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Not Today

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Prologue - 2014

When he emerges from the bathroom he is awake, propped up against the pillows and flicking through the travel brochures that were beside the bed. He is wearing one of his T-shirts, and his short hair is tousled in a way that prompts reflexive thoughts of the previous night. Louis stands there, enjoying the brief flashback, rubbing the water from his hair with a towel.

He looks up from a brochure and pouts. He is probably slightly too old to pout, but they’ve been going out a short enough time for it still to be cute.

"Do we really have to do something that involves trekking up mountains, or hanging over ravines? It’s our first proper holiday together, and there is literally not one single trip in these that doesn’t involve either throwing yourself off something or –’ he pretends to shudder ‘– wearing fleece."

He tosses them on the bed, stretches his caramel colored arms above his head. His voice is husky, testament to their missed hours of sleep. "How about a luxury spa in Bali? We could lie around on the sand…spend hours being pampered…long relaxing nights…"

Louis pulls a white shirt over his head, covering the tattoos that he knows Ashton likes so much. "I can’t do those sorts of holidays. I need to actually be doing something." Louis' mum always said he had a bit of ADD, though he wouldn't admit it.

"Like throwing yourself out of airplanes?"

"Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it."

Ashton pulls a face. “If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll stick with knocking it.”

His shirt is faintly damp against his skin. He runs a comb through his hair and switches on his mobile phone, wincing at the list of messages that immediately pushes its way through on to the little screen.

“Right,” Louis says. “Got to go. Help yourself to breakfast.” He leans over the bed to kiss Ashton. He smells warm and perfumed and deeply sexy. He inhales the scent from the back of his hair, and briefly loses his train of thought as he wraps his arms around his neck, pulling him down towards the bed.

“Are we still going away this weekend?”

Louis extricates himself reluctantly. “Depends what happens on this deal. It’s all a bit up in the air at the moment. There’s still a possibility I might have to be in New York. Nice dinner somewhere Thursday, either way? Your choice of restaurant.” His leather jacket is on the back of the chair, and Louis reaches for it as he does every morning.

Ashton narrows his eyes. “Dinner. With or without the constant stream of emails?”

“What?”

The pout again. “I feel like there’s always a third person vying for your attention.”

“I'll turn it on to silent.”

“Louis Tomlinson!” he scolds. “You have to have some time when you can switch off.”

“I turned it off last night, didn’t I?”

“Only under extreme duress.”

Louis grins. “Is that what we’re calling it now?” He slips on his jacket. And Ashton’s hold on his imagination is finally broken. He grabs his helmet, and blows him a kiss as he leaves.

There are seventeen messages on his iPhone the first of which came in from New York at 3:42 AM. Some legal problem. He takes the lift down to the underground garage, trying to update himself with the night’s events.

“Morning, Mr Tomlinson.”

The security guard steps out of his cubicle. It’s weatherproof, even though down here there is no weather to be protected from. Louis sometimes wonders what he does down here in the small hours, staring at the closed-circuit television and the glossy bumpers of £60,000 cars that never have the chance to get dirty.

He slips on his helmet. “What’s it like out there, James?”

“Terrible. Raining cats and dogs.”

Louis stops. “Really? Not weather for the bike?”

James shakes his head. “No, sir. Not unless you’ve got an inflatable attachment. Or a death wish.”

Louis stares at his bike, then peels himself out of his jacket. No matter what Ashton thinks, he is not a man who believes in taking unnecessary risks. He unlocks the top box of his bike and places the jacket and helmet inside, locking it and throwing the keys at James, who catches them neatly with one hand. “Stick those through my door, will you?”

“No problem. You want me to call a taxi for you?”

“No. No point both of us getting wet.”

James presses the button to open the automatic door and Louis steps out, lifting a hand in thanks. The early morning is dark and thunderous around him, the Central London traffic already dense and slow despite the fact that it is barely half past seven. He pulls his collar up around his neck and strides down the street towards the junction, from where he is most likely to hail a taxi. The roads are slick with water, the grey light shining on the mirrored pavement.

He curses inwardly as he spies the other suited people standing on the edge of the curb. Since when did the whole of London start getting up so early? Everyone had the same idea.

Louis wondered where best to position himself when his phone rang. It was Zayn.

“I’m on my way in. Just trying to get a cab.” He catches sight of a taxi with an orange light approaching on the other side of the road, and begins to stride towards it, hoping nobody else has seen. A bus roars past, followed by a lorry whose brakes squeal, deafening him to Zayn’s words. “Can’t hear you, Z!” he yells against the noise of the traffic. “You’ll have to say that again.” Briefly marooned on the island, the traffic flowing past him like a current, he can see the orange light glowing, holds up his free hand, hoping that the driver can see him through the heavy rain.

“You need to call Jeff in New York. He’s still up, waiting for you. We were trying to get you last night.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Legal hitch. Two clauses they’re stalling on under section…signature…papers…” His voice is drowned out by a passing car, its tires hissing in the wet.

“I didn’t catch that.”

The taxi has seen him. It is slowing, sending a fine spray of water as it slows on the opposite side of the road. He spies the man further along whose brief sprint slows in disappointment as he sees Louis will get there before him. He feels a sneaking sense of triumph. “Look, get Gina to have the paperwork on my desk,” he yells. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

Louis glances both ways then ducks his head as he runs the last few steps across the road towards the cab. The rain is seeping down the gap between his collar and his shirt. He will be soaked by the time he reaches the office, even walking this short distance. He may have to send his secretary out for another shirt.

“And we need to get this due diligence thing worked out before Allen gets in –”

Louis glances up at the screeching sound, the rude blare of a horn. He sees the side of the glossy black taxi in front of him, the driver already winding down his window, and at the edge of his field of vision something he can’t quite make out, something coming towards him at an impossible speed.

He turns towards it, and in that split second he realizes that he is in its path, that there is no way he is going to be able to get out of its way. His hand opens in surprise, letting his phone fall to the ground. Louis hears a shout, which may be his own. The last thing he sees is a leather glove, a face under a helmet, the shock in the man’s eyes mirroring his own. There is an explosion as everything fragments.


And then there is nothing.

Chapter Text

2016

 

There are 158 footsteps between the bus stop and Harry's home, but it can stretch to 180 if you aren’t in a hurry, like maybe if you’re wearing platform shoes. Or shoes you bought from a charity shop that are gold booties and never quite grip the heel at the back, explaining why they were only £4.99. Harry turned the corner onto his street (68 steps), and could just see the house – a four bedroom flat in a row of other similar style places. Robin’s car was outside, which meant he had not yet left for work.

Just past his shoulders, the sun was setting behind Stortfold Castle, its dark shadow sliding down the hill like it was melting into the grass. When Harry was a child, he remembers that he and Liam used to make their elongated shadows have gun battles, laughing at their foolishness. On a different day, he could have told you all the things that had happened to him on that route: where Des taught him to ride a bike without training wheels; where Mrs. Finney with the lopsided wig used to make the boys Welsh cakes; where Liam stuck his hand into a hedge when he was eleven and disturbed a wasp’s nest and they ran screaming all the way back to the castle.

Violet’s tricycle was upturned on the path and, closing the gate behind him, Harry dragged it under the porch and opened the door. The warmth hit him with the force of an air bag; Anne couldn’t help herself having the heat on year round. Robin was always opening windows, complaining that she’d bankrupt the lot of them.

“That you, love?” Anne asks from inside somewhere.

“Yup.” Harry hangs his jacket on the peg, where it fought for space amongst the others.

“Which you? Liam? H?”

“Harry.”

He peered around the living-room door. Robin was face down on the sofa, his arm thrust deep between the cushions, dead asleep. Violet, his five-year-old niece, was on her haunches, watching him intently.

Harry looked up, just able to hear the familiar creak of the ironing board. Anne Cox, his mother, never sat down. It was a point of honor for her, or so she stated.

Robin tore himself from the couch, asking Harry to watch Violet.

“Are you on nights?” he asks.

“Yeah. It’s half five.”

Harry glanced at the clock. “Actually, it’s half four.”

Robin followed Harry’s gaze, and eyed him intently. “Then what are you doing home so early?”

Harry shook his head as if he might have misunderstood the question, and walked into the kitchen.

Anne walked into the room, bearing a huge basket of neatly folded laundry. “Are these yours?” She brandished a pair of socks with smiling faces on them. Though Harry liked them, they certainly weren’t his.

“Liam’s, I think.” he replied. Liam had lived with them since they were teenagers - his parents having passed away and Liam deciding where he would live from that point on.

“I thought so. Odd color. Are you going somewhere?’

“No.” Harry states, putting the kettle on to make some tea.

“Is Nick coming round later? He rang here earlier. Did you have your phone off?”

“Mhmm.”

“He said he’s trying to book your holiday. Robin says he saw something on the television about it. Where is it you liked? Ipsos? Kalypsos?”

Skiathos.” It was a Greek island that Harry had always dreamed about visiting.

“Are you alright, love? You look awfully pale.” She reached out a hand and felt his forehead, as if he were much younger than twenty-six.

“I don’t think we’re going on holiday.” he finally said, after a moment of silence.

Anne’s hand stilled. Her gaze had that X-ray thing that it had held since Harry was a child. “Are you and Nick having some problems?”

“Mum, I –”

“I’m not trying to interfere. It’s just, you’ve been together an awful long time. It’s only natural if things get a bit sticky every now and then. I mean, me and Robin we –”

“I lost my job.”

Harry’s voice cut into the silence. The words hung there, searing themselves on the little room long after the sound had died away.

“You did what?”

“Deb’s shutting down the bakery. Tomorrow.” He held out a hand with the slightly damp envelope he had gripped in shock the entire journey home. All 180 steps from the bus stop. “She’s given me my three months’ pay - wouldn’t let me leave without it.”

The day had started like any other day. Everyone Harry knew hated Monday mornings, but he really never minded them. He liked arriving early at Hot Crossed Buns, firing up the oven, bringing in the crates of milk and bread from the backyard and chatting with Deb before opening.

He liked the strange flour-scented warmth of the bakery, the little bursts of cool air as the door opened and closed, the low murmur of conversation and, when quiet, Deb’s radio singing tinnily to itself in the corner.

But most of all, Harry liked the customers. He liked Joe and Todd, the plumbers, who came in most mornings and teased Deb about her baked goods. He liked the fire woman, nicknamed for her shock of bright red hair, who ate one scone and tea from Monday to Thursday and sat reading the complimentary newspapers. Harry always made an effort to chat with her. He suspected it might be the only conversation the old woman got all day, which nearly broke his heart.

He watched relationships begin and end across those tables, children transferred between divorcees, the guilty relief of those parents who couldn’t face one another, and the secret pleasure of pensioners at a fresh breakfast. All human life came through, and most of them shared a few words with him, trading jokes or comments over the mugs of steaming tea. Robin always said he never knew what was going to come out of Harry's mouth next, but at the bakery it didn’t matter.

Deb liked Harry. She was quiet by nature, and said having Harry there kept the place lively. It was a bit like being a bartender, but without the hassle of drunks.

And then that afternoon, after the lunchtime rush had ended, and with the place briefly empty, Deb, wiping her hands on her apron, had come out from behind the counter and turned the little Closed sign to face the street.

“Now now, Harry, I’ve told you before. Extras are not included in the minimum wage.”

Harry looked up to see that she wasn’t smiling.

“Uh-oh. I didn’t put salt in the sugar containers again, did I?”

She was twisting a tea towel between her two hands and looked more uncomfortable than Harry had ever seen her. He wondered, briefly, whether someone had complained about him. And then she motioned for Harry to sit down.

“Sorry, Harry” she said, after she had told him what was going on. “But I’m going back to Scotland. My Dad’s not doing well, and it looks like the castle is definitely going to start doing its own refreshments and baked goods. The writing’s on the wall.”

Harry’s mouth was hanging open before Deb had handed him the envelope, and answered his next question before he even had the chance to ask. “I know we never had, you know, a formal contract or anything, but I wanted to look after you. There’s three months’ money in there. We close tomorrow.”

“Three months!” Robin exploded as Anne thrust a cup of tea into Harry’s hands. “Well, that’s big of her, given Harry’s been worked like a ruddy Trojan in that place for the last six years.”

“Robin.” Anne shot him a warning look, nodding towards Violet. They watched her every day after school every day until Gems was back from work.

“What the hell is he supposed to do now? She could have given him more than a day’s bloody notice.”

“Well…he’ll just have to get another job.” she made it sound so simple.

“There are no bloody jobs, Annie. You know that as well as I do. We’re in the middle of a bloody recession.”

Anne shut her eyes for a moment, as if composing herself before she spoke. “He’s a smart young man. He’ll find himself something. He’s got a solid employment record, hasn’t he? Deb will give him a shining reference.”

“Oh, bloody marvelous…Harry Styles is very good at baking all sorts of breads, and makes a perfect cuppa.”

“Oy! Thanks for the vote of confidence, Robin.”

“I’m just saying.”

Harry knew the real reason for Robin’s anxiety. They relied on his paycheck. Gemma earned next to nothing at the flower shop. Anne couldn’t work, as she had to look after Harry’s grandfather, and his pension amounted to almost nothing. Robin lived in a constant state of anxiety about his job at the factory. His boss had been muttering about possible redundancies for months. There were murmurings at home about debts and the juggling of credit cards. Harry’s modest wages had been a little bedrock of housekeeping money, enough to help see the family through from week to week.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. He can head down to the Job Center tomorrow and see what’s on offer. He’s got enough to get by for now.” They spoke as if Harry wasn’t there. “And he’s so smart. You’re smart, aren’t you, love? Perhaps he could do a business course.”

Harry sat there as his parents discussed what other jobs his limited qualifications might entitle him to. Factory work, machinist, bread baker. For the first time that afternoon, he wanted to cry. Violet watched him with big round eyes, and silently handed him half a soggy biscuit.

“Thanks Vi.” He mouthed silently before eating it.

****

He was down at the athletics club, as Harry knew he would be. Mondays to Thursdays, regular as a station timetable, Nick was there in the gym or running in circles around the track. He made his way down the steps, hugging himself against the cold, and walked slowly out on to the track, waving as he came close enough to see who it was.

“Run with me” he puffed as he got closer. His breath came in pale clouds. “I’ve got four laps to go.”

Harry hesitated just a moment, and then began to run alongside him. It was the only way he was going to get any kind of conversation out of him. Harry was wearing his black trainers with the pink laces, the only shoes he could possibly run in.

Harry had spent the day at home, trying to be useful. He guessed it would be about an hour until he was in the way. Anne had her routine...and having Harry there interrupted her. Robin was asleep, as he was on nights this month, and not to be disturbed. Harry tidied his room, then sat and watched television with the sound down, and when he remembered, periodically, why he was at home in the middle of the day he had felt an actual brief pain in his chest.

“I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I got fed up at home. I thought maybe we could do something.” Harry asked hopefully.

Nick looked sideways at him. There was a fine film of sweat on his face. "The sooner you get another job, babe, the better."

“It’s only been twenty-four hours since I lost the last one. Am I allowed to just be a bit miserable and floppy? You know, just for today?”

“But you’ve got to look at the positive side. You knew you couldn’t stay at that place forever. You want to move upwards, onwards. Can’t be a baker for life.” Nick had been named Stortfold Young Entrepreneur of the Year two years previously, and had not yet quite recovered from the honor. He had since acquired a business partner, Aiden, offering personal training to clients over a 40-mile area. He also had a whiteboard in his office, on which he liked to scrawl his projected turnover with thick black markers, working and reworking the figures until they met with his satisfaction. Harry was never entirely sure that they bore any resemblance to real life.

“Being made redundant can change people’s lives, H.” He glanced at his watch, checking his lap time. “What do you want to do? You could retrain. I’m sure they do a grant for people like you.”

“People like me?”

“People looking for a new opportunity. What do you want to be? You could be a designer or something. You’re handsome enough, and always putting weird things in your hair." He nudged Harry as they ran, as if he should be grateful for the compliment.

“You know my routine. Plus you don’t even like my style.”

Nick was beginning to look exasperated.

Harry was starting to lag behind. He hated running. He also hated Nick for not slowing down.

“Look...assistant. Secretary. Estate agent. I don’t know … there must be something you want to do.”

But there wasn’t. Harry had liked the bakery. He liked knowing everything there was to know about the process, and hearing about the lives of the people who came through it. He had felt comfortable there.

“You can’t mope around, babe. Got to get over it. All the best entrepreneurs fight their way back from rock bottom.” He tapped Harry’s arm, trying to get him to keep up.

“I doubt if any of them worked in a bakery for six years.” Harry was out of breath. He slowed, dropping his hands down to his knees.

Nick turned, running backwards, his voice carrying on the still, cold air. “But if they had... I’m just saying. Sleep on it, put on a smart suit and head down to the Job Center. Or I’ll train you up to work with me, if you like. You know there’s money in it. And don’t worry about the holiday. I’ll pay.”

Harry smiled at him.

Nick blew a kiss and his voice echoed across the empty stadium. “You can pay me back when you’re back on your feet.”

Harry went to make his first claim while looking for a job. He had a 45-minute interview, and a group interview, all the while wearing a “smart suit” and not something he would have rather worn - a headscarf, for example.

As a result of these efforts, he had endured a brief stint filling in on a night shift at a chicken processing factory (it had given him nightmares for weeks - leading him to become a vegetarian), and two days at a training session as a Construction Assistant.

He did two weeks at a fast food chain. The hours were okay, he could cope with the fact that the uniform made his hair look gross, but he found it impossible to stick to the script, with its boring banter toward customers.

Now Harry sat at his fourth interview as a lovely woman named Jane scanned through the touch screen for further employment opportunities. Even Jane, who wore the grimly cheerful demeanor of someone who had shoehorned the most unlikely candidates into a job, was starting to sound a little weary.

“Um … Have you ever considered joining the entertainment industry?”

“What, as an actor?”

“Actually, no. But there is an opening for a pole dancer. Several, in fact…” her face reddened.

Harry raised an eyebrow. “You’re joking, right?”

“It’s thirty hours a week on a self-employed basis. I’m sure you get tips as well.”

“Please tell me you have not just advised me to get a job that involves being on a pole for money.” Harry groans, wondering how his life ended up here.

“You said you were good with people. And you seem to like...interesting...clothing” She glanced at his head scarf, which was green and a bit shimmery. He had thought it would cheer him up.

Jane tapped something into her keyboard. “How about adult chat line supervisor?”

Harry stared at her.

She shrugged. “You said you liked talking to people.”

“No. And no to semi-nude bar staff. Or masseuse. Or webcam operator. Come on, Jane. There must be something I can do that wouldn’t actually give my mum a heart attack.”

This appeared to stump her. “There’s not much left outside of nightly retail hours.”

“Night-time shelf stacking?” He had been here enough times now to speak their language.

“There’s a waiting list. Parents tend to go for it, because it suits the school hours.” She said apologetically. She studied the screen again. “So we’re really left with care assistant.”

“Wiping old people’s arses.”

“I’m afraid, Harry, you’re not qualified for much else. If you wanted to retrain, I’d be happy to point you in the right direction. There are plenty of courses at the adult education center.”

“We’ve been through this, Jane. If I do that, I lose my money, right?”

“If you’re not available for work, yes.”

They sat there in silence for a moment. Harry looked at the doors, where two burly security men stood. He briefly wondered if they had got the job through the Job Center.

“I’m not good with old people, Jane. My grandfather lives at home since he had his strokes, and I’m not great at helping him out.”

“Ah. So you have some experience of caring.”

“Not really. My mum does everything for him.”

“Would your mum like a job?”

“Funny.”

‘I’m not being funny.’

“And leave me looking after my granddad? No thanks. That’s from him, as well as me, by the way. Haven’t you got anything in any bakeries or cafes?”

Jane sat back in her seat. “At this point, Harry, I really need to make the point that as a fit and able person, in order to continue qualifying for your money you need -”

“– to show that I’m trying to get a job. I know.”

Jane’s voice broke into the silence. “Aha. Now this might work.”

Harry tried to see the screen.

“It just came in - this very minute. Care assistant position.”

“I told you I was no good with –”

“It’s not old people. It’s a...a private position. To help in someone’s house, and the address is less than two miles from your home. It says care and companionship for a disabled man. Can you drive?”

“Yes. But would I have to wipe his –”

“No arse wiping required, as far as I can tell.” She scanned the screen. “He’s...a paraplegic. He needs someone in the daylight hours to help feed and assist. Often in these jobs it’s a case of being there when they want to go out somewhere, helping with basic stuff that they can’t do themselves. Oh. It’s good money. Quite a lot more than the minimum wage.”

“That’s probably because it involves arse wiping.” Harry quipped.

“I’ll ring them to confirm the absence of arse wiping. But if that’s the case, you’ll go along for the interview?”

She said it like it was a question.

But they both knew the answer.

Harry sighed, and gathered up his bag, ready for the trip home.

“Jesus Christ,” said Robin. “Can you imagine? If it wasn’t punishment enough ending up in a ruddy wheelchair, then you get Harry turning up to keep you company.”

“Robin!” Anne scolded.


Behind Harry, he could hear that his grandfather was laughing into his mug of tea.

Chapter Text

Harry Styles is not thick. He’d just like to get that out of the way at this point. But it’s quite hard not to feel a bit deficient in the Department of Brain Cells, growing up next to a younger sister who was not just moved up a year into his class, but then to the year above.

Everything that is sensible, or smart, Gemma did first, despite being eighteen months younger than Harry. Every book he ever read, she had read first. Every fact he mentioned at the dinner table, she already knew. She is the only person he knows who actually likes exams. Sometimes he thinks he dresses the way he does because the one thing Gemma can’t do is put clothes together. She’s a jumper and jeans kind of a girl. Her idea of smart is ironing the jeans first.

Robin calls Harry a ‘character’, because he tends to say the first thing that pops into his head. He says Harry is like his Aunt Sue, who he never knew. It’s a bit weird, constantly being compared to someone you’ve never met. Harry would come downstairs in glittering blue boots, and Robin would nod at Anne and say, “D’you remember Aunt Sue and her blue boots, eh?” and Anne would cluck and start laughing as if at some secret joke. His mum calls Harry an ‘individual’, which is her polite way of not quite understanding the way he dresses.

But apart from a brief period in his teens, he never wanted to look like Liam, or any of the guys at school; Harry preferred mostly “feminine” clothes till he was about fourteen, and now tends to please himself – depending on what mood he’s in. There’s no point Harry trying to look conventional. He’s tall and lanky - but muscular, and has the face chiseled from stone - according to Robin. He’s definitely not plain, but Harry doesn’t think anyone is ever going to call him handsome, really. He don’t have that graceful thing going on. Nick calls him gorgeous when he wants to get some, but he’s fairly transparent like that. They’ve known each other for almost seven years at this point.

Harry was twenty-six years old and he wasn’t really sure what he was. Up until he lost his job, he hadn’t even given it any thought. He supposed he would probably marry Nick, hopefully have a few kids, and probably live a few streets away from where he had always lived. Apart from an exotic taste in clothes, and the fact that he’s a bit lanky, Harry didn’t think there was much separating himself from anyone else.

“You have wear a suit to an interview,” His mum had insisted. “Everyone’s far too casual these days.”

“Because wearing a solid black suit will be vital if I’m spoon-feeding a geriatric.” Harry quips.

“Don’t be an arse.”

“I can’t afford to buy a suit. What if I don’t get the job?”

“You can wear Robin’s, and I’ll iron you a nice button up, and just for once don’t wear your hair up in those –’ she gestured to his hair, which was normally held back by some sort of head scarf or headband “– scarf things. Just try to look like a normal person.”

Harry knew better than to argue with his mother, and he could tell Robin had been instructed not to comment on his outfit as he walked out of the house, his gait awkward in the too short and tight of pants.

“Later, Harry!” he said, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Good luck now. You look very...businesslike.” Robin smiled.

The embarrassing thing was not that he was wearing his step father’s very old suit, or that it was in a cut last fashionable God knows when, but that it was actually much too short and snug.

Harry sat through the short bus journey feeling faintly sick. He had never had a proper job interview. He had joined Hot Crossed Buns after Gemma bet him that he couldn’t get a job in a day. Harry had walked in and simply asked Deb if she needed a spare pair of hands. It had been his first day open and she had looked almost blinded by gratitude.

Now, looking back, he couldn’t even remember having a discussion with her about money. She suggested a weekly wage, Harry agreed, and once a year she told him she’d upped it a bit, usually by a little more than Harry would have asked for.

What did people ask in interviews anyway? And what if they asked him to do something practical with this old man, to feed him or bathe him or something? Jane had said there was a another caretaker who covered his ‘intimate needs’ (Harry shuddered at the phrase). The secondary caretaker's job was, she said, ‘a little unclear at this point’. Harry pictured himself wiping drool from the old man’s mouth, maybe asking loudly if he wanted a cuppa.

When his Grandfather had first begun his recovery from his strokes, he hadn’t been able to do anything for himself. Anne had done it all. “Your mother is a saint,” Robin would say, which Harry took to mean that she wiped his bum without running screaming from the house. He was pretty sure nobody had ever described him as such. He cut his Grandfather’s food up for him and made him cups of tea but as for anything else, Harry wasn’t sure he was made of the right ingredients.

Granta House was on the other side of Stortfold Castle, close to the medieval walls, on the long unpaved stretch that comprised only four houses and the National Trust shop, right in the middle of the tourist area. Harry had passed this house a million times in his life without ever actually properly seeing it. Now, walking past the car park and the miniature train, he saw it was bigger than he had imagined. It was a bright red brick with a double front, the kind of house you saw in old copies of Home and Garden while waiting at the doctor’s office.

Harry walked up the long drive, trying not to think about whether anybody was watching out of the window. Walking up a long drive puts you at a disadvantage; it automatically makes you feel inferior. Harry was just contemplating whether to actually tug at his hair when the door opened.

A woman, not much older than Harry, stepped out into the porch. She was wearing white slacks and a medical-looking tunic and carried a coat and a folder under her arm. As she passed him, she gave a polite smile.

“And thank you so much for coming” a voice said from inside. “We’ll be in touch. Ah.”  A woman’s face appeared, middle-aged but beautiful, under expensive precision-cut hair. She was wearing a trouser suit that Harry guessed cost more than Robin earned in a month.

“You must be Mister Styles.”

“Harry.” He held out a ringed hand, as his mother had instructed.

“Right. Yes. Please come in.” She withdrew her hand from his as soon as humanly possible, but Harry could feel her eyes linger upon him, as if she were already conducting an assessment.

“Would you like to come in? We’ll talk in the drawing room. My name is Johannah Tomlinson.” She seemed weary, as if she had uttered the same words many times that day already.

Harry followed her through to a huge room with floor to ceiling French windows. Heavy curtains draped elegantly from fat mahogany curtain poles, and the floors were carpeted with intricately decorated Persian rugs. It smelt of beeswax and antique furniture. There were little elegant side tables everywhere, their burnished surfaces covered with ornamental boxes. Harry wondered briefly where on earth the Tomlinson’s put their cups of tea.

“So you have come via the Job Center advertisement, is that right? Please sit down.”

While she flicked through her folder of papers, Harry gazed around the room. He had thought the house might be a bit like an old folks home, all hoists and wipe-clean surfaces. But this was like a fancy boutique hotel, steeped in old money, with well-loved things that looked incredibly valuable. There were silver-framed photographs on a sideboard, but they were too far away for Harry to make out the faces. As she scanned her pages, Harry shifted in his seat to try to get a better look.

And it was then that he heard it – the unmistakable sound of stitches ripping. He glanced down to see the two pieces of material that joined at the side of his right leg had torn apart, sending frayed pieces of silk thread shooting upwards in an ungainly fringe. Harry could feel his face face flood with color.

“So...Mister Styles...do you have any experience with paraplegia?”

Harry turned to face Mrs. Tomlinson, wriggling so that his jacket covered as much of the pant leg as possible.

“No.”

“Have you been a caretaker for long?”

“I’ve never actually done it…” He said, adding, as if he could hear Jane’s voice in his ear, “But I’m a very quick learner.”

“Do you know what a paraplegic is?”

Harry faltered. “When...you’re stuck in a wheelchair?”

“I suppose that’s one way of putting it. There are varying degrees, but in this case we are talking about complete loss of use of the legs, and very limited use of the hands and arms. Would that bother you?”

“Well, not as much as it would bother him, obviously.” A smile grew at the corner of Harry’s lips, but Mrs. Tomlinson’s face was expressionless. “Sorry – I didn’t mean –”

“Can you drive, Mister Styles?”

“Yes.”

“Clean license?”

Harry nodded.

Johannah Tomlinson ticked something on her list.

The rip was growing. Harry could see it creeping inexorably up his thigh. At this rate, by the time he stood up he would look like one of those dancers Jane had talked about.

“Are you alright?” Mrs. Tomlinson was staring at him.

“I’m just a little warm. Do you mind if I take my jacket off?” Before she could say anything, he wrenched the suit jacket off in one fluid motion and laid it across his waist, obscuring the split in the pants. “So hot,” he said, smiling at her, “coming in from outside. You know.”

There was the faintest pause, and then Mrs. Tomlinson looked back at her folder. “How old are you?”

“I’m twenty-six.”

“And you were in your previous job for six years.”

“Yes. You should have a copy of my reference.”

“Mm…” Mrs. Tomlinson held it up and squinted. “Your previous employer says you are a “warm, funny, and life-enhancing presence”.’

“Yes, I paid her.” Harry ventured another smile.

That poker face again.

Jesus Christ, this would be difficult.

It was as if he were being studied. Not necessarily in a good way. Harry's shirt felt suddenly cheap, the synthetic threads shining in the thin light. He should just have worn his regular clothes. Anything but this suit.

“So why are you leaving this job, where you are clearly so well regarded?”

“Deb – the owner – sold the bakery. It’s the one at the bottom of the castle. Hot Crossed Buns. Was," He corrected himself. “I would have been happy to stay.”

Mrs. Tomlinson nodded, either because she didn’t feel the need to say anything further about it, or because she too would have been happy for him to stay there.

“And what exactly do you want to do with your life?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Do you have aspirations for a career? Would this be a stepping stone to something else? Do you have a professional dream that you wish to pursue?”

Harry looked at her blankly.

Was this some kind of trick question?

“I … I haven’t really thought that far. Since I lost my job. I just –” he swallowed. “I just want to work again.”

It sounded feeble. What kind of person came to an interview without even knowing what he wanted to do? Mrs. Tomlinson’s expression suggested she thought the same thing.

She put down her pen. “So, Mister Styles, why should I employ you instead of, say, the previous candidate, who has several years’ experience with paraplegics?’

Harry looked at her. “Uh...honestly? I don’t know.” This was met with silence, so he added, “I guess that would be your call.”

“You can’t give me a single reason why I should employ you?”

Anne’s face suddenly swam into view. The thought of going home with a ruined suit and another interview failure was beyond his comprehension. And this job paid more than £9 an hour.

He sat up a bit. “Well...I’m a fast learner, I’m never ill, I’m pretty light hearted, I only live on the other side of the castle, and I’m stronger than I look...probably strong enough to help move your husband around –”

“My husband? It’s not my husband you’d be working with. It’s my son.”

“Your son?” he blinked. “Uh...I’m not afraid of hard work. I’m really a people pleaser...and I make a mean cup of tea.” Harry began to blather into the silence. The thought of it being her son had thrown him. “I mean, my step dad seems to think that’s not the greatest reference. But in my experience there’s not much that can’t be fixed by a decent cup of tea…”

There was something a bit strange about the way Mrs. Tomlinson was looking at him.

“Sorry,” he spluttered, as he realized what he had said. “I’m not suggesting the thing...the paraplegia...quadriplegia...with...your son...could be solved by a cup of tea.” What was he doing?

“I should tell you, Mister Styles, that this is not a permanent contract. It would be for a maximum of six months. That is why the salary is...desirable. We wanted to attract the right person.”

“Believe me, when you’ve done shifts at a chicken processing factory, working in Guantánamo Bay for six months looks attractive.” Oh, shut up, Harry. He bit his lip. When would he learn to stop talking?

Mrs. Tomlinson seemed oblivious. She closed her file. “My son – Louis – was injured in a road accident almost two years ago. He requires twenty-four-hour care, the majority of which is provided by a trained nurse. I have recently returned to work, and the caregiver would be required to be here throughout the day to keep him company, help him with food and drink, generally provide an extra pair of hands, and make sure that he comes to no harm.” Johannah Tomlinson looked down at her lap. “It is of the utmost importance that Louis has someone here who understands that responsibility.”

Everything she said, even the way she emphasized her words, seemed to hint at some stupidity on Harry’s part.

“I can see that.” Harry began to gather up his things.

“So would you like the job?”

It was so unexpected that at first he thought he had heard her wrong. “Sorry?”

“We would need you to start as soon as possible. Payment will be weekly.”

He was briefly lost for words. “You’d rather have me instead of –” he began.

“The hours are quite lengthy – 8am till 5pm, sometimes later. There is no lunch break as such, although when =his daily nurse comes in at lunchtime to attend to him, there should be a free half an hour.”

“You wouldn’t need anything...medical?”

“Louis has all the medical care we can offer him. What we want for him is somebody robust...and upbeat. His life is...complicated, and it is important that he is encouraged to –” She broke off, her gaze fixed on something outside the French windows. Finally, she turned back to Harry. “Well, let’s just say that his mental welfare is as important to us as his physical welfare. Do you understand?”

“I think so. Would I...wear a uniform?”

“No. Definitely no uniform.” She glanced down at his leg. “Although you might want to wear...something a bit less revealing.”

Harry glanced down to where the jacket had shifted, revealing a generous expanse of bare thigh. “It...I’m sorry. It ripped. It’s not actually mine.”

But Mrs. Tomlinson no longer appeared to be listening. “I’ll explain what needs doing when you start. Louis is not the easiest person to be around at the moment, Mister Styles. This job is going to be about mental attitude as much as any...professional skills you might have. So. We will see you tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow? You don’t want...you don’t want me to meet him?”

“Louis is not having a good day. I think it’s best that we start fresh then.”

Harry stood up, realizing Mrs. Tomlinson was already waiting to see him out.

“Yes” he said, tugging Robin’s jacket back on. “Um. Thank you. I’ll see you at eight o’clock tomorrow.”

****

Anne was spooning potatoes onto Robin’s plate. She put two on, he parried, lifting a third and fourth from the serving dish. She blocked him, steering them back on to the serving dish, finally rapping him on the knuckles with the serving spoon when he made for them again. Around the little table sat Harry’s parents, his sister and Violet, his grandfather, and Nick – who always came for dinner on Wednesdays.

“Dad” Anne said to her father. “Would you like someone to cut your meat? Gems, will you cut it please?”

Gemma leaned across and began slicing at the plate. On the other side she had already done the same for Violet.

“So how messed up is this man, H?”

“Can’t be up to much if they’re willing to let our son loose on him," Robin remarked. Behind Harry, the television was on so that Robin and Nick could watch the football match. Every now and then they would stop, peering round him, their mouths stopping mid-chew as they watched some pass or near miss.

“I think it’s a great opportunity. He’ll be working in one of the big houses. For a good family. Are they posh, love?” Anne asked.

“I suppose so.”

“Hope you’ve practiced your formal bow.” Robin chuckled.

“Did you actually meet him?” Gemma leaned across to stop Violet from elbowing her juice on to the floor. “The crippled man? What was he like?’

“I meet him tomorrow.”

“Weird, though. You’ll be spending all day every day with him. Nine hours. You’ll see him more than you see Nick.”

“That’s not hard.” Harry said.

Nick, across the table, pretended he couldn’t hear the comment.

“Still, you won’t have to worry about the old sexual harassment, eh?” Harry’s stepdad smiled.

“Robin!” Anne keeping him in check again.

“I’m only saying what everyone’s thinking. Probably the best boss you could find for your boyfriend, eh, Nick?”

Across the table, Nick smiled. He was busy refusing potatoes, despite Anne’s best efforts. He was having a non-carb month, ready for a marathon in early March.

“You know, I was thinking, will you have to learn sign language? I mean, if he can’t communicate, how will you know what he wants?”

“She didn’t say he couldn’t talk, Mum.” Harry couldn’t actually remember what Mrs. Tomlinson had said. He was still vaguely in shock at actually having been given a job.

“Maybe he talks through one of those devices. Like that scientist bloke. The one on The Simpsons.”

“Bugger” said Violet

“Nope” said Robin.

“Stephen Hawking.” said Nick.

“That’s you, that is,” Anne said, looking accusingly from Violet to Robin. She could cut steak with that look. “Teaching her bad language.”

“It is not. I don’t know where she’s getting it from.”

“Bugger,” said Violet, looking directly at her grandfather.

Gemma made a face. “I think it would freak me out, if he talked through one of those voice boxes. Can you imagine? Get-me-a-drink-of-water,” she mimicked.

“Why would being in a wheelchair mean he had to speak like a Dalek?” Harry asked, referencing one of his favorite TV shows.

“But you’re going to have to get up close and personal to him. At the very least you’ll have to wipe his mouth and give him drinks and stuff.”

“So? It’s hardly rocket science.”

“Says the man who used to put Violet’s nappy on inside out.”

“That was once.”

“Twice. And you only changed her three times.”

Harry helped himself to some green beans, trying to look more relaxed than he felt.

But even as he had ridden the bus home, the same thoughts had already started buzzing around is head. What would they talk about? What if Louis just stared at him, head lolling, all day? Would he be freaked out? What if he couldn’t understand what it was he wanted? Harry was legendarily bad at caring for things; they no longer had houseplants at home, or pets, after the disasters that were the hamster, the stick insects and Larry the goldfish. And how often was that stiff mother of his going to be around? He didn’t like the thought of being watched all the time. Mrs. Tomlinson seemed like the kind of woman whose gaze turned capable hands into fingers and thumbs.

“Nick what do you think of it all, then?”

Nick took a long slug of water, and shrugged.

Outside, the rain beat on the windowpanes, just audible over the clatter of plates and cutlery.

“It’s good money, Robin. Better than working nights at the chicken factory, anyway.”

There was a general murmur of agreement around the table.

“Well, it comes to something when the best you can all say about my new career is that it’s better than hauling chicken carcasses around the inside of an aircraft hangar.” Harry offered.

“Well, you could always get fit in the meantime and go and do some of your personal training stuff with Nick here.”

“Get fit. Thanks, Dad.” Harry had been about to reach for another potato, and now changed his mind.

“Well, why not?” Anne looked as if she might actually sit down – everyone paused briefly, but no, she was up again, helping her father to some gravy. “It might be worth bearing in mind for the future. You’ve certainly got the gift of the gab.”

“I’ve just got myself a job” he says. “Paying more than the last one too, if you’re so concerned.”

“But it is only temporary,” Nick interjected. “Robin’s right. You might want to start getting in shape while you do it. You could be a good personal trainer, if you put in a bit of effort.”

“I don’t want to be a personal trainer. I don’t fancy all that shit.”

“We’re teasing you, love.” Robin raised his mug of tea. “It’s great that you’ve got a job. We’re proud of you already. And I bet you, once you slide those feet of yours under the table at the big house those buggers won’t want to get rid of you.”

“Bugger,” said Violet.

“Not me” said Robin, chewing, before Anne could say a thing.

Chapter Text

“This is the annex. It used to be stables, but we realized it would suit Louis rather better than the house as it’s all on one floor. This is the spare room so that Perrie or Niall can stay over if necessary. We needed someone quite often in the early days.”

Mrs. Tomlinson walked briskly down the corridor, gesturing from one doorway to the other, without looking back, her high heels clacking on the flagstones. There seemed to be an expectation that Harry would keep up.

“The keys to the car are here. I’ve put you on our insurance. I’m trusting the details you gave me were correct. Niall should be able to show you how the ramp works. All you have to do is help Louis position properly and the vehicle will do the rest. Although... he’s not desperately keen to go anywhere at the moment.”

“It is a bit chilly out,” Harry said.

Mrs. Tomlinson didn’t seem to hear him

“You can make yourself tea and coffee in the kitchen. I keep the cupboards stocked. The bathroom is through here –”

She opened the door and Harry stared at the white metal and plastic hoist that crouched over the bath. There was an open wet area under the shower, with a folded wheelchair beside it. In the corner a glass-fronted cabinet revealed neat stacks of shrink-wrapped bales. Harry couldn’t see what they were from there, but it all gave off a faint scent of disinfectant.

Mrs. Tomlinson closed the door, and turned briefly to face him. “I should reiterate, it is very important that Louis has someone with him all the time. A previous caretaker disappeared for several hours once to get her car fixed, and Louis... injured himself in her absence.” She swallowed, as if still traumatized by the memory.

“I won’t go anywhere.”

“Of course you will need...comfort breaks. I just want to make it clear that he can’t be left for periods longer than, say, ten or fifteen minutes. If something unavoidable comes up either ring the intercom, as my husband, Mark, may be home, or call my mobile number. If you do need to take any time off, I would appreciate as much notice as possible. It is not always easy finding coverage.”

“Right."

Mrs. Tomlinson opened the hall cupboard. She spoke like someone reciting a well-rehearsed speech.

Harry wondered briefly how many caretakers there had been before him.

“If Louis is occupied, then it would be helpful if you could do some basic housekeeping. Wash bedding, run a vacuum cleaner around, that sort of thing. The cleaning equipment is under the sink. He may not want you around him all the time. You and he will have to work out your level of interaction for yourselves.”

Mrs. Tomlinson looked at Harry's clothes, as if for the first time. He was wearing the very loose and billowy shirt that Robin said made him look like a lounge singer. Harry tried to smile. 

“Obviously I would hope that you could...get on with each other as much as possible. It would be nice if he could think of you as a friend rather than a paid professional."

“Sure. What does he uh...like to do?”

“He watches films. Sometimes he listens to the radio or writes music. He sometimes plays the guitar. If you position it in his hands, he can usually play a bit before he gets tired. He has some movement in his fingers, although he finds it hard at times.”

Harry felt himself brightening. If he liked music and films, surely the two of them could find some common ground. Harry had a sudden picture of he and Louis laughing at some Hollywood comedy, Harry running the Hoover around the bedroom while he played some guitar melodies. Perhaps this was going to be okay. Perhaps they might end up as friends. Harry never had a disabled friend before.

“Do you have any questions?”

“No.”

“Then let’s go and introduce you.” She glanced at her watch. “Niall - the nurse, should have finished dressing him by now.”

The pair hesitated outside the door before Mrs. Tomlinson finally knocked. “Are you in there? I have Mister Styles to meet you, Louis.”

There was no answer.

“Louis? Niall?”

Then Harry heard what could only be described as a heavy Irish brogue. “He’s decent, Mrs. Tommo!”

She pushed open the door. The annex’s living room was quite large, and one wall consisted entirely of glass doors that looked out over open countryside. A wood burner glowed quietly in the corner, and a low beige sofa faced a huge flat-screen television, its seats covered by a wool throw. The mood of the room was tasteful, and peaceful.

In the center of the room stood a black wheelchair, its seat and back cushioned by sheepskin. A solidly built blonde man in white collarless scrubs was crouching down, adjusting a man’s feet on the footrests of the wheelchair. As they moved further into the room, the man in the wheelchair looked up from under a fringe of chestnut brown hair. His eyes met Harry’s and after a pause, he rolled his eyes and groaned.

Harry could feel Mrs. Tomlinson stiffen.

“Louis, quit that.”

He didn’t even glance towards her. Another low sound emerged from somewhere near his chest. Harry tried not to flinch. The man was grimacing, his head tilted and sunk into his shoulders as he stared at Harry through the fringe. Harry couldn’t do anything but stare back at him, hand gripping his backpack.

“Louis, please.” His mother was pleading. “Please give it a chance.”

Oh God, Harry thought. He definitely was not up to this. He swallowed, hard. Louis eyes were still locked on him. He seemed to be waiting for Harry to do something - leave, perhaps.

“Hey. I’m Harry.” His voice wavered the slightest bit. Harry wondered, briefly, whether to hold out a hand and then, remembering that might be taken as an insult, gave a feeble wave instead.

Then to Harry’s astonishment, Louis features cleared, and his head straightened on his shoulders.

Louis Tomlinson gazed at him steadily, the faintest of smiles pulling at his lips. “Good morning, Mister Styles." he said. “I hear you’re my latest paid friend.”

Niall had finished adjusting the footrests. He shook his head as he stood up. “Good one, Tommo.” He chuckled and held out a broad hand, which Harry shook limply. Niall addressed Harry now. “I’m afraid you just got Lou’s best impression of a feeble old wanker. You’ll get used to him. He’s a funny guy once you get past all the shit.”

Mrs. Tomlinson looked annoyed and shell shocked. “I’ll leave you all to get on. You can call through using the intercom if you need any help. Niall will talk you through Louis’ routines, and his equipment.’

“Right here, mum. You don’t have to talk about me when I’m right bloody here. My brain isn’t paralyzed. Yet.” he smiled.

“Yes, well, if you’re going to be foul, Louis, I think it’s best if Mister Styles does talk directly to Niall.” His mother wouldn’t look at him as she spoke, Harry noticed. She kept her gaze about ten feet away on the floor. “I’m working from home today. So I’ll pop in at lunchtime, Mister Styles.”

“Sounds good.”

Mrs. Tomlinson disappeared. They were silent while they listened to her heeled footsteps disappearing down the hall towards the main house.

Niall broke the silence. “You mind if I go and talk Mister Styles through your meds, Lou? You want the TV on? Your guitar?”

“TV is fine, Niall.”

“Sure thing.”

Niall led Harry through to the kitchen.

“Ya haven’t much experience with paraplegics, Mrs. Tommo says? Yeah?”

“No. Not really.”

“Okay. I’ll keep it fairly simple for today. There’s a folder here that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Lou’s routines, and all his emergency numbers. I’d advise you to read it, if you get a spare moment. I’m guessing you’ll have a few.”

Niall took a key from his chain and opened a locked cabinet, which was packed full of boxes and small plastic canisters of medication. “Right. This lot is mostly my deal, but you do need to know where everything is in case of emergencies. There’s a timetable there on the wall so you can see what he has when on a daily basis. Any extras you give him you mark in there –” he pointed “– but you’re best to clear anything through Mrs. Tommo, at least while you’re new.”

“I didn’t realize I was going to have to handle medication.” Harry ran a hand through his hair.

“It’s not hard. He mostly knows what he needs. But he might need a little help getting them down. We tend to use this cup here. Or you can crush them with this pestle and mortar and put them in a drink.”

Harry picked up one of the labels. He wasn’t sure he had ever seen so many drugs outside a pharmacy.

“Okay. So he has two meds for blood pressure, this to lower it at bedtime, this one to raise it when he gets out of bed. These he needs fairly often to control his muscular spasms – you will need to give him one mid-morning, and again at mid-afternoon. He doesn’t find those too hard to swallow, because they’re the little coated ones. These are for bladder spasms, and these here are for acid reflux. He sometimes needs these after eating if he gets uncomfortable. This is his antihistamine for the morning, and these are his nasal sprays, but I mostly do those last thing before I leave, so you shouldn’t have to worry. He can have paracetamol if he’s in pain, and he does have the odd sleeping pill, but these tend to make him more irritable in the daytime, so we try to restrict them.”

“These –” he held up another bottle “– are the antibiotics he has every two weeks for his catheter change. I do those unless I’m away, in which case I’ll leave clear instructions. They’re pretty strong. There are the boxes of rubber gloves, if you need to clean him up at all. There’s also cream there if he gets sore, but he’s been pretty good since we got the air mattress.”

As Harry stood there, Niall reached into his pocket and handed another key to him. “This is the spare,” he said. “Not to be given to anyone else. Not even Lou, okay? Guard it with your life.”

“It’s a lot to remember.” Harry swallowed.

“It’s all written down. All you need to remember for today are his anti-spasm meds. Those ones. There’s my mobile number if you need to call me. I’m studying when I’m not here, so I’d rather not be called too often but feel free till you feel confident.”

Harry stared at the folder in front of him. It felt like he was about to sit an exam he hadn’t prepared for. “What if he needs...to use the loo?” Harry thought of the hoist. “I mean I’m sure I could lift him...but uh..”

Niall shook his head. “You don’t need to do any of that. His catheter takes care of that. I’ll be in at lunchtime to change it all. You’re not here for the physical stuff.”

“What am I actually here for?”

Niall was very focused on the floor. “Try to cheer him up a little? He’s...he’s a little cranky. Understandable, given...the circumstances. But you’re going to have to have a fairly thick skin. That little skit this morning is his way of testing the waters, ya know?”

“Is this why the pay is so good?”

“Suppose so, mate.” Niall clapped Harry on the shoulder. Harry could feel his body reverberate with it. “Ah, he’s all right. You don’t have to pussyfoot around him. I love the guy.”

Harry followed him back into the living room. Louis’ chair had moved to the window, and he had his back to us and was staring out, guitar placed carefully in his hands. He was strumming a chord, going silent when he heard Niall and Harry approaching.

“I’m done here, Lou. You need anything before I go?”

“No. Thank you, Niall.”

“I’ll leave you in Mister Styles capable hands, then. See you lunch, mate.”

Harry watched as Niall put on his jacket, as a sense of fear rose up inside him.

“Have fun, you guys!” Niall sent Harry a wink before he closed the door.

Harry stood in the middle of the room, hands thrust in the pockets of his tight jeans, unsure of what to do. Louis continued to stare out of the window, holding his guitar as if Harry wasn’t there.

“Would you like me to make you a cup of tea?” He broke into the silence.

“Ah. Yeah. The guy who makes tea for a living. I wondered how long it would be before you wanted to show off your skills. Nah I’m good, thank you.”

“Coffee, maybe?”

“No hot beverages for me right now, Mister Styles.”

“You can call me Harry.”

“Will it help?”

Harry blinked, his mouth opening briefly before he closed it again. Robin would call him a fish when he did that. “Well...can I get you anything?”

Louis turned to look at Harry. His jaw was covered in a dark stubble, and his eyes were an unreadable blue. He turned away.

“I’ll –” Harry looked about the room. “I’ll see if there’s any washing, then.”

Harry walked out of the room, his heart nearly thumping out of his chest. From the safety of the kitchen Harry pulled out his iPhone and sent a quick text to Gemma.

This is awful. He hates me.

The reply came back within seconds.

You have only been there an hour, you pussy! Remember how much you’re getting paid <3

Harry shoved his phone back in his pocket, letting out a sigh. He went through the laundry basket in the bathroom, gathering up some clothes to throw into the wash. He started the washing machine and stood there, trying to work out what else he could legitimately do to fill up his time. Harry pulled the vacuum cleaner from the hall cupboard and ran it up and down the corridor and into the two bedrooms, thinking all the while that if Robin could see him, he surely would have snapped a picture.

Harry hesitated outside Louis’ bedroom, then reasoned that it needed vacuuming just like anywhere else. There was a built-in shelf unit along one side, upon which sat around twenty framed photographs.

As he vacuumed around the bed, he allowed himself a quick peek at them. There was a man bungee jumping from a cliff, his arms outstretched with a broad smile on his face. There was a man in what looked like jungle, and him again in the midst of a group of drunken friends. Another showed men in bow ties and dinner jackets and had their arms around each other’s shoulders.

There Louis was on a ski slope, pointing a stick into the photographers face. Harry stooped to get a better view of him in his aviators. He was a bit scruffy in the photo, the bright light on his face, illuminating his playful scowl. He had muscular shoulders visible even through his ski jacket. Harry put the photograph carefully back on the table and continued to vacuum around the back of the bed. Finally, he turned the vacuum cleaner off, and began to wind the cord up. As he reached down to unplug it, Harry caught a movement in the corner of his eye and jumped, letting out a small shriek. Louis Tomlinson was in the doorway, watching him, a brow arched.

Bellevarde. Two and a half years ago.”

Harry could feel himself blushing. “I’m sorry. I was just –”

“You were just looking at my photos. Wondering how awful it must be to live like that and then be stuck in this chair.”

“No. No…” The redness on his face was growing darker.

“The rest of my photos are in the bottom drawer if you find yourself getting curious again.” he said.

And then with a low hum the wheelchair turned to the right, and he disappeared.

The morning felt like it was lasting an eternity. Harry couldn’t remember the last time minutes and hours stretched out so long. He tried to find as many jobs to occupy himself as he could, and went into the living room as seldom as possible, knowing he was being cowardly, but not really caring at this point.

At eleven he brought Louis a glass of water and his anti-spasm medication, as Niall had requested. Harry placed the pill on his tongue and then offered him the glass as Niall had instructed him. It was pale, opaque plastic, the kind of thing Violet had used, except without Doc McStuffins on the sides. He swallowed with some effort, and then turned as if to be left alone.

Harry dusted some shelves that didn’t really need dusting, and contemplated cleaning some windows. Around him the annex was silent, apart from the low hum of the television in the living room where Louis sat. Harry didn’t feel confident enough to put on a music station in the kitchen. He had a feeling that Louis would have something snarky to say about his music choices.

At twelve thirty, Niall was back, bringing with him the cold air of outside. His brow was arched in curiosity. “Everything alright?”

Harry had rarely been so happy to see someone in his entire life. “Yeah, fine.”

“Great. You can take a half-hour now. Me and Tommo have a few things we do at this point in the day.”

Harry almost ran for his coat. He pulled up his collar, slung his backpack over his shoulder, and set off at a brisk walk down the drive. He decided to simply walk around the surrounding streets for half an hour, breathing hot clouds of breath into his tightly wrapped scarf.

There were no cafes at that end of town, now that Hot Crossed Buns was closed. The castle was deserted. All the cars in the garage were huge and expensive with recent number plates.

Harry stood in the castle garage, making sure he was out of view of Granta House, and called Gemma.

“You know I can’t talk at work.” she answered after a ring. “You haven’t walked out, have you?”

“No. I just needed to hear a friendly voice.”

“Is he that bad?”

“Gems he hates me. He looks at me like I’m something the cat dragged in. And he doesn’t even drink tea. I’m hiding from him.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this, H.”

“What?”

“Just talk to him, for crying out loud. Of course he’s miserable. He’s stuck in a bloody wheelchair. And you’re probably being useless and annoying. Just talk to him. Get to know him. What’s the worst that can happen?”

“I don’t know..I don’t know if I can do it.”

“I’m not telling Mum you’re giving up your job after half a day. They won’t give you any benefits, Harry. You can’t do this. I’m sorry but we can’t afford for you to do this.”

She was right. Harry hated his sister - but not really.

There was a brief silence. Gemma’s voice turned a bit more consoling than he had ever heard before. "Look,” she said. “It’s just six months. Just do the six months, have something useful on your resume and you can get a job you actually like. And hey – look at it this way, at least it’s not working nights at the chicken factory, right?” she snickered.

“Nights at the chicken factory would feel like a holiday compared to –”

“I’m going now, Harry! I’ll see you later.”

****

“So would you like to go somewhere this afternoon? We could drive somewhere if you want.”

Niall had been gone for almost half an hour. Harry had washed the tea mugs as long as humanly possible, and I thought that if he spent one more hour in this silent house his head may explode.

Louis turned his head towards him. “Where did you have in mind?”

“I don’t know. Just a drive in the country?” Harry was doing this thing he sometimes did of pretending he was Liam. He was one of those people who are completely calm and competent, and as a result no one ever messes with him really.

“The country,” he said, as if considering it. “And what would we see. Some trees? Some sky?”

“I don’t know. What do you normally do?”

“I don’t do anything, Mister Styles. I can’t do anything any more. I sit. I barely exist.”

“Well,” Harry said, “I was told that you have a car that’s adapted for wheelchair use?”

“And you’re worried that it will stop working if it doesn’t get used every day?”

“No, but I –”

“Are you telling me I should get out?”

“I just thought –”

“You thought a little drive would be good for me? A breath of fresh air?”

“I’m just trying to –”

“Mister Styles, my life is not going to be significantly improved by a drive around Stortfold’s country lanes.” He turned away.

His head had sunk into his shoulders and Harry found himself wondering if he was comfortable. It didn’t seem to be the time to ask him. They sat in silence.

“Do you want me to bring you your computer?”

“Why, have you thought of a good paraplegic support group I could join? Para’s R Us? The Tin Wheel Club? Perhaps that Murder Ball rugby team?”

Harry took a deep breath, trying to make his voice sound confident. “Okay...well...seeing as we’re going to spend all this time in each other’s company perhaps we could get to know something about each other –”

There was something about his face then that made Harry falter. He was staring straight ahead at the wall, a tic moving in his jaw.

“It’s just...it’s quite a long time to spend with someone. All day…” Harry continued. “Perhaps if you could tell me a little of what you want to do, what you like, then I can...make sure things are how you like them?”

This time the silence was painful. Harry heard his voice slowly swallowed by it, and couldn’t work out what to do with his hands. Liam and his competent manner had evaporated.

Finally, the wheelchair hummed and Louis turned slowly to face him.

“Here’s what I know about you, Mister Styles. My mum - bless her - says you’re chatty.” He said it like it was a disease. “Can we strike a deal? Where you are in fact very un-chatty around me?”

Harry swallowed, feeling his face redden once more.

“Fine,” he stated when he could speak again. “I’ll be in the kitchen. If you want anything just call me.”

“You can’t give up already.”

****

Harry was lying sideways on his bed with his legs stretched up the wall, like he did when he was a teenager. He had been up here since supper, which was unusual for him. Since Violet was born, she and Gemma had moved into the bigger room, and Harry was in the box room, which was small enough to make you feel claustrophobic should you sit in it for more than half an hour at a time.

But Harry didn’t want to sit downstairs with his mum and grandfather because Anne kept looking at him anxiously and saying things like “It will get better, love” and “No job is great on the first day” – as if she’d had a job in the last twenty years. It was making Harry feel guilty. And he hadn’t even done anything.

“I didn’t say I was giving up.”

Gemma had barged in without knocking, as she did every day, even though Harry always had to knock quietly on her room, in case Violet was sleeping.

“And I could have been naked. You could at least shout first.”

“I’ve seen worse. Mum thinks you’re going to quit.”

Harry slid his legs sideways down the wall and pushed himself up to a seated position.

“Oh God, Gems. It’s worse than I thought. He is so miserable.”

“He can’t move. Of course he’s miserable, wouldn’t you be?”

“Right but he’s sarcastic and mean about it. Every time I say something or suggest something he looks at me like I’m stupid, or says something that makes me feel like an idiot.”

“You probably did say something stupid. You just need to get used to each other.”

“I really didn’t. I was so careful. I hardly said anything except “Would you like to go out for a drive?” or “Would you like a cup of tea?”.”

“Well, maybe he’s like that with everyone at first, until he knows whether you’re going to stick around. I bet they get through loads of caretakers.”

“He didn’t even want me in the same room as him. I don’t think I can stick it, Gemma. I really don’t. Honestly – if you’d been there you would understand.”

Gemma said nothing then, just looked at him for a while. She got up and glanced out of the door, as if checking whether there was anybody on the landing.

“I’m thinking of going back to college.” she said, finally.

It took his brain a few seconds to register this change of tack.

“Oh my God” he said. “But –”

“I’m going to take a loan to pay for the fees. But I can get some special grant too, because of having Violet, and the university is offering me reduced rates because they…” She shrugged, a little embarrassed. “They say they think I could excel. Someone’s dropped out of the business studies course, so they can take me for the beginning of the next term.”

“What about Vi?”

“There’s a nursery on campus. We can stay there in a subsidized flat in halls in the week, and come back here most weekends.”

“Oh.”

Harry could feel her watching him. He didn’t know what to do with his face.

“I’m really desperate to use my brain again. Working with flowers is doing my head in. I want to learn. I want to improve myself. And I’m sick of my hands always being freezing cold from the water.”

The pair both stared at her hands, which were pink tinged, even in the tropical warmth of the house.

“But –”

“Yup. I won’t be working, Harry. I won’t be able to give mum anything. I might...I might even need a bit of help from them.” This time she looked quite uncomfortable. Her expression, when she glanced up at him, was almost apologetic.

Downstairs Anne was laughing at something on the television. They could hear her exclaiming to grandfather. She often explained the plot of the show to him, even thought they told her all the time she didn’t need to. Harry couldn’t speak. The significance of his sister’s words sank in slowly but inexorably.

“I really need to do this, Harry. I want more for Violet, more for both of us. The only way I’ll get anywhere is by going back to college. I haven’t got a Nick. I’m not sure I’ll ever have a Nick, given that nobody’s been remotely interested since I had Violet. I need to do the best I can by myself.”

When Harry didn’t say anything, she added, “For me and Vi.”

Harry nodded.

“H? Please?”

He had never seen his sister look like that before. It made him feel really uncomfortable. Harry lifted his head, and raised a smile. His voice, when it emerged, didn’t even sound like his own.


“Well, like you say. It’s just a matter of getting used to him. It’s bound to be difficult in the first few days, isn’t it?”

Chapter Text

Two weeks passed and with them emerged a routine of sorts. Every morning Harry would arrive at Granta House at eight, call out that he was there and then, after Niall had finished helping Louis dress, listen carefully while Niall told him what he needed to know about Louis’ meds – or, more importantly, his mood.

After Niall left, Harry would turn on the radio or TV for Louis, dispense his pills, sometimes crushing them with the little marble pestle and mortar. Usually, after ten minutes or so he would make it clear that he was weary of Harry’s presence. At this point Harry would look around for some domestic tasks, washing tea towels that weren’t dirty, or using random vacuum attachments to clean tiny bits of skirting or window sill, religiously popping his head around the door every fifteen minutes as Mrs. Tomlinson had instructed. When he did, Louis would be sitting in his chair looking out into the bleak garden.

Later, Harry might take Louis a drink of water, or one of the calorie-filled drinks that were supposed to keep his weight up and looked like pastel-colored wallpaper paste, or give him his food. Louis could move his hands and arms a bit, but he still needed help. Sometimes this meant being fed forkful by forkful. This was the worst part of the day; it seemed wrong, somehow, spoon-feeding a grown man, and Harry’s embarrassment made him clumsy and awkward. Louis hated it so much he wouldn’t even meet Harry’s eye while he was doing it.

And then shortly before one, Niall would arrive and Harry would grab his coat and disappear to walk the streets, sometimes eating his lunch at the bus stop outside the castle. It was cold and he probably looked pathetic perched there eating his sandwiches, but he didn’t care. Harry couldn’t spend a whole day in that house.

In the afternoon Harry would put a film on – Louis had a Netflix membership and new films arrived in the mail every day – but he never invited Harry to watch with him. Harry started bringing in a book or magazine, but felt oddly guilty not actually working, and he could never quite concentrate on the words. Occasionally, at the end of the day, Mrs. Tomlinson would pop in – although she never said much to him other than “Everything all right?” to which the only acceptable answer seemed to be “Yes.”

She would ask Louis if he wanted anything, occasionally suggest something he might like to do tomorrow – some outing, or some friend who had asked after him – and he would almost always answer dismissively, if not with downright sass. She would look pained and disappear again.

His father, a rich looking man, usually came in as Harry was leaving. He was the kind of man you might see watching cricket, and had apparently overseen the management of the castle since retiring from his well-paid job in the city. He finished every day at 5 PM promptly and would sit and watch television with Louis. Sometimes Harry heard him making some remark about whatever was on the news as he left.

Harry got to study Louis Tomlinson up close in those first couple of weeks. He saw that Louis seemed determined not to look anything like the man he had been; he had let his light-brown hair grow into a shapeless mess, his stubble was growing into a full beard. His once bright blue eyes were lined with exhaustion, or the effect of constant discomfort (Niall said he was rarely comfortable). They bore the hollow look of someone who was always a few steps removed from the world around him. Sometimes Harry wondered if it was a defense mechanism, whether the only way to cope with his life was to pretend it wasn’t him it was happening to.

Harry wanted to feel sorry for him. He really did. He thought he was the saddest person he had ever met, in those moments when he glimpsed him staring out of the window. And as the days went by and Harry realized that Louis’ condition was not just a matter of being stuck in that chair, of the loss of physical freedom, but a never-ending litany of indignities and health problems, of risks and discomforts, he decided that if he were Louis, he would probably be pretty miserable too.

But oh Lord, he was vile to Harry at times. Everything he said, Louis had a sharp answer for. If he asked Louis if he was warm enough, he would retort that he was quite capable of letting him know if he needed another blanket. If Harry asked if the vacuum cleaner was too noisy for him – he hadn’t wanted to interrupt his film – Louis asked him why, had he worked out a way to make it run silently? When Harry fed him, he complained that the food was too hot or too cold, or that he had brought the next forkful up to his mouth before he had finished the last. Louis had the ability to twist almost anything Harry said or did so that he seemed stupid.

During those first two weeks, Harry got quite good at keeping his face completely blank, and he would turn away and disappear into the other room and just say as little to Louis as he possibly could. Harry started to hate him, and he was sure Louis knew it.

Harry hadn’t realized it was possible to miss his old job more than he already did. He missed Deb, and the way she actually looked pleased to see him when he arrived in the morning. He missed the customers, their company, and the easy chatter that swelled and dipped around him. This house, beautiful and expensive as it was, was as still and silent as a morgue. Six months, he repeated under his breath, when it felt unbearable. Six months.

And then on a random Thursday, just as Harry was mixing Louis’ mid-morning, high-calorie drink, he heard Mrs. Tomlinson’s voice in the hall. Except this time there were other voices too. He waited, the fork stilled in his hand. He could just make out a man’s voice, young, well-spoken, and another mans - this one deeper.

Mrs.Tomlinson appeared in the kitchen doorway, and Harry tried to look busy, whisking briskly at the cup.

“Is that made up with 60:40 water and milk?” she asked, peering at the drink.

“Yes. It’s the strawberry one.”

“Louis' friends have come to see him. It would probably be best if you –”

“I’ve got lots of things I should be doing in here,” Harry said. He was actually quite relieved that he would be spared Louis’ company for an hour or so. Harry screwed the lid on to the shaker. “Would your guests like some tea or coffee?”

She looked almost surprised. “Yes. That would be very kind. Coffee. I think I’ll…”

She seemed even more tense than usual, her eyes darting towards the corridor, from where they could hear the low murmur of voices. Harry guessed that Louis didn’t get many visitors.

“I think...I’ll leave them all to it.” She gazed out into the corridor, her thoughts apparently far away. “Z. It’s Zayn, his old friend from work,” she said, suddenly turning towards Harry.

Harry got the feeling that this was in some way momentous, and that she needed to share it with someone, even if it was just him.

“And Ash.. They were...very close...for a bit. Tea would be lovely. Thank you, Mister Styles.”

Harry hesitated a moment before he opened the door, leaning against it with his hip so that he could balance the tray in his hands.

“Mrs. Tomlinson said you might like some coffee,” Harry said as he entered, placing the tray on the low table. As he placed Louis’ cup in the holder of his chair, turning the straw so that he only needed to adjust his head position to reach it, he snuck a look at the visitors.

It was the tall man he noticed first. Long-legged and blonde-haired, with pale caramel skin, he was the kind of guy who makes you wonder if humans really are all the same species. He looked like a human racehorse. He had seen these men occasionally; they were usually in the club, dancing with an equally as handsome man. Everything about him smelt of money, of entitlement and a life lived as if through the pages of a glossy magazine.

Then Harry looked at him more closely and realized with a jolt that a) he was the man in Louis’ skiing photograph, and b) he looked really, really uncomfortable.

He had kissed Louis on the cheek and was now stepping backwards, smiling awkwardly. He was wearing a deep brown suit, the kind of thing that would have made Harry look like a yeti, and a pale-grey cashmere scarf around his neck, which he began to fiddle with, as if he couldn’t decide whether to unwrap himself or not.

“You look well,” he said to Louis. “Really. You’ve...grown your hair a bit.”

Louis didn’t say a thing. He was just looking at him, his expression as unreadable as ever. Harry felt a fleeting gratitude that it wasn’t just him.

“New chair, eh?” The tall brunette man tapped the back of Louis’ chair, nodding in approval as if he were admiring a top-of-the-range sports car. “Looks...pretty smart. Very classy.”

Harry didn’t know what to do. He stood there for a moment, shifting from one foot to another, until Louis’ voice broke into the silence.

“Harry, would you mind putting some more logs on the fire? I think it needs building up a bit.”

It was the first time Louis had ever used his first name.

“Sure,” Harry said.

He busied himself by the log burner, stoking the fire and sorting through the basket for logs of the right size.

“Christ it’s cold outside.” the blonde said. “Nice to have a proper fire.”

Harry opened the door of the wood burner, prodding at the glowing logs with the poker.

“It’s a good few degrees colder here than London.”

“Yes, definitely,” the other man agreed.

“I was thinking of getting a wood burner at home. Apparently they’re much more efficient than an open fire.” Ashton stooped a little to inspect this one, as if he’d never actually seen one before.

“Yes, I’ve heard that,” said Zayn.

“I should look into it. One of those things you mean to do and then…” he tailed off. “Lovely coffee,” he added, after a pause.

“So – what have you been up to, Louis?” The brunette’s voice held a kind of forced joviality to it.

“Not very much, funnily enough.”

“But the physio and stuff. Is it all coming on? Any...improvement?”

“I don’t think I’ll be skiing any time soon, Zayn,” Louis said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

Harry almost smiled to himself. This was the Louis he knew. He began brushing ash from the hearth. He had the feeling that they were all watching him. The silence felt loaded. Harry wondered briefly whether the label was sticking out of his jumper and fought the urge to check.

“So…” Louis said finally. “To what do I owe this pleasure? It’s been, what, eight months?”

“Oh, I know. I’m sorry. It’s been...I’ve been so busy. I have a new job over in Chelsea. Managing a consulting agency with Callum. Do you remember Callum? I’ve been doing a lot of weekend work too. It gets terribly busy on Saturdays. Very hard to get time off.” Ashton’s voice had become brittle. “I did ring a couple of times. Did your mother tell you?”

“Things have been pretty manic at Simon's. You...you know what it’s like, Louis. We’ve got a new partner. Chap from New York. Fischer. Alex Fischer. You come up against him at all?”

“No.”

“Bloody man seems to work twenty-four hours a day and expects everyone else to do the same.” You could hear the man’s palpable relief at having found a topic he was comfortable with. “You know the old Yank work ethic – no more long lunches, no smutty jokes – Lou, I tell you. The whole atmosphere of the place has changed.”

“Really.”

“Oh God, yes. Sometimes I feel like I don’t leave my chair.”

All of the air seemed to disappear from the room in a vacuumed rush. Someone coughed.

Harry stood up, and wiped his hands on his jeans. “I’ll...I’m just going to get some more logs,” he muttered, in Louis’ general direction.

And he picked up the basket and fled.

It was freezing outside, but Harry lingered out there, killing time while he selected pieces of wood. He was trying to calculate whether it was preferable to lose the odd finger to frostbite rather than put himself back into that room. But it was just too cold and his index finger, which he used for sewing stuff, went blue first and finally he had to admit defeat. Harry hauled the wood as slowly as possible, letting himself into the annex, and walking slowly back down the corridor. As he approached the living room he heard the blonde man’s voice, weaving its way through the slightly open door.

“Actually, Louis, there is another reason for us coming here,” he was saying. “We...have some news.”

Harry hesitated by the door, the log basket braced between his hands.

“I...thought – well, we thought – that it would only be right to let you know...but, well, here’s the thing. Zayn and I are getting married.”

Harry stood very still, calculating whether he could turn round without being heard.

Ashton continued, lamely. “Look, I know this is probably a bit of a shock to you. Actually, it was rather a shock to me. We – it – well, it only really started a long time after…”

Harry’s arms had began to ache. He glanced down at the basket, trying to work out what to do.

“Well, you know you and I...we…”

Another weighty silence.

“Louis, please say something.”

“Congratulations,” he said finally.

“I know what you’re thinking. But neither of us meant for this to happen. Really. For an awful long time we were just friends. Friends who were concerned about you. It’s just that Zayn was a great support to me after your accident –”

“Big of him.”

“Please don’t be like this. This is so awful. I have absolutely dreaded telling you. We both have.”

“Evidently,” Louis said flatly.

Zayn’s voice broke in. “Look, we’re only telling you because we both care about you. We didn’t want you to hear it from someone else. But, you know, life goes on. You must know that. It’s been two years, after all.”

There was silence. Harry realized he did not want to listen to any more, and started to move softly away from the door, grunting slightly with the effort. But Zayn’s voice, when it came again, had grown in volume so that he could still hear him.

“Come on, man. I know it must be terribly hard...all this. But if you care for Ash at all, you must want him to have a good life.”

“Say something, Louis. Please.”

Harry could picture his face. He could see that look of his that managed to be both unreadable and to convey a kind of distant contempt.

“Congratulations” he said, finally. “I’m sure you’ll both be very happy.”

Ashton started to protest then – something indistinct – but was interrupted by Zayn. “Come on, Ash. I think we should leave. Louis, it’s not like we came here expecting your blessing. It was a courtesy. Ash thought – well, we both just thought – you should know. Sorry, mate. I...I do hope things improve for you and I hope you do want to stay in touch when things...you know...when things settle down a bit.”

Harry heard footsteps, and stooped over the basket of logs, as if he had only just come in. He heard them in the corridor and then Ashton appeared in front of him. His eyes were red-rimmed, as if he were about to cry.

“Can I use the loo?” he said, his voice thick and choked.

Harry slowly lifted a finger and pointed mutely in its direction.

He looked at Harry hard then, and he realized that what he felt probably showed on Harry’s  face. He had never been good at hiding his feelings.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Ashton said, after a pause. “But I did try. I really tried. For months. And he just pushed me away.” His jaw was rigid, his expression oddly furious. “He actually didn’t want me here. He made that very clear.”

He seemed to be waiting for Harry to say something.

“It’s really none of my business,” he said, eventually.

They both stood facing each other.

“You know, you can only actually help someone who wants to be helped,” Ashton stated.

And then he was gone.

Harry waited a couple of minutes, listening for the sound of their car disappearing down the drive, and then he went into the kitchen. He stood there and boiled the kettle even though he didn’t want a cup of tea. Harry flicked through a magazine that he had already read. Finally, he went back into the corridor and, with a grunt, picked up the log basket and hauled it into the living room, bumping it slightly on the door before he entered so that Louis would know he was coming.

“I was wondering if you wanted me to –” Harry began.

But there was nobody there.

The room was empty.

It was then that Harry heard the crash. He ran out into the corridor just in time to hear another, followed by the sound of splintering glass. It was coming from Louis’ bedroom. Oh God, please don’t let him have hurt himself. He panicked – Mrs. Tomlinson’s warning drilled through his head. Harry had left him for more than fifteen minutes.

He an down the corridor, slid to a halt in the doorway and stood, both hands gripping the door frame. Louis was in the middle of the room, upright in his chair, a walking stick balanced across the armrests, so that it jutted eighteen inches to his left – a jousting stick. There was not a single photograph left on the long shelves; the expensive frames lay in pieces all over the floor, the carpet studded with glittering shards of glass. His lap was dusted with bits of glass and splintered wood frames. Harry took in the scene of destruction, feeling his heart rate slowly subside as he grasped that he was unhurt. Louis was breathing hard, as if whatever he had done had cost him some effort.

His chair turned, crunching slightly on the glass. Green eyes met blue. They were infinitely weary. They dared Harry to offer him sympathy.

Louis looked down at his lap, and then at the floor around him. Harry could just make out the picture of him and Ashton, his face now obscured by a bent silver frame, among the other casualties.

Harry swallowed, staring at it, and slowly lifted his eyes to meet Louis’. Those few seconds were the longest he could remember.

“Can that thing get a puncture?” Harry asked finally, nodding at Louis’ wheelchair. “Because I have no idea where I would put the jack.”

Louis’ eyes widened. Just for a moment, Harry thought he had really blown it. But the faintest flicker of a smile passed across his face.

“Look, don’t move,” he said. “I’ll get the vacuum cleaner.”

Harry heard the walking stick drop to the floor. As he left the room, he thought he might have heard Louis say sorry.

****

The King's Head was always busy on a Thursday evening, and in the corner of the snug it was even busier. Harry sat squashed between Nick and a man whose name appeared to be Rutter, staring periodically at the horse brasses pinned to the oak beams above his head and the photographs of the castle that punctuated the joists, and tried to look even vaguely interested in the talk around him, which seemed to revolve chiefly around body fat ratios and carb loading.

Harry had always thought the fortnightly meetings of the Hailsbury Triathlon Terrors must be a regular guy’s worst nightmare. Harry was the only one drinking alcohol, and his solitary packet of crisps sat crumpled and empty on the table. Everyone else sipped at mineral water, or checked the sweetener ratios on their Diet Cokes. When they finally ordered food there wouldn’t be a salad that was allowed to brush a leaf against a full-fat dressing, or a piece of chicken that still sported its skin. Harry often ordered chips, just so that he could watch them all pretend they didn’t want one.

“Phil hit the wall about forty miles in. He said he actually heard voices. Feet like lead. He had that zombie face, you know?”

“I got some of those new Japanese balancing trainers fitted. Shaved fifteen minutes off my ten-mile timings.”

“Don’t travel with a soft bike bag. Nigel arrived at tri-camp with it looking like a ruddy coat hanger.”

Harry couldn’t say he enjoyed the Triathlon Terrors’ gatherings, but what with his increased hours and Nick’s training timetable, it was one of the few times he could be guaranteed to see him. Nick sat beside him, muscular thighs clad in shorts despite the extreme cold outside. It was a badge of honor among the members of the club to wear as few clothes as possible. The men were wiry, brandishing obscure and expensive sports layers that boasted extra ‘wicking’ properties, or lighter-than-air body weights. They were called Scud or Trig, and flexed bits of body at each other, displaying injuries or alleged muscle growth. The girls wore no make-up, and had the ruddy complexions of those who thought nothing of jogging for miles through icy conditions. They looked at Harry with faint distaste – or perhaps even incomprehension – no doubt weighing up his fat to muscle ratio and finding it wanting.

