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the empty white

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day zero

Calum falls asleep on the plane to Toronto, about an hour into the flight. He uses Luke's shoulder as his pillow; Luke would mind more if he didn't look so soft and relaxed in sleep, cheek smushed up in a way that makes him a kid again. Luke stares out the window and watches the clouds roll huge and billowy and seemingly solid underneath them, feeling heavier than he has in a long time. Calum drools on his shirt. 

They hit turbulence a couple times when trying to get down to the ground, and Michael keeps up a running commentary of swearing in the seat in front of Luke. Through the gap in the seats, Luke can see his hand white-knuckled around Ashton's wrist. Calum sleeps through it, waking up only when they touch down, and Luke watches him grumble and rub at his eyes, and thinks, he's fucking blessed, isn't he. 

“You missed all the excitement,” he says instead.

“What?” Calum says, the word coming out round and slurred smooth, like a rock in a tumbler.

“We almost died,” Michael says.

Calum blinks. “Okay.”

Security doesn't let them stop in the airport, leading them out around the back to avoid the crowds inside. Luke tries his best to wave through the glass to the fans he can see clustered inside and still keep Calum upright, but he leaves most of it to Ashton and Michael. He can hear the crowd calling out their names, muffled and thin, but it doesn't really feel like it's real; it feels like it's coming from a tv screen, people cheering in a completely separate world that he has nothing to do with, that he can only watch. There's a sign with his name, shaking in the hands of a tiny blonde girl, but all he can make out is the words, “Luke, watch out”, because the bottom is blocked by the shoulders of someone in front of her.

“Sorry!” Michael yells, gesturing to the security around them. “We can't stop, sorry!”

“We love you guys!” Ashton calls.

The screams uptick in volume and Calum pushes himself off of Luke's shoulder to give a half-hearted salute, still clearly too floppy and sleep-saturated to manage anything else. The security guys push open some doors and herd them through, and then the fans and the cheers are gone, leaving the hallway ringing with silence.

Michael speeds up so he can slide in next to Calum, poking him in the cheek.

“Aww,” he says mockingly. “Baby didn't get enough sleep already on the plane?”

Calum flaps an arm out to hit Michael in the chest.

“Shut up,” he mumbles. “I feel weird today.”

“You're not getting sick, are you?” Ashton asks. “We've got a gig at 3.”

“Yeah, I know,” Calum says. “I'll be fine.”

“It's outside the building with the car exploding out of it,” Luke points out. “You love that place.”

Calum pushes himself off of Luke and walks ahead of them all, calling back, “I said I know! I'm fine, god.”

Michael and Luke look at each other and Michael shrugs a little. Luke refuses to feel worried—he doesn't have the energy for that, for one thing, and he knows Calum can turn it on for shows. They're fine.

Calum joins the security a few steps ahead and starts talking to Dave, one of their usual crew, about something. Michael and Ashton fall behind Luke to walk next to each other. Luke stares at all the wobbling shadows on the ground, swelling monstrously and shrinking away scared as they approach and pass under each glowing strip of fluorescent light. He can't distinguish his own from the others, and after a while, he stops trying.

They get to relax at the hotel for a few hours before soundcheck and by some sort of mistake they've got two connecting rooms with one big bed each. Michael pretends to complain, but they're all pleased, especially Ashton, who immediately claims the room with the bigger bed.

“Forget splitting into groups of two,” he says, bouncing down on it. “We could all fit in this bed alone. Seriously.”

Michael gives a running jump and crashes down on the mattress next to him, almost whacking Ashton straight in the face. Ashton makes an indignant noise and Michael puts a hand on his stomach, petting at him like he's soothing a dog. Calum gets onto the bed on the other side of Ashton, curling up into his side and humming like a vaguely musical cat. Puffs of marshmallow white bedding balloon up in the spaces between their bodies, and if Luke couldn't see the limits of the bed, he would swear they were on clouds.

“Luuuke,” Michael grumbles. “Get over here.”

“There's no room,” Luke says, but he knees his way up onto the edge and shuffles into the tiny wedge of space at Michael's side. They all squirm around, pulling out limbs from under each other and groaning about bony elbows, until finally they fit, warm and puzzle-pieced together.

“Let's just sleep 'till the gig,” Calum mumbles. “We don't really need to do soundcheck.”

“Yeah,” Michael says. “We sound fuckin great.” He half-heartedly sings a few of the “hey's” from the beginning of She Looks So Perfect, and Luke joins in to harmonize. When they fall silent, the room is suffocating around them, and Luke doesn't want to move.

“I'll set an alarm for soundcheck call,” Ashton says, after a long, honey-thick moment of empty air. He's not moving, which is kinda strange, since he normally doesn't go in for prolonged cuddling as much as the rest of them do. “We can nap 'till then. Are any of you guys gonna move to the other room?”

Luke hasn't even really been in the other room, just glanced in long enough to confirm that the bed was smaller. All of their luggage is here, sagging in piles on the floor, and, more importantly, all of them are here.

“No,” he says, and Michael and Calum don't even bother weighing in.

Luke is the only one who doesn't fall asleep. He feels it tangibly as each one of them drops off and their breathing becomes slow and even, and once he's sure he's the only one awake, he opens his eyes to watch Michael's face, inches from his own. There's an endless, almost comforting blankness throughout his whole body, a weightless sort of feeling, and he stays there in it until the alarm goes off and he's not alone anymore.

****

It's the last stop they have in promo for a while, this afternoon outdoor gig at the CTV building, performed and broadcast live. They've gone through the States and done some gigs in Europe and interviews and had a brief stop back home before they ended up here. It was a weird, cruel move to let them have a little break before going up here to play a gig, and as the day goes on, Luke finds himself wishing that they had done this earlier and just gotten their break after. Luke likes Canada normally, likes it fine now, but—Calum is off, and has been off since the plane left Australia. Luke expects it to fade throughout the day, but it gets worse during soundcheck—he sounds fine, but he looks grey and keeps looking at his phone. It's starting to get to Michael too—the two of them cling together, Michael turning silent and pale in Calum's shadow.

“Are you gonna be okay for the gig?” Luke asks Calum, kicking lightly at his feet. They've been friends for years now—for a split second he can't remember how many, picturing just a dizzying spiral of his whole life filled with Calum—and he doesn't want him to be feeling like shit. “We could play without you. Or cancel and just say we're really, really sorry.”

Calum cracks a smile. “We can't do that. I'll be good, I swear. Just...feeling weird.”

Ashton's wandered over, done with fucking around with his drum kit, and Calum curls a hand loosely against Ashton's leg, looking around at all of them. They're in their own little circle, away from all of the crew members and security.

“Just—” He swallows and licks his lips. “You ever feel like something is going on, or is going to happen, and like, it's not good, and you know you can't do anything? Like—”

“Like bad weather coming,” Michael says.

“Bad weather,” Calum repeats softly.

“Maybe there'll be torrential rain and we'll have to cancel,” Ashton says, clearly trying to inject some humour into the air.

Calum squints off into the distance. Luke follows his eyes, but has no idea what he's looking at.

“Yeah, maybe,” Calum says.

****

The sun is blazingly bright when they perform, and the screaming is like waves of heat, rolling in against them. Luke can't really raise his head to look up farther than the third row because the light is dazzling in his eyes, reflecting off a camera at the back that just won't move. He's sweating hard and his entire body feels like soft plastic, on the edge of melting.

He sings automatically, thinking about water and how many songs they have left until he can get some. Usually the energy onstage pumps him up even when he's uncomfortable or worried about something, but today it feels like he's struggling up through it. They're doing fine though—Ashton is doing the utmost at the back, as usual, yelling out to the crowd and handling most of the talking, and Calum and Michael are still shredding it up. They're good. They're fine. They better be, because they're being filmed for who knows how many people right now.

He casts his gaze out to the front rows of the crowd, skipping over the faces gazing up at him until he lands on a girl in the second row. She looks familiar, and he realizes she was one of the people at the airport, near the back of the pack. When he meets her eyes she throws her hands up and whoops as loud as can, and Luke grins. She staggers a little on her feet, jostled by the crowd, smiles back at him, and then—

Then she's gone.

Luke blinks and fucks up a chord; he looks down at his guitar to get back on track and then stares out at where he knew she was standing. She's simply not there, and he swears she hadn't moved or fallen, she'd just—vanished.

An illusion, a trick of the heat, he thinks, and then the girl right at the edge of the stage in front of him disappears mid-scream, the two people who were pushing from behind her suddenly falling into the empty space where she had been. One of them flickers once and is gone as well, and her friend lurches back in confusion, staring up at Luke for confirmation: did you see that?

Luke saw it. He can't stop seeing it—the crowd is visibly thinning, people popping out of existence like they were never there at all. His voice dies in his throat, and he stumbles away from the edge of the stage, the microphone spitting out squeals of feedback. Ashton's drumming is like an external heartbeat, so loud he can't breathe with it. There's a ear-splitting crash of machinery and screams of a different kind, and Luke looks over to see that one of the huge video cameras has just fallen to the ground; the man who was holding it is nowhere to be seen. The guitars behind Luke falter, and he stares out at a crowd that is still cheering for them, still mostly unaware, and he thinks, god, am I going crazy, is this, is this actually—

There's a wordless shout from behind him—Michael's voice—and Luke whirls around.

Calum is ash-faced, blinking in and out of view like a tv with bad reception, and Michael is halfway across the stage towards him, his guitar abandoned on the ground, moving faster than Luke's ever seen him go—he jumps the last few feet, colliding with Calum in a full on tackle, and then they're gone, both of them, vanishing into thin air for a weightless, terrifying second before they're crashing down onto the stage together, whole and visible, Michael's arms wrapped in a vice around Calum. Luke stares, his heart kicking erratically in his chest, and for a moment it's silent as a tomb in the whole crowd because everyone...everyone saw that.

Noise explodes again, screams of terror this time, and Luke throws his guitar to the stage, running to Michael and Calum's side and dropping to his knees next to them. Michael looks up, his eyes white and huge, and automatically throws out an arm to pull Luke in, shaking fingers clutching at the back of his shirt.

“He was—I somehow knew he was—he was gonna go, I pulled him back, I got him, I—” Michael sucks in a breath and looks around them, panicked. “Ash! Ashton!”

Ashton's there suddenly, sliding his hands under Calum's back to prop him up. Calum's eyes are open, but they're rolling, spinning in his skull like they aren't connected to the rest of him anymore.

“Jesus Christ,” Ashton mutters. “Oh fuck, fuck,” because Calum's convulsing in their arms and getting sick on the stage, shockingly white and horrifying.

“I pulled him back,” Michael babbles. “He was gone, we gotta—don't let go, none of you fucking let go.”

Shadows fall over them, and security is there, tugging at their arms to get them to stand.

“To the vans!” someone barks. “We have to get them—”

One second there's a person hovering behind Luke, and the next there isn't. He can't think about it: his head is made of static, but he's managed to get his hand in Calum's, and he's not letting go. Any one of them could disappear on him, any one of them could suddenly go and he would have no idea—

They clamber to their feet together, Calum sandwiched in the middle, Michael still clinging to him completely. Luke can feel one of Ashton's hands on his back, and Michael's arm around Calum pressing into his stomach. Security rings around them and ushers them across the stage; Luke glances out towards the crowd, and catches glimpses of girls climbing over the barriers, throwing themselves at the edge of the stage—for escape, for Luke and the others? There are people calling out names everywhere, the panic of hundreds swelling till it feels like the air is saturated with it, the whole crowd moving like an angry ocean. Luke looks away and squeezes Calum's hand. He can't think about this. He can't think about this.

Stepping on each other and stumbling, they are herded to the edge and they plunge into the crowd. There's six security guys around them, then five, then four—hands snatch at Luke's clothes and someone cries out his name, and then they're finally through, and there's the van they came here in, the side held open by a man who practically throws them in. Michael goes first with Calum, and then Luke, and then Ashton, his hand curled tight around Luke's hip.

It's the same driver from the morning up front, and he floors it as soon as Ashton slides the door shut—Luke and Ashton go flying against the side and for a split second Luke loses contact with all of them. He can't breathe, can't breathe, and then Ashton's dragging him off the ground and they're pushing through the space in the middle seats to the back bench, where Michael has Calum laid out.

“Is he, is he—” Ashton says, the words catching in his throat. Luke presses in so he can feel Calum's bony shin against his leg. The floor of the van pitches and rolls beneath them, like a ship in a storm, and he feels just as untethered. The world rushes by outside the windows. Calum is shivering, and his eyes are closed now.

“He's breathing,” Michael says. “He's not fine, but he's here. If I hadn't—when I touched him, I think it pulled him back. We can't let go of each other, not once, we have to be touching, it keeps us here. I think.”

“You think?” Ashton yells.

“He disappeared!” Michael shouts back. “Like in a fucking sci-fi movie, and somehow, I knew it was gonna happen! But I don't know everything, so yeah, I think!” He turns his attention back to Calum, patting clumsily at his cheek. “Calum? Calum, say something, bro.”

“We need to get to the hotel,” Luke says. His lips feel thick, and his voice sounds like it's someone else's, someone speaking from across a room or at the other end of a hallway. “We need to get to the hotel, we need—”

He glances back at the front of the van, trying to see where they're going, and catches the exact moment the driver disappears.

For a split second all he can do is stare at the empty seat, at the the black curve of steering wheel that was only just covered by hands. He knows he should move, do something, but he's frozen in place, and when he opens his mouth, all that comes out is a tiny, strangled sound.

Ashton turns at Luke's noise, following his gaze to where the driver had been. The van starts to drift sideways, and Ashton lets go of Calum and Luke to lunge for the wheel, breaking their points of contact.

“Ash!” Michael yells, his voice cracking.

Ashton throws himself into the seat and yanks the van back into their lane. “I got it, I got it!” He meets Luke's eyes in the mirror over the dashboard and smiles—it's reassuring at first, but the smile keeps growing and growing until Ashton's laughing, tight and hysterical and frightening. “I got it!”

He's not touching any of us anymore, Luke thinks. Ashton could vanish at any second. The panic boiling in the back of his mind is on the verge of bubbling out, and Luke sinks like sludge to the floor, one hand twisted up to clutch at Calum's leg. He stretches out on his back down the aisle, squirming his legs out until he can kick one foot up on the driver's seat next to Ashton. Ashton doesn't notice, and it's the weakest touch possible, barely tangible through shoes and shirts, but Luke keeps it there for the whole ride, watching Ashton until his eyes burn to make sure the outline of his body stays crisp and certain and there.

Ashton laughs and laughs; Michael says Calum's name over and over; Calum shivers and says nothing. Luke lays on the floor of the van and feels the vibration of it shaking his entire body until he's part of it, not a boy, not a person, not someone who could disappear. He's metal and machine and he doesn't need to blink. 

Ashton pulls up into the pickup roundabout right in front of the hotel and comes to a screeching halt that throws Calum almost on top of Luke. They scramble for each other's hands and then leap out of the van to run for the hotel doors, Michael half carrying, half dragging Calum. When they'd left the hotel barely two hours ago, there had been a crowd of fans outside that they'd talked to for a few minutes and then been pulled away from—now there's just strangers yelling and running out and into the hotel with bags piled in their hands and phones pressed up against their ears. They push past a lady coming through the centre doors and Luke catches a second of “I can't find her, Shauna, I think she's—” before there's nothing there beside them except for a huge purple bag. Luke swallows hard against the acid in his throat and presses his face to the back of Michael's neck. There's terror and people whirling in every direction, and they might as well be vanished for how much they matter to the people around them now.

Most people are trying to leave the hotel, not get into it, and by chance there's an elevator emptying out of a shrieking family of five when they stagger up to the row of them. They haul Calum in and Ashton stabs at the button for the 29th floor, and then—

The elevator is smoothly ascending, and it's quiet except for their breathing and the low, clicking hum of machinery. Luke feels like his chest is going to cave in. The silence is almost as unnerving as the yelling and crying and disaster downstairs.

“Jesus,” Ashton mutters.

“We're almost to the room, man,” Michael says to Calum, soft and serious. “You can make it, come on, wake up.”

Calum groans, and his head lolls sideways and seasick on his neck, falling against Luke's shoulder.

“Does someone have the room key?” Ashton asks. He laughs tightly, scrubbing a hand through his hair. They're passing the 17th floor. “Fuck, what if we can't even get into our room?”

“I've got it,” Luke says suddenly. He shoves his hand in his back pocket to check and—yup, there it is. He'd meant to leave it in his bag in their dressing room before going onstage, but he'd forgotten. Thank god.

“Thank god,” Ashton says.

The elevator comes to a slow halt; Luke braces himself for a wave of sound to hit, but the doors open to a hallway that is eerily quiet. It feels like they're being watched, or like something will jump out from behind the corner and shoot at them at any second, and Luke knows he's not the only one feeling like that by the way they all scurry down the hall to their door. He misses their security fiercely for a moment, and wonders if they managed to get into the second van and are on their way here, if more have them have disappeared. Some of them were temporary security, but he knows a lot of them—Dave; Chris, who has a wife and two kids; Joshua, who likes motorcycles and crossword puzzles; Dwayne, who lets them call him “The Rock” even though he looks nothing like him.

They get the door open and pile inside. Ashton holds Luke's waist as he kicks stuff out of Michael's way, doubling back to close the door, and Michael hauls Calum over to the huge bed, still pleasantly mussed from a nap that seems more like days ago than hours. Michael lays Calum out carefully, swinging his feet up onto the bed and climbing on as well to kneel beside him, staring down at him like he's gonna start crying.

Luke leans into Ashton, letting him carry the weight of them both. He feels so, so tired suddenly. A thousand thoughts are tumbling through his head, as scattered as the junk in an I Spy book spread; they left their bags and instruments at the venue; they didn't play the whole show so they might have to reimburse people; their flight back home is tomorrow morning; he hadn't said a proper goodbye to his dad that morning when he left the house; he hit his foot with his guitar when he dropped it and it's really, really starting to hurt now.

“What the fuck just happened?” Luke says.

Michael has his hand on Calum's chest, like he's looking for a heartbeat, and he doesn't look away from him.

“We almost lost him,” Ashton says. He puts his face in his hands, almost dislodging Luke from his side.

“Fuck,” Michael says. “I always—I always thought the end of the world would come with explosions or something, not like, people just vanishing.” He shoves his hair back off of his forehead with one hand, his fingers shaking. “That is what this is, right? The end of the world.”

“No,” Ashton says firmly. “That's fucked up, it can't just—we were playing a gig. The world doesn't just end for no reason.”

“People don't just disappear either,” Michael shoots back.

“What happened?” Luke says, and his voice thankfully sounds steadier than he feels. “When you touched Calum, you—you both were gone for a second. What happened.”

Michael looks up at that, his face empty. There's a long moment where he just stares at Luke, his eyes distant like he's somewhere else.

“It was just—everything went white,” he says quietly. “We weren't on the stage anymore, we were—it was this empty white all around us, and it was...thicker somehow around Calum, like it was pulling him, but it couldn't get the both of us. It wasn't strong enough. And I pulled on him and the whiteness just sort of...sucked away and we were back.”

“So what, we're fighting some sort of white blob?” Ashton says in disbelief. “This is fucking nuts.”

“Are you saying I'm lying?” Michael says sharply. “Because you saw the people disappearing too, you can't say this isn't happening—”

“No, Mikey, I know you're not lying,” Ashton says. He moves towards the bed and Luke quickly follows, staying tucked into his side. “I know this is real, it's just—what the fuck.”

