging? How long does he have left until he won’t see his mum every day anymore? When he leaves, how often will he get to see Gemma? It’s questions that he has no clear answer for. They hide in his chest and make it ache with quiet nostalgia.

He turns eighteen and throws a party that leaves a good part of the house looking like a wreck the morning after. He starts working at the bakery again, on the weekends too now, and adds the money to his trip savings. He starts telling people he’s leaving, with reactions that range from, “Can I come with?” to “You’re insane.” (Chloe says she won’t miss him at all in a tone that says that she absolutely will.) He officially comes out to his extended family, even though for the last couple of months he’s been wearing the rainbow bracelet to the occasional family dinner and he knows that all of them have noticed.

He doesn’t date, exactly. There’s boys he hooks up with, and one or two of the hookups evolve into something semi-steady that both parties involved know won’t last for very long. There’s nothing as serious as what he had with Mark, and privately, Harry is grateful. He doesn’t need anyone else to say goodbye to.

After his A Levels are done for good, he dimly realizes it’s been two years since he last saw Louis. Putting a number on it feels odd somehow. It’s like his years with Louis exist now only in some kind of dream-like space in his head – the memories feel timeless, like they’re not completely real. He looks back and he misses it, but he knows how to keep his distance now, knows how to remember it in a way that’s only nostalgic, not painful. When summer comes around, he picks up his old habit of stargazing with surprising ease.

Come July, he starts thinking of everything around him with a finality that he’d expected, but that still catches him slightly off guard. There’s sadness in it, of course there is, but buried beneath the sadness is the thrill of new beginnings; he seeks it out and holds on to it, and it gets him through the last weeks without so much as a tear for what he’s leaving behind.

He starts packing without really noticing he’s doing it.

As July draws to an end and August looms closer, he starts mentally sorting everything into leaving it here and taking it with me. The second is significantly smaller than the first and mostly consists of clothes, sunglasses and various device chargers. Before he knows it, it’s transformed into an actual material pile on his desk. The last week of July, he hunts down an old backpack of his mum’s and props it up next to the desk as a reminder. Every time he looks at it, nerves bubble up in his stomach.

The decision is made. He knows he’s leaving, he knows he’s not taking anyone else with him, and he’s not going to back out on either of those things.

He’s not a child anymore. Rationally, he’s known it for a long time, but this feels like the first time it’s fully impacted his life. Because growing up doesn’t only mean maturing and making decisions, does it? It also means being alone. It means heading out into the future with no assurance that he’ll have anyone to rely on; and it means that, at times, it feels like he’s about to take a running leap into a bleak, lonely future.

He doesn’t dwell on it for too long. He doesn’t need that fear.

*

It happens on a day that has absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

There’s nothing to set it apart from any other day that has gone by this month. The sky is a uniform grey: it’s not sunny, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain either. The morning air is cool, but grows warmer as noon draws closer. Harry makes himself breakfast and goes back to bed, flopping face-down onto the mattress and spending an hour or so fiddling on his phone and getting absolutely nothing done. He side-eyes the backpack and the pile of clothes that are sitting on his desk much like he’d do any other day. Eventually, he stretches his arms, groans and heads to the shower. (His mum’s at work, so he’s allowed to sing as loudly as he wants.) He wanders into his room with the towel slung around his hips and pulls on a pair of shorts and a loose t-shirt, and his hair is already mostly dry by the time the doorbell rings.

Harry pauses from where he’s looking up cheap hostels in Amsterdam, closes his laptop and frowns. Who could that be? Maybe it’s someone who’s looking for his mum, or maybe it’s Niall or someone wanting to hang out for a bit before he leaves next week. The doorbell rings again as he’s trotting down the stairs. Jesus, someone’s impatient. He gets to the door, pulls back the latch, swings it open and his stomach drops to the floor.

It’s not Niall. It’s not someone looking for his mum. It’s not a single one out of all the people Harry thought had a possibility of coming and knocking on his door.

It’s not anyone he’s seen in the past two years.