“It was awful,” Harry told Nick, wondering whether he could order cheesecake without them all giving me the Death Stare. “His boyfriend and his best friend.”

“You can’t blame him” he said. “Are you really telling me you’d stick around if I was paralyzed from the waist down?”

“Of course I would.”

“No, you wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t expect you to.”

“Well, I would.”

“But I wouldn’t want you there. I wouldn’t want someone staying with me out of pity.”

“Who says it would be pity? You’d still be the same person underneath.”

“No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t be anything like the same person.” He wrinkled his nose. “I wouldn’t want to live. Relying on other people for every little thing. Having strangers wipe your arse –”

A man with a shaved head thrust his head between us. “Nick!”’ he said, “have you tried that new gel drink? Had one explode in my backpack last week. Never seen anything like it.”

“Can’t say I have, Trig. Give me a banana and a Gatorade any day.”

“Dazzer had a Diet Coke when he was doing Norseman. Sicked it all up at three thousand feet. God, we laughed.”

Harry raised a weak smile.

Shaven-headed man disappeared and Nick turned back to Harry, apparently still pondering Louis’ fate. “Jesus. Think of all the things you couldn’t do…” He shook his head. “No more running, no more cycling.” He looked at Harry as if it had just occurred to him. “No more sex.”

“Of course you could have sex. It’s just that it would be a bit different, take more thought.”

“We’d be stuffed, then.”

“Funny.”

“Besides, if you’re paralyzed from the waist down I’m guessing the...um...equipment doesn’t work as it should.”

Harry thought of Ashton. I did try, he said. I really tried. For months.

“I’m sure it does with some people. Anyway, there must be a way around these things if you...think imaginatively.”

“Hah.” Nick took a sip of his water. “You’ll have to ask him tomorrow. Look, you said he’s horrible. Perhaps he was horrible before his accident. Perhaps that’s the real reason he dumped him. Have you thought of that?”

“I don’t know…” Harry thought of the photograph. “They looked like they were really happy together.” Then again, what did a photograph prove? Harry had a framed photograph at home where he was beaming at Nick like he had just pulled him from a burning building, yet in reality he had just called him an ‘utter dick’ and he had responded with a hearty, “Oh, piss off!”

Nick had lost interest. “Hey, Jim...Jim, did you take a look at that new lightweight bike? Any good?”

Harry let him change the subject, thinking about what Ashton had said. He could well imagine Louis pushing him away. But surely if you loved someone it was your job to stick with them? To help them through the depression? In sickness and in health, and all that?

“Another drink?”

“Whiskey.” Harry said, as he raised an eyebrow.

Nick shrugged and headed to the bar.

Harry had started to feel a little guilty about the way they were discussing his employer. Especially when he realized that he probably endured it all the time. It was almost impossible not to speculate about the more intimate aspects of his life. Harry tuned out. There was talk of a training weekend in Spain. He was only listening with half an ear, until Nick reappeared at his side and nudged him.

“Fancy it?”

“What?”

“Weekend in Spain. Instead of the Greek holiday. You could put your feet up by the pool if you don’t fancy the forty-mile bike ride. We could get cheap flights. Six weeks’ time. Now you’re rolling in it…”

Harry thought of Mrs. Tomlinson. “I don’t know...I’m not sure they’re going to be keen on me taking time off so soon.”

“You mind if I go, then? I really fancy getting some altitude training in. I’m thinking about doing the big one.”

“The big what?”

“Triathlon. The Xtreme Viking. Sixty miles on a bike, thirty miles on foot, and a nice long swim in sub-zero Nordic seas.”

The Viking was spoken about with reverence, those who had competed bearing their injuries like veterans of some distant and particularly brutal war. Nick was almost smacking his lips with anticipation. Harry looked at his boyfriend and wondered if he was actually an alien. He thought briefly that he had preferred him when he worked in telesales and couldn’t pass a petrol station without stocking up on Snickers.

“You’re going to do it?”

“Why not? I’ve never been fitter.”

Harry thought of all that extra training – the endless conversations about weight and distance, fitness and endurance. It was hard enough getting Nick’s attention these days at the best of times.

“You could do it with me,” he said, although they both knew he didn’t believe it.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Harry said. “Sure. Go for it.”

And Harry ordered the cheesecake.

****

If he had thought the events of the previous day would create a thaw back at Granta House, he was wrong.

Harry greeted Louis with a broad smile and a cheery hello, and he didn’t even bother to look around from the window.

“Not a good day,” Niall murmured, as he shouldered his way into his coat.

It was a filthy, low-cloud sort of a morning, where the rain spat meanly against the windows and it was hard to imagine the sun coming out ever again. Even Harry felt glum on a day like this. It wasn’t really a surprise that Louis should be worse. Harry began to work his way through the morning’s chores, telling himself all the while that it didn’t matter. You didn’t have to like your employer anyway, did you? Lots of people didn’t. He thought of Gemma’s boss, a taut-faced serial divorcee who monitored how many times his sister went to the loo and had been known to make barbed comments if she considered her to have exceeded reasonable bladder activity. And besides, Harry had already done two weeks here. That meant there were only five months and thirteen working days to go.

The photographs were stacked carefully in the bottom drawer, where Harry had placed them the previous day, and now, crouched on the floor, he began laying them out and sorting through them, assessing which frames he might be able to fix. He was quite good at fixing things. Besides, he thought it might be quite a useful way of killing time.

Harry had been doing this for about ten minutes when the discreet hum of the motorized wheelchair alerted him to Louis’ arrival.

He sat there in the doorway, looking at him. There were dark shadows under his eyes. Sometimes, Niall told him, he barely slept at all. Harry didn’t want to think how it would feel, to lie trapped in a bed you couldn’t get out of with only dark thoughts to keep you company through the small hours.

“I thought I’d see if I could fix any of these frames,” Harry said, holding one up. It was the picture of him bungee jumping. He tried to look cheerful. He needed someone upbeat, someone positive.

“Why?”

Harry blinked. “Well...I think some of these can be saved. I brought some wood glue with me, if you’re happy for me to have a go at them. Or if you want to replace them I can pop into town during my lunch break and see if I can find some more. Or we could both go, if you fancied a trip out…”

“Who told you to start fixing them?”

His stare was unflinching.

Uh-oh, Harry thought. “I...I was just trying to help.”

“You wanted to fix what I did yesterday.”

“I –”

“Do you know what, Harry? It would be nice – just for once – if someone paid attention to what I wanted. Me smashing those photographs was not an accident. It was not an attempt at radical interior design. It was because I actually don’t want to fucking look at them.”

Harry got to his feet. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think that –”

“You thought you knew best. Everyone thinks they know what I need. Let’s put the bloody photos back together. Give the poor invalid something to look at. I don’t want to have those bloody pictures staring at me every time I’m stuck in my bed until someone comes and bloody well gets me out again. Okay? Do you think you can get your head around that?”

Harry swallowed. “I wasn’t going to fix the one of Ashton – I’m not that stupid...I just thought that in a while you might feel –”

“Oh Christ…” He turned away from Harry, his voice scathing. “Spare me the psychological therapy. Just go and read your bloody gossip magazines or whatever it is you do when you’re not making tea.”

Harry’s cheeks were bright pink. He watched him maneuver in the narrow hallway, and his voice emerged even before he knew what he was doing.


“You don’t have to behave like a right dick.”

The words rang out in the still air.

The wheelchair stopped. There was a long pause, and then he reversed and turned slowly, so that he was facing Harry, his hand on the little joystick.

“What?”

Harry faced him, his heart thumping. “Your friends got the shitty treatment. Fine. They probably deserved it. But I’m just here day after day trying to do the best job I can. So I would really appreciate it if you didn’t make my life as unpleasant as you do everyone else’s.”

Louis’ eyes widened a little. There was a beat before he spoke again. “And what if I told you I didn’t want you here?”

“I’m not employed by you. I’m employed by your mother. And unless she tells me she doesn’t want me here any more I’m staying. Not because I particularly care about you, or like this stupid job or want to change your life one way or another, but because I need the money. Okay? I really need the money.”

Louis Tomlinson’s expression hadn’t outwardly changed much but Harry thought he saw astonishment in there, as if he were unused to anyone disagreeing with him.

Oh hell, he thought, as the reality of what he had just done began to sink in. He’s really blown it this time.

But Louis just stared at him for a bit and, when he didn’t look away, Louis let out a small breath, as if about to say something unpleasant.

“Fair enough,” he said, and he turned the wheelchair round. “Just put the photographs in the bottom drawer, will you? All of them.”


And with a low hum, he was gone.

Chapter Text

The thing about being catapulted into a whole new life – or at least, shoved up so hard against someone else’s life that you might as well have your face pressed against their window – is that it forces you to rethink your idea of who you are. Or how you might seem to other people.

To Harry’s parents, he had in four short weeks become just a few degrees more interesting. He was now the conduit to a different world. His mother, in particular, asked him daily questions about Granta House and its domestic habits in the manner of a zoologist forensically examining some strange new creature and its habitat. “Does Mrs. Tomlinson use linen napkins at every meal?” she would ask, or “Do you think they vacuum every day, like we do?” or, “What do they do with their potatoes?”

She sent Harry off in the mornings with strict instructions to find out what brand of loo roll they used, or whether the sheets were a cotton mix. It was a source of great disappointment to her that most of the time he couldn’t actually remember. His mother was secretly convinced that posh people lived like pigs – ever since he had told her, aged six, of a well-spoken school friend whose mother wouldn’t let them play in their front room ‘because they’d disturb the dust’.

When Harry came home to report that, yes, the dog was definitely allowed to eat in the kitchen, or that, no, the Tomlinson’s didn’t scrub their front step every day as his mother did, she would purse her lips, glance sideways at Robin and nod with quiet satisfaction, as if he had just confirmed everything she’d suspected about the slovenly ways of the upper classes.

Their dependence on his income, or perhaps the fact that they knew he didn’t really like his job, meant that he also received a little more respect within the house. This didn’t actually translate to much – in Robin’s case, it meant that he had stopped calling Harry ‘diva’ and, in his mother’s, that there was usually a mug of tea waiting for him when he came home.

To Nick, and to his sister, Harry was no different – still the butt of jokes, the recipient of hugs or kisses or sulks. He felt no different. He still looked the same, still dressed, according to Gems, like he had had a wrestling match in a charity shop.

Harry had no idea what most of the inhabitants of Granta House thought of him. Louis was unreadable. To Niall, he suspected he was just the latest in a long line of hired care takers. He was friendly enough, but a bit semi-detached. Harry got the feeling he wasn’t convinced he was going to be there for long. Mr. Tomlinson nodded at him politely when they passed in the hall, occasionally asking Harry how the traffic was, or whether he had settled in all right. Harry wasn’t sure he would have recognized him if he’d been introduced to him in another setting.

But to Mrs. Tomlinson – oh Christ – to Mrs. Tomlinson he was apparently the stupidest and most irresponsible person on the planet.

It had started with the photo frames. Nothing in that house escaped Mrs. Tomlinson’s notice, and he should have known that the smashing of the frames would qualify as a seismic event. She quizzed Harry as to exactly how long he had left Louis alone, what had prompted it, how swiftly he had cleared the mess up. She didn’t actually criticize Harry – she was too genteel even to raise her voice – but the way she blinked slowly at his responses, her little hmm-hmm, as he spoke, told Harry everything he needed to know.

She thought it might be a good idea if Harry didn’t leave Louis for so long next time, no matter how awkward the situation, hmm? She thought perhaps the next time he dusted he could make sure things weren’t close enough to the edge so that they might accidentally get knocked to the floor, hmm? (She seemed to prefer to believe that it had been an accident.) She made Harry feel like a first-class idiot, and consequently he became a first-class idiot around her. She always arrived just when he had dropped something on the floor, or was struggling with the cooker dial, or she would be standing in the hallway looking mildly irritated as Harry stepped back in from collecting logs outside, as if he had been gone much longer than he actually had.

Weirdly, her attitude got to him more than Louis’ rudeness. A couple of times Harry had even been tempted to ask her outright whether there was something wrong. You said that you were hiring me for my attitude rather than my professional skills, he wanted to say. Well, here I am, being cheery every ruddy day. Being robust, just as you wanted. So what’s your problem?

But Johannah Tomlinson was not the kind of woman you could have said that to. And besides, Harry got the feeling nobody in that house ever said anything direct to anyone else.

“Cara, our last caretaker, had rather a clever habit of using that pan for two vegetables at once,’ meant You’re making too much mess.

“Perhaps you’d like a cup of tea, Louis.” actually meant I have no idea what to say to you.

"I think I’ve got some paperwork that needs sorting out," meant You’re being rude, and I’m going to leave the room.

All pronounced with that slightly pained expression. She was so held in, so restrained. She made Harry’s own mother look like Amy Winehouse. He smiled politely, pretended he hadn’t noticed, and did the job he was paid to do.

Or at least, he tried.

“Why the hell are you trying to sneak carrots onto my fork?”

Harry glanced down at the plate. He had been watching the male television presenter and wondering what his hair would look like dyed the same color.

“Uh? I didn’t.”

“You did. You mashed them up and tried to hide them in the gravy. I saw you.”

Harry blushed. He was right. He was sitting feeding Louis, while both of them vaguely watched the lunchtime news. The meal was roast beef with mashed potato. His mother had told Harry to put three sorts of vegetables on the plate, even though he had said quite clearly that he didn’t want vegetables that day. Harry don’t think there was a meal that he was instructed to prepare that wasn’t nutritionally balanced to within an inch of its life - which of course, Louis hated.

“Why are you trying to sneak carrots into me?”

“I’m not.”

“So there are no carrots on that?”

Harry gazed at the tiny pieces of orange. “Well...okay…”

Louis was waiting, eyebrows raised.

“Um...I suppose I thought vegetables would be good for you?”

It was part deference to Mrs. Tomlinson, part force of habit. Harry was so used to feeding Violet, whose vegetables had to be mashed to a paste and hidden under mounds of potato, or secreted in bits of pasta. Every fragment they got past her felt like a little victory.

“Let me get this straight. You think a teaspoon of carrot would improve my quality of life?”

It was pretty stupid when he put it like that. But Harry had learned it was important not to look cowed by anything Louis said or did.

“I take your point,” Harry said evenly. “I won’t do it again.”

And then, out of nowhere, Louis Tomlinson laughed. It exploded out of him in a gasp, as if it were entirely unexpected.

“For Christ’s sake,” he shook his head.

Harry stared at him.

“What the hell else have you been sneaking into my food? You’ll be telling me to open the tunnel so that Mr. Train can deliver some mushy brussel sprouts to the red bloody station next.”

Harry considered this for a minute. “No,” he said, straight-faced. “I deal only with Mr. Fork. Mr. Fork does not look like a train.”

Violet had told him so, very firmly, some months previously.

“Did my mother put you up to this?”

“No. Look, Louis, I’m sorry. I just...wasn’t thinking.”

“Like that’s unusual.”

“All right, all right. I’ll take the bloody carrots off, if they really upset you so much.”

“It’s not the bloody carrots that upset me. It’s having them sneaked into my food by a madman who addresses the cutlery as Mr. and Mrs. Fork.”

“It was a joke. Look, let me take the carrots and –”

Louis turned away from him. “I don’t want anything else. Just make me a cup of tea.” He called out after Harry as he left the room, “And don’t try and sneak a bloody courgette into it.”

Niall walked in as Harry was finishing the dishes. “He’s in a good mood,” he said, as he handed Harry a mug.

“Is he?” Harry was eating his sandwiches in the kitchen. It was bitterly cold outside, and somehow the house hadn’t felt quite as unfriendly lately.

“He says you’re trying to poison him. But he said it – you know – in a good way.”

Harry felt weirdly pleased by this information.

“Yes...well…” Harry said, trying to hide it. “Give me time.”

“He’s talking a bit more too. We’ve had weeks where he would hardly say a thing, but he’s definitely up for a bit of a chat the last few days.”

Harry thought of Louis telling him if he didn’t stop bloody whistling he’d be forced to run him over. “I think his definition of chatty and mine are a bit different.”

“Well, we had a bit of a chat about the cricket. And I gotta tell you –” Niall dropped his voice “– Mrs. Tommo asked me a week or so back if I thought you were doing okay. I said I thought you were very professional, but I knew that wasn’t what she meant. Then yesterday she came in and told me she’d heard you guys laughing.”

Harry thought back to the previous evening. “He was laughing at me,” he said. Louis had found it hilarious that I didn’t know what pesto was. I had told him supper was ‘the pasta in the green gravy’.”

“Ah, she doesn’t care about that. It’s just been a long time since he laughed at anything.”

It was true. Louis and Harry seemed to have found an easier way of being around each other. It revolved mainly around him being rude to Harry, and Harry occasionally being rude back. Louis told him that he did something badly, and Harry would tell him if it really mattered to him then he could ask him nicely. Louis swore at Harry, or called him a pain in the arse, and Harry told Louis that he should try being without this particular pain in the arse and see how far it got him. It was a bit forced but it seemed to work for both of them. Sometimes it even seemed like a relief to Louis that there was someone prepared to be rude to him, to contradict him or tell him he was being horrible. Harry got the feeling that everyone had tiptoed around him since his accident – apart from perhaps Niall, who Louis seemed to treat with an automatic respect, and who was probably impervious to any of his sharper comments anyway. Niall was like an armored vehicle in human form.

“You just make sure you’re the butt of more of his jokes, okay?”

Harry put his mug in the sink. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”

The other big change, apart from atmospheric conditions inside the house, was that Louis didn’t ask Harry to leave him alone quite as often, and a couple of afternoons had even asked him if he wanted to stay and watch a film with him. Harry hadn’t minded too much when it was Love Actually – even though he had seen it a million times – but when he showed Harry the foreign films that he sometimes watched, Harry took a quick look at the cover and said he’d pass.

“Why?”

Harry shrugged. “I don’t like films like that.”

“That’s like saying you don’t like films with actors in them. Don’t be ridiculous. What is it you don’t like? The fact that you have to read?”

“I just don’t really like subtitles.”

“Everything after freaking 2008 has been foreign. D’you think Hollywood is a suburb of Birmingham?”

“Funny.”

Niall couldn’t believe it when Harry admitted he’d never actually watched a film with subtitles. But his parents tended to stake ownership of the remote control in the evenings, and Nick would be about as likely to watch a foreign film as he would be to suggest they take night classes in crochet. The multiplex in the nearest town only showed the latest shoot’em ups or romantic comedies and was so infested with catcalling kids in hoodies that most people around the town rarely bothered.

“You have to watch this film, Harry. In fact, I order you to watch this film.” Louis moved his chair back, and nodded towards the armchair. “There. You sit there. Don’t move until it’s over. Never watched a foreign film. For Christ’s sake,” he muttered.

It was an old film, about a hunchback who inherits a house in the French countryside, and Louis said it was based on a famous book, but Harry can’t say he’d ever heard of it. He spent the first twenty minutes feeling a bit fidgety, irritated by the subtitles and wondering if Louis was going to get feisty if he told him he needed the loo.

And then something happened. Harry stopped thinking about how hard it was listening and reading at the same time, forgot Louis’ pill timetable, and whether Mrs. Tomlinson would think he was slacking, and he started to get anxious about the poor man and his family, who were being tricked by unscrupulous neighbors. By the time Hunchback Man died, Harry was sobbing silently, snot running into his sleeve.

“So,” Louis said, appearing at his side. He glanced at Harry slyly. “You didn’t enjoy that at all.”

Harry looked up and found to his surprise that it was dark outside. “You’re going to gloat now, aren’t you?” he muttered, reaching for the box of tissues.

“A bit. I’m just amazed that you can have reached the ripe old age of – what was it?”

“Twenty-six.”

“Twenty-six, and never have watched a film with subtitles.” Louis watched as Harry mopped up his eyes.

“Okay. So what do you do with yourself, Harry Styles, if you don’t watch films?”

Harry balled his tissue in his fist. “You want to know what I do when I’m not here?”

“You were the one who wanted us to get to know each other. So come on, tell me about yourself.”

Louis had this way of talking where you could never quite be sure that he wasn’t mocking you. Harry was waiting for the pay-off. “Why?” he asked “Why do you want to know all of a sudden?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake. It’s hardly a state secret, your social life, is it?” He had begun to look irritated.

“I don’t know…” Harry said. “I go for a drink at the pub. I watch a bit of telly. I go and watch my boyfriend when he does his running. Nothing unusual.”

“You watch your boyfriend running.” he deadpanned.

“Yes.”

“But you don’t run yourself.”

“No. I’m not really –” Harry glanced down at his legs. “– built for it.”

That made Louis smile.

“And what else?”

“What do you mean, what else?”

“Hobbies? Traveling? Places you like to go?”

He was beginning to sound like Harry’s old careers teacher.

He tried to think. “I don’t really have any hobbies. I read a bit. I like clothes.”

“Handy,” he said, dryly.

“You asked. I’m not really a hobby person.” Harry’s voice had become strangely defensive. “I don’t do much, okay? I work and then I go home. I’m tired when I’m done here.”

“Where do you live?”

“On the other side of the castle. Renfrew Road.”

Louis looked blank. Of course he did. There was little human traffic between the two sides of the castle. “It’s off the dual roadway. Near the Tesco.”

Louis nodded, although Harry wasn’t sure he really knew where he was talking about.

“Holidays?”

“I’ve been to Spain, with Nick. My boyfriend,” Harry added. “When I was a kid we only really went to Cheshire. My aunt lives in Cheshire.”

“And what do you want?”

“What do I want what?”

“From your life?”

Harry blinked. “That’s a bit deep, isn’t it?”

“Only generally. I’m not asking you to psychoanalyze yourself. I’m just asking, what do you want? Get married? Have some ankle biters? Dream career? Travel the world?”

There was a long pause.

Harry knows his answer would disappoint him even before he said the words aloud. “I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.”

****

On Friday they went to the hospital. Harry was glad he hadn’t known about Louis’ appointment before he arrived that morning, as he would have lain awake all night fretting about having to drive him there. He can drive, yes. But he says he can drive in the same way that he says he can speak French. Yes, Harry took the relevant exam and passed. But he hasn’t used that particular skill more than once a year since he did so. The thought of loading Louis and his chair into the adapted minivan and carting him safely to and from the next town filled him with utter terror.

For weeks Harry had wished that his working day involved some escape from that house. Now he would have done anything just to stay indoors. He located his hospital card among the folders of stuff to do with Louis’ health – great fat binders divided into ‘transport’, ‘insurance’, ‘living with disability’ and ‘appointments’. Harry grabbed the card and checked that it had today’s date. A little bit of him was hoping that Louis had been wrong.

“Is your mother coming?”

“No. She doesn’t come to my appointments.”

Harry couldn’t hide his surprise. He had thought she would want to oversee every aspect of his treatment.

“She used to,” Louis said. “Now we have an agreement.”

“Is Niall coming?”

Harry was kneeling in front of Louis. He had been so nervous that he had dropped some of his lunch down his lap and was now trying in vain to mop it up, so that a good patch of Louis’ trousers was sopping wet. Louis hadn’t said anything, except to tell Harry to please stop apologizing, but it hadn’t helped his general sense of jitteriness.

“Why?”

“No reason.” Harry didn’t want Louis to know how anxious he was. He had spent much of that morning – time he usually spent cleaning – reading and rereading the instruction manual for the chairlift but he was still dreading the moment when he was solely responsible for lifting him two feet into the air.

“Come on, Styles. What’s the problem?”

“Okay. I just...I just thought it would be easier first time if there was someone else there who knew the ropes.”

“As opposed to me,” he said.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Because I can’t possibly be expected to know anything about my own care?”

“Do you operate the chairlift?” Harry asked. “You can tell me exactly what to do, can you?”

Louis watched Harry, his gaze level. If he had been spoiling for a fight, he appeared to change his mind. “Fair point. Yes, he’s coming. He’s a useful extra pair of hands. Plus I thought you’d work yourself into less of a state if you had him there.”

“I’m not in a state.” Harry protested.

“Evidently.” Louis glanced down at his lap, which Harry was still mopping with a cloth. He had got the pasta sauce off, but Louis was soaked. “So, am I going as an incontinent?”

“I’m not finished.” Harry plugged in the hairdryer and directed the nozzle towards Louis’ crotch.

As the hot air blasted on to his trousers Louis raised his eyebrows.

“Yes, well,” Harry said. “It’s not exactly what I expected to be doing on a Friday afternoon either.”

“You really are tense, aren’t you?”

Harry could feel Louis studying him.

“Oh, lighten up, Styles. I’m the one having scalding hot air directed at my genitals.”

Harry didn’t respond. He heard his voice over the roar of the hair dryer.

“Come on, what’s the worst that could happen – I end up in a wheelchair?”

It may sound stupid, but Harry couldn’t help but laugh. It was the closest Louis had come to actually trying to make him feel better.

The car looked like a normal people carrier from outside, but when the rear passenger door was unlocked a ramp descended from the side and lowered to the ground. With Niall looking on, Harry guided Louis’ outside chair (he had a separate one for traveling) squarely on to the ramp, checked the electrical lock-down brake, and programmed it to slowly lift him up into the car. Niall slid into the other passenger seat, belted him and secured the wheels. Trying to stop his hands from trembling, Harry released the handbrake and drove slowly down the drive towards the hospital.

Away from home, Louis appeared to shrink a little. It was chilly outside, and Niall and Harry had bundled him up into his scarf and thick coat, but still he grew quieter, his jaw set, somehow diminished by the greater space of his surroundings. Every time Harry looked into the rear-view mirror (which was often – he was terrified even with Niall there that somehow the chair would break loose from its moorings) he was gazing out of the window, his expression impenetrable. Even when Harry stalled or braked too hard, which he did several times, he just winced a little and waited while Harry sorted himself out.

By the time they reached the hospital Harry had actually broken out into a fine sweat. He drove around the hospital car park three times, too afraid to reverse into any but the largest of spaces, until he could sense that the two men were beginning to lose patience. Then, finally, he lowered the ramp and Niall helped get Louis’ chair out on to the pavement.

“Good job,” Niall said, clapping Harry on the back as he let himself out, but Harry found it hard to believe it had been.

There are things you don’t notice until you accompany someone with a wheelchair. One is how rubbish most pavements are, pockmarked with badly patched holes, or just plain uneven. Walking slowly next to Louis as he wheeled himself along, Harry noticed how every uneven slab caused him to jolt painfully, or how often he had to steer carefully round some potential obstacle. Niall pretended not to notice, but Harry saw him watching too. Louis just looked grim-faced and resolute.

The other thing is how inconsiderate most drivers are. They park up against the cutouts on the pavement, or so close together that there is no way for a wheelchair to actually cross the road. Harry was shocked, a couple of times even tempted to leave some rude note tucked into a windscreen wiper, but Niall and Louis seemed used to it. Niall pointed out a suitable crossing place and, each of them flanking Louis, finally crossed.

Louis had not said a single word since leaving the house.

The hospital itself was a gleaming low-rise building, the immaculate reception area more like that of some modernistic hotel, perhaps testament to private insurance. Harry held back as Louis told the receptionist his name, and then followed him and Niall down a long corridor. Niall was carrying a huge backpack that contained anything that Louis might be likely to need during his short visit, from cups to spare clothes. He had packed it in front of Harry that morning, detailing every possible eventuality. “I guess it’s a good thing we don’t have to do this too often,” he had said, catching Harry’s appalled expression.

Harry didn’t follow Louis into the appointment. Niall and Harry sat on the comfortable chairs outside the consultant’s room. There was no hospital smell, and there were fresh flowers in a vase on the windowsill. Not just any old flowers, either. Huge exotic things that he didn’t know the name of, artfully arranged in minimalist clumps. He briefly thought of Gemma.

“What are they doing in there?” Harry asked after they had been there half an hour.

Niall looked up from his book. “It’s just his six-month check-up.”

“What, to see if he’s getting any better?”

Niall put his book down. “He’s not getting any better. It’s a spinal cord injury.”

“But you do physio and stuff with him.”

“That’s to try and keep his physical condition up – to stop him atrophying and his bones demineralizing, his legs pooling, that kind of thing.”

When he spoke again, his voice was gentle, as if he thought he might disappoint Harry. “He’s not going to walk again, Harry. That only happens in Hollywood movies. All we’re doing is trying to keep him out of pain, and keep up whatever range of movement he has.”

“Does he do this stuff for you? The physio stuff? He doesn’t seem to want to do anything that I suggest.”

Niall wrinkled his nose. “He does it, but I don’t think his heart’s in it. When I first came, he was pretty determined. He’d come pretty far in rehab, but after a year with no improvement I think he found it pretty tough to keep believing it was worth it.”

“Do you think he should keep trying?”

Niall stared at the floor. “Honestly? He’s a C5/6 paraplegic. That means nothing works below about here..." He placed a hand on the upper part of his abdomen. “They haven’t worked out how to fix a spinal cord yet.”

Harry stared at the door, thinking about Louis’ face as they drove along in the winter sunshine, the beaming face of the man on the skiing holiday. “There are all sorts of medical advances taking place, though, right? I mean...somewhere like this...they must be working on stuff all the time.”

“It’s a pretty good hospital,” Niall states evenly.

“Where there’s life, and all that?”

Niall looked at Harry, then back at his book. “Sure,” he said.

Harry went to get a coffee at a quarter to three, on Niall’s say so. He said these appointments could go on for some time, and that he would hold the fort until Harry got back. He dawdled a little in the reception area, flicking through the magazines in the newsagent’s, lingering over chocolate bars.

Perhaps predictably, Harry got lost trying to find his way back to the corridor and had to ask several nurses where he should go, two of whom didn’t even know. When Harry got there, the coffee cooling in his hand, the corridor was empty. As he drew closer, he could see the consultant’s door was ajar. Harry hesitated outside, but could hear Mrs. Tomlinson’s voice in his ears all the time now, criticizing Harry for leaving him. He had done it again.

“So we’ll see you in three months’ time, Mr. Tomlinson.” a voice was saying. “I’ve adjusted those anti-spasm meds and I’ll make sure someone calls you with the results of the tests. Probably Monday.”

Harry heard Louis’ voice. “Can I get these from the pharmacy downstairs?”

“Yes. Here. They should be able to give you some more of those too.”

A woman’s voice. “Shall I take that folder?”

Harry realized they must be about to leave. He knocked, and someone called for him to come in. Two sets of eyes swiveled towards him.

“I'm sorry,” said the consultant, rising from his chair. “I thought you were the physio.”

“I’m Louis’... helper,” Harry said, hanging on to the door. Louis was braced forward in his chair as Niall pulled down his shirt. “Sorry – I thought you were done.”

“Just give us a minute, will you, Harry?” Louis’ voice cut into the room.

Muttering his apologies, Harry backed out, face burning.

It wasn’t the sight of Louis’ uncovered body that had shocked him, slim and scarred as it was. It wasn’t the vaguely irritated look of the consultant, the same sort of look as Mrs. Tomlinson gave Harry day after day – a look that made him realize he was still the same blundering idiot, even if he did earn a higher hourly rate.

No, it was the livid red lines scoring Louis’ wrists, the long, jagged scars that couldn’t be disguised, no matter how swiftly Niall pulled down Louis’ sleeves.

Chapter Text

The snow came so suddenly that Harry left home under a bright blue sky and not half an hour later he was headed past a castle that looked like a cake decoration, surrounded by a layer of thick white icing.

He trudged up the drive, footsteps muffled and his toes already numb, shivering under his too thin black pea coat. A whirl of thick white flakes emerged from an iron-grey infinity, almost obscuring Granta House, blotting out sound, and slowing the world to an unnatural pace. Beyond the neatly trimmed hedge, cars drove past with a newfound caution, pedestrians slipped and squealed on the pavements. Harry pulled his scarf up over his nose and wished he had worn something more suitable than gold booties and a sheer top.

To Harry's surprise it wasn’t Niall who opened the door, but Louis’ father.

“He’s in bed,” he said, glancing up from under the porch. “He’s not too good. I was just wondering whether to call the doctor.”

“Where’s Niall?”


“Morning off. Of course, it would be today. Bloody agency nurse came and went in six seconds flat. If this snow keeps on I’m not sure what we’ll do later.” He shrugged, as if these things couldn’t be helped, and disappeared back down the corridor, apparently relieved that he no longer had to be responsible. “You know what he needs, yes?” he called over his shoulder.

Harry took off his coat and shoes and, as he knew Mrs. Tomlinson was in court (she marked her dates on a diary in Louis’ kitchen), Harry put his wet socks over a radiator to dry. A pair of Louis’ were in the clean-washing basket, so he put them on. They looked comically small on him but it was heaven to have warm, dry feet. Louis didn’t respond when Harry called out, so after a while he made him up a drink, knocked quietly and poked his head around the door. In the dim light Harry could just make out the shape under the duvet. He was fast asleep.

Harry took a step backwards, closed the door behind him, and began working his way through the morning’s tasks.

Harry’s mother seemed to glean an almost physical satisfaction from a well-ordered house. He had been vacuuming and cleaning daily for a month now, and he still couldn’t see the attraction. Harry suspected there would never be a point in his life when he wouldn’t prefer somebody else to do it.

But on a day like today, when Louis was confined to bed, and the world seemed to have stilled outside, Harry could also see there was a kind of meditative pleasure in working his way from one end of the annex to the other. While he dusted and polished, he took the radio from room to room with him, keeping the volume low so that he didn’t disturb Louis. Periodically Harry poked his head around the door, just to see that he was breathing, and it was only when it got to one o’clock and he still hadn’t woken up that Harry started to feel a little anxious.

He filled the log basket, noting that several inches of snow had now settled. Harry made Louis a fresh drink, and then knocked. When he knocked again, he did so loudly.

“Yes?” His voice was hoarse, as if Harry had woken him.

“It’s me.” When he didn’t respond, he said, "Harry. Am I okay to come in?"

“I'm hardly doing the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”


The room was shadowed, the curtains still drawn. Harry walked in, letting his eyes adjust to the light. Louis was on one side, one arm bent in front of him as if to prop himself up, as he had been before when he looked in. Sometimes it was easy to forget Louis would not be able to turn over by himself. His hair stuck up on one side, and a duvet was tucked neatly around him. The smell of warm, unwashed male filled the room – not unpleasant, but still a little startling as part of a working day.

“What can I do? Do you want your drink?”


“I need to change position.”


Harry put the drink down on a chest of drawers, and walked over to the bed. “What...what do you want me to do?”     


Louis swallowed carefully, as if it were painful. “Lift and turn me, then raise the back of the bed. Here…” He nodded for Harry to come closer. “Put your arms under mine, link your hands behind my back and then pull back. Keep your backside on the bed and that way you shouldn’t strain your lower back.”


Harry couldn’t pretend this wasn’t a bit weird. He reached around Louis, the scent of him filling his nostrils, his skin warm against Harry’s. He could not have been in any closer unless he had begun nibbling on Louis’ ear. The thought made him mildly hysterical, and he struggled to keep himself together.

“What?”


“Nothing.” Harry took a breath, linked his hands, and adjusted his position until he felt he had him securely. Louis was broader than Harry had expected, somehow heavier. And then, on a count of three, he pulled back.

“Jesus,” he exclaimed into Harry's shoulder.

“What?” Harry nearly dropped him.

“Your hands are bloody freezing.”


“Yes. Well, if you bothered to get out of bed, you’d know that it’s actually snowing outside.”


Harry was half joking, but now he realized Louis’ skin was hot under his T-shirt – an intense heat that seemed to come from deep within him. Louis groaned slightly as Harry adjusted him against the pillow, and he tried to make his movements as slow and gentle as possible. Louis pointed out the remote control device that would bring his head and shoulders up. “Not too much, though,” he murmured. “A bit dizzy.”


Harry turned on the bedside light, ignoring his vague protest, so that he could see his face. “Louis – are you okay?” he had to say it twice before Louis answered him.

“Not my best day.’”


“Do you need painkillers?”


“Yes...strong ones.”


“Maybe some paracetamol?”


He lay back against the cool pillow with a sigh.

Harry gave him the glass, watched him swallow.

“Thank you,” he said afterwards, and Harry felt suddenly uneasy.

Louis never thanked him for anything.

Louis closed his eyes, and for a while Harry just stood in the doorway and watched him, his chest rising and falling under his T-shirt, his mouth slightly open. His breathing was shallow, and perhaps a little more labored than on other days. But Harry had never seen him out of his chair, and he wasn’t sure whether it was something to do with the pressure of lying down.

“Go,” he muttered.

Harry left.

Harry read his magazine, lifting his head only to watch the snow settle thickly around the house, creeping up the window sills in powdery landscapes. Anne sent Harry a text message at 12:30 PM, telling him that Robin couldn’t get the car down the road. “Don’t set out for home without ringing us first” she instructed. Harry wasn’t sure what she thought she was going to do – send Robin out with a sled and a St Bernard?

Harry listened to the local news on the radio, the motorway snarl-ups, train stoppages and temporary school closures that the unexpected blizzard had brought with it. He went back into Louis’ room, and looked at him again. Harry didn’t like his color. He was pale, high points of something bright on each cheek.


“Louis?” Harry asks softly.


He didn’t stir.

“Louis?”


Harry began to feel the faint stirrings of panic. He said his name twice more, loudly. There was no response. Finally, he leaned over him. There was no obvious movement in his face, nothing he could see in his chest. His breath. He should be able to feel his breath. Harry put his face down close to his, trying to detect an out breath. When he couldn’t, Harry reached out a hand and touched his face gently.

Louis flinched, his blue eyes snapping open, just inches from his own.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, jumping back.

Louis blinked, glancing around the room, as if he had been somewhere far from home.

“It’s Harry,” he said, when He wasn’t sure if Louis had recognize him.


His expression was one of mild exasperation. “I know.”


“Do you want some soup?”


“No. Thank you.” He closed his eyes.

“More painkillers?”


There was a faint sheen of sweat on his cheekbone. Harry put his hand out, Louis’ duvet felt vaguely hot and sweaty. It made him nervous.

“Is there something I should be doing? I mean, if Niall can’t get here?”


“No...I’m fine,” he murmured, and closed his eyes again.

Harry went through the folder, trying to work out if he was missing something. He opened the medical cabinet, the boxes of rubber gloves and gauze dressings, and realized he had no idea at all what he should do with any of it. Harry rang the intercom to speak to Louis’ father, but the ringing sound disappeared into an empty house. He could hear it echoing beyond the annex door.

Harry was about to ring Mrs. Tomlinson when the back door opened, and Niall stepped in, wrapped in layers of bulky clothing, a woolen scarf and hat almost obscuring his head. He brought with him a whoosh of cold air and a light flurry of snow.

“Hey,” he said, shaking the snow off his boots and slamming the door behind him.

It felt like the house had suddenly woken from a dreamlike state.

“Oh, thank God you’re here,” Harry said. “Louis is not well. He’s been asleep most of the morning and he’s hardly drank anything. I didn’t know what to do.”


Niall shrugged off his coat. “Had to walk all the way here. The buses have stopped running."

Harry set about making him some tea, as Niall went to check on Louis.


He reappeared before the kettle had even finished boiling. “He’s burning up,” he said. “How long has he been like this?”


“All morning. I did think he was hot, but he said he just wanted to sleep.”


“Jesus. All morning? Didn’t you know he can’t regulate his own temperature?” He pushed past Harry and began rummaging around in the medicine cabinet. “Antibiotics. The strong ones.” He held up a jar and emptied one into the pestle and mortar, grinding it furiously.

Harry hovered behind him. “I gave him a paracetamol.”

“Might as well have given him a Banana.”


“I didn’t know. Nobody said. I’ve been wrapping him up.”


“It’s in the bloody folder. Look, Lou doesn’t sweat like we do. In fact he doesn’t sweat at all from the point of his injury downwards. It means if he gets a slight chill his temperature gauge goes haywire. Go find the fan. We’ll move that in there until he cools down. And a damp towel, to put around the back of his neck. We won’t be able to get him to a doctor until the snow stops. Bloody agency nurse. They should have picked this up in the morning.”     

Niall was angrier than Harry had ever seen him. He was no longer really even talking to him.


Harry ran for the fan.

It took almost forty minutes for Louis’ temperature to return to an acceptable level. While they waited for the extra-strong fever medication to take effect, Harry placed a towel over Louis’ forehead and another around his neck, as Niall instructed. They stripped him down, covered his chest with a fine cotton sheet, and set the fan to play over it. Without sleeves, the scars on his arms were clearly exposed. Harry pretend that he couldn't see them.


Louis endured all this attention in near silence, answering Niall’s questions with a yes or no, so indistinct sometimes that Harry wasn’t sure if he knew what he was saying. Harry realized, now that he could see him in the light, that Louis looked really, properly ill and he felt terrible for having failed to grasp it. Harry said sorry until Niall told him it had become irritating.

“Right,” Niall said. “You need to watch what I’m doing. It’s possible you may need to do this alone later.”


Harry didn’t feel he could protest. But found it hard not to feel squeamish as Niall peeled down the waist of Louis’ pajama bottoms, revealing a pale strip of bare stomach, and carefully removed the gauze dressing around the little tube in his abdomen, cleaning it gently and replacing the dressing. He showed Harry how to change the bag on the bed, explained why it must always be lower than Louis’ body, and Harry was surprised at how matter-of-fact he was about walking out of the room with the pouch of warm fluid. He was glad that Louis wasn’t really watching him– not just because he would have made some sharp comment, but because he felt that Harry witnessing some part of this intimate routine would in some way have embarrassed him too.

“And that’s it,” Niall said. Finally, an hour later, Louis lay dozing, lying on fresh cotton sheets and looking, if not exactly well, then not scarily ill.

“Let him sleep. But wake him after a couple of hours and make sure you get the best part of a glass of fluids into him. More fever meds at five, okay? His temperature will probably shoot up again in the last hour, but nothing more before five.”


Harry scribbled everything down on a notepad. He was afraid of getting anything wrong.

“Now you’re going to need to repeat what we just did, this evening. You’re okay with that?” Niall wrapped himself up like an Inuit and headed out into the snow. “Just read the folder. And don’t panic. Any problems, you just call me. I’ll talk you through it all. I’ll get back here again if I really have to.”

Harry stayed in Louis’ room after Niall left. He was too afraid not to. In the corner was an old leather armchair with a reading light, perhaps dating from Louis’ previous life, and Harry curled up on it with a book of short stories that he had pulled from the bookcase.

It was strangely peaceful in that room. Through the crack in the curtains Harry could see the outside world, blanketed in white, still and beautiful. Inside it was warm and silent, only the odd tick and hiss of the central heating to interrupt his thoughts Harry read, and occasionally glanced up and checked Louis sleeping peacefully and he realized that there had never been a point in his life before where he had just sat in silence and done nothing. You don’t grow up used to silence in a house like his, with its never-ending vacuuming, television blaring, and shrieking. During the rare moments that the television was off, Robin would put on his old Elvis records and play them at full blast. A bakery too is a constant buzz of noise and clatter.

Here, Harry could hear his thoughts. He could almost hear his heartbeat. He realized, much to his surprise, that he quite liked it.

At five, Harry's cell phone signaled a text message. Louis stirred, and Harry leapt out of the chair, anxious to get it before it disturbed him.

No trains. Is there any chance you could stay over tonight?

Niall cannot do it. Johannah Tomlinson.

Harry didn’t really think about it before he typed back.

No problem.

Harry rang his parents and told them that he would stay over. Anne sounded relieved. When he told her he was going to get paid for sleeping over, she sounded overjoyed.

“Did you hear that, Robin?” she said, her hand half over the phone. “They’re paying him to sleep now.”


He could hear his step dad's exclamation. “Praise the Lord. He's found his dream career.”


Harry sent a text message to Nick, telling him that he had been asked to stay at work and he would ring him later. The message came back within seconds.

Going cross-country snow running tonight.

Good practice for Norway! X

Harry wondered how it was possible for someone to get so excited at the thought of jogging through sub-zero temperatures in a vest and pants.

Louis slept. Harry cooked himself some food, and defrosted some soup in case Louis wanted some later. He got the log fire going in case he felt well enough to go into the living room. Harry read another of the short stories and wondered how long it was since he had bought himself a book. He had loved reading as a child, but couldn’t remember reading anything except magazines since. Gems was the reader. It was almost as if by picking up a book he felt like he was invading her patch. Harry thought about her and Violet disappearing to university and realized he still didn’t know whether it made him feel happy or sad – or something a bit complicated in between.

Niall rang at seven. He seemed relieved that Harry was staying over.

“I couldn’t get Mr. Tomlinson. I even rang their landline number, but it went straight through to voicemail.”


“Yeah. Well. He’ll be gone.”

“Gone?”

Harry felt a sudden instinctive panic at the idea that it would be just Louis and Harry in the house all night. He was afraid of getting something fundamental wrong again, of jeopardizing Louis’ health. “Should I call Mrs. Tomlinson, then?”


There was a short silence on the other end of the phone. “No. Best not.”


“But –”


“Look, Haz, he often...he often goes somewhere else when Mrs. Tommo stays over in town.”’

It took Harry a minute or two to grasp what he was saying.

“Oh.”


“It’s just good that you’re there, that’s all. If you’re sure Louis’ looking better, I’ll be back first thing in the morning.’

There are normal hours, and then there are invalid hours, where time stalls and slips, where life – real life – seems to exist at one remove. Harry watched some television, ate, and cleared up the kitchen, drifting around the annex in silence. Finally, he let himself back into Louis’ room.

Louis stirred as Harry closed the door, half lifting his head. “What time is it, Styles?” His voice was slightly muffled by the pillow.

“Quarter past eight.”


He let his head drop, and digested this. “Can I have a drink?”


There was no sharpness to him now, no edge. It was as if being ill had finally made him vulnerable. Harry gave him a drink, and turned on the bedside light. He perched on the side of his bed, and felt his forehead, as Anne might have done when he was a child. Louis was still a little warm, but nothing like he had been.

“Cool hands.”


“You complained about them earlier.”


“Did I?” He sounded genuinely surprised.

“Would you like some soup?”


“No.”


“Are you comfortable?”


Harry never knew how much discomfort he was in, but he suspected it was more than Louis let on.

“The other side would be good. Just roll me. I don’t need to sit up.”


Harry climbed across the bed and moved him over, as gently as he could. Louis no longer radiated a sinister heat, just the ordinary warmth of a body that had spent time under a duvet.

“Can I do anything else?”

“Shouldn’t you be heading home?”

“It’s okay,’ Harry said. “I’m staying over.”


Outside, the last of the light had long been extinguished. The snow was still falling. Where it caught the porch glow through the window it was bathed in a pale-gold, melancholy light. The pair sat there in peaceful silence, watching its hypnotic fall.

“Can I ask you something?” Harry asked. He could see Louis’ hands on top of the sheet. It seemed so strange that they should look so ordinary, so strong, and yet be so useless at times.


“I suspect you’re going to.”


“What happened?” Harry kept wondering about the marks on his wrists. It was the one question he couldn’t ask directly.

Louis opened one blue eye. “How did I get like this?”


When Harry nodded, Louis closed his eyes again. “Motorcycle accident. Not mine. I was an innocent pedestrian.”

“I thought it would be skiing or bungee jumping or something.”


“Everyone does. God’s little joke. I was crossing the road outside my home. Not this place,” he said. “My London home.”

Harry stared at the books in his bookshelf. Among the novels, the well-thumbed Penguin paperbacks, were business titles: Corporate Law, TakeOver, directories of names he did not recognize.

“And there was no way you could carry on with your job?”

“No. Nor the apartment, the holidays, the life...I believe you met my ex-boyfriend.” The break in his voice couldn’t disguise the bitterness. “But I should apparently be grateful, as for some time they didn’t think I was going to live at all.”


“Do you hate it? Living here, I mean?”


“Yes.”


“Is there any way you might be able to live in London again?”

“Not like this, no.”


“But you might improve. I mean, Niall said there are loads of advances in this kind of injury.”


Louis closed his eyes again.

Harry waited, and then he adjusted the pillow behind his head, and the duvet around his chest. “Sorry,”  he said, sitting upright. “If I ask too many questions. Do you want me to leave?”


“No. Stay for a bit. Talk to me.” Louis swallowed. His eyes opened again and his gaze slid up to Harry’s. He looked unbearably tired. “Tell me something good.”


Harry hesitated a moment, then leaned back against the pillows beside Louis . They sat there in the near dark, watching the briefly illuminated flakes of snow disappear into the black night.

“You know...I used to say that to my Dad,’ Harry said, finally. “But if I told you what he used to say back, you’d think I was insane.”


“More than I already do?”


“When I had a nightmare or was sad or frightened about something, he used to sing me…” Harry started to laugh. “Oh...I can’t.”

“Go on.”


“He used to sing me the “Hazzybearra Song”.’

“The what?”


“The “Hazzybearra Song”. I used to think everyone knew it.”


“Trust me, Styles,” he murmured, “I am a Hazzybearra virgin."

Harry took a deep breath, closed his eyes and began to sing.

I wi-li-lished I li-li-lived in Hazzybearra la-la-land

The la-la-land where I-li-li was bo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lorn

So I-li-li could play-la-lay my o-lo-lold banjo-lo-lo

My o-lo-lold ban-jo-lo-lo won’t go-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo.

“Jesus Christ.”


Harry took another breath.

I too-lo-look it to-lo-lo the me-le-lender’s sho-lo-lop to

See-lee-lee what they-le-ley could do-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo

They sai-lai-laid to me-le-le your stri-li-lings are sho-lo-lot

They’re no-lo-lo more u-lu-luse to you-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-loo.

There was a short silence.

“You are insane. Your whole family is insane.”


“But it worked.”

“And you are a God-awful singer. I hope your dad was better.”


“I think what you meant to say was, “Thank you, Mister Styles, for attempting to entertain me.”


“I suppose it makes about as much sense as most of the psycho therapeutic help I’ve received. Okay, Styles," he said, “tell me something else. Something that doesn’t involve singing.”

Harry thought for a bit.

“Um...okay, well...you were looking at my shoes the other day?”


“Hard not to.”

“Well, my mum can date my unusual shoe thing back to when I was three. She bought me a pair of bright yellow glittery wellies – they were quite unusual back then – kids used to just have those green ones, or maybe red if you were lucky. And she said from the day she brought them home I refused to take them off. I wore them to bed, in the bath, to nursery all through the summer. My favorite outfit was those glitter boots and my bumble bee jumper.”


“Bumblebee jumper?”

“Black and yellow stripes.”


“Gorgeous.”

“That’s a bit harsh”’

“Well, it’s true. It sounds revolting.”

“It might sound revolting to you, but astonishingly, Louis Tomlinson, not all men get dressed just to please others.”


“Bullshit.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Everything men do is with other men or women in mind. Everything anyone does is with sex in mind. Haven’t you read The Red Queen?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. But I can assure you I’m not sitting on your bed singing the “Hazzybearra Song” because I’m trying to get my leg over. And when I was three, I just really, really liked having glittering shoes. Still do.”


Harry realized that the anxiety that had held him in its grip all day was slowly ebbing away with every one of Louis’ comments. He was no longer in sole charge of a poorly paraplegic. It was just Harry, sitting next to a particularly sarcastic bloke, having a chat.

“So come on, then, what happened to these gorgeous glittery wellies?”


“She had to throw them away. I got terrible athlete’s foot.”

“Delightful.”


“And she threw the jumper away too.”

“Why?”

“I never found out. But it broke my heart. I have never found a jumper I loved like that again. They don’t do them any more. Or if they do, they don’t make them for grown men.”


“Strange, that.”

“Oh, you can mock. Didn’t you ever love anything that much?”


Harry could barely see him now, the room shrouded in the near dark. He could have turned the overhead light on, but something stopped him. And almost as soon as he realized what he had said, he wished he hadn’t.

“Yes,” he said, quietly. “Yes, I did.”

They talked a bit longer, and then Louis nodded off. Harry lay there, watching him breathe, and occasionally wondering what he would say if he woke up and found Harry staring at him, at his scruffy hair and tired eyes and scraggy beginnings of a beard. But he couldn’t move. The hours had become surreal, an island out of time. Harry was the only other person in the house, and he was still afraid to leave him.

Shortly after eleven, Harry noticed that Louis had begun to sweat again, his breathing becoming shallower, and he woke him and made him take some fever medication. Louis didn’t talk, except to murmur his thanks. Harry changed his top sheet and his pillowcase, and then, when he finally slept again, Harry lay down a foot away from him and, a long time later, he slept too.

****

Harry woke to the sound of his name. He was in a classroom, asleep on his desk, and the teacher was rapping a blackboard, repeating his name again and again. He knew he should be paying attention, knew that the teacher would see this slumber as an act of subversion, but he could not raise his head from the desk.

“Harry.”

“Mmmhghh.”

“Harry.”

The desk was awfully soft. Harry opened his eyes. The words were being spoken over his head, hissed, but with great emphasis. Harry.

He was in bed. He blinked, letting his eyes focus, then looked up to find Johannah Tomlinson standing over him. She wore a heavy wool coat and her handbag was slung over her shoulder.

“Harry.”

Harry pushed himself upright with a start. Beside him, Louis was asleep under the covers, his mouth slightly open, his elbow bent at right angles in front of him. Light seeped in through the window; telling of a cold, bright morning.

“Uh.”

“What are you doing?”


Harry felt as if he had been caught doing something awful. He rubbed at his face, trying to gather his thoughts. Why was he in here? What could he tell her?

“What are you doing in Louis’ bed?”


“Louis…” Harry said, quietly. “Louis wasn’t well...I just thought I should keep an eye –”

“What do you mean, he wasn’t well? Look, come out into the hall.” She strode out of the room, evidently waiting for him to catch her up.

Harry followed, trying to straighten his clothes.


She closed Louis’ bedroom door behind Harry.

He stood in front of her, trying to fix up his hair as he gathered his thoughts. “Louis had a temperature. Niall got it down when he came, but I didn’t know about this regulating thing and I wanted to keep an eye on him...he said I should keep an eye on him…” Harry's voice sounded thick, unformed. He wasn't entirely sure he was making coherent sentences.

“Why didn’t you call me? If he was ill you should have called me immediately. Or Mr. Tomlinson.”


It was as if his synapses had suddenly snapped together. Mr. Tomlinson. Oh Jesus. Harry glanced up at the clock. It was a quarter to eight.

“I didn’t...Niall seemed to…”


“Look, Harry. It’s really not rocket science. If Louis was ill enough for you to sleep in his room then that is something you should have contacted me about.”

“Yes.”


Harry blinked, staring at the ground.

“I don’t understand why you didn’t call. Did you attempt to call Mr. Tomlinson?”


Niall said not to say anything.

“I –”


At that moment the door to the annex opened, and Mr. Tomlinson stood there, a newspaper folded under his arm. “You made it back!” he said to his wife, brushing snowflakes from his shoulders. “I’ve just fought my way up the road to get a newspaper and some milk. Roads are absolutely treacherous. I had to go the long way to Hansford Corner, to avoid the ice patches.”


She looked at him and Harry wondered for a moment whether she was registering the fact that he was wearing the same shirt and jumper as the previous day.

“Did you know Louis had been ill in the night?”

He looked straight at Harry. He dropped his gaze to his feet. Harry wasn’t sure he had ever felt more uncomfortable.

“Did you try to call me, Harry? I’m sorry – I didn’t hear a thing. I suspect that intercom’s on the blink. There have been a few occasions lately where I’ve missed it. And I wasn’t feeling too good myself last night. Out like a light.”

Harry was still wearing Louis’ socks. He stared at them, wondering if Mrs. Tomlinson was going to judge him for that too.

But she seemed distracted. “It’s been a long journey home. I think...I’ll leave you to it. But if anything like this happens again, you call me immediately. Do you understand?”

Harry didn’t want to look at Mr. Tomlinson. “Yes,” he said, and disappeared into the kitchen.

Chapter Text

Spring arrived overnight, as if winter, like some unwanted guest, had abruptly shrugged its way into its coat and vanished, without saying goodbye. Everything became greener, the roads bathed in watery sunshine, the air suddenly balmy. There were hints of something floral and welcoming in the air, birdsong the gentle backdrop to the day.

Harry didn’t notice any of it. He had stayed at Nick’s house the evening before. It was the first time he had seen him for almost a week due to his enhanced training schedule, but having spent forty minutes in the bath with half a pack of bath salts, he was so exhausted he could barely talk to Harry. He had begun stroking his back, in a rare attempt at seduction, and Nick had murmured that he was really too tired, his hand flicking as if he were swatting Harry away. He was still awake and staring at his ceiling discontentedly four hours later.

Nick and Harry had met while Harry was doing the only other job he have ever held, that of trainee at The Cutting Edge, Hailsbury’s only unisex hairdresser’s. Nick walked in while Lou, the proprietor, was busy. Harry gave him what he described afterwards as the worst haircut not only that he had ever had, but the worst haircut in the history of mankind. Three months later, realizing that a love of fiddling with his own hair did not necessarily mean that he was cut out to do anyone else’s, he left and got the job at the bakery with Deb.

When they started going out, Nick had been working in sales and his favorite things could have been listed as beer, chocolate, talking about sports, and sex (doing, not talking about), in that order. A good night out for them would probably comprise all four. He was ordinary-looking rather than handsome, and his bum was pudgier than Harry’s, but he liked it. He liked the solidity of him, the way he felt when he wrapped himself around Nick.

And then he turned into Marathon Man.

Nick’s stomach no longer gave when Harry nestled into him; it was a hard, unforgiving thing, like a sideboard, and he was prone to pulling up his shirt and hitting it with things, to prove quite how hard it was. His face was planed, and weathered from his time spent constantly outdoors. His thighs were solid muscle. That would have been quite sexy in itself, had he actually wanted to have sex. But they were down to about twice a month, and Harry wasn’t the kind to ask.

It was as if the fitter he got, the more obsessed by his own shape he became, the less interested he was in Harry. He asked Nick a couple of times if he didn’t fancy him any more, but he seemed pretty definite. “You’re gorgeous,” he would say. “I’m just shattered. Anyway, I don’t want you to lose weight. The guys at the club – you couldn’t make one decent man out of all of them put together.” Harry wanted to ask how exactly he had come to work out this complex equation, but it was basically a nice thing to say so he let it go.

Harry wanted to be interested in what Nick did, he really did. He went to the triathlon club nights, he tried to chat to the other partners. But he soon realized he was an anomaly – there were no girlfriends or boyfriends like him– everyone else in the club was single, or involved with someone equally physically impressive. The couples pushed each other on workouts, planned weekends in spandex shorts and carried pictures of each other in their wallets completing triathlons hand in hand, or smugly comparing joint medals. It was unspeakable.

“I don’t know what you’re complaining about," Gemma said when Harry told her. “I've had sex once since I had Vi.”

“What? Who with?”

“Oh, some bloke who came in for a Vibrant Hand-Tied,” she said. “I just wanted to make sure I still could.”

And then, when Harry's jaw dropped, “Oh, don’t look like that. It wasn’t during working hours. And they were funeral flowers. If they had been wife flowers, of course I wouldn’t have touched him with a gladioli.”

It’s not that Harry was some kind of sex maniac – they had been together a long time, after all. It’s just that some perverse bit of him had begun to question his own attractiveness.

Nick had never minded the fact that Harry dressed ‘inventively’, as he put it. But what if he hadn’t been entirely truthful? Nick’s job, his whole social life now revolved around the control of flesh – taming it, reducing it, honing it. What if, faced with those tight little tracksuited bottoms, his own suddenly seemed wanting? What if his body, which he had always thought of as pleasant, now seemed weird to his exacting eyes?

These were the thoughts that were still humming messily around his head as Mrs. Tomlinson came in and pretty much ordered Louis and Harry to go outside. “I’ve asked the cleaners to come and do a special spring clean, so I thought perhaps you could enjoy the nice weather while they’re all in there.”

Louis’ eyes met Harry’s with the faintest lift of his eyebrows. “It’s not really a request, is it, Mum?”

“I just think it would be good if you took some air,”  she said. “The ramp is in place. Perhaps, Harry, you might take some tea out there with you?”

It wasn’t an entirely unreasonable suggestion. The garden was beautiful. It was as if with the slight lifting of temperatures everything had suddenly decided to look a little bit greener. Daffodils had emerged as if from nowhere, their yellowing bulbs hinting at the flowers to come. Buds burst from brown branches, perennials forcing their way tentatively through the dark, claggy soil. Harry opened the doors and we went outside, Louis keeping his chair on the York stone path. He gestured towards a cast-iron bench with a cushion on it, and Harry sat there for some time, their faces lifted to the weak sunshine, listening to the sparrows squabbling in the hedgerow.

“What’s up with you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re quiet.”

“You said you wanted me to be quiet.”

“Not this quiet. It’s worrisome.”

“I’m all right,” Harry said. And then, “It’s just boyfriend stuff, if you really want to know.”

“Ah,” he said. “Running Man.”

Harry opened his eyes, just to see if Louis was mocking him.

“What’s the matter?” he said. “Come on, tell Uncle Louis.”

“No.”

“My mother is going to have the cleaners running around like lunatics in there for at least another hour. You’re going to have to talk about something.”

Harry pushed himself upright, and turned to face Louis. His house chair had a control button that elevated his seat so that he could address people at head height. He didn’t often use it, as it frequently made him dizzy, but it was working now. Harry actually had to look up at him.

Harry pulled his coat around his shoulders, and squinted at him. “Go on, then, what do you want to know?”

“How long have you two been together?” he said.

“Bit over six years.”

He looked surprised. “That’s a long time.”

“Yes,” Harry said. “Well.”

Harry leaned over and adjusted the blanket across Louis’ legs. It was deceptive, the sunshine – it promised more than it could actually deliver. He thought of Nick, up at 6:30 sharp this morning to go for his morning run. Perhaps Harry should take up running, so that they would become one of those Lycra-clad couples. Perhaps he should buy some leather underwear and look up sex tips online. He knew he would do neither.

“What does he do?”

“He’s a personal trainer.”

“Hence the running.”

“Hence the running.”

“What’s he like? In three words, if it makes you uncomfortable.”

Harry thought about it. “Positive. Loyal. Obsessed with body fat ratios.”

“That’s seven words.”

“Then you got four for free. So what was he like?”

“Who?”

“Ashton?” Harry looked at him like Louis had looked at Harry, directly. He took a deep breath and gazed upwards to a large oak tree. His hair fell down into his eyes and Harry fought the urge to push it to one side for him.

“Gorgeous. Sexy. High maintenance. Surprisingly insecure.”

“What does he have to be insecure about?” The words left his mouth before he could help himself.

Louis looked almost amused. “You’d be surprised,” he said. “Guys like Ash trade on their looks for so long they don’t think they have anything else. Actually, I’m being unfair. He’s good with stuff. Things – clothes, interiors. He can make things look beautiful.”

Harry fought the urge to say anyone could make things look beautiful if they had a wallet as deep as a diamond mine.

“He could move a few things around in a room, and it would look completely different. I never could work out how he did it.’ He nodded towards the house. “He did this annex, when I first moved in.”

Harry found himself reviewing the perfectly designed living room. He realized his admiration of it was suddenly slightly less uncomplicated than it had been.

“How long were you with him?”

“Eight, nine months.”

“Not that long.”

“Long for me.”

“How did you meet?”

“Dinner party. A really awful dinner party. You?”

“Hairdresser’s. I was one. He was my client.”

“Hah. You were his something extra for the weekend.”

Harry must have looked blank because Louis shook his head and said softly, “Never mind.”

Inside, they could hear the dull drone of the vacuum cleaner. There were four women in the cleaning company, all wearing matching housecoats. Harry had wondered what they would find to do for two hours in the little annex.

“Do you miss him?”

He could hear them talking amongst themselves. Someone had opened a window, and occasional bursts of laughter filtered out into the thin air.

Louis seemed to be watching something in the far-off distance. “I used to.” He turned , his voice matter-of-fact. “But I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve decided that he and Zayn are a good match.”

Harry nodded. “They’ll have a ridiculous wedding, have an ankle biter or two, as you put it, buy a place in the country, and Zayn will be shagging his secretary within five years,” Harry said.

“You’re probably right.”

Harry was warming to their talk now. “And he will be a little bit cross with Zayn all the time without really knowing why and bitch about him at really awful dinner parties to the embarrassment of their friends, and he won’t want to leave because he’ll be scared of all the alimony.”

Louis turned to look at him.

“And they will have sex once every six weeks and he will adore his children while doing bugger all to actually help look after them. And Ashton will have perfect hair but get this kind of pinched face –” He narrowed his mouth “– through never saying what he actually means, and start an insane Pilates habit or maybe buy a dog or a horse and develop a crush on his riding instructor. And Zayn will take up jogging when he hits forty, and maybe buy a Harley-Davidson, which Ashton will despise, and every day he will go to work and look at all the young men in his office and listen in bars to who they pulled at the weekend or where they went on a jolly and feel like somehow – and he will never be quite sure how – he got suckered.”

Harry turned.

Louis was staring at him.

“Sorry,” Harry said, after a moment. “I don’t really know where that came from.”

“I’m starting to feel just the tiniest bit sorry for Running Man.”

“Oh, it’s not him,” Harry said. “It’s working at a bakery for years. You see and hear everything. Patterns, in people’s behavior. You’d be amazed at what goes on.”

“Is that why you’ve never got married?”

Harry blinked. “I suppose so.”

He didn’t want to say he had never actually been asked.

It may sound as though they didn’t do much. But, in truth, the days with Louis were subtly different – depending on his mood and, more importantly, how much pain he was in. Some days Harry would arrive and he could see from the set of his jaw that he didn’t want to talk to him– or to anyone – and, noting this, he would busy himself around the annex, trying to anticipate his needs so that he didn’t have to bother him by asking.

There were all sorts of things that caused him pain. There were the general aches that came with loss of muscle – there was so much less holding him up, despite Niall’s best attempts at physio. There was stomach pain from digestive problems, shoulder pain, pain from bladder infections – an inevitability, apparently, despite everyone’s best efforts. He had a stomach ulcer from taking too many painkillers early on in his recovery, when he apparently popped them like Tic Tacs.

Occasionally, there were pressure sores, from being seated in the same position for too long. A couple of times Louis was confined to bed, just to let them heal, but he hated being prone. He would lie there listening to the radio, his eyes glittering with barely suppressed rage. Louis also got headaches – a side effect, Harry thought, of his anger and frustration. He had so much mental energy, and nothing to take it out on. It had to build up somewhere.

But the most debilitating was a burning sensation in his hands and feet; relentless, pulsing, it would leave him unable to focus on anything else. Harry would prepare a bowl of cold water and soak them, or wrap cold flannels around them, hoping to ease his discomfort. A stringy muscle would flicker in Louis’ jaw and occasionally he would just seem to disappear, as if the only way he could cope with the sensation was to absent himself from his own body. Harry had become surprisingly used to the physical requirements of Louis’ life. It seemed unfair that despite the fact he could not use them much, or feel them, his extremities should cause him so much discomfort.

Despite all this, Louis did not complain. This was why it had taken Harry weeks to notice he suffered at all. Now, Harry could decipher the strained look around his eyes, the silences, the way he seemed to retreat inside his own skin. He would ask, simply, “Could you get the cold water, Harry?” or “I think it might be time for some painkillers.” Sometimes he was in so much pain that his face actually leached color, turning to pale putty. Those were the worst days.

But on other days they tolerated each other quite well. Louis didn’t seem mortally offended when Harry talked to him, as he had at the start. Today appeared to be a pain-free day. When Mrs. Tomlinson came out to tell them that the cleaners would be another twenty minutes, Harry made them both another drink and they took a slow stroll around the garden, Louis sticking to the path and Harry watching new booties darken in the damp grass.

“Interesting choice of footwear,” Louis said.

They were a blue and silver combo. Harry had found them in a charity shop. Nick said they made him look like a drag queen.

“You know, you don’t dress like someone from round here. I quite look forward to seeing what insane combination you’re going to turn up in next.”

“So how should “someone from round here” dress?”

Louis steered a little to the left to avoid a bit of branch on the path. “Fleece. Or, if you’re my mother’s set, something from Harrods.” He looked at Harry. “So where did you pick up your exotic tastes? Where else have you lived?”

“I haven’t.”

“What, you’ve only ever lived here? Where have you worked?”

“Only here.” Harry turned and looked at him, crossing his arms over my chest defensively. “So? What’s so weird about that?”

“It’s such a small town. So limiting. And it’s all about the castle.” They paused on the path and stared at it, rising up in the distance on it's weird, dome-like hill, as perfect as if it had been drawn by a child. “I always think this is the kind of place that people come back to. When they’ve got tired of everything else. Or when they don’t have enough imagination to go anywhere else.”

“Thanks.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it per se. But...Christ. It’s not exactly dynamic, is it? Not exactly full of ideas or interesting people or opportunities. Round here they think it’s subversive if the tourist shop starts selling placemats with a different view of the miniature railway.”

Harry couldn’t help but laugh. There had been an article in the local newspaper the previous week on exactly that topic.

“You’re twenty-six years old, Styles. You should be out there, claiming the world as your own, getting in trouble in bars, showing off your strange wardrobe to dodgy men...’

“I’m happy here,” Harry said.

“Well, you shouldn’t be.”

“You like telling people what they should be doing, don’t you?”

“Only when I know I’m right,” Louis said. “Can you adjust my drink? I can’t quite reach it.”

Harry twisted his straw round so that he could reach it more easily and waited while he took a drink. The faint cold had turned the tips of his ears pink.

He grimaced. “Jesus, for a guy who made tea for a living you make a terrible cup.”

“You’re just used to that shit tea,” I said. “All that lapsang souchong herbal stuff.”

“Shit tea!” He almost choked. “Well, it’s better than this stair varnish. Christ. You could stand a spoon up in that.”

“So even my tea is wrong.” Harry sat down on the bench in front of him. “So how is it okay for you to offer an opinion on every single thing I say or do, and yet nobody else gets to say anything at all?”

“Go on, then, Harry Styles. Give me your opinions.”

“On you?”

He gave a theatrical sigh. “Do I have a choice?”

“You could cut your hair. It makes you look like some kind of vagabond.”

“Now you sound like my mother. Plus, you're one to talk.”

“Well, you do look bloody awful. I pull this look off. You could shave, at least. Isn’t all that facial hair starting to get itchy?”

He gave Harry a sideways look.

“It is, isn’t it? I knew it. Okay – this afternoon I am going to take it all off.”

“Oh no.”

“Yes. You asked me for my opinion. This is my answer. You don’t have to do anything.”

“What if I say no?”

“I might do it anyway. If it gets any longer I’ll be picking bits of food out of it. And, frankly, if that happens I’ll have to sue you for undue distress in the workplace.”

Louis smiled then, as if Harry had amused him. It might sound a bit sad, but Louis’ smiles were so rare that prompting one made Harry feel a bit light-headed with pride.

“Here, Styles,” he said. “Do me a favor?”

“What?”

“Scratch my ear for me, will you? It’s driving me nuts.”

“If I do you’ll let me cut your hair? Just a bit of a trim?”

“Don’t push your luck.”

“Shush. Don’t make me nervous. I’m not great with scissors.”

Harry found the razors and some shaving foam in the bathroom cabinet, tucked well back behind the packets of wipes and cotton wool, as if they hadn’t been used in some time. He made Louis come into the bathroom, filled a sink with warm water, got him to tilt his headrest back a little and then placed a hot flannel over his chin.

“What is this? You’re going to be a barbershop? What’s the flannel for?”

“I don’t know,” Harry confessed. “It’s what they do in the films. It’s like the hot water and towels when someone has a baby.”

Harry couldn’t see his mouth, but Louis' eyes did the creasing thing that happened when he smiled. Harry wanted to keep them like that. He wanted him to be happy – for his face to lose that haunted, watchful look. He gabbled. He told jokes. He started to hum. Anything to prolong the moment before he looked grim again.

Harry rolled up his sleeves and began to lather the shaving foam over Louis’ chin, all the way up to his ears. Then he hesitated, the blade over his chin. “Is this the moment to tell you I’ve only ever done this on someone else once before?”

Louis closed his eyes, and settled back. Harry began to scrape gently at his skin with the blade, the silence broken only by the splash as he rinsed the razor in the basinful of water. He worked in silence, studying Louis Tomlinson’s face as he went, the lines that ran to the corners of his mouth, lines that seemed prematurely deep for his age. He smoothed his hair from the side of his face and saw the telltale tracks of stitches, perhaps from his accident. He saw the mauve shadows that told of nights and nights of lost sleep, the furrow between his brows that spoke of silent pain. A warm sweetness rose from his skin, the scent of the shaving cream, and something that was peculiar to Louis himself, discreet and expensive. His face began to emerge and he could see how easy it must have been for him to attract someone like Ashton.

Harry worked slowly and carefully, encouraged by the fact that he seemed briefly at peace. The thought flashed by that the only time anyone ever touched Louis was for some medical or therapeutic procedure, and so he let his fingers rest lightly upon his skin, trying to make the movements as far from the dehumanized briskness that characterized Niall’s and the doctor’s interactions with him as possible.

It was a curiously intimate thing, this shaving of Louis. Harry realized as he continued that he had assumed his wheelchair would be a barrier; that his disability would prevent any kind of sensual aspect from creeping in. Weirdly, it wasn’t working like that. It was impossible to be this close to someone, to feel their skin tauten under one’s fingertips, to breathe in the air that they breathed out, to have their face only inches from yours, without feeling a little unbalanced. By the time he reached his other ear, he had begun to feel awkward, as if he had overstepped an invisible mark.

Perhaps Louis was able to read the subtle changes in the pressure on his skin; perhaps he was just more attuned to the moods of the people around him. But he opened his eyes, and Harry found blue looking into green.

There was a short pause, and then he said, straight-faced, “Please don’t tell me you’ve shaved off my eyebrows.”

“Only the one,” Harry said. He rinsed the blade, hoping that the color would have drained from his cheeks by the time he turned around. “Right,” Harry said, finally. “Have you had enough? Won’t Niall be here in a bit?”

“What about my hair?” Louis asked

“You really want me to cut it?”

“You might as well.”

“I thought you didn’t trust me.”

He shrugged, as far as he could. It was the smallest movement of his shoulders. “If it will stop you moaning at me for a couple of weeks I figure it’s a small price to pay.”

“Oh my God, your mum is going to be so delighted,” Harry said, wiping a stray chunk of shaving cream.

“Yes, well, we won’t let that put us off.”

Harry cut his hair in the living room. He lit the fire and put on a film – an American thriller – and Harry placed a towel around his shoulders. He had warned Louis that he was a bit rusty, but added that it couldn’t look worse than it did already.

“Thanks for that,” he said.

Harry set to work, letting Louis’ hair slide through his fingers, trying to remember the few basics he had learnt. Louis, watching the film, seemed relaxed and almost content. Occasionally he told Harry something about the film – what else the lead actor had starred in, where he had first seen it – and Harry made a vaguely interested noise (like he did with Violet when she presented him with his toys), even though all of his attention was actually focused on not fucking up his hair. Finally, he had the worst of it off, and whipped round in front of him to see how he looked.

“Well?” Louis paused the DVD.

Harry straightened up. “I’m not sure I like seeing this much of your face. It’s a bit unnerving.”

“Feels cold,” he observed, moving his head from left to right, as if testing the feel of it.

“Hold on,” Harry said. “I’ll get two mirrors. Then you can see it properly. But don’t move. There’s still a bit of tidying up to be done. Possibly an ear to slice.”

Harry was in the bedroom, going through his drawers in search of a small mirror, when he heard the door. Two sets of brisk footsteps, Mrs. Tomlinson’s, lifted, anxious.

“Lottie, please don’t.”

The door to the living room was wrenched open. Harry grabbed the mirror and ran out of the room. He had no intention of being found absent again. Mrs. Tomlinson was standing in the living-room doorway, both hands raised to her mouth, apparently witnessing some unseen confrontation.

“You are the most selfish man I ever met!” a young woman was shouting. “I can’t believe this, Louis! You were selfish then and you’re worse now.”

“Lottie.” Mrs. Tomlinson’s gazed flicked towards Harry as he approached. “Please, stop.”

Harry walked into the room behind her. Louis, the towel around his shoulders, hair in a soft brown quiff, was facing a young woman. She had long blonde hair, pinned into a messy knot at the back of her head. Her skin was tanned, and she was wearing expensively distressed jeans and suede boots. Like Ashton, her features were beautiful and regular, her teeth the astonishing white of a toothpaste commercial. Harry knew they were because, her face puce with anger, she was still hissing at him. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe you would even think of it. What do you –”

“Please. Lottie.” Mrs. Tomlinson’s voice lifted sharply. “This is not the time.”

Louis, his face impassive, was staring straight ahead of him at some unseen point.

“Um...Louis? Do you need any help?” Harry asked quietly.

“Who are you?” she said, whipping round. It was then that he saw her eyes were filled with tears.

“Lottie,” Louis said. “Meet Harry Styles, my paid companion and shockingly inventive hairdresser. Harry, meet my sister, Lottie. She appears to have flown all the way from America to shriek at me.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Lottie said. “Mum told me. She’s told me everything.”

Nobody moved.

“Shall I give you a minute?” Harry asked.

“That would be a good idea.” Mrs. Tomlinson’s knuckles were white on the arm of the sofa.

Harry slid out of the room.

“In fact, Harry, perhaps now would be a good time to take your lunch break.”

It was going to be a bus stop kind of a day. He grabbed his sandwiches from the kitchen, climbed into his coat and set off down the back path.

As Harry left, he could hear Lottie Tomlinson’s voice lifting inside the house. “Has it ever occurred to you, Louis, that believe it or not, this might not be just about you?”’

When Harry returned, exactly half an hour later, the house was silent. Niall was washing up a mug in the kitchen sink.

He turned as he saw Harry. “How you doing?”

“Has she gone?"

“Who?”

“The sister?”

He glanced behind him. “Ah. That who it was? Yeah, she’s gone. Just skidding off in her car when I got here. Some sort of family row, was it?”