Michael glares at him for a second longer before his expression softens. “Yeah, I know.”

“Guys?”

It's Calum's voice, weak and strained, and they all look to see that his eyes are blinking open again. He struggles up onto his elbows, and Ashton climbs onto the bed to scoot behind him, automatically sliding an arm under his back to help him. Luke flops down onto the bed at Calum's feet, curling his fingers around Calum's ankles just above his shoes. He feels shaky with relief.

“Calum, you okay?” Michael asks, patting clumsily at Calum's face with one hand. “You fucking scared me, man.”

Calum looks at each of them in turn, moving slowly like a robot rebooting itself. All of his features are slack and open, his eyes wide. They aren't rolling like mad anymore, thank god.

“You were Excorcist levels of terrifying,” Luke says. Calum's feet kind of smell, but he doesn't want to move.

Calum squints at him. “That movie's not that scary.”

“That's all you have to say?” Michael bursts out. “You almost vanish off the face of the planet and you wanna talk about the Excorcist?”

“Calum, are you feeling alright now?” Ashton says, sounding definitely calmer than Michael. Michael looks like his head is going to explode. Luke is pretty sure it's weird that he's feeling as calm and cottony as he is now, but he's heard people sometimes have something called “shock” after weird shit like this, so maybe he's going through that.

“I think so,” Calum says. “We're in—the hotel?”

“What's the last thing you remember?” Ashton asks.

A strange look comes over Calum's face, this little inward twist.

“What Michael said, I guess,” he says slowly. “The empty white. I remember that, like, really vaguely. I mostly remember feeling really, really bad right before it and feeling it pulling at me, and I remember Mikey grabbing me,”—Michael's fingers clench against Calum's chest, digging little furrows into the fabric of his shirt—“and then everything else is kinda blurry, 'till like a minute ago. I'm fine though, so it's not a big deal, right?

Michael's shoulders tense up even more.

“You threw up,” Luke says softly, “and your eyes were spinning.”

“That is kinda Excorcisty,” Calum says. “Cool.”

“Jesus,” Michael spits. His hands lift away from Calum, hovering over him for a second like he's not quite sure of that decision before he presses his palms to his eyes. Luke sits up slightly, uncertain. “You don't get it, I can't—I need to—”

He shuffles backwards, almost falling off the bed as he stands up. Calum tries to reach towards him, but his movements are weak and small, and Ashton keeps him tucked back against his chest.

“Ash, you just—hold onto him,” Michael says shakily. “I need to—”

“Mike, what are you—” Ashton starts, but Michael's already storming across the room to the bathroom and slamming the door shut behind him, cutting Ashton off.

Luke stares at the closed white door and the ten or so feet separating Michael from them. His brain is a pot of water just coming to a boil, and Michael was the one who told them they had to keep in contact with each other, and now they're here on this bed and Michael's there, alone, with no one to tether him down. He glances back at Ashton instinctively, but Ashton's frozen too, Calum sprawled weak and heavy across him. Ashton meets his eyes, and Luke can feel the understanding and panic snap between them.

Luke throws himself off the bed, ignoring Ashton's shout, and runs to the bathroom door, hammering on it as hard as he can. “Michael, open up!”

“I'm taking a shit!” Michael yells back.

“No, you're fucking not!” Luke says. He flattens himself to the door, as if he can somehow reach through it and touch Michael. “You can't be alone, you said none of us can be alone, you have to let me in!”

“I can't—” Michael's voice cuts off and then resumes as a whisper right through the crack of the door. “I just need a fucking second, okay? I was so fucking scared and you and Calum are cracking jokes?”

“That's what you always do!” Luke says. “You always joke about shit when it happens to you and we're going out of our minds, don't be a fucking...hypocrite!”

“I joke when it's definitely over, not while it's still happening, not when it's just happened!” Michael grits out, which is definitely bullshit. He's not acting like himself, not at all, and Luke wonders how fucked up disappearing had felt to make Michael like this.

Luke can hear Ashton explaining the journey to the hotel to Calum, everything that happened while he was out. It sounds like it's happening miles away from him, not on the other side of the room. The skin all over his entire body feels too tight, like his bones are going to start cutting through, and he's incredibly aware of the empty air all around him.

“Please let me in,” Luke says softly. “You can't disappear on us, and I—I don't have anyone touching me right now either, we both could go.”

There's a second of silence, then the door shudders a few times, something knocking into the bottom of the wood, and Luke looks down to see Michael's fingers poking out from under the door. He folds himself gratefully to the ground, jerky and sudden like a wooden marionette with its strings cut, and tucks his fingers awkwardly over Michael's. His skin is warm and immensely comforting—Luke can't see him, but he knows he's still there with him, and he leans back against the door, imagining Michael doing the same on the other side.

“So people are disappearing,” Ashton says at length. “Is it just here, is Canada just really fucked up, is—”

“The tv, the tv,” Calum says suddenly. “Try the news.”

Ashton throws out one arm to scrabble through the fluffy comforter for the remote—Calum had been watching a rerun of Friends from the bed right before they left for the venue. He comes up victorious after a moment and flicks on the widescreen tv in the corner of the room.

Friends is still on—it was a marathon, apparently, and Ross is yelling something about male nannies being unnatural.

“What is the news channel in this country?” Ashton asks, flicking through what seems to be three different channels playing clones of The Big Bang Theory.

“Something that's a—whatsit, an acronym,” Luke says.

“What?” says Ashton.

“You know, like, all letters,” Luke tries to explain.

“All words are made of letters, Luke!” Ashton says.

Luke opens his mouth to respond—because obviously he knows that—but then an image of a blonde woman in a suit comes up onscreen with a grainy video of people running projected behind her, the words “BREAKING NEWS” scrolling along the bottom, and they all fall silent.

“—and we've had reports from all over the globe that confirms that this phenomenon is an international crisis,” the woman is saying, her face grim. The videos behind her keep switching, handheld phone footage showing people disappearing all over in different countries, people freaking out and running, people screaming. “There's no way to be sure just yet what the implications of this catastrophe are, or how long this will last, but experts say as many as 1 in 6 people are simply vanishing all around the world. There does not seem to be a cause—the disappearance of individuals so far has been random, but specialists are working on tracking the similarities in the victims that could give us a better idea of who is at risk here. Until then, we have reason to believe that physical contact with another human being can stave off the disappearances.”

The video behind the woman changes again, swelling this time to fill the screen, with her voice projecting overtop, and Luke loses his breath: it's them.

“One of the first clear videos of this phenomenon in action came from a broadcast of a live performance of popular teen band “5 Seconds of Summer”. The four were in the middle of a performance this afternoon at the CBC building when bassist Calum Hood vanished from the stage.”

Luke watches in mute horror as the recording of himself stays staring out blankly at the crowd while Calum's hands fall away from his guitar, looking like he's just been slugged. On the other side of the stage, Michael looks up from his fingers on the fretboard all at once, as if someone has called his name, and glances over at Calum before abruptly shouting and sprinting for him, wrestling out of the guitar strap and flinging the guitar behind him as he goes. Sitting on the floor of the hotel room, Luke closes his eyes so he doesn't have to see the moment that the two of them disappear again. It's almost worse in flat 2d, the sound stripped away from the worst moments of Luke's life so that it can be presented under a cool voiceover as evidence, as proof.

“Guitarist Michael Clifford tackled his bandmate just as he vanished, and the two of them reappeared within seconds. Countless testimonies on twitter and facebook,” —and Luke opens his eyes to see that the video of them is gone, lists of tweets scrolling down the screen instead— “support the theory that being in physical contact with another human being at the time of disappearing could actually reverse the effects and pull them back.”

A huge screeching sound comes through the tv speakers, and the blonde lady jerks in surprise, staring off at something to the left of the eyeline of the camera on her. Her face goes white and her hand slides sideways on the stack of papers lying on her desk in front of her, sending them skidding and toppling over the edge like a slow, choppy waterfall.

“R—right now,” she says, rallying and returning her gaze to the front. “We ask that everyone stays indoors and with someone else, and that you refrain from operating any dangerous or heavy machinery. Do not drive. All airspace is closed. Until further notice, we are on lockdown.”

The screen flashes blue, and a red banner proclaims that the channel is having difficulties and will return with updates on the situation as soon as possible. The room is very silent, and Michael's hand feels cold now against Luke's.

“I'm gonna open the door, Luke,” Michael says quietly. “We gotta let go.”

For a second Luke wants to fight it, wants to scream that they should just destroy the door, take it down around him and Michael's fragile point of contact underneath it. Then he withdraws his hand, and Michael's swinging the door open and stumbling out into him, holding out his hand automatically for Luke to grab. It feels immeasurably safer to be palm to palm.

“I was gone,” Calum says in a small voice, staring at the screen. Ashton flicks the tv off belatedly. “I just—we just disappeared, we were gone.”

He looks up sharply at Michael, and Luke can see that he gets it now, how scary all of this is. Calum raises his hands for them, gesturing frantically for them to come closer. Luke pulls Michael back over to the bed, Calum grabbing Michael's free hand as soon as they are within reach, and they both crawl onto the end of it, settling down with their knees and legs pressed all along Calum and Ashton's. Ashton's leg is shaking—he's squirming against the comforter to try and worm his hand into the front pocket of his jeans.

“Guys,” he says, his voice tight. “They said it was international. That this is happening everywhere.”

For a second, Luke doesn't get Ashton's point, but then it bursts into his skull like a gasoline truck hitting a wall and exploding at high speed; everywhere means outside of this city, means everyone he knows and loves that isn't in this room could be gone right now. His mum and dad and brothers and friends and cousins—

“Oh, jesus,” Michael says, him and Calum both digging for their phones as well. Michael has to drop Luke's hand to do it, and Luke lets it fall against Calum's ankle, staring numbly at the poked-caterpillar curl of his pale fingers. He knows he should be getting out his phone too, but his limbs won't work. He feels suddenly very distant from everything. His family are probably fine, and he'd know if he'd check his phone, but it feels so far away in his pocket, and its information so uncertain.

Ashton has his phone pressed to his ear already, and it's only a second before he's saying, “Mum? Mum, it's me!”

Michael and Calum are dialing and Luke can't bring himself to pull his phone out of his pocket, and Ashton talks as fast as he can, asking if everyone is fine, telling his mum what happened to them. Luke sits very still and tries to get his brain to go calm and silent.

“Mum's fine,” Ashton says when he rings off in a minute. Michael is deep in conversation with his dad on the phone, his thumb tucked between his teeth as he listens. “But Lauren and Harry are stuck at school 'cause the buses aren't running and she doesn't know if they're okay and she's going to pick them up now.” He scrubs a hand over his face. All the laugh lines on his cheeks and brow have turned to wounds, and he looks old.

Calum takes his phone from his ear and stares at it.

“Mali's not picking up,” he says softly. “My parents didn't pick up and she's not either.”

“Yeah, Dad, me and the boys are fine, I told you,” Michael says. His eyes flick to Calum. “We're taking care of him, it'll be okay. Call me back when you've heard from the rest of the fam, I've gotta—I've gotta go.”

He says goodbye, and “I love you”, his face pinching up for a second like he's going to cry, and then he's dropping his phone into the comforter.

“They're not picking up,” Calum says. “Your Mum and Dad are fine?”

Michael nods, looking almost guilty.

“You know Mali never answers her phone, and your parents are always forgetting their cell phones,” Ashton says carefully to Calum.

“Or they're just not there anymore,” Calum mumbles. His face is turning a slow, brick red, and he's breathing like he's barely keeping it together. He looks up at Luke, and Luke almost wants to recoil. “What about you, what about Liz and your family?”

“I—” Luke swallows his words, dropping his gaze to his lap; he can see the boxy shape of his phone pressed against his thigh in these stupidly tight jeans and he can't look away from it. “I haven't called yet.”

“Is it too hard, do you want one of us to?” Ashton asks.

“No!” Luke blurts. “No, I just—” There's no way to explain that he simply doesn't want to know, can't deal with anything that is outside of the confines of this room, this bed. Calum looks like he's quietly imploding, and Luke doesn't know what he'll do if he calls and gets nothing as well. “They'll call me when they're near a phone, they'll definitely—I'll just wait for them to call.”

Ashton gives him a measured look, clearly trying to figure out how freaked Luke is, but the joke's on him—Luke's not sure even he knows just how freaked is, because the level of freaked is so high he's numb with it, like a person who gets so cold that they feel warm right before they freeze to death.

“Your parents will probably call you too,” Michael says to Calum. “I mean, maybe it started happening at different times all over the world, maybe it only just started happening back home and your parents just don't know about it yet because they're like, napping or something.”

“Yeah,” Calum says slowly. “Yeah.”

They sit in silence for a second, and then Ashton flops back against the bed.

“This is insane,” he says. “We leave home for one day for the last event thing of promo and the apocalypse decides to come. What are we supposed to do? Just sit here?”

“I guess so,” says Michael. “What else are we supposed to do? It's not like we can do anything to stop it.”

Luke thinks of the video of Calum's disappearance that they just saw, of the way Michael had started running before Calum had even started flickering a little. He'd known something Luke and Ashton hadn't—maybe they couldn't stop it from happening to other people, but Calum was still here because Michael had done something. Luke swallows hard; his throat feels tight and slimy, like he was the one who threw up within the hour, not Calum.

“We can't do anything,” he says, and he lets himself fall down next to Ashton like he wants, his legs still half thrown over Calum's and knocking into Michael. “Just make sure we're all still here.”

Ashton wriggles his arm out from under Luke and wraps it properly around Luke's shoulders, bringing him into the cradle of his body. Michael stretches out on Calum's other side and clings to him, one arm splayed out as far as it can get across the four of them so that he's touching Ashton's stomach and the edge of Luke's arm.

They're silent for a long, long time, pressed up together on the bed, but for all that it feels uncannily like it did that morning, this time none of them can fall asleep.

****

They come up with something to do that evening, when the sharp edge of boredom starts to cut into the tension and threat of near-death everywhere. Michael and Calum get up to walk around the room, Ashton insisting that it will be good for Calum even if he's still feeling weak, and they find some tiny complementary bottles of tequila in the mini-fridge.

They drink it all at once, sharing it out equally between the four of them, and there's not enough to get properly drunk, but they haven't really eaten anything since lunch, so there's at least a pleasant buzz working its way through Luke's system by the time the last bottle is empty. It's enough to stop him from thinking about how neither his nor Calum's phones have rung. Ashton's had a couple hours before—his mum found his siblings and had called all of their other relatives and they were okay, the whole family. Ashton cried a little bit after he hung up the phone. He kept saying “sorry” to the rest of them, and Luke still doesn't know what he was sorry for.

“Do you think it's aliens?” Calum asks. He's lying on his back on the floor, his head propped up on Michael's chest. “What's happening, I mean.”

“Aliens aren't real,” says Ashton. “But yeah, maybe.”

“Or it's just god punishing us for something,” Luke says.  “Like the flood that wiped out everyone but Noah and his crew.”

“His crew,” Calum snorts. “Like they were a gang or something.”

“I want a gang full of animals,” Michael mutters.

Luke rests his forehead on Ashton's knee and closes his eyes. Ashton's staring out the window, but Luke couldn't bring himself to look longer than a minute, and had sunk to the floor to rest against the wall, Ashton standing over him like he's keeping guard. Outside, the streets are completely empty, as if everyone has abandoned the city, and it's unnerving in a way the screaming and panic wasn't.

“I don't think I believe in god,” Ashton says slowly. “Not if this is something they would do.”

The sun is setting, and Luke shutters his eyes, watching the movement of the light drenching the far wall through the film of his eyelashes. Shadows are slowly taking over the room, creeping up the sprawl of Calum and Michael, claiming them inch by inch. Luke can feel Ashton's bony knee shifting under the press of his skull, and he rolls his head from side to side to make it move more until Ashton drops a hand to his head and stills him.

“I heard on the radio once,” Ashton says, “an interview with some author guy who said that there's a theory that humans are like parasites on the earth, and that the earth is going to get rid of most of us to ensure its survival.”

“1 in 6,” Michael says. “That's not most.”

“Yet,” Ashton says. His fingers push through Luke's hair, and Luke exhales slowly, relaxing into the touch. He wants to get drunk more, wants to be able to go out and party with Calum and forget this entire day, but he can't even leave this room.

“Maybe this will all be over tomorrow,” Michael says. “And Cal will be safe and so will all of us.”

“And the people who are gone?” Luke asks.

“Maybe they'll come back.”

They're all silent, and Luke can hear in the emptiness that none of them believe that.

****

Jack calls just as the four of them are dragging themselves into bed. His voice is cut up and scraped dry, and he tells Luke that their whole family is safe—parents, Ben, cousins—but that he can't find Celeste.

“She was pregnant,” he says, tiny and tinny through the phone. “I hadn't told any of you guys yet, but she was—we were gonna have a kid.”

Calum and Michael and Ashton don't say anything when Luke finally gets off the phone, after Jack says, “thank god you're fine, Lukey, you gotta stay okay 'till this is over and you can get back to us, you promise, okay?” and Luke makes a promise he's not sure he can keep. The three of them fold up Luke in their arms and he lets his bruised mind sink into the oblivion of sleep.

****

day one

For a solid minute after Luke wakes up, he doesn't remember anything about the day before. 

He opens his eyes to find his face shoved into someone's armpit, a fold of red fabric cutting into his cheek. There's a film of sweat coating his cheek, sticking him to the other person's shirt, and his body clenches automatically when the smell of it hits him. His legs are wound through someone's, and there's warmth and pressure at his back, breath on his neck. He blinks once, eyes sticky with sleep, and edges his face back on the pillow 'till he can see Ashton's sleeping face in front of him, cheek resting on the arm stretched up over his head. Luke watches him breath for a moment, feeling heavy and lethargic, and then slowly turns his head to look over his shoulder—it's Michael behind him, his eyes squinched shut, the rounds of them flickering fitfully under the lids like he's dreaming about something disturbing. Luke stares at him, feeling like something about the three of them here is wrong—memories of yesterday evening are trickling in, the moments just before sleep. It hadn't been Michael at his back then; Michael had been on the edge, holding Calum, and Calum was in the middle of the group with Luke—

He sits up so abruptly it makes his head swim. There's an open space on the bed beside him, Michael's lower half curled away like there used to be something there between them. The sheets are rumpled in the blank spot, and Calum is gone.

There's a screaming sound building in the back of Luke's mind, and for a second he just sits there in bed, looking around the room like he can get Calum to jump out from behind a suitcase or the tv. The bathroom door is open, and he can see that no one is in there. The connecting door to their other room is closed, Michael's bag leaning against it like it was yesterday, untouched.

Calum is nowhere.

Luke half falls, half jumps out of the bed, scrambling for the door. He yanks it open and pitches out into the hallway, looking up and down for a sign of something, anything. It's completely silent, empty except for a huge toppled over suitcase propping a door open four doors down, but Calum can't be gone, he can't be, he can't be—

Luke runs down the hallway to the door at the end and shoves it open to crash into the stairwell.

“Calum?” he yells, finally finding his voice. “Calum! Calum!”

He hurtles down the stairs, slipping and skidding and banging his shoulders into the walls. One flight, then two, and he's rounding the corner onto the next landing and there's a tall boy in the corner, slumped against a vending machine. There's a swell of emotion so huge it feels crippling in Luke's chest, and he trips down the last few steps on his way to Calum's side.

“Calum?” Luke gasps, rushing over and tipping him off the vending machine onto Luke's shoulder. Calum's eyes are open, but distant, and he takes a minute to focus on Luke's face.