Harry feels his hands start to shake, his heart leap into his throat, his vision grow blurry for reasons he can’t fathom. This isn’t happening. But it is, it is and it feels like Harry’s control over his body has vanished completely, like he’s not watching this from his own eyes anymore but from somewhere completely removed from himself. Harry blinks, and he blinks again, and his mind somehow starts registering everything that’s in front of him in analytical detail.

He’s older than he was. That should be a given, but it still shocks Harry in a miniature way. Because the image Harry’s had of him in his head – it never changed, did it? It never evolved or grew older. His face looks different, thinner, the angles sharper; his hair is longer. And the eyes¬– they’re a more vibrant blue than the memory Harry has of them, and they carry a weight now that Harry’s never seen before. They’re the eyes of someone who’s wiser, who’s grown and changed and seen things Harry can’t quite imagine.

He still glows. Of course he does.

“Hi,” Louis says, his voice tentative but still sure of itself, and Harry stops breathing.

*

In the beginning, he used to fantasize about Louis coming back.

He’d imagine waking up in the morning and seeing Louis there, reappearing as suddenly as he’d left. He’d imagine it in a thousand different scenarios: going down to the river and finding out Louis had been hiding there all along, a touch on his shoulder as he walked down the street, a tap on his window, a knock on his door. And in all of them Louis would admit he loved Harry, that he always had; he’d beg Harry to forgive him, he’d tell him he should never have left, he’d promise he was going to stay forever. But sooner or later, Harry was always forced to return to reality; eventually, he stopped hoping.

And now he stands here in front of Louis when he’d managed to accept that he was never going to see him again, and all those desperate fantasies come back in a rush, choking him. He wants to surge forward and hold Louis, make sure he’s real, make him stay; he wants to close the door and run away and never have to face him again.

He does none of those things. He stands and watches, eyes wide, chest tight. Louis looks back at him with a look on his face Harry can’t make sense of and stays silent.

It’s a moment that feels suspended, cut off from time.

“Louis,” Harry hears his own voice say, strange and shaky in his ears; it cracks the tension but doesn’t quite break it. Louis isn’t saying anything. Why isn’t he saying anything? He’s the one that’s showed up here – can’t he do something so Harry can make sense of it all? “What are you doing here?”

It slips out of Harry’s mouth, a reflex action, harsher than he’d intended. He’s not angry. He’s feeling too much to be angry. It swirls up inside him like a hurricane, and it makes his hands shake harder, his heartbeat stutter.

Louis blinks at him like he’s startled. Why would he be startled? “I wanted to see you again.” The words are quiet, and they hang in the air between them. Hearing his voice again, the voice that’s changed but that’s also achingly familiar (two years) throws Harry off guard for a few long moments, so much that the words don’t sink in right away. When they do, it’s a jolt that runs through his whole body.

How can Louis show up here and tell him that? How can he say that and expect Harry to know how to react? Harry’s eyes dart all over Louis’s face (Louis’s face, he’s looking at Louis’s face again) and he tries to find something that can help him make sense of it. But Louis’s face is serious and more sincere than Harry ever remembers seeing it. God, he means it. He’s here because he wants to see Harry again and he’s told Harry that and what can he say to that?

But Louis carries on talking and there’s nothing Harry can do but listen. “Harry?” Hearing his name is another jolt. It radiates through Harry’s body. “Look, if you don’t want to talk to me that’s fine. I didn’t want to show up like this, I just–” He cuts himself off, and for the first time Harry focuses enough to notice the tension in his glow, the way he’s on edge, too. “I just needed to talk to you. If you want me to.” Something flickers over his face. “I can leave if you want to and you’ll never see me again, I swear, I just–”

He stops and looks at Harry, eyes wide; then he looks down at his own forearm, blinking a little incredulously. Because Harry’s body has acted of its own accord, and his hand has reached out and is resting on Louis’s forearm. The skin there is bare, glowing gently, and the point of contact pulses through Harry’s body like a shockwave. He’s real. He’s real and he’s here with Harry. Harry has to blink twice to hold back the sudden urge to cry.

“Come take a walk with me?” Harry says quietly. He doesn’t know why he says it, but knows it’s an invitation, a way to let Louis know that yes, he wants to listen to what he has to say.