“I don’t know,” Harry said. “I was in the middle of cutting Louis’ hair and this woman came in and just started having a go at him. I assumed it was another pissed off friend.”

Niall shrugged.

Harry realized he would not be interested in the personal minutiae of Louis’ life, even if he knew.

“He’s a bit quiet, though. Nice work with the shave, by the way. Good to get him out from behind all that shrubbery.”

Harry walked back into the living room. Louis was sitting staring at the television, which was still paused at the exact moment Harry had left it.

“Do you want me to turn this back on?”

Louis didn’t seem to hear him for a minute. His head was sunk in his shoulders, the earlier relaxed expression replaced by a veil. Louis was closed off again, locked behind something Harry couldn’t penetrate.

He blinked, as if he had only just noticed him there. “Sure,” he said.

Harry was carrying a basket of washing down the hall when he heard them. The annex door was slightly ajar and the voices of Mrs. Tomlinson and her daughter carried down the long corridor, the sound coming in muted waves. Louis’ sister was sobbing quietly, all fury gone from her voice now. She sounded almost childlike.

“There must be something they can do. Some medical advance. Can’t you take him to America? Things are always improving in America.”

“Your father keeps a very close eye on all the developments. But no, darling, there is nothing...concrete.”

“He’s so...different now. It’s like he’s determined not to see the good in anything.”

“He’s been like that since the start, Lotts. I think it’s just that you didn’t see him apart from when you flew home. Back then, I think he was still...determined. Back then, he was sure that something would change.”

Harry felt a little uncomfortable listening in on such a private conversation. But the odd tenor drew him closer. He found himself walking softly towards the door, socked feet making no sound on the floor.

“Look, Daddy and I didn’t tell you. We didn’t want to upset you. But he tried…” she struggled over the words. “Louis tried to...he tried to kill himself.”

“What?”

“Daddy found him. Back in December. It was...it was terrible.”

Even though this only really confirmed what Harry had guessed, he felt all the blood drain from his face. He heard a muffled cry, a whispered reassurance. There was another long silence. And then Lottie, her voice thick with grief, spoke again.

“The guy…?”

“Yes. Harry is here to make sure nothing like that happens again.”

Harry stopped. At the other end of the corridor, from the bathroom, he could hear Niall and Louis talking in a low murmur, comfortably oblivious to the conversation that was going on just a few feet away. He took a step closer to the door. He supposed he had known it since he caught sight of the scars on his wrists. It made sense of everything, after all – Mrs. Tomlinson’s anxiety that he shouldn’t leave Louis alone for very long, his antipathy to having Harry there, the fact that for large stretches of time Harry didn’t feel like he was doing anything useful at all. He had been babysitting. He hadn’t known it, but Louis had, and he had hated Harry for it.

Harry reached for the handle of the door, preparing to close it gently. He wondered what Niall knew. He wondered whether Louis was happier now. He realized he felt, selfishly, a faint relief that it hadn’t been him that Louis objected to, just the fact that he – that anyone – had been employed to watch over him. His thoughts hummed so busily that he almost missed the next snatch of conversation.

“You can’t let him do this, Mum. You have to stop him.”

“It’s not our choice, darling.”

“But it is. It is – if he’s asking you to be part of it,” Lottie protested.

The handle stilled in Harry’s hand.

“I can’t believe you’re even agreeing to it. What about your religion? What about everything you’ve done? What was the point in you even bloody saving him the last time?”

Mrs. Tomlinson’s voice was deliberately calm. “That’s not fair.”

“But you’ve said you’ll take him. What does –”

“Do you think for a moment that if I said I refuse, he wouldn’t ask someone else?”

“It’s just wrong. I know it’s hard for him, but it will destroy you and Daddy. I know it. Think of how you would feel! Think of the publicity! Your job! Both your reputations! He must know it. It’s a selfish thing to even ask. How can he? How can he do this? How can you do this?” She began to sob again.

“Lotts…”

“Don’t look at me like that. I do care about him, Mum. I do. He’s my brother and I love him. But I can’t bear it. I can’t bear even the thought of it. He’s wrong to ask, and you’re wrong to consider it. And it’s not just his own life he will destroy if you go ahead with this.”

Harry took a step back from the window. The blood thumped so loudly in his ears that he almost didn’t hear Mrs. Tomlinson’s response.

“Six months, Lottie. He promised to give me six months. Now. I don’t want you to mention this again, and certainly not in front of anyone else. And we must…” She took a deep breath. “We must just pray very hard that something happens in that time to change his mind.”

Chapter Text

[Johannah]


I never set out to help kill my son.

Even reading the words seems odd – like something you might see in a tabloid newspaper, or one of those awful magazines that the cleaner always has poking out of her handbag, full of women whose daughters ran off with their cheating partners, tales of amazing weight loss and two-headed babies.

Jay was not the kind of person this happened to. Or at least, she thought she wasn’t. Her life was a fairly structured one – an ordinary one, by modern standards. She had been married for almost thirty-seven years, raised two children, kept her career, helped out at the school, the PTA, and joined the bench once the children didn’t need her any more.

She had been a judge for almost eleven years now. She watched the whole of human life come through her court: the hopeless waifs who couldn’t get themselves together sufficiently even to make a court appointment on time; the repeat offenders; the angry, hard-faced young men and exhausted, debt-ridden mothers. It’s quite hard to stay calm and understanding when you see the same faces, the same mistakes made again and again. She could sometimes hear the impatience in her tone. It could be oddly dispiriting, the blank refusal of humankind to even attempt to function responsibly.

And the little town, despite the beauty of the castle, the many Grade II listed buildings, picturesque country lanes, was far from immune to it. The Regency squares held cider-drinking teenagers, thatched cottages muffled the sounds of husbands beating their wives and children. Sometimes Jay felt like some king, making vain pronouncements in the face of a tide of chaos and creeping devastation. But she loved her job. Jay did it because she believed in order, in a moral code. She believed that there is a right and a wrong, unfashionable as that view might be.


Jay got through the tougher days because of her garden. As the children grew it had become a bit of an obsession of hers. She could give you the Latin name of almost any plant you cared to point at. The funny thing was, she didn’t even do Latin at school – hers was a rather minor public school for girls where the focus was on cooking and embroidery, things that would help them become good wives – but the thing about those plant names is that they do stick in your head. She only ever needed to hear one once to remember it forever: Helleborus niger, Eremurus stenophyllus, Athyrium niponicum. Jay can repeat those with a fluency she never had at school.

They say you only really appreciate a garden once you reach a certain age, and she supposed there is a truth in that. It’s probably something to do with the great circle of life. There seems to be something miraculous about seeing the relentless optimism of new growth after the bleakness of winter, a kind of joy in the difference every year, the way nature chooses to show off different parts of the garden to its full advantage. There have been times – the times when her marriage proved to be somewhat more populated than she had anticipated – when it has been a refuge, times when it has been a joy.

There were even been times when it was, frankly, a pain. There is nothing more disappointing than creating a new border only to see it fail to flourish, or to watch a row of beautiful alliums destroyed overnight by some slimy culprit. But even when she complained about the time, the effort involved in caring for it, the way her joints protested at an afternoon spent weeding, or her fingernails never looked quite clean, she loved it. Jay loved the sensual pleasures of being outside, the smell of it, the feel of the earth under her fingers, the satisfaction of seeing things living, glowing, captivated by their own temporary beauty.

After Louis’ accident, she didn’t garden for a year. It wasn’t just the time, although the endless hours spent at hospital, the time spent toing and froing in the car, the meetings – oh God, the meetings – took up so much of it. She took six months’ compassionate leave from work and there was still not enough of it.

It was that she could suddenly see no point. She paid a gardener to come and keep the garden tidy, and Jay didn’t think she gave it anything but the most cursory of looks for the best part of a year.

It was only when they brought Louis back home, once the annex was adapted and ready, that she could see a point in making it beautiful again. She needed to give her son something to look at. Jay needed to tell him, silently, that things might change, grow or fail, but that life did go on. That they were all part of some great cycle, some pattern that it was only God’s purpose to understand. She couldn’t say that to him, of course – she and Louis have never been able to say much to each other – but she wanted to show him. A silent promise, if you like, that there was a bigger picture, a brighter future.

Mark was poking at the log fire. He manoeuvred the remaining half-burnt logs expertly with a poker, sending glowing sparks up the chimney, then dropped a new log on to the middle. He stood back, as he always did, watching with quiet satisfaction as the flames took hold, and dusted his hands on his corduroy trousers. He turned as Jay entered the room. She held out a glass.

“Thank you. Is Lotts coming down?”

“Apparently not.”

“What’s she doing?”

“Watching television upstairs. She doesn’t want company. I did ask.”

“She’ll come round. She’s probably jet-lagged.”

“I hope so, Mark. She’s not very happy with us at the moment.”

They stood in silence, watching the fire. Around them the room was dark and still, the windowpanes rattling gently as they were buffeted by the wind and rain.

“Filthy night.”

“Yes.”

The dog padded into the room and, with a sigh, flopped down in front of the fire, gazing up adoringly at them both from her prone position.

“So what do you think?” he said. “This haircut business.”

“I don’t know. I’d like to think it’s a good sign.”

“This Harry’s a bit of a character, isn’t he?”

Jay saw the way her husband smiled to himself. Not him too, she found herself thinking, and then squashed the thought.

“Yes. Yes, I suppose he is.”

“Do you think he’s the right one?”

Jay took a sip of her drink before answering. Two fingers of gin, a slice of lemon and a lot of tonic. “Who knows?” she said. “I don’t think I have the faintest idea what is right and wrong any more.”

“He likes Harry. I’m sure he likes him. We were talking while watching the news the other night, and he mentioned him twice. He hasn’t done that before.”

“Yes. Well. I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”

“Do you have to?”

Mark turned from the fire. Jay could see him studying her, perhaps conscious of the new lines around her eyes, the way her mouth seemed set these days into a thin line of anxiety.


“I’m just being realistic.”

“You sound...you sound like you’re already expecting it to happen.”

“I know my son.”

“Our son.”

“Yes. Our son.” More her son, she found herself thinking. He was never really there for him. Not emotionally. He was just the absence Louis was always striving to impress.

“He’ll change his mind,” Mark said. “There’s still a long way to go.”

They stood there. Jay took a long sip of her drink, the ice cold against the warmth given out by the fire.

“I keep thinking…” she said, staring into the hearth. “I still keep thinking that I’m missing something.”

Mark was still watching her. She could feel his gaze on her, but she couldn’t meet it. Perhaps he might have reached out to her then. But she thought they had probably gone too far for that.

He took a sip of his drink. “You can only do what you can do, darling.”

“I’m well aware of that. But it’s not really enough, is it?”

He turned back to the fire, poking unnecessarily at a log until she turned and quietly left the room.

As he had known she would.

When Louis first told her what he wanted, he had to tell her twice, as she was quite sure she could not have heard him correctly the first time. Jay stayed quite calm when she realized what it was he was proposing, and then she told him he was being ridiculous and walked straight out of the room. It’s an unfair advantage, being able to walk away from a man in a wheelchair. There are two steps between the annex and the main house, and without Niall’s help he could not traverse them. She shut the door of the annex and stood in the hallway with the calmly spoken words of her son still ringing in her ears.

She didn’t move for half an hour.

He refused to let it go. Being Louis, he always had to have the last word. He repeated his request every time Jay went in to see him until she almost had to persuade herself to go in each day. I don’t want to live like this, Mother. This is not the life I chose. There is no prospect of my recovery, hence it is a perfectly reasonable request to ask to end it in a manner I see fit. She heard him and could well imagine what he had been like in those business meetings, the career that had made him rich and confident. He was a man who was used to being heard, after all. He couldn’t bear it that in some way she had the power to dictate his future, that she had somehow become mother again.

It took his attempt to make her agree. It’s not that her religion forbade it – although the prospect of Louis being consigned to hell through his own desperation was a terrible one. (She chose to believe that God, a benign God, would understand those sufferings and forgive trespasses.)

It’s just that the thing you never understand about being a mother, until you are one, is that it is not the grown man – the galumphing, unshaven, stinking, opinionated offspring – you see before you, with his parking tickets and unpolished shoes and complicated love life. You see all the people he has ever been all rolled up into one.

Jay looked at Louis and saw the baby she held in her arms, dewily besotted, unable to believe that she had created another human being. She saw the toddler, reaching for her hand, the schoolboy weeping tears of fury after being bullied by some other child. She saw the vulnerabilities, the love, the history. That’s what he was asking her to extinguish – the small child as well as the man – all that love, all that history.

And then on 22 January, a day when Jay was stuck in court with a relentless roll call of shoplifters and uninsured drivers, of weeping angry ex-partners, Mark walked into the annex and found their son almost unconscious, his head lolling by his armrest, a sea of dark, sticky blood pooling around his wheels. He had located a rusty nail, barely half an inch emerging from some hurriedly finished woodwork in the back lobby, and, pressing his wrist against it, had reversed backwards and forwards until his flesh was sliced to ribbons. She could not to this day imagine the determination that kept him going, even though he must have been half delirious from the pain. The doctors said he was less than twenty minutes from death.

It was not, they observed with exquisite understatement, a cry for help.

When they told her at the hospital that Louis would live, Jay walked outside into her garden and she raged. She raged at God, at nature, at whatever fate had brought their family to such depths. Now she looks back and she must have seemed quite mad. Jay stood in her garden that cold evening and hurled her large brandy twenty feet into the Euonymus compactus and she screamed, so that her voice broke the air, bouncing off the castle walls and echoing into the distance. She was so furious, you see, that all around her were things that could move and bend and grow and reproduce, and her son – her vital, charismatic, beautiful boy – was just this thing. Immobile, wilted, bloodied, suffering. Their beauty seemed like an obscenity. She screamed and she screamed and she swore – words she didn’t know she knew – until Mark came out and stood, his hand resting on her shoulder, waiting until he could be sure that she would be silent again.

He didn’t understand, you see. He hadn’t worked it out yet. That Louis would try again. That their lives would have to be spent in a state of constant vigilance, waiting for the next time, waiting to see what horror he would inflict upon himself. they would have to see the world through his eyes – the potential poisons, the sharp objects, the inventiveness with which he could finish the job that damned motorcyclist had started. Their lives had to shrink to fit around the potential for that one act. And he had the advantage – he had nothing else to think about, you see?

Two weeks later, Jay told Louis, “Yes.”

Of course she did.

What else could she have done?

Chapter Text

Harry didn’t sleep that night. He lay awake in the little box room, gazing up at the ceiling and carefully reconstructing the last two months based on what he now knew. It was as if everything had shifted, fragmented and settled in some other place, into a pattern he barely recognized.

He felt duped, the dim-witted accessory who hadn’t known what was going on. He felt they must have laughed privately at his attempts to feed Louis vegetables, or cut his hair – little things to make him feel better. What had been the point, after all?

He ran over and over the conversation he had heard, trying to interpret it in some alternative way, trying to convince himself that he had misunderstood what they had said. But Mercy Care wasn’t exactly somewhere you went for a vacation. He couldn’t believe Johannah Tomlinson could contemplate doing that to her son. Yes, he had thought her cold, and yes, awkward around him. It was hard to imagine her cuddling Louis, as his mother had cuddled he and Gemma – fiercely, joyously – until they wriggled away, begging to be let go. If he’s honest, he just thought it was how the upper classes were with their children. Harry had just read Louis’ copy of Love in a Cold Climate, after all. But to actively, to voluntarily play a part in her own son’s death?

With hindsight her behavior seemed even colder, her actions imbued with some sinister intent. Harry was angry with her and angry with Louis. Angry with them for letting him engage in a facade. He was angry for all the times he had sat and thought about how to make things better for him, how to make him comfortable, or happy. When he was not angry, he was sad. Harry would recall the slight break in her voice as she tried to comfort Lottie, and feel a great sadness for her. She was, he knew, in an impossible position.

But mostly he felt filled with horror. Harry was haunted by what he now knew. How could you live each day knowing that you were simply whiling away the days until your own death? How could this man whose skin he had felt that morning under his fingers – warm, and alive – choose to just extinguish himself? How could it be that, with everyone’s consent, in six months’ time that same skin would be decaying under the ground?

Harry couldn’t tell anyone. That was almost the worst bit. He was now complicit in the Tomlinson's secret. Sick and listless, he rang Nick to say he wasn’t feeling well and was going to stay home. No problem, he was doing a 10k, he said. He probably wouldn’t be through at the athletics club until after nine anyway. Harry would see him on Saturday. Nick sounded distracted, as if his mind were already elsewhere, further along some mythical track.

Harry refused supper. He lay in bed until his thoughts darkened and solidified to the point where he couldn’t bear the weight of them, and at eight thirty he came back downstairs and sat silently watching television, perched on the other side of his grandfather, who was the only person in the family guaranteed not to ask him a question. He sat in his favorite armchair and stared at the screen with glassy-eyed intensity. Harry was never sure whether he was watching, or whether his mind was somewhere else entirely.

“Are you sure I can’t get you something, love?” Anne appeared at his side with a cup of tea. There was nothing in our family that couldn’t be improved by a cup of tea, allegedly.

“No. Not hungry, thanks.”

He saw the way she glanced at Robin. Harry knew that later on there would be private mutterings that the Tomlinson's were working him too hard, that the strain of looking after such an invalid was proving too much. Harry knew they would blame themselves for encouraging him to take the job.

He would have to let them think they were right.

****

Paradoxically, the following day Louis was in good form – unusually talkative, opinionated, belligerent. He talked, possibly more than he had talked on any previous day. It was as if he wanted to spar with Harry, and was disappointed when he wouldn’t play.

“So when are you going to finish this hatchet job, then, Styles?”

Harry had been tidying the living room. He looked up from plumping the sofa cushions. “What?”

“My hair. I’m only half done. I look like one of those Victorian orphans. Or some village idiot.” He turned his head so that Harry could better see his handiwork. “Unless this is one of your alternative style statements.”

“You want me to keep cutting?”

“Well, it seemed to keep you happy. And it would be nice not to look like I belong in an asylum.”

Harry fetched a towel and scissors in silence.

“Niall is definitely happier now I apparently look like a bloke,” he said. “Although he did point out that, having restored my face to its former state, I will now need shaving every day.”

“Oh,” Harry said.

“You don’t mind, do you? Weekends I’ll just have to put up with designer stubble.”

Harry couldn’t talk to him. He found it difficult even to meet his eye. It was like finding out your boyfriend had been unfaithful. He felt, weirdly, as if Louis had betrayed him.

“Styles?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re having another unnervingly quiet day. What happened to “chatty to the point of vaguely irritating?”

“Sorry,” he said.

“Running Man again? What’s he done now? He hasn’t gone and run off, has he?” Louis chuckled to himself, pleased with his joke.

“No.” Harry took a soft slice of Louis’ hair between his index and middle fingers and lifted the blades of the scissors to trim what lay exposed above them. They stilled in his hand. How would they do it? Would they give him an injection? Was it medicine? Or did they just leave you in a room with a load of razors?

“You look tired. I wasn’t going to say anything when you came in, but – hell – you look terrible.”

“Oh.”

How did they assist someone who couldn’t move their own limbs? Harry found himself gazing down at Louis’ wrists, which were always covered by long sleeves. He had assumed for weeks that this was because he felt the cold more than they did. Another lie.

“Styles?”

“Yes?”

Harry was glad he was behind Louis. He didn’t want Louis to see his face.

Harry hesitated. Where the back of Louis’ neck had been covered by hair, it was even paler than the rest of his skin. It looked soft and white and oddly vulnerable.

“Look, I’m sorry about my sister. She was...she was very upset, but it didn’t give her the right to be rude. She’s a bit direct sometimes. Doesn’t know how much she rubs people up the wrong way.” He paused. “It’s why she likes living in America, I think.”

“You mean, they tell each other the truth?”

“What?”

“Nothing. Lift your head up, please.”

Harry snipped and combed, working his way methodically around Louis’ head until every single hair was chopped or trimmed and all that remained was a fine sprinkling around his feet.

It all became clear to him by the end of the day. While Louis was watching television with his father, Harry took a sheet of paper from the printer and a pen from the jar by the kitchen window and wrote down what he wanted to say. He folded the paper, found an envelope, and left it on the kitchen table, addressed to Louis’ mother.

When he left for the evening, Louis and his father were talking. Actually, Louis was laughing. Harry paused in the hallway, bag over his shoulder, listening. Why would he laugh? What could possibly provoke mirth given that he had just a matter of weeks before he took his own life?

“I’m off,” Harry called through the doorway, and started walking.

“Hey, Styles –” Louis began, but Harry had already closed the door behind him.

Harry spent the short bus ride trying to work out what he was going to tell his parents. They would be furious that he had left what they would see as a perfectly suitable and well-paid job. After her initial shock his mother would look pained and defend him, suggesting that it had all been too much. Robin would probably ask why he couldn’t be more like his sister. He often did, even though Harry was not the one who ruined his life by getting pregnant and having to rely on the rest of the family for financial support and babysitting. You weren’t allowed to say anything like that in their house because, according to Anne, it was like implying that Violet wasn’t a blessing. And all babies were God’s blessing, even those who said bugger quite a lot, and whose presence meant that half the potential wage earners in the family couldn’t actually go and get a decent job.

Harry would not be able to tell them the truth. He knew he owed Louis and his family nothing, but he wouldn’t inflict the curious gaze of the neighborhood on them.

All these thoughts tumbled around his head as he got off the bus and walked down the hill. And then Harry  got to the corner of his road and heard the shouting, felt the slight vibration in the air, and it was all briefly forgotten.

A small crowd had gathered around their house. Harry picked up his pace, afraid that something had happened, but then he saw his parents on the porch, peering up, and realized it wasn’t their house at all. It was just the latest in a long series of small wars that characterized their neighbors’ marriage.

That Richard Grisham was not the most faithful of husbands was hardly news on their street. But judging by the scene in his front garden, it might have been to his wife.

“You must have thought I was bloody stupid. She was wearing your T-shirt! The one I had made for you for your birthday!”

“Baby...Michelle... it’s not what you think.”

“I went in for your bloody Scotch eggs! And there she was, wearing it! Bold as brass! And I don’t even like Scotch eggs!”

Harry slowed his pace, pushing his way through the small crowd until he was able to get to their gate, watching as Richard ducked to avoid a DVD player. Next came a pair of shoes.

“How long have they been at it?”

Anne, her apron tucked neatly around her waist, unfolded her arms and glanced down at her watch. “It’s a good three-quarters of an hour. Robin, would you say it’s a good three-quarters of an hour?”

“Depends if you time it from when she threw the clothes out or when he came back and found them.”

“I’d say when he came home.”

Robin considered this. “Then it’s really closer to half an hour. She got a good lot out of the window in the first fifteen minutes, though.”

“Your dad says if she really does kick him out this time he’s going to put in a bid for Richard’s Black and Decker.”

The crowd had grown, and Michelle Grisham showed no sign of letting up. If anything, she seemed encouraged by the increasing size of her audience.

“You can take her your filthy books,” she yelled, hurling a shower of magazines out of the window.

These prompted a small cheer among the crowd.

“See if she likes you sitting in the loo with those for half of Sunday afternoon, eh?” She disappeared inside, and then reappeared at the window, hauling the contents of a laundry basket down on to what remained of the lawn. “And your filthy underwear. See if she thinks you’re such a – what was it? – hot stud when she’s washing those for you every day!”

Richard was vainly scooping up armfuls of his stuff as it landed on the grass. He was yelling something up at the window, but against the general noise and catcalls it was hard to make it out. As if briefly admitting defeat, he pushed his way through the crowd, unlocked his car, hauled an armful of his belongings on to the rear seat, and shoved the car door shut. Oddly, whereas his CD collection and video games had been quite popular, no one made a move on his dirty laundry.

Crash. There was a brief hush as his stereo met the path.

He looked up in disbelief. “You crazy bitch!”

“You’re shagging that disease-ridden cross-eyed troll from the garage, and I’m the crazy bitch?”

Harry’s mum turned to Robin. “Would you like a cup of tea, Robin? I think it’s turning a little chilly.”

Robin didn’t take his eyes off next door. “That would be great, love. Thank you.”

It was as his mother went indoors that Harry noticed the car. It was so unexpected that at first he didn’t recognize it – Mrs. Tomlinson’s Mercedes, navy blue, low-slung and discreet. She pulled up, peering out at the scene on the pavement, and hesitated a moment before she climbed out. She stood, staring at the various houses, perhaps checking the numbers. And then she saw Harry.

He slid out from the porch and was down the path before Robin could ask where he was going. Mrs. Tomlinson stood to the side of the crowd, gazing at the chaos like Marie Antoinette viewing a load of rioting peasants.

“Domestic dispute,” Harry said.

She looked away, as if almost embarrassed to have been caught looking. “I see.”

“It’s a fairly constructive one by their standards. They’ve been going to marriage counseling.”

Her elegant wool suit, pearls and expensive hair were enough to mark her out in their street, among the sweatpants and cheap fabrics in bright, chain-store colors. She appeared rigid, worse than the morning she had come home to find Harry sleeping in Louis’ room. Harry registered in some distant part of his mind that he was not going to miss Johannah Tomlinson.

“I was wondering if you and I could have a little talk.” She had to lift her voice to be heard over the cheering.

Mrs. Grisham was now throwing out Richard’s fine wines. Every exploding bottle was greeted with squeals of delight and another heartfelt outburst of pleading from Mr. Grisham. A river of red wine ran through the feet of the crowd and into the gutter.

Harry glanced over at the crowd and then behind him at the house. He could not imagine bringing Mrs. Tomlinson into the front room, with its litter of toy trains, grandfather snoring mutely in front of the television, Anne spraying air-freshener around to hide the smell of Robin’s socks, and Violet popping by to murmur bugger at the new guest.

“Um...it’s not a great time.”

“Perhaps we could talk in my car? Look, just five minutes, Harry. Surely you owe us that.”

A couple of Harry’s neighbors glanced in his direction as he climbed into the car. He was lucky that the Grisham's were the hot news of the evening, or he might have been the topic of conversation. On their street, if you climbed into an expensive car it meant you had either pulled a footballer or were being arrested by police.

The doors closed with an expensive, muted clunk and suddenly there was silence. The car smelt of leather, and there was nothing in it apart from Harry and Mrs. Tomlinson. No sweet wrappers, mud, lost toys or perfumed dangly things to disguise the smell of the carton of milk that had been dropped in there three months earlier.

“I thought you and Louis got on well.” She spoke as if addressing someone straight ahead of her. When Harry didn’t speak, she said, “Is there a problem with the money?”

“No.”

“Do you need a longer lunch break? I am conscious that it’s rather short. I could ask Niall if he would –”

“It’s not the hours. Or the money.”

“Then –”

“I don’t really want to –”

“Look, you cannot hand in your notice with immediate effect and expect me not even to ask what on earth’s the matter.”

Harry took a deep breath. “I overheard you. You and your daughter. Last night. And I don’t want to...I don’t want to be part of it.”

“Ah.”

They sat in silence. Mr. Grisham was now trying to bash his way in through the front door, and Mrs. Grisham was busy hurling anything she could locate through the window down on to his head. The choice of projectile missiles – loo roll, tampon boxes, toilet brush, shampoo bottles – suggested she was now in the bathroom.

“Please, don’t leave,” Mrs. Tomlinson said, quietly. “Louis is comfortable with you. More so than he’s been for some time. I...it would be very hard for us to replicate that with someone else.”

“But you’re...you’re going to take him to that place where people commit suicide. Mercy Care?”

“No. I am going to do everything I can to ensure he doesn’t do that.”

“Like what – praying?”

She gave Harry what his mother would have termed an ‘old-fashioned’ look. “You must know by now that if Louis decides to make himself unreachable, there is little anybody can do about it.”

“I worked it all out,” Harry said. “I’m basically there just to make sure he doesn’t cheat and do it before his six months are up. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“No. That’s not it.”

“Which is why you didn’t care about my qualifications.”

“I thought you were bright and cheerful and different. You didn’t look like a nurse. You didn’t behave...like any of the others. I thought...I thought you might cheer him up. And you do – you do cheer him up, Harry. Seeing him without that awful beard yesterday...you seem to be one of the few people who are able to get through to him.”

The bedding came out of the window. It came down in a ball, the sheets extending themselves briefly and gracefully before they hit the ground. Two children picked one up and began running around the little garden with it over their heads.

“Don’t you think it would have been fair to mention that I was basically on suicide watch?”

The sigh Johannah Tomlinson gave was the sound of someone forced to explain something politely to an imbecile. Harry wondered if she knew that everything she said made the other person feel like an idiot. He wondered if it was something she’d actually cultivated deliberately. He didn’t think he could ever manage to make someone feel inferior.

“That might have been the case when we first met you...but I’m confident Louis is going to stick to his word. He has promised me six months, and that’s what I’ll get. We need this time, Harry. We need this time to give him the idea of there being some possibility. I was hoping it might plant the idea that there is a life he could enjoy, even if it wasn’t the life he had planned.”

“But it’s all lies. You’ve lied to me and you’re all lying to each other.”

She didn’t seem to hear him. She turned to face Harry, pulling a checkbook from her handbag, a pen ready in her hand.

“Look, what do you want? I will double your money. Tell me how much you want.”

“I don’t want your money.”

“A car. Some benefits. Bonuses –”

“No –”

“Then...what can I do that might change your mind?”

“I’m sorry. I just don’t –”

Harry made to get out of the car. Her hand shot out. It sat there on his arm, strange and radioactive. They both stared at it.

“You signed a contract, Mister Styles,’ she said. “You signed a contract where you promised to work for us for six months. By my calculations you have only done two. I am simply requiring you to fulfill your contractual obligations.”

Her voice had become brittle. Harry looked down at Mrs. Tomlinson’s hand and saw that it was trembling.

She swallowed. “Please.”

Anne and Robin were watching from the porch. Harry could see them, mugs poised in their hands, the only two people facing away from the theatre next door. They turned away awkwardly when they saw that Harry had noticed them. Robin, he realized, was wearing the tartan slippers with the paint splatter.

Harry pushed the handle of the door. “Mrs. Tomlinson, I really can’t sit by and watch...it’s too weird. I don’t want to be part of this.”

“Just think about it. Tomorrow is Good Friday – I’ll tell Louis you have a family commitment if you really just need some time. Take the Bank Holiday weekend to think about it. But please. Come back. Come back and help him.”

Harry walked back into the house without looking back. He sat in the living room, staring at the television while his parents followed me in, exchanged glances and pretended not to be watching him.

It was almost eleven minutes before he finally heard Mrs. Tomlinson’s car start up and drive away.

Gemma confronted him within five minutes of arriving home, thundering up the stairs and throwing open the door of his room.

“Yes, do come in,” Harry said. He was lying on the bed, legs stretched up the wall, staring at the ceiling.

Gemma stood in the doorway. “Is it true?”

“That Michelle Grisham has finally thrown out her cheating no-good philandering husband and –”

“Don’t be smart. About your job.”

Harry traced the pattern of the wallpaper with his big toe, smiling at the tattoo he had put there so many years ago. “Yes, I handed in my notice. Yes, I know Mum and Dad are not too happy about it. Yes, yes, yes to whatever it is you’re going to throw at me.”

She closed the door carefully behind her, then sat down heavily on the end of his bed and swore lustily. “I don’t bloody believe you.”

She shoved his legs so that he slid down the wall, ending up almost lying on the bed. Harry pushed himself upright. “Ow.”

Her face was puce. “I don’t believe you. Mum’s in bits downstairs. Robin’s pretending not to be, but he is too. What are they supposed to do about money? You know Dad’s already panicking about work. Why the hell would you throw away a perfectly good job?”

“Don’t lecture me, Gems.”

“Well, someone’s got to! You’re never going to get anything like that money anywhere else. And how’s it going to look on your resume?”

“Oh, don’t pretend this is about anything other than you and what you want.”

“What?”

“You don’t care what I do, as long as you can still go and resurrect your high-flying career. You just need me there propping up the family funds and providing the bloody child care. Sod everyone else.” Harry knew he sounded mean and nasty but he couldn’t help himself. It was his sister’s plight that had got them into this mess, after all. Years of resentment began to ooze out of him. “We’ve all got to stick at jobs we hate just so that little Gemma can fulfill her bloody ambitions.”

“It is not about me.”

“No?”

“No, it’s about you not being able to stick at the one decent job you’ve been offered in months.”

“You know nothing about my job, okay?”

“I know it paid well above the minimum wage. Which is all I need to know about it.”

“Not everything in life is about the money, you know.”

“Yeah? You go downstairs and tell Mum and Dad that.”

“Don’t you dare bloody lecture me about money when you haven’t paid a sodding thing towards this house for years.”

“You know I can’t afford much because of Vi.”

Harry began to shove his sister out the door. He can’t remember the last time he actually fought with her, but right then he wanted to scream. “Just piss off, Gems. Okay? Just piss off and leave me alone.”

Harry slammed the door in his sister’s face. And when he finally heard her walking slowly back down the stairs, he chose not to think about what she would say to his parents, about the way they would all treat this as further evidence of his catastrophic inability to do anything of any worth. Harry chose not to think about Jane at the Job Center and how he would explain his reasons for leaving this most well paid of menial jobs. He chose not to think about the chicken factory and how somewhere, deep within its bowels, there was probably a set of plastic overalls, and a hygiene cap with his name still on it.

Harry lay back and thought about Louis. He thought about his anger and his sadness. He thought about what his mother had said – that Harry was one of the only people able to get through to him. Harry thought about Louis trying not to laugh at the ‘Hazzybearra Song’ on a night when the snow drifted gold past the window. He thought about the warm skin and soft hair and hands of someone living, someone who was far cleverer and funnier than he would ever be and who still couldn’t see a better future than to obliterate himself. And finally, his head pressed into the pillow, Harry cried, because his life suddenly seemed so much darker and more complicated than he could ever have imagined, and he wished he could go back, back to when his biggest worry was whether he and Deb had ordered in enough Chelsea buns.

There was a knock on the door.

Harry blew his nose. “Piss off, Gemma.”

“I’m sorry.”

He stared at the door.

Her voice was muffled, as if her lips were close up to the keyhole. “I’ve got wine. Look, let me in for God’s sake, or Mum will hear me. I’ve got two Doc McStuffin mugs stuck up my jumper, and you know how she gets about us drinking upstairs.”

Harry climbed off the bed and opened the door.

She glanced up at his tear-stained face, and swiftly closed the bedroom door behind her. “Okay,” she said, wrenching off the screw top and pouring Harry a mug of wine, “what really happened?”

Harry looked at his sister hard. “You can’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you. Not Robin. Especially not Mum."

Then he told her.

He had to tell someone

There were many ways in which he disliked his sister. A few years ago he could have shown you whole scribbled lists he had written on that very topic. Harry hated her for the fact that she got thick, straight hair, while his was a curly mop until he decided to grow it past his shoulders. He hated her for the fact that you can never tell her anything that she doesn’t already know. He hated the fact that for his whole school career teachers insisted on telling him in hushed tones how bright she was, as if her brilliance wouldn’t mean that by default he lived in a permanent shadow. He hated her for the fact that at the age of twenty-six he lived in a box room in a semi-detached house just so she could have her daughter in with her in the bigger bedroom. But every now and then Harry was very glad indeed that she was his sister.

Because Gemma didn’t shriek in horror. She didn’t look shocked, or insist that Harry tell Anne and Robin. She didn’t once tell him that he’d the wrong thing by walking away.

She took a huge swig of her drink. “Christ.”

“Exactly.”

“It’s legal as well. It’s not as if they can stop him.”

“I know.”

“Fuck. I can’t even get my head around it.”

They had downed two glasses just in the telling of it, and Harry could feel the heat rising in his cheeks. “I hate the thought of leaving him. But I can’t be part of this, Gems. I can’t.”

“Mmm.” She was thinking. His sister actually has a ‘thinking face’. It makes people wait before speaking to her. Robin says Harry’s thinking face makes it look like he wants to go to the loo.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said.

She looked up at Harry, her face suddenly brightening. “It’s simple.”

“Simple.”

She poured them another glass each. “Oops. We seem to have finished this already. Yes. Simple. They’ve got money, right?”

“I don’t want their money. She offered me a raise. It’s not the point.”

“Shut up. Not for you, Haz. They’ll have their own money. And Louis’ probably got a shit load of insurance from the accident. Well, you tell them that you want a budget and then you use that money, and you use the – what was it? – four months you’ve got left. And you change Louis Tomlinson’s mind.”

“What?”

“You change his mind. You said he spends most of his time indoors, right? Well, start with something small, then once you’ve got him out and about again, you think of every fabulous thing you could do for him, everything that might make him want to live – adventures, foreign travel, swimming with dolphins, whatever – and then you do it. I can help you. I’ll look things up on the internet at the library. I bet we could come up with some brilliant things for him to do. Things that would really make him happy.”

Harry stared at her.

“Gems -”


“Yeah. I know.” She grinned, as Harry started to smile. “I’m a fucking genius.”

Chapter Text

They looked a bit surprised. Actually, that’s an understatement. Mrs. Tomlinson looked stunned, and then a bit disconcerted, and then her whole face closed off. Her daughter, curled up next to her on the sofa, just glowered – the kind of face Harry's mum used to warn him would stick in place if the wind changed. It wasn’t quite the enthusiastic response he had been hoping for.

“But what is it you actually want to do?”

“I don’t know yet. My sister is good at researching stuff. She’s trying to find out what’s possible for paraplegics. But I really wanted to find out from you whether you would be willing to go with it.”

They were in the drawing room. It was the same room Harry had been interviewed in, except this time Mrs. Tomlinson and her daughter were perched on the sofa, their slobbery old dog between them. Mr. Tomlinson was standing by the fire. Harry was wearing his tight black skinnies, long billowy shirt with pink hearts, and a pair of leather booties . With hindsight, he realized, he could have picked a more professional-looking uniform in which to outline his plan.

“Let me get this straight.” Johannah Tomlinson leaned forward. “You want to take Louis away from this house.”

“Yes.”

“And take him on a series of “adventures”.’ She said it like Harry was suggesting performing amateur surgery on him.

“Yes. Like I said, I’m not sure what’s possible yet. But it’s about just getting him out and about, widening his horizons. There may be some local things we could do at first, and then hopefully something further away before too long.”

“Are you talking about going abroad?”

“Abroad…?” Harry blinked. “I was thinking more about maybe getting him to the pub. Or to a show, just for starters.”

“Louis has barely left this house in two years, apart from hospital appointments.”

“Well, yes...I thought I’d try and persuade him otherwise.”

“And you would, of course, go on all these adventures with him,” Lottie said.

“Look. It’s nothing extraordinary. I’m really talking about just getting him out of the house, to start with. A walk around the castle, or a visit to the pub. If we end up swimming with dolphins in Florida, then that’s lovely. But really I just wanted to get him out of the house and thinking about something else.” Harry didn’t add that the mere thought of driving to the hospital in sole charge of Louis was still enough to break him out in a cold sweat. The thought of taking him abroad felt as likely as Harry running a marathon.

“I think it’s a splendid idea,” Mr. Tomlinson said. “I think it would be marvelous to get Louis out and about. You know it can’t have been good for him staring at the four walls day in and day out.”

“We have tried to get him out, Mark.” Mrs. Tomlinson said. “It’s not as if we’ve left him in there to rot. I’ve tried again and again.”

“I know that, darling, but we haven’t been terribly successful, have we? If Harry here can think up things that Louis is prepared to try, then that can only be a good thing, surely?”

“Yes, well, “prepared to try” being the operative phrase.”

“It’s just an idea,” Harry said. He felt suddenly irritated. He could see what she was thinking. “If you don’t want me to do it…”

“...you’ll leave?” She looked straight at him.

Harry didn’t look away. She didn’t frighten him any more. Because he knew now she was no better than him. She was a woman who could sit back and let her son die right in front of her.

“Yes, I probably will.”

“So it’s blackmail.”

“Lottie!”

“Well, let’s not beat around the bush here, Daddy.”

Harry sat up a little straighter. “No. Not blackmail. It’s about what I’m prepared to be part of. I can’t sit by and just quietly wait out the time until...Louis...well..” his voice tailed off.

They all stared at their cups of tea.

“Like I said,” Mr. Tomlinson said firmly. “I think it’s a very good idea. If you can get Louis to agree to it, I can’t see that there’s any harm at all. I’d love the idea of him going on holiday. Just...just let us know what you need us to do.”

“I’ve got an idea.” Mrs. Tomlinson put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Perhaps you could go on holiday with them, Lottie.”’

“Fine by me,” Harry said. It was. Because his chances of getting Louis away on holiday were about the same as him competing on a game show.

Lottie shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I can’t. You know I start my new job in two weeks. I won’t be able to come over to England again for a bit once I’ve started.”

“You’re going back to America?”

“Don’t sound so surprised. I did tell you this was just a visit.”

“I just thought that...given...given recent events, you might want to stay here a bit longer.” Johannah Tomlinson stared at her daughter in a way she never stared at Louis, no matter how rude he was to her.

“It’s a really good job, Mum. It’s the one I’ve been working towards for the last two years.” She glanced over at her father. “I can’t put my whole life on hold just because of Louis’ mental state.

There was a long silence.

“This isn’t fair. If it was me in the chair, would you have asked Louis to put all his plans on hold?”

Mrs. Tomlinson didn’t look at her daughter. Harry glanced down at his list, reading and rereading the first paragraph.

“I have a life too, you know.” It came out like a protest.

“Let’s discuss this some other time.” Mr. Tomlinson’s hand landed on his daughter’s shoulder and squeezed it gently.

“Yes, let’s.” Mrs. Tomlinson began to shuffle the papers in front of her. “Right, then. I propose we do it like this. I want to know everything you are planning,” she said, looking up at Harry. “I want to do the costings and, if possible, I’d like a schedule so that I can try and plan some time off to come along with you. I have some unused holiday entitlement left that I can –”

“No.”

They all turned to look at Mr. Tomlinson. He was stroking the dog’s head and his expression was gentle, but his voice was firm. “No. I don’t think you should go, Jay. Louis should be allowed to do this by himself.”

“Louis can’t do it by himself, Mark. There is an awful lot that needs to be considered when Louis goes anywhere. It’s complicated. I don’t think we can really leave it to –”

“No, darling,” he repeated. “Niall can help, and Harry can manage just fine.”

“But –”

“Louis needs to be allowed to feel like a man. That is not going to be possible if his mother – or his sister, for that matter – is always on hand.”

Harry felt briefly sorry for Mrs. Tomlinson then. She still wore that haughty look of hers, but Harry could see underneath that she seemed a little lost, as if she couldn’t quite understand what her husband was doing.

“I’ll make sure he’s safe,” Harry said. “And I will let you know everything we’re planning on doing, well in advance.”

Her jaw was so rigid that a little muscle was visible just underneath her cheekbone. Harry wondered if she actually hated him then.

“I want Louis to want to live too," Harry said, finally.

“We do understand that,” Mr. Tomlinson said. “And we do appreciate your determination. And discretion.” Harry wondered whether that word was in relation to Louis, or something else entirely, and then he stood up and he realized that it was his signal to leave. Lottie and her mother still sat on the sofa, saying nothing. Harry got the feeling there was going to be a whole lot more conversation once he was out of the room.

“Right, then,” he said. “I’ll draw you up the paperwork as soon as I’ve worked it all out in my head. It will be soon. We haven’t much…”

Mr. Tomlinson patted Harry’s shoulder.

“I know. Just let us know what you come up with,”he said.

****

Gemma was blowing on her hands, her feet moving involuntarily up and down, as if marching on the spot. She was wearing Harry's dark green beret, which, annoyingly, looked much better on her than it did on him. She leaned over and pointed at the list she had just pulled from her pocket, and handed it to him.

“You’re probably going to have to scratch number three, or at least put that off until it gets warmer.”

Harry checked the list. “Paraplegic basketball? I’m not even sure if he likes basketball.”

“That’s not the point. Bloody hell, it’s cold up here.” She pulled the beret lower over her ears. “The point is, it will give him a chance to see what’s possible. He can see that there are other people just as badly off as him who are doing sports and things.”

“I’m not sure. He can barely lift a cup. I think these people must be a little different . I can’t see that you could throw a ball without the use of your arms.”

“You’re missing the point. He doesn’t have to actually do anything, but it’s about widening his horizons, right? We’re letting him see what other handicapped people are doing.”

“If you say so.”

A low murmur rose in the crowd. The runners had been sighted, some distance away. If Harry went on to his tiptoes, he could just make them out, probably two miles away, down in the valley, a small block of bobbing white dots forcing their way through the cold along a damp, grey road. He glanced at his watch. They had been standing there on the brow of the aptly named Windy Hill for almost forty minutes, and he could no longer feel his feet.

“I’ve looked up what’s local and, if you didn’t want to drive too far, there’s a match at the sports center in a couple of weeks. He could even have a bet on the result.”

“Betting?”

“That way he could get a bit involved without even having to play. Oh look, there they are. How long do you think they’ll take to get to us?”

They stood by the finish. Above their heads a banner announcing the ‘Spring Triathlon Finish Line’ flapped wanly in the stiff breeze.

“Dunno. Twenty minutes? Longer? I’ve got an emergency Snickers if you want to share.” Harry reached into his pocket. It was impossible to stop the list flapping with only one hand. “So what else did you come up with?”

“You said you wanted to go further away, right?” She pointed at his fingers. “You’ve given yourself the bigger bit.”

“Take this bit then. I think the family think I’m free-loading.”

“What, because you want to take him on a few crummy days out? Jesus. They should be grateful someone’s making the effort. It’s not like they are.”

Gemma took the other piece of Snickers. “Anyway. Number five, I think it is. There’s a computer course that he could do. They put a thing on their head with, like, a stick on it, and they nod their head to touch the keyboard. There are loads of groups online. He could make lots of new friends that way. It would mean he doesn’t always have to actually leave the house. I even spoke to a couple on the chatrooms. They seemed nice. Quite –” she shrugged “-normal.”

They ate their Snickers halves in silence, watching as the group of miserable-looking runners drew closer. Harry couldn’t see Nick. He never could. He had the kind of face that became instantly invisible in crowds.

Gems pointed at the bit of paper.

“Anyway, head for the cultural section. There’s a concert specially for people with disabilities here. You said he’s cultured, right? Well, he could just sit there and be transported by the music. That’s meant to take you out of yourself, right? Derek with the mustache, at work, told me about it. He said it can get noisy because of the really disabled people who yell a bit, but I’m sure he’d still enjoy it.”

Harry wrinkled his nose. “I don’t know, Gems –”

“You’re just frightened because I said “culture”. You only have to sit there with him. And not rustle your crisp packet. Or, if you fancied something a bit saucier…” She grinned at him. “There’s a strip club. You could take him to London for that.”

“Take my employer to watch a stripper?”

“Well, you say you do everything else for him – all the cleaning and feeding and stuff. I can’t see why you wouldn’t just sit by him while he gets a stiffy.”

“Gemma!”

“Well, he must miss it. You could even buy him a lap dance.”

Several people around them in the crowd swiveled their heads. His sister was laughing. She could talk about sex like that. Like it was some kind of recreational activity. Like it didn’t matter.

“And then on the other side, there are the bigger trips. Don’t know what you fancied, but you could do wine tasting in the Loire...that’s not too far for starters.”

“Can paraplegics get drunk?”

“I don’t know. Ask him.”

Harry frowned at the list. “So...I’ll go back and tell the Tomlinson’s that I’m going to get their suicidal paraplegic son drunk, spend their money on strippers and lap dancers, and then trundle him off to the Disability Olympics –”

Gemma snatched the list back from him. “Well, I don’t see you coming up with anything more bloody inspirational.”

“I just thought...I don’t know.” He rubbed at his nose. “I’m feeling a bit daunted, to be honest. I have trouble even persuading him to go into the garden.”

“Well, that’s hardly the attitude, is it? Oh, look. Here they come. We’d better smile.”

They pushed their way through to the front of the crowd and began to cheer. It was quite hard coming up with the required amount of motivating noise when you could barely move your lips with cold.

Harry saw Nick then, his head down in a sea of straining bodies, his face glistening with sweat, every sinew of his neck stretched and his face anguished as if he were enduring some kind of torture. That same face would be completely illuminated as soon as he crossed the finish, as if it were only by plumbing some personal depths that he could achieve a high. He didn’t see Harry.

“Go, Nick!’ he yelled, weakly.

And he flashed by, towards the finishing line.

Gemma didn’t talk to Harry for two days after he failed to show the required enthusiasm for her ‘To Do’ list. His parents didn’t notice; they were just overjoyed to hear that he had decided not to leave his job. Management had called a series of meetings at the furniture factory for the end of that week, and Robin was convinced that he would be among those made redundant. Nobody had yet survived the cull over the age of forty.

“We’re very grateful for your housekeeping, love,” Anne said, so often that it made Harry feel a bit uncomfortable.

It was a funny week. Gemma began packing for her course, and each day Harry had to sneak upstairs to go through the bags she had already packed to see which of his possessions she planned to take with her. Most of his clothes were safe, but so far he had recovered a hairdryer, his fake Prada sunglasses and his favorite bag with the frogs on it. If Harry confronted her over any of it, she would just shrug and say, “Well, you never use it,” as if that were entirely the point.

That was Gemma all over. She felt entitled. Even though Violet had come along, she had never quite lost that sense of being the baby of the family – the deep-rooted feeling that the whole world actually did revolve around her. When they had been little and she had thrown a huge strop because she wanted something of his, Anne would plead with him to ‘just let her have it’, if only for some peace in the house. Nearly twenty years on, nothing had really changed. They had to babysit Vi so that Gemma could still go out, feed her so that Gemma didn’t have to worry, buy her extra-nice presents at birthdays and Christmas ‘because Violet means she often goes without’. Well, she could go without his bloody frog bag. Harry stuck a note on his door which read: ‘My stuff is MINE. GO AWAY.’ Gemma ripped it off and told Mum that he was the biggest child she had ever met and that Vi had more maturity in her little finger than Harry did.

But it got him thinking. One evening, after Gemma had gone out to her night class, Harry sat in the kitchen while Anne sorted Robin’s shirts ready for ironing.

“Mum…”

“Yes, love”’

“Do you think I could move into Gemma’s room once she’s gone?”

Anne paused, a half-folded shirt pressed to her chest. “I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“I mean, if she and Vi are not going to be here, it’s only fair that I should be allowed a proper-sized bedroom. It seems silly, it sitting empty, if they’re going off to college.”

Anne nodded, and placed the shirt carefully in the laundry basket. “I suppose you’re right.”

“And by rights, that room should have been mine, what with me being the elder and all. It’s only because she had Violet that she got it at all.”

Anne could see the sense in it. “That’s true. I’ll talk to Gemma about it”’ she said.

Harry supposed with hindsight it would have been a good idea to mention it to his sister first.

****

Three hours later she came bursting into the living room with a face like thunder.

“Would you jump in my grave so quickly?”

Grandfather jerked awake in his chair, his hand reflexively clasped to his chest.

Harry looked up from the television. “What are you talking about?”

“Where are me and Vi supposed to go at weekends? We can’t both fit in the box room. There’s not even enough room in there for two beds.”

“Exactly. And I’ve been stuck in there for five years.” The knowledge that Harry was ever so slightly in the wrong made him sound pricklier than he had intended.

“You can’t take my room. It’s not fair.”

“You’re not even going to be in it!”

“But I need it! There’s no way me and Vi can fit in the box room. Dad, tell him!”

Robin’s chin descended to somewhere deep in his collar, his arms folded across his chest. He hated it when they fought, and tended to leave it to Anne to sort out. “Turn it down a bit, guys” he said.

Grandfather  shook his head, as if they were all incomprehensible to him. Grandfather shook his head at an awful lot these days.

“I don’t believe you. No wonder you were so keen to help me leave.”

“What? So you begging me to keep my job so that I can help you out financially is now part of my sinister plan, is it?”

“You’re so two-faced.”

“Gemma, calm down." Anne appeared in the doorway, her rubber gloves dripping foamy water on to the living-room carpet. “We can talk about this calmly. I don’t want you getting Grandfather all wound up.”

Gemma’s face had gone blotchy, the way it did when she was small and she didn’t get what she wanted. “He actually wants me to go. That’s what this is. He can’t wait for me to go, because he’s jealous that I’m actually doing something with my life. So he just wants to make it difficult for me to come home again.”

“There’s no guarantee you’re even going to be coming home at the weekends,” Harry yelled, stung. “I need a bedroom, not a cupboard, and you’ve had the best room the whole time, just because you were dumb enough to get pregnant!”

“Harry!” said Anne.

“Yes, well, if you weren’t so thick that you can’t even get a proper job, you could have got your own bloody place. You’re old enough. Or what’s the matter? You’ve finally figured out that Nick is never going to ask you?”

“That’s it!” Robin’s roar broke into the silence. “I’ve heard enough! Gemma, go into the kitchen. Harry, sit down and shut up. I’ve got enough stress in my life without having to listen to you caterwauling at each other.”

“If you think I’m helping you now with your stupid list, you’ve got another thing coming,” Gemma hissed at him, as Anne manhandled her out of the door.

“Good. I didn’t want your help anyway, freeloader,” Harry said, and then ducked as Robin threw a copy of the Radio Times at his head.

On Saturday morning Harry went to the library. He thought he probably hadn’t been in there since he was at school – quite possibly out of fear that they would remember the Harry Potter he had lost in Year 7, and that a clammy, official hand would reach out as he passed through its Victorian pillared doors, demanding £3,853 in fines.

It wasn’t what he remembered. Half the books seemed to have been replaced by CDs and DVDs, great bookshelves full of audio books, and even stands of greetings cards. And it was not silent. The sound of singing and clapping filtered through from the children’s book corner, where some kind of mother and baby group was in full swing. People read magazines and chatted quietly. The section where old men used to fall asleep over the free newspapers had disappeared, replaced by a large oval table with computers dotted around the perimeter. Harry sat down gingerly at one of these, hoping that nobody was watching. Computers, like books, were his sister’s thing. Luckily, they seemed to have anticipated the sheer terror felt by people like him. A librarian stopped by his table, and handed him a card and a laminated sheet with instructions on it. She didn’t stand over his shoulder, just murmured that she would be at the desk if he needed any further help, and then it was just Harry and a chair with a wonky castor and the blank screen.

The only computer Harry had any contact with in years was Nick’s. He only really used it to download fitness plans, or to order sports technique books from Amazon. If there is other stuff he does on there, Harry didn’t really want to know about it. But he followed the librarian’s instructions, double-checking every stage as he completed it. And, astonishingly, it worked. It didn’t just work, but it was easy.

Four hours later Harry had the beginnings of a list.

And nobody mentioned the Harry Potter. Mind you, that was probably because he had used his sister's library card.

On the way home Harry nipped in to the store and bought a calendar. It wasn’t one of the month-to-view kind, the ones you flip over to reveal a fresh picture of Justin Timberlake or mountain ponies. It was a wall calendar – the sort you might find in an office, with staff holiday entitlement marked on it in permanent pen. He bought it with the brisk efficiency of someone who liked nothing better than to immerse himself in administrative tasks.

In his little room at home, he opened it out, pinned it carefully to the back of his door and marked the date when he had started at the Tomlinson's, way back at the beginning of February. Then he counted forward, and marked the date – 12 August – now barely four months ahead. Harry took a step back and stared at it for a while, trying to make the little black ring bear some of the weight of what it heralded. And as he stared, he began to realize what he was taking on.

Harry would have to fill those little white rectangles with a lifetime of things that could generate happiness, contentment, satisfaction or pleasure. He would have to fill them with every good experience he could summon up for a man whose powerless arms and legs meant he could no longer make them happen by himself. He had just under four months’ worth of printed rectangles to pack out with days out, trips away, visitors, lunches and concerts. He had to come up with all the practical ways to make them happen, and do enough research to make sure that they didn’t fail.

And then he had to convince Louis to actually do them.

Harry stared at his calendar, the pen stilled in his hand. This little patch of laminated paper suddenly bore a whole heap of responsibility.

Harry had a hundred and seventeen days in which to convince Louis Tomlinson that he had a reason to live.

Chapter Text

There are places where the changing seasons are marked by migrating birds, or the ebb and flow of tides. Here, in their little town, it was the return of the tourists. At first, a tentative trickle, stepping off trains or out of cars in brightly colored waterproof coats, clutching their guidebooks and National Trust membership; then, as the air warmed, and the season crept forwards, disgorged alongside the belch and hiss of their coaches, clogging up the high street, Americans, Japanese, and packs of foreign schoolchildren were dotted around the perimeter of the castle.

In the winter months little stayed open. The wealthier shop owners took advantage of the long bleak months to disappear to holiday homes abroad, while the more determined hosted Christmas events, capitalizing on occasional carol concerts in the grounds, or festive craft fairs. But then as the temperatures slid higher, the castle car parks would become studded with vehicles, the local pubs chalk up an increase in requests for a plowman's lunch and, within a few sunny Sundays, they had morphed again from being a sleepy market town into a traditional English tourist destination.

Harry walked up the hill, dodging this season’s hovering early few as they clutched their neoprene bags and well-thumbed tourist guides, their cameras already poised to capture mementos of the castle in spring. He smiled at a few, paused to take photographs of others with proffered cameras. Some locals complained about the tourist season – the traffic jams, the overwhelmed public toilets. But Harry didn’t. He liked the breath of foreign air, the close-up glimpses of lives far removed from his own. He liked to hear the accents and work out where their owners came from, to study the clothes of people who had never seen a Next catalog or bought a five-pack of knickers at Marks and Spencer’s.

“You look cheerful,” Louis said, as he dropped his bag in the hallway. Louis said it as if it were almost an affront.

“That’s because it’s today.”

“What is?”


“Our outing. We’re taking Niall to see the horse racing.”


Louis and Niall looked at each other. Harry almost laughed. He had been so relieved at the sight of the weather; once he saw the sun, he knew everything was going to be alright.

“Horse racing?”

“Yup. Flat racing at –” Harry pulled his notepad from his pocket “– Longfield. If we leave now we can be there in time for the third race. And I have five pounds each way on Man Oh Man, so we’d better get a move on.”


“Horse racing.”


“Yes. Niall’s never been.”

In honor of the occasion Harry was wearing his blue quilted slacks and white top, with the scarf with horse bits around the edge knotted at his neck. Complete with a pair of leather riding boots.

Louis studied Harry carefully, then reversed his chair and swerved so that he could better see his nurse. “This is a long-held desire of yours, is it, Niall.”


Harry gave Niall a warning glare.

“Yessss” he said, and broke out a smile. “Yes, it is. Let’s head for the gee-gees.”


Harry had primed him, of course. He had rung him on Friday and asked him which day he could borrow him for. The Tomlinson’s had agreed to pay his extra hours (Louis’ sister had left for America and Harry thinks they wanted to be sure that someone ‘sensible’ was going to accompany him) but Harry hadn’t been sure until Sunday what it actually was they were going to do. This seemed the ideal start – a nice day out, less than half an hour’s drive away.

“And what if I say I don’t want to go?”


“Then you owe me forty pounds,” Harry said.

“Forty pounds? How do you work that out”’

“My winnings. Five pounds each way at eight to one.” Harry shrugged. “Man Oh Man’s a sure thing.”


Harry seemed to have got him off balance.

Niall clapped his hands on to his knees. “Sounds great. Nice day for it too,” he said. “You want me to pack some lunch?”


“Nah,” Harry said. “There’s a nice restaurant. When my horse comes in, lunch is on me.”


“You’ve been racing often, then?” Louis said.

And then before he could say anything else, they had bundled him into his coat and Harry ran outside to reverse the car.

Harry had it all planned, you see. They would arrive at the race track on a beautiful sunny day. There would be burnished, stick-legged thoroughbreds, their jockeys in billowing bright silks, careening past. Perhaps a brass band or two. The stands would be full of cheering people, and they would find a space from which to wave their winning betting slips. Louis’ competitive streak would kick in and he would be unable to resist calculating the odds and making sure he won more than either Niall or Harry. He had worked it all out. And then, when they had had enough of watching the horses, they would go to the well-reviewed racecourse restaurant and have a slap-up meal.

Harry should have listened to his father. “Want to know the true definition of the triumph of hope over experience?” he would say. “Plan a fun family day out.”


It started with the car park. They drove there without incident, Harry now a little more confident that he wasn’t going to tip Louis over if he went faster than 15 mph. Harry had looked up the directions at the library, and kept up a cheerful banter almost the whole way there, commenting on the beautiful blue sky, the countryside, the lack of traffic. There were no queues to enter the race track, which was, admittedly, a little less grand than he had expected, and the car park was clearly marked.

But nobody had warned him it was on grass, and grass that had been driven over for much of a wet winter at that. They backed into a space (not hard, as it was only half full) and almost as soon as the ramp was down Niall looked worried.

“It’s too soft,” he said. “He’s going to sink.”


Harry glanced over at the stands. “Surely, if we can get him on to that pathway we’ll be okay?”


“It weighs a ton, this chair,” he said. “And that’s forty feet away.”


“Oh, come on. They must build these chairs to withstand a bit of soft ground.”


Harry backed Louis’ chair down carefully and then watched as the wheels sank several inches into the mud.

Louis said nothing. He looked uncomfortable, and had been silent for much of the half-hour drive. They stood beside him, fiddling with his controls. A breeze had picked up, and Louis’ cheeks grew pink.

“Come on,” I said. “We’ll do it manually. I’m sure we can manage to get there between us.”


They tilted Louis backwards. Harry took one handle and Niall took the other and they dragged the chair towards the path. It was slow progress, not least because Harry had to keep stopping because his boots grew thick with dirt. When they finally made it to the pathway, Louis’ blanket had half slipped off him and had somehow got caught up in his wheels, leaving one corner torn and muddy.

“Don’t worry,” Louis said, dryly. “It’s only cashmere.”


Harry ignored him. “Right. We’ve made it. Now for the fun bit.”


Ah yes. The fun bit. Who thought it would be a good idea for race track to have turnstiles? It was hardly as if they needed crowd control, surely? It’s not as if there were crowds of chanting racehorse fans, threatening riots if Charlie’s Darling didn’t make it back in third, rioting stable-girls who needed penning in and keeping out. They looked at the turnstile, and then back at Louis’ chair, and then Niall and Harry looked at each other.

Niall stepped over to the ticket office and explained their plight to the woman inside. She tilted her head to look at Louis, then pointed us towards the far end of the stand.

“The disabled entrance is over there,” she said.

She said disabled like someone entering a diction contest. It was a good 200 yards away. By the time they finally made it over there the blue skies had disappeared abruptly, replaced by a sudden squall. Naturally, Harry hadn’t brought an umbrella. He kept up a relentless, cheerful commentary about how funny this was and how ridiculous, and even to his ears he had begun to sound brittle and irritating.

“Styles,” said Louis finally. “Just chill out, okay? You’re being exhausting.”


They bought tickets for the stands, and then, almost faint with relief at finally having got there, Harry wheeled Louis out to a sheltered area just to the side of the main stand. While Niall sorted out Louis’ drink, Harry had some time to look at our fellow racegoers.

It was actually quite pleasant at the base of the stands, despite the occasional spit of rain. Above them, on a glass-fronted balcony, men in suits proffered champagne glasses to women in wedding outfits. They looked warm and cosy, and Harry suspected that was the Premier Area, listed next to some stratospheric price on the board in the ticket kiosk. They wore little badges on red thread, marking them out as special. He wondered briefly if it was possible to color our blue ones a different shade, but decided that being the only people with a wheelchair would probably make them a little conspicuous.

Beside them, dotted along the stands and clutching polystyrene cups of coffee and hip flasks, were men in tweed suits and women in smart padded coats. They looked a little more everyday, and their little badges were blue too. Harry suspected that many of them were trainers and grooms, or horsey people of some sort. Down at the front, by little whiteboards, stood the tic-tac men, their arms waving in some strange semaphore that he couldn’t understand. They scribbled up new combinations of figures, and scrubbed them out again with the base of their sleeves.

And then, like some parody of a class system, around the parade ring stood a group of men in striped polo shirts, who clutched beer cans and who seemed to be on some kind of outing. Their shaved heads suggested some kind of military service. Periodically they would break out into song, or begin some noisy, physical altercation, ramming each other with blunt heads or wrapping their arms around each other’s necks. As Harry passed to go to the loo, one catcalled him in his form fitting pants and he flipped them the finger behind his back. And then they lost interest as seven or eight horses began skirting around each other, eased into the stands with workmanlike skill, all preparing for the next race.

And then Harry jumped as around them the small crowd roared into life and the horses bolted from the starting gate. He stood and watched them go, suddenly transfixed, unable to suppress a flurry of excitement at the tails suddenly streaming out behind them, the frantic efforts of the brightly colored men atop them, all jostling for position. When the winner crossed the finishing line it was almost impossible not to cheer.

They watched the Sisterwood Cup, and then the Maiden Stakes, and Niall won six pounds on a small each-way bet. Louis declined to bet. He watched each race, but he was silent, his head retracted into the high collar of his jacket. Harry thought perhaps he had been indoors so long that it was bound to all feel a little weird for him, and he decided he was simply not going to acknowledge it.

“I think that’s your race, the Hempworth Cup,” Niall said, glancing up at the screen. “Who did you say your money was on? Man Oh Man?” He grinned. “I never knew how much more fun betting is when you’re actually watching the horses.”


“You know, I didn’t tell you this, but I’ve never been racing before either,” Harry told Niall.


“You’re kidding me.”


“I’ve never even been on a horse. My mum is terrified of them. Wouldn’t even take me to the stables.”


“My sister’s got two, just outside Christchurch. She treats them like babies. All her money goes on them.” He shrugged. “And she isn’t even going to eat them at the end of it.”


Louis’ voice filtered up towards us. “So how many races will it take to ensure we’ve fulfilled your long-held ambitions?”


“Don’t be grumpy. They say you should try everything once,” Harry said.

“I think horse racing falls into the “except incest and morris dancing” category.”


“You’re the one always telling me to widen my horizons. You’re loving it,” he said. “And don’t pretend otherwise.”


And then they were off. Man Oh Man was in purple silks with a yellow diamond. Harry watched him flatten out around the white rail, the horse’s head extended, the jockey’s legs pumping, arms flailing backwards and forwards up the horse’s neck.

“Go on, mate!” Niall had got into it, despite himself. His fists were clenched, his eyes fixed on the blurred group of animals speeding around the far side of the track.

“Go on, Man Oh Man!” Harry yelled. “We’ve got a steak dinner riding on you!” Harry watched him vainly trying to make ground, his nostrils dilated, his ears back against his head. His own heart lurched into his mouth. And then, as they reached the final furlong, his yelling began to die away. “All right, a coffee,” Harry said. “I’ll settle for a coffee?”


Around him the stands had erupted into shouting and screaming. A girl was bouncing up and down two seats along from them, her voice hoarse with screeching. Harry found he was bouncing on his toes. And then he looked down and saw that Louis’ eyes were closed, a faint furrow separating his brows. He tore his attention from the track, and knelt down.

“Are you okay, Louis?” He said, moving close to him. “Do you need something?” Harry had to yell to make himself heard over the shouts.

“Scotch,” he said. “Large one.”


Harry stared at him, and he lifted his blue eyes to meet green. He looked utterly fed up.

“Let’s get some lunch,” Harry said to Niall.


Man Oh Man, that four-legged impostor, flashed past the finishing line a miserable sixth. There was another cheer, and the announcer’s voice came over the tannoy: Ladies and gentlemen, an emphatic win there from Love Be A Lady, there in first place, followed by Winter Sun, and Barney Rubble two lengths behind in third place.

Harry pushed Louis’ chair through the oblivious groups of people, deliberately bashing into heels when they failed to react to his second request.

They were just at the lift when Harry heard Louis’ voice. “So, Styles, does this mean you owe me forty pounds?”


The restaurant had been refurbished, the food now under the auspices of a television chef whose face appeared on posters around the race track. Harry had looked up the menu beforehand.

“The signature dish is duck in orange sauce,” he told the two men. “It’s Seventies retro, apparently.”


“Like your outfit,” said Louis.


Out of the cold, and away from the crowds, he appeared to have cheered up a little. He had begun to look around him, instead of retreating back into his solitary world. Harry’s stomach began to rumble, already anticipating a good, hot lunch. Louis’ mother had given them eighty pounds as a ‘float’. Harry had decided he would pay for his food himself, and show her the receipt, and as a result had no fears at all that he was going to order himself whatever he fancied on the menu – retro roast duck, or otherwise.

“You like going out to eat, Niall?” Harry asked.


“I'm more of a beer and takeaway man myself,” Niall said. “Happy to come today, though.”


“When did you last go out for a meal, Louis?” Harry said.

Louis and Niall looked at each other. “Not while I’ve been there,” Niall said.

“Strangely, I’m not overly fond of being spoon-fed in front of strangers.”


“Then we’ll get a table where we can face you away from the room,” Harry had anticipated this one. “And if there are any celebrities there, that will be your loss.”


“Because celebrities are thick on the ground at a muddy minor racecourse in March.”


“You’re not going to spoil this for me, Louis Tomlinson”  Harry said, as the lift doors opened. “The last time I ate out anywhere was a birthday party for four-year-olds at Hailsbury’s only indoor bowling alley, and there wasn’t a thing there that wasn’t covered in batter. Including the children.”

They wheeled our way along the carpeted corridor. The restaurant ran along one side, behind a glass wall, and Harry could see there were plenty of free tables. His stomach began to rumble in anticipation.

“Hello,” he said, stepping up to the reception area. “I’d like a table for three, please.” Please don’t look at Louis he told the woman silently. Don’t make him feel awkward. It’s important that he enjoys this.

“Badge, please,” she said.

“Sorry?

“Your Premier Area badge?”

Harry looked at her blankly.

“This restaurant is for Premier badge holders only.”

Harry glanced behind him at Louis and Niall. They couldn’t hear him, but stood, expectantly, waiting. Niall was helping remove Louis’ coat.


“Um...I didn’t know we couldn’t eat anywhere we wanted. We have the blue badges.”

She smiled. “Sorry,” she said. “Only Premier badge holders. It does say so on all our promotional material.”

Harry took a deep breath. “Okay. Are there any other restaurants?”

“I’m afraid the Weighing Room, our relaxed dining area, is being refurbished right now, but there are stalls along the stands where you can get something to eat.” She saw Harry’s face fall, and added, “The Pig In A Poke is pretty good. You get a hog roast in a bun. They do apple sauce too.”

“A stall.”


“Yes.”

Harry leaned in towards her. “Please,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, and my friend there isn’t good in the cold. Is there any way at all that we could get a table in here? We just really need to get him into the warm. It’s really important that he has a good day.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I’m really sorry,” she said. “It’s more than my job’s worth to override the rules. But there is a disabled seating area downstairs that you can shut the doors on. You can’t see the course from there, but it’s quite snug. It’s got heaters and everything. You could eat in there.”

Harry stared at her. He could feel the tension creeping upwards from his shins. He thought he might have gone completely rigid.

Harry studied her name badge. “Sharon,” he said. “You haven’t even begun to fill your tables. Surely it would be better to have more people eating than leaving half these tables empty? Just because of some arcane class-based regulation in a rule book?”

Her smile glinted under the recessed lighting. “Sir, I have explained the situation to you. If we relaxed the rules for you, we’d have to do it for everyone.”

“But it makes no sense,” he said. “It’s a wet Monday lunchtime. You have empty tables. We want to buy a meal. A properly expensive meal, with napkins and everything. We don’t want to eat pork rolls and sit in a cloakroom with no view, no matter how snug.”

Other diners had begun to turn in their seats, curious about the altercation by the door. Harry could see Louis looking embarrassed now. He and Niall had worked out something was going wrong.

“Then I’m afraid you should have bought a Premier Area badge.”

“Okay.” He reached for his backpack, and began to rifle through, searching for his wallet. “How much is a Premier Area badge?” He was going to get Louis his posh lunch in a restaurant. “Here. How much? Another ten? Twenty?” he thrust a fistful of notes at her.

She looked down at his hand. “I’m sorry, Sir, we don’t sell badges here. This is a restaurant. You’ll have to go back to the ticket office.”

“The one that’s all the way over the other side of the race track.”

“Yes.”

They stared at each other.

Louis’ voice broke in. “Harry, let’s go.”

Harry felt his eyes suddenly brim with tears. “No,” he said. “This is ridiculous. We’ve come all this way. You stay here and I’ll go and get us all Premier Area badges. And then we will have our meal.”


“Harry, I’m not hungry.”

“We’ll be fine once we’ve eaten. We can watch the horses and everything. It will be fine.”

Niall stepped forward and laid a hand on his arm. “Harry, I think Louis really just wants to go home.”

They were now the focus of the whole restaurant. The gaze of the diners swept over them and traveled past Harry to Louis, where they clouded with faint pity or distaste. Harry felt that for him. He felt like an utter failure. He looked up at the woman, who did at least have the grace to look slightly embarrassed now that Louis had actually spoken.

“Well, thank you,” Harry said to her. “Thanks for being so fucking accommodating.”

“Styles –” Louis’ voice carried a warning.

“So glad that you are so flexible. I’ll certainly recommend you to everyone I know.”

“Harry!”

He grabbed his bag and threw it over one shoulder.

They took the lift and descended in silence. Harry spent most of the short lift journey trying to stop his hands from shaking with rage.

When they reached the bottom concourse, Niall murmured, “I think we should probably get something from one of these stalls, you know. It’s been a few hours now since we ate anything.” He glanced down at Louis, so Harry knew who it was he was really referring to.

“Fine,” Harry said, brightly. He took a little breath. “I love a bit of crackling. Let’s go to the old hog roast.”

They ordered three buns with pork, crackling and apple sauce, and sheltered under the striped awning while they ate them. Harry sat down on a small dustbin, so that he could be at the same level as Louis, and helped him to manageable bites of meat, shredding it with his fingers where necessary. The two women who served behind the counter pretended not to look at them. Harry could see them monitoring Louis out of the corners of their eyes, periodically muttering to each other when they thought they weren’t looking. Poor man, Harry could practically hear them saying. What a terrible way to live. Harry gave them a hard stare, daring them to look at Louis like that. He tried not to think too hard about what Louis must be feeling.

The rain had stopped, but the windswept course felt suddenly bleak, it's brown and green surface littered with discarded betting slips, its horizon flat and empty. The car park had thinned out with the rain, and in the distance they could just hear the distorted sound of the tannoy as some other race thundered past.

“I think maybe we should head back,” Niall said, wiping his mouth. “I mean, it was nice and all, but best to miss the traffic, eh?”

“Fine,” Harry said. He screwed up his paper napkin, and threw it into the bin. Louis waved away the last third of his roll.

“Didn’t he like it?” said the woman, as Niall began to wheel him away across the grass

“I don’t know. Perhaps he would have liked it better if it hadn’t come with a side order of rubberneck,” Harry said, and chucked the remnants hard into the bin.


But getting to the car and back up the ramp was easier said than done. In the few hours that they had spent at the racecourse, the arrivals and departures meant that the car park had turned into a sea of mud. Even with Niall’s impressive might, and Harry’s best shoulder, they couldn’t get the chair even halfway across the grass to the car. Louis’ wheels skidded and whined, unable to get the purchase to make it up that last couple of inches. Harry and Niall’s feet slithered in the mud, which worked its way up the sides of their shoes.

“It’s not going to happen,” said Louis.

Harry had refused to listen to him. He couldn’t bear the idea that this was how their day was going to end.

“I think we’re going to need some help,” Niall said. “I can’t even get the chair back on to the path. It’s stuck.”

Louis let out an audible sigh. He looked about as fed up as Harry had ever seen him.

“I could lift you into the front seat, Louis, if I tilt it back a little. And then Harry and I could see if we could get the chair in afterwards.”

Louis’ voice emerged through gritted teeth. “I am not ending today with a fireman’s lift.”

“Sorry, mate,” Niall said. “But H and I are not going to manage this alone. Here, Harry, you’re prettier than I am. Go and collar a few extra pairs of arms, will you?”

Louis closed his eyes, set his jaw and Harry ran towards the stands.

Harry would not have believed so many people could turn down a cry for help when it involved a wheelchair stuck in mud, especially as the cry did come from a guy flashing his most endearing smile. Harry wasn’t usually good with strangers, but desperation made him fearless. He walked from group to group of racegoers in the grandstand, asking if they could just spare me a few minutes’ help. They looked at him and his clothes as if he were plotting some kind of trap.

“It’s for a man in a wheelchair,” he explained. “He’s a bit stuck.”

“We’re just waiting on the next race,” they said. Or, “Sorry.” Or, “It’ll have to wait till after the two thirty. We have money on this one.”

Harry even thought about collaring a jockey or two. But as he got close to the enclosure, he realized they were much too small.

By the time Harry got to the parade ring he was incandescent with suppressed rage. He suspected he was snarling at people then, not smiling. And there, finally, joy of joys, were the lads in striped polo shirts. The back of their shirts referred to ‘Marky’s Last Stand’ and they clutched cans of Pilsner and Tennent’s Extra. Their accents suggested they were from somewhere in the north-east, and Harry was pretty sure that they had not had any significant break from alcohol for the last twenty-four hours. They cheered as he approached, and he fought the urge to give them the finger again.

“Gissa smile, love. It’s Marky’s stag weekend,” one slurred, slamming a ham-sized hand on to Harry’s shoulder.

“It’s Monday.” he tried not to flinch as he peeled it off.

“You’re joking. Monday already?” He reeled backwards. “Well, you should give him a kiss, then.”

“Actually,” Harry said. “I’ve come over to ask you for help.”

“Ah’ll give you any help you need, love.” This was accompanied by a lascivious wink.

His mates swayed gently around him like aquatic plants.

“No, really. I need you to help my friend. Over in the car park.”

“Ah’m sorry, ah’m not sure ah’m in any fit state to help youse, pet.”

“Hey up. Next race is up, Marky. You got money on this? I think I’ve got money on this.”