“I was hungry,” Calum says vaguely. Luke chokes on a laugh and hugs him as hard as he can.

“Jesus, Cal,” he says shakily. “I thought you were gone, I thought—jesus, you can't do that.”

He can't stop touching him, running his hands up and down Calum's spine, memorizing the feel of his bones under his skin, through his t-shirt. The adrenaline pumping through his veins is itchy and electric, demanding anger and violence and something Luke can't even name, so he clings to Calum as hard as he can to make sure he doesn't do something crazy like punch him, or, or—or he doesn't know what.

“I was hungry,” Calum repeats, a little stronger this time. “And I was, I was still a little asleep, I think, and I didn't want to wake you guys, and I remembered from exploring the hotel before that this was here.”

“You can't do that again,” Luke says. “You take one of us with you next time.”

“I don't feel so good,” Calum murmurs. “I think I—”

“What?” Luke says, and pulls away enough that he can study Calum's face. He looks weirdly pale, sweaty and detached like he's got a fever.

“Michael,” Calum says. “I need Mikey.”

Luke recoils a little, trying to push down the instinctive rush of hurt.

“Then we gotta get back,” he says, and he pulls Calum towards the stairs.

When they get back to their floor, Luke can hear Michael's voice, yelling Ashton's name. It gets clearer as they get closer to their open room door, and when Luke and Calum lurch into the doorway, they can see Michael sitting upright in bed, shaking Ashton.

“Ash, you gotta wake up, they're gone, Ash—”

“Mike,” Calum breathes, and Michael whips his head around to face them. The panic falls away from his face, and Calum is suddenly strong under Luke's hands, lurching forward and dragging Luke with him until they reach the edge of the bed and Calum can collapse down into Michael's waiting arms.

“Mikey,” Calum says again, smushed into Michael's neck, and Michael rocks him back and forth, saying his name over and over again. Beside them, Ashton groans and blinks his way into consciousness, curling slowly up and staring around like he doesn't recognize his surroundings.

“Where were you guys?” Michael demands, looking at Luke. “I woke up 'cause I—I think I felt that Calum was gone...you guys can't just leave without leaving a note or something, I thought—but I couldn't go look for you, I couldn't leave Ashton—”

“Calum left,” Luke says defensively. “When I woke up he was gone and I found him practically passed out on a vending machine and I brought him back.”

Michael closes his mouth, his anger clearly evaporating. He holds onto Calum tighter, bunching his hands in the back of Calum's shirt until there are sharp lines in the fabric spiking out from his fist like fractures in glass. 

“Thank you,” he says to Luke.

Luke reels back, and almost takes his own hand off Calum's waist before he remembers that he can't. What the fuck is Michael thanking him for? Talking as if Luke wanted Calum back only for Michael's sake, not his own, as if Calum belongs to Michael in a way he doesn't to Luke. As if Luke doesn't belong that way to Michael. He wants very badly to be away from the two of them all of a sudden, but he can't—not alone.

He climbs onto the bed and tucks himself into Ashton's lap, so he can feel something other than stupid. Ashton has always felt like protection, and that didn't stop when Luke got taller and and broader and bigger than all of them. Ashton is always bigger in his head, and when he automatically, sleepily, puts his arms around Luke, it's exactly what Luke needs.

“Calum...left?” Ashton says, still catching up. “Like, while we were asleep?”

“I'm sorry,” Calum whines, pulling his face out of Michael's throat so he can be heard properly. The two of them have fallen back on the bed, Calum settled comfortably all over Michael like that's where he naturally belongs.

“You do get that you literally fucking almost disappeared into thin air yesterday, right?” Ashton says. He's warming up to his anger, and Luke heavily approves. “Out of all of us, you're probably the most likely to vanish, and you're running off on your own?”

“I was hungry,” Calum says. “And I just—I forgot. This isn't exactly normal, okay, sorry I couldn't remember that it was end of days when I was half asleep.”

“That's exactly when you've gotta be remembering it!” Ashton says. “What if—god, what if we move away from each other in our sleep?”

“There's no room for that on this bed, we'd fall off the edge if we tried to spread out away from each other,” Calum says.

Michael's hands have loosened in Calum's shirt, and are stroking back and forth down his spine, just like Luke did when he found him. Luke's own hands twitch with the urge to reach out and touch again, and he shoves them up under Ashton's shirt to satisfy the stupid feeling. Ashton's tummy jumps under his hands, but he doesn't push Luke off like he would have only a few days ago, ignoring him to lean forward and say, “yeah, but what if one of us gets up to go to the bathroom in the night and disappears, what then, huh?”

“Then we disappear,” Calum says grumpily. “What is your point?”

Yesterday they'd worked out that if they needed to take a piss someone would have to go with them and stand with their backs pressed together so the pisser could have both hands free for dick-aiming. It was awkward, but not much more than peeing at a urinal next to each other. Luke can see how easy it would be to forget though, especially in the middle of the night, when bathroom breaks are more instinctive than thought out.

“My point is we should—I don't know, tie ourselves together before we go to sleep,” Ashton says. “Or at least you and Michael.”

“We don't need to do that. And why specifically those two?” Luke asks.

“They both disappeared together,” Ashton says. “And Michael just said that he woke up 'cause he could feel that Calum wasn't here anymore. What if they're—what if you two are connected somehow now?”

Calum pushes himself up on one elbow, lifting off of Michael to gaze down at him. Their eyes meet and then skate away from each other, and they both laugh nervously.

“I hope not,” says Michael. “I don't want to be stuck with him.”

“You've been stuck with me for most of our lives, you dick,” Calum says.

“You're stuck with all of us,” Luke says. “Both of you, all of us, we're stuck with each other, especially now—who cares if they are connected or whatever, as long as the four of us stay together, we'll all be safe.”

He feels childish and dumb after his outburst, sure that the confused tangle of emotion inside his chest will be visible on his face. He pushes his cheek against Ashton's thigh and stares down at the bedspread.

Someone's hand touches lightly down on the back of his neck, and it's the simplest touch possible, but he feels his entire body go loose with it.

“Yeah,” Michael says softly, and Luke knows it's his hand more surely than he's known anything else before.

They all get up eventually and dig out as much cash as they can find in the bottom of their bags before they head out as a group to visit the vending machine for breakfast. Between them they have only enough Canadian money to buy six tiny bags of chips and one chocolate bar.

“So much for being rich and famous,” Calum says when they've demolished their pile back at the room.

“Money in a bank means squat if you can't get it,” Michael says.

Luke stares down at the crumpled village of wrappers in the centre of the table, silver insides pulled out to get all the crumbs, the turned out corners poking up like tiny roofs with solar panels.

“This doesn't feel like an apocalypse,” he says. “Like, nothing's different except that we have to lean on each other all the time.”

Michael half-heartedly sings a few lines of “Lean On Me” against Calum's cheek. They both look tired, tipped together with crumbs at the corners of their mouths.

“I mean, the city has sort of ground to a standstill,” Ashton says. “And we can't get home because of it. But, yeah, I know what you mean.”

“It's too quiet for an apocalypse,” Calum murmurs.

“That's what real endings sound like though,” Michael says suddenly. “Silence.”

The word swells and consumes them for a long moment. Luke presses his shoulder harder against Ashton, tangling his legs with either Calum or Michael's under the table; he can't tell the difference between them because they're too close.  

“Sounds like something from a song,” Ashton says, determinedly cheerful. “Mr. Award-Winning Songwriter here.”

“You know it,” Michael says. “It's from something new I've been working on called 'The Apocalypse Can Suck My Balls'.”

Calum laughs, and it's so good to see it that Luke feels his own face stretching up into a grin in response.

“We can put out a whole apocaplypse-themed album after this is over,” Luke says. “Called 'Fuck You'.”

“Or maybe 'ApocaDick',” Michael says cheekily.

“Nah, I'm feeling the 'Fuck You',” Calum puts in. “Really gets to the point.”

“'ApocaDick' is too clever, then?” Michael says.

“Too subtle,” Ashton laughs.

“It can be the lead single instead,” Luke says, and they all nod like they're at a proper meeting about an album release.

It's so ordinary that Luke can barely breathe. They're sitting at a table with the remains of junk food in front of them, grinning and making stupid jokes, and it doesn't feel like they're in danger. Calum and Michael look tired, yeah, but they're here in front of Luke, and they're not going anywhere.

“Once we release it we'll make enough money to actually buy enough food to eat from the vending machine,” Calum says wryly.

“Don't worry about that. We'll figure out something more later on,” Ashton says. “We've got this, guys.”

He doesn't say what, exactly, it is they've got. The problem is, it's a waiting game. Waiting for Calum's parents to call and say they're okay, waiting for the news channels to come back on and tell them that everything's clear, waiting for airports to open again so they can go home. Waiting for someone to tell them that this is over.

They leave the tv on with the news channel up, but the banner talking about “technical difficulties” doesn't ever give way to any actual news. Every other channel is either static, or a long line of pre-programmed re-runs of shows and advertisements. The wi-fi is down—they've got cell reception, but no internet, not even with the 3G, and they can't get any news that way.

Luke and Michael and Ashton's families all call again at some point that morning. There's not much news from them, although Michael learns that some of his extended family are out of reach and might be gone. They try to keep Calum with someone in the other room when it happens so his phone's silence will be less pronounced, but Calum catches on and makes them put the calls on speakerphone so he can ask Michael's mother and then Ashton's sister and then Luke's father if any of them have seen or heard from Calum's family. None of them have, but they're all quick to emphasize how locked down everything is, how no one is leaving their houses, not to go to work, not to go outside for a moment, not to do anything.

“The streets are so empty,” Luke's Dad says. “It's like the whole country has gone underground.”

It's still the same in Toronto—the view from the window is that of a dead city, no change since yesterday. There's a car abandoned in the middle of the road directly below their building, the driver's door still open, and Luke looks for it each time he glances out, strangely sure that someone is going to move it.

When the morning crawls over into afternoon, Calum decides he can't take it anymore.

“This is boring,” he says loudly, throwing down his hand of cards. They've been sitting in a tight circle on the floor, knees pressed together, playing cards for the last half an hour. “We should go exploring.”

“Exploring what?” Luke asks.

“The hotel, obviously,” Calum says. “I'm not saying we should go running through the streets, don't look at me like that.”

“I'd rather just stay here,” Michael mutters.

“No, it's a good idea,” Ashton says firmly. “We should do something. Walking around holding hands isn't going to make us more likely to disappear than lying down.”

“Oh?” says Michael, batting his eyelashes. “Do you want to hold my hand, Ash?”

“Fuck off, gross,” Ashton giggles.

“You want to hold my haaaand,” Michael sings, lurching forward to smear his palms over Ashton's face. Ashton falls back against Luke, laughing and scrunching his face into the exaggerated look of horror he likes to put on when he's really super pleased that someone's playing with him.

Calum shakes his head in mock-seriousness and looks at Luke.

“Children,” he says. “Both of them.”

“Don't know how we put up with it,” Luke agrees.

“I'm the oldest!” Ashton protests.

Luke shrugs, and Ashton shoves at him before getting to his feet and offering his hand.

“C'mon,” he says.

At Michael's insistence, they go out into the hallway in a long daisy chain of clasped hands, Luke held secure between Ashton and Calum, with Michael bringing up the other end. The hallway is as empty and silent as it was the day before, but somehow it's less unnerving when Luke has two people holding his hands as he moves forward. He's always liked hand-holding, but it was something you did with girls, not best friends.

Calum strokes his thumb over Luke's knuckles as they walk, and it's really kind of nice. Luke can close his eyes if he wants to and still know Calum is here next to him, just by his touch.

“Oooh, look,” Michael says as they approach the suitcase Luke had seen in the hallway that morning. It's huge and black and is keeping the door of room #290 propped open. They all peer around the door to look inside and the room is dim, but full—suitcases and things are strewn everywhere.

“Cool,” says Calum. “Let's go in, come on.”

They split into pairs to fit through the door, Michael and Calum climbing over the suitcase first and Ashton and Luke following. Calum flicks the light on, and they can see that the room looks almost exactly like theirs in layout except for a pullout cot stationed next to the huge bed. It also looks like someone put clothes in a cannon and shot them all over the room. The whole thing is a weird tableau of the middle of packing—there's three suitcases on the floor, a bag on the bed with lingerie spilling out of it, bathing suits hanging from the bedposts, toys in bright primary colours sitting expectantly on the cot.  Luke stops just in the doorway, his heels still touching the black suitcase in the hall, and when Ashton looks back at him for an explanation, Luke can't find any words to explain the choked feeling in his throat.

Calum and Michael wander further into the room, looking around.

“Look at all this stuff they just left here,” Michael says, kicking at a suitcase on the ground.

Calum makes a beeline for the bag on the bed, pulling Michael with him.

“It's nice stuff too. Sexy,” he coos, pulling out a lacy pink bra and dangling it up in front of his chest. Michael reaches up with his free hand and helps him drape it so it looks like he could be wearing it, and they both look to Ashton and Luke for approval.

“Do you think this is my colour?” Calum asks in a simpering tone.

“They're gone,” Luke blurts. “The people who were staying in this room all disappeared right here.”

The grin on Calum's face fades.

“You don't know that,” Michael says, throwing the bra back down into the bag. “They could've just been out and then not been able to get back to the hotel 'cause of the shit going down.”

“No,” Ashton says slowly, pulling Luke further into the room. He's looking around, turning to take it all in. “Luke's right. Look, they were packing...they were going to leave.” He points at the suitcase still keeping the door open, toppled over on its side with the handle extended like it's looking for a hand. “Someone was halfway out the door—”

“When they went,” Calum finishes.

Luke squeezes Ashton's hand as hard as he can, and Ashton squeezes right back. It hurts.

“There were kids,” he says, nudging his toe into the edge of a Lego sculpture lying half-demolished on the floor.

“Fuck,” Michael says.

For a long moment they all just stare around the room; there's a whole life scattered here, and it's a reminder that it's been real people who have been disappearing, people who lived and kids who didn't get to.

“I change my mind,” Calum says. “I think we should maybe just stay in the room.”

Luke nods. “Yeah, that—”

There's a huge, distant bloom of crashing sound, so loud it feels like it shakes the whole building, and they all run to the window, shoulders slamming into each other. Ashton's hand falls away as he rips the curtains aside, and Luke scrabbles with panic for something else on him to hold, pushing at his side before cramming his fingers underneath the waistband of Ashton's jeans. He slides his other hand around to Calum's waist just before the sun hits them and they can see out across the city.

A thick pillar of black smoke is rising from a spot that looks about a mile away, billowing out ominously into the sky like a signal fire, like an SOS. The buildings are too high for them to be able to see any wreckage or flames, but it's obvious what created the smoke. Luke's heart is in his throat, beating out like a war drum.

“Was that an explosion?” Calum says. He's not really asking.

“Yeah,” Michael breathes. “Fuck.”

“What do you think happened?” Luke asks.

“Either something blew up by itself,” Ashton says, “or someone made that happen.”

Both options aren't good.

They watch for a few moments longer before they all head back to the room in an inevitable line, hands clasped. It's not any safer there than it is anywhere else, but they have nowhere else to go, and it feels familiar now after a day and a half of being in it. They fall on the bed together in one big jumble, and Luke closes his eyes and holds on.

Nothing feels ordinary anymore.

****

The news comes back on for half an hour at 4pm. It's the same lady as before—she doesn't look as put together as the day before, but she sits alone and brave in front of the camera and reads out the news. There are no videos behind her this time.

It's international news first—reports on especially large catastrophes now happening in other countries, reports on which countries they've completely lost contact with. Australia isn't mentioned, and they all choose to take that as good news.

Local stuff comes second, information on the situation in Canada and Toronto, and it's then that they really start listening.

“Since yesterday there have been increased reports of riots and looting happening within the GTA,” the lady says. “Pre-existing gangs seem to gaining more numbers, and several new ones are forming. We understand that citizens are worried about how long this crisis will last and how they will feed and support themselves, but we want to emphasize that looting is not the answer. Since my words will probably not be enough to stop it, citizens should be aware that the streets of Toronto are dangerous for more than one reason at this time. Law enforcement is being run on a volunteer basis only, and is very limited. We still recommend staying in your homes for now. We are attempting to keep the electricity and water running for the city, but personnel is scarce."

She pauses and sets down her papers, leaning forward and clasping her hands together. “The mayor of Toronto is still missing. The prime minister of this country is nowhere to be found, and there has been no clear communication or broadcast from the capitol to give us an idea of who is running the country now. Transportation in and out of the city is almost impossible; planes are still not allowed in the air, and the amount of abandoned cars on the roads and the wreckages from crashes with those abandoned cars have made the freeways impassable. The city of Toronto is on its own. I cannot promise that we will be able to keep up this broadcast in the coming days, as we have lost a great deal of our staff, but as long as I am still here, I will try to keep all those that can see this updated.”

She breathes out, long and slow, and sits back in her chair.

“The rate of disappearances has increased since yesterday,” she says. “It's believed to be 1 in 4 now. No explanation for why this is occurring has been found yet.”

1 in 4. Luke looks at Calum automatically, almost expecting to see him blinking out of existence, but he's cuddled up between Ashton and Michael, his face half-hidden behind his hand. Luke can feel Ashton's arm flex against his side when he tightens his hand on Calum's leg.

“They didn't mention the explosion,” Calum says when the broadcast is over and the screen has gone blue again. This time the banner promises that the news will return at 4pm tomorrow. “Do you think they don't know about it?”

“Maybe they didn't want to make people even more scared,” Ashton says. “Looting sounds a whole lot better than 'people are blowing shit up'.”

“Still could've been an accident,” Michael says, but it's clear he doesn't believe it.

“I'm so glad you guys are here,” Luke blurts out, still staring at the tv. He can feel them all turn to look at him, and he closes his eyes. “I don't think I could—I think I'd go nuts if I was alone.”

“Yeah,” Calum says softly.

“5SOS at the end of the world together,” Ashton mutters. “Seems right. There's no other lads I'd want to be here with.”

“That can be in the ballad song for our apocalypse album,” Michael says. “The only slow song. Everything else is metal.”

A laugh isn't really in Luke right now, but it's good to hear a joke anyway.

“It's just us screaming,” he says, opening his eyes. Someone's turned the tv off.

“With guitars.”

“With guitars.”

“And drums. And bass,” Ashton puts in. Calum grins at him. 

“Yes, Ashton, I'm aware what instruments are in our band!” Michael says.

Ashton reaches over and flicks Michael in the side of his neck, and Michael squeaks. They're smiling at each other though, and it's a good moment in a strange, pitch black day.

****

Calum needs to go to the bathroom a couple hours later, and Ashton goes with him. As soon as they peel themselves up off the bed, Luke rolls into the space they've left so he can settle against Michael's side.

He watches Michael out of the corner of his eye, trying to find something different about his face, something about the set of his mouth or the droop of his eyelids or the slope of his nose that says “psychic”, or “bonded to Calum”. He looks tired, and there's dark circles under his eyes, but that's honestly not that different from regular Michael.

“Why did you thank me?” Luke asks.

“What?” Michael says.

“This morning, when I found Calum and brought him back,” Luke says. “I—he's not yours, I didn't—” He pauses, trying to figure out how to say what it is that's been curdling in his head all day. “Did you think I haven't been as worried about him as you are because I can't sense when he's going to vanish like you can? I—he's my friend just as much as...”