Louis looks at him like that wasn’t something he expected at all, but nods quickly, jerkily. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, of course.” When Harry lets go of his arm, his fingertips feel cold.

*

It takes Harry three tries to lock the door behind him. His hands are still shaky, fumbling, like they belong to someone else. When he turns around and his eyes land back on Louis, it’s like a sudden weight is lifted off his shoulders all over again. Harry didn’t think he’d have left, but– but he’s spent two years looking for Louis and remembering, suddenly, that he’d gone. The impulse to check that Louis’s still there feels like second nature.

They walk in silence at first. Harry can’t bring himself to break it.

The tension that was there before is back again. (Perhaps it never left?) It crackles between them. There’s expectation hanging in the air; it feels like the moment the tiniest thing changes, everything will snap. The sound of their feet is light on the concrete. Harry looks straight ahead, but Louis’s presence is heavy in his mind. It’s been two years, but he still acts like gravity, pulling Harry closer and rearranging all of his movements. Harry can only barely resist.

“You got taller,” he hears Louis say. His head snaps around. Louis has a rueful little half-smile on his face, and with a hint of surprise, Harry realizes it’s true. He’s spent his entire life looking up at Louis, trying to catch up to him, and now it turns out he’s gotten taller than him. Ten-year-old Harry would have been thrilled.

“Yeah,” Harry says. “A lot of things have changed, I guess. It’s been a while.” He feels Louis’s eyes on him, looking him up and down, cataloguing all the differences in much the same way Harry had done earlier. He glances sideways. Louis’s looking curiously at his wrist, at Harry’s now-faded rainbow bracelet. For some reason, Harry feels his cheeks heat up.

“I can see that,” Louis says quietly, and for a while, neither of them says anything more.

Harry can’t say he’s been paying much attention to where he’s going, so when he sees the park loom up ahead it’s almost a surprise. It’s deserted, though, so Harry thinks why not and walks right up to it. Louis follows. Harry hasn’t been here in a while, and it feels like everything is so much smaller than he remembers it being. He looks at the monkey bars and finds they don’t go that much higher up than the top of his head. Didn’t he use to climb on those and feel like he was on top of the world? It’s a thought that feels surreal.

He glances over at Louis. The look on his face says he’s on a similar wavelength. “I missed this,” Louis says, almost like he’s talking to himself. He looks at Harry then, almost like he’s trying to convey something unspoken. Harry doesn’t want to know what it is.

“You could have stayed, then.” The words sound accusatory, and as soon as they’re out of his mouth he regrets them. “Sorry,” he says immediately, “sorry, that was shitty, I shouldn’t have–”

“It’s okay, Harry,” Louis cuts off. The look on his face is strangely distant. “I get it.”

Harry shakes his head. “No,” he says. “You explained why you did it, and I–” The memory of the last time they saw each other floods his mind, and it still feels a bit like a punch to the stomach. “I get that. I do.” Louis looks like he’s going to say something, but the words keep tumbling out of Harry’s mouth. “It’s just– it wasn’t easy, you know? For me.” He resolutely refuses to look Louis in the face when he says it. “And I don’t get why you’re here. I don’t get why you’d want to see me again–” if you’re just going to leave again. He leaves that part unspoken, because it’s– it’s not something he can deal with. Not now.

Louis opens his mouth and then closes it again. Harry doesn’t know what to make of it.

Has nothing changed? Are they still stuck the way they were? Did Louis come back just to put his walls up and refuse to talk to him again? At that, Harry feels a flash of anger, because it’s not fair. After everything that happened, after Harry managed to put his life back together and move on– he doesn’t get to come back here and tear all that up.

Louis looks at him for a long moment, and Harry looks back without saying a word. Then, something in Louis seems to give. “I came back because I wanted to say sorry.”

Harry blinks. What’s that supposed to mean? Sorry for what?

Harry knows Louis. Even after spending years apart, Harry can read him like an open book; perhaps not always what he’s thinking, but certainly what he’s feeling. And right now, Louis is on edge. His glow shines in a way that means there’s nothing he’d like to do more than run away. (That particular bit of knowledge aches as it emerges from where it’d been buried somewhere in Harry’s chest.)