They turned back towards the track, already losing interest. Harry looked over his shoulder at the car park, seeing the hunched figure of Louis, Niall pulling vainly at the handles of his chair. Harry pictured himself returning home to tell Louis’ parents that they had left Louis’ super-expensive chair in a car park. And then he saw the tattoo.

“He’s a soldier,” Harry said, loudly. “Ex-soldier.”

One by one they turned round.

“He was injured. In Iraq. All we wanted to do was get him a nice day out. But nobody will help us.” As he spoke the words, he  felt my eyes welling up with tears.

“A vet? You’re kidding us. Where is he?”

“In the car park. I’ve asked lots of people, but they just don’t want to help.”

It seemed to take a minute or two for them to digest what he’d said. But then they looked at each other in amazement.

“C’mon, lads. We’re not having that.” They swayed after him in a wayward trail. Harry could hear them exclaiming between themselves, muttering. “Bloody civilians...no idea what it’s like…”

When they reached them, Niall was standing by Louis, whose head had sunk deep into the collar of his coat with cold, even as Niall covered his shoulders with another blanket.

“These very nice gentlemen have offered to help us,” I said.

Niall was staring at the cans of lager. Harry had to admit that you’d have had to look quite hard to see a suit of armor in any of them.

“Where do youse want to get him to?” said one.

The others stood around Louis, nodding their hellos. One offered him a beer, apparently unable to grasp that Louis could not pick it up.

Niall motioned to the car. “Back in the car, ultimately. But to do that we need to get him over to the stand, and then reverse the car back to him.”

“You don’t need to do that”’ said one, clapping Niall on the back. “We can take him to your car, can’t we, lads?”

There was a chorus of agreement. They began to position themselves around Louis’ chair.

Harry shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know...that’s a long way for you to carry him,” he ventured. “And the chair’s very heavy.”

They were howlingly drunk. Some of them could barely hang on to their cans of drink. One thrust his can of Tennent’s into Harry’s hand.

“Don’t you worry, love. Anything for a fellow soldier, isn’t that right, lads?”

“We wouldn’t leave you there, mate. We never leave a man down, do we?”

Harry saw Niall’s face and shook his head furiously at his quizzical expression. Louis seemed unlikely to say anything. He just looked grim, and then, as the men clustered around his chair, and with a shout, hoisted it up between them, vaguely alarmed.

“What regiment, love?”

Harry tried to smile, trawling my memory for names. “Rifles…” I said. “Eleventh rifles.”

“I don’t know the eleventh rifles,” said another.

“It’s a new regiment,” Harry stuttered. “Top secret. Based in Iraq.”

Their trainers slid in the mud, and Harry felt my heart lurch. Louis’ chair was hoisted several inches off the ground, like some kind of sedan. Niall was running for Louis’ bag, unlocking the car ahead of them.

“Did those boys train over in Catterick?”

“That’s the one,” Harry said, and then changed the subject. “So – which one of you is getting married?”

They had exchanged numbers by the time Harry finally got rid of Marky and his mates. They had a whip-round, offering them almost forty pounds towards Louis’ rehabilitation fund, and only stopped insisting when he told them they would be happiest if they would have a drink on them instead.

“They were helpful, weren’t they?” Harry said, brightly, as he turned the ignition.

“The tall one dropped his entire beer down my right leg,” said Louis. “I smell like a brewery.”

“I don’t believe this,” said Niall, as Harry finally pulled out towards the main entrance. “Look. There’s a whole disabled parking section right there, by the stand. And it’s all on pavement.”

Louis didn’t say much of anything for the rest of the day. He bid Niall goodbye when they dropped him home, and then grew silent as Harry negotiated the road up to the castle, which had thinned out now the temperature had dropped again, and finally he parked up outside the annex.

Harry lowered Louis’ chair, got him inside, and made him a warm drink. He changed his shoes and trousers, put the beer-stained ones in the washing machine, and got the fire going so that he would warm up. Harry put the television on, and drew the curtains so that the room grew cozy around them – perhaps cozier for the time spent out in the cold air. But it was only when Harry sat in the living room with him, sipping his tea, that he realized he wasn’t talking – not out of exhaustion, or because he wanted to watch the television. He just wasn’t talking to Harry.

“Is... something the matter?” he asked,  when he failed to respond to my third comment about the local news.

“You tell me, Styles.”

“What?”

“Well, you know everything else there is to know about me. You tell me.”

Harry stared at him. “I’m sorry,” he said, finally. “I know today didn’t turn out quite like I planned. But it was just meant to be a nice outing. I actually thought you’d enjoy it.”

Harry didn’t add that Louis was being determinedly grumpy, that he had no idea what Harry had gone through just to get him to try to enjoy himself, that he hadn’t even tried to have a good time. Harry didn’t tell him that if he’d let him buy the stupid badges we might have had a nice lunch and all the other stuff might have been forgotten.

“That’s my point.”

“What?”

“Oh, you’re no different from the rest of them.”

“What does that mean?”

“‘If you’d bothered to ask me, Styles. If you’d bothered to consult me just once about this so-called fun outing of ours, I could have told you. I hate horses, and horse racing. Always have. But you didn’t bother to ask me. You decided what you thought you’d like me to do, and you went ahead and did it. You did what everyone else did. You decided for me.”

Harry swallowed.

“I didn’t mean to –”

“But you did.”

Louis turned his chair away from Harry and, after a couple more minutes of silence, he realized he had been dismissed.

Chapter Text

Harry could tell you the exact day he stopped being fearless.

It was almost seven years ago, in the last lazy, heat-slurred days of July, when the narrow streets around the castle were thick with tourists, and the air filled with the sound of their meandering footsteps and the chimes of the ever-present ice cream vans that lined the top of the hill.

His grandmother had died a month previously after a long illness, and that summer was veiled in a thin layer of sadness; it gently smothered everything they did, muting Harry and his sister’s tendencies to the dramatic, and cancelling their usual summer routines of brief holidays and days out. Anne stood most days at her washing-up bowl, her back rigid with the effort of trying to suppress her tears, while Robin disappeared to work each morning with a grimly determined expression, returning hours later shiny-faced from the heat and unable to speak before he had cracked open a beer. Gemma was home from her first year at university, her head already somewhere far from their small town. Harry was twenty and would meet Nick in less than three months. They were enjoying one of those rare summers of utter freedom – no financial responsibility, no debts, no time owing to anybody. Harry had a seasonal job and all the hours in the world to practice his singing and guitar, put on clothes that made Robin wince, and just generally work out who he  was.

He dressed normally, in those days. Or, he should say, he dressed like the other guys in town – short hair, neatly styled, indigo jeans, T-shirts form flattering enough to show off his muscles.

And Harry had ideas. Things he wanted to do. One of the boys he knew at school had taken a round-the-world trip and come back somehow removed and unknowable, like he wasn’t the same scuffed eleven-year-old who used to blow spit bubbles during double French. Harry had booked a cheap flight to Australia on a whim, and was trying to find someone who might come with him. He liked the exoticism his travels gave him, the unknown-ness. He had blown in with the soft breezes of a wider world, and it was weirdly seductive. Everyone here knew everything about him, after all. And with a sister like his, he was never allowed to forget any of it.

It was a Friday, and Harry had spent the day working as a car park attendant with a group of guys he had known at school, steering visitors to a craft fair held in the grounds of the castle. The whole day was punctuated with laughter, with fizzy drinks guzzled under a hot sun, the sky blue, light glinting off the battlements. Harry didn’t think there was a single tourist who didn’t smile at him that day. They were paid £30, and the organizers were so pleased with the turnout that they gave them an extra fiver each. They celebrated by getting drunk with some guys who had been working on the far car park by the visitor center. They were well spoken, sporting rugby shirts and floppy hair. One was called James, two of them were at university – Harry still can’t remember where – and they were working for holiday money too. They were flush with cash at the end of a whole week of stewarding, and when the money ran out they were happy to buy drinks. They spoke a different language; they talked of gap years and summers spent in South America, and the backpacker trail in Thailand and who was going to try for an internship abroad. While they listened, and drank, Harry remembers his sister stopping by the beer garden where they lay sprawled on the grass. She was wearing the world’s oldest hoodie and no make-up, and Harry had forgotten he was meant to be meeting her. He told her to tell Mum and Dad he’d be back sometime after he was thirty. For some reason Harry found this hysterically funny. She had lifted her eyebrows, and stalked off like he was the most irritating person ever born.

When the Red Lion closed, they all went and sat in the center of the castle maze. Someone managed to scramble over the gates and, after much colliding and giggling, they all found their  way to the middle and drank strong cider while someone passed around a joint. Harry remembers staring up at the stars, feeling himself disappear into their infinite depths, as the ground gently swayed and lurched around him like the deck of a huge ship. Someone was playing a guitar, and Harry had a pair of leather boots on which he kicked into the long grass and never went back for. He thought he probably ruled the universe.

It was about half an hour before Harry realized the other guys had gone.

His sister found him, there in the center of the maze, sometime later, long after the stars had been obscured by the night clouds. As he said, she’s pretty smart. Smarter than Harry, anyway.

Gemma’s the only person he ever knew who could find her way out of the maze safely.

****

“This will make you laugh. I’ve joined the library.”

Louis was over by his CD collection. He swiveled the chair round, and waited while Harry put his drink in his cup holder. “Really? What are you reading?”

“Oh, nothing sensible. You wouldn’t like it. Just boy-meets-girl stuff. But I’m enjoying it.”

“You were reading my Flannery O’Connor the other day.” He took a sip of his drink. “When I was ill.”

“The short stories? I can’t believe you noticed that.”

“I couldn’t help but notice. You left the book out on the side. I can’t pick it up.”

“Ah.”

“So don’t read rubbish. Take the O’Connor stories home. Read them instead.”

Harry was about to say no, and then he realized he didn’t really know why he was refusing. “All right. I’ll bring them back as soon as I’ve finished.”

“Put some music on for me, Styles?”

“What do you want?”

He told Harry, nodding at its rough location, and he flicked through until he found it.

“I have a friend who plays lead violin in the Albert Symphonia. He called to say he’s playing near here next week. This piece of music. Do you know it?”

“I don’t know anything about classical music. I mean, sometimes my dad accidentally tunes into Classic FM, but –”

“You’ve never been to a concert?”

“No.”

He looked genuinely shocked.

“Well, I did go to see Westlife once. But I’m not sure if that counts. It was my sister’s choice. Oh, and I was meant to go see Robbie Williams on my twenty-second birthday, but I got food poisoning.”

Louis gave Harry one of his looks – the kind of looks that suggest Harry may actually have been locked up in somebody’s cellar for several years.

“You should go. He’s offered me tickets. This will be really good. Take your mother.”

Harry laughed and shook his head. “I don’t think so. My mum doesn’t really go out. And it’s not my cup of tea.”

“Like films with subtitles weren’t your cup of tea?”

Harry frowned at him. “I’m not your project, Louis. This isn’t My Fair Lady.”

“Pygmalion.”

“What?”

“The play you’re referring to. It’s Pygmalion. My Fair Lady is just its bastard offspring.”

Harry glared at him. It didn’t work. He put the CD on. When Harry turned around Louis was still shaking his head.

“You’re the most terrible snob, Styles.”

“What? Me?”

“You cut yourself off from all sorts of experiences because you tell yourself you are “not that sort of person”

“But, I’m not.”

“How do you know? You’ve done nothing, been nowhere. How do you have the faintest idea what kind of person you are?”

How could someone like him have the slightest clue what it felt like to be Harry? He felt almost cross with him for willfully not getting it.

“Go on. Open your mind.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because I’d be uncomfortable. I feel like...I feel like they’d know.”

“Who? Know what?”

“Everyone else would know, that I didn’t belong.”

“How do you think I feel?”

They looked at each other.

“Harry, every single place I go to now people look at me like I don’t belong.”

They sat in silence as the music started. Louis’ father was on the telephone in his hall, and the sound of muffled laughter carried through it into the annex, as if from a long way away.

Harry stared at the CD cover. “I’ll go if you come with me.”

“But you won’t go on your own.”

“Not a chance.”

They sat there, while he digested this. “Jesus, you’re a pain in the arse.”

“So you keep telling me.”

Harry made no plans this time. He expected nothing. He was just quietly hopeful that, after the racing debacle, Louis was still prepared to leave the annex. His friend, the violinist, sent them the promised free tickets, with an information leaflet on the venue attached. It was forty minutes’ drive away. Harry did his homework, checked the location of the disabled parking, rang the venue beforehand to assess the best way to get Louis’ chair to his seat. They would seat them at the front, with Harry on a folding chair beside Louis.

“It’s actually the best place to be,” the woman in the box office said, cheerfully. “You somehow get more of an impact when you’re right in the pit near the orchestra. I’ve often been tempted to sit there myself.”

She even asked if Harry would like someone to meet them in the car park, to help them to their seats. Afraid that Louis would feel too conspicuous, he thanked her and said no.

As the evening approached, Harry don’t know who grew more nervous about it, Louis or Harry. He felt the failure of their last outing keenly, and Mrs. Tomlinson didn’t help, coming in and out of the annex fourteen times to confirm where and when it would be taking place and what exactly they would be doing.

Louis’ evening routine took some time, she said. She needed to ensure someone was there to help. Niall had other plans. Mr. Tomlinson was apparently out for the evening. “It’s an hour and a half minimum,” she said.

“And it’s incredibly tedious,” Louis said.

Harry realized he was looking for an excuse not to go. “I’ll do it,” Harry said. “If Louis tells me what to do. I don’t mind staying to help.” Harry said it almost before he realized what he was agreeing to.

“Well, that’s something for us both to look forward to,” Louis said grumpily, after his mother had left. “You get a good view of my backside, and I get a bed bath from someone who falls over at the sight of naked flesh.”

“I do not fall over at the sight of naked flesh.”

“Styles, I’ve never seen anyone more uncomfortable with a human body than you. You act like it’s something radioactive.”

“Let your mum do it, then,” Harry snapped back.

“Yes, because that makes the whole idea of going out so much more attractive.”

And then there was the wardrobe problem. Harry didn’t know what to wear.

He had worn the wrong thing to the races. How could he be sure he wouldn’t do so again? He asked Louis what would be best, and he looked at him as if I were mad. “The lights will be down,” he explained. “Nobody will be looking at you. They’ll be focused on the music.”

Harry brought four different outfits to work with him in the end, hauling them all on to the bus Robin’s ancient suit carrier. It was the only way he could convince himself to go at all.

Niall arrived for the teatime shift at 5.30 PM, and while he saw to Louis, Harry disappeared into the bathroom to get ready. First he put on what he thought of as his ‘artistic’ outfit, dark green slacks with a cream button up shirt, showing just the right amount of tattooed skin. He imagined the kind of people who went to concerts might be quite arty and flamboyant. Louis and Niall both stared at him as he entered the living room.

“No” said Louis, flatly.

“That looks like something my sister would wear,’ said Niall.

Harry could hear them both chuckling as he disappeared back into the bathroom.

The second outfit was a very fitted black pant and white shirt, stitched with white collar and cuffs, which Harry had made himself. It looked, he thought, both chic and Parisian.

“You look like you’re about to serve ice cream.” Louis said.

“Aw, mate, but you’d make a great maid,” Niall said, approvingly. “Feel free to wear that one in the daytime. Really.”

“You’ll be asking him to dust the skirting next.”

“It is a bit dusty, now you mention it.”

Harry discarded outfit number three – a pair of yellow wide-legged trousers – already anticipating Louis’ fisherman references, and instead put on his fourth option, a vintage black and white striped suit. He looked in the mirror and mussed up his hair, flipping one side over to create a small pouf. Buttoning one button on the jacket and securing the shirt button right at his neck, he stepped out of the bathroom to see a smiling Niall.

“Ka-pow,” said Niall, admiringly.

Louis’ eyes traveled up and down his form. It was only then that Harry realized he had changed into a shirt and suit jacket. Clean-shaven, and with his trimmed hair, he looked surprisingly handsome. Harry couldn’t help but smile at the sight of him. It wasn’t so much how he looked; it was the fact that he had made the effort.

“That’s the one,” Louis said. His voice was expressionless and oddly measured. And as Harry reached down to adjust his neckline, he said, “But lose the jacket.”

He was right. Harry had known it wasn’t quite right. He took it off, folded it carefully and laid it on the back of the chair.

“And the scarf.”

Harry’s hand shot to his neck. “The scarf? Why?”

“It doesn’t go. And you look like you’re trying to hide something behind it.”

“But I’m...well, I’m all sheer shirt and tattoos, otherwise.”

“So?” he shrugged. “Look, Styles, if you’re going to wear an outfit like that you need to wear it with confidence. You need to fill it mentally as well as physically.”

“Only you, Louis Tomlinson, could tell a guy how to wear a bloody suit.”

But he took the scarf off and unbuttoned a few of the top buttons at Louis’ chiding, showing off a bit of skin and ink.

Niall went to pack Louis’ bag. Harry was working out what he could add about how patronizing he was, when he turned and saw that Louis was still looking at him.

“You look great, Haz,” he said, quietly. “Really.”

With ordinary people – what Johnannah Tomlinson would probably call ‘working-class’ people – Harry had observed a few basic routines, as far as Louis was concerned. Most would stare. A few might smile sympathetically, express sympathy, or ask Harry in a kind of stage whisper what had happened. He was often tempted to respond, ‘Unfortunate falling-out with MI6,’ just to see their reaction, but he never did.

Here’s the thing about middle-class people. They pretend not to look, but they do. They were too polite to actually stare. Instead, they did this weird thing of catching sight of Louis in their field of vision and then determinedly not looking at him. Until he’d gone past, at which point their gaze would flicker towards him, even while they remained in conversation with someone else. They wouldn’t talk about him, though. Because that would be rude.

As they moved through the foyer of the Symphony Hall, where clusters of smart people stood with handbags and programs in one hand, gin and tonics in the other, Harry saw this response pass through them in a gentle ripple which followed them to the stalls. He didn’t know if Louis noticed it. Sometimes Harry thought the only way Louis could deal with it was to pretend he could see none of it.

The pair sat down, the only two people at the front in the center block of seats. To their right there was another man in a wheelchair, chatting cheerfully to two women who flanked him. Harry watched them, hoping that Louis would notice them too. But he stared ahead, his head dipped into his shoulders, as if he were trying to become invisible.

This isn’t going to work, a little voice said.

“Do you need anything?” Harry whispered.

“No,” he shook his head. He swallowed. “Actually, yes. Something’s digging into my collar.”

Harry leaned over and ran his finger around the inside of it; a nylon tag had been left inside. He pulled at it, hoping to snap it, but it proved stubbornly resistant.

“New shirt. Is it really troubling you?”

“No. I just thought I’d bring it up for fun.”

“Do we have any scissors in the bag?”

“I don’t know, Harry. Believe it or not, I rarely pack it myself.”

There were no scissors. Harry glanced behind him, where the audience was still settling themselves into their seats, murmuring and scanning their programs. If Louis couldn’t relax and focus on the music, the outing would be wasted. Harry couldn’t afford a second disaster.

“Don’t move,” Harry said.

“Why –”

Before he could finish, Harry leaned across, gently peeled his collar from the side of his neck, placed his mouth against it and took the offending tag between his front teeth. It took him a few seconds to bite through it, and he closed his eyes, trying to ignore the scent of clean male, the feel of  Louis’ skin against his, the incongruity of what he was doing. And then, finally, he felt it give. Harry pulled back his head and opened his eyes, triumphant, with the freed tag between his front teeth.

“Got it!” He said, pulling the tag from his teeth and shoved it in his pocket.

Louis stared at him.

“What?”

Harry swiveled in his chair to catch those audience members who suddenly seemed to find their programs absolutely fascinating. Then Harry turned back to Louis

“Oh, come on, it’s not as if they’ve never seen someone nibbling a bloke’s collar before.”

Harry seemed to have briefly silenced him. Louis blinked a couple of times, made as if to shake his head. Harry noticed with amusement that his neck had colored a deep red.

Harry wiped his hands on his silky slacks. “Anyway,” he said, “I think we should both just be grateful that it wasn’t in your trousers.”

And then, before Louis could respond, the orchestra walked out in their dinner jackets and cocktail dresses and the audience hushed. Harry felt a little flutter of excitement despite himself. He placed his hands together on his lap, sat up in his seat. They began to tune up, and suddenly the auditorium was filled with a single sound – the most alive, three-dimensional thing he had ever heard. It made the hairs on his skin stand up, his breath catch in his throat.

Louis looked sideways at Harry, his face still carrying the mirth of the last few moments. Okay, his expression said. We’re going to enjoy this.

The conductor stepped up, tapped twice on the rostrum, and a great hush descended. Harry felt the stillness, the auditorium alive, expectant. Then he brought down his baton and suddenly everything was pure sound. He felt the music like a physical thing; it didn’t just sit in his ears, it flowed through him, around him, made his senses vibrate. It made his skin prickle and his palms dampen. Louis hadn’t described any of it like this. Harry had thought he might be bored. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard.

And it made his imagination do unexpected things; as he sat there, Harry found himself thinking of things he hadn’t thought of for years, old emotions washing over him, new thoughts and ideas being pulled from him as if his perception itself were being stretched out of shape. It was almost too much, but Harry didn’t want it to stop. He wanted to sit there forever. He stole a look at Louis. He was rapt, suddenly un-selfconscious. Harry turned away, unexpectedly afraid to look at him. He was afraid of what he might be feeling, the depth of his loss, the extent of his fears. Louis Tomlinson’s life had been so far beyond the experiences of Harry’s. Who was he to tell him how he should want to live it?

Louis’ friend left a note asking them to go backstage and see him afterwards, but Louis didn’t want to. Harry urged him once, but he could see from the set of his jaw that he would not be budged. Harry couldn’t blame him. He remembered how his former workmates had looked at him that day – that mixture of pity, revulsion and, somewhere, deep relief that they themselves had somehow escaped this particular stroke of fate. Harry suspected there were only so many of those sorts of meetings he could stomach.

They waited until the auditorium was empty, then Harry wheeled him out, down to the car park in the lift, and loaded Louis up without incident. Harry didn’t say much; his head was still ringing with the music, and he didn’t want it to fade. He kept thinking back to it, the way that Louis’ friend had been so lost in what he was playing. He hadn’t realized that music could unlock things in you, could transport you to somewhere even the composer hadn’t predicted. It left an imprint in the air around you, as if you carried its remnants with you when you went. For some time, as they sat there in the audience, Harry had completely forgotten Louis was even beside him.

They pulled up outside the annex. In front of them, just visible above the wall, the castle sat, floodlit under the full moon, gazing serenely down from its position on the top of the hill.

“So you’re not a classical music person.”

Harry looked into the rear-view mirror. Louis was smiling.

“I didn’t enjoy that in the slightest.”

“I could tell.”

“I especially didn’t enjoy that bit near the end, the bit where the violin was singing by itself.”

“I could see you didn’t like that bit. In fact, I think you had tears in your eyes you hated it so much.”

Harry grinned back at him. “I really loved it,” he said. “I’m not sure I’d like all classical music, but I thought that was amazing.” he rubbed his nose. “Thank you. Thank you for taking me.”

They sat in silence, gazing at the castle. Normally, at night, it was bathed in a kind of orange glow from the lights dotted around the fortress wall. But tonight, under a full moon, it seemed flooded in an ethereal blue.

“What kind of music would they have played there, do you think?” Harry asked. “‘They must have listened to something.”

“The castle? Medieval stuff. Lutes, strings. Not my cup of tea, but I’ve got some I can lend you, if you like. You should walk around the castle with it on earphones, if you really wanted the full experience.”

“Nah. I don’t really go to the castle."

“It’s always the way, when you live close by somewhere.”

Harry’s answer was non-committal. They sat there a moment longer, listening to the engine tick its way to silence.

“Right,” Harry said, unfastening his belt. “We’d better get you in. The evening routine awaits.”

“Just wait a minute, Haz.”

That nickname again. Harry turned in his seat. Louis’ face was in shadow and he couldn’t quite make it out.

“Just hold on. Just for a minute.”

“Are you alright?” He found his gaze dropping towards his chair, afraid some part of him was pinched, or trapped, that Harry had got something wrong.

“I’m fine. I just…”

Harry could see his pale collar, his dark suit jacket a contrast against it.

“I don’t want to go in just yet. I just want to sit and not have to think about…” He swallowed.

“I just...want to be a man who has been to a concert with a handsome guy in a strange but wonderful outfit. Just for a few minutes more.”

Harry released the door handle.

“Sure.”

Harry closed his eyes and lay his head against the headrest, and they sat there together for a while longer, two people lost in remembered music, half hidden in the shadow of a castle on a moonlit hill.

****

Gemma and Harry never really talked about what happened that night at the maze. Harry’s not entirely sure they had the words. She held him for a bit, then spent some time helping him find his clothes, and then searched in vain in the long grass for his shoes until he told her that it really didn’t matter. He wouldn’t have worn them again, anyway. And then they walked home slowly – Harry in his bare feet, her with her arm linked through his, even though they hadn’t walked like that since she was in her first year at school and Mum had insisted Harry never let her go.

When they got home, they stood on the porch and she wiped at his hair and then at his eyes with a damp tissue, and then they unlocked the front door and walked in as if nothing had happened.

Robin was still up, watching some football match. “You two are a bit late,” he called out. “I know it’s a Friday, but still…”

“Okay, Dad,” they called out, in unison.

Back then, Harry had the room that is now his grandfather’s. He walked swiftly upstairs and, before his sister could say a word, he closed the door behind him.

He started growing out his hair the next day. He cancelled his plane ticket. He didn’t go out with the guys from his old school again. Anne was too sunk in her own grief to notice, and Robin put any change in mood in our house, and Harry’s new habit of locking himself in his bedroom, down to “moody issues.” He had worked out who he was, and it was someone very different from the laughing and easy going guy who got drunk with strangers. It was someone who wore nothing that could be construed as suggestive. Clothes that would not appeal to the kind of men who went to the Red Lion, anyway.

Life returned to normal. Harry took a job at the hairdresser’s, then Hot Crossed Buns and put it all behind him.

He must have walked past the castle five thousand times since that day.

But he had never been to the maze since.

Chapter Text

Nick stood on the edge of the track, jogging on the spot, his new Nike T-shirt and shorts sticking slightly to his damp limbs. Harry had stopped by to say hello and to tell him that he wouldn’t be at the Triathlon Terrors meeting at the pub that evening. Niall was off, and Harry had stepped in to take over the evening routine.

“That’s three meetings you’ve missed.”

“Is it?” He counted back on his fingers. “I suppose it is.”

“You’ll have to come next week. It’s all the travel plans for the Xtreme Viking. And you haven’t told me what you want to do for your late birthday.” He began to do his stretches, lifting his leg high and pressing his chest to his knee. “I thought maybe the cinema? I don’t want to do a big meal, not while I’m training.” They had put off Harry’s birthday celebrations since he had started his new job, and now was the best time for them to do something together.

“Ah. Mum and Dad are planning a special dinner.”

Nick grabbed at his heel, pointing his knee to the ground.

Harry couldn’t help but notice that his leg was becoming weirdly sinewy.

“It’s not exactly a night out, is it?”

“Well, neither is the multiplex. Anyway, I feel like I should, Nick. Mum’s been a bit down.”

Gemma had moved out the previous weekend (minus Harry’s frog bag – he retrieved that the night before she went). Anne was devastated; it was actually worse than when Gemma had gone to university the first time around. She missed Violet like an amputated limb. Her toys, which had littered the living-room floor since babyhood, were boxed up and put away. There were no chocolate fingers or small cartons of drink in the cupboard. She no longer had a reason to walk to the school at 3:15 PM, nobody to chat to on the short walk home. It had been the only time Anne ever really spent outside the house. Now she went nowhere at all, apart from the weekly supermarket shop with Robin.

She floated around the house looking a bit lost for three days, then she began spring cleaning with a vigor that frightened even Grandfather. He would mouth gummy protests at her as she tried to vacuum under the chair that he was still sitting in, or flick at his shoulders with her duster. Gemma had said she wouldn’t come home for the first few weeks, just to give Violet a chance to settle. When she rang each evening, Anne would speak to them and then cry for a full half-hour in her bedroom afterwards.

“You’re always working late these days. I feel like I hardly see you.”

“Well, you’re always training. Anyway, it’s good money, Nick. I’m hardly going to say no to the overtime.”

He couldn’t argue with that.

Harry was earning more than he had ever earned in his life. He doubled the amount he gave to his parents, put some aside into a savings account every month, and was still left with more than he could spend. Part of it was, Harry worked so many hours that he was never away from Granta House when the shops were open. The other was, simply, that he didn’t really have an appetite for spending. The spare hours he did have he had started to spend in the library, looking things up on the internet.

There was a whole world available to him from that PC, layer upon layer of it, and it had begun to exert a siren call.

It had started with the thank-you letter. A couple of days after the concert, Harry told Louis that he thought they should write and thank his friend, the violinist.

“I bought a nice card on the way in,” he said. “You tell me what you want to say, and I’ll write it. I’ve even brought in my good pen.”

“I don’t think so,” Louis said.

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“You don’t think so? That man gave us front of house seats. You said yourself it was fantastic. The least you could do is thank him.”

Louis’ jaw was fixed, immovable.

Harry put down the pen. “Or are you just so used to people giving you stuff that you don’t feel you have to?”

“You have no idea, Styles, how frustrating it is to rely on someone else to put your words down for you. The phrase “written on behalf of” is...humiliating.”

“Yeah? Well it’s still better than a great big fat nothing,” he grumbled. “I’m going to thank him, anyway. I won’t mention your name, if you really want to be an arse about it.”

Harry wrote the card, and posted it. He said nothing more about it. But that evening, Louis’ words still echoing around his head, he found himself diverting into the library and, spying an unused computer, he logged onto the internet. Harry looked up whether there were any devices that Louis could use to do his own writing. Within an hour, he had come up with three – a piece of voice recognition software, another type of software which relied on the blinking of an eye, and, as his sister had mentioned, a tapping device that Louis could wear on his head.

He was predictably sniffy about the head device, but he conceded that the voice recognition software might be useful, and within a week they managed, with Niall’s help, to install it on his computer, setting Louis up so that with the computer tray fixed to his chair, he no longer needed someone else to type for him. He was a bit self-conscious about it initially, but after Harry instructed him to begin everything with, “Take a letter, Mister Styles,” he got over it.

Even Mrs. Tomlinson couldn’t find anything to complain about. “If there is any other equipment that you think might be useful,” she said, her lips still pursed as if she couldn’t quite believe this might have been a straightforwardly good thing, “do let us know.” She eyed Louis nervously, as if he might actually be about to wrench it off with his jaw.

Three days later, just as Harry set off for work, the postman handed him a letter. He opened it on the bus, thinking it might be a late birthday card from some distant cousin. It read, in computerized text:

Dear Haz,

This is to show you that I am not an entirely selfish arse. And I do appreciate your efforts.

Thank you.

Louis

Harry laughed so hard the bus driver asked him if my lottery numbers had come up.

After years spent in that box room, Harry’s clothes perched on a rail in the hallway outside, Gemma’s bedroom felt palatial. The first night he spent in it he spun round with his arms outstretched, just luxuriating in the fact that he couldn’t touch both walls simultaneously. Harry went to the DIY store and bought paint and new blinds, as well as a new bedside light and some shelves, which he assembled himself. It’s not that he’s good at that stuff; he just wanted to see if he could do it.

Harry set about redecorating, painting for an hour a night after he came home from work, and at the end of the week even Robin had to admit he’d done a really good job. Robin stared for a bit at his cutting in, fingered the blinds that he had put up himself, and put a hand on his shoulder. “This job has been the making of you, H.”

Harry bought a new duvet cover, a rug and some over sized cushions – just in case anyone ever stopped by, and fancied lounging. Not that anyone did. The calendar went on the back of the new door. Nobody saw it except for Harry. Nobody else would have known what it meant, anyway.

Harry  did feel a bit bad about the fact that once they had put Vi’s camp bed up next to Gemma’s in the box room, there wasn’t actually any floor space left, but then he rationalized – they didn’t even really live there any more. And the box room was somewhere they were only going to sleep. There was no point in the larger room being empty for weeks on end.

Harry went to work each day, thinking about other places he could take Louis. Harry didn’t have any overall plan,  just focused each day on getting him out and about and trying to keep him happy. There were some days – days when his limbs burnt, or when infection claimed him and he lay miserable and feverish in bed – that were harder than others. But on the good days Harry had managed several times to get him out into the spring sunshine. He knew now that one of the things Louis hated most was the pity of strangers, so he drove him to local beauty spots, where for an hour or so it could be just the two of them. Harry made picnics and they sat out on the edges of fields, just enjoying the breeze and being away from the annex.

“My boyfriend wants to meet you,” Harry told him one afternoon, breaking off pieces of cheese and pickle sandwich for him.

Harry had driven several miles out of town, up on to a hill, and they could see the castle, across the valley opposite, separated from them by fields of lambs.

“Why?”

“He wants to know who I’m spending all these late nights with.”

Oddly, Harry could see that Louis found this quite cheering.

“Running Man.”

“I think my parents do too.”

“I get nervous when a guy says he wants me to meet his parents. How is your mum, anyway?”

“The same.”

“Your dad’s job? Any news?”

“No. Next week, they’re telling him now. Anyway, they said did I want to invite you to my late birthday dinner on Friday? All very relaxed. Just family, really. But it’s fine...I said you wouldn’t want to.”

“Who says I wouldn’t want to?”

“You hate strangers. You don’t like eating in front of people. And you don’t like the sound of my boyfriend. It seems like a no-brainer to me.”

Harry had worked him out now. The best way to get Louis to do anything was to tell him you knew he wouldn’t want to. Some obstinate, contrary part of him still couldn’t bear it.

Louis chewed for a minute. “No. I’ll come to your late birthday. It’ll give your mother something to focus on, if nothing else.”

“Really? Oh God, if I tell her she’ll start polishing and dusting this evening.”

“Are you sure she’s your biological mother? Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of genetic similarity there? Sandwich please, Styles. And more pickle on the next bit.”

Harry had been only half joking. Anne went into a complete tailspin at the thought of hosting a paraplegic. Her hands flew to her face, and then she started rearranging stuff on the dresser, as if he were going to arrive within minutes of Harry telling her.

“But what if he needs to go to the loo? We don’t have a downstairs bathroom. I don’t think Daddy would be able to carry him upstairs. I could help...but I’d feel a bit worried about where to put my hands. Would Nick do it?”

“You don’t need to worry about that side of things. Really.”

“And what about his food? Will he need his pureed? Is there anything he can’t eat?”

“No, he just needs help picking it up.”

“Who’s going to do that?”

“I will. Relax, Mum. He’s nice. You’ll like him.”

And so it was arranged. Niall would pick Louis up and drive him over, and would come by two hours later to take him home again and run through the night-time routine. Harry had offered, but they both insisted he should ‘let his hair down’ on his late birthday. They clearly hadn’t met his parents.

At half past seven on the dot, Harry opened the door to find Louis and Niall in the front porch. Louis was wearing his smart shirt and jacket. Harry didn’t know whether to be pleased that he had made the effort, or worried that his mum would now spend the first two hours of the night worrying that she hadn’t dressed smartly enough.

“Hey, you.”

Robin emerged into the hallway behind Harry. “Aha. Was the ramp okay, lads?” He had spent all afternoon making the particle-board ramp for the outside steps.

Niall carefully negotiated Louis’ chair up and into our narrow hallway. “Nice” Niall said, as Harry closed the door behind him. “Very nice. I’ve seen worse in hospitals.”

“Robin Twist.” he reached out and shook Niall’s hand. He held it out towards Louis, before snatching it away again with a sudden flush of embarrassment. “Robin. Sorry, um...I don’t know how to greet a...I can’t shake your –” He began to stutter.

“A curtsy will be fine.”

Robin stared at him and then, when he realized Louis was joking, he let out a great laugh of relief. “Hah!” he said, and clapped Louis on the shoulder. “Yes. Curtsy. Nice one. Hah!”

It broke the ice. Niall left with a wave and a wink, and Harry wheeled Louis through to the kitchen. Anne, luckily, was holding a casserole dish, which absolved her of the same anxiety.

“Mum, this is Louis. Louis, Anne.”

“Louis, hello!” She beamed at him, her oven gloves up to her elbows. “Lovely to meet you finally”

“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “Don’t let me interrupt.”

She put down the dish and her hand went to her hair, always a good sign with his mother. It was a shame she hadn’t remembered to take an oven glove off first.

“Sorry,” she said. “Roast dinner. It’s all in the timing, you know.”

“Not really,” Louis said. “I’m not a cook. Never have been. But I love good food. It’s why I have been looking forward to tonight.”

“So…” Robin opened the fridge. “How do we do this? Do you have a special beer... cup, Louis?”

If it was Dad, Harry told Louis, he would have had an adapted beer cup before he had a wheelchair.

“Got to get your priorities right,” Robin said. Harry rummaged in Louis’ bag until he found his cup.

“Beer will be fine. Thank you.”

Louis took a sip and Harry stood in the kitchen, suddenly conscious of their tiny, shabby house with its 1980's wallpaper and dented kitchen cupboards. Louis’ home was elegantly furnished, its things sparse and beautiful. Their house looked as if 90 percent of its contents came from the local pawn shop. Violet’s dog-eared paintings covered every spare surface of wall. But if he had noticed, Louis said nothing. He and Robin had quickly found a shared point of reference, which turned out to be Harry’s general uselessness. He didn’t mind. It kept them both happy.

“Did you know, he once drove backwards into a pole and swore it was the pole’s fault…?”

“You want to see him lowering my ramp. It’s like Ski Sunday coming out of that car sometimes…”

Robin burst out laughing.

Harry left them to it. Anne followed him out, fretting. She put a tray of glasses on to the dining table, then glanced up at the clock. “Where’s Nick?”

“He was coming straight from training,” Harry said. “Perhaps he’s been held up.”

“He couldn’t put it off just for your birthday? This chicken is going to spoil if he’s much longer.”

“Mum, it’ll be fine.”

Harry waited until she had put the tray down, and then he slid his arms around her and gave her a hug. She was rigid with anxiety. Harry felt a sudden wave of sympathy for her. It couldn’t be easy being his mother.

“Really. It’ll be fine.”

She let go of him, kissed the top of his head, and brushed her hands down her apron. “I wish your sister was here. It seems wrong to have a celebration without her.”

Not to Harry it didn’t. Just for once, he was quite enjoying being the focus of attention. It might sound childish, but it was true. Harry  loved having Louis and Robin laughing about him. He loved the fact that every element of supper – from roast chicken to chocolate mousse – was his favorite. He liked the fact that he could be who he wanted to be without his sister’s voice reminding him of who he had been.

The doorbell rang, and Anne flapped her hands. “There he is. H, why don’t you start serving?”

Nick was still flushed from his exertions at the track. “Happy birthday, love.” he said, stooping to kiss Harry. He smelt of aftershave and deodorant and warm, recently showered skin.

“Best go straight through.” Harry nodded towards the living room. “Mum’s having a timing meltdown.”

“Oh.” He glanced down at his watch. “Sorry. Must have lost track of time.”

“Not your time, though, eh?”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Robin had moved the big dining table into the living room. He had also, on Harry’s instruction, moved one of the sofas to the other wall so that Louis would be able to enter the room unobstructed. He maneuvered his wheelchair to the placing Harry pointed to, and then elevated himself a little so that he would be the same height as everyone else. Harry sat on his left, and Nick sat opposite. He and Louis and Grandfather nodded their hellos. Harry had already warned Nick not to try to shake his hand. Even as he sat down Harry could feel Louis studying Nick, and he wondered, briefly, whether Louis would be as charming to his boyfriend as he had been to his parents.

Louis inclined his head towards Harry. “If you look in the back of the chair, there’s a little something for the dinner.”

Harry leaned back and reached his hand downwards into his bag. He pulled it up again, retrieving a bottle of Laurent-Perrier champagne.

“You should always have champagne on your birthday - even if it's late,” he said.

“Oh, look at that,” Anne said, bringing in the plates. “How lovely! But we have no champagne glasses.”

“These will be fine,” Louis said.

“I’ll open it.” Nick reached for it, unwound the wire, and placed his thumbs under the cork. He kept glancing over at Louis, as if he were not what he had expected at all.

“If you do that,” Louis observed, “it’s going to go everywhere.” He lifted his arm an inch or so, gesturing vaguely. “I find that holding the cork and turning the bottle tends to be a safer bet.”

“There’s a man who knows his champagne,” Robin said. “There you go, Nick. Turning the bottle, you say? Well, who knew?”

“I knew,” Nick said. “That’s how I was going to do it.”

The champagne was safely popped and poured, and Harry’s birthday was toasted.

Grandfather called out something that may well have been, “Hear, hear.”

Harry stood up and bowed. He was wearing form fitting black pants and a red shirt with a bolo tie, that swayed when he bent over in a mock bow.

“May this be the year our Harry finally grows up,” Robin said. “I was going to say “does something with his life” but it seems like he finally is. I have to say, Louis, since he’s had the job with you he’s – well, he’s really come out of himself.”

“We’re very proud,” Anne said. “And grateful. To you. For employing him, I mean.”

“Gratitude’s all mine,” Louis said. He glanced sideways at Harry.

“To Harry,” Robin said. “And his continued success.”

“And to absent family members,” Anne added.

“Christ,” Harry said. “I should have a birthday more often. Most days you all just hurl abuse at me.”

They began to talk, Robin telling some other story against Harry that made he and Anne laugh out loud. It was good to see them laughing. Robin had looked so worn down these last weeks, and Anne had been hollow-eyed and distracted, as if her real self were always elsewhere. Harry wanted to savor these moments, of them briefly forgetting their troubles, in shared jokes and familial fondness. Just for a moment, he realized he wouldn’t have minded if Violet was there. Or Gemma, for that matter.

Harry was so lost in his thoughts that it took a minute to register Nick’s expression. He was feeding Louis as he said something to Grandfather, folding a piece of smoked salmon in his fingers and placing it to Louis’ lips. It was such an unthinking part of his daily life now that the intimacy of the gesture only struck him when he saw the shock on Nick’s face.

Louis said something to Robin and Harry stared at Nick, willing him to stop. On his left, Grandfather was picking at his plate with greedy delight, letting out what they called his ‘food noises’ – little grunts and murmurs of pleasure.

“Delicious salmon,” Louis said, to Anne. “Really lovely flavor.”

“Well, it’s not something we would have every day,” she said, smiling. “But we did want to make today special.”

Stop staring, Harry told Nick silently.

Finally, he caught his eye and looked away. He looked furious.

Harry fed Louis another piece, and then some bread when he saw him glance at it. Harry had, he realized in that moment, become so attuned to Louis’ needs that he barely needed to look at him to work out what he wanted. Nick, opposite, ate with his head down, cutting the smoked salmon into small pieces and spearing them with his fork. He left his bread.

“So, Nick,” Louis said, perhaps sensing Harry’s discomfort. “Harry tells me you’re a personal trainer. What does that involve?”

Harry so wished he hadn’t asked. Nick launched into his sales spiel, all about personal motivation and how a fit body made for a healthy mind. Then he segued into his training schedule for the Xtreme Viking – the temperatures of the North Sea, the body fat ratios needed for marathon running, his best times in each discipline. Harry normally tuned out at this point, but all he could think of now, with Louis beside him, was how inappropriate it was. Why couldn’t he have just said something vague and left it at that?

“In fact, when Harry said you were coming, I thought I’d take a look at my books and see if there was any physio I could recommend.”

Harry choked on his champagne. “It’s quite specialist, Nick. I’m not sure you’d really be the person.”

“I can do specialist. I do sports injuries. I have medical training.”

“This is not a sprained ankle, Nick. Really.”

“There’s a man I worked with a couple of years ago had a client who was paraplegic. He’s almost fully recovered now, he says. Does triathlons and everything.”

“Fancy,” said Anne.

“He pointed me to this new research in Canada that says muscles can be trained to remember former activity. If you get them working enough, every day, it’s like a brain synapse – it can come back. I bet you if we hooked you up with a really good regime, you could see a difference in your muscle memory. After all, Harry tells me you were quite the action man before.”

“Nick”’ Harry said loudly. “You know nothing about it.”

“I was just trying to –”

“Well don’t. Really.”

The table fell silent. Robin coughed, and excused himself for it. Grandfather peered around the table in wary silence.

Anne made as if to offer everyone more bread, and then seemed to change her mind.

When Nick spoke again, there was a faint air of martyrdom in his tone. “It’s just research that I thought might be helpful. But I’ll say no more about it.”

Louis looked up and smiled, his face blank, polite. “I’ll certainly bear it in mind.”

Harry got up to clear the plates, wanting to escape the table. But Anne scolded him, telling him to sit down.

“You’re the birthday boy,” she said – as if she ever let anyone else do anything, anyway. “Robin. Why don’t you go and get the chicken?”

“Ha-ha. Let’s hope it’s stopped flapping around now, eh?” Robin smiled, his teeth bared in a kind of grimace.

The rest of the meal passed off without incident. Harry’s parents, he could see, were completely charmed by Louis. Nick, less so. He and Louis barely exchanged another word. Somewhere around the point where Anne served up the roast potatoes – Robin doing his usual thing of trying to steal extras – Harry stopped worrying. Robin was asking Louis all sorts, about his life before, even about the accident, and he seemed comfortable enough to answer him directly. In fact, Harry learnt a fair bit that he’d never told him. Louis’ job, for example, sounded pretty important, even if he played it down. He bought and sold companies and made sure he turned a profit while doing so. It took Robin a few attempts to get out of him that his idea of profit ran into six or seven figures. Harry found himself staring at Louis, trying to reconcile the man he knew with this ruthless City suit that he now described. Robin told him about the company that was about to take over the furniture factory, and when he said the name Louis nodded almost apologetically, and said that yes, he knew of them. Yes, he would probably have gone for it too. The way he said it didn’t sound promising for Robin’s job.

Anne just cooed at Louis, and made a huge fuss of him. Harry realized, watching her smile, that at some stage during the meal he had just become a smart young man at her table. No wonder Nick was pissed off.

“Birthday cake?” Grandfather said, as she began to clear the dishes.

It was so distinct, so surprising, that Robin and Harry stared at each other in shock. The whole table went quiet.

“No,” Harry walked around the table and kissed him. “No, Grandfather. Sorry. But it is chocolate mousse. You like that.

He nodded in approval. Anne was beaming. Harry didn’t think any of them could have had a better present.

The mousse arrived on the table, and with it a large, square present, about the size of a telephone directory, wrapped in tissue.

“Presents, is it?” Nick said. “Here. Here’s mine.” He smiled at Harry as he placed it in the middle of the table.

Harry raised a smile back. This was no time to argue, after all.

“Go on,” said Robin. “Open it.”

Harry opened theirs first, peeling the paper carefully away so that he didn’t tear it. It was a photo album, and on every page there was a picture from a year in his life. Harry as a baby; Harry and Gemma as solemn, chubby-faced children; Harry on his first day at secondary school, all mop-headed. More recently, there was a picture of Harry and Nick, the one where he was actually telling him to piss off. And Harry, dressed in grey slacks and a black button up, his first day in the new job. In between the pages were pictures of the family by Violet, letters that Anne had kept from school trips, Harry’s childish handwriting telling of days on the beach, lost ice creams and thieving gulls. He flicked through, and only hesitated briefly when he saw the guy with the dark flicked-back hair. He turned the page.

“Can I see?” Louis said.

“It’s not been...the best year,” Anne told him, as Harry flicked through the pages in front of Louis. “I mean, we’re fine and everything. But, you know, things being what they are. And then Grandfather saw something on the daytime telly about making your own presents, and I thought that was something that would...you know...really mean something.”

“It does, Mum.” His eyes had filled with tears. “I love it. Thank you.”

“Grandfather picked out some of the pictures,” she said.

“It’s beautiful,” said Louis.

“I love it,” Harry said again.

The look of utter relief Anne and Robin exchanged was the saddest thing Harry had ever seen.

“Mine next.” Nick pushed the little box across the table. Harry opened it slowly, feeling vaguely panicked for a moment that it might be an engagement ring. Harry wasn’t ready. He had barely got his head around having his own bedroom. He opened the little box, and there, against the dark-blue velvet, was a thin gold chain with a little star pendant. It was sweet, delicate, and not remotely him. He didn’t wear that kind of jewelry, and never had.

Harry let his eyes rest on it while he worked out what to say. “It’s lovely,” Harry said, as Nick leaned across the table and fastened it around his neck.

“Glad you like it,” Nick said, and kissed him on the mouth. Harry swears he’d never kissed him like that in front of his parents before.

Louis watched Harry, his face impassive.

“Well, I think we should eat pudding now,” Robin said. “Before it gets too hot.” He laughed out loud at his own joke. The champagne had boosted his spirits immeasurably.

“There’s something in my bag for you too,” Louis said, quietly. “The one on the back of my chair. It’s in orange wrapping.”

Harry pulled the present from Louis’ backpack.

Anne paused, the serving spoon in her hand. “You got Harry a present, Louis? That’s ever so kind of you. Isn’t that kind of him, Robin?”

“It certainly is.”

The wrapping paper had brightly colored Chinese kimonos on it. Harry didn’t have to look at it to know he would save it. Perhaps even create something to wear based on it. Harry removed the ribbon, putting it to one side for later. He opened the paper, and then the tissue paper within it, and there, staring at him was a strangely familiar black and yellow stripe.

Harry pulled the fabric from the box, and in his hands was a black and yellow jumper. Adult-sized, and in a wool so soft that it almost slid through his fingers.

“I don’t believe it,” Harry said. He had started to laugh – a joyous, unexpected thing. “Oh my God! Where did you find this?”

“I had it made. You’ll be happy to know I instructed the woman via my brand-new voice recognition software.”

“A jumper?” Robin and Nick said in unison.

“Only the best jumper ever.”

Anne peered at them. “You know, Harry, I’m pretty sure you had one just like that when you were very little.”

Louis and Harry exchanged a look.

Harry couldn’t stop beaming. “I want to put it on now.”

“Jesus Christ, he’ll look like Max Wall in a beehive” Robin said, shaking his head.

“Ah Robin, it’s his  birthday. Sure, he can wear what he wants.”

Harry ran outside and pulled on the jumper in the hallway. He looked down at himself and smiled. He didn’t  think a present had ever made him so happy in his life.

He walked back in. Louis let out a small cheer. Grandfather banged his hands on the table. Robin and Anne burst out laughing. Nick just stared.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love this,” Harry said. “Thank you. Thank you.” He reached out a hand and touched the back of Louis’ shoulder. “Really.”

“There’s a card in there too,” he said quietly. “Open it some other time.”

Harry’s parents made a huge fuss of Louis when he left.

Robin, who was drunk, kept thanking him for employing Harry, and made him promise to come back. “If I lose my job, maybe I’ll come over and watch the footie with you one day,” he said.

“I’d like that,” said Louis, even though Harry had never seen him watch a football match.

Anne pressed some leftover mousse on him, wrapping it in a Tupperware container,  “Seeing as you liked it so much.”

What a gentleman, they would say, for a good hour after he had gone. A real gentleman.

Nick came out to the hallway, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, as if perhaps to stop the urge to shake Louis’ own. That was Harry’s more generous conclusion.

“Good to meet you, Nick.” Louis said. “And thank you for the...advice.”

“Oh, just trying to help my boyfriend get the best out of his job,” he said. “That’s all.” There was a definite emphasis on the word my.

“Well, you’re a lucky man,” Louis said, as Niall began to steer him out. “He certainly gives a good bed bath.” He said it so quickly that the door was closed before Nick even realized what he had said.

****

“You never told me you were giving him bed baths.”

They had gone back to Nick’s house, a new-build flat on the edge of town. It had been marketed as ‘loft living’, even though it overlooked the retail park, and was no more than three floors high.

“What does that mean – you wash his dick?”

“I don’t wash his dick.” Harry picked up the cleanser that was one of the few things he was allowed to keep at Nick’s place, and began to wash his face.

“He said you did.”

“He’s teasing you. And after you going on and on about how he used to be an action man, I don’t blame him.”

“So what is it you do for him? You’ve obviously not been giving me the full story.”

“I do wash him, sometimes, but only down to his underwear.”

Nick’s stare spoke volumes. Finally, he looked away from Harry, pulled off his socks and hurled them into the laundry basket. “Your job isn’t meant to be about this. No medical stuff, it said. No intimate stuff. It wasn’t part of your job description.” A sudden thought occurred to him. “You could sue. Constructive dismissal, I think it is, when they change the terms of your job?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. And I do it because Niall can’t always be there, and it’s horrible for Louis to have some complete stranger from an agency handling him. And besides, I’m used to it now. It really doesn’t bother me.”

How could Harry explain to him – how a body can become so familiar to you? Harry could change Louis’ tubes with a deft professionalism, sponge bathe his naked top half without a break in their conversation. Harry didn’t even balk at Louis’ scars now. For a while, all he had been able to see was a potential suicide. Now he was just Louis – maddening, mercurial, clever, funny Louis– who patronized him and liked to play Professor Higgins to his Eliza Doolittle. His body was just part of the whole package, a thing to be dealt with, at intervals, before they got back to the talking. It had become, Harry supposed, the least interesting part of him.

“I just can’t believe...after all we went through...how long it took you to let me come anywhere near you...and here’s some stranger who you’re quite happy to get up close and personal with –”

“Can we not talk about this tonight, Nick? It’s been a good night.”

“I wasn’t the one who started it, with talk of bed baths and whatnot.”

“Is it because he’s good looking?” Harry demanded. “Is that it? Would it all be so much easier for you if he looked like – you know – a proper vegetable?”

“So you do think he’s good looking.”

Harry pulled the jumper over his head carefully, and began to toe out of his pants, the dregs of his good mood finally evaporating. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. I can’t believe you’re jealous of him.”

“I’m not jealous of him.” His tone was dismissive. “How could I be jealous of a cripple?”

Nick made love to him that night. Perhaps ‘made love’ is stretching it a bit. They had sex, a marathon session in which he seemed determined to show off his athleticism, his strength and vigor. It lasted for hours. If he could have swung Harry from a chandelier he thinks he would have done so. It was nice to feel so wanted, to find himself the focus of Nick’s attention after months of semi-detachment. But a little part of him stayed aloof during the whole thing. Harry suspected it wasn’t for him, after all. He had worked that out pretty quickly. This little show was for Louis’ benefit.

“How was that, eh?” He wrapped himself around Harry afterwards, skin sticking slightly with perspiration, and kissed his forehead.

“Great,” Harry said.

“I love you, babe.”

And, satisfied, he rolled off, threw an arm back over his head, and was asleep within minutes.

When sleep still didn’t come, Harry got out of bed and went downstairs to his bag. He rifled through it, looking for the book of Flannery O’Connor short stories. It was as Harry pulled them from his bag that the envelope fell out.

Harry stared at it. Louis card. He hadn’t opened it at the table. Harry did so now, feeling an unlikely sponginess at its center. He slid the card carefully from its envelope, and opened it. Inside were ten crisp £50 notes. He counted them twice, unable to believe what he was seeing. Inside, it read:

Birthday bonus. Don’t fuss. It’s a legal requirement. - L

Chapter Text

May was a strange month. The newspapers and television were full of headlines about what they termed ‘the right to die’. A woman suffering from a degenerative disease had asked that the law be clarified to protect her husband, should he accompany her to Mercy Care when her suffering became too much. A young football player had committed suicide after persuading his parents to take him there. The police were involved. There was to be a debate within the government.

Harry watched the news reports and listened to the legal arguments from pro-lifers and esteemed moral philosophers, and didn’t quite know where he stood on any of it. It all seemed weirdly unrelated to Louis.

The pair of them, in the meantime, had gradually been increasing Louis’ outings – and the distance that he was prepared to travel. They had been to the theater, down the road to see the morris dancers (Louis kept a straight face at their bells and hankies, but he had gone slightly pink with the effort), driven one evening to an open-air concert at a nearby stately home (more his thing than Harry’s), and once to the multiplex where, due to inadequate research on Harry’s part, they ended up watching a film about a girl with a terminal illness.

But Harry knew that Louis saw the headlines too. He had begun using the computer more since they got the new software, and he had worked out how to move a mouse by dragging his thumb fingers across the trackpad. This laborious exercise enabled him to read the day’s newspapers online. Harry brought him in a cup of tea one morning to find him reading about the young football player – a detailed feature about the steps he had gone through to bring about his own death. Louis closed the screen when he realized Harry was behind him. That small action left Harry with a lump somewhere high in his chest that took a full half-hour to go away.

Harry looked up the same piece at the library. He had begun to read newspapers. He had worked out which of their arguments tended to go deeper – that information wasn’t always at its most useful boiled down to stark, skeletal facts.

The football player’s parents had been savaged by the tabloid newspapers. How Could They Let Him Die? screamed the headlines. Harry couldn’t help but feel the same way. Leo McInerney was twenty-four. He had lived with his injury for almost three years, so not much longer than Louis. Surely he was too young to decide that there was nothing left to live for? And then Harry read what Louis had read – not an opinion piece, but a carefully researched feature about what had actually taken place in this young man’s life. The writer seemed to have had access to his parents.

Leo, they said, had played football since he was three years old. His whole life was football. He had been injured in what they termed a ‘million to one’ accident when a tackle went wrong. They had tried everything to encourage him, to give him a sense that his life would still hold value. But he had retreated into depression. He was an athlete not just without athleticism, but without even the ability to move or, on occasion, breathe without assistance. He gleaned no pleasure from anything. His life was painful, disrupted by infection, and dependent on the constant ministrations of others. He missed his friends, but refused to see them. He told his girlfriend he wouldn’t see her. He told his parents daily that he didn’t want to live. He told them that watching other people live even half the life he had planned for himself was unbearable, a kind of torture.

He had tried to commit suicide twice by starving himself until hospitalized, and when returned home had begged his parents to smother him in his sleep. When Harry read that, he sat in the library and stuck the balls of his hands in his eyes until he could breathe without sobbing.

Robin lost his job. He was pretty brave about it. He came home that afternoon, got changed into a shirt and tie and headed back into town on the next bus, to register at the Job Center.

He had already decided, he told Anne, that he would apply for anything, despite being a skilled craftsman with years of experience. “I don’t think we can afford to be picky at the moment,” he said, ignoring Anne’s protestations.

But if Harry had found it hard to get employment, prospects for a 55-year-old man who had only ever held one job were harder. He couldn’t even get a job as a warehouse man or a security guard, he said, despairingly, as he returned home from another round of interviews. They would take some unreliable snot-nosed seventeen-year-old because the government would make up their wages, but they wouldn’t take a mature man with a proven work record. After a fortnight of rejections, he and Anne admitted they would have to apply for benefits, just to tide them over, and spent their evenings poring over incomprehensible, fifty-page forms which asked how many people used their washing machine, and when was the last time they had left the country (Robin thought it might have been 1988). Harry put Louis’ birthday money into the cash tin in the kitchen cupboard. He thought it might make them feel better to know they had a little security.

When Harry woke up in the morning, it had been pushed back under his door in an envelope.

The tourists came, and the town began to fill. Mr. Tomlinson was around less and less now; his hours lengthened as the visitor numbers to the castle grew. Harry saw him in town one Thursday afternoon, when he walked home via the dry cleaner’s. That wouldn’t have been unusual in itself, except for the fact he had his arm around a red-haired woman who clearly wasn’t Mrs. Tomlinson. When he saw Harry, he dropped her like a hot potato.

Harry turned away, pretending to peer into a shop window, unsure if he wanted him to know that he had seen them, and tried very hard not to think about it again.

On the Friday after Robin lost his job, Louis received an invitation – a wedding invitation from Ashton and Zayn. Well, strictly speaking, the invitation came from Colonel and Mrs. Irwin, Ashton’s parents, inviting Louis to celebrate their son’s marriage to Zayn Malik. It arrived in a heavy parchment envelope with a schedule of celebrations, and a fat, folded list of things that people could buy them from stores Harry had never even heard of.

“He’s got some nerve,” Harry observed, studying the gilt lettering, the gold-edged piece of thick card. “Want me to throw it?”

“Whatever you want.” Louis’ whole body was a study in determined indifference.

Harry stared at the list. “What the hell is a couscoussier anyway?”

Perhaps it was something to do with the speed with which he turned away and began busying himself with his computer keyboard. Perhaps it was his tone of voice. But for some reason Harry didn’t throw it away. He put it carefully into his folder in the kitchen.

Louis gave Harry another book of short stories, one that he’d ordered from Amazon, and a copy of The Red Queen. Harry knew it wasn’t going to be his sort of book at all. “It hasn’t even got a story,” he said, after studying the back cover.

“So?” Louis replied. “Challenge yourself a bit.”

Harry tried – not because he really had an appetite for genetics – but because he couldn’t bear the thought that Louis would go on and on at him if he didn’t. Louis was like that now. He was actually a bit of a bully. And, really annoyingly, he would quiz Harry on how much he had read of something, just to make sure he really had.

“You’re not my teacher, Harry would grumble.

“Thank God,” he would reply, with feeling.

This book – which was actually surprisingly readable – was all about a kind of battle for survival. It claimed that women didn’t pick men because they loved them at all. It said that the female of the species would always go for the strongest male, in order to give her offspring the best chance. She couldn’t help herself. It was just the way nature was.

Harry didn’t agree with this. And he didn’t like the argument. There was an uncomfortable undercurrent to what he was trying to persuade Harry of. Louis was physically weak, damaged, in this author’s eyes. That made him a biological irrelevance. It would have made his life worthless.

He had been going on and on about this for the best part of an afternoon when Harry butted in. “There’s one thing this Matt Ridley bloke hasn’t factored in,” he said.

Louis looked up from his computer screen. “Oh yes?”

“What if the genetically superior male is actually a bit of a dickhead?”

****

On the third Saturday of May, Gemma and Violet came home. Anne was out of the door and up the garden path before they had made it halfway down the street. Violet, she swore, clutching on to her, had grown several inches in the time they had been away. She had changed, was so grown-up, looked so much the little lady. Gemma had cut off her hair and looked oddly sophisticated. She was wearing a jacket Harry hadn’t seen before, and strappy sandals. He found himself wondering, meanly, where she had found the money.

“So how is it?” Harry asked, while Anne walked Violet around the garden, showing her the frogs in the tiny pond. Robin was watching football with Grandfather, exclaiming in mild frustration at another supposed missed opportunity.

“Great. Really good. I mean, it’s hard not having any help with Violet, and it did take him a while to settle in” She leaned forwards. “Although you can’t tell Mum – I told her she was fine.”

“But you like the course.”

Gemma’s face broke out into a smile. “It’s the best. I can’t tell you, H, the joy of just using my brain again. I feel like there’s been this big chunk of me missing for ages...and it’s like I’ve found it again. Does that sound wanky?”

Harry shook his head. He was actually glad for her. He wanted to tell her about the library, and the computers, and what he had done for Louis. But he thought this should probably be her moment. They sat on the foldaway chairs, under the tattered sunshade, and sipped at their mugs of tea. Her fingers, Harry noticed, were all the right colors.

“She misses you,” Harry said.

“We’ll be back most weekends from now on. I just needed...Harry, it wasn’t just about settling Violet in. I just needed a bit of time to be away from it all. I just wanted time to be a different person.”

She looked a bit like a different person. It was weird. Just a few weeks away from home could rub the familiarity right off someone. Harry felt like she was on the path to being someone he wasn’t quite sure of. He felt, weirdly, as if he were being left behind.

“Mum told me your disabled bloke came to dinner.”

“He’s not my disabled bloke. His name’s Louis.”

“Sorry. Louis. So it’s going well, then, the old anti-bucket list?”

“So-so. Some trips have been more successful than others.” Harry told her about the horse racing disaster, and the unexpected triumph of the violin concert. He told her about their picnics, and she laughed when Harry told her about the birthday dinner.

“Do you think...?” Harry could see her working out the best way to put it. “Do you think you’ll win?”

Like it was some kind of contest.

“I don’t know. I think I’m going to need to up my game.” Harry told her what Mrs. Tomlinson had said to him about going abroad.

“I can’t believe you went to a violin concert, though. You, of all people!”

“I liked it.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“No. Really, I did. It was...emotional.”

She looked at Harry carefully. “Mum says he’s really nice.”

“He is really nice.”

“And handsome.”

“A spinal injury doesn’t mean you turn into Quasimodo.” Please don’t say anything about it being a tragic waste, he told her silently.

But perhaps his  sister was smarter than that. “Anyway. She was definitely surprised. I think she was prepared for Quasimodo.”

“That’s the problem, Gems,” he said, and threw the rest of his tea into the flower bed. “People always are.”

****

Anne was cheerful over supper that night. She had cooked lasagna, Gemma’s favourite, and Violet was allowed to stay up as a treat. They ate and talked and laughed and talked about safe things, like the football team, and Harry’s job, and what Gemma’s fellow students were like. Anne must have asked Gemma a hundred times if she was sure she was managing okay on her own, whether there was anything she needed for Violet – as if they had anything spare they could have given her. Harry was glad he had warned Gemma about how broke they were. She said no, gracefully and with conviction. It was only afterwards Harry thought to ask if it was the truth.

That night Harry was woken at midnight by the sound of crying. It was Violet, in the box room. He could hear Gemma trying to comfort her, to reassure her, the sound of the light going on and off, a bed being rearranged. Harry lay in the dark, watching the light filter through the blinds on to the newly painted ceiling, and waited for it to stop. But the same thin wail began again at two. This time, Harry heard Anne padding across the hallway, and murmured conversation. Then, finally, Violet was silent again.

At four, Harry woke to the sound of his door creaking open. He blinked groggily, turning towards the light. Violet stood silhouetted against the doorway, her over sized pajamas loose around her legs, her comfort blanket half spooled on the floor. Harry couldn’t see her face, but she stood there uncertainly, as if unsure what to do next.

“Come here, Vi” Harry whispered. As she padded towards him, he could see she was still half asleep. Her steps were halting, her thumb thrust into her mouth, her treasured blanket clutched to her side. Harry held the duvet open and she climbed into bed beside him, her tufty head burrowing into the other pillow, and curled up into a  ball. Harry pulled the duvet over her and lay there, gazing at her, marveling at the certainty and immediacy of her sleep.

“Night, night, sweetheart,” he whispered, and kissed her forehead, and a fat little hand crept out and took a chunk of his T-shirt in its grasp, as if to reassure itself that Harry couldn’t move away.

****

“What was the best place you’ve ever visited?”

They were sitting in the shelter, waiting for a sudden downpour to stop so that they could walk around the rear gardens of the castle. Louis didn’t like going to the main area – too many people to gawp at him. But the vegetable gardens were one of its hidden treasures, visited by few. Its secluded orchards and fruit gardens were separated by honeyed pea-shingle paths that Louis’ chair could negotiate quite happily.

“In terms of what? And what’s that?”

Harry poured some soup from a flask and held it up to his lips. “Tomato.”

“Okay. Jesus, that’s hot. Give me a minute” He squinted into the distance. “I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro when I hit twenty five. That was pretty incredible.”

“How high?”

“A little over nineteen thousand feet to Uhuru Peak. That said, I pretty much crawled the last thousand or so. The altitude hits you pretty hard.”

“Was it cold?”

“No…” he smiled at Harry. “It’s not like Everest. Not the time of year that I went, anyway.”  He gazed off into the distance, briefly lost in his remembrance. “It was beautiful. The roof of Africa, they call it. When you’re up there, it’s like you can actually see to the end of the world.”

Louis was silent for a moment. Harry watched him, wondering where he really was. When they had these conversations he became like the boy in Harry’s class, the boy who had distanced himself from everyone by venturing away.

“So where else have you liked?”

“Trou d’Eau Douce bay, Mauritius. Lovely people, beautiful beaches, great diving. Um...Tsavo National Park, Kenya, all red earth and wild animals. Yosemite. That’s California. Rock faces so tall your brain can’t quite process the scale of them.”

Louis told Harry of a night he’d spent rock climbing, perched on a ledge several hundred feet up, how he’d had to pin himself into his sleeping bag, and attach it to the rock face, because to roll over in his sleep would have been disastrous.

“You’ve actually just described my worst nightmare, right there.”

“I like more metropolitan places too. Sydney, I loved. The Northern Territories. Iceland. There’s a place not far from the airport where you can bathe in the volcanic springs. It’s like a strange, nuclear landscape. Oh, and riding across Central China. I went to this place about two days’ ride from the Capital of Sichuan province, and the locals spat at me because they hadn’t seen a white person before.”

“Is there anywhere you haven’t been?”

He took another sip of soup. “North Korea?” He pondered. “Oh, I’ve never been to Disneyland. Will that do? Not even Eurodisney.”

“I once booked a ticket to Australia. Never went, though.”

Louis turned to him in surprise.

“Stuff happened. It’s fine. Perhaps I will go one day.”

“Not “perhaps”. You’ve got to get away from here, Haz. Promise me you won’t spend the rest of your life stuck around this bloody parody of a place mat.”

“Promise me? Why?” Harry tried to make his voice light. “Where are you going?”

“I just...can’t bear the thought of you staying around here forever.” He swallowed. “You’re too bright. Too interesting.” He looked away from Harry. “You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible.”

“Okay,” Harry said, carefully. “Then tell me where I should go. Where would you go, if you could go anywhere?”

“Right now?”

“Right now. And you’re not allowed to say Kilimanjaro. It has to be somewhere I can imagine going myself.”

When Louis’ face relaxed, he looked like someone quite different. A smile settled across his face now, his eyes creasing with pleasure. “Paris. I would sit outside a cafe in Le Marais and drink coffee and eat a plate of warm croissants with unsalted butter and strawberry jam.”

“Le Marais?”

“It’s a little district in the center of Paris. It is full of cobbled streets and teetering apartment blocks and gay men and orthodox Jews and women of a certain age who once looked like Brigitte Bardot. It’s the only place to stay.”

Harry turned to face him, lowering his voice. “We could go,” he said. “We could do it on the Eurostar. It would be easy. I don’t think we’d even need to ask Niall to come. I’ve never been to Paris. I’d love to go. Really love to go. Especially with someone who knows his way around. What do you say, Louis?”

Harry could see himself in that cafe. He was there, at that table, maybe admiring a new pair of French shoes, purchased in a chic little boutique, or picking at a pastry with Parisian onlookers. He could taste the coffee, smell the smoke from the next table’s Gauloises.

“No.”

“What?” It took Harry a moment to drag himself away from that roadside table.

“No.”

“But you just told me –”

“You don’t get it, Haz I don’t want to go there in this – this thing.’ He gestured at the chair, his voice dropping. “I want to be in Paris as me, the old me. I want to sit in a chair, leaning back, my favorite clothes on, with handsome French men who pass by giving me the eye just as they would any other man sitting there. Not looking away hurriedly when they realize I’m a man in an overgrown bloody pram.”

“But we could try,” Harry ventured. “It needn’t be –”

“No. No, we couldn’t. Because at the moment I can shut my eyes and know exactly how it feels to be in the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, cigarette in hand, clementine juice in a tall, cold glass in front of me, the smell of someone’s steak frites cooking, the sound of a moped in the distance. I know every sensation of it.”

Louis swallowed. “The day we go and I’m in this bloody contraption, all those memories, those sensations will be wiped out, erased by the struggle to get behind the table, up and down Parisian curbs, the taxi drivers who refuse to take us, and the wheelchair bloody power pack that wouldn’t charge in a French socket. Okay?”

His voice had hardened. Harry screwed the top back on the vacuum flask. He examined his shoes quite carefully as he did it, because he didn’t want Louis to see his face.

“Okay,” Harry said.

“Okay.” Louis took a deep breath.

Below them a coach stopped to disgorge another load of visitors outside the castle gates. They watched in silence as they filed out of the vehicle and into the old fortress in a single, obedient line, primed to stare at the ruins of another age.

It’s possible Louis realized Harry was a bit subdued, because he leaned into him a little. And his face softened. “So, Styles. The rain seems to have stopped. Where shall we go this afternoon. The maze?”

“No.” It came out more quickly than he would have liked, and Harry caught the look Louis gave him.

“You claustrophobic?”

“Something like that.” Harry began to gather up their things. “Let’s just go back to the house.”

****

The following weekend, Harry came down in the middle of the night to fetch some water. He had been having trouble sleeping, and had found that actually getting up was marginally preferable to lying in his bed batting away the swirling mess of his thoughts.

Harry didn’t like being awake at night. He couldn’t help but wonder whether Louis was awake, on the other side of the castle, and his imagination kept itching it’s way into his thoughts. It was a dark place to go to.

Here was the truth of it: Harry was getting nowhere with him. Time was running out. Harry couldn’t even persuade him to take a trip to Paris. And when he told him why, it was hard for Harry to argue. He had a good reason for turning down almost every single longer trip he suggested to him. And without telling him why Harry  was so anxious to take him, he had little leverage at all.

Harry was walking past the living room when he heard the sound – a muffled cough, or perhaps an exclamation. He stopped, retraced his steps and stood in the doorway. He pushed gently at the door. On the living-room floor, the sofa cushions arranged into a sort of haphazard bed, lay his parents, under the guest quilt, their heads level with the gas fire. They stared at each other for a moment in the half-light, Harry’s glass motionless in his hand.

“What – what are you doing in there?”

Anne pushed herself up on to her elbow. “Shhh….Don’t raise your voice. We…” she looked at Robin. “We fancied a change.”

“What?”

“We fancied a change.” Anne glanced at Robin for backup.

“We’ve given Gemma our bed,” Robin said. He was wearing an old blue T-shirt with a rip in the shoulder, and his hair stuck up on one side. “She and Vi, they weren’t getting on too well in the box room. We said they could have ours.”

“But you can’t sleep down here! You can’t be comfortable like this.”

“We’re fine, H.” Robin said. “Really.”

And then, as Harry stood, dumbly struggling to comprehend, he added, “It’s only at weekends. And you can’t sleep in that box room. You need your sleep, what with…” He swallowed. “What with you being the only one of us at work and all.”

Harry’s father, the great lump, couldn’t meet his eye.

“Go on back to bed now, Harry. Go on. We’re fine.” Anne practically shooed him away.

Harry walked back up the stairs,  bare feet silent on the carpet, dimly aware of the brief murmured conversation below.

He hesitated outside Anne and Robin’s room, now hearing what he had not heard before – Violet’s muffled snoring within. Then he walked slowly back across the landing to his own room, and  closed the door carefully behind him. Harry lay in his over sized bed and stared out of the window at the lights of the street, until dawn – finally, thankfully – brought him a few precious hours of sleep.

****

There were seventy-nine days left on his calendar. Harry started to feel anxious again.

And he wasn’t alone.

Mrs. Tomlinson had waited until Niall was taking care of Louis one lunchtime, then asked Harry to accompany her to the big house. She sat him down in the living room and asked him how he thought things were.

“Well, we’re going out a lot more,” he said.

She nodded, as if in agreement.

“He talks more than he did.”

“To you, perhaps.” She gave a half-laugh that wasn’t really a laugh at all. “Have you mentioned going abroad to him?”

“Not yet. I will. It’s just...you know what he’s like.”

“I really don’t mind,” she said, “if you want to go somewhere. I know we probably weren’t the most enthusiastic advocates of your idea, but we’ve been talking a lot, and we both agree…”

They sat there in silence. She had made Harry coffee in a cup and saucer. He took a sip of it. It always made him feel about sixty, having a saucer balanced on his lap.

“So – Louis tells me he went to your house.”

“Yes, it was my birthday. My parents were doing a special dinner.”

“How was he?”

“Good. Really good. He was really sweet with my mum.” Harry couldn’t help but smile when he thought back to it. “I mean, she’s a bit sad because my sister and her son moved out. Mum misses them. I think he...he just wanted to take her mind off it.”

Mrs. Tomlinson looked surprised. “That was...thoughtful of him.”

“My mum thought so.”

She stirred at her coffee. “I can’t remember the last time Louis agreed to have supper with us.”

She probed a little more. Never asking a direct question, of course – that wasn’t her way. But Harry couldn’t give her the answers she wanted. Some days he thought Louis was happier – he went out with him without a fuss, he teased Harry, prodded him mentally, seemed a little more engaged with the world outside the annex – but what did Harry really know? With Louis he sensed a vast internal hinterland, a world he wouldn’t give him even a glimpse of. These last couple of weeks Harry had the uncomfortable feeling that hinterland was growing.

“He seems a little happier,” she said. It sounded almost as if she were trying to reassure herself.

“I think so.”

“It has been very –” her gaze flickered towards Harry “– rewarding, to see him a little more like his old self. I am very well aware that all these improvements are due to you.”

“Not all of them.”

“I couldn’t reach him. I couldn’t get anywhere near him.” She placed her cup and saucer on her knee. “He’s a singular person, Louis. From the time he hit adolescence, I always had to fight the feeling that in his eyes I had somehow done something wrong. I’ve never been quite sure what it was.” She tried to laugh, but it wasn’t really a laugh at all, glancing briefly at Harry and then looking away.

Harry pretended to sip his coffee, even though there was nothing in his cup.

“Do you get on well with your mother, Harry?”

“Yes,” Harry said, then added, “it’s my sister who drives me nuts.”

Mrs. Tomlinson gazed out of the windows, to where her precious garden had begun to bloom, its blossoms a pale and tasteful melding of pinks, mauves and blues.

“We have just two and a half months.” She spoke without turning her head.

Harry put his coffee cup on the table. He did it carefully, so that it didn’t clatter. “I’m doing my best, Mrs. Tomlinson.”

“I know, Harry.” She nodded.

Harry let himself out.

****

Leo McInerney died on 22 May, in the anonymous room of a flat in Switzerland, wearing his favorite football shirt, with both his parents at his side. His younger brother refused to come, but issued a statement saying that no one could have been more loved, or more supported than his brother. Leo drank the milky solution of lethal barbiturate at 3:47 PM and his parents said that within minutes he was in what appeared to be a deep sleep. He was pronounced dead at a little after four o’clock that afternoon by an observer who had witnessed the whole thing, alongside a video camera there to forestall any suggestion of wrongdoing.