Michael shifts, turning abruptly from his back to his side so he can face Luke, close enough that Luke would have been reeling back if this was taking place only a few days ago. Luke trails off, feeling immeasurably stupid. Michael's brow is furrowed, his eyes searching over Luke's face, and Luke resists the prickling urge to look away.

“No, you tit,” Michael says. “I know you love him, I know that.” Luke's whole body flushes hot at Michael's words, and he can't do it—he ducks his head and fixes his eyes on the clean shelf of Michael's collarbone peeking out of the neck of his shirt. “But if it was you who was on the brink of vanishing all the time and Calum went and found you, I'd say thank you to him too, 'cause I can't—I can't lose any of you guys. I just can't.”

Luke clumsily slides an arm over Michael's waist. He's warm and solid, and his breath smells kind of gross, and Luke wants to be as close to him as possible. There's always been something overwhelming about Michael when he's being sincere, and it still makes Luke feel off-kilter, even after knowing him for years.

“Yeah,” says Luke. “Yeah, I—”

“We're not losing him,” Michael says. “And we're not losing Ashton. And we're not losing you.”

“How did you know?” Luke asks. “In the video of Calum disappearing, you started running for him before he even started, like, flickering. How did you know it was going to happen?” It comes out almost as a whine; the plaintive why didn't I know inside it is obvious.

Michael takes a long, slow breath. “I don't know. Maybe it's 'cause I've known him the longest out of all of us. Maybe it's just something about me, and I would've noticed first if it was you or Ashton disappearing. I don't know, Luke. But it's not 'cause you did anything wrong.”

The bathroom door swings open and Calum and Ashton troop slowly out. Calum's tucking his phone away, and his face is a kind of blank that is somehow more telling than tears would be. It's clear he tried to call home again and still didn't get a response.

“Ashton took a shit,” is all he says. “Stank up the whole bathroom.”

“Ashton!” Michael cries. “What happened to the no shitting on the tourbus rule?”

“This isn't the tourbus!” Ashton says defensively.

“It's not that much bigger than it!” Michael shoots back.

Calum sinks down onto the bed next to Luke, and Luke turns onto his back and opens his arms for Calum to crawl into. Calum gives one fierce sniff and presses his damp face into Luke's neck. Luke strokes his palm across the span of Calum's shoulders and lets his mind go empty and hazy. He wonders for a second if there was more than one kid from the room down the hall, if any of the people in that family had sensed one of the others about to disappear and almost saved them, but he pulls himself out of that train of thought before he can go too deep.

There's no point.

****

“The news lady said no looting,” Luke says faintly.

They're standing in front of the vending machine, and they have no money to get dinner out of it. Michael had raised the idea of looking through the abandoned room down the hall to see if they could find a wallet, but none of them had really wanted to go back in there.

Instead, Ashton's got the metal lamp from the bedside table in his hand, and Luke is carrying a stack of towels.

“We don't have anything to eat,” Michael says. “And this isn't our city. We can't just go home and get food there.”

“It's not looting if it's just a vending machine,” Calum says. “We could buy this whole thing if we just had our money. We can pay them back when this is all over.”

“I know,” Luke says. “I'm not stupid, it's just—”

Just that this makes them part of the problem. But it's a fleeting thought—he's hungry, and the others are right.

Calum lets go of Ashton's left hand so Ashton can hoist the lamp up properly, and Calum grabs onto his hips instead. Michael tugs Luke behind him, and Ashton swings the lamp back and then hits it against the glass of the vending machine as hard as he can. Cracks race panicked and spidery across the surface, splintering out, and Ashton rocks back and then forward, slamming the corner of the lamp down on the glass again. On the third strike, the lamp punches through the glass, shards spraying out and raining down on the landing.

“Yeah, Ash!” Calum says, patting him on the hip. Ashton yanks the lamp out of the hole he's created, and sets it carefully on the ground. He reaches back, and Luke hands him a towel.

“Suppertime,” Ashton says, and he wraps his hands in the towel and starts prying more pieces of glass off until he has enough space to reach in without cutting himself and grab some bags of chips.

He passes them back to Calum, who passes them back to Michael and Luke, and Calum whoops, his eyes brighter than Luke's seen in days. He always did love doing things they weren't necessarily supposed to do, and Luke finds himself grinning too. His stomach is growling, and there's pieces of glass turning to powder under their boots, and it's them against everything. There's something right about that.

“Suppertime,” he repeats.

****

When they turn the light out and all crawl into bed at the end of the day, Luke and Calum are in the middle, like the night before, but this time Michael ends up sliding his arms around Luke. He slept last night clinging to Calum like he thought it was the only thing keeping them both alive, and Luke figures Michael meant to get in on the other side of the bed.

“It's me,” he whispers. Calum bumps his head up under Luke's chin, cuddling into his chest.

“I know,” Michael says.

“Do you want me to switch with you so you can be next to Calum?” Luke asks.

“Nah,” Michael says quietly. Luke feels his nose and the tiniest brush of his lips against the back of his neck. It sends a strange, hot shiver down Luke’s spine, and he gasps soundlessly. “I'm good here. You and Ash've got him. And I've got you.”

Calum's hand finds Luke's between their chests, lacing their fingers together, and with Michael's arm around Luke and Ashton's arm around Calum, all four of their hands end up bumping together, holding on in a tangle of fingers in the centre of their huddle. There's a slow surge in Luke's chest, like warm water being poured into a tub; he feels safe in a way he hasn't since he turned around onstage and saw Calum only half-there. He closes his eyes, and doesn't let go.

****

Luke wakes to the sound of two overlapping voices, seeping soft into his head like a slow rolling fog; it's dark when he opens his eyes, and his hands are empty. The whole left side of the bed is empty, and he blinks at the blurry topography of grey-washed sheets and his own arm lying across it, reaching. He can feel Michael at his back, warm and still in sleep.

One of the voices is gasping, and the other is soothing, and Luke rolls his head up on the pillow until he can see the silhouette of two figures standing in front of the wide windows, so close that they almost look like one person, just a shining line of dim light cutting between them.

“They're gone,” whispers one of the voices. “They're gone, they're gone, I know it, I—I can feel it, and I keep seeing them whenever I try to sleep, they're right there—”

“Calum, you don't know that,” and it's Ashton, low and urgent. “You can't be sure they're not fine.”

“No, I know they're gone,” Calum says. “And I'm supposed to be with them. I'm supposed to be gone too.” He sounds like he's crying.

“You're supposed to be here with us,” Ashton says fiercely.

“I saw Mali,” Calum says. “Just now, she was—she was reaching for me.”

“It was a dream,” Ashton says. “We're here. We won't let anything happen to you.”

The silhouettes sway together, and Luke is so very, very tired. He blinks against the urge to slip back into sleep, trying to hear better, caught by the idea that Calum is hurting.

“What if they are gone though?” Calum asks faintly. “What am I supposed to do, Ash?”

“I'm sorry,” Ashton says softly. “I'm sorry.”

Ashton moves forward, the crack of light between their bodies disappearing, and for a hazy, paralyzing second Luke thinks that they're—but it's only a hug. The two of them stand there wrapped around each other, casting one long black shadow on the carpet, and abruptly Luke can't take that they are so far away. He knows they're safe—they won't disappear, not if the two of them are touching each other—but it's not about that. Luke just wants them back here.

“Guys?” he whispers, and the two of them break apart in surprise, almost letting go completely before rubber-banding back into each other's arms as they remember. Luke flaps a hand at them, beckoning them over.

“Sorry,” Calum says quietly as he crawls onto the bed, Ashton crowding up behind him. “I didn't mean to wake you up—”

There are things Luke should say, things Calum should hear, but his brain's running on sleep mode, and only the essential hallways in his head have any power in the lights. It's all instinct to take Calum's hand and press his mouth to the cup of Calum's palm, pulling him down onto the bed next to Luke. Calum makes a strange sound—a wet gasp—and Luke reaches past him with his free arm to make sure Ashton is there too. Michael shifts behind Luke, his hands tightening around Luke's stomach and they're all there again, where they belong.

Luke falls back asleep to the sound of Ashton telling Calum that it's okay, over, and over, and over again.

****

day two

When they wake up the next day, their cell phones have lost reception.

“The cell towers must be down,” Ashton says, sitting on the bed in his boxers. The air conditioning is out as well, and the heat of summer is starting to creep in through the walls. They're all stripped to their underwear and touching as lightly as they can, feet and hands overlapped but bodies held apart.

“Couldn't they just be overloaded or something?” Luke says.

“I don't think so,” Ashton says. “I mean, yeah, they could, but we're not getting any signal anymore at all.”

“Maybe someone blew them up,” Michael says.

Calum is quiet—he's not even looking at his phone, unlike the rest of them. Luke knows better than to bring up Calum's dreams from last night, but he tips their shoulders together for an extra spot of sweaty contact, and Calum smiles a little.

“Maybe,” Ashton says.

The car in the middle of the street below is on fire—Luke doesn't know when that happened, only that it's been burning for at least half an hour now. He and Michael keep going back over to the window so they can look down at it, expecting it to blow up at any minute like in the movies. Twice when they went and looked they saw groups of people running between stores, carrying boards and bats and sticks.

Luke wouldn't be surprised if someone has blown up the cell towers.

“So we can't call home now,” Luke says. “Can't go on the internet and can't call.”

“It's fine,” Ashton says, sounding like he's trying to convince himself as much as them. “When this is over, it'll get fixed, and we'll call then. We don't need to talk to them now anyway. We just need to survive.”

“It doesn't make sense,” Luke says. “The whole city is shut down and everyone's going nuts already, and it's been what? Two days?”

“Maybe it's just Toronto freaking out like this,” Michael points out. “We don't know what it's like elsewhere. Maybe part of this whole disappearing thing is making people all paranoid and stuff. Like, more than they would be usually.”

“God, I can't think about that,” Calum says, scrubbing his hands over his thighs. “This is already too fucking weird for me. I bet it's just 'cause Canadians are fucked.”

The lights and water are still working, but Michael reminds them that they can't be certain how long that'll last for.

“I've played a lot of apocalyptic video games,” he says seriously. “They lose power pretty quick.”

They take turns showering in pairs, Luke and Calum first, Michael and Ashton second. There's only one connecting bathroom between the two rooms, so there's only one shower. The shower isn't quite made for two people at once, especially boys their size, but because of the circumstances, constantly knocking elbows and legs and stepping on each other's feet is actually a good thing. It's not the first time they've showered together, and definitely not the first time they've seen each other naked, but it's distinctly awkward this close. Luke's cock gets a little confused by all the bare, wet skin pressing near it, but Calum doesn't mention it, even when he kind of accidentally backs up into Luke's semi. They get clean and they get out of there. There's a lot of shouting when Michael and Ashton have to share, and then suddenly quite a bit of silence, and they're stilted and strange for half an hour after they leave the shower, but it works out. It might be the last chance they get to shower in a while, so Luke refuses to feel weird about it.

After Ashton points out that losing water would mean losing drinking water, they collect all of the water bottles and cups and other empty containers they can find in the rooms and fill them up with water. They put them all in the second room they aren't using, laying them out on every surface, including the ground, until it almost looks like a prank instead of stockpiling for emergency. There's not enough of the vending machine food to ration though, and they take breaks throughout the day to slowly eat it all.

“How do you think it works?” Luke asks Michael quietly over the last bag of Doritos. Calum and Ashton are in the other room organizing the water, and Luke doesn't really want Calum to hear this. “The disappearing, I mean. Like, is there a specific quota of people who have to disappear before it's done? Are we all going to disappear?”

“I don't know,” Michael says. “I think it's specific in terms of who it is though.”

“What do you mean?” Luke asks.

“I think the selection of who disappears doesn't have anything to do with time or place,” Michael explains. “Everyone doesn't disappear at the exact same time, and it's not like our whole audience disappeared all at once just because they were in the same spot. No, I figure it's gotta be something about the people themselves for who goes 'poof'.”

“You think they want Calum specifically?” Luke says. He suddenly feels twitchy with Calum in the other room out of his sight, and he listens hard until he can hear the rumble of Ashton's voice talking to Calum.

Michael nods. “I don't know why, and I don't think that means the rest of us are safe, but—but he was picked. And I—” He pauses mid-sentence, looking away, and Luke ducks his head to try and meet Michael's eyes again and get him to continue.

“I've been feeling more of it lately, like—like an echo of the pull I felt when I grabbed Calum onstage,” Michael says when Luke successfully stares him down. “So maybe if we keep him safe for long enough, they'll switch to a different target.”

“You?” Luke says, horrified.

“No,” Michael says. “That's not what I meant—we're keeping me safe too. No fucking way I'm vanishing into thin air again. Once was enough. Just—I think the focus can move, and that's good.”

“Better someone else go than Calum,” Luke says; it was meant to be a joke, but it comes out like a vow.

“Exactly,” Michael says seriously.

They're silent for a moment, eating. There's a shout from the other room—Ashton apparently knocking over a thing of water—and Luke listens to them argue faintly.

“I wonder if Celeste counted as two,” he says. “If being pregnant meant the baby counted too.”

He's been trying not to think about it, about Jack running through his house and yelling her name, about how long Luke has known her and how cool she is, about how apparently when she disappeared there was someone else who went too. He swallows hard around the lump in his throat and Michael pats him on the shoulder. Michael's lost people in his family too, according to the phone call from his parents yesterday, but they were all distant uncles and aunts and cousins that Michael had only met once or twice. This is different.

“I'm sorry,” Michael says. “This whole thing is shit.”

Luke gives a watery laugh. “Understatement of the century.”

“Maybe it is aliens,” Michael says. “And everyone who disappeared is alive and fine, they're just...somewhere else. All we know is that they're disappearing, not that they're dead.”

“You felt it,” Luke says. “You said it was like a pull. Did it feel evil?”

Michael opens his mouth, then closes it to think for a moment. “No. I don't think so. It just felt like it was trying to get Calum and I wasn't gonna let it.”

“Damn straight.”

There's nothing for them to do once they've gotten as much water stocked up as they can. They save enough of the vending machine food to make sure they can eat supper, and then they're stuck in the room. They drift like ghosts, moving from sprawling on the bed to staring out the window at the occasional movement of looters in the streets. Calum plays Candy Crush on his phone. They could try finding something to do in the hotel, but none of them are really keen on exploring anymore.

There's something stupid and ugly-feeling about boredom being Luke's biggest concern. He hates the way it makes him feel selfish. They talk for a while about how none of their security ever came back, batting around ideas about them just having gotten stranded at the venue and them being ultimately fine, but bringing up anyone potentially disappearing makes Calum go numb and silent, and none of them want to do that to him. Every channel is down on tv now except for the news one, so they drift and they talk and they wait for the news lady to come back on and tell them something good.

When she does come on, there's almost nothing new for her to say. She doesn't bother with international news at all, focusing almost exclusively on Toronto. She talks about the increased rates of attacks and looting in the city and again cautions people against participating in this or really venturing outside their houses at all unless they have essential jobs to perform for the city. She says the disappearances are still happening, but the rates have stabilized at 1 in 4.

“Although the researchers studying this phenomenon have suffered great losses to their team, they think they have come up with one common thread between some of the victims of this crisis,” the lady says, and they all sit up straighter. This is what they've been waiting for.

“It seems that there is a blood connection,” she says. “Generally, if one member of a family disappears, the rest will follow. It's unclear why certain familial groups are selected for this, but shared blood seems to be a definite factor.”

Calum lets out a tiny, choked noise, and Luke looks over to see that's he's biting down on his hand, his tattoo of his father's initials just barely visible under the sharp edge of his teeth. Ashton's arm around his back is one of the only things keeping him from shaking off the bed. Luke presses closer to Calum's side, trying to help ground him. Shared blood, he thinks numbly. Is that why all of his family is still probably safe, but Celeste is gone? If families go all together, than why are some distant parts of Michael's family gone, and not the rest?

Calum starts to cry as soon as the screen goes blue again, the bitten off, halting kind of crying that means he's trying his hardest not to. There's nothing any of them can do except hold him through it.

****

They can't go on like this.

****

day three

“We can't go on like this,” Ashton says. He and Michael are standing in the middle of the room and there's a crumpled up wrapper of a chocolate bar in his hand—the last of its' kind from the vending machine. “All that's left is the fucking skittles. Skittles are not actual food.”

“Well, what are we supposed to do?” Calum asks. He looks paler than the day before, like finally crying has stripped away a layer of colour from him. He's been clingier with all of them since yesterday's news broadcast, and Luke gets it—they're all Calum has left. “Try and leave the hotel to find a grocery store and probably get shot?”

When Luke got up that morning and looked out the window, there had been what looked like a body on the ground next to the charred shell of the car. Not vanished. Dead. He hasn't left the bed since seeing that, lying curled up next to Calum.

“No,” Ashton says in frustration. “I don't have a fucking death wish. I'm just saying, we have to find food.”

They lapse into silence, all thinking. Calum rolls his head against Luke's shoulder and Michael slumps harder on Ashton, drooping like a dying flower.

“Too bad we can't just order room service,” Calum mutters, and Luke shoots bolt upright, almost sending Calum flying.

“But that's it,” Luke says. “If we can get room service normally, that means there's obviously a kitchen somewhere in the hotel. And a kitchen has food.”

“Luke, you're a genius!” Michael says, straightening up and squeezing Ashton's arm. “We don't have to leave the hotel—we can just go downstairs and find it and then there's all the food we'll need for months! Not that we're going to be here for months, I mean, but it'll be definitely enough to feed us for today!”

Ashton's nodding, excited already about the prospect of being able to do something concrete to help their situation, and when Luke looks back down at Calum, even he looks tentatively optimistic. Calum sits up slowly, looking around at all of them.

“Let's do this, guys,” he says.

Having a mission outside of “fill cups up with water” gives them strength again, and they get dressed despite the heat—there's the off-chance that someone else might still be in the hotel and see them—and grab a couple duffel bags to carry food in. Luke makes sure the keycard is in his pocket, and then they grab hands and creep out into the hallway.

“Stairs,” Ashton says. “Don't want to take the chance that the electricity goes while we're in the elevator.”

“Twenty-nine floors,” Calum groans, but they head to the stairs anyway.

Luke half-heartedly hopes that they'll come across another vending machine somewhere farther down the stairwell and not have to go all the way down to the lobby, but the one they smashed two days ago is the only one. Traces of glass stick to their shoes and crunch on the steps for the next five floors. Ashton and Michael are in good spirits, or trying to appear so anyway, and they lead a little singalong for a couple minutes until they hear something creak down a hallway and they all freeze in terror. Nothing and no one comes suddenly around the corner to kill them, but they're quieter after that, their fingers making grooves in the backs of each others' hands from holding on so tight.

It takes them about twenty minutes to reach the bottom floor, and they all hesitate in front of the door leading out into the lobby for a moment. They can't hear any sound leaking through, and finally Calum steps forward and pushes through, leading the way out onto the first floor.

It's completely empty. Wide checkered slats of polished wood stretch away from them all the way across the room to the row of glass doors leading outside, various pieces of luggage sagging in various places like islands in some strange sea. There's no one at the reception desk, and no sign that any type of staff has been down here to even try and clear anything away. The sound of their footsteps is huge in the quiet, and they stay clustered near the door, gazing around.

Through the doors to the street, Luke can see the singed front bumper of the abandoned car. He doesn't want to get closer and risk seeing the dead body he knows is on the other side of it.

“There,” Michael says, pointing suddenly to a set of double doors with a gold sign with a knife and fork on it. “The dining area must be through there.”