But Louis doesn’t run away. He looks at Harry in the eye even as his glow wavers. “I’m sorry things turned out the way they did. I’m sorry I made you feel shut out.” Dimly, Harry notices Louis’s fingers twitch, like he’s struggling to hold back from fidgeting. His fingernails are still short, still bitten. “I’m sorry I spent so long without telling you what was going on.”

“I understand why you did it,” Harry hears himself say, even though he doesn’t, not all of it. Not why Louis needed to come back just to say this. Couldn’t he have left things as they were, old, buried, the pain dulled? What need could he have to come here and tell him this just to leave again?

Unless.

Harry doesn’t let himself consider it, doesn’t even let himself think the words. It’s no use. He refuses to hope again. He ignores the way his heartbeat feels thick in his ears. “Why wouldn’t you tell me what was going on?” he hears himself say, because– because Louis never explained, not even at the end, and Harry’s tired of living on inferences and assumptions and avoided truths. For once, he wants to know.

“I was scared,” he hears Louis say quietly. His tone is much too open, much too vulnerable. Harry can’t take his eyes off him. “I’m sorry for that too. And I told you that last time, I think, but–” His voice falters for a moment. “Listen. You were there always. You were the only thing that made me feel safe.” Harry doesn’t know why he’s saying this, but his chest constricts painfully when he hears it. “And then we started hooking up, and it was– it was everything I wanted. It’s– God, Harry, it’s like it was just you and me and there was nothing else that mattered.” Louis huffs out a small self-deprecating laugh. “But I knew it was going to end, right? It hadto, at some point. And that got me thinking– when it does end, what am I going to do? Where am I going to go?”

“I’d have let you stay,” Harry gets out. His throat feels like it’s closed up. I never wanted it to end. I’d have kept on doing it forever. It’s not what he thought at the time, but now he knows it to be true. “I’d have let you. You know that.”

Louis shrugs. “Maybe not back then you wouldn’t. And besides, I– I had no clue how to be my own person, you know? I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t with you. It was a bit terrifying, to be honest.”

Yes, Harry knows this. Harry remembers. The last fight they had feels like it’s permanently ingrained into his brain, like it won’t go away no matter how many years go by. He understands, God, he does, but– it’s hard to let go. It’s hard to accept that no matter how much he’d loved Louis, no matter how much he could have given him, it wouldn’t have mattered. It wouldn’t have been enough to get him to stay. An old ache opens up in his chest, sudden and bitter. How different could things have been if they’d been anyone else? If they had been born any two other people, if they’d both been regular human beings who’d happened to grow up together – then what? Could they have found a way to make it work?

“And Zayn?” he hears himself say, because he needs to know.

The question seems to catch Louis off guard. “That was– no. That was before. Always.” He’s looking Harry in the eye again like this much he’s certain of. “That was never after you and I started. I was frustrated, and I wanted you, and he offered, and that was it.” His eyes are deathly serious. Harry can’t help but believe him. “It never meant anything.”

God. I was frustrated and I wanted you. How long did that go on for? How much time did Louis spend waiting for Harry to catch up? Old memories flicker behind Harry’s eyes. Louis being jealous of his girlfriends. Louis watching him jerk off to porn. Louis coming in through the window drunk and kissing Harry’s neck. How much of that was Louis aware he was doing?

It doesn’t matter, Harry tells himself. It’s over. None of it matters now. Numbly, he says, “Did you find what you were looking for, then? When you left?”

Louis hesitates. “I think so, yes. It… it wasn’t easy. Not at first.” Something passes over his face, and Harry wonders what it means, what it was like for him. “I went to Manchester in the end, got some papers, managed to get a few jobs every now and then, met some people.” His gaze drifts slightly, remembering. Harry wonders if he’s going back there after this. It should feel like the same thing, Louis disappearing from his life again, but – it’s not, is it? Now he has a precise location, somewhere he could potentially look for Louis in if he wanted. Somehow, it feels dangerous.