“He looked at peace,” his mother was quoted as saying. “It’s the only thing I can hold on to.”

She and Leo’s father had been interviewed three times by police and faced the threat of prosecution. Hate mail had been posted to their house. She looked almost twenty years older than her given age. And yet, there was something else in her expression when she spoke; something that, alongside the grief and the anger and the anxiety and exhaustion, told of a deep, deep relief.

“He finally looked like Leo again.”

Chapter Text

“So come on, then, Styles. What exciting events have you got planned for this evening?”

They were in the garden. Niall was doing Louis’ physio, gently moving his knees up and down towards his chest, while Louis lay on a blanket, his face turned to the sun, his arms spread out as though he was sunbathing. Harry sat on the grass alongside them and ate his sandwiches. He rarely went out at lunchtime any more.

“Why?”

“Curiosity. I’m interested in how you spend your time when you’re not here.”

“Well...tonight it’s a quick bout of advanced martial arts, then a helicopter is flying me to Monte Carlo for supper. And then I might take in a cocktail in Cannes on the way home. If you look up at around – ooh – around 2 AM, I’ll give you a wave on my way over,” Harry said. He peeled the two sides of his sandwich apart, checking the filling. “I’m probably finishing my book.”

Louis glanced up at Niall. “Tenner,” he said, grinning.

Niall reached into his pocket. “Every time,” he said.

Harry stared at them. “Every time what?” he asked as Niall put the money into Louis’ hand.

“He said you’d be reading a book. I said you’d be watching telly. He always wins.”

Harry’s sandwich stilled at his lips. “Always? You’ve been betting on how boring my life is?”

“That’s not a word we would use,” Louis said. The faintly guilty look in his eyes told Harry otherwise.

Harry sat up straight. “Let me get this straight. You two are betting actual money that on a Friday night I would either be at home reading a book or watching television?”

“No,” said Louis. “I had each way on you seeing Running Man down at the track.”

Niall released Louis’ leg. He pulled Louis’ arm straight and began massaging it from the wrist up.

“What if I said I was actually doing something completely different?”

“But you never do,” Niall said.

“Actually, I’ll have that.” Harry plucked the tenner from Louis’ hand. “Because tonight you’re wrong.”

“You said you were going to read your book!” he protested.

“Now I have this,” Harry said, brandishing the ten-pound note. “I’ll be going to the cinema. So there. Law of unintended consequences, or whatever it is you call it.”

Harry stood up, pocketed the money, and shoved the remains of his lunch into its brown paper bag. He was smiling as he walked away from them but, weirdly, and for no reason that he could immediately understand, his eyes were prickling with tears.

Harry had spent an hour working on the calendar before coming to Granta House that morning. Some days he just sat and stared at it from his bed, magic marker in hand, trying to work out what he could take Louis to. Harry wasn’t yet convinced that he could get Louis to go much further away, and even with Niall’s help the thought of an overnight visit seemed daunting.

Harry scanned the local paper, glancing at football matches and village fêtes, but was afraid after the racing debacle that Louis’ chair might get stuck in the grass. Harry was concerned that crowds might leave him feeling exposed. He had to rule out all horse-related activities, which in an area like theirs meant a surprising amount of outdoor stuff. Harry knew he wouldn’t want to watch Nick running, and cricket and rugby left him cold. Some days Harry felt crippled by my own inability to think up new ideas.

Perhaps Louis and Niall were right. Perhaps Harry was boring. Perhaps he was the least well-equipped person in the world to try to come up with things that might inflame Louis’ appetite for life.

A book, or the television.

Put like that, it was hard to believe any differently.

After Niall left, Louis found Harry in the kitchen. He was sitting at the small table, peeling potatoes for Louis’ evening meal, and didn’t look up when he positioned his wheelchair in the doorway. Louis watched Harry long enough for his ears to turn pink with the scrutiny.

“You know,” Harry said, finally, “I could have been horrible to you back there. I could have pointed out that you do nothing either.”

“I’m not sure Niall would have offered particularly good odds on me going out dancing,” Louis said.

“I know it’s a joke,” Harry continued, discarding a long piece of potato peel. “But you just made me feel really shitty. If you were going to bet on my boring life, did you have to make me aware of it? Couldn’t you and Niall just have had it as some kind of private joke?”

He didn’t say anything for a bit. When Harry finally looked up, Louis was watching him. “Sorry,” he said.

“You don’t look sorry.”

“Well...okay...maybe I wanted you to hear it. I wanted you to think about what you’re doing.”

“What, how I’m letting my life slip by…?”

“Yes, actually.”

“God, Louis. I wish you’d stop telling me what to do. What if I like watching television? What if I don’t want to do much else other than read a book?” His voice had become shrill. “What if I’m tired when I get home? What if I don’t need to fill my days with frenetic activity?”

“But one day you might wish you had,” he said, quietly. “Do you know what I would do if I were you?”

Harry put down the peeler. “I suspect you’re going to tell me.”

“Yes. And I’m completely unembarrassed about telling you. I’d be doing night school. I’d be training as a seamstress or a fashion designer or whatever it is that taps into what you really love.” Louis gestured at his pants, a Sixties-inspired look, made with fabric that had once been a pair of Grandfather’s curtains.

The first time Robin had seen it he had pointed at him and yelled, “Hey, Harry, pull yourself together!” It had taken him a full five minutes to stop laughing.

“I’d be finding out what I could do that didn’t cost much – keep-fit classes, swimming, volunteering, whatever. I’d be teaching myself music or going for long walks with somebody else’s dog, or –”

“Okay, okay, I get the message,” Harry said, irritably. “But I’m not you, Louis.”

“Luckily for you.”

They sat there for a bit. Louis wheeled himself in, and raised the height of his chair so that they faced each other over the table.

“Okay,” Harry said. “So what did you do after work? That was so valuable?”

“Well, there wasn’t much time left after work, but I tried to do something every day. I did rock climbing at an indoor center, and squash, and I went to concerts, and tried new restaurants –”

“It’s easy to do those things if you have money,” Harry protested.

“And I went running. Yes, really,” he said, as Harry raised an eyebrow.

“And I tried to learn new languages for places I thought I might visit one day. And I saw my friends – or people I thought were my friends…” He hesitated for a moment. “And I planned trips. I looked for places I’d never been, things that would frighten me or push me to my limit. I swam the Channel once. I went paragliding. I walked up mountains and skied down them again. Yes –” he said, as Harry made to interrupt “– I know a lot of these need money, but a lot of them don’t. And besides, how do you think I made money?”

“Ripping people off in the City?”

“I worked out what would make me happy, and I worked out what I wanted to do, and I trained myself to do the job that would make those two things happen.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

“It is simple,” he said. “The thing is, it’s also a lot of hard work. And people don’t want to put in a lot of work.”

Harry had finished the potatoes. He threw the peel into the bin, and put the pan on to the stove ready for later. He turned and lifted himself on his arms so that he was sitting on the table facing Louis, his legs dangling.

“You had a big life, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I did.”  He moved a bit closer, and raised his chair so that he was almost at eye level. “That’s why you piss me off, Haz. Because I see all this talent, all this…” He shrugged. “This energy and brightness, and –”

“Don’t say potential…”

“...potential. Yes. Potential. And I cannot for the life of me see how you can be content to live this tiny life. This life that will take place almost entirely within a five-mile radius and contain nobody who will ever surprise you or push you or show you things that will leave your head spinning and unable to sleep at night.”

“This is your way of telling me I should be doing something far more worthwhile than peeling your potatoes?”

“I’m telling you there’s a whole world out there. But that I’d be very grateful if you’d do me some potatoes first.” He smiled at Harry, and he couldn’t help but smile back.

“Don’t you think –” Harry started, and then broke off.

“Go on.”

“Don’t you think it’s actually harder for you...to adapt, I mean? Because you’ve done all that stuff?”

“Are you asking me if I wish I’d never done it?”

“I’m just wondering if it would have been easier for you. If you’d led a smaller life. To live like this, I mean.”

“I will never, ever regret the things I’ve done. Because most days, if you’re stuck in one of these, all you have are the places in your memory that you can go to.” He smiled. It was tight, as if it cost him. “So if you’re asking me would I rather be reminiscing about the view of the castle from the minimart, or that lovely row of shops down off the roundabout, then, no. My life was just fine, thanks.”

Harry slid off the table. He wasn’t entirely sure how, but he felt, yet again, like he’d somehow been argued into a corner. Harry reached for the chopping board on the drainer.

“And Haz, I’m sorry. About the money thing.”

“Yeah. Well” Harry turned, and began rinsing the chopping board under the sink. “Don’t think that’s going to get you your tenner back.”

****

Two days later Louis ended up in hospital with an infection. A precautionary measure, they called it, although it was obvious to everyone that he was in a lot of pain. Some paraplegics had no sensation but, while he was impervious to temperature, below his chest Louis could feel both pain and touch. Harry went in to see him twice, bringing him music and nice things to eat, and offering to keep him company, but peculiarly he felt in the way, and realized quite quickly that Louis didn’t actually want the extra attention in there. He told Harry to go home and enjoy some time to himself.

A year previously, Harry would have wasted those free days; he  would have trawled the shops, maybe gone over to meet Nick for lunch. He would probably have watched some daytime television, and maybe made a vague attempt to sort out my clothes. He might have slept a lot.

Now, however, Harry felt oddly restless and dislocated. He missed having a reason to get up early, a purpose to his day.

It took him half a morning to work out that this time could be useful. Harry went to the library and began to research. He looked up every website about paraplegics that he could find, and worked out things they could do when Louis was better. Harry wrote lists, adding to each entry the equipment or things he might need to consider for each event.

Harry discovered chat rooms for those with spinal injuries, and found there were thousands of men and women out there just like Louis – leading hidden lives in London, Sydney, Vancouver, or just down the road – aided by friends or family, or sometimes, heartbreakingly alone.

Harry wasn’t the only care giver interested in these sites. There were girlfriends, asking how they could help their partners gain the confidence to go out again, husbands seeking advice on the latest medical equipment. There were advertisements for wheelchairs that would go on sand or off-road, clever hoists or inflatable bathing aids.

There were codes to their discussions. Harry worked out that SCI was a spinal cord injury, AB the able-bodied, a UTI an infection. He saw that a C4/5 spinal injury was far more severe than a C11/12, most of whom still seemed to have use of their arms or torso. There were stories of love and loss, of partners struggling to cope with disabled spouses as well as young children. There were wives who felt guilty that they had prayed their husbands would stop beating them – and then found they never would again. There were husbands who wanted to leave disabled wives but were afraid of the reaction of their community. There was exhaustion and despair, and a lot of dark humor – jokes about exploding catheter bags, other people’s well-meaning idiocy, or drunken misadventures. Falling out of chairs seemed to be a common theme. And there were threads about suicide – those who wanted to, those who encouraged them to give themselves more time, to learn to look at their lives in a different way. Harry read each thread, and felt like he was getting a secret insight into the workings of Louis’ brain.

At lunchtime Harry left the library and went for a brief walk around town to clear his head. He treated himself to a prawn sandwich and sat on the wall watching the swans in the lake below the castle. It was warm enough for him to take off his jacket, and he let his  face tilt towards the sun. There was something curiously restful about watching the rest of the world getting on with its business. After spending all morning stuck in the world of the confined, just being able to walk out and eat his lunch in the sun felt like a freedom.

When Harry had finished, he walked back to the library, reclaimed a computer terminal. And he took a breath and typed a message.

Hi – I am the friend/carer of a 35 year old C5/6 para, almost quad. He was very successful and dynamic in his former life and is having trouble adjusting to his new one. In fact, I know that he does not want to live, and I am trying to think of ways of changing his mind. Please could anyone tell me how I could do this? Any ideas for things he might enjoy, or ways I could get him to think differently? All advice gratefully received.

Harry called himself HazzyBearra. Then he sat back in his chair, chewed at his thumbnail for a bit, and finally pressed ‘Send’.

When Harry sat down at the terminal the next morning, he had fourteen answers. He logged into the chat room, and blinked as he saw the list of names, the responses which had come from people worldwide, throughout the day and night. The first one said:

Dear HazzyBearra,

Welcome to our board. I’m sure your friend will gain a lot of comfort from having someone looking out for him.

I’m not so sure about that, Harry thought.

Most of us on here have hit a definite hump at some point in our lives. It may be that your friend has hit his. Don’t let him push you away. Stay positive. And remind him that it is not his place to decide both when we enter and depart this world, but that of the Lord. He decided to change your friend’s life, in His own wisdom and there may be a lesson in it that He –

Harry scanned down to the next one.

Dear Bearra,

There is no way around it, being a para or quad can suck. If your guy was a bit of a player too, then he is going to find it extra hard. These are the things that helped me. A lot of company, even when I didn’t feel like it. Good food. Good docs. Good meds, depression meds when necessary. You didn’t say where you were based, but if you can get him talking to others in the SCI community it may help. I was pretty reluctant at first (I think some part of me didn’t want to admit I was actually a quad) but it does help to know you’re not alone out there.

Oh, and DON’T let him watch any films like

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Major downer!

Let us know how you get on.

All best,

Ritchie

Harry looked up The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. “The story of a man who suffers a paralyzing stroke, and his attempts to communicate with the outside world,” it said. Harry wrote the title down on his  pad, uncertain whether he was doing so to make sure Louis avoided it, or so he remembered to watch it.

The next two answers were from a Seventh-day Adventist, and a man whose suggested ways in which he could cheer Louis up were certainly not covered by his working contract. Harry flushed and hurriedly scrolled down, afraid that someone might glance at the screen from behind him. And then Harry hesitated on the next reply.

Hi HazzyBearra,

Why do you think your friend/charge/whatever needs his mind changing? If I could work out a way of dying with dignity, and if I didn’t know it would devastate my family, I would take it. I have been stuck in this chair eight years now, and my life is a constant round of humiliations and frustrations. Can you really put yourself in his shoes? Do you know how it feels to not even be able to empty your bowels without help? To know that forever after you are going to be stuck in your bed/unable to eat, dress, communicate with the outside world without someone to help you? To never have sex again? To face the prospect of sores, and ill health and even ventilators? You sound like a nice person, and I’m sure you mean well. But it may not be you looking after him next week. It may be someone who depresses him, or even doesn’t like him very much. That, like everything else, is out of his control. We SCIs know that very little is under our control – who feeds us, dresses us, washes us, dictates our medication. Living with that knowledge is very hard.

So I think you are asking the wrong question. Who are the AB to decide what our lives should be? If this is the wrong life for your friend, shouldn’t the question be: How do I help him to end it?

Best wishes,

Gforce, Missouri, US

Harry stared at the message, his fingers briefly stilled on the keyboard. Then he scrolled down. The next few were from other quadriplegics, criticizing Gforce for his bleak words, protesting that they had found a way forward, that theirs was a life worth living. There was a brief argument going on that seemed to have little to do with Louis at all.

And then the thread dragged itself back to his request. There were suggestions of antidepressants, massage, miracle recoveries, stories of how members’ own lives had been given new value. There were a few practical suggestions: wine tasting, music, art, specially adapted keyboards.

“A partner,” said Grace31 from Birmingham. “If he has love, he will feel he can go on. Without it, I would have sunk many times over.”

That phrase echoed in Harry’s head long after he had left the library.

****

Louis came out of hospital on Thursday. Harry picked him up in the adapted car, and brought him home. He was pale and exhausted, and stared out of the window listlessly for the whole journey.

“No sleep in those places,” he explained, when Harry asked him if he was okay. “There’s always someone moaning in the next bed.”

Harry told him he would have the weekend to recover, but after that he had a series of outings planned. Harry told him he was taking his advice and trying new things, and he would have to come with him. It was a subtle change in emphasis, but Harry knew that was the only way he could get Louis to accompany him

In fact, Harry had devised a detailed schedule for the next couple of weeks. Each event was carefully marked on his calendar in black, with red pen outlining the precautions he should take, and green for the accessories he would need. Every time Harry looked at the back of his door he felt a little glimmer of excitement, both that he had been so organized, but also that one of these events might actually be the thing that changed Louis’ view of the world.

As Robin always said, his sister was the brains of their family.

The art gallery trip lasted a shade under twenty minutes. And that included driving round the block three times in search of a suitable parking space. They got there, and almost before Harry had closed the door behind Louis, he said all the work was terrible. Harry asked him why and he said if he couldn’t see it he couldn’t explain it. The cinema had to be abandoned after the staff told them, apologetically, that their lift was out of order. Others, such as the failed attempt to go swimming, required more time and organization – the ringing of the swimming pool beforehand, the booking of Niall for overtime, and then, when they got there, the flask of hot chocolate drunk in silence in the leisure center car park when Louis resolutely refused to go in.

The following Wednesday evening, they went to hear a singer Louis had once seen live in New York. That was a good trip. When he listened to music, Louis wore an expression of intense concentration. Most of the time, it was as if he were not wholly present, as if there were some part of him struggling with pain, or memories, or dark thoughts. But with music it was different.

And then the following day Harry took him to a wine tasting, part of a promotional event held by a vineyard in a specialist wine shop. He had to promise Niall that he wouldn’t get Louis drunk. Harry held up each glass for Louis to sniff, and he knew what it was even before he’d tasted it. Harry tried quite hard not to snort when Louis spat it into the cup (it did look really funny), and he looked at Harry from under his brows and said he was a complete child. The shop owner went from being weirdly disconcerted by having a man in a wheelchair in his shop to quite impressed. As the afternoon went on, he sat down and started opening other bottles, discussing region and grape with Louis, while Harry wandered up and down looking at the labels, becoming, frankly, a little bored.

“Come on, Styles. Get an education,” he said, nodding at Harry to sit down beside him.

“I can’t. My mum told me it was rude to spit.”

The two men looked at each other as if Harry were the mad one. And yet Louis didn’t spit every time. Harry watched him. And he was suspiciously talkative for the rest of the afternoon – swift to laugh, and even more combative than usual.

And then, on the way home, they were driving through a town they didn’t normally go to and, as we sat, motionless, in traffic, Harry glanced over and saw the Tattoo and Piercing Parlor.

“I’ve been wanting another tattoo for a while.” Harry said.

He should have known afterwards that you couldn’t just say stuff like that in Louis’ presence. He didn’t do small talk, or shooting the breeze. He immediately wanted to know why he hadn’t gotten another one.

"Oh...I don’t know. I already get enough people looking at me. Plus what people would say.”

“Why? What would they say?”

“Robin hates them.”

“How old are you again?”

“Nick hates them too.”

“And he never does anything that you might not like.”

“I might change my mind once it was done.”

“Then you get it removed by laser, surely?”

Harry looked at Louis in the rear-view mirror. His eyes were merry.

“Come on, then,” he said. “What would you get?”

Harry realized he was smiling. “I don’t know. Not a snake. Or anyone’s name.”

“I wasn’t expecting a heart with a banner saying “mother”.”

“You promise not to laugh?”

“You know I can’t do that. Oh God, you’re not going to have some Indian Sanskrit proverb or something, are you? What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

“No. I’d have a bee. A little black and yellow bee. I love them.”

Louis nodded, as if that were a perfectly reasonable thing to want. “And where would you have it? Or daren’t I ask?”

Harry shrugged. “Dunno. My shoulder? Lower hip?”

“Pull over,” Louis said.

“Why, are you okay?”

“Just pull over. There’s a space there. Look, on your left.”

Harry pulled the car into the curb and glanced back at him. “Go on, then,” he said. “We’ve got nothing else on today.”

“Go on where?”

“To the tattoo parlor.”

Harry started to laugh. “Yeah. Right.”

“Why not?”

“You have been swallowing instead of spitting.”

“There’s a joke in there somewhere, Styles. You haven’t answered my question.”

Harry turned in his seat. He was serious.

“I can’t just go and get another tattoo. Just like that.”

“Why not?”

“Because…”

“Because your boyfriend says no. Because you still have to be a good boy, even at twenty-seven. Because it’s too scary. C’mon, Styles. Live a little. What’s stopping you?”

Harry stared down the road at the tattoo parlor frontage. The slightly grimy window bore a large neon heart, and some framed photographs of Angelina Jolie and Mickey Rourke.

Louis’ voice broke into Harry’s calculations. “Okay. I will, if you will.”

Harry turned back to him. “You’d get a tattoo?”

“If it persuaded you, just once, to climb out of your little box.”

Harry switched off the engine. They sat, listening to it tick it's way down, the dull murmur of the cars queuing along the road beside us.

“It’s quite permanent.”

“No “quite” about it.”

“Nick will hate it.”

“So you keep saying.”

“And we’ll probably get hepatitis from dirty needles. And die slow, horrible, painful deaths.” Harry turned to Louis. “They probably wouldn’t be able to do it now. Not actually right now.”

“Probably not. But shall we just go and check?”

Two hours later they exited the tattoo parlor, Harry eighty pounds lighter and bearing a surgical patch over his hip where the ink was still drying. Its relatively small size, the tattoo artist said, meant that he could have it lined and colored in one visit, so there he was. Finished. Tattooed once more. Or, as Nick would no doubt say, scarred for life again. Under that white dressing sat a fat little bumblebee, culled from the laminated ring binder of images that the tattoo artist had handed them when they walked in. Harry felt almost hysterical with excitement. He kept reaching around to peek at it until Louis told him to stop, or he was going to dislocate something.

Louis had been relaxed and happy in there, oddly enough. They had not given him a second look. They had done a few quads and paras, they said, which explained the ease with which they had handled him. They were surprised when Louis said he could feel the needle. Six weeks earlier they had finished inking a paraplegic who had had trompe l’oeil bionics inked the whole way down one side of his leg.

The tattooist with the bolt through his ear had taken Louis into the next room and, with Harry’s tattooist’s help, laid him down on a special table so that all Harry could see through the open door were his lower legs. Harry could hear the two men murmuring and laughing over the buzz of the tattooing needle, the smell of antiseptic sharp in Harry’s nostrils.

When the needle first bit into his skin, Harry chewed his lip, determined not to let Louis know how strange and quite good tattoos made him feel. Harry kept his mind on what he was doing next door, trying to eavesdrop on his conversation, wondering what it was he was having done. When he finally emerged, after Harry’s own had been finished, he refused to let him see. Harry suspected it might be something to do with Ashton.

“You’re a bad bloody influence on me, Louis Tomlinson,” Harry said, opening the car door and lowering the ramp. He couldn’t stop grinning.

“Show me.”

Harry glanced down the street, then turned and peeled a little of the dressing down from his hip.

“It’s great. I like your little bee. Really.”

“if your mum hears you got one…”

“I’m going to tell her the man from the council estate led me astray.”

“Okay then, Tommo, you show me yours.”

Louis gazed at Harry steadily, half smiling. “You’ll have to put a new dressing on it when we get home.”

“Yeah. Like that never happens. Go on. I’m not driving off until you do.”

“Lift my shirt, then. To the right. Your right.”

Harry leaned through the front seats, and tugged at his shirt, peeling back the piece of gauze beneath. There, dark against his pale skin was a black and white striped ink rectangle, small enough that he had to look twice before Harry realized what it said.

Best before: 19 March 2014

Harry stared at it. He half laughed, and then his eyes filled with tears. “Is that the –”

“Date of my accident. Yes.” He raised his eyes to the heavens. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, don’t get upset, Haz. It was meant to be funny.”

“It is funny. In a crappy sort of way.”

“Niall will enjoy it. Oh, come on, don’t look like that. It’s not as if I’m ruining my perfect body, is it?”

Harry pulled Louis’ shirt back down and then turned and fired up the ignition. He didn’t know what to say. Harry didn’t know what any of this meant. Was this him coming to terms with his state? Or just another way of showing his contempt for his own body?

“Hey, Haz, do me a favor” he said, just as Harry was about to pull away. “Reach into the backpack for me. The zipped pocket.:

Harry glanced into the rear-view mirror, and put the car in park again. He leaned through the front seats and put his hand in the bag, rummaging around according to his instructions.

“You want painkillers?” Harry was inches from his face. Louis had more color in his skin than at any time since he came back from hospital. “I’ve got some in my –”

“No. Keep looking.”

Harry pulled out a piece of paper and sat back. It was a folded ten-pound note.

“There you go. The emergency tenner.”

“So?”

“It’s yours.”

“For what?”

“That tattoo” He grinned at Harry. “Right up until you were in that chair, I didn’t think for a minute you were going to actually do it.”

Chapter Text

There was no way around it. The sleeping arrangements just weren’t working. Every weekend that Gemma came home, the Styles-Twist family began a lengthy, nocturnal game of musical beds. After supper on Friday night Anne and Robin would offer up their bedroom, and Gemma would accept it, after they had reassured her that no, they were not in the least bit put out, and how much better Violet was at sleeping in a room she knew. It would mean, they said, that everyone got a good night’s sleep.

But Anne sleeping downstairs also involved she and Robin needing their own quilt, their own pillows and even under-sheet, as Anne couldn’t sleep properly unless her bed was just as she liked it. So after supper she and Gemma would strip Anne and Robin’s bed and put on a new set of sheets, together with a mattress protector, just in case Violet had an accident. Anne and Robin’s, meanwhile, would be folded and placed in the corner of the living room, where Violet would dive into it and on to it and string the sheet across the dining chairs to turn it into a tent.

Grandfather offered his room, but nobody took it. It smelt of yellowing copies of the Racing Post and Old Holborn, and it would have taken all weekend to clear out. Harry would alternately feel guilty – all this was his fault, after all – while knowing he would not offer to return to the box room. It had become a kind of prison for him, that airless little room with no windows. The thought of sleeping in there again made his chest feel tight. He was twenty-seven years old. He was the main earner of the family. He could not sleep in what was essentially a cupboard.

One weekend Harry offered to sleep at Nick’s, and everyone looked secretly relieved. But then, while he was away, Violet put sticky fingers all over his new blinds and drew on his duvet cover in permanent pen, at which point Anne and Robin decided it would be best if they slept in Harry’s room, while Gemma and Violet went into theirs, where the odd bit of felt tip apparently didn’t matter.

Once you had accounted for all the extra bed stripping and laundry, Harry spending Friday and Saturday nights at Nick’s, Anne admitted, wasn’t actually much help at all.

And then there was Nick. Nick was now a man obsessed. He ate, drank, lived and breathed the Xtreme Viking. His flat, normally sparsely furnished and immaculate, was strung with training schedules and dietary sheets. He had a new lightweight bike which lived in the hallway and which Harry wasn’t allowed to touch, in case he interfered with its finely balanced lightweight racing capabilities.

And he was rarely home, even on a Friday or Saturday night. What with his training and Harry’s work hours they seemed to have become used to spending less time together. Harry could follow him down to the track and watch him push himself round and round in circles until he had completed the requisite number of miles, or he could stay home and watch television by himself, curled up in a corner of his vast leather settee. There was no food in the fridge, apart from strips of turkey breast and vile energy drinks the consistency of frogspawn. Gemma and Harry had tried one once and spat it out, gagging theatrically, like children.

The truth of it was Harry didn’t like Nick’s flat. He had bought it a year ago, when he finally felt his mother would be okay by herself. His business had done well, and he had told Harry it was important that one of them get onto the property ladder. Harry supposed that would have been the cue for them to have a conversation about whether they were going to live together, but somehow it didn’t happen, and neither of them was the type to bring up subjects that make them feel a bit uncomfortable. As a result, there was nothing of Harry in that flat, despite their years together. Harry had never quite been able to tell him, but he would rather live in his house, with all its noise and clutter, than in that soulless, featureless bachelor pad, with its allocated parking spaces and executive view of the castle.

And besides, it was a bit lonely.

“Got to stick to the schedule, babe,” he would say, if Harry told him. “If I do any fewer than twenty-three miles at this stage of the game, I’ll never make it back on schedule.” Then he would give the latest update on his shin splints or ask Harry to pass him the heat spray.

When he wasn’t training, Nick was at endless meetings with other members of his team, comparing kit and finalizing travel arrangements. Sitting among them was like being with a bunch of Korean speakers. Harry had no idea what any of it meant, and no great desire to immerse himself.

And he was supposed to be going with them to Norway in seven weeks’ time. Harry hadn’t yet worked out how to tell Nick that he hadn’t asked the Tomlinson’s for the time off. How could he? By the time the Xtreme Viking took place, there would be less than one week of his contract left to run. Harry supposed he was childishly refusing to deal with it all, but truthfully, all he could see was Louis and a ticking clock. Not a lot else seemed to register.

The great irony of all this was that Harry didn’t even sleep well at Nick’s flat. He didn’t know what it was, but he came to work from there feeling like he was speaking through a glass jar, and looking like he had been punched in both eyes. Harry began painting concealer on his dark shadows with the same slapdash abandon as if he were decorating.

“What’s going on, Haz?” Louis asked.

Harry opened his eyes. Louis was right beside him, his head cocked to one side, watching him. Harry got the feeling he might have been there for some time. His hand went automatically for his mouth in case he had been dribbling.

The film he was supposed to have been watching was now a series of slow-moving credits.

“Nothing. Sorry. It’s just warm in here.” He pushed himself upright.

“It’s the second time you’ve fallen asleep in three days.” Louis studied his face. “And you look bloody awful.”

So Harry told him. He told him about his sister, and the sleeping arrangements, and how Harry didn’t want to make a fuss because every time he looked at Robin’s face he saw his barely concealed despair that he could not even provide his family with a house they could all sleep in.

“He’s still not found anything?”

“No. I think it’s his age. But we don’t talk about it. It’s…” Harry shrugged. “It’s too uncomfortable for everyone.”

They waited for the movie to finish, and then Harry walked over to the player, ejected the DVD and put it back in its case. It felt somehow wrong, telling Louis his problems. They seemed embarrassingly trivial next to his.

“I’ll get used to it,” Harry said. “It’ll be fine. Really.”

Louis seemed preoccupied for the rest of the afternoon. Harry washed up, then came through and set up his computer for him. When he brought him a drink, Louis swiveled his chair towards him.

“It’s quite simple,” he said, as if they had been in conversation. “You can sleep here at weekends. There’s a room going spare – it might as well get some use.”

Harry stopped, the glass in his hand. “I can’t do that.”

“Why not? I’m not going to pay you for the extra hours you’re here.”

Harry placed the glass in his holder. “But what would your mum think?”

“I have no idea.”

Harry must have looked troubled, because he added, “It’s okay. I’m safe.”

“What?”

“If you’re worried I have some devious secret plan to seduce you, you can just pull my plug out.”

“Funny.”

“Seriously. Think about it. You could have it as your backup option. Things might change faster than you think. Your sister might decide she doesn’t want to spend every weekend at home after all. Or she might meet someone. A million things might change.”

And you might not be here in two months, Harry told him silently, and immediately hated himself for thinking it.

“Tell me something,” he said, as he went to leave the room. “Why isn’t Running Man offering you his place?”

“Oh, he has,” Harry said.

Louis looked at him, as if he were about to pursue the conversation.

And then he seemed to change his mind. “Like I said.” He shrugged. “The offer’s there.”

****

These are the things that Louis liked.

Watching films, especially foreign ones with subtitles. He could occasionally be persuaded into an action thriller, even an epic romance, but drew the line at romantic comedies. If Harry dared to rent one, he would spend the entire 120 minutes letting out little pffts of derision, or pointing out the great clichés in the plot, until it was no fun for Harry at all.

Listening to classical music. He knew an awful lot about it. He also liked some modern stuff, but said jazz was mostly pretentious guff. When he saw the contents of Harry’s MP3 player one afternoon, he laughed so hard he nearly dislodged one of his tubes.

Sitting in the garden, now that it was warm. Sometimes Harry stood in the window and watched him, his head tilted back, just enjoying the sun on his face. When Harry remarked on his ability to be still and just enjoy the moment – something he had never mastered – Louis pointed out that if you can barely move your arms and can’t move your legs, you haven’t actually got a lot of choice.

Making Harry read books or magazines, and then talk about them. Knowledge is power, Styles, he would say. Harry hated this at first; it felt like he was at school, being quizzed on his powers of memory. But after a while he realized that, in Louis’ eyes, there were no wrong answers. He actually liked Harry to argue with him. He asked Harry what he thought of things in the newspapers, disagreed with him about characters in books. He seemed to hold opinions on almost everything – what the government was doing, whether one business should buy another, whether someone should have been sent to jail. If he thought Harry was being lazy, or parroting his parents’ or Nick’s ideas, he would just say a flat, “No. Not good enough.” He would look so disappointed if Harry said he knew nothing about it; He had begun to anticipate Louis and now read a newspaper on the bus on the way in, just so he felt prepared. “Good point, Styles,’ he would say, and Harry would find himself beaming. And then give himself a kick for allowing Louis  to patronize him again.

Getting a shave. Every two days now, Harry lathered up his jaw and made him presentable. If he wasn’t having a bad day, he would lean back in his chair, close his eyes, and the closest thing Harry saw to physical pleasure would spread across his face. Perhaps he’s invented that. Perhaps he saw what he wanted to see. But Louis would be completely silent as Harry gently ran the blade across his chin, smoothing and scraping, and when he did open his eyes his expression had softened, like someone coming out of a particularly satisfactory sleep. His face now held some color from their time spent outside; his was the kind of skin that tanned easily. Harry kept the razors high up in the bathroom cabinet, tucked behind a large bottle of conditioner.

Being a bloke. Especially with Niall. Occasionally, before the evening routine, they would go and sit at the end of the garden and Niall would crack open a couple of beers. Sometimes Harry heard them discussing rugby, or joking about some man they had seen on the television, and it wouldn’t sound like Louis at all. But Harry understood he needed this. It was a small bit of ‘normal’ in his strange, separate life.

Commenting on Harry’s wardrobe. Actually, that should be raising an eyebrow at his wardrobe. Except for the black and yellow jumper. On the two occasions Harry had worn it, he hadn’t said anything, but simply nodded, as if something were right with the world.

“You saw my dad in town the other day.”

“Oh. Yes.” Harry was hanging washing out on a line. The line itself was hidden in what Mrs. Tomlinson called the Kitchen Garden. Harry thought she didn’t want anything as mundane as laundry polluting the view of her herbaceous borders. Harry’s own mother pegged her whites out almost as a badge of pride. It was like a challenge to her neighbors: Beat this, ladies! It was all Robin could do to stop her putting a second revolving clothes dryer out the front.

“He asked me if you’d said anything about it.”

“Oh.” Harry kept his face a studied blank. And then, because he seemed to be waiting, “Evidently not.”

“Was he with someone?”

Harry put the last peg back in the peg bag. He rolled it up, and placed it in the empty laundry basket. He turned to Louis.

“Yes.”

“A woman.”

“Yes.”

“Red-haired?”

“Yes.”

Louis  thought about this for a minute.

“I’m sorry if you think I should have told you,” Harry said. “But it...it didn’t seem like my business.’

“And it’s never an easy conversation to have.”

“No.”

“If it’s any consolation, Styles, it’s not the first time,” he said, and headed back into the house.

****

Deirdre Bellows said his name twice before he looked up. Harry was scribbling in his notepad, place names and question marks, pros and cons, and he had pretty much forgotten he was even on a bus. He was trying to work out a way of getting Louis to the theater. There was only one within two hours’ drive, and it was showing Oklahoma! It was hard to imagine Louis nodding along to ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’, but all the serious theater was in London. And London still seemed like an impossibility.

Basically, Harry could now get Louis out of the house, but they had pretty much reached the end of what was available within an hour’s radius, and Harry had no idea how to get him to go further.

“In your own little world, eh, Harry?”

“Oh. Hi, Deirdre.” He scooted over on the seat to make room for her.

Deirdre had been friends with Anne since they were girls. She owned a  furniture shop and had been divorced three times. She possessed hair thick enough to be a wig, and a fleshy, sad face that looked like she was still dreaming wistfully of the white knight who would come and sweep her away.

“I don’t normally get the bus but my car’s in for a service. How are you? Your mum told me all about your job. Sounds very interesting.”

This is the thing about growing up in a small town. Every part of your life is up for grabs. Nothing is secret – not the time Harry was caught smoking at the out-of-town supermarket car park when he was fourteen, nor the fact that Robin had re-tiled the downstairs loo. The minutiae of everyday lives were currency for women like Deirdre.

“It’s good, yes”

“And well paid.”

“Yes.”

“I was so relieved for you after the whole Hot Crossed Buns thing. Such a shame they shut the bakery. We’re losing all the useful shops in this town. I remember when we had a grocer, a baker and a butcher on the high street. All we needed was a candlestick maker!”

“Mmm.” Harry saw her glance at his list and closed his notepad. “Still. At least we do have somewhere to buy curtains. How’s the shop?”

“Oh, fine...yes...What’s that, then? Something to do with work?”

“I’m just working on things that Louis might like to do.:

“Is that your disabled man?”

“Yes. My boss.”

“Your boss. That’s a nice way of putting it.” She nudged him. “And how’s your clever old sister getting on at university?”

“She’s good. And Violet.”

“She’ll end up running the country, that one. I have to say, though, Harry, I was always surprised you didn’t leave before her. We always thought you were such a bright little thing. Not that we still don’t, of course.”

Harry raised a polite smile. He wasn’t sure what else he could do.

“But still. Someone’s got to do it, eh? And it’s nice for your mum that one of you is happy to stay so close to home.”

Harry wanted to contradict her, and then he realized that nothing he had done in the last seven years suggested he had either any ambition or any desire to move further than the end of his street. Harry sat there, as the bus’s tired old engine snarled and juddered beneath them, and had a sudden sense of time racing, of losing whole chunks of it in his small journeys backwards and forwards along the same stretch. Round and round the castle. Watching Nick go round and round the track. The same petty concerns. The same routines.

“Oh, well. Here’s my stop.” Deirdre rose heavily beside him, hoisting her patent handbag over her shoulder. “Give your mum my love. Tell her I’ll be round tomorrow.”

****

Every day, while he was watching television, or otherwise engaged, Harry sat in front of Louis’ computer and worked on coming up with the magic event that might Make Louis Happy. But as time went on, Harry found that my list of things they couldn’t do, places they couldn’t go to, had begun to exceed his ideas for those they could by a significant factor. When the one figure first exceeded the other, Harry went back on to the chatroom sites, and asked their advice.

Ha! said Ritchie. Welcome to our world, HazzyBearra.

From the ensuing conversations Harry learned that getting drunk in a wheelchair came with its own hazards, including catheter disasters, falling down curbs, and being steered to the wrong home by other drunks. Harry learnt that there was no single place where non-quads were more or less helpful than anywhere else, but that Paris was singled out as the least wheelchair-friendly place on earth. This was disappointing, as some small, optimistic part of him had still hoped they might make it there.

Harry began to compile a new list – things you cannot do with a paraplegic or quadriplegic.

Go on a tube train (most underground stations don’t have lifts), which pretty much ruled out activities in half of London unless they wanted to pay for taxis.

Go swimming, without help, and unless the temperature was warm enough to stop involuntary shivering within minutes. Even disabled changing rooms are not much use without a pool hoist. Not that Louis would have allowed himself into a pool hoist.

Go to the cinema, unless guaranteed a seat at the front, or unless Louis’ spasms were low-grade that day. Harry had spent at least twenty minutes of their last movie on his hands and knees picking up the popcorn that Louis’ unexpected knee jerk had sent flying into the air.

Go on a beach, unless your chair had been adapted with ‘fat wheels’. Louis’ hadn’t.

Fly on aircraft where the disabled ‘quota’ had already been used up.

Go shopping, unless all the shops had got their statutory ramps in place. Many around the castle used their building status to say they couldn’t fit them..

Go anywhere too hot, or too cold (temperature issues).

Go anywhere spontaneously (bags needed to be packed, routes to be double-checked for accessibility).

Go out to eat, if feeling self-conscious about being fed, or – depending on the catheter situation – if the restaurant’s bathroom was down a flight of stairs.

Go on long train journeys (exhausting, and too difficult to get heavy motorized chair on to train without help).

Get a haircut if it had been raining (all the hair stuck to Louis’ wheels. Weirdly, this made both of them nauseous).

Go to friend’s houses, unless they had wheelchair ramps. Most houses have stairs. Most people do not have ramps. Harry’s house was a rare exception. Louis said there was nobody he wanted to see anyway.

Go down the hill from the castle in heavy rain (the brakes were not always safe, and that chair was too heavy for Harry to hold).

Go anywhere where there were likely to be drunks. Louis was a magnet for drunks. They would crouch down, breathe fumes all over him, and make big, sympathetic eyes. Sometimes they would, indeed, try to wheel him off.

Go anywhere where there might be crowds. This meant that, as summer approached, outings around the castle were getting harder, and half the places Harry thought they might be able to go – fairs, outdoor theater, concerts – were ruled out.

When, struggling for ideas, Harry asked the online quads what was the thing they would like to do most in all the world, the answer nearly always came back as, ‘Have sex.’ Harry got quite a lot of unsolicited detail on that one.

But essentially it was not a huge help. There were eight weeks to go, and Harry had run out of ideas.

A couple of days after the discussion under the washing line, Harry returned home to find Robin standing in the hallway. This would have been unusual in itself (the last few weeks he seemed to have retreated to the sofa in the daytime, supposedly to keep Grandfather company), but he was wearing an ironed shirt, had shaved, and the hallway was filled with the scent of Old Spice. Harry was pretty sure he’d had that bottle of aftershave since 1974.

“There you are.”

Harry closed the door behind him. “Here I am.”

Harry was feeling tired and anxious. He had spent the whole bus journey home talking on his cell phone to a travel agent about places to take Louis, but they were both stumped. He needed to get him further away from home. But there didn’t seem to be a single place outside a five-mile radius of the castle that he actually wanted to visit.

“Are you okay getting your own dinner tonight?”

“Sure. I can join Nick at the pub later. Why?” Harry hung up his coat on a free peg.

The rack was so much emptier with all Gemma’s and Violet’s coats gone.

“I am taking your mother out.”

Harry did a quick mental calculation. “Did I miss her birthday?”

“Nope. We’re celebrating.” He lowered his voice, as if it were some kind of secret. “I got a job.”

“You didn’t!” And now Harry could see it; his whole body had lightened. He was standing straighter again, his face wreathed in smiles. He looked years younger.

“Dad, that’s fantastic.”

“I know. Your mother’s over the moon. And, you know, she’s had a tough few months what with Gemma going and Grandfather and all. So I want to take her out tonight, treat her a bit.”

“So what’s the job?”

“I’m going to be head of maintenance. Up at the castle.”

Harry blinked. “But that’s –”

“Mr. Tomlinson. That’s right. He rang me and said he was looking for someone, and your man, Louis there, had told him that I was available. I went this afternoon and showed him what I could do, and I’m on a month’s trial. Beginning Saturday.”

“You’re going to work for Louis’ dad?”

“Well, he said they have to do a month’s trial, to go through the proper procedures and all, but he said he couldn’t think of any reason why I shouldn’t get it.”

“That – that’s great,” Harry said. He felt weirdly unbalanced by the news. “I didn’t even know they were looking.”

“Me either. It’s great, though. He’s a man who understands quality, H. I talked to him about green oak, and he showed me some of the work done by the previous man. You wouldn’t believe it. Shocking. He said he was very impressed by my work.”

He was animated, more so than Harry had seen him for months.

Anne had appeared beside him. She was wearing lipstick, and her good pair of heels.

“There’s a van. He gets his own van. And the pay is good, Harry. It’s even a bit more than your dad was getting at the furniture factory.”

She was looking up at him like he was some kind of all-conquering hero. Her face, when she turned to Harry, told him that he should do the same. It could contain a million messages, his mother’s face, and this one told him Robin should be allowed his moment.

“That’s great, Dad. Really.” Harry stepped forward and gave him a hug.

“Well, it’s really Louis you should thank. What a smashing bloke. I’m just bloody grateful that he thought of me.”

Harry listened to them leave the house, the sound of Anne fussing in the hall mirror, Robin’s repeated reassurances that she looked lovely, that she was just fine as she was. Harry heard him patting his pockets for keys, wallet, loose change, followed by a brief burst of laughter. And then the door slammed, Harry heard the hum of the car pulling away and then there was just the distant sound of the television in Grandfather’s room. Harry sat on the stairs. And then he pulled out his phone and rang Louis’ number.

It took him a while to answer. Harry pictured him heading to the hands-free device, depressing the button with his thumb.

“Hello?”

“Is this your doing?”

There was a brief pause. “Is that you, Styles?”

“Did you get my dad a job?”

He sounded a little breathless. Harry wondered, absently, whether he was sitting up okay.

“I thought you’d be pleased.”

“I am pleased. It’s just...I don’t know. I feel weird.”

“You shouldn’t. Your dad needed a job. Mine needed a skilled maintenance man.”     

“Really?” Harry couldn’t keep the skepticism from his voice.

“What?”

“This has nothing to do with what you asked me the other day? About him and the other woman?”

There was a long pause. Harry could see him there, in his living room, looking out through the French windows.

His voice, when it came, was careful. “You think I’d blackmail my father into giving yours a job?”

Put like that it did sound far-fetched.

Harry sat down again. “Sorry. I don’t know. It’s just weird. The timing. It’s all a bit convenient.”

“Then be pleased, Haz. It’s good news. Your dad will be great. And it means…” He hesitated.

“It means what?”

“...that one day you can go off and spread your wings without worrying about how your parents are going to be able to support themselves.”

It was as if he had punched him. Harry felt the air disappear from his lungs.

“Haz?”

“Yes?”

“You’re awfully quiet.”

“I’m…”’ Harry swallowed. “Sorry. Distracted by something. Granddad’s calling me. But yes. Thanks for – for putting a word in for him.” Harry had to get off the phone. Because out of nowhere a huge lump had lodged itself somewhere in his throat and he wasn’t sure he could say anything else.

Harry walked to the pub. The air was thick with the smell of blossom, and people smiled as they passed him on the street. He couldn’t raise a single greeting in return. He just knew he couldn’t stay in that house, alone with his  thoughts. Harry found the Triathlon Terrors all in the beer garden, their two tables pushed together in a dappled corner, arms and legs spilling off the ends in sinewy pink angles. Harry got a few polite nods and Nick stood, creating a small space for Harry beside him. He realized he really wished Gemma was around.

The pub garden was full, with that peculiarly English mix of braying students and post-work salesmen in their shirtsleeves. This pub was a favorite with tourists, and among the English voices were a variety of other accents – Italian, French, American. From the west wall they could see the castle, and – just as they did every summer – the tourists were lining up for photographs with it behind them in the distance.

“I wasn’t expecting you. Do you want a drink?”

“In a minute.” Harry just wanted to sit there, to let his head rest against Nick. He wanted to feel like he used to feel – normal, untroubled. He wanted not to think about death.

“I broke my best time today. Fifteen miles in just 79.2 minutes.”

“Great.”

“Cooking with gas now, eh, Nick?” someone said.

Nick bunched both his fists and made a revving noise with his mouth.

“That’s great. Really.” Harry tried to look pleased for him.

Harry had a drink, and then another. He listened to their talk of mileage, of the skinned knees and hypothermic swimming bouts. He tuned out, and watched the other people in the pub, wondering about their lives. Each of them would have huge events in their own families – babies loved and lost, dark secrets, great joys and tragedies. If they could put it into perspective, if they could just enjoy a sunny evening in a pub garden, then surely he should too.

And then Harry told Nick about Robin’s job. His face looked a little like he imagined his had. Harry had to repeat it, just so he could be sure he had heard him right.

“That’s...very cosy. You both working for him.”

Harry wanted to tell him then, he really did. He wanted to explain that so much of everything was tied up in his battle to keep Louis alive. He wanted to tell him how afraid he was that Louis seemed to be trying to buy him his freedom. But Harry knew he could say nothing. He might as well get the rest of it over while he could.

“Um...that’s not the only thing. He says I can stay there when I want, in the spare room. To get past the whole bed problem at home.”

Nick looked at him. “You’re going to live at his house?”

“I might. It’s a nice offer, Nick. You know what it’s been like at home. And you’re never here. I like coming to your house, but...well, if I’m honest, it doesn’t feel like home.”

He was still staring at Harry. “Then make it home.”

“What?”

“Move in. Make it home. Put your stuff up. Bring your clothes. It’s about time we moved in together.”

It was only afterwards, when Harry thought about it, that he realized Nick had actually looked really unhappy as he said this. Not like a man who had finally worked out he could not live without his boyfriend close by him, and wanted to make a joyous union of the two lives. He looked like someone who felt outmaneuvered.

“You really want me to move in?”

“Yes. Sure” He rubbed at his ear. “I mean, I’m not saying let’s get married or anything. But it does make sense, right?”

“You old romantic.”

“I mean it, Harry. It’s time. It’s probably been time for ages, but I guess I’ve just been wrapped up in one thing and another. Move in. It’ll be good.” He hugged him. “It will be really good.”

Around them the Triathlon Terrors had diplomatically resumed their chatter. A small cheer went up as a group of Japanese tourists got the photograph they had wanted. Birds sang, the sun dipped, the world turned. Harry wanted to be part of it, not stuck in a silent room, worrying about a man in a wheelchair.

“Yes,” he said. “It will be good.”

Chapter Text

The worst thing about working as a caregiver is not what you might think. It’s not the lifting and cleaning, the medicines and wipes and the distant but somehow always perceptible smell of disinfectant. It’s not even the fact that most people assume you’re only doing it because you really aren’t smart enough to do anything else. It’s the fact that when you spend all day in really close proximity to someone, there is no escape from their moods. Or your own.

Louis had been distant with Harry all morning, since he had first told him his plans. It was nothing an outsider could have put their finger on, but there were fewer jokes, perhaps less casual conversation. He asked Harry nothing about the contents of the day’s newspapers.

“That’s... what you want to do?” His eyes had flickered, but his face said nothing.

Harry shrugged. Then he nodded more emphatically. Harry felt there was something childishly non-committal about his response. “It’s about time, really,” he said. “I mean, I am twenty-seven.”

Louis studied Harry’s face. Something tightened in his jaw.

Harry felt suddenly, unbearably tired. He felt this peculiar urge to say sorry, and he wasn’t sure what for.

Louis gave a little nod, raised a smile. “Glad you’ve got it all sorted out,” he said, and wheeled himself into the kitchen.

Harry was starting to feel really cross with him. He had never felt judged by anyone as he felt judged by Louis now. It was as if him deciding to settle down with his boyfriend had made him less interesting to Louis. Like he could no longer be his pet project. Harry couldn’t say any of this to him, of course, but he was just as cool with him as he was with Harry.

It was, frankly, exhausting.

In the afternoon, there was a knock at the back door. Harry hurried down the corridor, his hands still wet from washing up, and opened it to find a man standing there in a dark suit, a briefcase in hand.

“Oh no. We’re Buddhist,” Harry said firmly, closing the door as the man began to protest.

Two weeks previously a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses had kept Louis captive at the back door for almost fifteen minutes, while he struggled to reverse his chair back over the dislodged doormat. When Harry finally shut the door they had opened the letter box to call that ‘he more than anyone’ should understand what it was to look forward to the afterlife.

“Um...I’m here to see Mr. Tomlinson?” the man said, and Harry opened the door cautiously. In all his time at Granta House nobody had ever come to see Louis via the back door.

“Let him in,” Louis said, appearing behind Harry. “I asked him to come.” When Harry still stood there, he added, “It’s okay, Haz...he’s a friend.”

The man stepped over the threshold, held out his hand and shook Harry’s. “Michael Lawler,” he said.

He was about to say something else, but Louis moved his chair between them, effectively cutting off any further conversation.

“We’ll be in the living room. Could you make some coffee, then leave us for a while?”

“Uh...okay.”

Mr. Lawler smiled at Harry, a little awkwardly, and followed Louis into the living room. When Harry walked in with a tray of coffee some minutes later they were discussing cricket. The conversation about legs and runs continued until Harry had no further reason to lurk.

Brushing invisible dust from his pants, Harry straightened up and said, “Well. I’ll leave you to it.”

“Thanks, Mr. Styles.”

“You sure you don’t want anything else? Biscuits?”

“Thank you, Mr. Styles”

Louis never called him Mr. Styles anymore. And he had never banished him from anything before.

Mr. Lawler stayed almost an hour. Harry did his chores, then hung around in the kitchen, wondering if he was brave enough to eavesdrop. He wasn’t. He sat, ate two Bourbon creams, chewed his nails, listened to the low hum of their voices, and wondered for the fifteenth time why Louis had asked this man not to use the front entrance.

He didn’t look like a doctor, or consultant. He could have been a financial adviser, but he somehow didn’t have the right air about him. He certainly didn’t look like a physiotherapist, occupational therapist or dietitian – or one of the legions of other people employed by the local authority to pop by and assess Louis’ ever-changing needs. You could spot those a mile off. They always looked exhausted, but were briskly, determinedly cheerful. They wore woolens in muted colors, with sensible shoes, and drove dusty estate cars full of folders and boxes of equipment. Mr. Lawler had a navy-blue BMW. His gleaming 5-series was not a local authority sort of a car.

Finally, Mr. Lawler emerged. He closed his briefcase, and his jacket hung over his arm. He no longer looked awkward.

Harry was in the hallway within seconds.

“Ah. Would you mind pointing me towards the bathroom?”

Harry did so, mutely, and stood there, fidgeting, until he emerged.

“Right. So that’s all for now.”

“Thank you, Michael.” Louis didn’t look at Harry. “I’ll wait to hear from you.”

“I should be in touch later this week,” Mr. Lawler said.

“Email would be preferable to letter – at least, for now.”

“Yes. Of course.”

Harry opened the back door to see him out. Then, as Louis disappeared back into the living room, Harry followed him into the courtyard and said lightly, “So – do you have far to go?”

His clothes were beautifully cut; they carried the sharp edge of the city in their tailoring, serious money in their thread count.

“London, unfortunately. Still, hope the traffic won’t be too bad at this time of the afternoon.”

Harry stepped out after him. The sun was high in the sky and he had to squint to see him. “So...um...where in London are you based?”

“Regent Street.”

“The Regent Street? Nice.”

“Yes. Not a bad place to be. Right. Thank you for the coffee, Mister…”

“Styles. Harry Styles.”

He stopped then and looked at Harry for a moment, and he wondered whether he had sussed his inadequate attempts to work out who he might be.

“Ah. Mister Styles.” he said, his professional smile swiftly reinstated. “Thank you, anyway.”

He put his briefcase carefully on the back seat, climbed into his car and was gone.

That night, Harry stopped off at the library on his way home to Nicks. He could have used his computer, but still felt like he should ask, and this just seemed easier. Harry sat down at the booth, and typed ‘Michael Lawler’ and ‘Regent Street, London’ into the search engine. Knowledge is power, Louis, he told him, silently.

There were 3,290 results, the first three of which revealed a ‘Michael Lawler, practitioner at law, specialist in wills, probate and power of attorney’ based in that same street. Harry stared at the screen for a few minutes, then he typed in his name again, this time against the search engine of images, and there he was, at some Round Table function, in a dark suit – Michael Lawler, specialist in wills and probate, the same man who had spent an hour with Louis.

Harry moved into Nick’s that night, in the hour and a half between him finishing work and Nick heading off to the track. Harry took everything except his bed and the new blinds. Nick arrived with his car, and they loaded his belongings into bins. Within two trips they had it all – bar Harry’s school books in the loft – at his.

Anne cried; she thought she was forcing Harry out.

“For goodness’ sake, love. It’s time he moved on. He’s twenty-seven years old” Robin told her.

“He’s still my baby,” she said, pressing two tins of fruit cake and a carrier bag of cleaning products into his arms.

Harry didn’t know what to say to her. He didn’t even like fruit cake.

****

It was surprisingly easy, fitting his belongings into Nick’s flat. He had next to nothing, anyway, and Harry had almost nothing from years spent in the box room. The only thing they fell out over was his CD collection, which apparently could only be combined with his once he had stickered the backs of his and sorted them into alphabetical order.

“Make yourself at home,” Nick kept saying, as if he were some kind of guest. They were nervous, strangely awkward with each other, like two people on a first date. While he was unpacking, he brought Harry tea and said, “I thought this could be your mug.” He showed Harry where everything lived in the kitchen, then said, several times, “Of course, put stuff where you want. I don’t mind.”

He had cleared two drawers and the wardrobe in the spare room. The other two drawers were filled with his fitness clothes. Harry didn’t know there were so many permutations of Lycra and fleece. His wildly colorful clothes left several feet of space still empty, the wire hangers jangling mournfully in the closet space.

“I’ll have to buy more stuff just to fill it up,” He said, looking at it.

He laughed nervously. “What’s that?”

He looked at Harry’s calendar, tacked up on the spare-room wall, with its ideas in green and its actual planned events in black. When something had worked (music, wine tasting), he put a smiley face next to it. When it hadn’t (horse racing, art galleries), it stayed blank. There was little marked in for the next two weeks – Louis had become bored of the places nearby, and as yet he could not persuade him to venture further afield. Harry glanced over at Nick. He could see him eyeing the 12 August date, which was now underlined with exclamation marks in black.

“Um...it’s just reminding me about my job.”

“You don’t think they’re going to renew your contract?”

“I don’t know, Nick.”

Nick took the pen from its clip, looked at the next month, and scribbled under week 28: “Time to start job hunting.”

“That way you’re covered for whatever happens,” he said.

Harry laid his creams out carefully in the bathroom, tucked his razors, moisturizer and cologne neatly into his mirrored cabinet. He put some books in a neat row along the spare-room floor under the window, including the new titles that Louis had ordered from Amazon for him. Nick promised to put up some shelves when he had a spare moment.

And then, as he left to go running, Harry sat and looked out over the industrial estate towards the castle, and practiced saying the word home, silently under his breath.

****

Harry was pretty hopeless at keeping secrets. Gemma says Harry touches his nose as soon as he even thinks of lying. It’s a pretty straightforward giveaway. His parents still joke about the time he wrote absence notes for himself after bunking off school. “Dear Miss Trowbridge,” they read. “Please excuse Harry Styles from today’s lessons as I am very poorly with stomach problems.” Robin had struggled to keep a straight face even while he was supposed to be scolding Harry.

Keeping Louis’ plan from his family had been one thing – Harry was good at keeping secrets from his parents (it’s one of the things you learn while growing up, after all) – but coping with the anxiety by himself was something else entirely.

Harry spent the next couple of nights trying to work out what Louis was up to, and what he could do to stop him, his thoughts racing even as Nick and Harry chatted, cooking together in the little galley kitchen. (Harry was already discovering new things about him – like, he really did know a hundred different things to do with turkey breast.)

There were just over seven weeks left.

And Louis was making plans, even if Harry wasn’t.

The following week, if Louis noticed that Harry was preoccupied, he didn’t say anything. They went through the motions of the daily routine – Harry took him for short drives into the country, cooked his meals, saw to him when they were in his house. He didn’t make jokes about Running Man any more.

Harry talked to him about the latest books he had recommended: they had done The English Patient (Harry loved this), and a Swedish thriller (which he hadn’t). They were solicitous with each other, almost excessively polite. Harry missed his insults, his crabbiness – their absence just added to the looming sense of threat that hung over him.

Niall watched them both, as if he were observing some kind of new species.

“You two had a row?” he asked Harry one day in the kitchen, as he unpacked the groceries.

“You’d better ask him,” Harry said.

“That’s exactly what he said.”

Niall looked at Harry sideways, and disappeared into the bathroom to unlock Louis’ medical cabinet.

Meanwhile, Harry lasted three days after Michael Lawler’s visit before he rang Mrs. Tomlinson. He asked if they could meet somewhere other than her house, and they agreed on a little cafe that had opened in the grounds of the castle. The same cafe, ironically, that had cost him his job.

It was a much smarter affair than Hot Crossed Buns – all limed oak and bleached wood tables and chairs. It sold home-made soup full of actual vegetables, and fancy cakes. And you couldn’t buy a normal coffee, only lattes, cappuccinos and macchiatos. There were no builders, or girls from the hairdresser’s. Harry sat nursing his tea, and wondered about the Dandelion Lady and whether she would feel comfortable enough to sit in here and read a newspaper all morning.

“Harry, I’m sorry I’m late.” Johannah Tomlinson entered briskly, her handbag tucked under her arm, dressed in a grey silk shirt and navy trousers.

Harry fought the urge to stand up. There was never a time when he spoke to her that he didn’t still feel like he was engaged in some kind of interview.

“I was held up in court.”

“Sorry. To get you out of work, I mean. I just...well, I wasn’t sure it could wait.”

She held up a hand, and mouthed something at the waitress, who within seconds had brought her a cappuccino. Then she sat across from him. He felt her gaze like he was transparent.

“Louis had a lawyer come to the house,” Harry said. “I found out he is a specialist in wills and probate.” Harry couldn’t think of any gentler way to open the conversation.

She looked like Harry had  just smacked her in the face. He realized, too late, that she might actually have thought he’d have something good to tell her.

“A lawyer? Are you sure?”

“I looked him up on the internet. He’s based in Regent Street. In London,” he added unnecessarily. “His name is Michael Lawler.”

She blinked hard, as if trying to take this in. “Did Louis tell you this?”

“No. I don’t think he wanted me to know. I... I got his name and looked him up.”

Her coffee arrived. The waitress put it on the table in front of her, but Mrs. Tomlinson didn’t seem to notice.

“Did you want anything else?” the girl said.

“No, thank you.”

“We have carrot cake on special today. We make it here ourselves. It’s got a lovely buttercream fill–”

“No.” Mrs. Tomlinson’s voice was sharp. “Thank you.”

The girl stood there just long enough to let them know she was offended and then stalked off, her notepad swinging conspicuously from one hand.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said. “You told me before that I should let you know anything important. I stayed awake half the night trying to work out whether to say anything.”

Her face looked almost leached of color.

Harry knew how she felt.

“How is he in himself? Have you...have you come up with any other ideas? Outings?”

“He’s not keen.” Harry told her about Paris, and his list of things he had compiled.

All the while Harry spoke, he could see her mind working ahead of him, calculating, assessing.

“Anywhere,” she said, finally. “I’ll finance it. Any trip you want. I’ll pay for you. For Niall. Just – just see if you can get him to agree to it.”

Harry nodded.

“If there’s anything else you can think of...just to buy us some time. I’ll pay your wages beyond the six months, obviously.”

“That’s...that’s really not an issue.”

They finished their coffees in silence, both lost in their thoughts. As Harry watched her, surreptitiously, he noticed that her immaculate hairstyle was now flecked with grey, her eyes as shadowed as his own. He realized he didn’t feel any better for having told her, to have passed his own heightened anxiety on to her – but what choice did he have? The stakes were getting higher with every day that passed. The sound of the clock striking two seemed to spur her out of her stasis.

“I suppose I should get back to work. Please let me know anything that you...you can come up with, Harry. It might be better if we have these conversations away from the annex”

Harry stood up. “Oh,” Harry said, “you’ll need my new number. I just moved.” As she reached into her handbag for a pen, he added, “I moved in with Nick...my boyfriend.”

Harry don’t know why this news surprised her so much. She looked startled, and then she handed him her pen.

“I didn’t know you had a boyfriend.”

“I didn’t know I needed to tell you.”

She stood, one hand resting on the table. “Louis mentioned the other day that you...he thought you might be moving into the annex. At weekends.”

Harry scribbled Nick’s home number.

“Well, I thought it might be more straightforward for everyone if I moved in with Nick.” Harry handed her the slip of paper. “But I’m not far away. Just by the industrial estate. It won’t affect my hours. Or my punctuality.”

They stood there. Mrs. Tomlinson seemed agitated, her hand running through her hair, reaching down for the chain around her neck. Finally – as if she could not help herself – she blurted out, “Would it really have hurt you to have waited? Just a few weeks?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Louis... I think Louis is very fond of you.” She bit her lip. “I can’t see...I can’t see how this really helps.”

“Hold on. Are you telling me I shouldn’t have moved in with my boyfriend?”

“I’m just saying that the timing is not ideal. Louis is in a very vulnerable state. We’re all doing our best to keep him optimistic... and you –”

“I what?” Harry could see the waitress watching them, her notepad stilled in her hand. “I what? Dared to have a life away from work?”

She lowered her voice. “I am doing everything I can, Harry, to stop this...thing. You know the task we’re facing. And I’m just saying that I wish – given the fact he is very fond of you – that you had waited a while longer before rubbing your...your happiness in his face.”

Harry could hardly believe what he was hearing. He felt the color rise to his face, and took a deep breath before he spoke again.

“How dare you suggest I would do anything to hurt Louis’ feelings. I have done everything,” He hissed. “I have done everything I can think of. I’ve come up with ideas, got him out, talked to him, read to him, looked after him.” His last words exploded out of his chest. “I’ve cleaned up after him. I’ve changed his bloody catheter. I’ve made him laugh. I’ve done more than your bloody family have done.”

Mrs. Tomlinson stood very still. She drew herself up to her full height, tucked her handbag under her arm. “I think this conversation has probably ended, Mister Styles.”

“Yes. Yes, Mrs. Tomlinson. I think it probably has.”

She turned, and walked swiftly out of the cafe.

When the door slammed shut, Harry realized he too was shaking.

That conversation with Mrs. Tomlinson kept him jangling for the next couple of days. Harry kept hearing her words, the idea that he was rubbing his happiness in his face. Harry didn’t think Louis could be affected by anything that he did. When he had seemed disapproving about his decision to move in with Nick, Harry had thought it was about Louis not liking Nick rather than any feelings he had for him. More importantly, Harry didn’t think he himself had looked particularly happy when he had told him about moving in with Nick.

At home, Harry couldn’t shake this feeling of anxiety. It was like a low-level current running through him, and it fed into everything he did. Harry asked Nick, “Would we have done this if my sister hadn’t needed my room at home?”

He had looked at Harry as if he were daft. He leaned over and pulled Harry to him, kissing the top of his head. Then he glanced down. “Do you have to wear these pajamas? I hate you in pajamas.”

“They’re comfortable.”

“They look like something my mum would wear.”

“I’m not going to wear some silky boxers every night just to keep you happy. And you’re not answering my question.”

“I don’t know. Probably. Yes.”

“But we weren’t talking about it, were we?”

“Harry, most people move in with each other because it’s sensible. You can love someone and still see the financial and practical advantages.”

“I just...don’t want you to think I made this happen. I don’t want to feel like I made this happen.”

He sighed, and rolled on to his back. “Why do you always have to go over and over a situation until it becomes a problem? I love you, you love me, we’ve been together nearly seven years and there was no room at your parents’ house any more. It’s actually pretty simple.”

But it didn’t feel simple.

It felt like Harry was living a life he hadn’t had a chance to anticipate.

That Friday it rained all day – warm, heavy sheets of it, like they were in the tropics, making the guttering gurgle and bowing the stems of the flowering shrubs as if in supplication. Louis stared out of the windows like a dog denied a walk. Niall came and went, a plastic bag lifted above his head. Louis watched a documentary about penguins, and afterwards, while he logged on to his computer, Harry busied himself, so that they didn’t have to talk to each other. Harry felt their discomfort with each other keenly, and being in the same room as him all the time made it that much worse.

Harry had finally begun to understand the consolations of cleaning. He mopped, cleaned windows and changed duvets. He was a constant whirl of activity. No dust mote escaped his eye, no tea ring his forensic attentions. He was dislodging the limescale on the bathroom taps using kitchen roll soaked in vinegar (his mother’s tip) when Harry heard Louis’ chair behind him.

“What are you doing?”

Harry was bent low over the bath. He didn’t turn around. “I’m descaling your taps.”

Harry could feel him watching.

“Say that again,” he said, after a beat.

“What?”

“Say that again.”

Harry straightened up. “Why, are you having problems with your hearing? I’m descaling your taps.”

“No, I just want you to listen to what you’re saying. There is no reason to descale my taps, Styles. My mother won’t notice it, I won’t care, and it’s making the bathroom stink like a fish and chip shop. Besides, I’d like to go out.”

Harry wiped a lock of hair from his face, having pulled it up into a bun earlier. It was true. There was a definite waft of large haddock in the atmosphere.

“Come on. It’s finally stopped raining. I just spoke to my dad. He said he’ll give us the keys to the castle after five o’clock, once all the tourists are out.”

Harry didn’t feel great about the idea of them having to make polite conversation during a walk around the grounds. But the thought of being out of the annex was appealing.

“Okay. Give me five minutes. I need to try and get the smell of vinegar off my hands.”

The difference between growing up like Harry and growing up like Louis  was that he wore his sense of entitlement lightly. Harry thought if you grow up as he had done, with wealthy parents, in a nice house, if you go to good schools and nice restaurants as a matter of course, you probably just have this sense that good things will fall into place, that your position in the world is naturally an elevated one.

Louis had escaped into the empty grounds of the castle his whole childhood, he said. His dad let him roam the place, trusting him not to touch anything. After 5.30 PM, when the last of the tourists had gone, as the gardeners began to trim and tidy, as the cleaners emptied the bins and swept up the empty cartons of drink and commemorative toffee fudge, it had become his private playground. As he told Harry this, he mused that if he and Gemma had been given the freedom of the castle, all to themselves, they would have been air punching with disbelief and getting giddy all over the place.

“First guy I ever kissed was in front of the drawbridge,” he said, slowing to look towards it as they walked along the gravel path.

“Did you tell him it was your place?”

“No. Perhaps I should have done. He dumped me a week later for the boy who worked in the minimart.”

Harry turned and stared at him in shock. “Not Terry Rowlands? Dark slicked-back hair, tattoos up to his elbows?”

He raised an eyebrow. “That’s him.”

“He still works there, you know. In the minimart. If that makes you feel any better.”

“I’m not sure he’d feel entirely envious of where I ended up,” Louis said, and Harry stopped talking again.

It was strange seeing the castle like this, in silence, the two of them the only people there apart from the odd gardener in the distance. Instead of gazing at the tourists, being distracted by their accents and their alien lives, Harry found himself looking at the castle for perhaps the first time, beginning to absorb some of its history. Its flinted walls had stood there for more than 800 years. People had been born and died there, hearts filled and broken. Now, in the silence, you could almost hear their voices, their own footsteps on the path.

“Okay, confession time,” Harry said. “Did you ever walk around here and pretend secretly that you were some kind of prince?”

Louis looked sideways at him. “Honestly?”

“Of course.”

“Yes. I even borrowed one of the swords off the walls of the Great Hall once. It weighed a ton. I remember being petrified that I wouldn’t be able to lift it back onto its stand.”

They had reached the swell of the hill, and from here, at the front of the moat, they could look down the long sweep of grass to the ruined wall that had marked the boundary. Beyond it lay the town, the neon signs and queues of traffic, the bustle that marked the small town’s rush hour. Up there it was silent apart from the birds and the soft hum of Louis’ chair.

He stopped the chair briefly and swiveled it so that they looked down at the grounds. “I’m surprised we never met each other,” he said. “When I was growing up, I mean. Our paths must have crossed.”

“Why would they? We didn’t exactly move in the same circles. And I would just have been the baby you passed in the pram, while swinging your sword.”

“Ah. I forgot – I am positively ancient compared to you.”

“Four years would definitely have qualified you as an “older man”,” Harry said. “Even when I was a teenager my parents would never have let me go out with an older man.”

“Not even if he had his own castle?”

“Well, that would change things, obviously.”

The sweet smell of the grass rose up around them as they walked, Louis’ wheels hissing through the clear puddles on the path. Harry felt relieved. Their conversation wasn’t quite as it had been, but perhaps that was only to be expected. Mrs. Tomlinson had been right – it would always be hard for Louis to watch other people moving on with their lives. Harry made a mental note to think more carefully about how his actions might make an impact on his life. Harry didn’t want to be angry any more.

“Let’s do the maze. I haven’t done it for ages.”

Harry was pulled back from his thoughts. “Oh. No, thanks.” he glanced over, noticing suddenly where they were.

“Why, are you afraid of getting lost? C’mon, Styles It’ll be a challenge for you. See if you can memorize the route you take in, then take the reverse one out. I’ll time you. I used to do it all the time.”

Harry glanced back towards the house. “I’d really rather not.” Even the thought of it had brought a knot to his stomach.

“Ah. Playing safe again.”

“That’s not it.”

“No problem. We’ll just take our boring little walk and go back to the boring little annex.”

Harry knew he was joking. But something in his tone really got to him. He thought of Deirdre on the bus, her comments about how good it was that one of us kids had stayed behind. Harry’s was to be the small life, his ambitions the petty ones.

Harry glanced over at the maze, at its dark, dense box hedging. He was being ridiculous. Perhaps he had been behaving ridiculously for years. It was all over, after all. And he was moving on.

“Just remember which turn you take, then reverse it to come out. It’s not as hard as it looks. Really.”

Harry left Louis on the path before he could think about it. He took a breath, and walked in past the sign that warned ‘No Unaccompanied Children’, striding briskly between the dark, damp hedging which still glistened with raindrops.

It’s not so bad, it’s not so bad, he found himself murmuring under his breath. It’s just a load of old hedges. He took a right turn, then a left through a break in the hedge. He took another right, a left, and as he went he rehearsed in his head the reverse of where he had been. Right. Left. Break. Right. Left.

His heart rate began to rise a little, so that he could hear the blood pumping in his ears. He forced himself to think about Louis on the other side of the hedge, glancing down at his watch. It was just a silly test. He was no longer that naive young man. He was twenty-seven. He lived with his boyfriend. He had a responsible job. He was a different person.

Harry turned, went straight on, and turned again.

And then, almost from nowhere, the panic rose within him like bile. Harry thought he saw a man darting at the end of the hedge. Even though he told himself it was just his imagination, the act of reassuring himself made him forget his reversed instructions. Right. Left. Break. Right. Right? Had he got that the wrong way around? Harry’s breath caught in his throat. He forced himself onward, only to realize that he had completely lost his bearings. He stopped and glanced around him at the direction of the shadows, trying to work out which direction was west.

And as Harry stood there, it dawned on him that he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t stay in there. Harry whipped around, and began to walk in what he thought was a southerly direction. He would get out. He was twenty-seven years old. It was fine. But then he heard their voices, the catcalling, the mocking laughter. He saw them, darting in and out of the gaps in the hedge, felt his own feet sway drunkenly, the unforgiving prickle of the hedge as he fell against it, trying to steady himself.

“I want to get out now,” he had told them, voice slurring and unsteady. “I’ve had enough, guys.”

And they had all vanished. The maze was silent, just the distant whispers that might have been them on the other side of the hedge – or might have been the wind dislodging the leaves.

“I want to go out now,” he had said, voice sounding uncertain even to him. Harry had gazed up at the sky, briefly unbalanced by the vast, studded black of the space above him. And then he jumped as someone caught him around his waist – the dark-haired one. The one who had been to New Zealand.

“You can’t go yet,” he said. “You’ll spoil the game.”

Harry had known then, just from the feel of his hands on his waist. He had realized that some balance had shifted, that some restraint on behavior had begun to evaporate. And he had laughed, pushed at his hands as if they were a joke, unwilling to let him know that he knew. He heard him shout for his friends. And Harry broke away from him, running suddenly, trying to fight his way to the exit,  feet sinking into the damp grass. Harry heard them all around him, their raised voices, their bodies unseen, and felt his throat constrict in panic. He was too disoriented to work out where he was. The tall hedges kept swaying, pitching towards him. He kept going, pushing his way around corners, stumbling, ducking into openings, trying to get away from their voices. But the exit never came. Everywhere Harry turned there was just another expanse of hedge, another mocking voice.

Harry stumbled into an opening, briefly exultant that he was near freedom. But then he saw that he was back at the center again, back where he had started. He  reeled as he saw them all standing there, as if they had simply been waiting for him.

Harry didn’t know what he said then. Someone had his arm. He heard the laughter, felt a hand in his hair, another mouth on his, insistent, invasive, and then –

“Louis…”

Harry was sobbing now, crouched over himself. “Louis” He was saying his name, over and over again, his voice ragged, emerging somewhere from his chest. Harry heard him somewhere far off, beyond the hedge.

“Harry? Harry….where are you? What’s the matter?”

He was in the corner, as far under the hedge as he could get. Tears blurred his eyes, arms wrapped around himself. He couldn’t get out. He would be stuck here forever. Nobody would find him.

“Lou…”

“Where are – ?

And there he was, in front of Harry.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, looking up, his face contorted. “I’m sorry. I can’t...do it.”

He lifted his arm as much as he could manage. “Oh Christ, what the – ? Come here, Haz. He moved forward, then glanced down at his arm in frustration, managing to place a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Bloody useless thing...It’s okay. Just breathe. Come here. Just breathe. Slowly.”

Harry wiped his eyes. At the sight of Louis, the panic had begun to subside. He stood up, unsteadily, and tried to straighten his face. “I’m sorry. I...don’t know what happened.”

“Are you claustrophobic?” His face, inches from Harry’s, was etched with worry. “I could see you didn’t want to go in. I just...I just thought you were being –”

Harry shut his eyes. “I just want to go now.”

“Hold my hand. We’ll go out.”

He had Harry out of there within minutes. He knew the maze backwards, he told him as they walked, his voice calm, reassuring. It had been a challenge for him as a boy to learn his way through. Harry entwined his fingers with his and felt the warmth of his hand as something comforting. Harry felt foolish when he realized how close to the entrance he had been all along.

They stopped at a bench just outside, and Harry rummaged in the back of his chair for a tissue. They sat there in silence, Harry on the end of the bench beside Louis, both of them waiting for Harry’s hiccoughing to subside.

Louis sat, sneaking sideways glances at him.

“So...?” he said, finally, when Harry must have looked as if he could speak without falling apart again. “You want to tell me what’s going on?”

He twisted the tissue in his hands. “I can’t.”

He closed his mouth.