It's on the other side of the room; they run to it, Luke determinedly not looking towards the street. His limbs feel so tense they could snap off like sticks. Someone outside could see them.

They push through the doors and plunge into a huge ballroom. There are tables pushed to the side around a dancefloor, staircases sweeping up to a balcony that hugs the whole room and looks down on them all. Luke's stalled for a second, staring up at the curved banisters above them, and then Michael's tugging him towards the side of the room, towards another door.

“This could be the kitchen here,” Ashton calls back, him and Calum already pushing through.

They're right—when Michael and Luke follow them through the swinging door, Calum is already whooping in triumph, holding his and Ashton's clasped fist up in the air like a referee declaring the winning boxer in a fight. There are rows of shining white counters all around them, with silver pots and spoons and knives hanging from the ceiling above, stove tops and ovens and microwaves tucked in all over the place.

“That was so easy!” Calum exclaims. “I can't believe we were sitting up in our room for two days eating vending machine shit when it was so easy to find this place and get in!”

“We still need to find the fridge or the pantry or somewhere with actual food,” Ashton reminds him, but he's grinning too, gazing around in satisfaction. Luke knows how he feels; they've needed a victory.  Calum in particular looks stronger than he has in days, excited and animated instead of pale and weak.

“Shouldn't be far,” Michael says. “Come on, we got this!”

It takes about two minutes to find the shelves with all the dried food, and only ten more seconds to locate the walk-in fridge basically right next to it. It's at the very end of the kitchen, halfway around a little corner, but the door to the ballroom is still clearly visible from it.

“Jackpot,” Michael crows.

“Alright, we wanna get stuff we don't need to cook,” Ashton says as Calum and Michael start to dig into the shelves. “Like bread and jam and whatnot. Sandwiches over steak, guys.”

“There's like pre-made spaghetti and shit in here,” Luke says, gazing into the stacks of tupperware in the fridge. “We've got two mini-fridges in our rooms and a microwave; we could take some of this.”

“Smart boy,” Ashton says, shooting little finger pistols at Luke. Luke feels disproportionately pleased. “Here, we'll load up one bag with that, and Mikey and Calum can get the dry stuff.”

“If there's any chicken burgers, grab 'em,” Michael yells. “I don't care if I have to cook them in the microwave, I need a damn chicken burger.”

Luke laughs, and they get to work.

The fridge is freezing cold, and the bag's only half-filled when Luke tells Ashton he needs a minute and steps back out into the kitchen to warm himself up. Michael and Calum are laughing and saying something about dicks, and it's so good to hear laughter that Luke lets himself sag against the wall, closing his eyes for a moment to just breathe. Calum's voice is doing that jumpy thing it does when he's happy, ringing out over Michael, and in the dark of Luke's head, they could be anywhere. They could be in a recording studio, they could be back at home, they could be somewhere safe, some place where none of this has happened.

He opens his eyes, and a flicker of movement at the edge of his vision pulls his head over so fast he almost cracks it on the wall. He staggers in place, looking down the line of counters, and his eyes fasten on the door to the ballroom. It's moving slightly, as if someone just pushed through it.

“Guys,” Luke hisses. “Guys, shut up, quick, shut up.”

Calum's laughter cuts off, and Luke feels Ashton's presence moving up just behind his shoulders.

“Luke, what is it?” Ashton asks quietly.

Luke can't peel his eyes away from the kitchen, scanning desperately for a sign of anything out of place. All of the silver pots and ladles hanging from the roof are in the way, filling the air with fractured, confusing reflections of the kitchen itself. He can't see anything, but the door was motionless a minute ago, and now it's swaying.

“I don't think we're alone,” Luke whispers.

“Are you serious?” Ashton says.

“The door moved.”

“That doesn't necessarily—”

There's a slow squeak, like a shoe being dragged against the floor, and Ashton stops talking. Luke risks a glance back at him, and his face is utterly blank, calculating. All Luke can think of is the car set on fire outside, the body next to it, and the shadowy glimpses of people running around with bats and clubs that they could see from their room window.

“We're going to grab our bags,” Ashton says. “And then we run for the door.”

Luke nods and snaps his gaze back to the kitchen. There's no way whoever else is in here didn't hear them, so they must be hiding on purpose. Planning to jump out and attack them? Hiding because they think Luke and the others are a threat?

Ashton pushes the bag from the fridge into Luke's arms and ducks into the shelved area. Luke can hear him whispering to Calum, and the sound of a zipper, and then Michael is at Luke's elbow, hand curling around his arm.

“We go around the left side,” Michael says. “And Cal and Ash follow us.”

“Right,” Luke says. He tries to swallow, but his throat is absolutely dry. There's a pounding sound in his head, almost drowning everything out, and his entire body feels like static. It's stupid to be scared when there's four of them and they're all not exactly small guys, but he feels scared anyway.

“On three,” Michael whispers. “One...two...”

“Three.”

They explode out from around the little corner and hurtle down the row of counters, the bag of food knocking bruisingly hard against Luke's side. There's a flash of colour on the other end of the kitchen—a huge guy in a bright red t-shirt straightens up from where he was crouching behind the counter, and he's, he's got a knife in his hand, one of those wicked huge kitchen knives for cutting slabs of meat. The sight is like a shot of pure freezing fear into Luke's veins, and he almost stops in his tracks before the feeling of Michael's fingers digging urgently into Luke's arm pulls him out of it.

“That food is ours, you little bitches!” the strange guy screams, vaulting over counters to get to them as they run for the door.

They reach the door first and burst through into the ballroom. Luke skids to a stop abruptly, Michael slamming into his side, and the ten or so people standing in the middle of the room turn to stare at them.

“Oh, fuck,” Michael says.

A tall girl at the front of the pack starts to snarl, reaching for the club hanging from her belt, and Calum and Ashton come racing out of the kitchen, shoving at Luke and Michael.

“Move, move!” Ashton yells, and then it's noise and chaos everywhere.

They make for the doors to the lobby and the gang surges as one to follow; after days of near silence, the yelling is so loud it sounds like the end of the world, different voices striking like hammers against Luke's skull. He's running faster than he's ever gone in his entire life, fueled by panic and adrenaline and the voices at his back. He ricochets off the door frame and into Michael, and for a second he thinks they're going to get stuck there, both trying to squeeze through at the same time and stay holding onto each other, but then they're through, into the quiet light of the lobby.

If their footsteps were loud before, now it sounds like war drums, like a stampede. Luke glances back and Ashton and Calum are right there behind them, but so are the gang, and the guy from the kitchen is gaining with every step, his knife flashing bright and clean. The bags are making Luke and them slower, weighing them down, but it's the whole reason they came down here—they can't lose it. But if these guys keep following them, they're going to lead them straight to their room, and one flimsy door won't keep out a group of hungry people.

Luke's been running for the stairs automatically, but he sees a hallway out of the corner of his eye, with a golden sign saying “recreation” above it. He swerves, yanking Michael with him, and makes for that.

“What are you doing?” Michael yells.

“We gotta lose them first!” Luke says, and god, if this is a dead end they're screwed, screwed, screwed,  but if there's a way in and another way out, they can get the gang confused enough for them to get back safely to the room.

There's no time to explain all of that. He just squeezes Michael's hand and pulls him down the hall, trusting that Calum and Ashton will follow.

Doors flash by, doors to offices and rooms that look really unhelpful right now. Luke's shoulder is starting to ache, the strap of the bag cutting into his muscle. They pass a sign that has a drawing of waves and an arrow pointing further down the hall and Luke can smell the sharp bite of chlorine in the air.

“There's a pool,” Michael says breathlessly. “Go through the change rooms, quick—”

They duck into the women's change room, shoes smacking on tiles, their own reflections streaking by through the line of mirrors on the wall. They swerve past stalls and around a corner, and then they're pushing through another door into the pool area. The ceiling soars above them and the pool itself is huge and empty except for a foot or so of water—interrupted in the middle of a cleaning by people disappearing? Luke has no time to think about it, because Michael's pulling him towards the door to the men's change room at the other end of the wall.

They're only a few steps away when there's a shout behind them and Luke looks back to see a bearded guy wrestling with Calum over his bag of food. Ashton whirls and punches the guy in the face just as Calum bucks and yanks the bag towards him; for a second it looks like all three of them are overbalancing, but it's just the stranger whose feet go out from under him. He topples sideways into the empty pit of the pool, his scream cut off by a splash of water and a sickening thud that Luke can feel all the way down to his bones.

The rest of the gang come pouring out of the change room, most of them racing with stricken faces towards where their friend had fallen, and a few moving towards Calum and Ashton with renewed ferocity. Calum is staring down into the pool, frozen in place, but Michael barks his name and Ashton yanks on his arm and they start moving again, thank god. Calum tips over a huge tin of pool noodles and beach balls behind him, and one of the gang trips and goes down hard, taking another one with him.

“We're going to fucking kill you!” someone yells. 

They charge through the men's change room as fast as they can, Luke glancing back almost every other step to make sure that Calum and Ashton are still there, and then they're back in the hallway heading towards the lobby. Ashton slams the change room door shut behind them, but it'll only stall the gang for a second, and they run as fast as they can down the hall. All Luke can hear is the four of them, their footsteps and breathing, sounding no different from when they would run around backstage at a venue before a show, and the end of the hallway grows closer and closer with no sound of the people chasing them.

Maybe we lost them, Luke thinks. Maybe, maybe—

And then, just as Luke clears the doorway into the lobby, Michael and Calum cry out at the exact same time, Michael lurching sideways into Luke and pulling him to a stumbling halt.

“Mikey?” Luke gasps, and he looks back to see the guy from the kitchen standing in the door of the women's change room. His hand is outstretched and Calum is sagging against Ashton halfway down the hallway, a knife sticking out of the back of his thigh.

“Calum!” Ashton chokes out. “Jesus, jesus—”

Calum opens his mouth, but all that comes out is a grating sound of pain, his eyes wide and shocked. The guy who threw the knife is already moving towards them, and Luke tries to run back down the hall to do something, smash his face in, protect Calum, but Michael is a dead weight against him, breathing like he's going to die. Ashton pushes himself between Calum and the approaching man, fumbling with the bag of food still slung over Calum's shoulder.

“Take it!” he yells, hauling it off and throwing it as hard as he can, one vicious pump of his arm. The man tries to catch it, but it slams into his face, knocking him backwards on the ground.

“Ash!” Luke shouts.

“I got him!” Ashton calls back, pulling Calum's arm around his shoulder. “Go, go, just get to the elevator!”

Luke hesitates for a second, but the man on the floor is struggling up, and he can hear yelling and approaching footsteps reverberating from the pool area. There's a strange clarity in him, balanced on the edge of the knife in Calum's leg, and he gets an arm around Michael's waist and starts dragging him across the lobby to the gleaming row of elevators.

“Calum,” Michael whimpers. “I can feel—”

Luke stabs at the up button for the elevator and staggers inside as soon as the doors slide open. He hits at the 25th floor and then holds down the button to hold the doors open, staring out desperately into the lobby. Calum and Ashton haven't cleared the hallway yet, and for one weightless second the whole place looks so peaceful, not a sign of anything bad with the polished floors and the golden touches along every surface. Even the burnt out car on the street looks like it could just be a black car through the shining glass doors leading out onto the sidewalk. Everything slows inside Luke as he stares at the entrance to the hallway; he can almost feel each squeeze of his heart in his chest, can almost feel the fever spit of his blood through his veins, heavy in his head and his fingertips.

Ashton comes crashing out of the hallway with Calum thrown over his shoulder, running like Calum weighs nothing at all. The gang pours out of the hallway behind him like a spill of acid, all of them screaming, gaining on Ashton with every step. It's fifty feet to the elevator, but it's feels like there's a mile between Luke and Ashton. He's not going to make it, Luke thinks with a sudden surge of fear.

“Come on!” Luke yells. “Come on, Ashton, run!”

He dumps the bag of food off of his shoulder onto the floor of the elevator, ripping the zipper open and grabbing the first thing in reach—a tupperware of spaghetti sauce. He hurls it out the elevator door, over Ashton and Calum, and it slams into the stomach of one of the gang members, bursting open and splashing red everywhere, looking like Luke just shot him. The gang stumbles, slipping on the sauce, and Ashton lets out a roar and makes it into the elevator, skidding in and crashing against the back wall. Calum bites out a hiss of pain, his eyes squeezed shut.

“Close the door, close the door!” Ashton cries, and Luke hammers down on the close button. The doors slide shut agonizingly slowly, and through the narrowing gap between them Luke can see red-splattered people thundering closer and closer, their faces twisted into expressions that barely look human. Luke can't breathe—he's accidentally locked eyes with one of them, and their face is paralyzing. But they're too far away. They're not gonna make it.

“Fuck you!” Ashton shouts, and the doors clink shut and there's the soft hush of brakes releasing, and then the elevator is moving smoothly upwards.

Every muscle in Luke's body turns to jelly, and he sags back against the wall, Michael still tucked into his side.

“Oh my god,” he breathes. “Oh my god, oh my god.”

“They stabbed him,” Michael says disbelievingly. Ashton swings Calum carefully down off of his shoulder, his arms trembling, and Michael staggers forward until he can rub his hand over Calum's shoulder and neck and cheek, his other hand still stretched back to hold Luke's like a tether between them. “I could feel it.”

“Are you—” Luke gasps, and Michael shakes his head.

“I'm fine now, but holy fuck.”

“What do we do?” Ashton asks, his voice high and tight. “Do we—do we take the knife out, do we—”

“No,” Luke croaks. “Not yet, we have to—we have to get him to the room first.”

“It hurts,” Calum says quietly. His leg is shaking, and there's blood leaking sluggishly down his thigh, soaking his jeans an even darker black.

Luke can feel his face crumple, his throat seizing so he can barely get his words out. “I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I was the one who took us down to the pool, I was trying to—I thought we could lose them and then they wouldn't be able to follow us up the stairs to our room, I—I'm so sorry, Cal, I—”

He blinks hard against the tears, trying not to hyperventilate.

“It was a good idea, Luke,” Ashton says. “It's not—none of us knew what to do. Jesus, this is fucked.”

“They're going to know exactly what floor we're on now,” Michael says. “They just have to stand by the elevators downstairs and look at which one we stop at.”

“No,” Luke says. “I hit the 25th, not the 29th, I—we can take the stairs for the last four floors.”

“With Calum like this?” Michael says.

“He's right,” Ashton says to Michael. “It's smart—they threw a fucking knife at Calum, I don't wanna know what they'll do if they find out which room we're in. I think—I think the guy who landed in the pool was—”

“Dead,” Calum finishes. “He hit his head, there was, there was blood—”

“I hope he's dead,” Michael says grimly. “I hope they all fucking die or disappear.” He cups Calum's cheek in his palm, fingers stroking across his cheekbone. Calum closes his eyes. “We just wanted some food.”

Luke lurches to the other side of the elevator so he can fall into Ashton's side. He's nowhere near as solid as he usually feels, but he's there, and his hand on Luke's side is the pressure he needs to hold him up right now.

The elevator keeps climbing slowly through the building, and they cling together.

They relax for only as long as it takes for the elevator to reach the twenty-fifth floor, and then it's red alert again. Calum insists he can hobble along, that Ashton doesn't need to carry him, but Ashton ignores him and hauls him up. They go up the stairs as fast as they can, Michael still weak and needing to lean on Luke. There's distant yelling from downstairs, echoing up the stairwell, and it pushes them on even when Ashton's arms start visibly trembling and Calum starts crying out every time he gets jolted.

They crash into their room and Ashton lays Calum out on the bed on his front, the knife sticking up awkwardly out of the back of his thigh. Michael collapses onto the bed beside him, his hands all over Calum, stroking his face, his back. Calum fists a hand in his shirt. Luke drops the bag of food on the floor at the foot of the bed.

“We'll be back in a second,” Ashton says, petting at Calum's hair. “Luke and I just need to do something, we'll—we'll figure this out, we'll get that out of you.”

“What?” Luke asks, but Ashton is already dragging him out of the room and down the hallway.

“We need to close this,” Ashton says, kicking at the black bag keeping the disappeared family's door propped open. “If those people look on every floor for us, they might look closer on a floor with a door open, we can't risk this—”

“Just a sec,” Luke says, tugging Ashton into the room. “If they left a keycard, we can get in later if we need to.”

“Why would we—”

“I don't know, Ash, but we might need to!”

He can't think about the fact that this room is a tomb—there's a keycard lying plain as day on the bedside table and he snatches it up, flashing it up so Ashton sees it before leading them out of the room. There are louder voices in the stairwell now, maybe two or three floors below them, clearly people who followed them through the elevator to the twenty-fifth floor, and Luke and Ashton kick frantically at the black suitcase until it's far enough in the room that they can close the door on it. They run back to their own room and duck inside. It locks automatically behind them—like hotel doors always do—but Luke still doesn't feel safe. They just wanted food, and now Calum has a knife in his leg.

Calum is pale and shivering on the bed, his whole body tense. Michael sits up and turns to Luke and Ash, looking panicked.

“What do we do?” he asks. “They always—you're supposed to tie a thing above the wound, right, a, a—”

“Tourniquet,” Luke says. “We can use a shirt or something.” He drags Ashton over to one of their bags and rips it open, digging inside and grabbing the first thing his fingers touch. It's one of Michael's favourite shirts, but Luke's pretty sure he's not gonna care right now if it gets ruined.

“It looks like an inch deep,” Michael says unsteadily. “Maybe an inch and a half.”

“It probably needs stitches,” Ashton says. He sounds near hysteria. “I know how to sew but not like, human flesh. Do we even—do we even have a needle and thread?”

“Fuck, I don't know,” Michael says. “I don't think so.”

Calum lets out a shaky little breath, hitching up at the end into something like a sob, and Michael instantly his attention back to him.

“You're gonna be fine, Cal,” he says.

“Promise?” Calum mumbles.

“I promise.”

Luke knees up onto the bed by Calum's feet, staring at the knife. It's surreal up close—it looks like it's got to be fake, like there's no way it can actually be shoved into Calum's thigh, but he knows it's real. He reaches carefully over it, lifting Calum's leg just enough to slip the bunched up t-shirt under it so he can tie it around. He ties it as tight as he can, and Calum grunts, his hands flexing into the comforter and twisting it up into hurricane spirals.

“Who the fuck actually throws knives these days?” Michael says, clearly trying to distract Calum. “It's fucked up, is what it is. Who does he think he is, like the guy from Assassin's Creed?”

Calum makes a strained sound that might be a laugh, and Michael smiles, still stroking at his cheek.

“What was his name again?” Michael asks.

“Depends which game,” Calum croaks.

“The one we played when we were kids,” Michael says. “You got it for your thirteenth birthday and we played it non-stop for like a solid week.”

Luke's got his hands an inch from the knife buried in Calum's thigh and Michael is joking. Luke kind of wants to yell at Michael for being a hypocrite, and kind of wants to tell him he knows how he felt days ago when it was Luke telling jokes with Calum.

“Guys,” Ashton says in a low, dangerous voice, and they all look up.

“What is it?” Luke asks, and Ashton presses a finger to his mouth in a “shhh” gesture.

Luke shuts his mouth and strains to hear, and then—

There's distant footsteps echoing from the stairwell, and then a voice.

“If we see you little fucks ever again,” the voice yells. “We will kill each and every one of you, got it?”

Luke's paralyzed, holding as still as he can, the other three caught in the same tableau. The footsteps keep going though, growing farther away, and Luke hears the voice yell the same thing again, but on one floor up, and he almost falls off the bed in relief.