Then Louis’s talking again, and Harry’s attention is back on him immediately, hanging on to every words because he can’t fucking help himself. “I thought a lot about myself. About who I was. I thought about what you said.” Harry stays silent. He doesn’t have to ask. “It took me a while to come to terms with it, you know? Because I always knew I wasn’t like everyone else, I knew I came from somewhere different, but– but you could do things too, you could change things, and I knew that wasn’t normal either.” His voice is quieter. “Even though I knew you were different to me. I just didn’t know how, exactly.” He pauses. “I’m never going to go back up there. I know that now.”

It’s true. What brought him down here is gone now, isn’t it? Louis doesn’t know that, but the look on his face says he’s come to terms with it, with the fact that this is his where he belongs now. Harry can’t imagine living like that, knowing that you’re perpetually out of place.

He pushes the words out. “Are you happy now?”

Louis looks at Harry like he’s said the most unexpected thing he could say. For a moment, he doesn’t answer. Then, “I don’t know. I’m okay, I think. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.”

“Lou.” The name isn’t unfamiliar in his mouth; it comes naturally. It’s more like it’s rusty, like picking something back up after going too long without using it. Louis doesn’t seem immune to it either. Harry watches his body tense up. “Why are you really here? Is that all you wanted to say?”

And this is where Louis says yes. This is where he and Harry part ways and Louis gets on the train to Manchester and Harry goes off to Europe and they never see each other again. This is where Harry cuts ties with this part of his life forever. This is the part where he moves on.

Louis looks at him. There’s something hesitant in his eyes, something fragile. Harry wants him to stay until he can figure out what it is. Harry wants him to stay.

“Do you want me to say anything else?” Louis asks, and the entire world seems to teeter on the brink of something.

It’s a loaded question. Of course it is. Harry could turn away or he could stay. He could leave things as they are, or he could– what? What could he do? He looks for the answer in Louis’s eyes, looks for something that’s taking the jump for; he sees uncertainty, he sees tension, he sees… hope?

“Maybe I do,” Harry whispers, and it feels like taking a step into the void.

There’s silence again, stretching out between them. There’s a moment of doubt; a tipping point. Harry knows he needs to say something, needs to make it all fall on the side he wants it to.

It slips out of his lips before he can hold it back. “Can anyone else see you glow?”

It’s something he’s been wondering about ever since he can remember. He remembers asking his mum about it, asking Louis himself the day they first met, being puzzled when no one seemed to see in Louis anything out of the ordinary when it was so clear to him. He wonders, not for the first time, if it has something to do with his magic, if this means that the remnants of it live on even when it’s gone.

A crease appears between Louis’s eyebrows. “Glow?”

Harry blinks. Can Louis not see it either? It’s another tiny shock, and perhaps that explains what Harry does next: he takes a step closer and, without stopping to think, takes hold of Louis’s hand. Louis goes very still.

Slowly, carefully, Harry turns Louis’s hand over in his own, runs his fingertips over the knuckles as gently as he can. He hasn’t touched Louis like this in two years. The heat from Louis’s skin warms Harry’s hand; Louis’s glow flares brighter. Harry threads his fingers through Louis’s even though every part of his brain is screaming at him to out Louis’s hand down, and he looks at their two skin tones one next to the other: pinkish flesh, golden glow. “Can’t you see it?” whispers Harry, his tone far too intimate for what they’re doing. Louis looks at him unblinkingly and shakes his head.

When Harry goes to pull away, Louis’s fingers tighten on his, and Harry’s breath catches in his throat.

“There’s something else I haven’t told you,” Louis’s voice is just as serious now, but barely above a whisper. “Do you want me to?”

Harry feels his heart kick into action, feels it in his chest, his ears, in the skin of the fingertips that are pressed against Louis’s hand. He nods slowly. It feels like what’s coming is inexorable, like it could move mountains if they got in the way.

“I was in love with you,” Louis whispers. Harry can’t move, can’t think, can’t do anything but listen. “I was in love with you always. I’ve been in love with you since I can remember.” The tiniest of pauses. “I still am.”