Harry swallowed. “It’s not you,” he said, hurriedly. “I haven’t talked to anyone about...It’s ...it’s stupid. And a long time ago. I didn’t think... I would…”

Harry felt Louis’ eyes on him, and wished he wouldn’t look. His hands wouldn’t stop trembling, and his stomach felt as if it were made of a million knots.

He shook his head, trying to tell Louis that there were things he couldn’t say. He wanted to reach for his hand again, but he didn’t feel I could. He was conscious of his gaze, could almost hear his unspoken questions.

Below them, two cars had pulled up near the gates. Two figures got out – from here it was impossible to see who – and embraced. They stood there for a few minutes, perhaps talking, and then got back into their cars and drove off in the opposite direction. Harry watched them but I couldn’t think. His mind felt frozen. He didn’t know what to say about anything any more.

“Okay. Here’s a thing,” he said, finally. Harry turned around, but Louis wasn’t looking at him. “I’m going to tell you something that I never tell anyone. All right?”

“All right.” Harry screwed the tissue into a ball in his hands, waiting.

Louis took a deep breath.

“I get really, really scared of how this is going to go.” He let that settle in the air between them, and then, in a low, calm voice, he carried on. “I know most people think living like me is about the worst thing that could happen. But it could get worse. I could end up not being able to breathe by myself, not being able to talk. I could get circulatory problems that mean my limbs have to be amputated. I could be hospitalized indefinitely. This isn’t much of a life, Haz. But when I think about how much worse it could get – some nights I lie in my bed and I can’t actually breathe.”

He swallowed. “And you know what? Nobody wants to hear that stuff. Nobody wants you to talk about being afraid, or in pain, or being scared of dying through some stupid, random infection. Nobody wants to know how it feels to know you may never have sex again, never eat food you’ve made with your own hands again, never hold your own child. Nobody wants to know that sometimes I feel so claustrophobic, being in this chair, I just want to scream like a madman at the thought of spending another day in it. My mother is hanging on by a thread and can’t forgive me for still loving my father. My sister resents me for the fact that yet again I have overshadowed her – and because my injuries mean she can’t properly hate me, like she has since we were children. My father just wants it all to go away. Ultimately, they want to look on the bright side. They need me to look on the bright side.”

He paused. “They need to believe there is a bright side.”

Harry blinked into the darkness. “Do I do that?” he asked quietly.

“You, Haz,” he looked down at his hands, “are the only person I have felt able to talk to since I ended up in this bloody thing.”

And so Harry told him.

Harry reached for Louis’ hand, the same one that had led him out of the maze, and he looked straight down at his feet and took a breath and told him about the whole night, and how they had laughed at him and made fun of how drunk and stoned he was, and how he had passed out and later his sister had said it might actually be a good thing, the not remembering all of what had happened, but how that half-hour of not knowing had haunted him ever since. Harry filled it, you see. He filled it with their laughter, their bodies and their words. He filled it with his own humiliation. He told Louis how he saw their faces every time he went anywhere beyond the town, and how Nick and Anne and Robin and his small life had been just fine for him, with all their problems and limitations. They had let him feel safe.

By the time they finished talking the sky had grown dark, and there were fourteen messages on his cell phone wondering where they were.

“You don’t need me to tell you it wasn’t your fault,” Louis said, quietly.

Above them the sky had become endless and infinite.

Harry twisted the handkerchief in his hand. “Yes. Well. I still feel...responsible. I drank too much to show off. I was a terrible flirt. I was –”

“No. They were responsible.”

Nobody had ever said those words aloud to him. Even Gemma’s look of sympathy had held some mute accusation.

Louis fingers squeezed Harry’s. A strained movement, but there it was.

“Harry. It wasn’t your fault.”

Harry cried then. Not sobbing, this time. The tears left him silently, and told him something else was leaving him. Guilt. Fear. A few other things he hadn’t yet found words for. Harry leaned his head gently on Louis’ shoulder and Louis leaned into it.

“Right. Are you listening to me?”

Harry murmured a yes.

“Then I’ll tell you something good,” he said, and then he waited, as if he wanted to be sure he had Harry’s attention. “Some mistakes...just have greater consequences than others. But you don’t have to let that night be the thing that defines you.”

Harry felt his Louis’ hand squeeze again.

“You, Styles, have the choice not to let that happen.”

The sigh that left him then was long, and shuddering. They sat there in silence, letting his words sink in. Harry could have stayed there all night, above the rest of the world, the warmth of Louis’ hand in his, feeling the worst of himself slowly begin to ebb away.

“We’d better get back,” he said, eventually. “Before they call out a search party.”

Harry released his hand and stood, a little reluctantly, feeling the cool breezes on his skin. And then, almost luxuriously, Harry stretched his arms high above his head. He let his fingers straighten in the evening air, the tension of weeks, months, perhaps years, easing a little, and let out a deep breath.

Below them the lights of the town winked, a circle of light amid the black countryside below them. Harry turned back towards him. “Lou?”

“Yes?”

Harry could barely see him in the dim light, but he knew Louis was watching him. “Thank you. Thank you for coming to get me.”

He shook his head, and turned his chair back towards the path.

Chapter Text

“Disneyland is good.”

“I told you, no theme parks.”

“I know you said that, but it’s not just roller coasters and whirling teacups. At Florida you’ve got the film studios and the science center. It’s actually quite educational.”

“I don’t think a 31-year-old former company head needs educating.”

“There are disabled loos on every corner. And the members of staff are incredibly caring. Nothing is too much trouble.”

“You’re going to say there are rides specially for handicapped people next, aren’t you?”

“They accommodate everyone. Why don’t you try Florida, Mister Styles? If you don’t like it you could go on to Sea World. And the weather is lovely.”

“Sea World is a crime.”

She didn’t seem to hear him. “And they are one of the top-rated companies for dealing with disability. You know they do a lot of Make-A-Wish Foundation stuff for people who are dying?”

“He is not dying.” Harry put the phone down on the travel agent just as Louis came in. He fumbled with the receiver, trying to set it back in its cradle, and snapped his notebook shut.

“Everything all right, Styles?”

“Fine.” he smiled brightly.

“Good. Got a nice suit?”

“What?”

“What are you doing on Saturday?”

Louis was waiting expectantly. Harry’s brain was still stalled on killer whale vs travel agent.

“Um...nothing. Nick’s away all day training. Why?”

Louis waited just a few seconds before he said it, as if it actually gave him some pleasure to surprise him.

“We’re going to a wedding.”

Afterwards, Harry was never entirely sure why Louis changed his mind about Ashton and Zayn’s nuptials. He suspected there was probably a large dose of natural contrariness in his decision – nobody expected him to go, probably least of all Ashton and Zayn themselves. Perhaps it was about finally getting closure. But Harry thought in the last couple of months Ashton had lost the power to wound him.

They decided they could manage without Niall’s help. Harry called up to make sure the marquee was suitable for Louis’ wheelchair, and Ashton sounded so flustered when he realized they weren’t actually declining the invitation that it dawned on Harry that his embossed correspondence really had been for appearance’s sake.

“Um...well...there is a very small step up into the marquee, but I suppose the people who are putting it up did say they could provide a ramp…” He tailed off.

“That will be lovely, then. Thank you,” Harry said. “We’ll see you on the day.”

They went online and picked out a wedding present. Louis spent £120 on a silver picture frame, and a vase that he said was ‘absolutely vile’ for another £60. Harry was shocked that he would spend that much money on someone he didn’t even really like, but he had worked out within weeks of being employed by the Tomlinson’s that they had different ideas about money. They wrote four-figure checks without giving it a thought. Harry had seen Louis’ bank statement once, when it had been left on the kitchen table for him to look at. It contained enough money to buy his parent’s house twice over – and that was only his current account.

Harry decided to wear his striped suit – partly because he knew Louis liked it (and he figured today he was going to need all the minor boosts he could get) – but also because Harry didn’t actually have any other clothes which he felt brave enough to wear at such a gathering. Louis had no idea of the fear Harry felt at the thought of going to a society wedding, let alone as ‘the help’. Every time he thought of the braying voices, the assessing glances in their direction, he wanted to spend the day watching Nick run in circles instead. Perhaps it was shallow of him to even care, but he couldn’t help it. The thought of those guests looking down on both of them was already tying his stomach in knots.

Harry didn’t say anything to Louis, but he was afraid for him. Going to the wedding of an ex seemed a masochistic act at the best of times, but to go to a public gathering, one that would be full of his old friends and work colleagues, to watch him marry his former friend, seemed to Harry a sure-fire route to depression. He tried to suggest as much the day before they left, but Louis brushed it off.

“If I’m not worried about it, Haz, I don’t think you should be,” he said.

Harry rang Gemma and told her.

“Check his wheelchair for anthrax and ammunition,” was all she said.

“It’s the first time I’ve got him a proper distance from home and it’s going to be a bloody disaster.”

“Maybe he just wants to remind himself that there are worse things than dying?”

“Funny.”

Her mind was only half on their phone call. She was preparing for a week’s residential course for ‘potential future business leaders’, and needed Anne and Harry to look after Violet. It was going to be fantastic, she said. Some of the top names in industry would be there. Her tutor had put her forward and she was the only person on the whole course who didn’t have to pay her own fees. Harry could tell that, as she spoke to him, she was also doing something on a computer. He could hear her fingers on the keyboard.

“Nice for you,” he said.

“It’s in some college at Oxford. Not even the ex-poly. The actual “dreaming spires” Oxford.”

“Great.”

She paused for a moment. “He’s not suicidal, is he?’”

“Louis? No more than usual.”

“Well, that’s something.” he heard the ping of an email.

“I’d better go, Gems.”

“Okay. Have fun. Oh, and don’t wear that striped suit. It might make him all hot and bothered.”

****

The morning of the wedding dawned bright and balmy, as Harry had secretly known it would. Guys like Ashton always got their own way. Someone had probably put in a good word with the weather gods.

“That’s remarkably bitter of you, Styles,” Louis said, when he told him.

“Yes, well, I’ve learned from the best.”

Niall had come early to get Louis ready so that they could leave the house by nine. It was a two-hour drive, and Harry had built in rest stops, planning the route carefully to ensure they had the best facilities available. Harry got ready in the bathroom, rubbing some face cream on and doing his hair just so, that it fell in gentle curls around his shoulders. He didn’t dare to put a scarf around his neck, but he had brought a jacket.

“Not bad, eh?” Niall stepped back, and there was Louis, in a dark suit and a cornflower-blue shirt with a tie. He was clean-shaven, and carried a faint tan on his face. The shirt made his eyes look peculiarly vivid. They seemed, suddenly, to carry a glint of the sun.

“Not bad,” Harry said – because, weirdly, he didn’t want to say how handsome Louis actually looked. “Ashton will certainly be sorry he’s marrying that braying bucket of lard, anyway.”

Louis raised his eyes heavenwards. “Niall, do we have everything in the bag?”

“Yup. All set and ready to go.” He turned to Louis. “No snogging the groomsmen, now.”

“As if he’d want to,” Harry said. “They’ll all be wearing penguin suits and smell of horse.”

Louis’ parents came out to see him off. Harry suspected they had just had an argument, as Mrs. Tomlinson could not have stood further away from her husband unless they had actually been in separate counties. She kept her arms folded firmly, even as Harry reversed the car for Louis to get in. She didn’t once look at him.

“Don’t get him too drunk, Harry.” she said, brushing imaginary lint from Louis’ shoulder.

“Why?” Louis said. “I’m not driving.”

“You’re quite right, Louis.” his father said. “I always needed a good stiff drink or two to get through a wedding.”

“Even your own” Mrs. Tomlinson murmured, adding more audibly, “You look very smart, darling.” She knelt down, adjusting the hem of Louis’ trousers. “Really, very smart.”

“So do you.” Mr. Tomlinson eyed Harry approvingly as he stepped out of the driver’s seat. “Very eye-catching. Who makes that suit, Harry?”

Louis turned his chair away. “He doesn’t have time, Dad. Let’s get on the road, Styles. I’m guessing it’s bad form to wheel yourself in behind the groom.’”

Harry climbed back into the car with relief. With Louis’ chair secured in the back, and his smart jacket hung neatly over the passenger’s seat so that it wouldn’t crease, they set off.

Harry could have told you what Ashton’s parents’ house would be like even before he  got there. In fact, his imagination got it so nearly spot on that Louis asked him why he was laughing as he slowed the car. A large, Georgian rectory, its tall windows partly obscured by showers of pale wisteria, its drive a caramel pea shingle, it was the perfect house for a colonel.

Two men in reflective vests were directing traffic into a field between the house and the church beside it. Harry wound down the window. “Is there a car park beside the church?”

“Guests are this way, Sir.”

“Well, we have a wheelchair, and it will sink into the grass here,” he said. “We need to be right beside the church. Look, I’ll go just there.”

They looked at each other, and murmured something between themselves. Before they could say anything else, Harry drove up and parked in the secluded spot beside the church. And here it starts, he told himself, catching Louis’ eye in the mirror as he turned off the ignition.

“Chill out, Styles. It’s all going to be fine,” he said.

“I’m perfectly relaxed. Why would you think I wasn’t?”

“You’re ridiculously transparent. Plus you’ve chewed off four of your fingernails while you’ve been driving.”

Harry parked, climbed out, adjusted his jacket, and clicked the controls that would lower the ramp. “Okay,” he said, as Louis’ wheels met the ground. Across the road from them in the field, people were climbing out of huge, Germanic cars, women in fuchsia dresses muttering to their husbands as their heels sank into the grass. They were all leggy and streamlined in pale muted colors. Harry fiddled with his hair, wondering if it was too much.

“So...how are we playing today?”

Louis followed his line of vision. “Honestly?”

“Yup. I need to know. And please don’t say Shock and Awe. Are you planning something terrible?”

Louis’ eyes met Harry’s. Blue, unfathomable. A small cloud of butterflies landed in his stomach.

“We’re going to be incredibly well behaved, Styles.”

The butterflies’ wings began to beat wildly, as if trapped against his rib cage. Harry began to speak, but Louis interrupted him.

“Look, we’ll just do whatever it takes to make it fun,” he said.

Fun. Like going to an ex’s wedding could ever be less painful than root canal surgery. But it was Louis’ choice. Louis’ day. Harry took a breath, trying to pull himself together.

“One exception,” he said, adjusting the jacket around his shoulders.

“What?”

“You’re not to do the Christy Brown. If you do the Christy Brown I will drive home and leave you stuck here with the pointy-heads.”

As Louis turned and began making his way towards the church, Harry thought he heard him murmur, “Spoilsport.”

They sat through the ceremony without incident. Ashton looked as ridiculously handsome as Harry had known he would, his skin polished a pale caramel, the off white silk skimming his figure. While the vicar droned on, and the little ballet-shod bridesmaids shuffled in their pews, Harry gazed around me at the other guests. There was barely a woman there who didn’t look like she might appear in the pages of a glossy magazine. Their shoes, which matched their outfits to the exact hue, looked as if they had never been worn before. The younger women stood elegantly in four- or five-inch heels, with perfectly manicured toenails. The older women, in kitten heels, wore structured suits, boxed shoulders with silk linings in contrasting colors, and hats that looked as if they defied gravity.

The men were less interesting to look at, but nearly all had that air about them that Harry could sometimes detect in Louis – of wealth and entitlement, a sense that life would settle itself agreeably around you. Harry wondered about the companies they ran, the worlds they inhabited. He wondered if they noticed people like him, who nannied their children, or served them in restaurants. Or pole danced for their business colleagues, he thought, remembering his interviews at the Job Center.

Louis and Harry had positioned themselves at the rear of the church, Louis’ chair just to the right of the end of the pew. He looked up briefly as Ashton walked down the aisle, but apart from that he faced straight ahead, his expression unreadable. Forty-eight choristers (Harry counted) sang something in Latin. Zayn sweated into his penguin suit and raised an eyebrow as if he felt pleased and a bit daft at the same time. Nobody clapped or cheered as they were pronounced husbands. Zayn looked a bit awkward, dived in towards his groom like somebody apple bobbing and slightly missed his mouth. Harry wondered if the upper classes felt it was a bit ‘off’ to really get stuck in at the altar.

And then it was over. Louis was already making his way out towards the exit of the church. Harry watched the back of his head, upright and curiously dignified, and wanted to ask him if it had been a mistake to come. He  wanted to ask him if he still had feelings for him. He wanted to tell him that he was too good for that silly caramel man, no matter what appearances might suggest, and that ...he didn’t know what else he wanted to say.

He just wanted to make it better.

“You okay?” Harry said, as he caught up.

The bottom line was, it should have been him.

He blinked a couple of times. “Fine,” he said. He let out a little breath, as if he had been holding it. Then he looked up at Harry. “Come on, let’s go and get a drink.”

The marquee was situated in a walled garden, the wrought-iron gateway into it intertwined with garlands of pale-pink flowers. The bar, positioned at the far end, was already crowded, so Harry suggested that Louis waited outside while he went and got him a drink. Harry weaved his way through tables clad in white linen cloths and laden with more cutlery and glassware than he had ever seen. The chairs had gilt backs, like the ones you see at fashion shows, and white lanterns hung above each centerpiece of freesias and lilies. The air was thick with the scent of flowers, to the point where he found it almost stifling.

“Pimm’s?” the barman said, when he got to the front. “Um…” Harry looked around, seeing that this was actually the only drink on offer. “Oh. Okay. Two, please.”

He smiled at Harry. “The other drinks come out later, apparently. But Mr. Ashton Malik wanted everyone to start with Pimm’s.” The look he gave Harry was slightly conspiratorial. It told him with the faintest lift of an eyebrow what he thought of that.

Harry stared at the pink lemonade drink. Robin said it was always the richest people who were the tightest, but Harry was amazed that they wouldn’t even start the wedding with alcohol. “I guess that’ll have to do, then,” he said, and took the glasses from him.

When Harry found Louis, there was a man talking to him. Young, bespectacled, he was half crouching, one arm resting on the arm of Louis’ chair. The sun was now high in the sky, and Harry had to squint to see them properly. He could suddenly see the point of all those wide-brimmed hats.

“So bloody good to see you out again, Louis.” he was saying. “The office isn’t the same without you. I shouldn’t say as much...but it’s not the same. It just isn’t.”

He looked like a young accountant – the kind of man who is only really comfortable in a suit.

“It’s nice of you to say so.”

“It was just so odd. Like you fell off a cliff. One day you were there, directing everything, the next we were just supposed to…”

He glanced up as he noticed Harry standing there. “Oh,” he said, and Harry felt his eyes settle on his trousers. “Hello.”

“Harry Styles, meet Freddie Derwent.”

Harry put Louis’ glass in his holder and shook the younger man’s hand.

He adjusted where his eyes gazed. “Oh,” he said again. “And –”

“I’m a friend of Louis’,” he said, and then, not entirely sure why, let his hand rest lightly on Louis’ shoulder.

“Life not all bad, then,” Freddie Derwent said, with a laugh that was a bit like a cough. He flushed a little as he spoke. “Anyway...must mingle. You know these things – apparently, we’re meant to see them as a networking opportunity. But good to see you, Louis. Really. And...and you, Mister Styles.”

“He seemed nice” Harry said, as they moved away. He lifted his hand from Louis’ shoulder and took a long sip of his Pimm’s. It was actually tastier than it looked. Harry had been slightly alarmed by the presence of cucumber.

“Yes. Yes, he’s a nice kid.”

“Not too awkward, then.”

“No.” Louis’ eyes flickered up to meet Harry’s. “No, Haz, not too awkward at all.”

As if freed by the sight of Freddie Derwent doing so, over the next hour several more people approached Louis to say hello. Some stood a little way back from him, as if this absolved them of the handshake dilemma, while others hoisted the knees of their trousers and crouched down almost at his feet. Harry stood by Louis and said little. He watched him stiffen slightly at the approach of two of them.

One – a big, bluff man with a cigar – seemed not to know what to say when he was actually there in front of Louis, and settled for, “Bloody nice wedding, wasn’t it? Thought the grooms looked splendid.” Harry guessed he hadn’t known Ashton’s romantic history.

Another, who seemed to be some business rival of Louis’, hit a more diplomatic note, but there was something in his very direct gaze, his straightforward questions about Louis’ condition, that Harry could see made Louis tense. They were like two dogs circling each other, deciding whether to bare their teeth.

“New CEO of my old company,” Louis said, as the man finally departed with a wave. “I think he was just making sure that I wouldn’t be trying to stage a takeover.”

The sun grew fierce, the garden became a fragrant pit, people sheltered under dappled trees. Harry took Louis into the doorway of the marquee, worried about his temperature. Inside the marquee huge fans had been kicked into life, whirring lazily over their heads. In the distance, under the shelter of a summer house, a string quartet played music. It was like a scene from a film.

Ashton, floating around the garden – an ethereal vision, air-kissing and exclaiming – didn’t approach them.

Harry watched Louis drain two glasses of Pimm’s and was secretly glad.

Lunch was served at 4 PM. Harry thought that was a pretty odd time to serve lunch but, as Louis pointed out, it was a wedding. Time seemed to have stretched and become meaningless, anyway, its passage blurred by endless drinks and meandering conversations. Harry didn’t know if it was the heat, or the atmosphere, but by the time they arrived at the table he felt almost drunk. When he found himself babbling incoherently to the elderly man on  his left, he realized it was actually a possibility.

“Is there any alcohol in that Pimm’s stuff?” Harry said to Louis, after he had managed to tip the contents of the salt shaker into his lap.

“About the same as a glass of wine. In each one.”

Harry stared at him in horror. Both of him. “You’re kidding. It had fruit in it! I thought that meant it was alcohol free. How am I going to drive you home?”

“Some caregiver you are," he said. He raised an eyebrow. “What’s it worth for me not to tell my mother?”

Harry was stunned by Louis’ reaction to the whole day. He had thought he was going to get Taciturn Louis, Sarcastic Louis. At the very least, Silent Louis. But he had been charming to everybody. Even the arrival of soup at lunch didn’t faze him. He just asked politely whether anybody would like to swap his soup for their bread, and the two girls on the far side of the table – who professed themselves ‘wheat intolerant’ – nearly threw their rolls at him.

The more anxious Harry grew about how he was going to sober up, the more upbeat and carefree Louis became. The elderly woman on his right turned out to be a former MP who had campaigned on the rights of the disabled, and she was one of the few people Harry had seen talk to Louis without the slightest discomfort. At one point he watched her feed him a slice of roulade. When she briefly got up to leave the table, he muttered that she had once climbed Kilimanjaro. “I love old birds like that,” he said. “I could just picture her with a mule and a pack of sandwiches. Tough as old boots.”

Harry was less fortunate with the man on his left. He took about four minutes – the briefest of quizzes about who Harry was, where he lived, who he knew there – to work out that there was nothing he had to say that might be of interest to him. He turned back to the woman on his left, leaving Harry to plow silently through what remained of his lunch. At one point, when Harry started to feel properly awkward, he  felt Louis’ hand leave the chair beside him, placed gently on his arm. Harry glanced up and Louis winked at him. He took his hand and squeezed it, grateful that he could see it. And then he moved his chair back six inches, and brought Harry into the conversation with Mary Rawlinson.

“So Louis tells me you’re in charge of him,” she said. She had piercing blue eyes, and wrinkles that told of a life impervious to skincare routines.

“I try,” Harry said, glancing at him.

“And have you always worked in this field?”

“No. I used to work in a bakery.” He wasn’t sure he would have told anybody else at this wedding that fact, but Mary Rawlinson nodded approvingly.

“I always thought that might be rather an interesting job. If you like people, and are rather nosy, which I am.” She beamed.

Louis moved his hand back on to his chair. “I’m trying to encourage Harry to do something else, to widen his horizons a bit.”

“What did you have in mind?" she asked Harry.

“He doesn’t know,” Louis said. “Harry is one of the smartest people I know, but I can’t make him see his own possibilities.”

Mary Rawlinson gave him a sharp look. “Don’t patronize him, dear. He’s quite capable of answering for himself.”

Harry blinked.

“I rather think that you of all people should know that,” she added.

Louis looked as if he were about to say something, and then closed his mouth. He stared at the table and shook his head a little, but he was smiling.

“Well, Harry, I imagine your job at the moment takes up an awful lot of mental energy. And I don’t suppose this young man is the easiest of clients.”

“You can say that again.”

“But Louis is quite right about seeing possibilities. Here’s my card. I’m on the board of a charitable organization that encourages retraining. Perhaps you would like to consider something different in the future?”

“I’m very happy working with Louis, thank you.”

Harry took the card that she offered regardless, a little stunned that this woman would have the slightest interest in what he did with his life. But even as he took it, he felt like an impostor. There was no way he would be able to give up work, even if he knew what he wanted to study. Harry wasn’t convinced he was the kind of person who would suit retraining. And besides, keeping Louis alive was his priority. He was so lost in his thoughts that he briefly stopped listening to the two of them beside him.

“...it’s very good that you’ve got over the hump, so to speak. I know it can be crushing to have to readjust your life so dramatically around new expectations.”

Harry stared at the remains of his poached salmon. He had never heard anyone speak to Louis like that.

He frowned at the table, and then turned back to her. “I’m not sure I am over the hump,” he said, quietly.

She eyed him for a moment, and glanced over at Harry.

He wondered if his face betrayed him.

“Everything takes time, Louis” she said, placing her hand briefly on his arm. “And that’s something that your generation find it a lot harder to adjust to. You have all grown up expecting things to go your way almost instantaneously. You all expect to live the lives you chose. Especially a successful young man like yourself. But it takes time.”

“Mrs Rawlinson – Mary – I’m not expecting to recover,” he said.

“You don’t know that. Plus, I’m not talking about physically,” she said. “I’m talking about learning to embrace a new life.”

And then, just as Harry waited to hear what Louis was going to say next, there was a loud tapping of a spoon on a glass, and the room hushed for the speeches.

Harry barely heard what they said. It seemed to him to be one puffed-up penguin-suited man after another, referring to people and places he didn’t know, provoking polite laughter. He sat and chewed his way through the dark-chocolate truffles that had arrived in silver baskets on the table, and drank three cups of coffee in quick succession so that as well as feeling drunk he felt jittery and wired. Louis, on the other hand, was a picture of stillness. He sat and watched the guests applaud his ex-boyfriend, and listened to Zayn drone on about what a perfectly wonderful man he was. Nobody acknowledged him. Harry didn’t know if that was because they wanted to spare his feelings, or because his presence there was actually a bit of an embarrassment. Occasionally Mary Rawlinson leaned in and muttered something into his ear and he nodded slightly, as if in agreement.

When the speeches finally ended, an army of staff appeared and began clearing the center of the room for dancing. Louis leaned into Harry. “Mary reminded me there is a very good hotel up the road. Ring them and see if we can stay there.”

“What?”

Mary handed Harry a name and a telephone number scribbled on a napkin.

“It’s okay, Styles,” he said, quietly, so that she couldn’t hear. “I’ll pay. Go on, and then you can stop worrying about how much you’ve drunk. Grab my credit card from my bag. They’ll probably want to take the number.”

Harry took it, reached for his cell phone and walked off into the further reaches of the garden. They had two rooms available, they said – a single, and a double on the ground floor. Yes, it was suitable for disabled access. “Perfect,” he said, and then had to swallow a small yelp when they told him the price. Harry gave them Louis’ credit card number, feeling slightly sick as he read the numbers.

“So?” Louis said, when he reappeared.

“I’ve done it, but…”’ He told him how much the two rooms had come to.

“That’s fine,” he said. “Now ring that bloke of yours to tell him you’re staying out all night, then have another drink. In fact, have six. It would please me no end to see you get hammered on Ashton’s father’s bill.”

And so he did.

Something happened that evening. The lights dropped, so that their little table was less conspicuous, the overpowering fragrance of the flowers was tempered by the evening breezes, and the music and the wine and the dancing meant that in the most unlikely of places, they all began to actually enjoy themselves. Louis was the most relaxed Harry had seen him. Sandwiched between he and Mary, he talked and smiled at her, and there was something about the sight of him being briefly happy that repelled those people who might otherwise have looked at him askance, or offered pitying glances. He made Harry lose his jacket and sit up straight. Harry took off Louis’ jacket and loosened his tie, and they both tried not to laugh at the sight of the dancing. The men looked as if they had been electrocuted, the women did little pointy fingers at the stars and looked horribly self-conscious even as they twirled.

Mary Rawlinson muttered, “Dear God,” several times. She glanced over at Harry. Her language had got fruitier with every drink. “You don’t want to go and strut your stuff, Harry?”

“God, no.”

“Jolly sensible of you. I’ve seen better dancing at a bloody Young Farmers Club disco.”

At nine, Harry got a text from Niall.

All okay?

Yes. Lovely, believe it or not. Lou having great time .

And he was. Harry watched him laughing hard at something Mary had said, and something in him grew strange and tight. This had shown him that it could work. He could be happy, if surrounded by the right people, if allowed to be Louis, instead of The Man in the Wheelchair, the list of symptoms, the object of pity.

And then, at 10 PM, the slow dances began. They watched Zayn move Ashton around the dance floor, applauded politely by onlookers. His hair had begun to droop, and he wrapped his arms around Zayn’s neck as if he needed the support. Zayn’s arms linked around him, resting on the small of his back. Handsome and wealthy as he was, Harry felt a little sorry for him. He thought he probably wouldn’t realize what he had lost until it was much too late.

Halfway through the song, other couples joined them so that they were partially obscured from view, and Harry got distracted by Mary talking about carers’ allowances, until suddenly he looked up and there he was, standing right in front of them, the model in his white tux. Harry’s heart lodged in his throat.

Ashton nodded a greeting to Mary, and dipped a little from his waist so that Louis could hear him over the music. His face was a little tense, as if he had had to prime himself to come over.

“Thank you for coming, Louis. Really.” He glanced sideways at Harry, but said nothing.

“Pleasure,” Louis said, smoothly. “You look lovely, Ashton. It was a great day.”

A flicker of surprise passed across his face. And then a faint wistfulness. “Really? You really think so? I do think...I mean, there’s so much I want to say –”

“Really,” Louis said. “There’s no need. You remember Harry?”

“I do.”

There was a brief silence.

Harry could see Zayn hovering in the background, eyeing them all warily. Ashton glanced back at him, and then held out a hand in a half-wave. “Well, thank you anyway, Louis. You are a superstar for coming. And thank you for the…”

“Mirror.”

“Of course. I absolutely loved the mirror.” He stood up and walked back to his husband, who turned away, already clasping his arm.

They watched them cross the dance floor.

“You didn’t buy him a mirror.”

“I know.”

They were still talking, Zayn’s gaze flickering back to them. It was as if he couldn’t believe Louis had simply been nice. Mind you, neither could Harry.

“Does it...did it bother you?” Harry said to him.

Louis looked away from them. “No,” he said, and he smiled at Harry. His smile had gone a bit lopsided with drink and his eyes were sad and contemplative at the same time.

And then, as the dance floor briefly emptied for the next dance, Harry found himself saying, “What do you say, Lou? Going to give me a whirl?”

“What?”

“Come on. Let’s give these fuckers something to talk about.”

“Oh good,” Mary said, raising a glass. “Fucking marvelous.”

“Come on. While the music is slow. Because I don’t think you can pogo in that thing.”

Harry didn’t give him any choice. He sat down carefully on Louis’ lap, draped his arms around his neck to hold himself in place. Louis looked into his eyes for a minute, as if working out whether he could refuse him. Then, astonishingly, Louis wheeled them out on to the dance floor, and began moving in small circles under the sparkling lights of the disco ball.

Harry felt simultaneously acutely self-conscious and mildly hysterical. He was sitting at an angle that meant his shirt was now hanging open at a very revealing angle.

“Leave it,” Louis murmured into his ear, his free hand placed on the small of Harry’s back.

“This is…”

“Come on, Haz. Don’t let me down now.”

Harry closed his eyes and wrapped his arms tighter around Louis’ neck, letting his cheek rest against his, breathing in the citrus smell of Louis’ aftershave. Harry could feel him humming along with the music.

“Are they all appalled yet?” he said. Harry opened one eye, and glanced out into the dim light.

A couple of people were smiling encouragingly, but most seemed not to know what to make of it. Mary saluted Harry with her drink. And then he saw Ashton staring at them, his face briefly falling. When he saw Harry looking, he turned away and muttered something to Zayn. He shook his head, as if they were doing something disgraceful.

Harry felt a mischievous smile creeping across his face. “Oh yes,” he said.

“Hah. Move in closer. You smell fantastic.”

“So do you. Although, if you keep turning in left-hand circles I may throw up.”

Louis changed direction. Harry’s arms looped around his neck, he pulled back a little to look at him, no longer self-conscious. He glanced down at Harry’s exposed and tattooed chest. To be fair, with him positioned where he was, there wasn’t anywhere else he could really look. He lifted his gaze and raised an eyebrow. “You know, you would never have gotten so close to me if I weren’t in a wheelchair,” he murmured.

Harry looked back at him steadily. “You would never have looked at my me if you hadn’t been in a wheelchair.”

“What? Of course I would.”

“Nope. You would have been far too busy looking at the tall blonde men with the perfect hair and outfits, the ones who can smell an expense account at forty paces. And anyway, I wouldn’t have been here. I would have been serving the drinks over there. One of the invisibles.”

Louis blinked.

“Well? I’m right, aren’t I?”

Louis glanced over at the bar, then back at Harry. “Yes. But in my defense, Styles, I was an arse.”

Harry burst out laughing so hard that even more people looked over in their direction.

Harry tried to straighten his face. “Sorry”’ he mumbled. “I think I’m getting hysterical.”

“Do you know something?”

Harry could have looked at Louis’ face all night. The way his eyes wrinkled at the corners. That place where his neck met his shoulder. “What?’”

“Sometimes, Haz, you are pretty much the only thing that makes me want to get up in the morning.”

“Then let’s go somewhere.” The words were out almost before Harry knew what he wanted to say.

“What?”

“Let’s go somewhere. Let’s have a week where we just have fun. You and me. None of these…”

He waited. “Arses?”

“...arses. Say yes, Louis. Go on.”

His eyes didn’t leave Harry’s.

He didn’t know what he was telling him. Harry didn’t know where it all came from. He just knew if he didn’t get him to say yes tonight, with the stars and the freesias and the laughter and Mary, then he had no chance at all.

“Please.”

The seconds before he answered me seemed to take forever.

“Okay,” he said.

Chapter Text

[Niall]

Harry and Louis thought no one could tell tell. They finally got back from the wedding around lunchtime the following day and Mrs. Tomlinson was so mad she could barely even speak.

“You could have rung,” she said.

She had stayed in just to make sure they arrived back okay. Niall had listened to her pacing up and down the tiled corridor next door since he got there at 8 that morning.

“I must have called or texted you both eighteen times. It was only when I managed to call Ashton’s parent’s house and somebody told me “the man in the wheelchair” had gone to a hotel that I could be sure you hadn’t both had some terrible accident on the motorway.”

‘“The man in the wheelchair”. Nice.” Louis observed.

But you could see he wasn’t bothered. He was all loose and relaxed, carried his hangover with humor, even though Niall had the feeling he was in some pain. It was only when his mum started to have a go at Harry that he stopped smiling. He jumped in and just said that if she had anything to say she should say it to him, as it had been his decision to stay overnight, and Harry had simply gone along with it.

“And as far as I can see, Mother, as a 35-year-old man I’m not strictly answerable to anybody when it comes to choosing to spend a night at a hotel. Even to my parents.”

She had stared at them both, muttered something about ‘common courtesy’ and then left the room.

Harry looked a bit shaken but Louis had gone over and murmured something to him, and that was the point at which Niall saw it. Harry went kind of pink and laughed, the kind of laugh you do when you know you shouldn’t be laughing. The kind of laugh that spoke of a conspiracy. And then Louis turned to Harry and told him to take it easy for the rest of the day. Go home, get changed, maybe catch forty winks.

“I can’t be walking around the castle with someone who has so clearly just done the walk of shame.” he said.

“Walk of shame?” Niall couldn’t keep the surprise from his voice.

“Not that walk of shame.” Harry said, flicking Niall with his scarf, and grabbed his coat to leave.

“Take the car,” Louis called out. “It’ll be easier for you to get back.”

Niall watched Louis’ eyes follow him all the way to the back door.

Louis deflated a little after Harry left. It was as if he had been holding on until both his mum and Harry had left the annex. Niall had been watching him carefully now, and once his smile left his face he realized he didn’t like the look of him. His skin held a faint blotchiness, he had winced twice when he thought no one was looking, and Niall could see even from here that he had goosebumps. A little alarm bell had started to sound, distant but shrill, inside his head.

“You feeling okay, Lou?”

“I’m fine. Don’t fuss.”

“You want to tell me where it hurts?”

He looked a bit resigned then, as if he knew that Niall saw straight through him. They had worked together a long time.

“Okay. Bit of a headache. And...um...I need my tubes changed. Probably quite sharpish.”

Niall had transferred him from his chair on to his bed and now he began getting the equipment together. “What time did H do them this morning?”

“He didn’t.” He winced. And he looked a little guilty. “Or last night.”

“What?”

Niall took his pulse, and grabbed the blood pressure equipment. Sure enough, it was sky high. When he put his hand on his forehead it came away with a faint sheen of sweat. Niall went for the medicine cabinet, and crushed some vasodilator drugs. He gave them to Louis in water, making sure he drank every last bit. Then Niall propped him up, placing his legs over the side of the bed, and he changed his tubes swiftly, watching him all the while.

“AD?”

“Yeah. Not your most sensible move, Louis.”

Autonomic dysreflexia was pretty much their worst nightmare. It was Louis’ body’s massive overreaction against pain, discomfort – or, say, an un-emptied catheter – his damaged nervous system’s vain and misguided attempt to stay in control. It could come out of nowhere and send his body into meltdown. He looked pale, his breathing labored.

“How’s your skin?”

“Bit prickly.”

“Sight?”

“Fine.”

“Aw, man. You think we need help?”

“Give me ten minutes, Ni. I’m sure you’ve done everything we need. Give me ten minutes.”

He closed his eyes. Niall checked his blood pressure again, wondering how long he should leave it before calling an ambulance. AD scared the hell out of him because you never knew which way it was going to go. Louis had had it once before, when Niall had first started working with him, and he had ended up in hospital for two days.

“Really, Ni. I’ll tell you if I think we’re in trouble.”

He sighed, and Niall helped him backwards so that he was leaning against the wall behind his bed.

He told him that Harry had been so drunk he hadn’t wanted to risk letting him loose on his equipment. “God knows where he might have stuck the ruddy tubes.” He half laughed as he said it. It had taken Harry almost half an hour just to get him out of his chair and into bed, he said. They had both ended up on the floor twice. “Luckily we were both so drunk by then I don’t think either of us felt a thing.” Harry had had the presence of mind to call down to reception, and they had asked a porter to help lift him. “Nice chap. I have a vague memory of insisting Harry give him a fifty-pound tip. I knew he was properly drunk because he agreed to it.”

Louis had been afraid when he finally left his room that Harry wouldn’t actually make it to his. He’d had visions of him curled up in a little suited ball, sleeping on the stairs.

Niall’s own view of Harry Styles was a little less generous just at that moment. “Louis, mate, I think maybe next time you should worry a little more about yourself, yeah?”

“I’m alright, Niall. I’m fine. Feeling better already.”

Niall felt Louis’ eyes on him as he checked his pulse.

“Really. It wasn’t his fault.”

Louis’ blood pressure was down. His color was returning to normal. Niall let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding.

They chatted a bit, passing the time while everything settled down, discussing the previous day’s events. Louis didn’t seem a bit bothered about his ex. He didn’t say much, but for all he was obviously exhausted, he looked okay.

Niall let go of his wrist. “Nice tattoo, by the way.”

Louis gave him a wry look.

“Make sure you don’t graduate to an “End by”, yeah?”

Despite the sweats and the pain and the infection, Louis looked for once like there was something else on his mind other than the thing that consumed him. Niall couldn’t help thinking that if Mrs. Tomlinson had known this, she might not have kicked off as hard as she did.

They didn’t tell Harry anything of the lunchtime events – Louis made Niall promise not to – but when Harry came back later that afternoon he was pretty quiet. He looked pale, with his hair washed and pulled back like he was trying to look sensible. Niall kind of guessed how he felt; sometimes when you get hammered till the small hours you feel pretty good in the morning, but really it’s just because you’re still a bit drunk. That old hangover is just toying with you, working out when to bite. Niall figured it must have bitten him around lunchtime.

But it became clear after a while that it wasn’t just the hangover troubling him.

Louis kept on and on at him about why he was being so quiet, and then he said, “Yeah, well, I’ve discovered it’s not the most sensible thing to stay out all night when you’ve just moved in with your boyfriend.”

He was smiling as he said it, but it was a forced smile, and Louis and Niall both knew that there must have been some serious words.

Niall couldn’t really blame the guy. He wouldn’t have wanted his girl staying out all night with some bloke, even if he was in a chair. And he hadn’t seen the way Louis looked at him.

Niall and Louis didn’t do much that afternoon. Harry emptied Louis’ backpack, revealing every free hotel shampoo, conditioner, miniature sewing kit and shower cap he could lay his hands on. (“Don’t laugh,” he said. “At those prices, Louis paid for a bloody shampoo factory.”) They all watched some Japanese animated film which Louis said was perfect hangover viewing, and Niall stuck around – partly because he wanted to keep an eye on Louis’ blood pressure and partly, to be honest, because Niall was being a bit mischievous. He wanted to see Louis’ reaction when he announced he was going to keep them both company.

“Really?” Louis said. “You like Miyazaki?”

He caught himself immediately, saying that of course Niall would love it...it was a great film...blah, blah, blah. But there it was. Niall was glad for him, on one level. He had thought about one thing for too long, that man.

So they watched the film. Pulled down the blinds, took the phone off the hook, and watched this weird cartoon about a girl who ends up in a parallel universe, with all these weird creatures, half of whom you couldn’t tell if they were good or bad. Harry sat right up close to Louis, handing him his drink or, at one point, patting his back when something got emotional. It was quite sweet, really, although a little bit of Niall wondered what on earth this was going to lead to.

And then, as Harry pulled up the blinds and made them all some tea, they looked at each other like two people wondering whether to let you in on a secret, and they told Niall about going away. Ten days. Not sure where yet, but it would probably be long haul and it would be good. Would Niall come and help?

Does a bear shit in the woods?

Niall had to take his hat off to the guy. If you had told him four months ago that they’d get Louis off on a long-haul holiday – hell, that we would get him out of this house – Niall would have told you that you were a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Mind you, he’d have a quiet word with Harry about Louis’ medical care before they went. They couldn’t afford a near miss like that again if they were stuck in the middle of nowhere.

They even told Mrs.T as she popped by, just as Harry was leaving. Louis said it, like it was no more remarkable than him going for a walk around the castle.

Niall was really pleased. That ruddy online poker site had eaten all his money, and he wasn’t even planning on a holiday that year. Niall even forgave Harry for being stupid enough to listen to Louis when he said he hadn’t wanted him to do his tubes. And he had been pretty pissed about that. So it was all looking great, and Niall was whistling when he shouldered his way into his coat, already looking forward to white sands and blue seas. Niall was even trying to work out if he could tie in a short visit home to Ireland.

And then he saw them – Mrs. Tomlinson standing outside the back door, as Harry waited to set off down the road. Niall didn’t know what sort of a chat they’d had already, but they both looked grim.

He only caught the last line but, to be honest, that was enough for him.


“I hope you know what you’re doing, Harry.”

Chapter Text

“You what?”

Harry and Nick were on the hills just outside town when Harry told him. Nick was halfway through a sixteen-mile run and wanted Harry to time him while following behind on the bicycle. As he was marginally less proficient on a bicycle than he was at particle physics, this involved a lot of swearing and swerving on his part, and a lot of exasperated shouting on Nick’s. He had actually wanted to do twenty-four miles, but Harry had told him he didn’t think his seat could take it, and besides, one of them needed to do the weekly shop after they got home. They were out of toothpaste and instant coffee. Mind you, it was only Harry who wanted the coffee. Nick was on herbal tea.

As they reached the top of Sheepcote Hill, Harry puffing, his legs like lead, he decided to just throw it out there. He figured they still had ten miles home for Nick to recover his good mood.

“I’m not coming to the Xtreme Viking.”

Nick didn’t stop, but he came close. He turned to face Harry, his legs still moving under him, and he looked so shocked that Harry nearly swerved into a tree.

“What? Why?”

“I’m...working.”

He turned back to the road and picked up speed. They had reached the brow of the hill, and Harry had to close his fingers around the brakes a little to stop himself overtaking Nick.

“So when did you work this out?” Fine beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead, and tendons stood out on his calves. Harry couldn’t look at them too long or he started wobbling.

“At the weekend. I just wanted to be sure.”

“But we’ve booked your flights and everything.”

“It’s only easyJet. I’ll reimburse you the £39 if you’re that bothered.”

“It’s not the cost. I thought you were going to support me. You said you were coming to support me.”

He could look quite sulky, Nick. When they were first together, Harry used to tease him about it. He called him Mr Grumpy Trousers. It made Harry laugh, and him so cross that he usually stopped sulking just to shut him up.

“Oh, come on. I’m hardly not supporting you now, am I? I hate cycling, Nick. You know I do. But I’m supporting you.”

They went on another mile before he spoke again. It might have been Harry, but the pounding of Nick’s feet on the road seemed to have taken on a grim, resolute tone. They were high above the little town now, Harry puffing on the uphill stretches, trying and failing to stop his heart racing every time a car came past. He was on Anne’s old bike (Nick wouldn’t let him anywhere near his racing demon) and it had no gears so he was frequently left tailing Nick.

Nick glanced behind, and slowed his pace a fraction so that Harry could draw level. “So why can’t they get an agency person in?” he said.

“An agency person?”

“To come to the Tomlinson's house. I mean, if you’re there for six months you must be entitled to a holiday.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“I don’t see why not. You started work there knowing nothing, after all.”

Harry held his breath. This was quite hard given that he was completely breathless from cycling. “Because he needs to go on a trip.”

“What?”

“He needs to go on a trip. So they need me and Niall there to help him.”

“Niall? Who’s Niall?”

“His medical carer. The guy you met when Louis came to Mum’s.”

Harry could see Nick thinking about this. He wiped sweat from his eyes.

“And before you ask,” he added, “no, I am not having an affair with Niall.”

Nick slowed, and glanced down at the tarmac, until he was practically jogging on the spot. “What is this, Harry? Because...because it seems to me that there is a line being blurred here between what is work and what is…” he shrugged, “...normal.”

“It’s not a normal job. You know that.”

“But Louis Tomlinson seems to take priority over everything these days.”

“Oh, and this doesn’t?” Harry took his hand off the handlebars, and gestured towards Nick’s shifting feet.

“That’s different. He calls, you come running.”

“And you go running, I come running.” Harry tried to smile.

“Very funny.” He turned away.

“It’s six months, Nick. Six months. You were the one who thought I should take this job, after all. You can’t have a go at me for taking it seriously.”

“I don’t think...I don’t think it’s about the job...I just,,,I think there’s something you’re not telling me.”

Harry hesitated, just a moment too long. “That’s not true.”

“But you won’t come to the Viking.”

“I’ve told you, I –”

He shook his head slightly, as if he couldn’t hear Harry properly. Then he began to run down the road, away from him. Harry could see from the set of his back how angry he was.

“Oh, come on, Nick. Can’t we just stop for a minute and discuss this?”

His tone was mulish. “No. It will throw out my time.”

“Then let’s stop the clock. Just for five minutes.”

“No. I have to do it in real conditions.”

He began to run faster, as if he had gained a new momentum.

“Nick?” Harry said, struggling suddenly to keep up with him. His feet slipped on the pedals, and he cursed, kicking a pedal back to try and set off again. “Nick? Nick!”

Harry stared at the back of his head and the words were out of his mouth almost before he knew what he was saying. “Okay. Louis wants to die. He wants to commit suicide. And this trip is my last attempt to change his mind.”

Nick’s stride shortened and then slowed. He stopped on the road ahead, his back straight, still facing away from Harry. He turned slowly. He had finally stopped jogging.

“Say that again.”

“He wants to go to Mercy. In August. I’m trying to change his mind. This is the last chance I have.”

He was staring at Harry like he didn’t know quite whether to believe him.

“I know it sounds mad. But I have to change his mind. So...so I can’t come to the Viking.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

“I had to promise his family I wouldn’t tell anyone. It would be awful for them if it got out. Awful. Look, even he doesn’t know I know. It’s all been...tricky. I’m sorry.” Harry reached out a hand to him. “I would have told you if I could.”

He didn’t answer. He looked crushed, as if Harry had done something terrible. There was a faint frown on his face, and he swallowed twice, hard.

“Ni-”

“No. Just...I just need to run now, Harry. By myself.” He ran a hand across his hair. 


“Okay?”

Harry swallowed. “Okay.”

Nick looked for a moment as if he had forgotten why they were even out there. Then he struck off again, and Harry watched him disappear on the road ahead of him, his head facing resolutely ahead, his legs eating up the road beneath him.

Harry had put the request out on the day after they returned from the wedding.

Can anyone tell me a good place to go where quadriplegics can have adventures? I am looking for things that an able-bodied person might be able to do, things that might make my depressed friend forget for a while that his life is a bit limited. I don’t really know what I’m hoping for, but all suggestions gratefully received. This is quite urgent. Hazzybearra

As Harry logged on he found himself staring at the screen in disbelief. There were eighty-nine responses. He scrolled up and down the screen, unsure at first whether they could all possibly be in response to his request. Then he glanced around him at the other computer users in the library, desperate for one of them to look at him so that he could tell them. Eighty-nine responses! To a single question!

There were tales of bungee jumping for quadriplegics, of swimming, canoeing, even horse riding, with the aid of a special frame. (When Harry watched the online video this linked to, he was a little disappointed that Louis had said he really couldn’t stand horses. It looked ace.)

There was swimming with dolphins, and scuba diving with supporters. There were floating chairs that would enable him to go fishing, and adapted quad bikes that would allow him to off-road. Some of them had posted photographs or videos of themselves taking part in these activities. A few of them, including Ritchie, had remembered Harry’s previous posts, and wanted to know how he was doing.

This all sounds like good news. Is he feeling better?

Harry typed a quick response:

Maybe. But I’m hoping this trip will really make a difference.

Ritchie responded:

Attaboy! If you’ve got the funds to sort it all out, the sky’s the limit!

Scootagirl wrote:

Make sure you post up some pics of him in the bungee harness. Love the look on guys’ faces when they’re upside down!

Harry loved them – these quads and their carers – for their courage and their generosity and their imaginations. He spent two hours that evening writing down their suggestions, following their links to related websites they had tried and tested, even talking to a few in the chat rooms. By the time he left he had a destination; they would head to California, to The Four Winds Ranch, a specialist centre which offered experienced help ‘in a way that will make you forget you ever needed help’, according to its website. The ranch itself, a low-slung timber building set into a forest clearing near Yosemite, had been set up by a former stuntman who refused to let his spinal injury limit the things he could do, and the online visitors book was full of happy and grateful holidaymakers who swore that he had changed the way they felt about their disability – and themselves. At least six of the chat-room users had been there, and all said it had turned their lives around.

It was wheelchair friendly, but with all the facilities you would expect from a luxury hotel. There were outside sunken baths with discreet hoists, and specialist masseurs. There was trained medical help on site, and a cinema with spaces for wheelchairs beside the normal seats. There was an accessible outdoor hot tub where you could sit and stare up at the stars. They would spend a week there, and then a few days on the coast at a hotel complex where Louis could swim, and get a good look at the rugged coastline. Best of all, Harry had found a climax to the holiday that Louis would never forget – a skydive, with the help of parachute instructors who were trained in helping quads jump. They had special equipment that would strap Louis to them (apparently, the most important thing was securing their legs so that their knees didn’t fly up and bash them in the face).

Harry would show him the hotel brochure, but he wasn’t going to tell him about this. He was just going to turn up there with him and then watch him do it. For those few, precious minutes Louis would be weightless, and free. He would escape the dreaded chair. He would escape gravity.

Harry printed out all the information and kept that one sheet at the top. Whenever he looked at it he felt a germ of excitement building – both at the thought of his first ever long-haul trip, but also at the thought that this might just be it.

This might be the thing that would change Louis’ mind.

Harry showed Niall the next morning, the two of them stooping furtively over their coffees in the kitchen as if they were doing something properly clandestine. He flicked through the papers that Harry had printed off.

“I have spoken to other quads and para’s about the skydiving thing. There’s no medical reason he can’t do it. And the bungee jumping. They have special harnesses to relieve any potential pressure points on his spine.”

Harry studied his face anxiously. He knew Niall didn’t rate his capabilities when it came to Louis’ medical well-being. It was important to him that he was happy with what Harry had planned.

“The place here has everything we might need. They say if we call ahead and bring a doctor’s prescription, they can even get any generic drugs that we might need, so that there is no chance of us running out.”

He frowned. “Looks good,” he said, finally. “You did a great job.”

“You think he’ll like it?”

He shrugged. “I haven’t got a clue. But –” he handed Harry the papers “– you’ve surprised us so far, H.” His smile was a sly thing, breaking in from the side of his face. “No reason you couldn’t do it again.”

Harry showed Mrs. Tomlinson  before he left for the evening.

She had just pulled into the drive in her car and Harry hesitated, out of sight of Louis’ window, before he approached her. “I know this is expensive,” He said. “But...I think it looks amazing. I really think Louis could have the time of his life. If...if you know what I mean.”

She glanced through it all in silence, and then studied the figures that Harry had compiled.

“I’ll pay for myself, if you like. For my board and lodging. I don’t want anyone thinking –”

“It’s fine,” she said, cutting him off. “Do what you have to do. If you think you can get him to go then just book it.”

Harry understood what she was saying. There was no time for anything else.

“Do you think you can persuade him?” she said.

“Well...if I...if I make out that it’s…” he swallowed, “,,,partly for my benefit. He thinks I’ve never done enough with my life. He keeps telling me I should travel. That I should...do things.”

She looked at Harry very carefully. She nodded. “Yes. That sounds like Louis.” She handed back the paperwork.

“I am…” Harry took a breath, and then, to his surprise, he found that he couldn’t speak. Harry swallowed hard, twice. “What you said before. I –”

She didn’t seem to want to wait for him to speak. She ducked her head, her slim fingers reaching for the chain around her neck. “Yes. Well, I’d better go in. I’ll see you tomorrow. Let me know what he says.”

Harry didn’t go back to Nick’s that evening. He had meant to, but something led him away from the industrial park and, instead, he crossed the road and boarded the bus that led towards home. Harry walked the 180 steps to the house, and let himself in. It was a warm evening, and all the windows were open in an attempt to catch the breeze. Anne was cooking, singing away in the kitchen. Robin was on the sofa with a mug of tea, Granddad napping in his chair, his head lolling to one side. Violet was carefully drawing in black felt tip on her shoes. Harry said hello and walked past them, wondering how it could feel so swiftly as if he didn’t quite belong there anymore.

Gemma was working in Harry’s room. He knocked on the door, and walked in to find her at the desk, hunched over a pile of textbooks, glasses that he didn’t recognize perched on her nose. It was strange to see her surrounded by the things he had chosen for himself, with Violet’s pictures already obscuring the walls he had painted so carefully, her pen drawing still scrawled over the corner of his blind. Harry had to gather his thoughts so that he didn’t feel instinctively resentful.

She glanced over her shoulder at him. “Does Mum want me?” she said. She glanced up at the clock. “I thought she was going to do Vi’s tea.”

“She is. She’s having fish fingers.”

She looked at Harry, then removed the glasses. “You okay? You look like shit.”

“So do you.”

“I know. I went on this stupid detox diet. It’s given me hives.” She reached a hand up to her chin.

“You don’t need to diet.”

“Yeah. Well...there’s this bloke I like in Accountancy 2. I thought I might start making the effort. Huge hives all over your face is always a good look, right?”

Harry sat down on the bed. It was his duvet cover. He had known Nick would hate it, with its crazy geometric pattern. He was surprised Gemma didn’t.

She closed her book, and leaned back in her chair. “So what’s going on?”

Harry bit his lip, until she asked him again.

“Gems, do you think I could retrain?”

“Retrain? As what?”

“I don’t know. Something to do with fashion. Design. Or maybe just tailoring.”

“Well...there are definitely courses. I’m pretty sure my uni has one. I could look it up, if you want.”

“But would they take people like me? People who don’t have qualifications?”

She threw her pen up in the air and caught it. “Oh, they love mature students. Especially mature students with a proven work ethic. You might have to do a conversion course, but I don’t see why not. Why? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. It’s just something Louis said a while back. About...about what I should do with my life.”

“And?”

“And I keep thinking...maybe it’s time I did what you’re doing. Now that Dad can support himself again, maybe you’re not the only one capable of making something of herself?”

“You’d have to pay.”

“I know. I’ve been saving.”

“I think it’s probably a bit more than you’ve managed to save.”

“I could apply for a grant. Or maybe a loan. And I’ve got enough to see me through for a bit. I met this MP woman who said she has links to some agency that could help me. She gave me her card.”

“Hang on,” Gemma said, swivelling on her chair, “I don’t really get this. I thought you wanted to stay with Louis. I thought the whole point of this was that you wanted to keep him alive and keep working with him.”

“I do, but…” Harry stared up at the ceiling.

“But what?”

“It’s complicated.”

“So’s quantitive easing. But I still get that it means printing money.”

She rose from her chair and walked over to shut the bedroom door. She lowered her voice so that nobody outside could possibly hear.

“You think you’re going to lose? You think he’s going to…?”

“No,” Harry said hurriedly. “Well, I hope not. I’ve got plans. Big plans. I’ll show you in a bit.”

“But…”

Harry stretched his arms above him, twisting his fingers together. “But, I like Louis. A lot.”

She studied him. She was wearing her thinking face. There is nothing more terrifying than his sister’s thinking face when it is trained directly on you.

“Oh, shit.”

“Don’t…”

“So this is interesting,” she said.

“I know.” Harry dropped my arms.

“You want a job. So that…”

“It’s what the other quads tell me. The ones who I talk to on the message boards. You can’t be both. You can’t be carer and…” Harry lifted his hands to cover his face.

He could feel her eyes on him.

“Does he know?”

“No. I’m not sure I know. I just…” Harry threw himself down on her bed, face first. It smelt of Violet. Underlaid with a faint hint of Marmite. “I don’t know what I think. All I know is that most of the time I would rather be with him than anyone else I know.”

“Including Nick.”

And there it was, out there. The truth that Harry could barely admit to himself.

He felt his cheeks flood with color. “Yes.” He said into the duvet. “Sometimes, yes.”

“Fuck.” she said, after a minute. “And I thought I liked to make my life complicated.”

She lay down beside him on the bed, and they stared up at the ceiling. Downstairs they could hear Granddad whistling tunelessly, accompanied by the whine and clunk of Violet driving some remote-control vehicle backwards and forwards into a piece of skirting. For some unexplained reason Harry’s eyes filled with tears. After a minute, he felt his sister’s arm snake around him.

“You fucking madman.” she said, and they both began to laugh.

“Don’t worry,” Harry said, wiping at his face. “I’m not going to do anything stupid.”

“Good. Because the more I think about this, the more I think it’s about the intensity of the situation. It’s not real, it’s about the drama.”

“What?”

“Well, this is actual life or death, after all, and you’re locked into this man’s life every day, locked into his weird secret. That’s got to create a kind of false intimacy. Either that or you’re getting some weird Florence Nightingale complex.”

“Believe me, that is definitely not it.”

They lay there, staring at the ceiling.

“But it is a bit mad, thinking about loving someone who can’t...you know, love you back. Maybe this is just a panic reaction to the fact that you and Nick have finally moved in together.”

“I know. You’re right.”

“And you two have been together a long time. You’re bound to get crushes on other people.”

“Especially while Nick is obsessed with being Marathon Man.”

“And you might go off Louis again. I mean, I remember when you thought he was an arse.”

“I still do sometimes.”

Harry’s sister reached for a tissue and dabbed at his eyes. Then she thumbed at something on his cheek.

“All that said, the college idea is good. Because – let’s be blunt – whether it all goes tits up with Louis, or whether it doesn’t, you’re still going to need a proper job. You’re not going to want to be a carer forever.”

“It’s not going to go “tits up”, as you call it, with Louis. He’s...he’s going to be okay.”

“Sure he is.”

Gemma sighed and rubbed at her eyes. “You going back to Nick’s tonight?”

“Yes.”

“You want to grab a quick drink at the Spotted Dog and show me these plans, then? I’ll see if Mum will put Vi to bed for me. Come on, you can treat me, seeing as you’re now loaded enough to go to college.”

It was a quarter to ten by the time Harry got back to Nick’s.

Harry’s holiday plans, astonishingly, had met with Gemma’s complete approval. She hadn’t even done her usual thing of adding, “Yes, but it would be even better if you…” There had been a point where Harry wondered if she was doing it just to be nice, because he was obviously going a bit nuts. But she kept saying things like, “Wow, I can’t believe you found this! You’ve got to take lots of pictures of him bungee jumping.” And, “Imagine his face when you tell him about the skydiving! It’s going to be brilliant.”

Anyone watching them at the pub might have thought that they were two friends who actually really quite liked each other.

Still mulling this over, Harry let himself in quietly. The flat was dark from outside and Harry wondered if Nick was having an early night as part of his intensive training. He dropped his bag on the floor in the hall and pushed at the living-room door, thinking as he did so that it was nice of Nick to have left a light on for him.

And then Harry saw him. Nick was sitting at a table laid with two places, a candle flickering between them. As he closed the door behind him, he stood up. The candle was burnt halfway down to the base.

“I’m sorry,” Nick said.

Harry stared at him.

“I was an idiot. You’re right. This job of yours is only for six months, and I have been behaving like a child. I should be proud that you’re doing something so worthwhile, and taking it all so seriously. I was just a bit...thrown. So I’m sorry. Really.”

He held out a hand. Harry took it.

“It’s good that you’re trying to help him. It’s admirable.”

“Thank you.” Harry squeezed his hand.

When Nick spoke again, it was after a short breath, as if he had successfully managed some pre-rehearsed speech. “I’ve made supper. I’m afraid it’s salad again.” He reached past Harry into the fridge, and pulled out two plates. “I promise we’ll go somewhere for a blowout meal once the Viking is over. Or maybe once I’m on to carb loading. I just…” He blew out his cheeks. “I guess I haven’t been able to think about much else lately. I guess that’s been part of the problem. And you’re right. There’s no reason you should follow me about. It’s my thing. You have every right to work instead.”

“Nick…” Harry said.

“I don’t want to argue with you, Harry. Forgive me?”

His eyes were anxious and he smelt of cologne. Those two facts descended upon Harry slowly like a weight.

“Sit down, anyway,” Nck said. “Let’s eat, and then...I don’t know. Enjoy ourselves. Talk about something else. Not running.” He forced a laugh.

Harry sat down and looked at the table.

Then he smiled. “This is really nice,” he said.

Nick really could do 101 things with turkey breast.

They ate the green salad, the pasta salad and seafood salad and an exotic fruit salad that he had prepared for pudding, and Harry drank wine while Nick stuck to mineral water. It took them a while, but they did begin to relax. There, in front of Harry, was a Nick that he hadn’t seen for some time. He was funny, attentive. He policed himself rigidly so that he didn’t say anything about running or marathons, and laughed whenever he caught the conversation veering in that direction. Harry felt his feet meet his under the table and their legs entwine, and slowly Harry felt something that had felt tight and uncomfortable begin to ease in his chest.

His sister was right. His life had become strange and disconnected from everyone he knew – Louis’ plight and his secrets had swamped him. Harry had to make sure that he didn’t lose sight of the rest of himself.

He began to feel guilty about the conversation he had had earlier with his sister. Nick wouldn’t let him get up, not even to help him clear the dishes. At a quarter past eleven he rose and moved the plates and bowls to the kitchenette and began to load the dishwasher. Harry sat, listening to him as he talked to him through the little doorway. Harry was rubbing at the point where his neck met his shoulder, trying to release some of the knots that seemed to be firmly embedded there. He closed my eyes, trying to relax into it, so that it was a few minutes before he realized the conversation had stopped.

Harry opened his eyes. Ni k was standing in the doorway, holding Harry’s holiday folder. He held up several pieces of paper. “What’s all this?”

“It’s...the trip. The one I told you about.”

Harry watched him flick through the paperwork he had shown his sister, taking in the itinerary, the pictures, the Californian beach.

“I thought…” His voice, when it emerged, sounded strangely strangled. “I thought you were talking about Lourdes.”

“What?”

“Or...I don’t know...Stoke Mandeville...or somewhere. I thought, when you said you couldn’t come because you had to help him, it was actual work. Physio, or faith healing, or something. This looks like…” He shook his head disbelievingly. “This looks like the holiday of a lifetime.”

“Well...it kind of is. But not for me. For him.”

Nick grimaced. “No…” he said, shaking his head. “You wouldn’t enjoy this at all. Hot tubs under the stars, swimming with dolphins...Oh, look, “five-star luxury” and “twenty-four-hour room service”.’ He looked up at Harry. “This isn’t a work trip. This is a bloody honeymoon.”

“That’s not fair.”

“But this is? You...you really expect me to just sit here while you swan off with another man on a holiday like this?”

“His carer is coming too.”

“Oh. Oh yes, Niall. That makes it all right, then.”

“Nick, come on – it’s complicated.”

“So explain it to me.” He thrust the papers towards him. “Explain this to me, Harry. Explain it in a way that I can possibly understand.”

“It matters to me that Louis wants to live, that he sees good things in his future.”

“And those good things would include you?”

“That’s not fair. Look, have I ever asked you to stop doing the job you love?”

“My job doesn’t involve hot tubs with strange men.”

“Well, I don’t mind if it does. You can have hot tubs with strange men! As often as you like! There!” Harry tried to smile, hoping he would too.

But he wasn’t having any of it. “How would you feel, Harry? How would you feel if I said I was going on some keep-fit convention with – I don’t know – Kevin from the Terrors because he needed cheering up?”

“Cheering up?” He thought of Kevin, with his flicky blonde hair and his perfect legs, and Harry wondered absently why he had thought of his name first.

“And then how would you feel if I said he and I were going to eat out together all the time, and maybe sit in a hot tub or go on days out together. In some destination six thousand miles away, just because she had been a bit down. That really wouldn’t bother you?”

“He’s not “a bit down”, Nick. He wants to kill himself. He wants to take himself off to Mercy, and end his own bloody life.” Harry could hear his blood thumping in his ears. “And you can’t turn it around like this. You were the one who called Louis a cripple. You were the one who made out he couldn’t possibly be a threat to you. “The perfect boss,” you said. Someone not even worth worrying about.”

He put the folder back down on the worktop.

“Well, Harry...I’m worrying now.”

Harry sank his face into his hands and let it rest there for a minute. Out in the corridor he heard a fire door swing, and the voices of people swallowed up as a door was unlocked and closed behind them.

Nick slid his hand slowly backwards and forwards along the edge of the kitchen cabinets. A little muscle worked in his jaw. “You know how this feels, Harry? It feels like I might be running, but I feel like I’m permanently just a little bit behind the rest of the field. I feel like…” He took a deep breath, as if he were trying to compose himself. “I feel like there’s something bad on the bend around the corner, and everyone else seems to know what it is except me.”

He lifted his eyes to Harry’s. “I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. But I don’t want you to go. I don’t care if you don’t want to do the Viking, but I don’t want you to go on this...this holiday. With him.”

“But I –”

“Nearly seven years, we’ve been together. And you’ve known this man, had this job, for five months. Five months. If you go with him now, you’re telling me something about our relationship. About how you feel about us.”

“That’s not fair. It doesn’t have to say anything about us,” Harry protested.

“It does if I can say all this and you’re still going to go.”

The little flat seemed so still around them. He was looking at HArry with an expression he had never seen before.

When Harry’s voice emerged, it did so as a whisper. “But he needs me.”

He realized almost as soon as he said it, heard the words and how they twisted and regrouped in the air, knew already how he would have felt if Nick had said the same to him.

He swallowed, shook his head a little as if he were having trouble taking in what Harry said. His hand came to rest on the side of the worktop, and then he looked up at him.

“Whatever I say isn’t going to make a difference, is it?”

That was the thing about Nick. He always was smarter than Harry gave him credit for.

“Nick, I-”

He closed his eyes, just for a moment, and then he turned and walked out of the living room, leaving the last of the empty dishes on the sideboard.

Chapter Text

Mark

 

The boy moved in at the weekend. Louis didn’t say anything to Johannah or me, but I walked into the annex on Saturday morning still in my pajamas to see if Louis needed any help, as Niall was delayed, and there he was, walking up the hallway with a bowlful of cereal in one hand and the newspaper in the other. He blushed when he saw me. I don’t know why – I was wearing my dressing gown, all perfectly decent. I remember thinking afterwards that there had been a time when it had been perfectly normal to find pretty young things creeping out of Louis’ bedroom in the morning.

“Just bringing Louis his post.” I said, waving it.

“He’s not up yet. Do you want me to give him a shout?” His hand went to his chest, shielding himself with the newspaper. He was wearing a Minnie Mouse T-shirt and the kind of embroidered trousers you used to see Chinese women wearing in Hong Kong.

“No, no. Not if he’s sleeping. Let him rest.”

When I told Johannah, I thought she’d be pleased. She had been so wretchedly cross about the other guy moving in with his boyfriend, after all. But she just looked a bit surprised, and then adopted that tense expression which meant she was already imagining all sorts of possible and undesirable consequences. She didn’t say as much, but I was pretty sure she was not keen on Harry Styles. That said, I didn’t know who it was Johannah approved of these days. Her default setting seemed to be stuck on Disapprove.

We never got to the bottom of what had prompted Harry to stay – Louis just said ‘family issues’ – but he was a busy little thing. When he wasn’t looking after Louis, he was dashing around, cleaning and washing, whizzing backwards and forwards to the travel agent’s and to the library. I would have known him anywhere in town because he was so conspicuous. He wore the brightest-coloured clothing of anyone I’d seen outside the tropics – little jewel-hued blouses and strange-looking shoes.

I would have said to Johannah that he brightened the place up. But I couldn’t make that sort of remark to Johannah any more.

Louis had apparently told him that he could use his computer, but he refused, in favour of using those at the library. I don’t know if he was afraid of being seen to be taking advantage, or if it was because he didn’t want him to see whatever it was that he was doing.

On Monday evening, he asked if Johannah and I would come with Niall into the annex. He had laid out the table with brochures, printed timetables, insurance documents and other things that he’d printed off the internet. There were copies for each of us, in clear plastic folders. It was all terribly organized.

He wanted, he said, to present us with her plans for a holiday. (He had warned Johannah that he would make it sound like he was the one gleaning all the benefit, but I could still see Johannah’s eyes grow a little steely as he detailed all the things he had booked for them.)

It was an extraordinary trip that seemed to involve all sorts of unusual activities, things I couldn’t imagine Louis doing even before his accident. But every time he mentioned something – white-water rafting, or bungee jumping or what have you – he would hold up a document in front of Louis, showing other injured young men taking part, and say, “If I’m going to try all these things you keep saying I should, then you have to do them with me.”

I have to admit, I was secretly rather impressed by him. He was a resourceful little thing.

Louis listened to him, and I could see him reading the documents Harry laid out in front of him.

“Where did you find all this information?” he said, finally.

He raised his eyebrows at him. “Knowledge is power, Louis.” he said.

And my son smiled, as if Harry had said something particularly clever.

“So…” Harry said, when all the questions had been asked. “We will be leaving in eight days’ time. Are you happy, Mrs. Tomlinson?” There was a faint air of defiance in the way he said it, as if he were daring Jay to say no.

“If that’s what you all want to do, then it’s quite alright by me.” Jay said.

“Niall? Are you still up for it?”

“You bet.”

“And...Louis?”

We all looked at him. There was a time, not that long ago, when any one of these activities would have been unthinkable. There was a time when Louis would have taken pleasure in saying no just to upset his mother. He had always been like that, our son – quite capable of doing the opposite of what was right, simply because he didn’t want to be seen to be complying, in some way. I don’t know where it came from, this urge to subvert. Perhaps it was what made him such a brilliant negotiator.

He looked up at me, his eyes unreadable, and I felt my jaw tense. And then he looked at Harry, and smiled.

“Why not?” he said. “I’m quite looking forward to seeing Harry throw himself into some rapids.”

The man seemed to physically deflate a little – with relief – as if he had half expected him to say no.

It’s funny – I admit, when he first wound his way into our lives I was a little suspicious of him. Louis, despite all his bluster, had been vulnerable. I was a little afraid that he could be manipulated. He’s a wealthy young man, despite it all, and that wretched Ashton running off with his friend had made him feel about as worthless as anyone in his position could feel.

But I saw the way Harry looked at him then, a strange mixture of pride and gratitude on his face, and I was suddenly immensely glad that he was there. My son, although we never said as much, was in the most untenable of situations. Whatever it was he was doing, it seemed to be giving him just a small respite from that.

There was, for a few days, a faint but definitely celebratory air in the house. Johannah wore an air of quiet hopefulness, although she refused to admit to me that that was what it was. I knew her subtext: what did we really have to celebrate, when all was said and done? I heard her on the telephone to Lottie late at night, justifying what she had agreed to. Her mother’s daughter, Lottie, she was already looking for any way in which Harry might have used Louis’ situation to advantage himself.

“She offered to pay for herself, Lots.” Jay said. And, “No, darling. I don’t really think we have a choice. We have very little time and Louis has agreed to it, so I’m just going to hope for the best. I think you really have to do the same now.”

I knew what it cost her to defend Harry, to even be nice to him. But she tolerated that boy because she knew, as I did, that Harry was our only chance of keeping our son even halfway happy.

Harry Styles had become, although neither of us said it, our only chance of keeping him alive.


And then Louis got pneumonia.

Chapter Text

Harry ran into Accident and Emergency. The sprawling layout of the hospital and his natural lack of any kind of internal compass meant that the critical-care ward took him forever to find. He had to ask three times before someone pointed him in the right direction. He finally swung open the doors to Ward C12, breathless and gasping, and there, in the corridor, was Niall, sitting reading a newspaper. He looked up as Harry approached him.

“How is he?”

“On oxygen. Stable.”

“I don’t understand. He was fine on Friday night. He had a bit of a cough Saturday morning, but...but this? What happened?”

His heart was racing. Harry sat down for a moment, trying to catch his breath. He had been running pretty much since he received Niall’s text message an hour previously. He sat up, and folded his newspaper.

“It’s not the first time, Harry. He gets a bit of bacteria in his lungs, his cough mechanism doesn’t work like it should, he goes down pretty fast. I tried to do some clearing techniques on him Saturday afternoon but he was in too much pain. He got a fever out of nowhere, then he got a stabbing pain in his chest. We had to call an ambulance Saturday night.”

“Shit,” He said, bending over. “Shit, shit, shit. Can I go in?”

“He’s pretty groggy. Not sure you’ll get much out of him. And Mrs. T is with him.”

Harry left his bag with Niall, cleaned his hands with antibacterial lotion, then pushed at the door and entered.

Louis was in the middle of the hospital bed, his body covered with a blue blanket, wired up to a drip and surrounded by various intermittently bleeping machines. His face was partially obscured by an oxygen mask and his eyes were closed. His skin looked grey, tinged with a blue-whiteness which made something in Harry constrict. Mrs.Tomlinson sat next to him, one hand resting on his covered arm. She was staring, unseeing, at the wall opposite.

“Mrs. Tomlinson?” He said.

She glanced up with a start. “Oh. Harry.”

“How...how is he doing?” Harry wanted to go and take Louis’ other hand, but didn’t feel like he could sit down. He hovered there by the door. There was an expression of such dejection on her face that even to be in the room felt like intruding.

“A bit better. They have him on some very strong antibiotics.”

“Is there...anything I can do?”

“I don’t think so, no. We...we just have to wait. The consultant will be making his rounds in an hour or so. He’ll be able to give us more information, hopefully.”

The world seemed to have stopped. Harry stood there a little longer, letting the steady beep of the machines burn a rhythm into his consciousness.

“Would you like me to take over for a while? So you can have a break?”

“No. I think I’ll stay, actually.”

A bit of Harry was hoping that Louis would hear his voice. A bit of him was hoping Lou’s eyes would open above that clear plastic mask, and he would mutter, “Haz. Come and sit down for God’s sake. You’re making the place look untidy.”

But he just lay there.

Harry wiped at his face with a hand. “Would...would you like me to get you a drink?”

Mrs. Tomlinson looked up. “What time is it?”

“A quarter to ten.”

“Is it really?” She shook her head, as if she found that hard to believe. “Thank you, Harry. That would be...that would be very kind. I seem to have been here rather a long time.”

Harry had been off on Friday – in part because the Tomlinsons insisted he was owed a day off, but mostly because there was no way he could get a passport other than heading to London on the train and queuing up at Petty France. Harry had popped by their house on Friday night, on his return, to show Louis his spoils and to make sure his own passport was still valid. Harry thought Lou had been a little quiet, but there had been nothing particularly unusual in that. Some days he was in more discomfort than others. He had assumed it was one of those days. If he was honest, his mind was so full of their travel plans that he didn’t have a lot of room to think about anything else.

Harry spent Saturday morning picking up his belongings from Nick’s house with his dad, and then he went shopping in the high street with his Mum in the afternoon to pick up a swim trunks and some holiday necessities, and he stayed over at his parents’ house Saturday and Sunday nights. It was a tight squeeze, with Gemma and Vi there as well. On Monday morning he got up at 7, ready to be at the Tomlinsons by 8 AM. He arrived there to find the whole place closed up, the front and back doors locked. There was no note. He stood under the front porch and rang Niall’s phone three times without an answer. Mrs. Tomlinson’s phone was set to voicemail. Finally, as he sat on the steps for forty-five minutes, Niall’s text arrived.

We are at county hospital. Louis has pneumonia. Ward C12.