“They don't know where we are,” he whispers.

“And they're not bothering to check,” Ashton says. “Thank fuck.”

They wait until the footsteps and voices fade away before they go back to dealing with the knife in Calum's leg. They can't be completely sure that no one else is around still, so Michael puts his hand over Calum's mouth and holds him down when Ashton takes the knife out. It makes the most horrifying sound Luke has ever heard when it yanks free of Calum's flesh, and Calum's eyes bulge, his yell muffled into Michael's palm. Luke's waiting with another t-shirt and he wraps it around the red tear in Calum's jeans as fast as he can, pressing down. It gets wet quickly, sticking to his hand, and he fights down the nausea rising in his throat. Everything is surreal, like this is happening to someone else, some other band. Ashton drops the knife on the bedspread like he can't stand to hold it any longer, and the the tip of the blade is starkly red, almost cartoonishly so.

Michael takes his hand off of Calum's mouth. Calum's crying soundlessly, gazing blankly off to the side, and he doesn't really respond when Michael says his name and cuddles back in close.

“It's out now,” Michael says softly. “It's gonna be fine.”

“You're gonna have a sick scar,” Ashton says. Then, to Luke, “has it stopped bleeding?”

“No,” Luke says quietly. The shirt has turned to a damp mash of fabric under his hands, and he can feel the slimy squirm of blood when he shifts his grip on it. “We need—like bandages and stuff.”

“We need to sew it,” Ashton says. His hand is resting on Luke's shoulder so he has some contact with them, but it keeps twitching like he's dying to take off on his own and find what he needs.

“Is there a first aid kit anywhere in this room?” Michael asks.

“The most I've seen is a box of band-aids in the bathroom,” Ashton says. He leans over Luke and yanks at the knot for the tourniquet shirt, pulling it so tight that Calum thrashes out with a strangled sound and Luke has to lean hard on his leg to hold him still. “We need him to stop bleeding or we can't do shit.”

“Well, sorry!” Calum chokes out. “It's not my fault I—I didn't—”

He cuts off abruptly when Ashton basically falls against him, draped over Michael so he can press his face into Calum's neck.

“Of course it's not your fucking fault, shut up,” Ashton says, muffled in Calum's skin. “We just—I need you to be okay.”

“He's gonna be fine,” Michael says shakily. “Right, Luke?”

Luke's voice is gone—he moved his hands for a second, and all he could see was the blood smeared on his palms. He stares helplessly at Michael, his head blank.

“There might be something we could use in the room down the hall,” Ashton says, pushing himself off of Calum and Michael. Calum reaches for him as he goes, and Ashton tangles their fingers together for a moment, looking first at Luke, than at Michael. “I think those guys are gone—Luke can give you his keycard and we could go look while Luke stays with Cal.”

“No,” Calum says, shaking his hand free of Ashton's to clutch at Michael. Ashton looks a little like he's just been punched in the stomach. “Not Mikey—it—it hurts less when he's right here.”

“Luke and me then,” Ashton says after a pause. “Mike, you've gotta take over from Luke.” He gestures to where Luke is still holding down the t-shirt against Calum's bleeding thigh. Michael nods and stretches over Calum so he can add his hands to Luke's. Only once Luke's sure he's got it does he let go and clamber off the bed into Ashton's arms. His legs feel unsteady, but he still has the presence of mind to grab the metal lamp from the bedside table after Ashton's moved the knife off the bed to there.

“Weapon,” he says shortly when Ashton gives him a funny look. He knows he could grab the knife itself, but it's got blood on it, Calum's blood, and Luke can't do that right now.

“Right,” says Ashton. “We'll be back in a second. You just keep hanging on, Calum.”

“I've got him,” Michael says. “Go, go.”

The hallway is empty and silent, but they still creep down it as carefully as possible. Without the black suitcase propping the door open, Luke can't remember how far down the other room was, and he unsuccessfully tries the keycard on two doors before they get to the right one and they slip inside. It looks eerily the same as it did two days ago, when they first went inside it, but they ignore the toys and smaller suitcases to look through the larger ones that probably belonged to the parents. They sit shoulder to shoulder and rip clothes and underwear and socks out of the bags, fingers searching for anything useful.  Luke finds a roll of duct tape and sets it in his lap to take with them, but his bag is mostly what look like golfing shirts.

“Yes!” Ashton hisses. He's got a small, unzipped black bag in his hand, and he tips it towards Luke so he can see the rolls of thread and buttons and jars of needles. “One of them brought sewing stuff. Thank god you thought of grabbing a keycard for here earlier.”

“Any bandages or anything?” Luke asks.

“Not in here,” Ashton says. “The bathroom?”

There's a white box sitting as plain as day on the sink, a red cross emblazoned on the front. Ashton flashes a strained, triumphant grin at Luke and they grab it without even bothering to open it. They surge towards the door, their prizes in hand, and Luke glances around at the dim, empty room and thinks I'm sorry, but thank you.

They've only just closed the door behind them when there's a thin yell from the direction of their room.

“Michael,” Ashton breathes, and they run.

Luke reaches the door first and shoves it open. “Are you guys—”

He drops the lamp and the tape and the first aid kit on the floor.

Calum is convulsing on the bed, flickering in and out of sight—one second he's there, shaking under Michael's arms, and then the next there's just the twisted, stained sheets. Michael is braced over him, pushing down on his leg, but he's—pulsing, going from solid to almost translucent in time with Calum's flickers, fading. Luke is frozen in the doorway, staring, but Ashton yanks him in and lunges for the bed, both of them collapsing on top of the other two.

Luke's head is pressed to Calum's stomach, Michael's arms digging into his neck, and Ashton's body is flattening him down so he can barely breathe. He waits to disappear, to feel a pull of something, to be enveloped in white, but all that happens is Michael letting out a shuddering breath and Calum's shaking stopping. They're silent and still for a long moment before Luke realizes that they're all still there and none of them are going anywhere.

“Jesus,” Ashton pants. “What the fuck?” He shifts above Luke, pushing himself up and off of them. Luke stays lying where he is, his heart pounding. “What the fuck?”

“I don't know,” Michael says. “I think—I think we're good.”

“We're not fucking good!” Ashton exclaims. “It wasn't just Calum, it was you—you were—”

“I know!” Michael explodes. His face is white, and he's still pressing down on blood-soaked t-shirt on Calum's thigh. “But—but you guys are here now, and it's fine. Do you have stuff to fix him?”

“Mikey—”

“Do you?”

Luke pushes himself up just enough to see Michael and Ashton staring at each other, having some sort of weird face-off.

“Guys,” Calum says weakly, and Ashton's head snaps towards him.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, we've got stuff.”

Ashton's still got the sewing kit clutched in his hand, but he has to drag Michael off the bed and away from Calum so they can go get the stuff Luke dropped in the doorway. Luke takes up his old position pressing the t-shirt down against Calum's leg, but it's so soaked through that it's entirely useless. He tosses it away, ready to tear off his own shirt to replace it, and he can see the stab wound properly for the first time. It looks smaller than Luke would've thought, a clean, straight line in Calum's thigh, the cut edges of the jeans curling up stiff with blood, but it's still horrifying to look at. It's not really bleeding all that much anymore though—the tourniquet has finally done its job—and Luke reports that  when the other two get everything over onto the bed.

“Okay,” Ashton says, pulling out a needle and a roll of white thread. “Okay. We're doing this then.”

They sterilize the needle with Calum's lighter, and find some scissors so they can cut Calum's pant leg off to let them get at the wound properly. Luke holds Calum's leg still while Ashton sews. He can't look at it himself, so he watches Ashton's face—he's covered in sweat, and there are flecks of blood or sauce high on his cheek, his entire face pulled tight with concentration. Michael holds Calum and hums something Luke doesn't recognize.

The light from the window crawls up the side of the bed and burns hot into Luke's back. It can't be long past noon, but the air in the room is already stuffy and insistent in Luke's throat and chest. It feels like breathing smoke, like he's going to choke on it. Calum keeps up a little soundtrack of constant whimpers pressed into Michael's collar, and Luke feels twisted up with how fiercely he wants Calum to stop hurting. His eyes burn, and he blinks hard and presses down on Calum's leg; they don't need another one of them crying.

When Ashton is done, he sits back, breathing heavily, and prods carefully at his handiwork a few times before he proclaims it done. Luke digs through the first aid kit until he finds some squares of gauze. They layer a few over the stitches and tape it so it doesn't move. Calum lies exhausted under their hands, his muscles finally loose.

Ashton holds up his hand towards Luke. Luke stares at it for a moment before he gets it and slaps him a weak high-five.

“We're practically doctors,” Ashton says. “So medical.”

“Very healing,” Luke says.

“Calum, how do you feel?” Ashton asks.

Calum rolls his head out from under Michael's chin and stares blearily at them.

“Hungry,” he says finally.

Luke can't help it—a high, hysterical laugh bursts out of him. Ashton and Michael follow, and then Calum, 'till all of them are laughing like it's the funniest fucking thing on the planet. Luke's cheeks are wet.

“You're hungry,” Ashton gasps. “All of that and you're just hungry. God, I—”

He collapses onto Michael and Luke curves around the other side of Calum so the four of them are lying there together, laughing and crying in equal measure.

“Don't you scare me like that again,” Ashton says. “Never, never, neither of you.”

“We'll try,” Michael says. “No promises if Calum gets himself stabbed again.”

“Hey,” Calum says in light protest, and Luke presses his face into the side of Calum's neck 'till he can't smell or taste anything but Calum's skin.

****

They heat up some spaghetti in the microwave and eat, stealing the spinning glass plate straight out of the microwave since they have no other actual plates. They crowd around Calum on the bed, all of them staying carefully clear of his leg, and eat with their fingers, getting sauce and grease everywhere.

“At least we won't starve,” Michael says. “We got one bag of stuff, even if it is all the frozen junk.”

“Well, we're not doing that again,” Ashton says. “So frozen junk is going to be it until this mess is over.”

Ashton and Luke count while loading the remaining food into the mini-fridge, and they have enough tupperwares of frozen spaghetti, lasagna, mashed potatoes, sliced ham, rice, and some unidentified mash that might be chili to last them about five days. Luke refuses to think about what happens if they're here beyond that.

Calum wants a group nap, and no one is going to say no. Luke, Michael, and Ashton strip to their boxers, a sweet relief from the heat, and Michael cuts off the other leg of Calum's pants so they're shorts.

“Short shorts,” Michael says. “Sexy.”

“Short jorts,” Calum says, squirming out of his shirt. “Jort jorts.”

“Please stop,” says Ashton.

As they orient themselves for the nap, Calum forgets about his leg for a second and tries to get up, resulting in him swearing like crazy. Ashton feels his forehead and becomes convinced that he's got a fever and is going to die, even though they're all roasting to the touch. When he and Michael go to the bathroom to get a cool washcloth for Calum, they discover that the water's down to a trickle. The two of them run around the room, trying all of the light switches, and they've still got that, but when Luke flicks on the tv to the usual station, the blue banner is gone. It's just static, like everything else.

Losing the news lady's updates feels like a kick in the chest—they're properly alone now, unmoored in this strange city, and now Calum can't move from the bed. Everything is slipping away, everything Luke took for granted and thought he could control or hold onto. The sun on the tops of the buildings out the window looks just like it does in every city they've been to, but inside everything is falling apart. Luke wonders if the people downstairs had gotten the guy out of the pool or if they had left him there. If he really had died in the fall.

“What are we going to do?” he asks, the remote lying cold and useless in his sweaty hand. They all stare at the static on the screen until Calum reaches over and stabs at the power button. It takes him a few tries.

“I don't know,” Michael says.

They take their nap.

****

When Luke wakes, there's only two other bodies on the bed next to him, and he can hear the fan on in the bathroom, like a white noise machine. He sits up as fast as he can, his head swimming, and looks over to see the bathroom door propped half open, the slump of Ashton's bare shoulders just visible through it, washed in dim light. The room is dark; the nap has taken them past afternoon and into evening.

“Ash,” Luke croaks. “What are you doing?”

Ashton looks up, and the fan and the light cut out at the same time, plunging the bathroom into a flat gray that for one paralyzing second makes it look like he's gone. Luke lurches up onto his knees, one hand planted on Michael's leg for support, before his eyes settle and he can pick out Ashton standing in the doorway.

“I was just going to tell you the water's out,” Ashton says softly. “Looks like the power is too. We can still eat spaghetti and chili and stuff that's frozen, right? It looked vegetarian, so it'll be gross but won't kill us, right?”

Luke can't spare time to worry about that. “Come back over here.”

Ashton tips his head against the door frame. “I don't need to.”

“Ashton,” Luke hisses. His whole body is shaking—he knows he should just leap off the bed and grab Ash, because he's standing there stupidly alone with no one to keep him here, but Luke is afraid to lose the safety of Michael against him. “Get over here. You can't not be touching us, you could disappear at any—”

“No, I couldn't,” Ashton says. “Luke, can't you feel it?”

He sounds so weirdly confident, so bitter, that it brings Luke up short.

“What are you talking about?”

“They don't want me,” Ashton says. “Whatever is taking people. There are people they want, like Calum, and there's ones they don't. Maybe Calum's more pure, or his bloodline or whatever. And maybe Michael's the same, just to a lesser degree. But my whole family is fine. All of them. Me.”

“Just because you haven't disappeared yet doesn't mean you're safe,” Luke says. “How can you be sure?”

“Because I can feel it,” Ashton says. “Both Calum and Michael have talked about feeling a pull—Mikey told me the other day that he can still feel it, that it's worse when he's away from Calum. And both of them were looking off before the gig, like they could feel it was coming. I feel the same as ever. I haven't felt any difference, not like, inside me in a supernatural way, not even this afternoon when they were disappearing and we touched them. Have you?”

“I don't know,” Luke says slowly. He's thinking, trying to remember how he felt that first day, how he's felt since, but nothing concrete about odd feelings is coming to mind except for the pervasive terror. He's pretty sure that bit is normal.

“I think we're safe. At least, I know I am,” Ashton says. “I won't risk you on a hunch though.”

“What does it matter if we're safe?” Luke says. “If Mikey and Cal aren't?”

There's a pause. Ashton runs his hands over his face, exhaustion clear in every limb.

“I'm worried they're both gonna go,” Ashton says. “I don't think Michael can act as an anchor for Calum anymore. I think they're—they're weak enough now that the pull could take both of them. Especially if they're clinging together all the time. It's making Michael weaker.”

Luke glances down at the two boys sleeping next to him. Now that Ashton's said it, he can see it in Michael's face as plain as day—he looks almost as bad as Calum does, drawn and sickly, and he wasn't the one who got stabbed in the leg. If they are connected, it's not helping them.

“What do we do?” Luke asks quietly.

“We have to be their anchors,” Ashton says. “They can't leave each other's side, whatever. We won't leave them.”

“What if it's not enough?” Luke says. He can't look away from Michael's face. There's a desperate urge in him to trace Michael's features with his fingers, confirm with touch that he's still with them even if he looks like he's dying. He doesn't do that though; Michael is sleeping, and it would be weird. “What if Calum gets pulled away and he takes Michael with him?”

“We won't let that happen,” Ashton says.

“Well, then you'd better get back to bed,” Luke says. “I can't do this alone.”

He can't do this if it's two or three of them either. It has to be all four of them. This hotel room is their world now, population them, and Luke can't imagine losing any of his bandmates, his best friends, his—

Calum's forehead is wrinkled in sleep, like he's having a nightmare again, and Luke's about to give in and smooth it off his face when Ashton appears at the side of the bed and does it for him, his fingers so light on Calum's skin that it's like he's touching glass, or an ancient artifact in a museum that you're not really supposed to get near. Ashton pulls his hand away quickly, but the look on his face as he gazes down at Calum and Michael makes something go twisted and hot in Luke's chest.

“Me neither,” Ashton whispers.

Calum's face is calm and blank again, and when Ashton slides back in bed behind him, he doesn't make a sound.

****

day four

Someone is shaking Luke, and someone is yelling.

“Luke! Luke, you gotta wake up, you gotta—oh, fuck, Michael.”

There's a retching sound, and it's so near that for a confused second Luke thinks he made it himself. He opens his eyes; he's sprawled on his back on the bed and Ashton is leaning over him, his hands spread over Michael's shuddering, hunched back. Luke blinks slowly, and Michael's back ripples, a horrible noise coming from him. He's throwing up over the side of the bed, Luke realizes.

“What's wrong with him?” Luke says hazily, propping himself up onto his elbows.

Ashton looks down at him, and the look on his face freezes something inside Luke—Ashton's looked scared a lot these past few days, but nothing like this.

“Calum,” Ashton said. “Calum's gone.”

“What?” It's like a bucket of water over his head: Luke is fully awake. “What do you mean he's gone?”

“I mean, I woke up to Michael puking his guts out, and Calum wasn't here,” Ashton says sharply.

“Could he have gone to bathroom, or the vending machine, or—he wasn't taken, was he?” Luke asks, a bolt of terror shooting through him.

Ashton shook his head grimly. “He left a note.”

“I'm gonna kill him,” Michael croaks. “I'm gonna—” He heaves again, but nothing comes up.

“Let me see, let me read it,” Luke says, sitting up and scrabbling through the covers. Michael pushes a crumpled piece of paper into Luke's hands, and he frantically smoothes it out enough to make out the words.

I'm not taking Michael down with me too. I love you guys. -Calum

“What the fuck,” Luke says.

“I know!” Ashton exclaims shrilly. “What kind of fucking self-sacrifice—he had to have heard us talking last night, must have been awake, and he—”

“We're going after him,” Michael says. He tries to stand up, but he goes down like a felled tree, toppling back into Ashton's waiting arms.

“Mikey, you can't—” Ashton starts helplessly, but Michael is babbling, not listening to him.

“No, fuck you, fuck him, we gotta, we need to find him—”

Michael's skin looks like wax paper stretched over a slab of pounded meat; he looks like death. His voice trails off into a slurred mumble, and he sags back against Ashton. The closest thing Luke can compare it to is when Michael would get so tired on tour that he'd just sprawl out on any surface like a dead starfish and sleep. Seeing him like this now makes Luke feel the same as he did then—like he wants to curl up into Michael's body and never let go.

But Calum's gone. Calum's gone.

“Calum can't have got far if he's as bad as Mikey is,” Luke says. He struggles out of bed and hovers beside it for a second, still tethered by Michael's clammy calf brushing his. Ashton's not looking at him—he's lowering Michael carefully back onto the bed, and Luke steels himself. If Ashton's right, he's safe. He doesn't need anyone touching him.

He takes off for the second bedroom, crashing through the doorway and grabbing the first glass of water he can see on the dresser. The whole room is covered in cups, surreal almost with it. He knows they'll need them now.

“Luke?” It's Ashton, and he sounds like he's on the edge of a breakdown. Luke surges back into the other room and over to the bed, accepting the hand Michael flaps out towards him.

“Water,” Luke says to Ashton, and Ashton nods, his gaze measured. He looks stronger than Luke feels, and Luke is pathetically grateful.

“I could stay with Michael,” Luke says, handing Ashton the glass. “Take care of him so you could drag Cal back here.”

Ashton shakes his head, tipping Michael's head up to get him to sip at the water.

“We can't leave him here,” Ashton says. “It's the distance that's fucking him up. He needs to get back to Calum before he gets any worse.”

“So we all go, then,” Luke says.