Is the earth shifting under him? Harry feels unsteady on his feet, like he might topple over at any moment, but Louis’s fingers are still intertwined with his and it feels like the single point of contact that’s keeping his gravity centred. Louis loves him. Louis loves him, Louis loves him, Louis is here and he loves him. It feels like the entire weight of the universe is hanging on to that simple truth.

Louis left, it’s true, but Harry understands why. They’re not who they were two years ago. They’re not irreversibly tangled up in each other’s lives anymore. But Harry looks back and sees the last two years, sees everything he’s learned about himself and all the ways he’s managed to keep going; and then he thinks of the Louis from two years ago, a Louis that had nowhere to go, a Louis that had no one that wasn’t Harry, and understands that he had so much more to learn about himself than Harry did. The Louis in front of him isn’t the Louis that left him, but it’s still the Louis Harry loves.

And Harry knows he doesn’t need Louis, not anymore. The last two years have been proof of that. But how can he let go of him when he’s right here in front of him again? He doesn’t need Louis, but he loves him more than he’s loved anyone in his life, and that’s– that’s something that has to be worth holding on to.

They’re standing too close (when did they get this close?) and neither of them is moving. Harry’s hands feel like they’re about to start shaking again, but every part of him feels warm. He takes a step closer, and another one. Louis doesn’t pull back, just stays there with his eyes fixed on Harry, watching his every move. His face is tilted up slightly towards Harry. The warmth radiating from his skin is strong enough that Harry can feel it on his face.

Dimly, Harry wonders if it was inevitable that they would come to this, if this was heading towards them from the moment Harry opened the door and saw Louis standing there. He wonders if there’s anything, time or distance or the universe, that could keep them apart from each other.

There’s one last thing Harry needs to know, though.

“Are you going to leave again?” he whispers into the space between them. The words hang in the air, a reminder of everything that’s happened, an echo of those terrible lonely months Harry never wants to have to live again. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wonders if they were like that for Louis too.

Louis’s eyes are unbearably blue and more serious than he’s ever seen them. “Not if you don’t want me to.”

And for the first time in two years, Harry closes the space between them.

His lips are on Louis’s lips, and Harry’s fourteen again and kissing Louis for the first time – and it’s different too, it’s different because he knows how to do this, it’s different because even after everything kissing Louis still feels like second nature. It feels like the universe rearranging itself, like everything skewed suddenly falling into place; it feels like coming home for the first time in years. Louis tugs Harry closer and Harry lets him. Their chests align. Harry’s fingers tangle in Louis’s hair, and he kisses him like he’s coming up for air. He was made for kissing Louis like this, Harry thinks hazily, for holding him until it feels like they’re the same thing, a seamless unit with no ending and no beginning. He kisses Louis like the world has stopped, like there’s nothing in it but each other, and Louis kisses him back like he means just the same thing.

He can’t quite bring himself to pull back. He comes back again, and again, dropping kisses on Louis’s mouth one after another, and when Harry draws back Louis’s mouth chases his, biting down on Harry’s bottom lip. Harry cups Louis’s jaw with his hand and runs his thumb over it, feeling it under his fingertips. The kisses stop, eventually, but Harry doesn’t pull away. He rests his forehead on Louis’s, nose-to-nose, chest-to-chest, and lets his eyes flutter half-closed. Louis’s light makes rainbows in Harry’s eyelashes when he peers at him through them. Louis’s hands slide up his back and hold him in place, steadying him.

“I love you. Always have,” Harry murmurs, because it’s not something he can leave unsaid.

He feels more than sees Louis smile. “I know,” he says. When Harry’s mouth finds Louis’s again, it’s like letting out a breath he’s been holding for two years.

Chapter Text

It’s the third of August, the sun is shining unusually bright, and even though the Holmes Chapel railway station has no panel, Harry knows that in roughly two minutes the train will be here.

“Nine minutes,” he hears his mum say, right on cue. Harry glances at her. She’s looking at her watch, a tiny anxious crease between her eyebrows. Harry knows it’s not the train schedule she’s worried about.

“The train’s always late anyway,” he tells her. She looks up at him and the crease deepens. Harry sighs, but knows there’s a fond smile edging its way onto his face. “I’m going to be okay, mum.”