Niall left, and Harry sat outside Louis’ room for a further hour. He flicked through the magazines that somebody had apparently left on the table in 1982, and then pulled a paperback from his bag and tried to read that, but it was impossible to concentrate.

The consultant came round, but Harry didn’t feel that he could follow him in while Louis’ mother was in there. When he emerged, fifteen minutes later, Mrs. Tomlinson came out behind him. Harry wasn’t sure if she told him simply because she had to talk to somebody, and he was the only person available, but she said in a voice thick with relief that the consultant was fairly confident that they had got the infection under control. It had been a particularly virulent bacterial strain. It was lucky that Louis had gone to hospital when he had. Her “or…” hung in the silence between the two.

“So what do we do now?” Harry asked.

She shrugged. “We wait.”

“Would you like me to get you some lunch? Or perhaps I could sit with Louis while you go and get some?”

Just occasionally, something like understanding passed between the two. Her face softened briefly and – without that customary, rigid expression – Harry could see suddenly how desperately tired she looked. He thought she had aged ten years in the time that he had been with them.

“Thank you, Harry.” she said. “I would very much like to nip home and change my clothes, if you wouldn’t mind staying with him. I don’t really want Louis to be left alone right now.”

After she’d gone, Harry went in, closing the door behind him, and sat down beside Lou. He seemed curiously absent, as if the Louis that he knew had gone on a brief trip somewhere else and left only a shell. Harry wondered, briefly, if that was how it was when people died. Then he told himself to stop thinking about death.

Harry sat and watched the clock tick and heard the occasional murmuring voices outside and the soft squeak of shoes on the linoleum. Twice a nurse came in and checked various levels, pressed a couple of buttons, took his temperature, but still Louis didn’t stir.

“He is...okay, isn’t he?” Harry asked her.

“He’s asleep,” she said, reassuringly. “It’s probably the best thing for him right now. Try not to worry.”

It’s an easy thing to say. But Harry had a lot of time to think, in that hospital room. He thought about Louis and the frightening speed with which he had become dangerously ill. He thought about Nick, and the fact that even as Harry had collected his things from his flat, unpeeled and rolled up his wall calendar, folded and packed the clothes he had laid so carefully in his chest of drawers, his sadness was never the crippling thing he should have expected. Harry didn’t feel desolate, or overwhelmed, or any of the things you should feel when you split apart a love of several years. He felt quite calm, and a bit sad and perhaps a little guilty – both at his part in the split, and the fact that he didn’t feel the things he probably should. Harry had sent him two text messages, to say he was really, really sorry, and that he hoped Nick would do really well in the Xtreme Viking. But he hadn’t replied.

After an hour, Harry leaned over, lifted the blanket from Louis’ arm, and there, pale brown against the white sheet, lay his hand. A cannula was taped to the back of it with surgical tape. When he turned it over, the scars were still livid on his wrists. Harry wondered, briefly, if they would ever fade, or if he would be permanently reminded of what he had tried to do.

He took his fingers gently in his and closed his own around them. They were warm, the fingers of someone very much living. Harry was so oddly reassured by how they felt in his own that he kept them there, gazing at them, at the calluses that told of a life not entirely lived behind a desk, at the pink seashell nails that would always have to be trimmed by somebody else.

Louis’ were good man’s hands – attractive and even, long and delicate. It was hard to look at them and believe that they held no strength, that they would never again pick something up from a table, stroke an arm or make a fist.

Harry traced his knuckles with his finger. Some small part of him wondered whether he should be embarrassed if Louis opened his eyes at this point, but he couldn’t feel it. He felt with some certainty that it was good for him to have his hand in Harry’s. Hoping that in some way, through the barrier of his drugged sleep, he knew this too, Harry closed his eyes and waited.

Louis finally woke up shortly after four. Harry was outside in the corridor, lying across the chairs, reading a discarded newspaper, and he jumped when Mrs. Tomlinson came out to tell him. She looked a little lighter when she mentioned he was talking, and that he wanted to see Harry. She said she was going to go downstairs and ring Mr. Tomlinson.

And then, as if she couldn’t quite help herself, she added, “Please don’t tire him.”

“Of course not.” Harry said.

Harry’s smile was charming.

“Hey,” he said, peeking his head round the door.

Louis turned his face slowly towards him. “Hey, yourself.”

His voice was hoarse, as if he had spent the past thirty-six hours not sleeping but shouting. Harry sat down and looked at him. His eyes flickered downwards.

“You want me to lift the mask for a minute?”

He nodded. Harry took it and carefully slid it up over his head. There was a fine film of moisture where it had met his skin, and he took a tissue and wiped gently around his face.

“So how are you feeling?”

“Been better.”

A great lump had risen, unbidden, to Harry’s throat, and he tried to swallow it. “I don’t know. You’ll do anything for attention, Louis Tomlinson. I bet this was all just a –”

He closed his eyes, cutting Harry off in mid-sentence. When he opened them again, they held a hint of an apology. “Sorry, Haz. I don’t think I can do witty today.”

They sat. And Harry talked, letting his voice rattle away in the little pale-green room, telling Louis about getting his things back from Nick’s – how much easier it had been getting his vinyls out of his collection, given his insistence on a proper cataloging system.

“You okay?” Louis asked, when he had finished. His eyes were sympathetic, like he expected it to hurt more than it actually did.

“Yeah. Sure.” Harry shrugged. “It’s really not so bad. I’ve got other things to think about anyway.”

Louis was silent. “The thing is,” he said, eventually, “I’m not sure I’m going to be bungee jumping any time soon.”

Harry knew it. He had half expected this ever since he had first received Niall’s text. But hearing the words fall from his mouth felt like a blow.

“Don’t worry,” Harry said, trying to keep his voice even. “It’s fine. We’ll go some other time.”

“I’m sorry. I know you were really looking forward to it.”

Harry placed a hand on his forehead, and smoothed his hair back. “Shh. Really. It’s not important. Just get well.”

Lou closed his eyes with a faint wince. Harry knew what they said – those lines around his eyes, that resigned expression. They said there wasn’t necessarily going to be another time. They said he thought he would never be well again.

Harry stopped off at Granta House on the way back from the hospital. Louis’ father let him in, looking almost as tired as Mrs. Tomlinson. He was carrying a battered wax jacket, as if he were just on his way out. Harry told him Mrs. Tomlinson was with Louis again, and that the antibiotics were considered to be working well, but that she had asked him to let him know that she would be spending the night at the hospital again. Why she couldn’t tell him herself, Harry didn’t know. Perhaps she just had too much to think about.

“How does he look?”

“Bit better than this morning,” he said. “He had a drink while I was there. Oh, and he said something rude about one of the nurses.”

“Still his impossible self.”

“Yeah, still his impossible self.”

Just for a moment he saw Mr. Tomlinson’s mouth compress and his eyes glisten. He looked away at the window and then back at him. Harry didn’t know whether he would have preferred it if he’d looked away.

“Third bout. In two years.”

It took Harry a minute to catch up. “Of pneumonia?”

He nodded. “Wretched thing. He’s pretty brave, you know. Under all that bluster.” He swallowed and nodded, as if to himself. “It’s good you can see it, Harry.”

Harry didn’t know what to do. He reached out a hand and touched his arm. “I do see it.”

Mark gave him a faint nod, then took his panama hat from the coat hooks in the hall. Muttering something that might have been a thank you or a goodbye, Mr. Tomlinson moved past him and out of the front door.

The annex felt oddly silent without Louis in it. Harry realized how much he had become used to the distant sound of his motorized chair moving backwards and forwards, his murmured conversations with Niall in the next room, the low hum of the radio. Now the annex was still, the air like a vacuum around him.

Harry packed an overnight bag of all the things Louis might want the next day, including clean clothes, his toothbrush, hairbrush and medication, plus earphones in case he was well enough to listen to music. As he did so he had to fight a peculiar and rising feeling of panic. A subversive little voice kept rising up inside him, saying, This is how it would feel if he were dead. To drown it out, Harry turned on the radio, trying to bring the annex back to life. He did some cleaning, made Louis’ bed with fresh sheets and picked some flowers from the garden, which he put in the living room. And then, when he had got everything ready, Harry glanced over and saw the holiday folder on the table.

Harry would spend the following day going through all the paperwork and cancelling every trip, every excursion he had booked. There was no saying when Louis would be well enough to do any of them. The consultant had stressed that he had to rest, to complete his course of antibiotics, to stay warm and dry. White-water rafting and scuba diving were not part of his plan for convalescence.

Harry stared at his folders, at all the effort and work and imagination that had gone into compiling them. He stared at the passport that he had queued to collect, remembering his mounting sense of excitement even as he sat on the train heading into the city, and for the first time since he had embarked upon his plan, he felt properly despondent. There were just over three weeks to go, and Harry had failed. His contract was due to end, and he had done nothing to noticeably change Louis’ mind. Harry was afraid to even ask Mrs. Tomlinson where on earth they went from here. He felt suddenly overwhelmed. He dropped his head into his hands and, in the silent little house, he left it there.

Evening.

Harry’s head shot up. Niall was standing there, filling the little kitchen with his bulk. He had his backpack over his shoulder.

“I just came to drop off some prescription meds for when he gets back. You...okay?”

Harry wiped briskly at his eyes. “Sure. Sorry. Just...just a little daunted about cancelling this lot.”

Niall swung his backpack off his shoulder and sat down opposite him. “It’s a pisser, that’s for sure.” He picked up the folder, and began flicking through. “You want a hand tomorrow? They don’t want me at the hospital, so I could stop by for an hour in the morning. Help you put in the calls.”

“That’s kind of you. But no. I’ll be fine. Probably simpler if I do it all.”

Niall made tea, and the pair sat opposite each other and drank it. Harry thought it was the first time he and Niall had really talked to each other – at least, without Louis between them. He told Harry about a previous client of his, a quadriplegic with a ventilator, who had been ill at least once a month for the whole time he worked there. He told him about Louis’ previous bouts of pneumonia, the first of which had nearly killed him, and from which it had taken him weeks to recover.

“He gets this look in his eye…”’ he said. “When he’s really sick. It’s pretty scary. Like he just...retreats. Like he’s almost not even there.”

“I know. I hate that look.”

“He’s a –” he began. And then, abruptly, his eyes slid away from Harry and he closed his mouth.

They sat holding their mugs. From the corner of his eye Harry studied Niall, looking at his friendly open face that seemed briefly to have closed off. And he realized he was about to ask a question to which he already knew the answer.

“You know, don’t you?”

“Know what?”

“About...what he wants to do.”

The silence in the room was sudden and intense.

Niall looked at Harry carefully, as if weighing up how to reply.

“I know.” Harry said. “I’m not meant to, but I do. That’s what...that’s what the holiday was meant to be about. That’s what the outings were all about. Me trying to change his mind.”

Niall put his mug on the table. “I did wonder,” he said. “You seemed...to be on a mission.”

“I was. Am.”

He shook his head, whether to say Harry shouldn’t give up, or to tell him that nothing could be done, he wasn’t sure.

“What are we going to do, Niall?”

It took him a moment or two before he spoke again. “You know what, Harry? I really like Louis. I don’t mind telling you, I love the guy. I’ve been with him two years now. I’ve seen him at his worst, and I’ve seen him on his good days, and all I can say to you is I wouldn’t be in his shoes for all the money in the world.”

He took a swig of his tea. “There have been times when I’ve stayed over and he’s woken up screaming because in his dreams he’s still walking and skiing and doing stuff and just for those few minutes, when his defenses are right down and it’s all a bit raw, he literally can’t bear the thought of never doing it again. He can’t bear it. I’ve sat there with him and there is nothing I can say to the guy, nothing that is going to make it any better. He’s been dealt the shittiest hand of cards you can imagine. And you know what? I looked at him last night and I thought about his life and what it’s likely to become...and although there is nothing I’d like more in the world than for the big guy to be happy, I...I can’t judge him for what he wants to do. It’s his choice. It should be his choice.”

Harry’s breath had started to catch in his throat. “But...that was before. You’ve all admitted that it was before I came. He’s different now. He’s different with me, right?”

“Sure, but –”

“But if we don’t have faith that he can feel better, even get better, then how is he supposed to keep the faith that good things might happen?”

Niall put his mug on the table. He looked straight into Harry’s eyes.

“H. He’s not going to get better.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do. Unless there is some massive breakthrough in stem cell research, Louis is looking at another decade in that chair. Minimum. He knows it, even if his folks don’t want to admit it. And this is half the trouble. She wants to keep him alive at any cost. Mr. T thinks there is a point where we have to let him decide.”

“Of course he gets to decide, Niall. But he has to see what his actual choices are.”

“He’s a bright guy. He knows exactly what his choices are.”

Harry’s voice lifted in the little room. “No. You’re wrong. You tell me he was in the same place before I came. You tell me he hasn’t changed his outlook even a little bit just through me being here.”

“I can’t see inside his head, Harry.”

“You know I’ve changed the way he thinks.”

“No, I know that he will do pretty much anything to make you happy.”

Harry stared at him. “You think he’s going through the motions just to keep me happy?” Harry felt furious with Niall, furious with them all. “So if you don’t believe any of this can do any good, why were you going to come at all? Why did you even want to come on this trip? Just a nice holiday, was it?”

“No. I want him to live.”

“But –”

“But I want him to live if he wants to live. If he doesn’t, then by forcing him to carry on, you, me – no matter how much we love him – we become just another shitty bunch of people taking away his choices.”

Niall’s words reverberated into the silence. Harry didn’t correct his statement about love. Instead, he wiped a stray tear from his cheek and tried to make his heart rate return to normal. Niall, apparently embarrassed by Harry’s tears, scratched absently at his neck, and then, after a minute, silently handed him a piece of kitchen roll.

“I can’t just let it happen, Ni.”

He said nothing.

“I can’t.”

Harry stared at his passport, sitting on the kitchen table. It was a terrible picture. It looked like someone else entirely. Someone whose life, whose way of being, might actually be nothing like his own. He stared at it, thinking.

“Niall?”

“What?”

“If I could fix some other kind of trip, something the doctors would agree to, would you still come? Would you still help me?”


“Course I would.” He stood, rinsed his mug and hauled his backpack over his shoulder. He turned to face Harry before he left the kitchen. “But I’ve got to be honest, H. I’m not sure even you are going to be able to pull this one off.”

Harry was always up for a challenge.

Chapter Text

Exactly ten days later, Louis’ father disgorged the pair from the car at Heathrow, Niall wrestling the luggage onto a trolley, and Harry checking and checking again that Louis was comfortable – until even he became irritated.

“Take care of yourselves. And have a good trip.” Mr Tomlinson said, placing a hand on Lou’s shoulder. “Don’t get up to too much mischief.” He actually winked at Harry when he said this.

Mrs. Tomlinson hadn’t been able to leave work to come too. Harry suspected that actually meant she hadn’t wanted to spend two hours in a car with her husband.

Louis nodded but said nothing. He had been disarmingly quiet in the car, gazing out of the window with his impenetrable stare, ignoring Niall and Harry as they chatted about traffic and random other things throughout the journey.

Even as they walked across the concourse Harry wasn’t sure they were doing the right thing. Mrs. Tomlinson had not wanted him to go at all. But from the day he agreed to Harry’s revised plan, he knew she had been afraid to tell him he shouldn’t. She seemed to be afraid of talking to them at all that last week. She sat with Louis in silence, talking only to the medical professionals. Or busied herself in her garden, cutting things down with frightening efficiency.

“The airline is meant to meet us. They’re meant to come and meet us.” Harry said, as they made their way to the check-in desk, flicking through his paperwork.

“Chill out. They’re hardly going to post someone at the doors.” Niall said.

“But the chair has to travel as a “fragile medical device”. I checked with the woman on the phone three times. And we need to make sure they’re not going to get funny about Louis’ on-board medical equipment.”

The online para community had given Harry reams of information, warnings, legal rights and checklists. He had subsequently triple-checked with the airline that they would be given bulkhead seats, and that Louis would be boarded first, and not moved from his power chair until they were actually at the gates. Niall would remain on the ground, remove the joystick and turn it to manual, and then carefully tie and bolster the chair, securing the pedals. He would personally oversee its loading to protect against damage. It would be pink-tagged to warn luggage handlers of its extreme delicacy. They had been allocated three seats in a row so that Niall could complete any medical assistance that Louis needed without prying eyes. The airline had assured Harry that the armrests lifted so that they wouldn’t bruise Louis’ hips while transferring him from the wheelchair to his aircraft seat. Harry and Niall would keep him between them at all times. And they would be the first allowed off the aircraft.

All this was on Harry’s ‘airport’ checklist. That was the sheet in front of his ‘hotel’ checklist but behind his ‘day before we leave’ checklist and the itinerary. Even with all these safeguards in place, he felt sick.

Every time he looked at Louis, Harry wondered if he had done the right thing. Louis had only been cleared by his GP for travel the night before. He ate little and spent much of everyday asleep. He seemed not just weary from his illness, but exhausted with life, tired of the interference, upbeat attempts at conversation, relentless determination to try to make things better for him. He tolerated Harry, but he got the feeling that he often wanted to be left alone. He didn’t know that this was the one thing Harry could not do.

“There’s the airline woman.” Harry said, as a uniformed girl with a bright smile and a clipboard walked briskly towards them.

“Well, she’s going to be a lot of use on transfer.” Niall muttered. “She doesn’t look like she could lift a frozen prawn.”

“We’ll manage.” Harry said. “Between us, we will manage.”

It had become Harry’s catchphrase, ever since he had worked out what he wanted to do. Since his conversation with Niall in the annex, he had been filled with a renewed zeal to prove them all wrong. Just because they couldn’t do the holiday he’d planned did not mean that Louis could not do anything at all.

Harry hit the message boards, firing out questions. Where might be a good place for a far weaker Louis to convalesce? Did anyone else know where they could go? Temperature was his main consideration – the English climate was too changeable (there was nothing more depressing than an English seaside resort in the rain). Much of Europe was too hot in late July, ruling out Italy, Greece, the South of France and other coastal areas. Harry had a vision, you see. He saw Louis, relaxing by the sea. The problem was, with only a few days to plan it and go, there was a diminishing chance of making it a reality.

There were commiserations from the others, and many, many stories about pneumonia. It seemed to be the spectre that haunted them all. There were a few suggestions as to places they could go, but none that inspired Harry. Or, more importantly, none that he felt Louis would be inspired by. Harry did not want spas, or places where he might see other people in the same position as he was. He didn’t really know what he wanted, but he scrolled backwards through the list of their suggestions and knew that nothing was right.

It was Ritchie, that chat-room stalwart, who had come to his aid in the end. The afternoon that Louis was released from hospital, he typed:

Give me your email address. Cousin is travel agent. I have got him on the case.

Harry had rung the number he gave him and spoken to a middle-aged man with a broad Yorkshire accent. When he told Harry what he had in mind, a little bell of recognition rang somewhere deep in his memory. And within two hours, they had it sorted. Harry was so grateful to him that hecould have cried.

“Think nothing of it, pet.”  he said. “You just make sure that bloke of yours has a good time.”

That said, by the time they left, Harry was almost as exhausted as Louis. He had spent days wrangling with the finer requirements of paraplegic travel, and right up until the morning we left he had not been convinced that Louis would be well enough to come. Now, seated with the bags, he gazed at him, withdrawn and pale in the bustling airport, and wondered again if he had been wrong. Harry had a sudden moment of panic. What if he got ill again? What if he hated every minute, as he had with the horse racing? What if Harry had misread this whole situation, and what Louis needed was not an epic journey, but ten days at home in his own bed?

But they didn’t have ten days to spare. This was it. This was Harry’s only chance. He had done the research and looked into doctors - but had to find the right time to give Louis that information.

“They’re calling our flight.” Niall said, as he strolled back from the duty free. He looked at Harry, raised an eyebrow, and he took a breath.

“Okay.” Harry replied. “Let’s go.”

The flight itself, despite twelve long hours in the air, was not the ordeal Harry had feared. Niall proved himself dextrous at doing Louis’ routine changes under cover of a blanket. The airline staff were solicitous and discreet, and careful with the chair. Louis was, as promised, loaded first, achieved transfer to his seat with no bruising, and then settled in between the two.

Within an hour of being in the air Harry realized that, oddly enough, above the clouds, provided his seat was tilted and he was wedged in enough to be stable, Louis was pretty much equal to anyone in the cabin. Stuck in front of a screen, with nowhere to move and nothing to do, there was very little, 30,000 feet up, that separated him from any of the other passengers. He ate and watched a film, and mostly he slept.

Niall and Harry smiled cautiously at each other and tried to behave as if this were fine, all good. Harry gazed out of the window, his thoughts as jumbled as the clouds beneath them, unable yet to think about the fact that this was not just a logistical challenge but an adventure for him – that he, Harry Edward Styles, was actually headed to the other side of the world. He couldn’t see it. He couldn’t see anything beyond Louis by then. He felt like his sister, when she had first given birth to Violet. “It’s like I’m looking through a funnel.” she had said, gazing at her newborn form. “The world has just shrunk to me and him.”

She had texted Harry when he was in the airport.

You can do this. Am bloody proud of you xxx

Harry called it up now, just to look at it, feeling suddenly emotional, perhaps because of her choice of words. Or perhaps because he was tired and afraid and still finding it hard to believe that he had even got us this far. Finally, to block his thoughts, he turned on his little television screen, gazing unseeing at some American comedy series until the skies around them grew dark.

And then Harry woke to find that the air stewardess was standing over them with breakfast, that Louis was talking to Niall about a film they had just watched together, and that – astonishingly, and against all the odds – the three of them were less than an hour away from landing in Mauritius.

Harry didn’t think he believed that any of this could actually happen until they touched down at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport. They emerged groggily through arrivals, still stiff from their time in the air, and Harry could have wept with relief at the sight of the operator’s specially adapted taxi. That first morning, as the driver sped us towards the resort, he registered little of the island. True, the colors seemed brighter than England, the sky more vivid, an azure blue that just disappeared and grew deeper and deeper to infinity. He saw that the island was lush and green, fringed with acres of sugarcane crops, the sea visible like a strip of mercury through the volcanic hills. The air was tinged with something smoky and gingery, the sun so high in the sky that Harry had to squint into the white light. In his exhausted state it was as if someone had woken him up in the pages of a glossy magazine.

But even as his senses wrestled with the unfamiliar, his gaze returned repeatedly to Louis, to his pale, weary face, to the way his head seemed oddly slumped on his shoulders. And then they pulled into a palm-tree-lined driveway, stopped outside a low framed building and the driver was already out and unloading their bags.

The trio declined the offer of iced tea, of a tour around the hotel. They found Louis’ room, dumped his bags, settled him into his bed and almost before they had drawn the curtains, he was asleep again. And then there they were. Harry had done it. Harry stood outside Louis’ room, finally letting out a deep breath, while Niall gazed out of the window at the white surf on the coral reef beyond. He didn’t know if it was the journey, or because this was the most beautiful place he had ever been in his life, but Harry felt suddenly tearful.

“It’s okay.” Niall said, catching sight of his expression. And then, totally unexpectedly, he walked up to him and enveloped Harry in a huge bear hug. “Relax, H. It’s going to be okay. Really. You did good.”

It was almost three days before Harry started to believe him. Louis slept for most of the first forty-eight hours – and then, astonishingly, he began to look better. His skin regained its colour and he lost the blue shadows around his eyes. His spasms lessened and he began to eat again, wheeling his way slowly along the endless, extravagant buffet and telling Harry what he wanted on his plate. Harry  knew he was feeling more like himself when he bullied him into trying things he would never have eaten – spicy creole curries and seafood whose name he did not recognize. Louis swiftly seemed more at home in this place than Harry did. And no wonder. Harry  had to remind himself that, for most of his life, this had been Louis’ domain – this globe, these wide shores – not the little annexe in the shadow of the castle.

The hotel had, as promised, come up with the special wheelchair with wide wheels, and most mornings Niall transferred Louis into it and all three walked down to the beach, Harry carrying an umbrella so that he could protect Louis if the sun grew too fierce. But it never did; that southern part of the island was renowned for sea breezes and, out of season, the resort temperatures rarely rose past the early twenties. They would stop at a small beach near a rocky outcrop, just out of view of the main hotel. Harry would unfold his chair, place himself next to Lou under a palm tree, and they would watch Niall attempt to windsurf, or waterski – occasionally shouting encouragement, plus the odd word of abuse – from their spot on the sand.

At first the hotel staff wanted to do almost too much for Louis, offering to push his chair, constantly pressing cool drinks upon him. They explained what they didn’t need from them, and they cheerfully backed off. It was good, though, during the moments when Harry wasn’t with him, to see porters or reception staff stopping by to chat with him, or sharing with him some place that they thought they should go. There was one gangly young man, Ernie, who seemed to take it upon himself to act as Louis’ unofficial carer when Niall was not around. One day Harry came out to find him and a friend gently lowering Louis out of his chair onto a cushioned sunbed he had positioned by ‘their tree.’

“This is better.” he said, giving Harry the thumbs up as he walked across the sand. “You just call me when Mr. Louis wants to go back in his chair.”

Harry was about to protest, and tell them they should not have moved him. But Louis had closed his eyes and lay there with a look of such unexpected contentment that he just closed his mouth and nodded.

As for Harry, as his anxiety about Louis’ health began to ebb, he slowly began to suspect that he was actually in paradise. He had never, in his life, imagined he would spend time somewhere like this. Every morning he woke to the sound of the sea breaking gently on the shore, unfamiliar birds calling to each other from the trees. He gazed up at his ceiling, watching the sunlight playing through the leaves, and from next door heard the murmured conversation that told him Louis and Niall had already been up long before him. He dressed in silly sandals and swim trunks, enjoying the feeling of the warm sun on his shoulders and back. His skin grew freckled, his nails bleached, and he began to feel a rare happiness at the simple pleasures of existing here – of walking on a beach, eating unfamiliar foods, swimming in warm, clear water where blackfish gazed shyly from under volcanic rocks, or watching the sun sink fiery red into the horizon. Slowly the past few months began to slip away. To his shame, he hardly thought of Nick at all.

Their days fell into a pattern. They ate breakfast together, all three of them, at the gently shaded tables around the pool. Louis usually had fruit salad, which Harry fed to him by hand, and sometimes followed up with a banana pancake as his appetite grew. They then went down to the beach, where they stayed – Harry reading, Louis listening to music – while Niall practised his watersport skills. Louis kept telling Harry to try something too, but at first he said no. He just wanted to stay next to him. When Louis insisted, Harry spent one morning windsurfing and kayaking, but he was happiest just hanging around next to him.

Occasionally if Ernie was around, and the resort was quiet, he and Niall would ease Louis into the warm water of the smaller pool, Niall holding him under his head so that he could float. He didn’t say much when they did this, but he looked quietly contented, as if his body were remembering long-forgotten sensations. His torso, long pale, grew golden. His scars silvered and began to fade. He grew comfortable without a shirt.

At lunchtime they would wheel their way over to one of the resort’s three restaurants. The surface of the whole complex was tiled, with only a few small steps and slopes, which meant that Louis could move in his chair with complete autonomy. It was a small thing, but him being able to get himself a drink without one of them accompanying him meant not so much a rest for Harry and Niall as the brief removal of one of Louis’ daily frustrations – being entirely dependent on other people. Not that any of them had to move much anywhere. It seemed wherever you were, beach or poolside, or even the spa, one of the smiling staff would pop up with some drink they thought you might like, usually decorated with a fragrant pink flower. Even as you lay on the beach, a small buggy would pass, and a smiling waiter would offer you water, fruit juice, or something stronger.

In the afternoons, when the temperatures were at their highest, Louis would return to his room and sleep for a couple of hours. Harry would swim in the pool, or read his book, and then in the evening they would all meet again to eat supper at the beachside restaurant. Harry swiftly developed a taste for cocktails. Ernie had worked out that if he gave Louis the correct size straw and placed a tall glass in his holder, Niall and Harry need not be involved at all. As dusk fell, the three of them talked of their childhoods and their first boyfriends and girlfriends and  first jobs and families and other holidays they had, and slowly Harry saw Louis re-emerge.

Except this Louis was different. This place seemed to have granted him a peace that had been missing the whole time Harry had known him.

“He’s doing good, huh?” said Niall, as he met Harry by the buffet.

“Yes, I think he is.”

“You know –” Niall leant towards him, reluctant for Louis to see they were talking about him “– I think the ranch thing and all the adventures would have been great. But looking at him now, I can’t help thinking this place has worked out better.”

Harry didn’t tell him what he had decided on the first day, when they checked in, his stomach knotted with anxiety, already calculating how many days he had until the return home. He had to try for each of those ten days to forget why they were actually there – the six-month contract, his carefully plotted calendar, everything that had come before. He had to just live in the moment and try to encourage Louis to do the same. He had to be happy, in the hope that Louis would be too. At least until they got to a place where Harry could tell him what he had learned about the possibility of Louis getting better.

Harry helped himself to another slice of melon, and smiled. “So what’s on later? Are we doing the karaoke? Or have your ears not yet recovered from last night?”

On the fourth night, Niall announced with only faint embarrassment that he had a date. Barb was a fellow Kiwi staying in the next hotel, and he had agreed to go down to the town with her.

“Just to make sure she’s alright. You know...I’m not sure if it’s a good place for her to go alone.”

“No,” Louis said, nodding his head sagely. “Very chivalrous of you, Nialler.”

“I think that is a very responsible thing to do. Very civic minded.” Harry agreed.

“I have always admired Niall for his selflessness. Especially when it comes to the fairer sex.”

“Piss off, you two” Niall grinned, and disappeared.

Barb swiftly became a fixture. Niall disappeared with her most evenings and, although he returned for late duties, they tacitly gave him as much time as possible to enjoy himself.

Besides, Harry was secretly glad. He liked Niall, and was grateful that he had come, but he preferred it when it was just he ad Louis. He liked the shorthand they seemed to fall into when nobody else was around, the easy intimacy that had sprung up between them. Harry liked the way he turned his face and looked at him with amusement, like Harry had somehow turned out to be so much more than he had expected.

On the penultimate night, Harry told Niall that he didn’t mind if he wanted to bring Barb back to the complex. He had been spending nights in her hotel, and Harry knew it made it difficult for him, walking the twenty minutes each way in order to sort Louis out last thing at night.

“I don’t mind. If it will...you know..give you a bit of privacy.”

He was cheerful, already lost in the prospect of the night ahead, and didn’t give Harry another thought beyond an enthusiastic, “Thanks, mate!”

“Nice of you,” said Louis, when Harry told him.

“Nice of you, you mean,” Harry said. “It’s your room I’ve donated to the cause.”

That night they got him into Harry’s, and Niall helped Louis into bed and gave him his medication while Barb waited in the bar. In the bathroom Harry changed into my T-shirt and boxers and then opened the bathroom door and pottered over to the sofa with his pillow under his arm. He could feel Louis’ eyes on him, and felt oddly self-conscious for someone who had spent most of the previous week walking around in front of him in just swim trunks. Harry plumped his pillow down on the sofa arm.

“Haz?”

“What?”

“You really don’t have to sleep over there. This bed is large enough for an entire footie team as it is.”

The thing is, Harry didn’t really even think about it. That was how it was, by then. Perhaps the days spent near-naked on the beach had loosened them all up a little. Perhaps it was the thought of Niall and Barb on the other side of the wall, wrapped up in each other, a cocoon of exclusion. Perhaps Harry did just want to be near him. He began to walk towards the bed, then flinched at a sudden crash of thunder. The lights stuttered, someone shouted outside. From next door they heard Niall and Barb burst out laughing.

Harry walked to the window and pulled back the curtain, feeling the sudden breeze, the abrupt drop in temperature. Out at sea a storm had exploded into life. Dramatic flashes of forked lightning briefly illuminated the sky, and then, as if in afterthought, the heavy drumbeat roll of a deluge hit the roof of our little bungalow, so fierce that at first it drowned out sound.

“I’d better close the shutters.” he said.

“No, don’t.”

Harry turned.

“Throw the doors open.” Louis nodded towards the outside. “I want to see it.”

Harry hesitated, then slowly opened the glass doors out onto the terrace. The rain hammered down on to the hotel complex, dripping from the roof, sending rivers running away from the terrace and out towards the sea. He felt the moisture on his face, the electricity in the air. The hairs on his arms stood bolt upright.

“Can you feel it?” Louis said, from behind him.

“It’s like the end of the world.”

Harry stood there, letting the charge flow through him, the white flashes imprinting themselves on his eyelids. It caused his breath to catch in his throat.

He turned back, and walked over to the bed, seating himself on its edge. As Louis watched, Harry leaned forward and gently pulled Louis’ sun-browned neck towards him. Harry knew just how to move him now, how he could make his weight, his solidity, work with him. Holding him close, he leaned across and placed a fat white pillow behind his shoulders before releasing him back into its soft embrace. He smelt of the sun, as if it had seeped deep into his skin, and Harry found himself inhaling silently, as if Louis were something delicious.

Then, still a little damp, he climbed in beside Lou, so close that hairy legs touched his, and together they gazed out at the blue-white scorch as the lightning hit the waves, at the silvered stair rods of rain, the gently shifting mass of turquoise that lay only a hundred feet away.

The world around them shrank, until it was just the sound of the storm, the mauve blue-black sea, and the gently billowing gauze curtains. Harry could the lotus flowers on the night breeze, heard the distant sounds of clinking glasses and hastily drawn-back chairs, of music from some far-off celebration, felt the charge of nature unleashed. He reached across for Louis’ hand, and took it in his own. Harry thought, briefly, that he would never feel as intensely connected to the world, to another human being, as he did at that moment.

“Not bad, eh, Hazza?” Louis said into the silence. In the face of the storm, his face was still and calm. He turned briefly and smiled at Harry, and there was something in his eyes then, something triumphant.

“No,” he said. “Not bad at all.”

Harry lay still, listening to Louis’ breathing slow and deepen, the sound of the rain below it, felt his warm fingers entwined with his. He did not want to go home. He thought he might never go home. Here he and Louis were safe, locked in their little paradise. Every time Harry thought about heading back to England, a great claw of fear gripped his stomach and began to tighten its hold.

It’s going to be okay. He tried to repeat Niall’s words to himself. It’s going to be okay.

Finally, Harry turned onto his side, away from the sea, and gazed at Louis. He turned his head to look back at him in the dim light, and Harry felt he was telling him the same thing. It’s going to be okay. For the first time in his life he tried not to think about the future. He tried to just be, to simply let the evening’s sensations travel through him. Harry couldn’t say how long they stayed like that, just gazing at each other, but gradually Louis’ eyelids grew heavier, until he murmured apologetically that he thought he might...His breathing deepened, he tipped over that small crevasse into sleep, and then it was just Harry watching his face, looking at the way his eyelashes separated into little points near the corner of his eyes, at the new freckles on his nose.

He told himself he had to be right. He had to be right.

The storm finally blew itself out sometime after 1 in the morning, disappearing somewhere out at sea, its flashes of anger growing fainter and then finally disappearing altogether, off to bring meteorological tyranny to some other unseen place. The air slowly grew still around them, the curtains settling, the last of the water draining away with a gurgle. Sometime in the early hours Harry got up, gently releasing his hand from Louis’, and closed the french windows, muffling the room in silence. Louis slept – a sound, peaceful sleep that he rarely slept at home.

Harry didn’t. He lay there and watched him and he tried to make himself think nothing at all.

Two things happened on the last day. One was that, under pressure from Louis, Harry agreed to try scuba diving. He had been on at him for days, stating that he couldn’t possibly come all this way and not go under the water. Harry had been hopeless at windsurfing, barely able to lift his sail from the waves, and had spent most of his attempts at water-skiing face planting his way along the bay. But he was insistent and, the day before, he arrived back at lunch announcing that he had booked Harry in for a half-day beginners’ diving course.

It didn’t get off to a good start. Louis and Niall sat on the side of the pool as Harry’s instructor tried to get him to believe he would continue to breathe underwater, but the knowledge that they were watching him made me hopeless. He wasn’t stupid – he understood that the oxygen tanks on his back would keep his lungs working, that he was not about to drown – but every time his head went under, he panicked and burst through the surface. It was as if his body refused to believe that it could still breathe underneath several thousand gallons of Mauritius’s finest chlorinated.

“I don’t think I can do this.” Harry said, as he emerged for the seventh time, spluttering.

James, his diving instructor, glanced behind him and Louis and Niall.

“I can’t.” he said, crossly. “It’s just not me.”

James turned his back on the two men, tapped Harry on the shoulder and gestured towards the open water. “Some people actually find it easier out there.” he said quietly.

“In the sea?”

“Some people are better thrown in at the deep end. Come on. Let’s go out on the boat.”

Three-quarters of an hour later, Harry was gazing underwater at the brightly colored landscape that had been hidden from view, forgetting to be afraid that his oxygen might fail, that against all evidence he would sink to the bottom and die a watery death, even that he was afraid at all. He was distracted by the secrets of a new world. In the silence, broken only by the exaggerated oosh shoo of his own breath, he watched shoals of tiny iridescent fish, and larger black and white fish that stared at him with blank, inquisitive faces, with gently swaying anemones filtering the gentle currents of their tiny, unseen haul. He saw distant landscapes, twice as brightly colored and varied as they were above land. He saw caves and hollows where unknown creatures lurked, distant shapes that shimmered in the rays of the sun. He didn’t want to come up. He could have stayed there forever, in that silent world. It was only when James started gesticulating towards the dial of his oxygen tank that Harry realized he didn’t have a choice.

He could barely speak when he finally walked up the beach towards Louis and Niall, beaming. His mind was still humming with the images he had seen, his limbs somehow still propelling me under the water.

“Good, eh?” said Niall.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he exclaimed to Louis, throwing his flippers down on the sand in front of him. “Why didn’t you make me do that earlier? All that! It was all there, all the time! Just right under my nose!”

Louis gazed at him steadily. He said nothing, but his smile was slow and wide. “I don’t know, Haz. Some people just won’t be told.”

Harry let himself get drunk that last night. It wasn’t just that they were leaving the next day. It was the first time he had felt truly that Louis was well and that he could let go. He wore a white linen shirt silvery sandals, and when Ernie gave him a scarlet flower and instructed him to put it in my hair Harry  didn’t scoff at him as he might have done a week earlier. Perhaps now was a good time to talk to Louis.

“Well, hello there.” Louis said, when he met them at the bar. “Don’t you look glamorous.”

Harry was about to make some sarcastic reply, and then he realized Louis was looking at him with genuine pleasure.

“Thank you.” he said. “You’re not looking too shabby yourself.”

There was a disco at the main hotel complex, so shortly before 10pm – when Niall left to be with Barb – the pair headed down to the beach with the music in their ears and the pleasant buzz of three cocktails sweetening Harry’s movements.

Oh, but it was so beautiful down there. The night was warm, carrying on its breezes the scents of distant barbecues, of warm oils on skin, of the faint salt tang of the sea. Louis and Harry stopped near their favorite tree. Someone had built a fire on the beach, perhaps for cooking, and all that was left was a pile of glowing embers.

“I don’t want to go home.” Harry said, into the darkness, mind buzzing with what he wanted to tell Louis about what he had learned.

“It’s a hard place to leave.”

“I didn’t think places like this existed outside films.” he added, turning so that he faced Louis. “It has actually made me wonder if you might have been telling the truth about all the other stuff.”

Louis was smiling. His whole face seemed relaxed and happy, his eyes crinkling as he looked at Harry. He looked back at him, and for the first time it wasn’t with a faint fear gnawing away at his insides.

“You’re glad you came, right?” Harry asked, tentatively.

Louis nodded. “Oh yes.”

“Hah!” Harry punched the air.

And then, as someone turned the music up by the bar, he kicked off his shoes and began to dance. It sounds stupid – the kind of behaviour that on another day you might be embarrassed by. But there, in the inky dark, half drunk from lack of sleep, with the fire and the endless sea and infinite sky, with the sounds of the music in their ears and Louis smiling and Harry’s heart bursting with something he couldn’t quite identify, he just needed to dance. He danced, laughing, not self-conscious, not worrying about whether anybody could see them. He felt Louis’ eyes on him and Harry knew he knew – that this was the only possible response to the last ten days. Hell, to the last six months.

The song ended, and Harry flopped, breathless, at Louis’ feet.

“You…” he said.

“What?” Harry’s smile was coy. He felt fluid, electrified. He barely felt responsible for himself.

Louis shook his head.

Harry rose, slowly, onto his bare feet, walked right up to his chair and then slid on to his lap so that his face was inches from Louis’. After the previous evening, it somehow didn’t seem like such a leap to make.

“You…” His eyes, glinting with the light of the fire, locked onto Harry’s. He smelt of the sun, and the bonfire, and something sharp and citrusy.

Harry felt something give, deep inside him.

“You...are something else, Haz.”

Harry did the only thing he could think of. He leaned forward, and he placed his lips on Louis’. He hesitated, just for a moment, and then he kissed Harry back. And just for a moment Harry forgot everything – the million and one reasons he shouldn’t, his fears, the reason they were here. He kissed him, breathing in the scent of Louis’ skin, feeling his soft hair under his fingertips, and when he kissed Harry back all of this vanished and it was just Louis and Harry, on an island in the middle of nowhere, under a thousand twinkling stars.

And then he pulled back. “I...I’m sorry. No –”

Harry’s eyes opened. He lifted a hand to Louis’ face and let it trace his beautiful bones. He felt the faint grit of salt under his fingertips. “Louis…” he began. “You can. You –”

“No.” It held a hint of metal, that word. “I can’t.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I don’t want to go into it.”

“Um...I think you have to go into it.”

“I can’t do this because I can’t…” he swallowed. “I can’t be the man I want to be with you. And that means that this –” he looked up into Harry’s face “– this just becomes...another reminder of what I am not.”

Harry didn’t let go of his face. He tipped his forehead forward so that it touched his, so that their breath mingled, and he said, quietly, so that only he could have heard, “I don’t care what you...what you think you can and can’t do. It’s not black and white. Honestly...I’ve talked to other people in the same situation and...and there are things that are possible. Ways that we can both be happy. Plus I've been looking into doctors and…” Harry had begun to stammer a little. He felt weird even having this conversation. He looked up and into Louis’ eyes. He said, softly. “Here’s the thing. I think we can do –”

“No, Haz –” he began.

“I think we can do all sorts of things. I know this isn’t a conventional love story. I know there are all sorts of reasons I shouldn’t even be saying what I am. But I love you. I do. I knew it when I left Nick. And I think you might even love me a little bit.”

He didn’t speak. His eyes searched Harry’s, and there was this huge weight of sadness within them. Harry stroked the hair away from his temples, as if he could somehow lift his sorrow, and he tilted his head to meet the palm of Harry’s hand, so that it rested there.

He swallowed. “I have to tell you something.”

“I know,” Harry whispered. “I know everything.”

Louis’ mouth closed on his words. The air seemed to still around them.

“I know about Switzerland. I know...why I was employed on a six-month contract.”

Louis lifted his head away from Harry’s hand. He looked at him, then gazed upwards at the skies. His shoulders sagged.

“I know it all, Lou. I’ve known for months. And, Louis, please listen to me…” Harry took his right hand in his, and I brought it up close to his chest. “I know we can do this. I know it’s not how you would have chosen it, but I know I can make you happy. And all I can say is that you make me...you make me into someone I couldn’t even imagine. You make me happy, even when you’re awful. I would rather be with you – even the you that you seem to think is diminished – than with anyone else in the world.”

Harry felt his fingers tighten a fraction around his, and it gave him courage.

“If you think it’s too weird with me being employed by you, then I’ll leave and I’ll work somewhere else. I wanted to tell you – I’ve applied for a college course. I’ve done loads of research on the internet, talking to other para’s and carers of para’s, and I have learnt so much, so much about how to make this work. So I can do that, and just be with you. You see? And I’ve been looking into research - into doctor’s that we can see.There’s been lots of research around stem cells - people have had a lot of progress. There’s hope. I’ve thought of everything, researched everything. This is how I am now. This is your fault. You changed me.” Harry was half laughing. “You’ve turned me into my sister. But with better dress sense.”

Louis had closed his eyes. Harry placed both his hands around Louis’, lifted his knuckles to his mouth, and he kissed them. He felt his skin against his, and knew as Harry had never known anything that he could not let him go.

“What do you say?” Harry whispered.

He could have looked into his eyes forever.

Louis said it so quietly, that for a minute Harry could not be sure he had heard him correctly.

“What?”

“No, Haz.”

“No?”

“I’m sorry. It’s not enough.”

Harry lowered his hand. “I don’t understand.”

Louis waited before he spoke, as if he were struggling, for once, to find the right words. “It’s not enough for me. This – my world – even with you in it. And believe me, Haz, my whole life has changed for the better since you came. But it’s not enough for me. It’s not the life I want. The doctors - everything - I don’t need more poking and prodding, either.”

Now it was Harry’s turn to pull away.

“The thing is, I get that this could be a good life. I get that with you around, perhaps it could even be a very good life. But it’s not my life. I am not the same as these people you speak to. It’s nothing like the life I want. Not even close.” His voice was halting, broken. His expression frightening.

Harry swallowed, shaking his head. “You...you once told me that the night in the maze didn’t have to be the thing that defined me. You said I could choose what it was that defined me. Well, you don’t have to let that...that chair define you. It doesn’t have to - I believe the research I’ve read.”

“But it does define me, Haz. You don’t know me, not really. You never saw me before this thing. I loved my life, H. Really loved it. I loved my job, my travels, the things I was. I loved being a physical person. I liked riding my motorbike, hurling myself off buildings. I liked crushing people in business deals. I liked having sex. Lots of sex. I led a big life.” His voice had lifted now. “I am not designed to exist in this thing – and yet for all intents and purposes it is now the thing that defines me. It is the only thing that defines me.”

“‘But you’re not even giving it a chance, you’re not giving the research a chance.” Harry whispered. His voice didn’t seem to want to emerge from his chest. “You’re not giving me a chance.”

“It’s not a matter of giving you a chance. I’ve watched you these six months becoming a whole different person, someone who is only just beginning to see his possibilities. You have no idea how happy that has made me. I don’t want you to be tied to me, to my hospital appointments, to the restrictions on my life. I don’t want you to miss out on all the things someone else could give you. And, selfishly, I don’t want you to look at me one day and feel even the tiniest bit of regret or pity that –”

“I would never think that! I want to be with you for all of these things - for the possibility of changing - and even if the cells didn’t work. I would not regret loving you.”

“You don’t know that, Haz. You have no idea how this would play out. You have no idea how you’re going to feel even six months from now. And I don’t want to look at you every day, to see you naked, to watch you wandering around the annex in your crazy outfits and not...not be able to do what I want with you. Oh, Haz, if you had any idea what I want to do to you right now. And I...I can’t live with that knowledge. I can’t. It’s not who I am. I can’t be the kind of man who just...accepts.”

He glanced down at his chair, his voice breaking. “I will never accept this.”

Harry had begun to cry. “Please, Louis. Please don’t say this. Just give me a chance. Give us a chance. Or at least give the research a chance, even if you can’t be with me.”

“Sshhh. Just listen. You, of all people. Listen to what I’m saying. This...tonight...is the most wonderful thing you could have done for me. What you have told me, what you have done in bringing me here...knowing that, somehow, from that complete arse I was at the start of this, you managed to salvage something to love is astonishing to me. But –” Harry felt his fingers close on his “– I need it to end here. No more chair. No more pneumonia. No more burning limbs. No more pain and tiredness and waking up every morning already wishing it was over. When we get back, I am still going to go to Switzerland. And if you do love me, Hazza, as you say you do, the thing that would make me happier than anything is if you would come with me.”

Harry’s head whipped back.

“What?”

“It’s not going to get any better than this. The odds are I’m only going to get increasingly unwell and my life, reduced as it is, is going to get smaller. The doctors have said as much. There are a host of conditions encroaching on me. I can feel it. I don’t want to be in pain any more, or trapped in this thing, or dependent on everyone, or afraid. So I’m asking you – if you feel the things you say you feel – then do it. Be with me. Give me the end I’m hoping for.”

Harry looked at him in horror, his blood thumping in his ears. He could barely take it in. He was giving Harry an impossible choice.There were other ways to make his situation better - para’s he had spoken to that had really great results with stem cells.

“How can you ask me that?”

“I know, it’s –”

“I tell you I love you and I want to build a future with you, and you ask me to come and watch you kill yourself?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean it to sound blunt. But I haven’t got the luxury of time.”

“Wha– what? Why, are you actually booked in? Is there some appointment you’re afraid of missing?”

Harry could see people at the hotel stopping, perhaps hearing their raised voices, but he didn’t care.

“Yes,” Louis said, after a pause. “Yes, there is. I’ve had the consultations. The clinic agreed that I am a suitable case for them. And my parents agreed to the thirteenth of August. We’re due to fly out the day before.”

Harry’s head had begun to spin. It was less than a week away.

“I don’t believe this.”

“Harry -”

“I thought...I thought I was changing your mind.”

He tilted his head sideways and gazed at Harry. His voice was soft, his eyes gentle. “Harry, nothing was ever going to change my mind. I promised my parents six months, and that’s what I’ve given them. You have made that time more precious than you can imagine. You stopped it being an endurance test –”

“Don’t!”

“What?”

“Don’t say another word.” Harry was choking. “You are so selfish, Louis. So stupid. Even if there was the remotest possibility of me coming with you to Switzerland...even if you thought I might, after all I’ve done for you, be someone who could do that, is that all you can say to me? I tore my heart out in front of you. And all you can say is, “No, you’re not enough for me. You won’t even consider the research - the possibilities of a life with me! And now I want you to come watch the worst thing you can possibly imagine.” The thing I have dreaded ever since I first found out about it. Do you have any idea what you are asking of me?”

Harry was raging now. Standing in front of him, shouting like a madman. “Fuck you, Louis Tomlinson. Fuck you. I wish I’d never taken this stupid job. I wish I’d never met you.” Harry burst into tears, ran up the beach and back to his hotel room, away from him.

His voice, calling Harry’s name, rang in his ears long after he had closed the door.

Chapter Text

There is nothing more disconcerting to passers-by than to see a man in a wheelchair pleading with someone who is meant to be looking after him. It’s apparently not really the done thing to be angry with your disabled charge.

Especially when he is plainly unable to move, and is saying, gently, “Hazza. Please. Just come over here. Please.”

But he couldn’t. He couldn’t look at him. Niall had packed up Louis’ stuff, and Harry had met them both in the lobby the following morning – Niall still groggy from his hangover – and from the moment they had to be in each other’s company again, Harry refused to have anything to do with Louis. He was furious and miserable. There was an insistent, raging voice inside his head, which demanded to be as far as possible from Louis. To go home. To never see him again.

“You okay?” Niall said, appearing at Harry’s shoulder.

As soon as they arrived at the airport, Harry had slipped away from them to the check-in desk.

“No,” Harry said. “And I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Hungover?”

“No.”

There was a short silence.

“This mean what I think it does?” He was suddenly sombre.

Harry couldn’t speak. He nodded, and he watched Niall’s jaw stiffen briefly. He was stronger than Harry was, though. He was, after all, a professional. Within minutes he was back with Louis, showing him something he had seen in a magazine, wondering aloud about the prospects for some football team they both knew of. Watching them, you would know nothing of the momentousness of the news Harry had just imparted.

Harry managed to make himself busy for the entire wait at the airport. He found a thousand small tasks to do – busying himself with luggage labels, buying coffee, perusing newspapers, going to the loo – all of which meant that he didn’t have to look at him. I didn’t have to talk to him. But every now and then Niall would disappear and they were left alone, sitting beside each other, the short distance between them jangling with unspoken recriminations.

“Haz-” he would begin.

“Don’t,” Harry would cut him off. “I don’t want to talk to you.”

Harry surprised himself with how cold he could be. He certainly surprised the air stewardesses. Harry saw the pair on the flight, muttering between themselves at the way Harry turned rigidly away from Louis, plugging his earphones in or resolutely staring out of the window.

For once, Louis didn’t get angry. That was almost the worst of it. He didn’t get angry, and he didn’t get sarcastic, and he simply grew quieter until he barely spoke. It was left to poor Niall to bounce the conversation along, to ask questions about tea or coffee or spare packets of dry-roasted peanuts or whether anyone minded if he climbed past them to go to the loo.

It probably sounds childish now, but it was not just a matter of pride. Harry couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t bear the thought that he would lose him, that he was so stubborn, and determined not to see what was good, what could be good, that he would not change his mind. Harry couldn’t believe that he would stick to that one date, as if it were cast in stone. A million silent arguments rattled around his head. Why is this not enough for you? Why am I not enough for you? Why could you not have confided in me? If we’d had more time, would this have been different? Every now and then Harry would catch himself staring down at his tanned hands, those squared-off fingers, just inches from his own, and he would remember how their fingers felt entwined – the warmth of him, the illusion, even in stillness, of a kind of strength – and a lump would rise in his throat until he thought he could barely breathe and he had to retreat to the WC where Harry would lean over the sink and sob silently under the strip lighting. There were a few occasions, when he thought about what Louis still intended to do, where he actually had to fight the urge to scream; he felt overcome by a kind of madness and thought he might just sit down in the aisle and howl and howl until someone else stepped in. Until someone else made sure he couldn’t do it.

So although Harry looked childish – although he seemed to the cabin staff (as he declined to talk to Louis, to look at him, to feed him) as if he were the most heartless of men – he knew that pretending Louis was not there was about the only way he could cope with these hours of enforced proximity. If he had believed Niall capable of coping alone he would honestly have changed his flight, perhaps even disappeared until he could make sure that there was between them a whole continent, not just a few impossible inches.

The two other men slept, and it came as something of a relief – a brief respite from the tension. Harry stared at the television screen and, with every mile that they headed towards home, he felt his heart grow heavier, his anxiety greater. It began to occur to him then that his failure was not just his own; Louis’ parents were going to be devastated. They would probably blame Harry. Louis’ sister would probably sue him. And it was his failure for Louis too. He had failed to persuade him. He had offered him everything he could, including himself, and nothing he had shown him had convinced him of a reason to keep living.

Perhaps, Harry found himself thinking, he had deserved someone better than Harry. Someone cleverer. Someone that might have thought of better things to do. They might have found some rare piece of medical research or something that could have helped him. Harry had found the research but maybe they might have changed his mind. The fact that Harry was going to have to live with this knowledge for the rest of his life made him feel almost dizzy.

“Want a drink, Haz?” Louis’ voice would break into his thoughts.

“No. Thank you.”

“Is my elbow too far over your armrest?”

“No. It’s fine.”

It was only in those last few hours, in the dark, that Harry allowed himself to look at him. His gaze slid slowly sideways from his glowing television screen until he gazed at Louis surreptitiously in the dim light of the little cabin. And as he took in his face, so tanned and handsome, so peaceful in sleep, a solitary tear rolled down his cheek. Perhaps in some way conscious of his scrutiny Louis stirred, but didn’t wake. And unseen by the cabin staff, by Niall, Harry pulled his blanket slowly up around his neck, tucking it in carefully, to make sure, in the chill of the cabin air conditioning, that Louis would not feel the cold.

They were waiting at the Arrivals Gate. Harry had somehow known they would be. He had felt the faintly sick sensation expanding inside him even as they wheeled Louis through passport control, fast-tracked by some well-meaning official even as he prayed that they would be forced to wait, stuck in a queue that lasted hours, preferably days. But no, they crossed the vast expanse of linoleum, Harry pushing the baggage trolley, Niall pushing Louis, and as the glass doors opened, there they were, standing at the barrier, side by side in some rare semblance of unity. Harry saw Mrs. Tomlinson’s face briefly light up as she saw Louis and Harry thought, absently, Of course – he looks so well. And, to his shame, Harry put on my sunglasses – not to hide his exhaustion, but so that she wouldn’t immediately see from his naked expression what it was he was going to have to tell her.

“Look at you!” she was exclaiming. “Louis, you look wonderful. Really wonderful.”

Louis’ father had stooped, was patting his son’s chair, his knee, his face wreathed in smiles. “We couldn’t believe it when Niall told us you were down on the beach every day. And swimming! What was the water like, then – lovely and warm? It’s been raining cats and dogs here. Typical August!”

Of course. Niall would have been texting them or calling them. As if they would have let them go all that time without some kind of contact.

“It...it was a pretty amazing place,” said Niall. He had grown quiet too, but now tried to smile, to seem his normal self.

Harry felt frozen, his hand clutching his passport like he was about to go somewhere else. Harry had to remind himself to breathe.

“Well, we thought you might like a special dinner.” Louis’ father said. “There’s a jolly nice restaurant at the Intercontinental. Champagne on us. What do you think? Your mother and I thought it might be a nice treat."

“Sure,” said Louis. He was smiling at his mother and she was looking back at him as if she wanted to bottle it. How can you? Harry wanted to yell at him. How can you look at her like that when you already know what you are going to do to her?

“Come on, then. I’ve got the car in disabled parking. It’s only a short ride from here. I was pretty sure you’d all be a bit jet-lagged. Niall, do you want me to take any of those bags?”

Harry’s voice broke into the conversation. “Actually,” he said – Harry was already pulling his luggage from the trolley – “I think I’m going to head off. Thank you, anyway.”

Harry was focused on his bag, deliberately not looking at them, but even above the hubbub of the airport he could detect the brief silence his words provoked.

Mr. Tomlinson’s voice was the first to break it. “Come on, Harry. Let’s have a little celebration. We want to hear all about your adventures. I want to know all about the island. And I promise you don’t have to tell us everything.” He almost chuckled.

“Yes.” Mrs. Tomlinson’s voice had a faint edge to it. “Do come, Harry.”

“No.” He swallowed, tried to raise a bland smile. His sunglasses were a shield. “Thank you. I’d really rather get back.”

“To where?” said Louis.

Harry realized what he was saying. He didn’t really have anywhere to go.

“I’ll go to my parents’ house. It will be fine.”

“Come with us,” he said. His voice was gentle. “Don’t go, Haz. Please.”

Harry wanted to cry then. But he knew with utter certainty that he couldn’t be anywhere near him. “No. Thank you. I hope you have a lovely meal.” Harry hoisted his bag over his shoulder and, before anyone could say anything else, he was walking away from them, swallowed up by the crowds in the terminal.

Harry was almost at the bus stop when he heard her. Johannah Tomlinson, her heels clipping on the pavement, half walked, half ran towards him.

“Stop. Harry. Please stop.”

He turned, and she was forcing her way through a coach party, casting the backpacking teenagers aside like Moses parting the waves. The airport lights were bright on her hair, turning it a kind of copper colour. She was wearing a fine grey pashmina, which draped artistically over one shoulder. Harry remembered thinking absently how beautiful she must have been, only a few years earlier.

“Please. Please stop.”

Harry stopped, glancing behind him at the road, wishing that the bus would appear now, that it would scoop him up and take him away. That anything would happen. A small earthquake, maybe.

“Harry?”

“He had a good time.” His voice sounded clipped. Oddly like her own, he found himself thinking.

“He does look well. Very well.” She stared at him, standing there on the pavement. She was suddenly acutely still, despite the sea of people moving around her.

They didn’t speak.

And then Harry said, ‘“Mrs. Tomlinson, I’d like to hand in my notice. I can’t...I can’t do these last few days. I’ll forfeit any money owed to me. In fact, I don’t want this month’s money. I don’t want anything. I just –"

She went pale then. Harry saw the colour drain from her face, the way she swayed a little in the morning sunshine. He saw Mr. Tomlinson coming up behind her, his stride brisk, one hand holding his panama hat firmly on his head. He was muttering his apologies as he pushed through the crowds, his eyes fixed on me and his wife as they stood rigidly a few feet apart.

“You...you said you thought he was happy. You said you thought this might change his mind.” She sounded desperate, as if she were pleading with Harry to say something else, to give her some different result.

He couldn’t speak. He stared at her, and the most he could manage was a small shake of his head.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, so quietly that she could not have heard him.

Mr. Tomlinson was almost there as she fell. It was as if her legs just gave way under her, and Jay’s left arm shot out and caught her as she went down, her mouth a great O, her body slumped against his.

His hat fell to the pavement. He glanced up at Harry, his face confused, not yet registering what had just taken place.
And Harry couldn’t look. He turned, numb, and he began to walk, one foot in front of the other, his legs moving almost before he knew what they were doing, away from the airport, not yet even knowing where it was he was going to go.

Chapter Text

Gemma

Harry didn’t come out of his room for a whole thirty-six hours after he got back from his holiday. He arrived back from the airport late evening on the Sunday, pale as a ghost under his suntan – and we couldn’t work that out for a start, as he had definitely said he’d see us first thing Monday morning. I just need to sleep, he had said, then shut himself in his room and gone straight to bed. We had thought it a little odd, but what did we know? Harry has been peculiar since birth, after all.

Mum had taken up a mug of tea in the morning, and Harry had not stirred. By supper, Mum had become worried and shaken him, checking he was alive. (He can be a bit melodramatic, Mum – although, to be fair, she had made fish pie and she probably just wanted to make sure H wasn’t going to miss it.) But Harry wouldn’t eat, and he wouldn’t talk and he wouldn’t come downstairs. I just want to stay here for a bit, Mum, he said, into his pillow. Finally, Mum left him alone.

“He’s not himself,” said Mum. “Do you think it’s some kind of delayed reaction to the thing with Nick?"

“He couldn’t give a stuff about Nick,” Dad said. “I told him he rang to tell us he came 157th in the Viking thing, and he couldn’t have looked less interested.” He sipped his tea. “Mind you, to be fair on him, even I found it pretty hard to get excited about 157th.”

“Do you think he’s ill? He’s awful pale under that tan. And all that sleeping. It’s just not like him. He might have some terrible tropical disease.”

“He’s just jet-lagged,” I said. I said it with some authority, knowing that Mum and Dad tended to treat me as an expert on all sorts of matters that none of us really knew anything about.

“Jet lag! Well, if that’s what long-haul travel does to you, I think I’ll stick with Tenby. What do you think, love?”

“I don’t know...who would have thought a holiday could make you look so ill?” Mum shook her head.

I went upstairs after supper. I didn’t knock. (It was still, strictly speaking, my room, after all.) The air was thick and stale, and I pulled the blind up and opened a window, so that Harry turned groggily from under the duvet, shielding his eyes from the light, dust motes swirling around him.

“You going to tell me what happened?” I put a mug of tea on the bedside table.

He blinked at me.

“Mum thinks you’ve got Ebola virus. She’s busy warning all the neighbors who have booked onto the Bingo Club trip to PortAventura.”

He didn’t say anything.

“Harry?”

“I quit,” he said, quietly.

“Why?”

“Why do you think?” He pushed himself upright, and reached clumsily for the mug, taking a long sip of tea.

For someone who had just spent almost two weeks in Mauritius, he looked bloody awful. His eyes were tiny and red-rimmed, and his skin, without the tan, would have been even blotchier. His hair stuck up on one side. He looked like he’d been awake for several years. But most of all he looked sad. I had never seen my brother look so sad.

“You think he’s really going to go through with it?”

He nodded. Then she swallowed, hard.

“Shit. Oh, H. I’m really sorry.”

I motioned to him to shove over, and I climbed into bed beside him. He took another sip of his tea, and then leaned his head on my shoulder. He was wearing my T-shirt. I didn’t say anything about it. That was how bad I felt for him.

“What do I do, Gem?”

His voice was small, like Violet’s, when she hurts herself and is trying to be really brave. Outside we could hear next door’s dog running up and down alongside the garden fence, chasing the neighbourhood cats. Every now and then we could hear a burst of manic barking; its head would be popping up over the top right now, its eyes bulging with frustration.

“I’m not sure there’s anything you can do. God. All that stuff you fixed up for him. All that effort…”

“I told him I loved him.” he said, voice dropping to a whisper. “And he just said it wasn’t enough.” His eyes were wide and bleak. “How am I supposed to live with that?”

I am the one in the family who knows everything. I read more than anyone else. I go to university. I am the one who is supposed to have all the answers.

But I looked at my little brother, and I shook my head. “I haven’t got a clue,” I said.

He finally emerged the following day, showered and wearing clean clothes, and I told Mum and Dad not to say a word. I implied it was boyfriend trouble, and Dad raised his eyebrows and made a face as if that explained everything and God only knew what we had been working ourselves into such a fuss over. Mum ran off to ring the Bingo Club and tell them she’d had second thoughts about the risks of air travel.

Harry ate a piece of toast (he didn’t want lunch) and he put on a big floppy sunhat and we walked up to the castle with Violet to feed the ducks. I don’t think he really wanted to go out, but Mum insisted that we all needed some fresh air. This, in my mother’s vocabulary, meant she was itching to get into the bedroom and air it and change the bedding. Vi skipped and hopped ahead of us, clutching a plastic bag full of crusts, and we negotiated the meandering tourists with an ease born of years of practice, ducking out of the way of swinging backpacks, separating around posing couples and rejoining on the other side. The castle baked in the high heat of summer, the ground cracked and the grass wispy, like the last hairs on the head of a balding man. The flowers in the tubs looked defeated, as if they were already half preparing for autumn.

Harry and I didn’t say much. What was there to say?

As we walked past the tourist car park I saw him glance under his brim at the Tomlinson’s house. It stood, elegant and red-brick, its tall blank windows disguising whatever life-changing drama was being played out in there, perhaps even at this moment.

“You could go and talk to him, you know” I said. “I’ll wait here for you.”

He looked at the ground, folded his arms across his chest, and we kept walking. “There’s no point,” he said. I knew the other bit, the bit he didn’t say aloud. He’s probably not even there. He turned his backpack round and rifled through some papers, finally pulling out an envelope. I could see Louis’ name scrawled on the front. “Ok, I’ll be right back.” He hurried off in the direction of the house, coming back only a few minutes later. “I just had to drop something off.” He explained weakly.

We did a slow circuit of the castle, watching Vi roll down the steep parts of the hill, feeding the ducks that by this stage in the season were so well stuffed they could barely be bothered to come over for mere bread. I watched my brother as we walked, seeing his brown chest exposed by his flowy blouse, his stooped shoulders, and I realized that even if he didn’t know it yet, everything had changed for him. He wouldn’t stay here now, no matter what happened with Louis. He had an air about him, a new air of knowledge, of things seen, places he had been. My brother finally had new horizons.

“Oh,”I said, as we headed back towards the gates,”you got a letter. From the college, while you were away. Sorry – I opened it. I thought it must be for me.”

“You opened it?”

I had been hoping it was extra grant money.

“You got an interview.”

Harry blinked, as if receiving news from some long-distant past.

“Yeah. And the big news is, it’s tomorrow,” I said. “So I thought maybe we should go over some possible questions tonight.”

He shook his head. “I can’t go to an interview tomorrow.”

“What else are you going to do?”

“I can’t, Gems,” he said, sorrowfully. “How am I supposed to think about anything at a time like this?”

“Listen, H. They don’t give interviews out like bread for ducks, you dope. This is a big deal. They know you’re a mature student, you’re applying at the wrong time of year, and they’re still going to see you. You can’t muck them around.”

“I don’t care. I can’t think about it.”

“But you –”

“Just leave me alone, Gems. Okay? I can’t do it.”

“Hey,” I said. I stepped in front of him so that he couldn’t keep walking. Vi was talking to a pigeon, a few paces up ahead. “This is exactly the time you have to think about it. This is the time when, like it or not, you finally have to work out what you are going to do with the rest of your life.”

We were blocking the path. Now the tourists had to separate to walk around us – they did so, heads down or eyeing with mild curiosity the arguing siblings.

“I can’t.”

“Well, tough. Because, in case you forgot, you have no job any more. No Nick to pick up the pieces. And if you miss this interview, then in two days’ time you are headed back down the Job Centre to decide whether you want to be a chicken processor or a lap dancer or wipe some other person’s bum for a living. And believe it or not, because you are now headed for thirty, that’s your life pretty well mapped out. And all of this – everything you’ve learnt over the past six months – will have been a waste of time. All of it.”

He stared at me, wearing that look of mute fury he wears when he knows I am right and he can’t say anything back. Vi appeared beside us now and pulled at my hand.

“Mum...you said bum.”

My brother was still glaring at me. But I could see him thinking.

I turned to my daughter. “No, sweetheart, I said bun. We’re going to go home for tea now – aren’t we, H? – and see if we can have some buns. And then, while Granny gives you a bath, I’m going to help Uncle Hazza do his homework.”

I went to the library the next day, and Mum looked after Vi, so I saw Harry off on the bus and knew I wouldn’t see him again till teatime. I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for the interview, but from the moment I left him I didn’t actually give him another thought.

It might sound a bit selfish, but I don’t like getting behind with my coursework, and it was a bit of a relief to have a break from Harry’s misery. Being around someone that depressed is a bit of a drain. You might feel sorry for them, but you can’t help wanting to tell them to pull themselves together too. I shoved my family, my brother, the epic mess he had got himself into, into a mental file, shut the drawer, and focused my attention on VAT exemptions. I got the second-highest marks in my year for Accountancy 1 and there was no way on earth I was dropping back just because of the vagaries of HMRC’s flat rate system.

I got home around a quarter to six, put my files on the hall chair, and they were all lurking around the kitchen table already, while Mum began to serve up. Vi jumped on me, winding her legs around my waist, and I kissed her, breathing in her lovely smell

“Sit down, sit down,” Mum said. “Dad’s only just in.”

“How’d you get on with your books?” Dad said, hanging his jacket on the back of the chair. He always referred to them as ‘my books’. Like they had a life of their own and had to be wrangled into order.

“Good, thanks. I’m three-quarters of the way through my Accountancy 2 module. And then tomorrow I’m on corporate law.” I peeled Violet from me and put her down on the chair next to me, one hand resting in her soft hair.

“Hear that, Anne? Corporate law.”Dad stole a potato from the dish and stuffed it into his mouth before Mum could see. He said it like he relished the sound of it. I suppose he probably did. We chatted for a bit about the kinds of things my module involved. Then we talked about Dad’s job – mostly about how the tourists broke everything. You wouldn’t believe the maintenance, apparently. Even the wooden posts at the car park gateway needed replacing every few weeks because the idiots couldn’t drive a car through a twelve-foot gap. Personally, I would have put a surcharge on the ticket price to cover it – but that’s just me.

Mum finished serving up, and finally sat down. Vi ate with her fingers while she thought nobody noticed and said bum under her breath with a secret smile, and Granddad ate with his gaze tilted upwards, as if he were actually thinking about something else entirely. I glanced over at Harry. He was gazing at his plate, pushing the roast chicken around as if trying to disguise it. Uh-oh, I thought.

“You not hungry, love?” said Mum, following the line of my gaze.

“Not very,” he said.

“It is very warm for chicken,” Mum conceded. “I just thought you needed perking up a bit.”

“So...you going to tell us how you got on at this interview?” Dad’s fork stopped halfway to his mouth.

“Oh, that.” He looked distracted, as if he had just dredged up something he did five years ago.

“Yes, that.”

He speared a tiny piece of chicken. “It was okay.”

Dad glanced at me.

I gave a tiny shrug. “Just okay? They must have given you some idea how you did.”

“I got it.”

“What?”

He was still looking down at his plate. I stopped chewing.

“They said I was exactly the kind of applicant they were looking for. I’ve got to do some kind of foundation course, which takes a year, and then I can convert it.”

Dad sat back in his chair. “That’s fantastic news.”

Mum reached over and patted his shoulder. “Oh, well done, love. That’s brilliant.”

“Not really. I don’t think I can afford four years of study.”

“Don’t you worry about that just now. Really. Look how well Gems managing. Hey –” he nudged Harry “– we’ll find a way. We always find a way, don’t we?” Dad beamed at us both. “I think everything’s turning around for us, now.. I think this is going to be a good time for this family.”

And then, out of nowhere, Harry burst into tears. Real tears. He cried like Violet cries, wailing, all snot and tears and not caring who hears, hissobs breaking through the silence of the little room like a knife.

Violet stared at him, open-mouthed, so that I had to haul her on to my lap and distract her so that she didn’t get upset too. And while I fiddled with bits of potato and talking peas and made silly voices, he told them.

He told them everything – about Louis and the six-month contract and what had happened when they went to Mauritius. As he spoke, Mum’s hands went to her mouth. Granddad looked solemn. The chicken grew cold, the gravy congealing in its boat.

Dad shook his head in disbelief. And then, as my brother detailed his flight home from the Indian Ocean, his voice dropping to a whisper as he spoke of his last words to Mrs. Tomlinson, he pushed his chair back and stood up. Dad walked slowly around the table and he took Harry in his arms, like he had when we were little. He stood there and held himreally, really tightly to him.

“Oh Jesus Christ, the poor fella. And poor you. Oh Jesus.”

I’m not sure I ever saw Dad look so shocked.

“What a bloody mess.”

“You went through all this? Without saying anything? And all we got was a postcard about scuba diving?” My mother was incredulous. “We thought you were having the holiday of a lifetime.”

“I wasn’t alone. Gems knew,” he said, looking at me. “Gems was great.”

“I didn’t do anything,” I said, hugging Violet. She had lost interest in the conversation now that Mum had put an open tin of Celebrations in front of her. “I was just an ear. You did the lot. You came up with all the ideas.”

“And some ideas they turned out to be.” He leaned against Dad, sounding bereft.

Dad tilted his chin so that he had to look at him. “But you did everything you could.”

“And I failed.”

“Who says you failed?” Dad stroked his curly hair back from his face. His expression was tender. “I’m just thinking of what I know about Louis Tomlinson, what I know about men like him. And I’ll say one thing to you. I’m not sure anyone in the world was ever going to persuade that man once he’d set his mind to something. He’s who he is. You can’t make people change who they are.”

“But his parents! They can’t let him kill himself,” said Mum. “What kind of people are they?”

“They’re normal people, Mum. Mrs. Tomlinson just doesn’t know what else she can do.”

“Well, not bloody taking him to this clinic would be a start.” Mum was angry. Two points of colour had risen to her cheekbones. “I would fight for you two, for Violet, until my dying breath.”

“Even if he’d already tried to kill himself?” I said. “In really grim ways?”

“He’s ill, Gemma. He’s depressed. People who are vulnerable should not be given the chance to do something that they’ll…” She tailed off in mute fury and dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. “That woman must be heartless. Heartless. And to think they got Harry involved in all this. She’s a magistrate, for goodness’ sake. You’d think a magistrate would know what was right or wrong. Of all people. I’ve a good mind to head down there now and bring him back here.”

“It’s complicated, Mum.”

“No. It’s not. He’s vulnerable and there is no way on earth she should entertain the thought of it. I’m shocked. That poor man. That poor man.” She got up from the table, taking the remains of the chicken with her, and stalked out to the kitchen.

Harry watched her go, his expression a little stunned. Mum was never angry. I think the last time we heard her raise her voice was 1993.

Dad shook his head, his mind apparently elsewhere. “I’ve just thought – no wonder I haven’t seen Mr. Tomlinson. I wondered where he was. I assumed they were all off on some family holiday.”

“They’ve...they’ve gone?”

“He’s not been in these last two days.”

Harry sat back down and slumped in his chair.

“Oh shit,” I said, and then clamped my hands around Violet’s ears.

“It’s tomorrow.”

Harry looked at me, and I glanced up at the calendar on the wall.

“The thirteenth of August. It’s tomorrow.” It was the same day Harry had made the appointment with the stem cell specialist in Paris. He had told me that was the one thing he didn’t cancel - holding on to hope.

Harry did nothing that last day. He was up before me, staring out of the kitchen window. It rained, and then it cleared, and then it rained again. He lay on the sofa with Granddad, and he drank the tea that Mum made him, and every half an hour or so I watched his gaze slide silently towards the mantelpiece and check the clock. It was awful to watch. I took Violet swimming and I tried to make him come with us. I said Mum would mind her if he wanted to go to the shops with me later. I said I’d take him to the pub, just the two of us, but he refused every offer.

“What if I made a mistake, Gems?” he said, so quietly that only I could hear it.

I glanced up at Granddad, but he had eyes only for the racing. I think Dad was still putting on a sneaky bet each way for him, even though he denied it to Mum.

“What do you mean?”

“What if I should have gone with him?”

“But...you said you couldn’t.”

Outside, the skies were grey. He stared through our immaculate windows at the miserable day beyond.

“I know what I said. But I just can’t bear not knowing what’s happening.” His face crumpled a little. “I can’t bear not knowing how he’s feeling. I can’t bear the fact that I never even got to say goodbye.”

“Couldn’t you go now? Maybe try and get a flight?”

“It’s too late,” he said. And then he closed his eyes. “I’d never get there in time. There’s only two hours left until...until it stops for the day. I looked it up. On the internet.”

I waited.

“They don’t...do...it...after five thirty.” He shook his head in bemusement. “Something to do with the Swiss officials who have to be there. They don’t like...certifying...things outside office hours.”

I almost laughed. But I didn’t know what to say to him. I couldn’t imagine having to wait, as he was waiting, knowing what might be happening in some far-off place. I had never loved a man like he seemed to love Louis. I had liked men, sure, and wanted to sleep with them, but sometimes I wondered if I was missing some sensitivity chip. I couldn’t imagine crying over anyone I’d been with. The only equivalent was if I thought about Violet, waiting to die in some strange country, and as soon as that thought came to mind it made something inside me actually flip over, it was so hideous. So I stuck that in the back of my mental filing cabinet too, under the drawer labelled: Unthinkable.

I sat down beside my brother on the sofa and we stared in silence at the three thirty Maiden Stakes, then the four o’clock handicap stakes, and the four races that followed it, with the fixed intensity of people who might actually have all the money in the world on the winner.

And then the doorbell rang.

Harry was off the sofa and in the hallway in seconds. He opened the door and the way he wrenched it open made even my heart stop.

But it wasn’t Louis there on the doorstep. It was a young woman, her make-up thick and perfectly applied, her hair cut in a neat bob around her chin. She folded her umbrella and smiled, reaching round towards the large bag she had over her shoulder. I wondered briefly if this was Louis Tomlinson’s sister.