The sun is barely up, still hidden enough behind buildings that their entire room is in murky blue shadow despite the brightened sky visible through the window. Luke has gotten to know this bed, this floor, these dressers and tables and doors, in a way that they never could before with hotel rooms. The idea of leaving, especially after what happened yesterday, is like a fist squeezing around his insides—but there's no question in his mind that they're going to go.

He hopes they'll make it back, all four of them.

“Find some clothes,” Ashton says. “We all go after Calum.”

****

They don't waste much time on getting dressed, bothering only with shorts before Ashton hoists Michael up onto his back. Michael barely has the strength to hold on, resting limp with his hands clinging around Ashton's neck. Luke keeps one hand hovering near Michael's back, ready to help push him up if Ashton starts to drop him. They move out, propping the door open with one of their duffel bags so that they can get back in later; keycards won't work if the electricity is out. Just before they leave, Luke grabs the knife off the bedside table. It's brown now with caked, dried blood, and Luke doesn't know if he can really use it if it comes to it, but he's not stupid. There are more people like that gang out where they're heading.

The elevator isn't a possibility anymore, and they have twenty-nine floors to go down. Ashton yells down the staircase for Calum for the first few flights before he starts breathing so hard he can barely get anything out, much less a shout. If Calum's still in the stairwell somewhere, he doesn't respond, and Luke only shouts in Ashton's place for a few more minutes before he gives up.

“Luke?” Michael mumbles into Ashton's shoulder as they pass the 24th floor.

“Yeah?” Luke says, stepping closer to the two of them. Michael blinks at him, his face squashed up in the dent of his own folded arms.

“This is my fault, isn't it,” Michael says. “You guys won't leave me too, will you?”

“Fuck off,” Ashton huffs. His face is dangerously red. “Luke, tell him.”

“Only Calum's that dumb,” Luke says. “We're going to get him back, and then no one's leaving ever again.”

“Are we—” Ashton breaks off, panting. “Getting close at all?”

“Yeah,” Michael says weakly. “He's still there, I can—I can feel him, we're getting closer.”

Luke looks over the edge of the banister, down the dizzying block spiral of stairs. The bottom seems miles away, and he can't see any sign of Calum. The knife feels hot in his hand, and he keeps having to shift his grip on it, forgetting he's holding it and then remembering again in terrifying jolts of oh god, what if I accidentally hurt Mikey or Ash or myself, oh god, I have no clue what I'm doing.

After six flights Ashton stumbles and almost drops Michael, and Luke insists that they switch to give Ashton a break. It's a sign of how tired he is that Ashton agrees—he's stubborn about this kind of shit usually. They continue down the stairs, Luke and Ashton trading Michael between them every third floor or so. Michael is huge and awkward and heavy to carry, but at least when he's on Luke's back, Luke can't see how terrible he still looks, like he's on his deathbed.

Whenever Luke's carrying Michael, Ashton keeps a hand on Michael's shoulder and sings to them both, soft and soothing. He sings “Beside You” and “Everything I Didn't Say” and “Voodoo Doll”, and Luke tries his best not to fall down the stairs.

It's Ashton who's got Michael when they finally step out into the lobby. The wooden floor is empty except for a huge crusted splatter of spaghetti sauce near the elevators. Calum is nowhere in sight, and Luke wants to collapse on the floor and cry; something in him was counting on the stairs being their only obstacle to finding Calum.

“He's gone outside,” Luke says, staring blankly at the line of glass doors. One of them is jammed open by a brick on the ground, another one smashed completely.

“Can we be sure?” Ashton says. “What if he's somewhere else in the hotel, what if—”

“He had to have known we would look for him,” Luke says. “He was leaving us. He wouldn't stay in the hotel.”

“Fuck,” Ashton huffs, and hoists Michael up further on his back. They start moving towards the doors.

“It's not safe out there,” Michael whispers. “We gotta...gotta catch him quick—”

“Luke, do you want to switch?” Ashton asks.

Luke glances over at him, surprised, because it was pretty evident when going down the stairs that Ashton was better at carrying Michael for longer periods of time, but Ashton is looking at the knife in Luke's hand, and Luke gets it. His hand tightens on the hilt.

“No,” he says firmly. “I got this.”

When they reach the doors, Luke shoves the brick out of their way with the heel of his foot and holds the door for Ashton to carefully carry Michael through. Luke hesitates only a second before following them out onto the street.

Ashton had remembered to shove on shoes, but Luke hadn't, and the heat of the ground stabs into his bare feet. It's hotter outside, heat radiating off the pavement and soaking into Luke's skin. It's brighter too, even in the shadows of the buildings, and he's squinting, eyes no longer used to sunlight after days of the same room. It's the space that strikes him the most—the street is empty and immense, stretching out in both directions as far as he can see. There's glass spiking the ground under the shade of smashed storefronts, a few mannequins dragged halfway out of the one directly across from them, sinister in their stillness, plastic hands up raised as if in surrender. Luke and Michael and Ashton are alone on the street, mere feet from the burnt out husk of the car Luke had looked at for days from the window. It looks different close up, more immediate. There’s no dead body beside it anymore. The air smells bitter and acrid, and Luke wants immediately to go back inside.

Ashton hobbles down off the sidewalk into the middle of the road, and Luke rushes after him. There's sky above and space all around them—everything in him is screaming that they're not safe, not safe, not safe, and he whirls in circles, searching down the endless line of pavement stretching out from him.

“There!” Ashton says.

The road seems to zoom to Luke's eyes, tunnel vision kicking in; there's someone lurching away from them maybe 100 feet away, right down the centre of the road. There's no question in his mind that it's Calum, it's Calum—Luke would know him anywhere, would know his shoulders and his walk and the back of his head, through years and years, through storm and pictures, by touch or smell. It's Calum, and Luke's heart gives a vicious, painful squeeze in his chest.

Ashton starts running as fast as he can with Michael still on his back, and Luke takes off beside them, bracing Michael with his free hand. They're shaking, crashing down the road, their footsteps echoing in the empty space of the dead city.

“Calum!” Luke screams, and the buildings send the name bouncing back at him, infinite. “Calum!”

Calum glances back, and they're still too far away to see his face, but he sees them, and he starts moving faster, hobbling on even though every step clearly costs him. Michael has lifted his head, his neck strained forward like he can get off Ashton's back through force of will and get to Calum with that.

“Calum, you fucking idiot!” Ashton shouts. “Get back here, get the fuck back—”

Beyond Calum, there's movement in the street—a crowd of people spill out from an alley a block away, the bulky shape of boards of wood and bats visible in their hands. One of them points towards Calum, and a cry goes up, war-like. They start running, thundering down the street like a pack of wild dogs.

Calum stumbles to a stop. He tries to turn back towards Luke and Ashton and Michael, but his knees go out from under him and he's kneeling in the middle of the abandoned street when he starts flickering. The approaching gang are screaming, and Luke can see the furious churn of their legs eating up the pavement, can see the breaching formation of them through the space Calum leaves as he blinks in and out of existence. Michael lets out an ungodly sound, something in between a swear and a bellow, and Ashton runs like Michael weighs nothing, moving just as fast as Luke is.

“Calum, don't you dare!” Michael shouts. “You hold on, you fucking—”

The knife is practically burning Luke's palm, and they're going too slow—they're not going to be the first to reach Calum. He probably has only seconds before he disappears, and if he can hold on through that, he's going to get clubbed in the head. Luke thinks crazily about throwing the knife like that guy from the other day had, sick with how much he hopes he can hit someone, but just as he's raising his arm, suddenly there's more people past Calum—there's another group who came out of nowhere, bursting through the first gang like a spray of shrapnel, and then there's no running anymore, just a mess of people fighting. A turf war? Luke doesn't know, and he doesn't care; he's twenty, fifteen, ten feet from Calum, and the knife is dropping nerveless from his outstretched hand as he reaches.

Calum twists back to stare at them, his mouth dropping open as if to shout a warning, and finally Luke can feel what Michael was talking about: there's a tingly hot pull in the air as they lunge those last few steps, a bubble of rippling space around Calum himself. For the first time in days, Luke isn't scared, not at all—this time, if Calum disappears, he's taking Luke with him. He's taking them all.

The three of them fall into Calum, and the world is swallowed in white.

****

Luke knows he is standing. He can feel his feet pressed against something solid, and he doesn't feel like he's falling, so he must be standing. But there's no floor, no floor and no ceiling and no walls.

There's only Calum's shoulder pushed bruisingly tight into Luke's chest, Ashton's hand around his hip, Michael squashed on his other side, and the blazingly bright emptiness of everything beyond their tangle. It's so white that Luke can't look at it directly, and the edges of their bodies are fuzzy with light. It feels alive, like an ocean, churning against them with something indescribable that shakes through Luke to the core. He's six years old and crying in his father's arms again; ten years old and teetering on the edge of a fence he shouldn't have climbed; fourteen years old and too afraid to talk to the blonde boy at school who hates him. He's here now, wherever here is, and his body is a lightning rod for terror.

Michael has Calum's head cradled in his neck, and Calum is shuddering like a metal signpost in a hurricane.

“You shouldnt've, you shouldnt've, I was trying to—” he mutters, and Ashton cuts him off, telling him over and over that, “we've got you, and we're not leaving, never again.”

The air hums around them, pulsing in like a heart squeezing, and Luke lets out a little shocked cry despite himself. Someone puts their hand over his where it's clinging onto Calum's back, and Luke flips his so he can tie their fingers together.

“It wants me,” Calum chokes out. “It's not gonna stop. And it's gonna take Michael too if you guys don't let go.”

“If it wants to take you or Michael, it's gotta take all of us,” Ashton says fiercely. There's a rumbling sound building around them, swelling slowly like a tidal wave rolling into shore.

“You guys have got people back home!” Calum cries, pushing away from Michael's chest so he can stare around at them. His eyes are wide and blood-shot, and Luke can barely hear him over the roar surrounding them. “All of you have people waiting for you, and I've got—my whole family is gone, they've been taken, shouldn't I be—”

“You've got people, Calum,” Michael says, his voice cracking. “You've got us.”

“We're not letting go,” Luke says. He yells it out over the storm of noise, yells it at the blankness keeping them trapped. “We're not letting him go!”

The space contracts again, but this time it's like hands around Calum and Michael, squeezing in between Luke and them to tug hard. Ashton swears, and they hold on even tighter, desperate. The roar becomes a scream of sound, like wind whistling down an empty street, and—and Luke's bare skin starts to burn.

It's like he's standing in a ring of fire, like his skin is trying to peel off, and he distantly hears Ashton echoing his strangled sound. His fingers grow stiff with pain, unable to hold on, and it's Michael and Calum clinging to him now, their skin the only cool spots on Luke's body.

“Luke? Ash?” Michael says, sounding panicked.

“It doesn't want us,” Luke gasps. “It's trying to—”

The pull comes stronger, yanking Calum and Michael back and up, and Ashton bites out something guttural and clamps his arm around Calum's back to drag them both back down. Fear shrieks through Luke, and he forces his burning arms to grip and pull at Calum and Michael, but it's like he and Ash and the unknown force are playing some sort of twisted tug of war; it takes all the strength Luke has just to keep Calum and Michael there with them, and they look almost like they're fading.

“How do we stop it?” Michael shouts. “What do we do? What do we do?” There's tears streaked on his face; he and Calum are a matching set of ghosts. Luke stares at him, at all three of them—Ashton's tight, furrowed brow, Michael's white skin, Calum's blown eyes. They're alone and together in a snow globe of screaming noise and there's something that wants to tear them apart, and all Luke can think of is what Ashton said yesterday: that maybe Calum and Michael are pure in a way Luke and Ashton aren't, and that that might tear them away.

“Luke, we've got to hold on, we've gotta—” Ashton says, and Luke surges forward and presses his mouth to Calum's.

Calum gasps, his head ticking back automatically, and Luke follows, pressing in shaking and uncertain. Calum is still under the kiss, and Luke's head is buzzing and empty all at the same time; we fit, we fit, is what he keeps thinking, stuck on the heft of Calum's bottom lip pushing in between his own. He's barely feeling any pain anymore, and he parts his lips, mouthing just enough at Calum's lip to make it a real kiss before he's pulling away.

Calum stares at him, shocked and open, and then he's leaning in fast and kissing Luke, one sweet touch that sends a hot rush shuddering through him. It's the same as kissing a girl in every way, except that it's Calum, and that's abruptly what makes it so terrifyingly good. The tight air around them seems to loosen.

“What,” Ashton says faintly when they pull apart.

“If it doesn't want me and you,” Luke pants. “Then we make Cal and Mikey something it doesn't want. We gotta—we have to make them ours.”

“Ours?” Ashton says slowly. “But...like—”

“I'm in,” Michael says urgently, and steals the fumbling words out of Ashton's mouth.

Ashton freezes, his mouth awkwardly crushed under Michael's, and then something seems to collapse in his face and he's kissing back as fiercely as he's still holding onto them all. It's so undeniably strange, watching the two of them like that, their faces made new with the light of the kiss in them, and Luke doesn't know what to do with the instinctive yes spilling through him. This shouldn't make sense. This is—this is desperation, this is—

“We've always been yours,” Michael gasps, reeling away from Ashton to smear his wet mouth up against Luke's neck, the underside of his chin. Luke tips his head back for more—there's nothing real except for the roar of sound around them and the urgency of their arms around each other. “You're ours, we're yours, go ahead. Take us.”

When he kisses Luke it seems like a foregone conclusion. Everything is narrowed down to Michael, to the taste of his lips pushing at Luke's, making him open up to the kiss, but everything has expanded at the same time; he can vividly feel the twist of Calum's waist under his hand, can hear the sound of the other two kissing even through the hurricane, Ashton making strange, surprised noises into it. Michael kisses in all-consuming, desperate way, sloppy and intense like he's trying to crawl into Luke. The air around them is rippling, shuddering in waves of pressure like it doesn't know what to do, and Luke's clinging to Calum and Michael because he wants to, barely needing to ground them against a pull that's gone weak and uncertain.

Calum moans, a sudden, jarring sound cutting through the chaos around them, and Luke pulls back from Michael to see that Ashton has jammed a hand down in the centre of their huddle, into Calum's pants. Ashton's face is flushed a humiliated red, forehead tipped against the side of Calum's head, but he looks determined, and his arm is working away. Calum looks—he looks beautiful, even sweaty and pale and weak, his mouth dropped open and moving slightly around each new whimper as they spill out of his mouth—Luke can't help but tip towards him, setting his mouth to Calum's shoulder. Michael shifts closer, and when Luke looks up he can see Michael's mouth moving over Calum's, red lips pulling and sucking. There's no pain at all anymore, no unnatural heat, just a curling glow in his gut that makes him want to be crushed by the other three, absorbed into them.

“Ours,” Ashton hisses. “Ours, ours. It can't have any of you.”

“Yes,” Calum breathes into Michael's mouth. Luke can't tell who owns the hands on his back, can barely keep track of every spot he's touching the other three, his hands mindlessly flexing and digging into whatever skin he can reach, his mouth tagging kisses all over Calum's skin. When Calum says it again, Luke echoes it, and then Ashton, and then Michael, until it's all of them mumbling, “yes, yes, yes—”

The sound is sucked away so abruptly that it leaves a deafening ring in Luke's ears. The pressure in the air squeezes in once like a vice around them, punishingly tight, and then rushes away as if repelled, as if it can't stand to touch them. Luke pulls his head away from Calum's skin, says, “did it—?” and then has to shove his face back into their huddle when the empty white starts to glow brighter and brighter, blazing like a star going supernova. Ashton cries out, and Luke can feel the jerk of Ashton's arm when he pulls it out of Calum's pants to grab onto Michael's side. Luke slams his eyes shut and digs them into Calum's shoulder until he can feel the bone pressing against his eyelids, but the light swells like a scream, like a subway train approaching at breakneck speed, and the white is burning through his closed eyes, swallowing him.

“Hold on!” Ashton yells. “Don't let go, hold—”

****

There's grit under Luke's feet and the sound of shouting and thudding footsteps. He opens his eyes and slowly pulls his head up, spots blooming and fizzling out in his vision. When they clear he can see that Calum and Michael and Ashton are all still there, blinking and clinging, and the relief that sweeps through Luke is almost crippling. Over Calum's shoulder he can see the fuzzy outline of the two gangs still fighting about twenty feet away, as if Luke and the others had disappeared for only a second instead of several minutes.

“We're back,” Ashton says distantly, peering around them at the city street and the buildings and the complete lack of open, dead white.

“Are you fucking kidding me,” Michael breathes. A shocked laugh bubbles out of his mouth and he tips forward and kisses Luke hard. “It actually fucking worked, we're actually still here, Luke, you fucking crazy—”

“So I'm safe?” Calum says disbelievingly. “And—and Michael is too?”

“I don't feel it anymore,” Michael says. “We're safe, we're safe,” and he's peppering kisses all over Calum's face until Calum turns into him and captures his mouth, kissing him so deep and filthy that Luke can feel Michael's groan vibrating down through his chest.

“We can't be sure,” Ashton says, his voice muffled in the side of Michael's head. “We gotta be sure.”

There's a particularly loud yell from Luke's right and he whirls to see that one man has broken away from the tangle of fighting to run towards them, a wicked-looking board studded with nails raised above his head. In a bolt of recognition, Luke realizes that he was with the group that fought them for the food just the other day. Luke staggers back, rocking his bandmates' cluster off balance, and glances around frantically for the knife; it's lying where he dropped it earlier, completely out of reach. Fuck it, he thinks, and shoves himself in front of Calum—he's not losing any of them now, and he'll drop kick that guy in the face if he has to.

He doesn't have to—Ashton is just reaching for him to pull him back when a girl shoots out from the group, sprinting towards them like she's on fire. She lets out an ear-splitting cry, and when the guy with the studded board falters and looks back, she swings a baseball bat off her shoulder like she's going for a home run and cracks him right in the head.

He collapses like a broken marionette.

“Holy shit,” Calum says.

The girl skids to a halt in front of them. She's wearing a 5SOS shirt, one of the old ones with the tally mark.

“Get him out of here,” she says, nodding at Calum. “God, you idiots are the reason me and my crew are stuck in this city, the least you can do for me is stay alive.”

“Oh my god,” Michael says faintly. “Best fans in the world.”

“We can—we can help you, we can—” Ashton says weakly, gesturing towards the fight. Now that Luke's actually looking, he can spot several 5SOS shirts, dirt streaked and stretched across the backs of girls who are currently beating the shit out of the gang who stabbed Calum.

“Don't bother,” she says. “We've got this, you'd just be dead weight, especially if he's jumping and pulling you with him. Just get out of here.”

They just stare at her for a second, and she flaps her hand at them, yelling, “I mean it! Go, go!” and they're lurching backwards, turning as an awkward group and running back down the street towards the hotel. Ashton slings Calum's arm over his shoulder and practically drags him, Calum doing his best to run despite the stab wound in his leg. Luke glances over his shoulder every couple of feet, but he doesn't see anyone in a 5SOS shirt falter at all, pushing back every time the first gang tries to break free and run towards the four fleeing boys.

They make it to the hotel and spill into the empty lobby, still connected like a paper chain. Michael reels Calum in and kisses him for a long time until Ashton tugs them both towards the stairs.

“Upstairs,” he says. “We gotta get safe.”