“I know that,” she says, a little too quickly. Then, she drops the façade and sighs, deflating a bit. “I’m just worried about you. You know. Official job as a mum and all.”

Harry does know.

“I’ll be okay,” he repeats, softer this time. She smiles at him. It’s a steady enough smile, but Harry knows enough to tell that the worry hasn’t eased one bit. There’s not much Harry can do about it and he knows it, but it still makes him feel the slightest bit guilty.

Suddenly, there’s warmth behind him and a pressure on his shoulder. Harry resists the urge to shiver with it. He lets his eyes flutter shut as Louis hooks his chin onto Harry’s shoulder (Harry still hasn’t gotten used to the fact that he’s taller than Louis now; Louis’s still a bit huffy about it) and rests a hand gently on Harry’s waist. The heat from his skin soaks through Harry t-shirt. It makes Harry’s stomach feel wonderfully airy.

“Back already, are we?” he mumbles. Louis pinches him in the side. Harry’s eyes fly open and he squirms away from it, letting out a high-pitched noise Louis will most likely tease him about later. Harry turns around and grabs both of Louis’s wrists. “Stop that,” he tells him, like he’s chastising a badly behaved puppy.

Louis just looks at him for a second, a sneaky smile spreading across his face, and Harry feels himself mirror it unconsciously.

Louis takes advantage of Harry’s distraction to twist his wrists free. “The book club wasn’t half as interesting as you said it would be,” he tells Harry.

“Hey,” Harry says. For a railway station book club, it’s very cool. Harry doesn’t even know of any other railway stations that have one. “It’s the pride and joy of Holmes Chapel. Don’t go around insulting it.”

“Yeah, but I’m not gonna be staying here for much longer, am I?” Louis says. “I can do what I want now.”

Yeah. Of course.

Louis must notice the expression on Harry’s face change, because he drops the act in a moment. “Hey,” he says. He touches Harry without hesitance, like the last two years haven’t even happened. Harry’s still not quite used to it, but that doesn’t stop him from shifting into the touch. “You okay?” Louis asks him seriously. Harry blinks at him once and nods, more or less meaning it.

“It’s just– a lot, you know?” It is a lot, because he’s never known anything but Holmes Chapel, has he? This is where his entire life is rooted, this is all he has, and the thought of leaving it is enough to make Harry want to curl into a terrified little ball on the ground.

“I know,” Louis says quietly. Harry looks at him. Of course he does. Holmes Chapel used to be all he knew too, quite literally everything he knew about the world, and he left it all behind on his own. If there’s anyone who knows what this is like, it’s Louis.

And– it’s not true that everything Harry has is in Holmes Chapel. Louis is here. Louis is with him, and he’s not going to leave. Harry could be facing the entire world and, as long as he had Louis with him, he’d feel tied down.

He doesn’t quite know how to put the feeling into words, but Louis’s still looking at him and as his thumb brushes over Harry’s wrist, grounding him, Harry knows he understands.

A sudden noise startles Harry. He turns around, wrist slipping out of Louis’s grip, and spots the train in the distance, coming inexorably closer. His heart leaps into his throat. This is it. He’s saying goodbye for good. He’s closing a part of his life forever. He wants the train to slow down, wants the seconds to stretch out so he can come to terms with it properly, but all it seems to do is speed up instead, and it’s all too much and there’s not enough time. Anxiety builds up instantly in his chest, sharp and suffocating. As the train rumbles into the station, he grabs for Louis’s hand blindly and holds on.

“Let’s get a move on, yeah, Haz?” says Louis’s voice behind him.

Yes. Yes, okay. He glances at Louis and the small reassuring smile Louis sends his way is enough to quell the panic in his chest, at least momentarily.

Mechanically, Harry reaches down and hoists his backpack onto his shoulder. It’s heavier than he remembers it being. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Louis do the same thing. Then, he’s walking towards his mum like he’s in a dream, like this isn’t happening at all; as he reaches her, the train rolls to a halt. They meet halfway, his mum’s arms reaching out to him before he’s even in front of her, and she pulls him into a hug that’s almost crushing.