“Harry Styles?”

“Yes?”

“I’m from The Globe. I wondered if I could have a quick word?”

“The Globe?”

I could hear the confusion in Harry’s voice.

“The newspaper?” I stepped behind my brother. I saw then the notepad in the woman’s hand.

“Can I come in? I’d just like to have a little chat with you about Louis Tomlinson. You do work for Louis Tomlinson, don’t you?”

“No comment,”I said. And before the woman had a chance to say anything else, I slammed the door in her face.

My brother stood stunned in the hallway. He flinched as the doorbell rang again.

“Don’t answer it,” I hissed.

“But how – ?”

I began to push him up the stairs. God, he was impossibly slow. It was like he was half asleep. “Granddad, don’t answer the door!” I yelled. “Who have you told?” I said, when we reached the landing. “Someone must have told them. Who knows?”

“Mr.Styles” the woman’s voice came through the letterbox. “If you just give me ten minutes...we do understand this is a very sensitive issue. We’d like you to put your side of the story…”

“Does this mean he’s dead?” His eyes had filled with tears.

“No, it just means some arse is trying to cash in.”I thought for a minute.

“Who was that?” Mum’s voice came up the stairwell.

“No one, Mum. Just don’t answer the door.”

I peered over the banister. Mum was holding a tea towel in her hands and gazing at the shadowy figure visible through the glass panels of the front door.

“Don’t answer the door?”

I took my brother’s elbow. “H...you didn’t say anything to Nick, did you?”

He didn’t need to say anything. His stricken face said it all.

“Okay. Don’t have a baby. Just don’t go near the door. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t say a word to them, okay?”

Mum was not amused. She was even less amused after the phone started ringing. After the fifth call we put all calls through to the machine, but we still had to listen to them, their voices invading our little hallway. There were four or five of them, all the same. All offering Harry the chance to put his side of ‘the story’, as they called it. Like Louis Tomlinson was now some commodity that they were all scrabbling over. The telephone rang and the doorbell rang. We sat with the curtains closed, listening to the reporters on the pavement just outside our gate, chatting to each other and speaking on their mobile phones.

It was like being under siege. Mum wrung her hands and shouted through the letterbox for them to get the hell out of our front garden, whenever one of them ventured past the gate. Violet gazed out of the upstairs bathroom window and wanted to know why there were people in our garden. Four of our neighbours rang, wanting to know what was going on. Dad parked in Ivy Street and came home via the back garden, and we had a fairly serious talk about castles and boiling oil.

Then, after I’d thought a bit longer, I rang Nick and asked him how much he had got for his sordid little tip. The slight delay before he denied everything told me all I needed to know.

“You shitbag,” I yelled. “I’m going to kick your stupid marathon-running shins so hard you’re going to think 157th was actually a good result.”

Harry just sat in the kitchen and cried. Not proper sobbing, just silent tears that ran down his face and which he wiped away with the palm of his hand. I couldn’t think what to say to him.

Which was fine. I had plenty to say to everyone else.

All but one of the reporters cleared off by half past seven. I didn’t know if they had given up, or if Violet’s habit of posting bits of Lego out of the letterbox every time they passed another note through had become boring. I told Harry to bathe Vi for me, mainly because I wanted him to get out of the kitchen, but also because that way I could go through all the messages on our answerphone and delete the newspaper ones while he couldn’t hear me. Twenty-six. Twenty-six of the buggers. And all sounding so nice, so understanding. Some of them even offered him money.

I pressed delete on every one. Even those offering money, although I admit I was a teeny bit tempted to see how much they were offering. All the while, I heard Harry talking to Vi in the bathroom, the whine and splash of her dive-bombing her six inches of soapsuds with the Batmobile. That’s the thing you don’t know about children unless you have them – bath time, Lego and fish fingers don’t allow you to dwell on tragedy for too long. And then I hit the last message.

“Harry? It’s Johannah Tomlinson. Will you call me? As soon as possible?”

I stared at the machine. I rewound and replayed it. Then I ran upstairs and whipped Violet out of the bath so fast my girl didn’t even know what hit her. She was standing there, the towel wrapped tightly around her like a compression bandage, and H, stumbling and confused, was already halfway down the stairs, me pushing him by the shoulder.

“What if she hates me?”

“She didn’t sound like she hated you.”

“But what if the press are surrounding them there? What if they think it’s all my fault?” His eyes were wide and terrified. “What if she’s ringing to tell me he’s done it?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Harry. For once in your life, just get a grip. You won’t know anything unless you call. Call her. Just call. You don’t have a bloody choice.”

I ran back into the bathroom, to set Violet free. I shoved her into her pajamas, told her that Granny had a biscuit for her if she ran to the kitchen super fast. And then I peered out of the bathroom door, to peek at my brother on the phone down in the hallway.

He was turned away from me, one hand smoothing the hair at the back of his head. He reached out a hand to steady herself.

“Yes.”he was saying. “I see.” And then, “Okay.”

And after a pause, “Yes.”

He looked down at his feet for a good minute after he’d put the phone down.

“Well?” I said.

He looked up as if he’d only just seen me there, and a slow but scared smile formed on his face.

“It was nothing about the newspapers.” he said, his voice still numb with shock. “She asked me – begged me – to come to….not to Switzerland...to Paris. And she’s booked me on to the last flight out this evening.”

I wasn’t understanding anything that my brother was telling me.

“What’s in Paris?” I asked, running a nervous hand through my hair.

“The doctors. The doctors I found that….” He started, but began to cry. “He’s going to look into the stem cell research. And he wants me there.”

Chapter Text

Gemma

 

Harry didn’t come out of his room for a whole thirty-six hours after he got back from his holiday. He arrived back from the airport late evening on the Sunday, pale as a ghost under his suntan – and we couldn’t work that out for a start, as he had definitely said he’d see us first thing Monday morning. I just need to sleep, he had said, then shut himself in his room and gone straight to bed. We had thought it a little odd, but what did we know? Harry has been peculiar since birth, after all.

Mum had taken up a mug of tea in the morning, and Harry had not stirred. By supper, Mum had become worried and shaken him, checking he was alive. (He can be a bit melodramatic, Mum – although, to be fair, she had made fish pie and she probably just wanted to make sure H wasn’t going to miss it.) But Harry wouldn’t eat, and he wouldn’t talk and he wouldn’t come downstairs. I just want to stay here for a bit, Mum, he said, into his pillow. Finally, Mum left him alone.

“He’s not himself,” said Mum. “Do you think it’s some kind of delayed reaction to the thing with Nick?"

“He couldn’t give a stuff about Nick,” Dad said. “I told him he rang to tell us he came 157th in the Viking thing, and he couldn’t have looked less interested.” He sipped his tea. “Mind you, to be fair on him, even I found it pretty hard to get excited about 157th.”

“Do you think he’s ill? He’s awful pale under that tan. And all that sleeping. It’s just not like him. He might have some terrible tropical disease.”

“He’s just jet-lagged,” I said. I said it with some authority, knowing that Mum and Dad tended to treat me as an expert on all sorts of matters that none of us really knew anything about.

“Jet lag! Well, if that’s what long-haul travel does to you, I think I’ll stick with Tenby. What do you think, love?”

“I don’t know...who would have thought a holiday could make you look so ill?” Mum shook her head.

I went upstairs after supper. I didn’t knock. (It was still, strictly speaking, my room, after all.) The air was thick and stale, and I pulled the blind up and opened a window, so that Harry turned groggily from under the duvet, shielding his eyes from the light, dust motes swirling around him.

“You going to tell me what happened?” I put a mug of tea on the bedside table.

He blinked at me.

“Mum thinks you’ve got Ebola virus. She’s busy warning all the neighbors who have booked onto the Bingo Club trip to PortAventura.”

He didn’t say anything.

“Harry?”

“I quit,” he said, quietly.

“Why?”

“Why do you think?” He pushed himself upright, and reached clumsily for the mug, taking a long sip of tea.

For someone who had just spent almost two weeks in Mauritius, he looked bloody awful. His eyes were tiny and red-rimmed, and his skin, without the tan, would have been even blotchier. His hair stuck up on one side. He looked like he’d been awake for several years. But most of all he looked sad. I had never seen my brother look so sad.

“You think he’s really going to go through with it?”

He nodded. Then she swallowed, hard.

“Shit. Oh, H. I’m really sorry.”

I motioned to him to shove over, and I climbed into bed beside him. He took another sip of his tea, and then leaned his head on my shoulder. He was wearing my T-shirt. I didn’t say anything about it. That was how bad I felt for him.

“What do I do, Gem?”

His voice was small, like Violet’s, when she hurts herself and is trying to be really brave. Outside we could hear next door’s dog running up and down alongside the garden fence, chasing the neighbourhood cats. Every now and then we could hear a burst of manic barking; its head would be popping up over the top right now, its eyes bulging with frustration.

“I’m not sure there’s anything you can do. God. All that stuff you fixed up for him. All that effort…”

“I told him I loved him.” he said, voice dropping to a whisper. “And he just said it wasn’t enough.” His eyes were wide and bleak. “How am I supposed to live with that?”

I am the one in the family who knows everything. I read more than anyone else. I go to university. I am the one who is supposed to have all the answers.

But I looked at my little brother, and I shook my head. “I haven’t got a clue,” I said.

He finally emerged the following day, showered and wearing clean clothes, and I told Mum and Dad not to say a word. I implied it was boyfriend trouble, and Dad raised his eyebrows and made a face as if that explained everything and God only knew what we had been working ourselves into such a fuss over. Mum ran off to ring the Bingo Club and tell them she’d had second thoughts about the risks of air travel.

Harry ate a piece of toast (he didn’t want lunch) and he put on a big floppy sunhat and we walked up to the castle with Violet to feed the ducks. I don’t think he really wanted to go out, but Mum insisted that we all needed some fresh air. This, in my mother’s vocabulary, meant she was itching to get into the bedroom and air it and change the bedding. Vi skipped and hopped ahead of us, clutching a plastic bag full of crusts, and we negotiated the meandering tourists with an ease born of years of practice, ducking out of the way of swinging backpacks, separating around posing couples and rejoining on the other side. The castle baked in the high heat of summer, the ground cracked and the grass wispy, like the last hairs on the head of a balding man. The flowers in the tubs looked defeated, as if they were already half preparing for autumn.

Harry and I didn’t say much. What was there to say?

As we walked past the tourist car park I saw him glance under his brim at the Tomlinson’s house. It stood, elegant and red-brick, its tall blank windows disguising whatever life-changing drama was being played out in there, perhaps even at this moment.

“You could go and talk to him, you know” I said. “I’ll wait here for you.”

He looked at the ground, folded his arms across his chest, and we kept walking. “There’s no point,” he said. I knew the other bit, the bit he didn’t say aloud. He’s probably not even there. He turned his backpack round and rifled through some papers, finally pulling out an envelope. I could see Louis’ name scrawled on the front. “Ok, I’ll be right back.” He hurried off in the direction of the house, coming back only a few minutes later. “I just had to drop something off.” He explained weakly.

We did a slow circuit of the castle, watching Vi roll down the steep parts of the hill, feeding the ducks that by this stage in the season were so well stuffed they could barely be bothered to come over for mere bread. I watched my brother as we walked, seeing his brown chest exposed by his flowy blouse, his stooped shoulders, and I realized that even if he didn’t know it yet, everything had changed for him. He wouldn’t stay here now, no matter what happened with Louis. He had an air about him, a new air of knowledge, of things seen, places he had been. My brother finally had new horizons.

“Oh,”I said, as we headed back towards the gates,”you got a letter. From the college, while you were away. Sorry – I opened it. I thought it must be for me.”

“You opened it?”

I had been hoping it was extra grant money.

“You got an interview.”

Harry blinked, as if receiving news from some long-distant past.

“Yeah. And the big news is, it’s tomorrow,” I said. “So I thought maybe we should go over some possible questions tonight.”

He shook his head. “I can’t go to an interview tomorrow.”

“What else are you going to do?”

“I can’t, Gems,” he said, sorrowfully. “How am I supposed to think about anything at a time like this?”

“Listen, H. They don’t give interviews out like bread for ducks, you dope. This is a big deal. They know you’re a mature student, you’re applying at the wrong time of year, and they’re still going to see you. You can’t muck them around.”

“I don’t care. I can’t think about it.”

“But you –”

“Just leave me alone, Gems. Okay? I can’t do it.”

“Hey,” I said. I stepped in front of him so that he couldn’t keep walking. Vi was talking to a pigeon, a few paces up ahead. “This is exactly the time you have to think about it. This is the time when, like it or not, you finally have to work out what you are going to do with the rest of your life.”

We were blocking the path. Now the tourists had to separate to walk around us – they did so, heads down or eyeing with mild curiosity the arguing siblings.

“I can’t.”

“Well, tough. Because, in case you forgot, you have no job any more. No Nick to pick up the pieces. And if you miss this interview, then in two days’ time you are headed back down the Job Centre to decide whether you want to be a chicken processor or a lap dancer or wipe some other person’s bum for a living. And believe it or not, because you are now headed for thirty, that’s your life pretty well mapped out. And all of this – everything you’ve learnt over the past six months – will have been a waste of time. All of it.”

He stared at me, wearing that look of mute fury he wears when he knows I am right and he can’t say anything back. Vi appeared beside us now and pulled at my hand.

“Mum...you said bum.”

My brother was still glaring at me. But I could see him thinking.

I turned to my daughter. “No, sweetheart, I said bun. We’re going to go home for tea now – aren’t we, H? – and see if we can have some buns. And then, while Granny gives you a bath, I’m going to help Uncle Hazza do his homework.”

I went to the library the next day, and Mum looked after Vi, so I saw Harry off on the bus and knew I wouldn’t see him again till teatime. I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for the interview, but from the moment I left him I didn’t actually give him another thought.

It might sound a bit selfish, but I don’t like getting behind with my coursework, and it was a bit of a relief to have a break from Harry’s misery. Being around someone that depressed is a bit of a drain. You might feel sorry for them, but you can’t help wanting to tell them to pull themselves together too. I shoved my family, my brother, the epic mess he had got himself into, into a mental file, shut the drawer, and focused my attention on VAT exemptions. I got the second-highest marks in my year for Accountancy 1 and there was no way on earth I was dropping back just because of the vagaries of HMRC’s flat rate system.

I got home around a quarter to six, put my files on the hall chair, and they were all lurking around the kitchen table already, while Mum began to serve up. Vi jumped on me, winding her legs around my waist, and I kissed her, breathing in her lovely smell

“Sit down, sit down,” Mum said. “Dad’s only just in.”

“How’d you get on with your books?” Dad said, hanging his jacket on the back of the chair. He always referred to them as ‘my books’. Like they had a life of their own and had to be wrangled into order.

“Good, thanks. I’m three-quarters of the way through my Accountancy 2 module. And then tomorrow I’m on corporate law.” I peeled Violet from me and put her down on the chair next to me, one hand resting in her soft hair.

“Hear that, Anne? Corporate law.”Dad stole a potato from the dish and stuffed it into his mouth before Mum could see. He said it like he relished the sound of it. I suppose he probably did. We chatted for a bit about the kinds of things my module involved. Then we talked about Dad’s job – mostly about how the tourists broke everything. You wouldn’t believe the maintenance, apparently. Even the wooden posts at the car park gateway needed replacing every few weeks because the idiots couldn’t drive a car through a twelve-foot gap. Personally, I would have put a surcharge on the ticket price to cover it – but that’s just me.

Mum finished serving up, and finally sat down. Vi ate with her fingers while she thought nobody noticed and said bum under her breath with a secret smile, and Granddad ate with his gaze tilted upwards, as if he were actually thinking about something else entirely. I glanced over at Harry. He was gazing at his plate, pushing the roast chicken around as if trying to disguise it. Uh-oh, I thought.

“You not hungry, love?” said Mum, following the line of my gaze.

“Not very,” he said.

“It is very warm for chicken,” Mum conceded. “I just thought you needed perking up a bit.”

“So...you going to tell us how you got on at this interview?” Dad’s fork stopped halfway to his mouth.

“Oh, that.” He looked distracted, as if he had just dredged up something he did five years ago.

“Yes, that.”

He speared a tiny piece of chicken. “It was okay.”

Dad glanced at me.

I gave a tiny shrug. “Just okay? They must have given you some idea how you did.”

“I got it.”

“What?”

He was still looking down at his plate. I stopped chewing.

“They said I was exactly the kind of applicant they were looking for. I’ve got to do some kind of foundation course, which takes a year, and then I can convert it.”

Dad sat back in his chair. “That’s fantastic news.”

Mum reached over and patted his shoulder. “Oh, well done, love. That’s brilliant.”

“Not really. I don’t think I can afford four years of study.”

“Don’t you worry about that just now. Really. Look how well Gems managing. Hey –” he nudged Harry “– we’ll find a way. We always find a way, don’t we?” Dad beamed at us both. “I think everything’s turning around for us, now.. I think this is going to be a good time for this family.”

And then, out of nowhere, Harry burst into tears. Real tears. He cried like Violet cries, wailing, all snot and tears and not caring who hears, hissobs breaking through the silence of the little room like a knife.

Violet stared at him, open-mouthed, so that I had to haul her on to my lap and distract her so that she didn’t get upset too. And while I fiddled with bits of potato and talking peas and made silly voices, he told them.

He told them everything – about Louis and the six-month contract and what had happened when they went to Mauritius. As he spoke, Mum’s hands went to her mouth. Granddad looked solemn. The chicken grew cold, the gravy congealing in its boat.

Dad shook his head in disbelief. And then, as my brother detailed his flight home from the Indian Ocean, his voice dropping to a whisper as he spoke of his last words to Mrs. Tomlinson, he pushed his chair back and stood up. Dad walked slowly around the table and he took Harry in his arms, like he had when we were little. He stood there and held himreally, really tightly to him.

“Oh Jesus Christ, the poor fella. And poor you. Oh Jesus.”

I’m not sure I ever saw Dad look so shocked.

“What a bloody mess.”

“You went through all this? Without saying anything? And all we got was a postcard about scuba diving?” My mother was incredulous. “We thought you were having the holiday of a lifetime.”

“I wasn’t alone. Gems knew,” he said, looking at me. “Gems was great.”

“I didn’t do anything,” I said, hugging Violet. She had lost interest in the conversation now that Mum had put an open tin of Celebrations in front of her. “I was just an ear. You did the lot. You came up with all the ideas.”

“And some ideas they turned out to be.” He leaned against Dad, sounding bereft.

Dad tilted his chin so that he had to look at him. “But you did everything you could.”

“And I failed.”

“Who says you failed?” Dad stroked his curly hair back from his face. His expression was tender. “I’m just thinking of what I know about Louis Tomlinson, what I know about men like him. And I’ll say one thing to you. I’m not sure anyone in the world was ever going to persuade that man once he’d set his mind to something. He’s who he is. You can’t make people change who they are.”

“But his parents! They can’t let him kill himself,” said Mum. “What kind of people are they?”

“They’re normal people, Mum. Mrs. Tomlinson just doesn’t know what else she can do.”

“Well, not bloody taking him to this clinic would be a start.” Mum was angry. Two points of colour had risen to her cheekbones. “I would fight for you two, for Violet, until my dying breath.”

“Even if he’d already tried to kill himself?” I said. “In really grim ways?”

“He’s ill, Gemma. He’s depressed. People who are vulnerable should not be given the chance to do something that they’ll…” She tailed off in mute fury and dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. “That woman must be heartless. Heartless. And to think they got Harry involved in all this. She’s a magistrate, for goodness’ sake. You’d think a magistrate would know what was right or wrong. Of all people. I’ve a good mind to head down there now and bring him back here.”

“It’s complicated, Mum.”

“No. It’s not. He’s vulnerable and there is no way on earth she should entertain the thought of it. I’m shocked. That poor man. That poor man.” She got up from the table, taking the remains of the chicken with her, and stalked out to the kitchen.

Harry watched her go, his expression a little stunned. Mum was never angry. I think the last time we heard her raise her voice was 1993.

Dad shook his head, his mind apparently elsewhere. “I’ve just thought – no wonder I haven’t seen Mr. Tomlinson. I wondered where he was. I assumed they were all off on some family holiday.”

“They’ve...they’ve gone?”

“He’s not been in these last two days.”

Harry sat back down and slumped in his chair.

“Oh shit,” I said, and then clamped my hands around Violet’s ears.

“It’s tomorrow.”

Harry looked at me, and I glanced up at the calendar on the wall.

“The thirteenth of August. It’s tomorrow.” It was the same day Harry had made the appointment with the stem cell specialist in Paris. He had told me that was the one thing he didn’t cancel - holding on to hope.

Harry did nothing that last day. He was up before me, staring out of the kitchen window. It rained, and then it cleared, and then it rained again. He lay on the sofa with Granddad, and he drank the tea that Mum made him, and every half an hour or so I watched his gaze slide silently towards the mantelpiece and check the clock. It was awful to watch. I took Violet swimming and I tried to make him come with us. I said Mum would mind her if he wanted to go to the shops with me later. I said I’d take him to the pub, just the two of us, but he refused every offer.

“What if I made a mistake, Gems?” he said, so quietly that only I could hear it.

I glanced up at Granddad, but he had eyes only for the racing. I think Dad was still putting on a sneaky bet each way for him, even though he denied it to Mum.

“What do you mean?”

“What if I should have gone with him?”

“But...you said you couldn’t.”

Outside, the skies were grey. He stared through our immaculate windows at the miserable day beyond.

“I know what I said. But I just can’t bear not knowing what’s happening.” His face crumpled a little. “I can’t bear not knowing how he’s feeling. I can’t bear the fact that I never even got to say goodbye.”

“Couldn’t you go now? Maybe try and get a flight?”

“It’s too late,” he said. And then he closed his eyes. “I’d never get there in time. There’s only two hours left until...until it stops for the day. I looked it up. On the internet.”

I waited.

“They don’t...do...it...after five thirty.” He shook his head in bemusement. “Something to do with the Swiss officials who have to be there. They don’t like...certifying...things outside office hours.”

I almost laughed. But I didn’t know what to say to him. I couldn’t imagine having to wait, as he was waiting, knowing what might be happening in some far-off place. I had never loved a man like he seemed to love Louis. I had liked men, sure, and wanted to sleep with them, but sometimes I wondered if I was missing some sensitivity chip. I couldn’t imagine crying over anyone I’d been with. The only equivalent was if I thought about Violet, waiting to die in some strange country, and as soon as that thought came to mind it made something inside me actually flip over, it was so hideous. So I stuck that in the back of my mental filing cabinet too, under the drawer labelled: Unthinkable.

I sat down beside my brother on the sofa and we stared in silence at the three thirty Maiden Stakes, then the four o’clock handicap stakes, and the four races that followed it, with the fixed intensity of people who might actually have all the money in the world on the winner.

And then the doorbell rang.

Harry was off the sofa and in the hallway in seconds. He opened the door and the way he wrenched it open made even my heart stop.

But it wasn’t Louis there on the doorstep. It was a young woman, her make-up thick and perfectly applied, her hair cut in a neat bob around her chin. She folded her umbrella and smiled, reaching round towards the large bag she had over her shoulder. I wondered briefly if this was Louis Tomlinson’s sister.

“Harry Styles?”

“Yes?”

“I’m from The Globe. I wondered if I could have a quick word?”

“The Globe?”

I could hear the confusion in Harry’s voice.

“The newspaper?” I stepped behind my brother. I saw then the notepad in the woman’s hand.

“Can I come in? I’d just like to have a little chat with you about Louis Tomlinson. You do work for Louis Tomlinson, don’t you?”

“No comment,”I said. And before the woman had a chance to say anything else, I slammed the door in her face.

My brother stood stunned in the hallway. He flinched as the doorbell rang again.

“Don’t answer it,” I hissed.

“But how – ?”

I began to push him up the stairs. God, he was impossibly slow. It was like he was half asleep. “Granddad, don’t answer the door!” I yelled. “Who have you told?” I said, when we reached the landing. “Someone must have told them. Who knows?”

“Mr.Styles” the woman’s voice came through the letterbox. “If you just give me ten minutes...we do understand this is a very sensitive issue. We’d like you to put your side of the story…”

“Does this mean he’s dead?” His eyes had filled with tears.

“No, it just means some arse is trying to cash in.”I thought for a minute.

“Who was that?” Mum’s voice came up the stairwell.

“No one, Mum. Just don’t answer the door.”

I peered over the banister. Mum was holding a tea towel in her hands and gazing at the shadowy figure visible through the glass panels of the front door.

“Don’t answer the door?”

I took my brother’s elbow. “H...you didn’t say anything to Nick, did you?”

He didn’t need to say anything. His stricken face said it all.

“Okay. Don’t have a baby. Just don’t go near the door. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t say a word to them, okay?”

Mum was not amused. She was even less amused after the phone started ringing. After the fifth call we put all calls through to the machine, but we still had to listen to them, their voices invading our little hallway. There were four or five of them, all the same. All offering Harry the chance to put his side of ‘the story’, as they called it. Like Louis Tomlinson was now some commodity that they were all scrabbling over. The telephone rang and the doorbell rang. We sat with the curtains closed, listening to the reporters on the pavement just outside our gate, chatting to each other and speaking on their mobile phones.

It was like being under siege. Mum wrung her hands and shouted through the letterbox for them to get the hell out of our front garden, whenever one of them ventured past the gate. Violet gazed out of the upstairs bathroom window and wanted to know why there were people in our garden. Four of our neighbours rang, wanting to know what was going on. Dad parked in Ivy Street and came home via the back garden, and we had a fairly serious talk about castles and boiling oil.

Then, after I’d thought a bit longer, I rang Nick and asked him how much he had got for his sordid little tip. The slight delay before he denied everything told me all I needed to know.

“You shitbag,” I yelled. “I’m going to kick your stupid marathon-running shins so hard you’re going to think 157th was actually a good result.”

Harry just sat in the kitchen and cried. Not proper sobbing, just silent tears that ran down his face and which he wiped away with the palm of his hand. I couldn’t think what to say to him.

Which was fine. I had plenty to say to everyone else.

All but one of the reporters cleared off by half past seven. I didn’t know if they had given up, or if Violet’s habit of posting bits of Lego out of the letterbox every time they passed another note through had become boring. I told Harry to bathe Vi for me, mainly because I wanted him to get out of the kitchen, but also because that way I could go through all the messages on our answerphone and delete the newspaper ones while he couldn’t hear me. Twenty-six. Twenty-six of the buggers. And all sounding so nice, so understanding. Some of them even offered him money.

I pressed delete on every one. Even those offering money, although I admit I was a teeny bit tempted to see how much they were offering. All the while, I heard Harry talking to Vi in the bathroom, the whine and splash of her dive-bombing her six inches of soapsuds with the Batmobile. That’s the thing you don’t know about children unless you have them – bath time, Lego and fish fingers don’t allow you to dwell on tragedy for too long. And then I hit the last message.

“Harry? It’s Johannah Tomlinson. Will you call me? As soon as possible?”

I stared at the machine. I rewound and replayed it. Then I ran upstairs and whipped Violet out of the bath so fast my girl didn’t even know what hit her. She was standing there, the towel wrapped tightly around her like a compression bandage, and H, stumbling and confused, was already halfway down the stairs, me pushing him by the shoulder.

“What if she hates me?”

“She didn’t sound like she hated you.”

“But what if the press are surrounding them there? What if they think it’s all my fault?” His eyes were wide and terrified. “What if she’s ringing to tell me he’s done it?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Harry. For once in your life, just get a grip. You won’t know anything unless you call. Call her. Just call. You don’t have a bloody choice.”

I ran back into the bathroom, to set Violet free. I shoved her into her pajamas, told her that Granny had a biscuit for her if she ran to the kitchen super fast. And then I peered out of the bathroom door, to peek at my brother on the phone down in the hallway.

He was turned away from me, one hand smoothing the hair at the back of his head. He reached out a hand to steady herself.

“Yes.”he was saying. “I see.” And then, “Okay.”

And after a pause, “Yes.”

He looked down at his feet for a good minute after he’d put the phone down.

“Well?” I said.

He looked up as if he’d only just seen me there, and a slow but scared smile formed on his face.

“It was nothing about the newspapers.” he said, his voice still numb with shock. “She asked me – begged me – to come to….not to Switzerland...to Paris. And she’s booked me on to the last flight out this evening.”

I wasn’t understanding anything that my brother was telling me.

“What’s in Paris?” I asked, running a nervous hand through my hair.

“The doctors. The doctors I found that….” He started, but began to cry. “He’s going to look into the stem cell research. And he wants me there.”

Chapter Text

Gemma

 

Harry didn’t come out of his room for a whole thirty-six hours after he got back from his holiday. He arrived back from the airport late evening on the Sunday, pale as a ghost under his suntan – and we couldn’t work that out for a start, as he had definitely said he’d see us first thing Monday morning. I just need to sleep, he had said, then shut himself in his room and gone straight to bed. We had thought it a little odd, but what did we know? Harry has been peculiar since birth, after all.

Mum had taken up a mug of tea in the morning, and Harry had not stirred. By supper, Mum had become worried and shaken him, checking he was alive. (He can be a bit melodramatic, Mum – although, to be fair, she had made fish pie and she probably just wanted to make sure H wasn’t going to miss it.) But Harry wouldn’t eat, and he wouldn’t talk and he wouldn’t come downstairs. I just want to stay here for a bit, Mum, he said, into his pillow. Finally, Mum left him alone.

“He’s not himself,” said Mum. “Do you think it’s some kind of delayed reaction to the thing with Nick?"

“He couldn’t give a stuff about Nick,” Dad said. “I told him he rang to tell us he came 157th in the Viking thing, and he couldn’t have looked less interested.” He sipped his tea. “Mind you, to be fair on him, even I found it pretty hard to get excited about 157th.”

“Do you think he’s ill? He’s awful pale under that tan. And all that sleeping. It’s just not like him. He might have some terrible tropical disease.”

“He’s just jet-lagged,” I said. I said it with some authority, knowing that Mum and Dad tended to treat me as an expert on all sorts of matters that none of us really knew anything about.

“Jet lag! Well, if that’s what long-haul travel does to you, I think I’ll stick with Tenby. What do you think, love?”

“I don’t know...who would have thought a holiday could make you look so ill?” Mum shook her head.

I went upstairs after supper. I didn’t knock. (It was still, strictly speaking, my room, after all.) The air was thick and stale, and I pulled the blind up and opened a window, so that Harry turned groggily from under the duvet, shielding his eyes from the light, dust motes swirling around him.

“You going to tell me what happened?” I put a mug of tea on the bedside table.

He blinked at me.

“Mum thinks you’ve got Ebola virus. She’s busy warning all the neighbors who have booked onto the Bingo Club trip to PortAventura.”

He didn’t say anything.

“Harry?”

“I quit,” he said, quietly.

“Why?”

“Why do you think?” He pushed himself upright, and reached clumsily for the mug, taking a long sip of tea.

For someone who had just spent almost two weeks in Mauritius, he looked bloody awful. His eyes were tiny and red-rimmed, and his skin, without the tan, would have been even blotchier. His hair stuck up on one side. He looked like he’d been awake for several years. But most of all he looked sad. I had never seen my brother look so sad.

“You think he’s really going to go through with it?”

He nodded. Then she swallowed, hard.

“Shit. Oh, H. I’m really sorry.”

I motioned to him to shove over, and I climbed into bed beside him. He took another sip of his tea, and then leaned his head on my shoulder. He was wearing my T-shirt. I didn’t say anything about it. That was how bad I felt for him.

“What do I do, Gem?”

His voice was small, like Violet’s, when she hurts herself and is trying to be really brave. Outside we could hear next door’s dog running up and down alongside the garden fence, chasing the neighbourhood cats. Every now and then we could hear a burst of manic barking; its head would be popping up over the top right now, its eyes bulging with frustration.

“I’m not sure there’s anything you can do. God. All that stuff you fixed up for him. All that effort…”

“I told him I loved him.” he said, voice dropping to a whisper. “And he just said it wasn’t enough.” His eyes were wide and bleak. “How am I supposed to live with that?”

I am the one in the family who knows everything. I read more than anyone else. I go to university. I am the one who is supposed to have all the answers.

But I looked at my little brother, and I shook my head. “I haven’t got a clue,” I said.

He finally emerged the following day, showered and wearing clean clothes, and I told Mum and Dad not to say a word. I implied it was boyfriend trouble, and Dad raised his eyebrows and made a face as if that explained everything and God only knew what we had been working ourselves into such a fuss over. Mum ran off to ring the Bingo Club and tell them she’d had second thoughts about the risks of air travel.

Harry ate a piece of toast (he didn’t want lunch) and he put on a big floppy sunhat and we walked up to the castle with Violet to feed the ducks. I don’t think he really wanted to go out, but Mum insisted that we all needed some fresh air. This, in my mother’s vocabulary, meant she was itching to get into the bedroom and air it and change the bedding. Vi skipped and hopped ahead of us, clutching a plastic bag full of crusts, and we negotiated the meandering tourists with an ease born of years of practice, ducking out of the way of swinging backpacks, separating around posing couples and rejoining on the other side. The castle baked in the high heat of summer, the ground cracked and the grass wispy, like the last hairs on the head of a balding man. The flowers in the tubs looked defeated, as if they were already half preparing for autumn.

Harry and I didn’t say much. What was there to say?

As we walked past the tourist car park I saw him glance under his brim at the Tomlinson’s house. It stood, elegant and red-brick, its tall blank windows disguising whatever life-changing drama was being played out in there, perhaps even at this moment.

“You could go and talk to him, you know” I said. “I’ll wait here for you.”

He looked at the ground, folded his arms across his chest, and we kept walking. “There’s no point,” he said. I knew the other bit, the bit he didn’t say aloud. He’s probably not even there. He turned his backpack round and rifled through some papers, finally pulling out an envelope. I could see Louis’ name scrawled on the front. “Ok, I’ll be right back.” He hurried off in the direction of the house, coming back only a few minutes later. “I just had to drop something off.” He explained weakly.

We did a slow circuit of the castle, watching Vi roll down the steep parts of the hill, feeding the ducks that by this stage in the season were so well stuffed they could barely be bothered to come over for mere bread. I watched my brother as we walked, seeing his brown chest exposed by his flowy blouse, his stooped shoulders, and I realized that even if he didn’t know it yet, everything had changed for him. He wouldn’t stay here now, no matter what happened with Louis. He had an air about him, a new air of knowledge, of things seen, places he had been. My brother finally had new horizons.

“Oh,”I said, as we headed back towards the gates,”you got a letter. From the college, while you were away. Sorry – I opened it. I thought it must be for me.”

“You opened it?”

I had been hoping it was extra grant money.

“You got an interview.”

Harry blinked, as if receiving news from some long-distant past.

“Yeah. And the big news is, it’s tomorrow,” I said. “So I thought maybe we should go over some possible questions tonight.”

He shook his head. “I can’t go to an interview tomorrow.”

“What else are you going to do?”

“I can’t, Gems,” he said, sorrowfully. “How am I supposed to think about anything at a time like this?”

“Listen, H. They don’t give interviews out like bread for ducks, you dope. This is a big deal. They know you’re a mature student, you’re applying at the wrong time of year, and they’re still going to see you. You can’t muck them around.”

“I don’t care. I can’t think about it.”

“But you –”

“Just leave me alone, Gems. Okay? I can’t do it.”

“Hey,” I said. I stepped in front of him so that he couldn’t keep walking. Vi was talking to a pigeon, a few paces up ahead. “This is exactly the time you have to think about it. This is the time when, like it or not, you finally have to work out what you are going to do with the rest of your life.”

We were blocking the path. Now the tourists had to separate to walk around us – they did so, heads down or eyeing with mild curiosity the arguing siblings.

“I can’t.”

“Well, tough. Because, in case you forgot, you have no job any more. No Nick to pick up the pieces. And if you miss this interview, then in two days’ time you are headed back down the Job Centre to decide whether you want to be a chicken processor or a lap dancer or wipe some other person’s bum for a living. And believe it or not, because you are now headed for thirty, that’s your life pretty well mapped out. And all of this – everything you’ve learnt over the past six months – will have been a waste of time. All of it.”

He stared at me, wearing that look of mute fury he wears when he knows I am right and he can’t say anything back. Vi appeared beside us now and pulled at my hand.

“Mum...you said bum.”

My brother was still glaring at me. But I could see him thinking.

I turned to my daughter. “No, sweetheart, I said bun. We’re going to go home for tea now – aren’t we, H? – and see if we can have some buns. And then, while Granny gives you a bath, I’m going to help Uncle Hazza do his homework.”

I went to the library the next day, and Mum looked after Vi, so I saw Harry off on the bus and knew I wouldn’t see him again till teatime. I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for the interview, but from the moment I left him I didn’t actually give him another thought.

It might sound a bit selfish, but I don’t like getting behind with my coursework, and it was a bit of a relief to have a break from Harry’s misery. Being around someone that depressed is a bit of a drain. You might feel sorry for them, but you can’t help wanting to tell them to pull themselves together too. I shoved my family, my brother, the epic mess he had got himself into, into a mental file, shut the drawer, and focused my attention on VAT exemptions. I got the second-highest marks in my year for Accountancy 1 and there was no way on earth I was dropping back just because of the vagaries of HMRC’s flat rate system.

I got home around a quarter to six, put my files on the hall chair, and they were all lurking around the kitchen table already, while Mum began to serve up. Vi jumped on me, winding her legs around my waist, and I kissed her, breathing in her lovely smell

“Sit down, sit down,” Mum said. “Dad’s only just in.”

“How’d you get on with your books?” Dad said, hanging his jacket on the back of the chair. He always referred to them as ‘my books’. Like they had a life of their own and had to be wrangled into order.

“Good, thanks. I’m three-quarters of the way through my Accountancy 2 module. And then tomorrow I’m on corporate law.” I peeled Violet from me and put her down on the chair next to me, one hand resting in her soft hair.

“Hear that, Anne? Corporate law.”Dad stole a potato from the dish and stuffed it into his mouth before Mum could see. He said it like he relished the sound of it. I suppose he probably did. We chatted for a bit about the kinds of things my module involved. Then we talked about Dad’s job – mostly about how the tourists broke everything. You wouldn’t believe the maintenance, apparently. Even the wooden posts at the car park gateway needed replacing every few weeks because the idiots couldn’t drive a car through a twelve-foot gap. Personally, I would have put a surcharge on the ticket price to cover it – but that’s just me.

Mum finished serving up, and finally sat down. Vi ate with her fingers while she thought nobody noticed and said bum under her breath with a secret smile, and Granddad ate with his gaze tilted upwards, as if he were actually thinking about something else entirely. I glanced over at Harry. He was gazing at his plate, pushing the roast chicken around as if trying to disguise it. Uh-oh, I thought.

“You not hungry, love?” said Mum, following the line of my gaze.

“Not very,” he said.

“It is very warm for chicken,” Mum conceded. “I just thought you needed perking up a bit.”

“So...you going to tell us how you got on at this interview?” Dad’s fork stopped halfway to his mouth.

“Oh, that.” He looked distracted, as if he had just dredged up something he did five years ago.

“Yes, that.”

He speared a tiny piece of chicken. “It was okay.”

Dad glanced at me.

I gave a tiny shrug. “Just okay? They must have given you some idea how you did.”

“I got it.”

“What?”

He was still looking down at his plate. I stopped chewing.

“They said I was exactly the kind of applicant they were looking for. I’ve got to do some kind of foundation course, which takes a year, and then I can convert it.”

Dad sat back in his chair. “That’s fantastic news.”

Mum reached over and patted his shoulder. “Oh, well done, love. That’s brilliant.”

“Not really. I don’t think I can afford four years of study.”

“Don’t you worry about that just now. Really. Look how well Gems managing. Hey –” he nudged Harry “– we’ll find a way. We always find a way, don’t we?” Dad beamed at us both. “I think everything’s turning around for us, now.. I think this is going to be a good time for this family.”

And then, out of nowhere, Harry burst into tears. Real tears. He cried like Violet cries, wailing, all snot and tears and not caring who hears, hissobs breaking through the silence of the little room like a knife.

Violet stared at him, open-mouthed, so that I had to haul her on to my lap and distract her so that she didn’t get upset too. And while I fiddled with bits of potato and talking peas and made silly voices, he told them.

He told them everything – about Louis and the six-month contract and what had happened when they went to Mauritius. As he spoke, Mum’s hands went to her mouth. Granddad looked solemn. The chicken grew cold, the gravy congealing in its boat.

Dad shook his head in disbelief. And then, as my brother detailed his flight home from the Indian Ocean, his voice dropping to a whisper as he spoke of his last words to Mrs. Tomlinson, he pushed his chair back and stood up. Dad walked slowly around the table and he took Harry in his arms, like he had when we were little. He stood there and held himreally, really tightly to him.

“Oh Jesus Christ, the poor fella. And poor you. Oh Jesus.”

I’m not sure I ever saw Dad look so shocked.

“What a bloody mess.”

“You went through all this? Without saying anything? And all we got was a postcard about scuba diving?” My mother was incredulous. “We thought you were having the holiday of a lifetime.”

“I wasn’t alone. Gems knew,” he said, looking at me. “Gems was great.”

“I didn’t do anything,” I said, hugging Violet. She had lost interest in the conversation now that Mum had put an open tin of Celebrations in front of her. “I was just an ear. You did the lot. You came up with all the ideas.”

“And some ideas they turned out to be.” He leaned against Dad, sounding bereft.

Dad tilted his chin so that he had to look at him. “But you did everything you could.”

“And I failed.”

“Who says you failed?” Dad stroked his curly hair back from his face. His expression was tender. “I’m just thinking of what I know about Louis Tomlinson, what I know about men like him. And I’ll say one thing to you. I’m not sure anyone in the world was ever going to persuade that man once he’d set his mind to something. He’s who he is. You can’t make people change who they are.”

“But his parents! They can’t let him kill himself,” said Mum. “What kind of people are they?”

“They’re normal people, Mum. Mrs. Tomlinson just doesn’t know what else she can do.”

“Well, not bloody taking him to this clinic would be a start.” Mum was angry. Two points of colour had risen to her cheekbones. “I would fight for you two, for Violet, until my dying breath.”

“Even if he’d already tried to kill himself?” I said. “In really grim ways?”

“He’s ill, Gemma. He’s depressed. People who are vulnerable should not be given the chance to do something that they’ll…” She tailed off in mute fury and dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. “That woman must be heartless. Heartless. And to think they got Harry involved in all this. She’s a magistrate, for goodness’ sake. You’d think a magistrate would know what was right or wrong. Of all people. I’ve a good mind to head down there now and bring him back here.”

“It’s complicated, Mum.”

“No. It’s not. He’s vulnerable and there is no way on earth she should entertain the thought of it. I’m shocked. That poor man. That poor man.” She got up from the table, taking the remains of the chicken with her, and stalked out to the kitchen.

Harry watched her go, his expression a little stunned. Mum was never angry. I think the last time we heard her raise her voice was 1993.

Dad shook his head, his mind apparently elsewhere. “I’ve just thought – no wonder I haven’t seen Mr. Tomlinson. I wondered where he was. I assumed they were all off on some family holiday.”

“They’ve...they’ve gone?”

“He’s not been in these last two days.”

Harry sat back down and slumped in his chair.

“Oh shit,” I said, and then clamped my hands around Violet’s ears.

“It’s tomorrow.”

Harry looked at me, and I glanced up at the calendar on the wall.

“The thirteenth of August. It’s tomorrow.” It was the same day Harry had made the appointment with the stem cell specialist in Paris. He had told me that was the one thing he didn’t cancel - holding on to hope.

Harry did nothing that last day. He was up before me, staring out of the kitchen window. It rained, and then it cleared, and then it rained again. He lay on the sofa with Granddad, and he drank the tea that Mum made him, and every half an hour or so I watched his gaze slide silently towards the mantelpiece and check the clock. It was awful to watch. I took Violet swimming and I tried to make him come with us. I said Mum would mind her if he wanted to go to the shops with me later. I said I’d take him to the pub, just the two of us, but he refused every offer.

“What if I made a mistake, Gems?” he said, so quietly that only I could hear it.

I glanced up at Granddad, but he had eyes only for the racing. I think Dad was still putting on a sneaky bet each way for him, even though he denied it to Mum.

“What do you mean?”

“What if I should have gone with him?”

“But...you said you couldn’t.”

Outside, the skies were grey. He stared through our immaculate windows at the miserable day beyond.

“I know what I said. But I just can’t bear not knowing what’s happening.” His face crumpled a little. “I can’t bear not knowing how he’s feeling. I can’t bear the fact that I never even got to say goodbye.”

“Couldn’t you go now? Maybe try and get a flight?”

“It’s too late,” he said. And then he closed his eyes. “I’d never get there in time. There’s only two hours left until...until it stops for the day. I looked it up. On the internet.”

I waited.

“They don’t...do...it...after five thirty.” He shook his head in bemusement. “Something to do with the Swiss officials who have to be there. They don’t like...certifying...things outside office hours.”

I almost laughed. But I didn’t know what to say to him. I couldn’t imagine having to wait, as he was waiting, knowing what might be happening in some far-off place. I had never loved a man like he seemed to love Louis. I had liked men, sure, and wanted to sleep with them, but sometimes I wondered if I was missing some sensitivity chip. I couldn’t imagine crying over anyone I’d been with. The only equivalent was if I thought about Violet, waiting to die in some strange country, and as soon as that thought came to mind it made something inside me actually flip over, it was so hideous. So I stuck that in the back of my mental filing cabinet too, under the drawer labelled: Unthinkable.

I sat down beside my brother on the sofa and we stared in silence at the three thirty Maiden Stakes, then the four o’clock handicap stakes, and the four races that followed it, with the fixed intensity of people who might actually have all the money in the world on the winner.

And then the doorbell rang.

Harry was off the sofa and in the hallway in seconds. He opened the door and the way he wrenched it open made even my heart stop.

But it wasn’t Louis there on the doorstep. It was a young woman, her make-up thick and perfectly applied, her hair cut in a neat bob around her chin. She folded her umbrella and smiled, reaching round towards the large bag she had over her shoulder. I wondered briefly if this was Louis Tomlinson’s sister.

“Harry Styles?”

“Yes?”

“I’m from The Globe. I wondered if I could have a quick word?”

“The Globe?”

I could hear the confusion in Harry’s voice.

“The newspaper?” I stepped behind my brother. I saw then the notepad in the woman’s hand.

“Can I come in? I’d just like to have a little chat with you about Louis Tomlinson. You do work for Louis Tomlinson, don’t you?”

“No comment,”I said. And before the woman had a chance to say anything else, I slammed the door in her face.

My brother stood stunned in the hallway. He flinched as the doorbell rang again.

“Don’t answer it,” I hissed.

“But how – ?”

I began to push him up the stairs. God, he was impossibly slow. It was like he was half asleep. “Granddad, don’t answer the door!” I yelled. “Who have you told?” I said, when we reached the landing. “Someone must have told them. Who knows?”

“Mr.Styles” the woman’s voice came through the letterbox. “If you just give me ten minutes...we do understand this is a very sensitive issue. We’d like you to put your side of the story…”

“Does this mean he’s dead?” His eyes had filled with tears.

“No, it just means some arse is trying to cash in.”I thought for a minute.

“Who was that?” Mum’s voice came up the stairwell.

“No one, Mum. Just don’t answer the door.”

I peered over the banister. Mum was holding a tea towel in her hands and gazing at the shadowy figure visible through the glass panels of the front door.

“Don’t answer the door?”

I took my brother’s elbow. “H...you didn’t say anything to Nick, did you?”

He didn’t need to say anything. His stricken face said it all.

“Okay. Don’t have a baby. Just don’t go near the door. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t say a word to them, okay?”

Mum was not amused. She was even less amused after the phone started ringing. After the fifth call we put all calls through to the machine, but we still had to listen to them, their voices invading our little hallway. There were four or five of them, all the same. All offering Harry the chance to put his side of ‘the story’, as they called it. Like Louis Tomlinson was now some commodity that they were all scrabbling over. The telephone rang and the doorbell rang. We sat with the curtains closed, listening to the reporters on the pavement just outside our gate, chatting to each other and speaking on their mobile phones.

It was like being under siege. Mum wrung her hands and shouted through the letterbox for them to get the hell out of our front garden, whenever one of them ventured past the gate. Violet gazed out of the upstairs bathroom window and wanted to know why there were people in our garden. Four of our neighbours rang, wanting to know what was going on. Dad parked in Ivy Street and came home via the back garden, and we had a fairly serious talk about castles and boiling oil.

Then, after I’d thought a bit longer, I rang Nick and asked him how much he had got for his sordid little tip. The slight delay before he denied everything told me all I needed to know.

“You shitbag,” I yelled. “I’m going to kick your stupid marathon-running shins so hard you’re going to think 157th was actually a good result.”

Harry just sat in the kitchen and cried. Not proper sobbing, just silent tears that ran down his face and which he wiped away with the palm of his hand. I couldn’t think what to say to him.

Which was fine. I had plenty to say to everyone else.

All but one of the reporters cleared off by half past seven. I didn’t know if they had given up, or if Violet’s habit of posting bits of Lego out of the letterbox every time they passed another note through had become boring. I told Harry to bathe Vi for me, mainly because I wanted him to get out of the kitchen, but also because that way I could go through all the messages on our answerphone and delete the newspaper ones while he couldn’t hear me. Twenty-six. Twenty-six of the buggers. And all sounding so nice, so understanding. Some of them even offered him money.

I pressed delete on every one. Even those offering money, although I admit I was a teeny bit tempted to see how much they were offering. All the while, I heard Harry talking to Vi in the bathroom, the whine and splash of her dive-bombing her six inches of soapsuds with the Batmobile. That’s the thing you don’t know about children unless you have them – bath time, Lego and fish fingers don’t allow you to dwell on tragedy for too long. And then I hit the last message.

“Harry? It’s Johannah Tomlinson. Will you call me? As soon as possible?”

I stared at the machine. I rewound and replayed it. Then I ran upstairs and whipped Violet out of the bath so fast my girl didn’t even know what hit her. She was standing there, the towel wrapped tightly around her like a compression bandage, and H, stumbling and confused, was already halfway down the stairs, me pushing him by the shoulder.

“What if she hates me?”

“She didn’t sound like she hated you.”

“But what if the press are surrounding them there? What if they think it’s all my fault?” His eyes were wide and terrified. “What if she’s ringing to tell me he’s done it?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Harry. For once in your life, just get a grip. You won’t know anything unless you call. Call her. Just call. You don’t have a bloody choice.”

I ran back into the bathroom, to set Violet free. I shoved her into her pajamas, told her that Granny had a biscuit for her if she ran to the kitchen super fast. And then I peered out of the bathroom door, to peek at my brother on the phone down in the hallway.

He was turned away from me, one hand smoothing the hair at the back of his head. He reached out a hand to steady herself.

“Yes.”he was saying. “I see.” And then, “Okay.”

And after a pause, “Yes.”

He looked down at his feet for a good minute after he’d put the phone down.

“Well?” I said.

He looked up as if he’d only just seen me there, and a slow but scared smile formed on his face.

“It was nothing about the newspapers.” he said, his voice still numb with shock. “She asked me – begged me – to come to….not to Switzerland...to Paris. And she’s booked me on to the last flight out this evening.”

I wasn’t understanding anything that my brother was telling me.

“What’s in Paris?” I asked, running a nervous hand through my hair.

“The doctors. The doctors I found that….” He started, but began to cry. “He’s going to look into the stem cell research. And he wants me there.”

Chapter Text

In other circumstances Harry supposed it might have seemed strange that he, Harry Edward Styles, a guy who had rarely been more than a bus ride from his home town in twenty something years, was now flying to his third country in less than a week. But he packed an overnight case with the swift efficiency of an air stewardess, rejecting all but the barest necessities. Gemma ran around silently fetching any other things she thought he might need, and then they headed downstairs. The pair stopped halfway down. Anne and Robin were already in the hall, standing side by side in the ominous way they used to do when they sneaked back late from a night out.

“What’s going on?” Anne was staring at his case.

Gemma had stopped in front of Harry.

“H is going to Paris.” she said. “And he needs to leave now. There’s only one flight left today.”

They were about to move when Anne stepped forward.

“No.” Her mouth was set into an unfamiliar line, her arms folded awkwardly in front of her. “Really. I don’t want you involved. If this is what I think it is, then no.”

“But –” Gemma began, glancing behind at her brother.

“No,” said Anne, and her voice held an unusually steely quality. “No buts. I’ve been thinking about this, about everything you told us. It’s wrong. Morally wrong. And if you get embroiled in it and you’re seen to be helping a man kill himself, then you could end up in all sorts of trouble.”

“Your mum’s right,” Robin said.

“We’ve seen it in the news. This could affect your whole life, Harry. This college interview, everything. If you get a criminal record, you will never get a college degree or a good job or anything –”

“He’s asked for him to come. He can’t just ignore him. Plus it’s -” Gemma started.

“Yes. Yes, she can. Harry has given six months of his life to this family. And a fat lot of good it’s brought him, judging by the state of things. A fat lot of good it’s brought this family, with people banging on the door and all the neighbors thinking we’ve been done for benefit fraud or some such. No, he’s finally got the chance to make something of himself, and now they want him to go to that dreadful place in Switzerland and get involved in God knows what. Well, I say no. No, Harry.”

“It’s in Paris….for research, he has to go. Louis wants him there.” Gemma said.

“No, he doesn’t. He’s done enough. He said himself last night, he’s done everything he could.” Anne shook her head. “Whatever mess the Tomlinson’s are going to make of their lives going to this...this...whatever they’re going to do to their own son, I don’t want Harry involved. I don’t want him ruining his whole life.”

“I think I can make my own mind up.” Harry said, ignoring the fact that his mum had the wrong idea all together.

“I’m not sure you can. This is your friend, Harry. This is a young man with his whole life ahead of him. You cannot be part of this. I’m...I’m shocked that you could even consider it.” Anne’s voice had a new, hard edge. “I didn’t bring you up to help someone end his life! Would you end Granddad’s life? Do you think we should shove him off to Dignitas too?”

“He’s not ending his life. Plus, Granddad is different.”

“No, he isn’t. He can’t do what he used to. But his life is precious. Just as Louis’ is precious.”

“It’s not my decision, Mum. It’s Louis’. The whole point of this is to support Louis.”

“Support Louis? I’ve never heard such rubbish. You are a child, Harry. You’ve seen nothing, done nothing. And you have no idea what this is going to do to you. How in God’s name will you ever be able to sleep at night if you help him to go through with it? You’d be helping a man to die. Do you really understand that? You’d be helping Louis, that lovely, clever young man, to die.”

“I’d sleep at night because I trust Louis to know what is right for him, and because what has been the worst thing for him has been losing the ability to make a single decision, to do a single thing for himself…” Harry looked at his parents, trying to make them understand. He wanted to tell them how much had changed with the research and Louis changing his mind - but this was a personal attack. “I’m not a child. I love him. I love him, and I shouldn’t have left him alone, and I can’t bear not being there and not knowing what's going on.” He swallowed. “So yes. I’m going. I don’t need you to look out for me or understand. I’ll deal with it. But I’m going to Paris– which if either of you were paying attention would realize it’s not Switzerland.”

The little hallway grew silent. Anne stared at Harry like she had no idea who he was. He took a step closer to her, trying to make her understand. But as he did, she took a step back.

“Mum? I owe Louis. I owe it to him to go. He might live. Who do you think got me to apply to college? Who do you think encouraged me to make something of myself, to travel places, to have ambitions? Who changed the way I think about everything? About myself even? Louis did. I’ve done more, lived more, in the last six months than in the last twenty-seven years of my life. So if he wants me to come to Paris, then yes, I’m going to go. Whatever the outcome.”

There was a brief silence.

“He’s like Aunt Lily.” Robin said, quietly.

They all stood, staring at each other. Robin and Gemma were shooting glances at each other, as if each of them were waiting for the other to say something.

But Anne broke the silence. “If you go, Harry, you needn’t come back.”

The words fell out of her mouth like pebbles. Harry looked at his mother in shock. Her gaze was unyielding. It tensed as she watched for his reaction. It was as if a wall Harry had never known was there had sprung up between them.

“Mum?”

“I mean it. This is no better than murder.”

“Anne…”

“That’s the truth, Robin. I can’t be part of this.”

Harry remembered thinking, as if at a distance, that he had never seen Gemma look so uncertain as she did now. He saw Robin’s hand reach out to his Mum’s arm, whether in reproach or comfort he couldn’t tell. His mind went briefly blank. Then almost without knowing what he was doing, Harry walked slowly down the stairs and past his parents to the front door. And after a second, his sister followed.

The corners of Robin’s mouth turned down, as if he were struggling to contain all sorts of things. Then he turned to Anne, and placed one hand on her shoulder. Her eyes searched his face and it was as if she already knew what he was going to say.

And then he threw Gemma his keys. She caught them one-handed.

“Here,” he said. “Go out the back door, through Mrs Doherty’s garden, and take the van. They won’t see you in the van. If you go now and the traffic’s not too bad you might just make it.”

“You have any idea where this is all headed?” Gemma said.

She glanced sideways at Harry as they sped down the motorway.

“Nope.”

Harry couldn’t look at her for long – he was rifling through his backpack, trying to work out what he had forgotten. He kept hearing the sound of Mrs.Tomlinson’s voice down the line. Harry? Please will you come? I know we’ve had our differences, but please...he needs you.

“Shit. I’ve never seen Mum like that.” Gemma continued.

Passport, wallet, door keys. Door keys? For what? Harry no longer had a home.

Gemma glanced sideways at him. “I mean, she’s mad now, but she’s in shock. You know she’ll be alright in the end, right? I mean, when I came home and told her I was up the duff I thought she was never going to speak to me again. But it only took her – what? – two days, to come round.”

Harry could hear her babbling away beside him, but he wasn’t really paying attention. He could barely focus on anything. His nerve endings seemed to have come alive; they almost jangled with anticipation. He was going to see Louis. And Louis was considering options. Whatever else, he had that. Harry could almost feel the miles between them shrinking, as if they were at two ends of some invisible elastic thread.

“Gems?”

“Yes?”

Harry swallowed. “Don’t let me miss this flight.”

His sister was nothing if not determined. They queue-jumped, sped up the inside lane, broke the speed limit and scanned the radio for the traffic reports, and finally the airport came into view. She screeched to a halt and I was halfway out of the car before Harry heard her.

“Hey! Hazza!”

“Sorry.” He turned back and ran the few steps to her.

She hugged him really tightly. “You’re doing the right thing,” she said. She looked almost close to tears. “Now fuck off. If you miss the bloody plane on top of me getting six points on my licence, I’m never talking to you again.”

Harry didn’t look back. He ran all the way to the Air France desk and it took him three goes to say his name clearly enough to request his tickets.

He arrived in Paris shortly before midnight. Given the late hour, Mrs. Tomlinson had, as promised, booked him into a hotel at the airport and said she would send a car for him at nine the following morning. Harry had thought he wouldn’t sleep, but he did – an odd, heavy and disjointed trawl through the hours – waking up at seven the next morning with no idea where he was.

Harry stared groggily around the unfamiliar room, at the heavy burgundy drapes, designed to block out light, at the large flat-screen television, at his overnight bag, which he hadn’t even bothered to unpack. He checked the clock, which said it was shortly after seven France time. And as he realized where he was, he suddenly felt his stomach clench with anxious anticipation.

Harry scrambled out of bed just in time to be sick in the little bathroom. He sank down on the tiled floor, his hair sticking to his forehead, cheek pressed against the cold porcelain. He heard his mother’s voice, her protests, and felt a dark fear creeping over him. Was he up to this? He didn’t want to fail again. He didn’t want to have to watch Louis die. With an audible groan, he scrambled up to be sick again.

Harry couldn’t eat. He managed to swallow down a cup of black coffee and showered and dressed, and that took him to 8 AM. He stared at the pale-green blouse he had thrown in last night and wondered if it was appropriate for the potential importance of this appointment. Would everyone think Loui wouldn’t change his mind? Should he have worn something more vibrant and alive, like the suit Louis liked? He finally fixed his hair and then sat down by the window, the minutes ticked slowly past.

Harry didn’t think he had ever felt lonelier in his life.

When he couldn’t bear being in the little room any longer, Harry  threw the last of his things into a bag and left. He would buy a newspaper, and wait in the lobby. It couldn’t be worse than sitting in his room with the silence or the satellite news channel and the suffocating darkness of the curtains. It was as he was passing reception that he saw the computer terminal, discreetly placed in a corner. It was marked: For Use Of Guests. Please Ask At Reception.

“Can I use this?” He said to the receptionist.

She nodded, and Harry bought an hour’s token. He knew suddenly very clearly who he wanted to speak to. He knew in my gut that he was one of the few people Harry could rely on to be online at this time. He logged on to the chat room and typed on the message board:

Ritchie. Are you there?

Morning, Bee. You’re early today?

Harry hesitated for just a moment before typing:

I am about to begin the strangest day of my life. I’m in Paris.

He knew what it meant. They all knew what it meant. The esteemed doctor and her research had been talked about on the message board for ages. This meant that Louis was considering his other options. Harry typed again.

I’m frightened.

Then why are you there? Isn’t this what you wanted?

Because I can’t not be here. He asked me. I’m in the hotel waiting to go see him.

Harry hesitated, then typed:

I have no idea how this day is going to end.

Oh, Bee.

What do I say to him? How do I change his mind for good?

There was a delay before he typed again. His words appeared on the screen more slowly than usual, as if he were taking great care.

If he’s in Paris, that’s a good sign. He must have read your painstakingly detailed notes and found some hope in them.

Harry felt a huge lump in his throat, and swallowed it. Ritchie was still typing.

It’s not my choice. It’s not the choice of most of us on this board. I love my life, even if I wish it was different. But I understand why your friend might be considering Switzerland. It’s tiring, leading this life, tiring in a way the AB can never truly understand. He seems determined and strong, and getting him to Paris was a huge feat. He may have changed his mind, but he may not have. You don’t have to agree with his ultimate decision. But you do have to be there.

Harry realized he was holding his breath.

Good luck, Bee. And come see me sometime. Things may get a little bumpy for you two afterwards, regardless of what happens. Either way, I could do with a friend like you.

Harry’s fingers stilled on the keyboard. He typed:

I will.

And then the receptionist told him that his car had arrived outside.

Harry didn’t know what he expected – maybe some white building next to a lake, or snow-capped mountains. Perhaps some medical-looking marble frontage with a gold-plated plaque on the wall. What he didn’t expect was to be driven through an industrial estate until he arrived at what looked remarkably like an ordinary house, surrounded by factories and, weirdly, a football pitch. Harry walked across decking, past a goldfish pond, and then he was in.

The woman who opened the door knew immediately who he was looking for. “He is here. Would you like me to show you?”

Harry stalled then. He stared at the closed door, oddly similar to the one he had stood outside in Louis’ annexe all those months ago, and he took a breath. And nodded. They came this far, perhaps the doctors would be able to do tests and tell Louis that he was an excellent candidate for their research.

Harry saw the bed before he saw him; it dominated the room with its mahogany wood, its quaintly flowered quilt and pillows weirdly out of place in that setting. Mr. Tomlinson sat on one side of it, Mrs. Tomlinson on the other.

She looked ghostly pale, and stood up when she saw him. “Harry.”

Lottie was seated on a wooden chair in the corner, bent over her knees, her hands pressed together as if in prayer. She lifted her gaze as Harry walked in, revealing shadowed eyes, reddened with worry, and Harry felt a brief spasm of sympathy for her.

What would he have done if Gemma was in the same situation?

The room itself was light and airy, like an upmarket holiday home. There was a tiled floor and expensive rugs, and a sofa at the end that looked out onto a little garden. Harry didn’t know what to say. It was such a ridiculous, mundane sight, the three of them sitting there, as if they were a family trying to work out where to go sightseeing that day.

Harry turned towards the bed. “So,” He said, bag over his one shoulder, “I’m guessing the room service isn’t up to much?”

Louis’ eyes locked on to Harry’s and despite everything, despite all the fears, the fact that he had thrown up twice, that he felt like he hadn’t slept for a year, Harry was suddenly glad he had come. Not glad, relieved. Like he had excised some painful, nagging part of himself, and given it over.

And then he smiled. It was lovely, his smile – a slow thing, full of recognition. Full of...was that hope?

Not too surprisingly, Harry found himself smiling back. “Nice room.” he said, and immediately realized the idiocy of the remark. Harry saw Lottie close her eyes, and he blushed.

Louis turned towards his mother. “I want to talk to Haz. Is that okay?”

She tried to smile. Harry saw a million things in the way she looked at him then – relief, gratitude, a faint resentment at being shut out of these few minutes, perhaps even a hope that his appearance meant something, that maybe this research might work after all. It might.

“Of course.”

She moved past Harry into the corridor, and as he stood back from the doorway to let her pass, she reached out a hand and touched Harry’s upper arm, just lightly. Their eyes met, and hers softened, so that briefly she looked like someone else entirely, and then she turned away from him.

“Come on, Lotts.” she said, when her daughter made no attempt to move.

Lottie stood slowly and walked out silently, her very back broadcasting her reluctance.

And then it was just Louis.

He was half propped up in the bed, able to see out of the window to his left, where the water feature in the little garden merrily trickled a thin stream of clear water below the decking. On the wall was a badly framed print picture of dahlias. Harry remembered thinking that was a really crummy print to have when you were deciding what path you were taking - in terms of life or death. But it was never that simple.

“So…”

“You’re not going to –”

“I’m not going to try and change your mind again. I’m glad to be in Paris, though. Does that mean you’re going to give me a chance?”

“If you’re here, you accept that these are my choices. This is the first thing I’ve been in control of since the accident.”

“I know.”

And there it was. He knew it, and Harry knew it. They were at an impasse, until the doctors came back with whatever suggestions they might have had.

Do you know how hard it is to say nothing? When every atom of you strains to do the opposite? Harry had practiced not saying anything the whole way from the airport, and it was still nearly killing him. He nodded. When he finally spoke, his voice was a small, broken thing. What emerged was the only thing he could safely say.

“I missed you.”

He seemed to relax then. “Come over here.” And then, when Harry hesitated. “Please. Come on. Right here, on the bed. Right next to me.”

Harry realized then that there was actual relief in his expression. That he was pleased to see him in a way he wasn’t actually going to be able to say. And Harry told himself that it was going to have to be okay.He  would do the thing he had asked for. That would have to be enough.

Harry lay down on the bed beside him and placed his arm across Louis. He rested his head on Louis’ chest, letting his body absorb the gentle rise and fall of it. He could feel the faint pressure of Louis’ fingertips on his back, his warm breath in his hair. Harry closed his eyes, breathing in the scent of him, still the same expensive cedar-wood smell, despite the bland freshness of the room, the slightly disturbing scent of disinfectant underneath. He tried not to think of anything at all. He just tried to be, tried to absorb the man he loved through osmosis, tried to imprint what he had left of him on himself. He did not speak. And then Harry heard his voice. He was so close to him that when he spoke it seemed to vibrate gently through them.

“Hey, Styles.” he said. “Tell me something good.”

Harry stared out of the window at the bright-blue French sky and told him a story of two people. Two people who shouldn’t have met, and who didn’t like each other much when they did, but who found they were the only two people in the world who could possibly have understood each other. And Harry told him of the adventures they had, the places they had gone, and the things he had seen that he had never expected to. He conjured for Louis electric skies and iridescent seas and evenings full of laughter and silly jokes. He drew a world for him, a world far from a French industrial estate, a world in which he was still somehow the person he had wanted to be. He drew the world he had created for Harry, full of wonder and possibility. He let him know a hurt had been mended in a way that he couldn’t have known, and for that alone there would always be a piece of Harry indebted to him. And as he spoke he knew these would be the most important words he would ever say and that it was important that they were the right words, that they were not propaganda.

Harry told him something good.

Time slowed, and stilled. It was just the two of them, Harry murmuring in the empty, sunlit room. Louis didn’t say much. He didn’t answer back, or add a dry comment, or scoff. He nodded occasionally, his head pressed against Harry’s, and murmured, or let out a small sound that could have been satisfaction at another good memory.

“It has been,” Harry told him, “the best six months of my entire life.”

There was a long silence.

“Funnily enough, Haz, mine too. Why do you think we’re here?” He smiled then.

And then, just like that, Harry’s heart broke. His face crumpled, his composure went and he held him tightly and stopped caring that he could feel the shudder of his sobbing body because grief swamped him. It overwhelmed him and tore at his heart and his stomach and his head and it pulled him under, and Harry couldn’t bear it. He honestly thought he couldn’t bear it.

“Don’t, Haz” Louis murmured. Harry felt his lips on his hair. “Oh, please. Don’t. Look at me.”

Harry screwed his eyes shut and shook his head. Hew knew they were in Paris, but surely this wasn’t the end. Louis could change his mind again, or the research wouldn’t work or...

“Look at me. Please.”

Harry couldn’t.

“You’re angry. Please. I don’t want to hurt you or make you –”

“No…” Harry shook his head again. “It’s not that. I don’t want…” His cheek was pressed to his chest. “I don’t want the last thing you see to be my miserable, blotchy face.”

“You still don’t get it, Haz, do you?” Harry could hear the smile in his voice. “This isn’t the end. I read what you had to say in your letter. I read it all a million times. I’m here because I want to try to have a future with you. A future we can both be happy with.”

It took some time for Harry to regain his composure. He blew his nose, took a long deep breath. Finally, he raised himself on his elbow, and looked back at Louis. His eyes, once so long strained and unhappy, looked oddly clear and relaxed.

“You look absolutely beautiful.”

“Funny.”

“Come here.” Louis said. “Right up close to me.”

Harry lay down again, facing him. He saw the clock above the door and had a sudden sense of dread. If they were in Switzerland, time would almost be up. Harry took his arm and wrapped it tightly around himself, threading his own arms and legs around him so that we were tightly entwined. Harry took his hand – the good one – and wrapped his fingers in his, kissing the knuckles as he felt him squeeze back. Louis’ body was so familiar to him now. He knew it in a way he had never known Nick’s – its strengths and vulnerabilities, its scars and scents. Harry placed his face so close to his that his features became indistinct, and he began to lose himself in them. He stroked Louis’ hair, his skin, his brow, with his fingertips, tears sliding unchecked down his cheeks, his nose against his, and all the time he watched silently, studying Harry intently as if he were storing each molecule of him away.

Harry kissed him, trying to bring him back to the present, to what they were going to work on. He kissed him and let his lips rest against his so that their breath mingled and the tears from his eyes became salt on his skin, and Harry told himself that, somewhere, tiny particles of Louis would become tiny particles of him, ingested, swallowed, alive, perpetual. Harry wanted to press every bit of himself against Lou. He wanted to will something into him. He wanted to give him every bit of life he felt and give him the hope that they would be okay.

Harry realized he was afraid of living without him.

So Harry held him, Louis Tomlinson, ex-City whiz kid, ex-stunt diver, sportsman, traveler, lover. He held him close and said nothing, all the while telling him silently that he was loved. Oh, but he was loved.

Harry couldn’t say how long they stayed like that. He was dimly aware of soft conversation outside, of the shuffle of shoes, a distant church bell ringing in some far-off place. Finally, he felt him loosen a great breath, almost a shudder, and he drew his head back just an inch so that they could see each other clearly.

Harry blinked at him.

He gave Harry a small smile, almost a smirk.


“Haz” he said, quietly. “Can you call everyone back in?”

Chapter Text

Harry was just following instructions.

He sat in the shadow of the dark-green cafe awning, staring down the length of the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, the tepid sun of a Parisian autumn warming the side of his face. In front of him the waiter had, with Gallic efficiency, deposited a plate of croissants and a large cup of filter coffee. A hundred yards down the street two cyclists stopped near the traffic lights and struck up a conversation. One wore a blue backpack from which two large baguettes poked at odd angles. The air, still and muggy, held the scents of coffee and patisserie and the acrid tang of someone’s cigarettes.

Harry finished Gemma’s letter (she would have called, she said, but she couldn’t afford the overseas charges). She had come top of her year in Accountancy 2 and had a new boyfriend, Devon, who was trying to work out whether to work for his dad’s import-export business outside Heathrow and had even worse taste in music than she did. Violet was dead excited about moving up a class at school. Robin was still going great guns at his job, and sent his love. Gems was pretty confident that Mum would forgive him for their row soon. She definitely got your letter, she said. I know she read it. Give her time.

He took a sip of his coffee, briefly transported to Renfrew Road, and a home that seemed a million miles away. He sat and squinted a little against the low sun, watching a woman in sunglasses adjust her hair in the mirror of a shop window. She pursed her lips at her reflection, straightened up a little, and then continued her path down the road.

Harry put down the cup, took a deep breath, and then picked up the other letter, the letter that he had carried around with him for almost six months now. It was at the start of Louis’ treatment. Harry wanted to stay in Paris, but Louis insisted that he go back and work on school - talking a few times a week to get updates on one another’s lives. It had been six months since they had last seen one another. Harry hadn’t expected to hear anything from Louis after a recent surgery, but when Jay had called explaining how Louis needed him to come to Paris, of course Harry came running. Louis always had a flair for the dramatics.

On the front of the envelope, in typed capitals, it said, under his name:

ONLY TO BE READ IN THE CAFE MARQUIS, RUE DES FRANCS BOURGEOIS, ACCOMPANIED BY CROISSANTS AND A LARGE CAFE CREME.

Harry had laughed, even as he wept, on first reading the envelope – typical Louis, bossy even when he wasn’t around.

The waiter – a tall, brisk man with a dozen bits of paper sticking out of the top of his apron – turned back and caught his eye. All okay? his raised eyebrows said.

“Yes,” Harry said. And then, a little self-consciously, “Oui.”

The letter was typewritten. Harry recognized the font from a card Louis had sent long ago. He settled back in his chair, and  began to read.

Hazza,

A few weeks will have passed by the time you read this (even given your newfound organizational skills, I doubt the doctors will have done anything until early December). I hope the coffee is good and strong and the croissants fresh and that the weather is still nice enough to sit outside on one of those metallic chairs that never sit quite level on the pavement. It’s not bad, the Marquis. The steak is also good, if you fancy coming back for lunch. And if you look down the road to your left you will hopefully see L’Artisan Parfumeur where, after you read this, you should go and try the scent called something like Papillons Extrême (can’t quite remember). I always did think it would smell great on you.

Okay, instructions over. There are a few things I wanted to say and would have told you in person, but a) you would have got all emotional and b) you wouldn’t have let me say all this out loud. You always do talk too much.

So here it is: the check you got in the initial envelope from Michael Lawler was not the full amount, but just a small gift, to help you through your first weeks of unemployment, and to get you settled back in England.

When you get back, take this letter to Michael in his London office and he will give you the relevant documents so you can access an account he has set up for me in your name. This account contains enough for you to buy somewhere nice to live and to pay for your degree course and your living expenses while you are in full-time education. Don’t fight me on this - you can’t stay in Paris even if I do for a while longer.

My parents will have been told all about it. I hope that this, and Michael Lawler’s legal work, will ensure there is as little fuss as possible.

Haz, I can practically hear you starting to hyperventilate from here. Don’t start panicking, or trying to give it away – it’s not enough for you to sit on your arse for the rest of your life. But it should buy you your freedom, both from that claustrophobic little town we both call home, and from the kind of choices you have so far felt you had to make.

I’m not giving the money to you because I want you to feel indebted to me at all.

I’m giving you this because there is not much that makes me happy any more, but you do.

I am conscious that knowing me has caused you pain, and grief, and I hope that one day when you are less angry with me and less upset you will see not just that I could only have done the thing that I did, but also that this will help you live a really good life, a better life, than if you hadn’t met me.

You’re going to feel uncomfortable in your new world for a bit. It always does feel strange to be knocked out of your comfort zone. But I hope you feel a bit exhilarated too. Your face when you came back from diving that time told me everything; there is a hunger in you, Styles. A fearlessness. You just buried it, like most people do.

I’m not really telling you to jump off tall buildings, or swim with whales or anything (although I would secretly love to think you were), but to live boldly. Push yourself. Don’t settle. Wear those stripy legs with pride. Knowing you still have possibilities is a luxury. Knowing I might have given them to you has alleviated something for me.

So this is it. You are scored on my heart, Styles. You were from the first day you walked in, with your ridiculous clothes and your bad jokes and your complete inability to ever hide a single thing you felt. You changed my life so much more than this money will ever change yours.

I want you to live well, and I want it to be with me, if the doctor’s allow it. If something should happen to me in that surgical room, just know I love you a million times more than you could ever know.

Love,

Louis

A tear had plopped onto the rickety table in front of Harry. He wiped at his cheek with his palm, and put the letter down on the table. It took him some minutes to see clearly again.

“Another coffee?” said the waiter, the voice sounding oddly familiar

Harry blinked at him. His eyes adjusted to the light, and there was Louis sitting across from Harry in the same rickety metal chair. Niall was right behind him.

“Don’t freak out.” Louis warned, watching the change in Harry’s face. He wasn’t in his wheelchair, and certainly was holding himself upright. “The doctors are going to have my head for this.” He mumbled, knowing full well the physical therapists didn’t want him to push his limits too much. Louis had already regained strength in his arms and back, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

“How...how…” Harry stumbled over his words.

“I’ll explain later. I know I said a lot in that letter, but I have one more thing.” Louis stated.

All Harry could do was nod.

“You’ve already made me the happiest man in France by being here.” Harry could feel the squeeze of Louis’ fingers around his hand - nothing short of a miracle. “Will you make me the happiest man on Earth, and marry me Harry?” His voice was careful, nervous.

The tears that now sprung from Harry’s eyes had nothing to do with sadness. He couldn’t speak.

“Come on now, Styles. I convinced Niall to sneak me out of the hospital for this. I’m risking life and limb and you don’t have an answer, love?”

“Well who could say no to that?”