They're away from any immediate danger, so Luke should be feeling safer, but instead the leftover adrenaline is all turning to fear in his head, leaving him buzzing and paranoid. It makes him want to hold on tighter, dig his fingers into someone's skin so he can do something with the stress all through his body. He can see the same feeling reflected in the tense lines of the others' backs, in the clench of their hands on Luke. They race up the stairs like they're on fire. They pause on landings to pull each other into a tangle of arms and mouths, and it's crazy, all of it. Luke would never have thought of doing this, not in a million years, but now he thinks he can't go another second without it. It feels like he's been drinking for hours and it's all hitting him at once, leaving him unsteady and overwhelmed.

They're at about the tenth floor when Ashton backs Calum up into the wall and yanks the neck of his shirt down so he can set his mouth around the jut of Calum's collarbone and suck a huge, red mark there. Calum tips his head back against the wall and moans so loud that Luke has to kiss him, just to shut him up.

“Fuck, guys,” Michael breathes, slumping up against Luke's back so his words curl hot and damp on the nape of Luke's neck. “We're far enough away now, right, we can just—”

Ashton lifts away from Calum's skin and says, “need to get you two safe, yeah,” and his voice is a low whine, like he's in a fight and trying to justify his side, like he's got something to prove. No one is arguing when he starts yanking at Calum's fly though.

“Safe,” Luke agrees against the side of Calum's cheek, and reaches back clumsily to grope at the meat of Michael's thigh.

Safe means Michael getting hard against Luke's ass and sighing sharp in the back of his throat into Luke's ear as he grinds forward. Safe means Ashton getting Calum's dick out and then staring at him all weirdly guilt-stricken and hesitant until Luke wraps a tentative hand around it and jacks him off, Calum squirming on the wall and pushing up into it. Safe means Michael reaching around and awkwardly folding his fingers around Luke's cock trapped in his pants, rubbing uncertainly like it's a giant clit or something, and Luke going off just at that, soaking his underwear and Michael's hand, Calum's dick still throbbing in his sweaty grip.

Through his closed eyes, the yellow morning light in the staircase is muted and brilliant all at once, like golden syrup spilling through him, through his whole body. He's safe, they're all safe, and they're his. He's theirs.

He's still hazy and colour-filled, cock twitching weakly, when Michael fucks harder against his ass and comes, groaning softly. He sags onto Luke, who sags onto Ashton. Luke's hand on Calum's dick has gone loose, and someone—he doesn't even know who at this point—wraps their fingers around his and tightens his fist, using his hand to pull Calum off. Luke opens his eyes just enough to focus on the hand over his, Calum's cock slipping red and graphic in and out of the overlapping fingers. His gaze travels up the arm and onto Ashton's face. There's no understanding the expression Luke finds there, but it makes him want to kiss Ashton, so he does. It feels like the last missing piece.

Michael reaches over to touch Calum's cock just as he starts to come, and Michael makes a sound like he's been kicked when his thumb presses against the gush of the tip. Luke can feel the warm drag of come sliding down over his and Ashton's fingers, and it's gross—makes his stomach turn. Ashton lets go like he's been shocked, but Luke can't make his fingers uncurl until Calum starts flinching away from the touch. Michael keeps touching him past that, pressing the soft, wet length of Calum's dick against his stomach and petting at it for long seconds after. Calum makes sounds like it hurts, but he's smiling; when Michael finally lets go, Calum collapses shaking against Ashton and Luke.

There's a moment of silence as Calum tucks himself back into his shorts, and then Ashton makes a choked sound: Michael's reached out and cupped his hand around the swell of Ashton's cock. For a second Ashton lets it happen, his mouth dropped open, stance widening so Michael can have more room to feel, to squeeze—and then he's lurching backwards, not enough to break their circle, but enough to escape Michael's hand.

“We have to keep going,” he blurts. “Get to the room.”

“Ash,” Calum starts, and Ashton turns away from them, grabbing Luke and Calum's hands to tow them along, Michael following on Luke's other side.

“We need to get to the room,” Ashton repeats.

It takes them another twenty minutes to make it all the way up the stairs. Luke's pants and underwear feel gross by the time they get there, and he knows Michael and Calum feel the same; the three of them strip off as soon as they make it through the door, leaving clothes strewn all over the floor. They stay connected by habit the whole time, only Ashton breaking off to grab water from the other room for them.

They look out the window for the gangs, but the street is empty. Luke decides to conclude that the lack of dead bodies from the confrontation mean that the girls who rescued them are fine, and that the fight ended because the reason for fighting was gone.

He's tired in a way he's never been before. He's slept a lot over the past few days—all of them have—but there's something bone-deep about this, part orgasm, part stairs, part almost dying. Almost losing Calum and Michael.

Michael pulls Luke away from the window and over to the bed, where Calum and Ashton already are. They don't talk when they climb on and cuddle in, not about the almost dying, and definitely not about the orgasms. Ashton is the only one who keeps his underwear on, and all of the bare skin is weirdly soothing.

He feels kind of like he wants to say something, like something needs to be said. The possibility of it is sitting there, heavy on his tongue, but he's falling asleep before it can take shape.

****

Luke wakes up first, and it's to the paralyzing thought that they're not going to talk about it. They've moved away from each other slightly during their sleep, but they're still a tangle of naked limbs, and Luke can feel Michael's dick pressed soft against the back of his thigh where it's flung over Michael's lap. He stares up at the ceiling—it's white, too white, and he closes his eyes again—and wonders if things done for survival mean nothing if they've survived.

He thinks about never getting this again, and it feels suddenly like he can't breathe. 

Michael wakes up second, a couple minutes into Luke's internal crisis. He rolls over onto Luke and kisses him, and Luke melts into the bed underneath him.

This is something more than survival.

Calum wakes up because Luke is making stupid noises into his shoulder; Michael is sucking Luke's nipples and rubbing his knuckles firm over the skin behind Luke's balls, and Luke feels like he's in free fall. Calum makes a little indignant noise, a how dare you start without me, and kisses Luke hard, trying to roll on top of both him and Michael at the same time.

The three of them shaking the bed is what wakes Ashton up.  He stares at them like he has no idea where he is for a long moment, and when Michael squirms over to slide up between his legs, Ashton scoots up against the pillows away from him.

“What,” he says nonsensically. “I don't—”

His cock does: he's got a chub going on, pressing up against his boxers even though he's barely been touched. Luke climbs over Calum to settle on Ashton's left side, pressing a careful kiss to his shoulder. Ashton shudders, tense as a strung wire.

“We might not be safe yet,” Luke says, and he can see the relief in Ashton's face at the justification.

“I mean, we should be, shouldn't we, I feel like we don't need...” he trails off uncertainly, and Michael ducks down until his head is pillowed on Ashton's thigh.

“Maybe I need this to be safe,” Michael says. He reaches out, and this time when he presses his palm to Ashton's dick, Ashton closes his eyes and lets him.

Michael sucks him off, slow and fumbling, Calum biting at Ashton's thighs and Luke stroking soothing hands over Ashton's shoulders, sucking kisses onto the straining muscles. Ashton comes with a soft cry, and Michael swallows a little of it before twisting up his face and spitting the rest out on Ashton's stomach.

“Gross, Michael,” Luke says.

“Totally,” Calum says, and then darts in curiously to lick at it and taste for himself. Ashton's cock twitches, letting out one more sluggish glob of come, and Calum licks that up too.

“Fuck,” Ashton says. “Jesus, guys.”

Michael squirms up to kiss Ashton, rutting his cock down into the cut of Ashton's hip, and Calum bowls Luke over and presses their mouths together, shoving his tongue in all come-bitter and weird. The taste of Ashton's jizz just kind of turns Luke on more, and that's maybe super gross but he doesn't care, especially not when Calum gets his hand around both of their cocks and jerks them off together. When they've both come on Luke, Calum gets down and licks it off again, turning to kiss an orgasm-stupid Michael and feed him the spunk in a weird “mother bird to baby bird” thing. Michael wrinkles his nose, but swallows it down and sips at Calum's mouth until they're both too exhausted to keep their heads up.

“Jesus,” Ashton says again, and Luke has to agree.

There's a pause.

“So aliens hate gay sex,” Michael says.

Judging by the light streaming in the windows, it's only early afternoon, but the fear and strangeness of the events of that morning seem weeks away, and Michael's flippant comment is exactly what Luke needs. He and Calum burst into laughter, and Ashton makes some sort of disgruntled snort. “We don't even know if it was aliens,” he says.

“Okay, so empty white voids hate gay sex,” Michael says. “It's the same thing either way.”

“How did you even come up with that, Luke?” Calum asks. “Like, how did you know it would work?”

“I didn't,” Luke says. “I just—” He pauses, trying to think back to the confusion of that moment and the sudden clarity in his head before he kissed Calum. “I just thought that we all, we all, like—you and Michael are mine and Ashton's, and we had to show that to the—aliens or whatever. And if it didn't work...”

He trails off, and Michael nudges him in the side. “Yeah?”

“If it didn't work,” Luke says softly. “Then at least I figured I'd have gotten to...you know...have that. Just once. With you guys.”

He feels stupid after saying it, wants to shrink into the pillows and disappear. Michael and Calum are staring, and he can't even bring himself to turn his head and see Ashton's reaction. Luke shrugs, staring down at his hands, and wonders where those words even came from; that was probably a lot to spring on his bandmates after a near death experience and first-time foursome sex. It's a lot to contemplate himself when he's only just realized this.

“Luke,” Calum starts, and Luke shakes his head, rushing to cut Calum off and say, “no, I know that's weird and stuff, but it's, it's true, so I—”

Michael leans in and presses his mouth to Luke's, silencing him. It's a soft, sweet kiss, and Luke instinctively closes his eyes and presses in. It feels both like a cuddle when he's homesick and a tackle hug after a particularly good show; soothing and gentle and absolutely electric all at the same time.

“It's not weird,” Michael mumbles. “I'm really—I'm happy this happened. Not, like, all of this, because fuck the apocalypse, but...this.”

“This is so fucked,” Ashton says suddenly, his voice shaky. Luke looks sharply over at him, but he's not trying to move away from them or anything; he's actually hugging Calum closer, his arm around Calum's waist.

“The world's fucked,” Michael says. “But at least we're safe.”

“Safe,” Ashton repeats softly, gazing down at the top of Calum's head. He presses a kiss there, throwing his free arm out to drape it over Luke's shoulders.

“You think maybe whatever we did helped with the world being fucked?” Luke asks, because he's watched way too many movies.

“I don't know,” Calum says. “All I care about is that it helped us.”

****

They test it later that day by getting Michael and Calum to stand by themselves in a corner on the opposite side of the room.

“Do you feel any looming pull or whatever?” Ashton asks.

“No,” says Michael. He's leaning on Calum like a wilted flower. “I feel nothing.”

“Okay,” Ashton says. “Try stepping apart. Carefully.”

Michael and Calum slowly untangle and shuffle about a step away from each other. Calum's hands twitch, like they don't know what to do when they're empty, and he rubs them nervously on his thighs, brushing against his bandage and twitching away like he'd forgotten it was there. He's still naked. It's a bit distracting.

“Now?” Luke says.

Calum shakes his head. “It feels like before any of this started. Like, I didn't realize it during, but there was always this pressure in my head these past few days, and now it's just gone.”

“We switched their target,” Luke mutters. Then, louder, “Michael, you were right! They can move their focus, and they have now. Like, completely!”

“Yes!” Calum cheers and sweeps his arms in the baseball 'safe' move. “But just in case, you guys should all come and cuddle again.”

“Victory cuddle!” Michael exclaims, and barrels into Calum.

They're alive, and that fact doesn't stop seeming unreal as the day goes on, but it doesn't stop being true either.

****

day five

They eat half frozen vegetarian chili and drink from their stash of water. They play cards and change Calum's bandage and try to write a song. Michael fucks Calum—fingers him for half an hour until he's shaking and the sheets are a damp, twisted mess underneath him, and then finally gets his cock in there. He claims since he's known Calum the longest, the first dick Calum ever comes on oughta be his. Ashton gets weird about it all and just watches, but Luke helps Calum out with a hand around his dick. He even gets a little brave towards the end and sucks on the head of it, and only barely manages to move away before Calum is shouting out and coming everywhere. Michael fucks him for another minute before he comes too, and Luke watches and thinks distantly how simultaneously hot and stupid he looks, biting his lip and thrusting forward. Realizing that he wants Michael to fuck him too is just another new thing to process. Luke's got a lot of them these days.

Afterwards, Calum says in a dazed little voice how weird his ass feels with Michael's come dripping out, and Ashton snaps out of his weirdness enough to grab one of the water cups to soak a washcloth and clean him up a bit. He's hard, but clearly doesn't want anyone to acknowledge it, so they don’t. Luke definitely doesn’t feel that way, so he kisses at Michael’s slack, pouty mouth until Michael slides down his body and sucks him off so slowly that Luke’s crying by the end, absolutely desperate.

Without power, they go to bed a lot sooner and wake up earlier, following the movements of the sun. As they get ready for bed—one cup of water for the four of them for brushing their teeth and rinsing—Luke stares out the windows at the skyline. The city is pitch black, highlighted by a backdrop of melting blues and purples, stars already starting to show. It looks dead, unnatural, and Luke wonders how many people are trapped in the black silhouettes of the buildings, maybe brushing their teeth right now just like them. Maybe running out of food or water. Maybe dying.

They keep the light switch and the tv flicked to on just in case anything changes.

When they climb into bed, none of them bother with underwear.

****

day six

Something about waking up two days after it all almost ended and finding themselves still stuck in the same place makes everything feel desperate. Ashton rolls over with a look on his face like he's been through a war and kisses Calum like he's trying to pull his soul out through his mouth. They stay in bed for most of the day, wrapped in a tangle of arms and legs like contact is going to keep out the suffocating thought that they're going to be stuck here forever, that what will kill them won't be losing each other or getting sucked out of existence, but will be the slow things: running out of food or water and maybe getting beaten to death trying to find it. Ashton fucks Michael on his hands and knees, his eyes closed and his hands biting bruises into Michael's skin. Luke hears rather than sees Michael come;   Calum's kissing him when Michael cries out, and two of Calum's fingers are squirmed lube-slick and awkward into Luke's ass. Luke comes almost as soon as Calum nudges up against his prostate, and pulls Calum up as soon as he catches his breath so Calum can kneel above Luke and feed his cock into Luke's mouth.

Luke keeps having these flashes where he sees himself from the outside, sees all of them like he's a fan or part of management or a pap just standing next to the bed. Headlines stream through his head as he's got his hands spread over Calum's ass, urging him forward. He thinks about what people would say, about what this would mean for them—but none of that matters. There's only this left, only them.

He thinks he's going a little crazy, but if he is, Calum and Michael and Ashton are right here with him.

****

day seven

They stay alive. They don't need to touch each other every second anymore to do that, but they can't stop.

****

day eight

They push a lamp out of the window and watch it fall twenty-nine stories to smash to pieces on the pavement below. Luke jokingly puts his leg up on the sill like he's going to jump; Ashton yanks him back, yelling, and Michael kisses Luke like a punishment.

****

day nine

“Maybe it would've been better if the white had just taken us after all,” Calum mutters.

“Shut the fuck up,” Ashton says.

****

day ten

It's bright when Luke opens his eyes, and a woman is talking quietly.

He lies there on the bed, squinting towards the far wall for a long minute, trying to reconcile several facts in his head. The windows are an ink black, with thin golden reflections of the hotel room streaked on top of the glass. The light is coming from inside the room, harsher than the sunlight Luke has gotten used to. There's a woman's voice coming from somewhere to his right.

Luke sits up, Ashton's arm sliding off of his chest down to his waist. The three of them are still fast asleep, Calum curled into Luke with Michael curled into him. Luke looks up at the round light in the middle of the ceiling, blazing and on and illuminating the whole room, and then slowly looks over at the tv.

She's there, the blonde lady, sitting triumphant and alive behind the news counter, a stack of paper in her hand. She's wearing a stretched out t-shirt and her hair is piled on top of her head with a pen stuck through it, and she's clearly talking animatedly, despite the low volume of the tv.

Luke has never been happier to see someone in his whole life.

He scrambles off the bed, kicking Calum in the process, and lunges for the remote lying on the floor. He flops back down on the bed next to Ashton's legs and turns the sound up until he can hear what the news lady is saying.

She tells him that power is being slowly returned to the city, that the entire grid should be operational again by midday. She says that the disappearances seem to be on a downswing, and show no signs of picking up again. They still don't know the cause, and may never know it. She says the worst is over, and that restructuring can begin.

The broadcast is only a couple minutes long, but it starts repeating as soon as it's done, and Luke sits there, watching her and feeling curiously empty. The immediate happiness of knowing they are no longer dealing with the threat of death has fallen away, leaving only uncertainty. What now? he thinks. He's not sure he knows what to do anymore with a world beyond this bed and these boys. It all seems vague and nebulous and too cluttered and confusing at the same time.

He wakes the other three up and lets the lights and the news lady fill them in. They huddle in bed all pale and shirtless, watching the tv wide-eyed, and then they're laughing and whooping. Ashton runs to the bathroom and turns on the tap to drink straight from it in victory. Michael gets up and dramatically kisses the lady on the tv screen, using way too much tongue and then complaining about the taste. Luke watches them and tries to rein in the urge to pull them back down onto the bed and never let them up again.

“Maybe we'll be able to leave soon,” Calum says. “Like, if they're slowly getting everything running, maybe they'll have flights leaving the country soon and we can go—”

He cuts off abruptly, and Luke knows he was about to say “home” before he remembered how little of a home he has to go back to now. Luke quietly takes his hand and Calum smiles weakly at him.

“What are we supposed to do when we get back?” Luke says, asking all of them. “Are we supposed to just slot back in like nothing happened, like none of this...” They were doing promo, he remembers. They were about to have a break and be in Australia for a month. Those plans seem like distant memories rather than anything connected to their lives now.

Ashton slumps against the bathroom door, his excitement falling off and leaving him small. “I don't know.”

Is this over? Luke wants to ask, but he can't bring himself to say it. He's not even sure what he means by it. He only knows that he's not sure what home means anymore.

“Guys,” Michael says. He's standing at the window. “Come look.”

They all cluster around and stare out into the blackness of the night. It takes Luke a few seconds to realize it, but when he does it's all he can see—there are tiny lights popping on all over, pinpricking the shadowed buildings in miniature, shining signs of rebirth. The lights look no bigger than fireflies, but they mean people behind light switches, people rejoicing.

“Whoa,” Calum says quietly. His face is glowing, and Luke can barely breathe just looking at him. 

Ashton makes a soft, stunned noise in his throat, and when Luke glances over, Ashton isn't looking out at the window, but is staring around wild-eyed, first at Calum, then Luke, then Michael.

“I love you,” he says. “All of you. Like, I think I—I'm in love with you.” He ducks his head to his chest, swallowing hard enough that Luke can hear the click of his throat. He looks scared, and Luke has no idea what for; Ashton's words have poured down into his chest like hot cocoa and filled him up, drowning out the fear.

“Ash,” Michael sighs out, reaching to touch careful fingers to Ashton's cheek. “Me too, us too. Obviously.”

“Shut up,” Ashton chokes out, going flushed and stiff. “It's not obvious, it wasn't—”

“It's probably always been obvious,” Calum says. “And we're just really slow.” 

Luke looks at each of them in turn, thinks, I love you, and wants to scream it from the roof with how fucking right it feels. He takes Michael's hand and feels the movement travel down the line of them, hands linking up one by one.

They stand there and watch the city come back to life, all four of them connected and grounded and safe. Luke breathes in and out. None of them disappear.