Harry tries to hold on to the seconds, but they slip away like sand between his fingers. There’s not enough of this, not enough of his mum holding him close like she’s done through everything, through all his eighteen years of life. Her chest rises and falls against his; her arms are strong and steady, her smell (comfort and warmth and home) envelops him. He holds on tight and burns the moment into his memory. He’s leaving, but he refuses to lose any of this.

“I’m so proud of you,” his mum whispers, and he feels the words down to his bones.

“I love you,” he mumbles back, and once it’s out he can’t stop saying it, I love you into her hair, her shoulder, I love you one last time into her ear as he kisses her cheek, I love you as he’s pulling away and letting go. He blinks hard as she tugs Louis in next and hugs him too, short and tight, and whispers something into his ear that Harry doesn’t think he’s meant to hear but sounds an awful lot like Take care of him. And then Louis is pulling away too and the train doors are open, gaping. Louis takes hold of his hand, and the point of contact is what stops the world from spinning around him.

Harry goes first. It’s just a few steps from where he’s standing to the train doors, but each step he takes feels like he’s putting insurmountable distance behind him. But there’s Louis behind him, Louis who’s holding on to him, Louis who’s not going to let him go. When he takes the final step between the platform and the train, it feels like he’s stepping over a chasm.

He steps onto the train. His lungs feel tight. Louis is there immediately, fingers still laced with Harry’s. “C’mon,” he says gently, “let’s find us a seat,” and they do, Louis weaving amongst the people, Harry following in a vague sort of daze. Louis finds two empty seats next to a window and Harry takes the window one immediately, pressing his forehead up against the glass, looking out. Yes, there’s his mum, looking tiny and faraway even from here, and it looks like she’s spotted them too because suddenly she’s waving. Harry can’t bring himself to wave back; all he does is stand there, his forehead against the window, as the train jolts to a start and starts moving, slow, inexorable. He watches his mum get tinier and tinier, become a speck and then nothing at all; he watches the whole of Holmes Chapel fade away behind them, and with it everything he knows, everything that’s meant home for the last eighteen years.

There’s a touch on his lower back, and Harry turns around and reconsiders. Not quite everything.

“Come here,” Louis says, his tone soft, his skin glowing, and Harry blinks at him for a moment before launching himself at him, closing his eyes against the brightness, burrowing into Louis’s chest. He has this. He has Louis, and even though he made it through two years without him that doesn’t mean he doesn’t affect Harry like gravity, pulling him in, balancing him. Harry breathes him in and knows with unshakeable certainty that even though he doesn’t need Louis beside him, if he’s with him he can face anything the world could possible throw at him.

Louis is a star. Louis is something that’s too bright for this planet, but he’s here anyway. He’s here with Harry, and Harry loves him, and he loves Harry back. Those three truths are enough.

Louis kisses Harry on the forehead as he pulls away. Harry looks at him and smiles, even though his breathing still feels a bit too shallow, his heartbeat a bit too irregular. They’re leaving and he doesn’t know when they’re coming back. He registers it for what’s perhaps the first time, the motion of the train under him cementing it. But it doesn’t unsettle him – with Louis’s eyes on him, blue and steady and full of something that looks a lot like fondness, there’s nothing he can do but sink into it.

Anything could happen. They have the whole of Europe in front of them. First the train to Crewe, then Birmingham, then London, then Paris– and from there they have nowhere to go, which means they could go anywhere. The future stretches out in front of Harry like a blank canvas. He knows they have no idea where they’re going; he knows there’s a fair possibility that it could all go wrong, that they could get lost or run out of money and be forced to go back to Holmes Chapel. He can’t help but consider the possibility that things with Louis might not work out, that it could all fall apart again.

But Harry’s lived through it once, and he knows, if he had to, that he could do it again. He doesn’t think it would be easy, but his life doesn’t hinge on Louis anymore. He’s doing what he’s meant to do, isn’t he? He’s moving on. He’s leaving everything behind and going out to see the world, to find something new.

It just so happens that he has Louis beside him now; and even though Harry originally planned to do this alone, even though he thinks he could do it alone if he had to, he wouldn’t trade this for anything.

It doesn’t quite feel like he’s leaving home if Louis is with him.