"What's that?" asked Liam. He reached out to touch.
"Don't," Louis said, jerking away, shocked back without knowing why.
"It's really bruised, jesus," said Liam, "it looks pretty bad, Lou - are you and Harry - well, are you safe? Because-"
"Good god, Liam," said Louis, "it's just a couple of - oh."
He'd turned to look at himself in the mirror, and, well. He could see why Liam looked the way he did. It wasn't "just a couple of" fading marks, it was red angry bruises, all along one shoulder blade, and - as Louis turned the other way - all along the other, as well.
Vivid scarlet, even, some - nothing like the way Harry handled Louis, even on their kinkier nights.
"Harry - we didn't do that," Louis said, blankly.
"Who did," Liam demanded, suddenly angry, but there was no one to be angry at, was the thing.
"I don't know," Louis said. He reached back to touch, and winced. They hurt, like bruises were supposed to.
After the concert that night, Harry was drowsy in Louis' arms. They were all silent on the ride back to the hotel, the post-show high wearing off, all a little softer, a little tired, a little more contemplative. Liam was still shooting Louis suspicious looks, but Louis had ordered him to leave it. Football, he'd said, or something.
He shifted in his seat, and Harry's curls brushed against his chin, and Louis felt an aching in the muscles of his back, quite apart from the outer dullness of the bruising. Aching like they would if he'd been running miles without training, without stopping, but these were the muscles of his back, his shoulders.
He got out as soon as the car pulled to a stop, kissing the top of Harry's head, pulling him gently to his feet. He needed to lie sprawled out on his stomach somewhere, or he'd start wreaking Louis-shaped havoc.
Harry came obediently, soft-edged and wiping sleep from his eyes, and tilted his head to place it on Louis' shoulder. Even that slightest pressure hurt where it pushed gently on the muscles, where it was aching the most, but Louis didn't push him away - wouldn't, not after doing it all day, many days.
"Night, lads," Niall murmured, and Liam nodded, still looking worried, but Louis managed a smile, lifted one of Harry's pliant arms to wave at them floppily.
"Bye, Tommo," Zayn said, quieter, brushing his arm with Louis' as he passed, and Louis wrested an urge to call him back, whisper, Zayn, this isn't normal, and I don't want to tell my boy. Zayn, I don't want to make him frown more than he usually does. Zayn, I'm a bit scared, fix it for me, please. But Zayn was already walking to his room, and Louis could only manouver himself and Harry into theirs.
"Night, Lou," Harry said, voice gravelly, half asleep on his side as soon as he hit the covers.
"Night, kitten," Louis told him, stretching himself slowly out onto his front, one arm draped across Harry's side.
He thought he'd fall asleep slowly, maybe stare at the fragile peace of Harry's eyelids and think some, but he was out too, before he could remember to worry, and that was good.
Six hours later, on the first of August 2014, Louis Tomlinson was twenty-two, waking up in a hotel room somewhere in Georgia, and one of his wings was spread over Harry's legs up till Harry's chest, a breathing blanket.
Literally, because it shifted ever so slightly with Louis' breaths, the tips of the feathers trembling like in a breeze. Louis watched the grey of his wing against Harry's cream skin for a bit, then Harry was waking up.
"Hi," he mumbled, crusty-eyed and beautiful, Louis' boy. "It's really warm. It's lovely."
"Thanks," Louis said, "grew 'em myself," and Harry huffed a happy sound, the sound Harry did when Louis wasn't funny but he was amused anyway. He lifted his fingers so that they trailed over the feathers. They both watched as the wing moved slightly under Harry's touch, like a contented cat, a rippling purr.
"They're lovely," he said again. "You're so lovely."
Louis had to kiss him, then. He got up off his tummy and braced himself over Harry, wings touching the edges of the bed, over them and around them like a cocoon. He kissed him soft and pleased and wandering, until Niall banged on their door and shouted, "Breakfast!"
Louis learned to inch in his wings in front of the mirror, didn't like the way they folded into him, releasing a sigh of relief as he breathed them out again and they opened, wonderfully large, so strong, power thrumming in each fibre, every cell.
Harry took his hand and said, "Let's go," so Louis went down for breakfast, inching them in again.
Later, they were gathered in Liam's room, and Louis said, "So, ground rules - no pulling, no washing, and definitely no ruffling."
"Jesus fuck, will you just get on with it already," said Niall, leaning forward.
Harry swiped a thumb over Louis' wrist, and Louis unfurled them, his wings. He didn't need to see them to know how they were taking up a large portion of the room, huge, beating steady, his.
There was a silence.
"I can't-" said Liam, "see them," and he sounded disappointed, big brown eyes even wider, not disbelieving at all, and that somehow was what made Louis worry, that he and Harry were having a shared hallucination, that the flight he could feel in the muscles of his wings was chemical equations, cells and drugs. Niall was nodding, lip caught between his teeth, and Louis' eyes met Zayn's, because Zayn wouldn't, not to him, not about this.
Zayn looked back at him, steady and undoubting, but he couldn't see them, that much was clear.
But Harry, who the right wing had draped over gently, along his back, said, "Feel them, then," and he was dragging Niall's hand towards the grey down, and Niall's face was slowly changing, incredulous delight.
The feathers curled almost warily away at first, a second or two, then seemed to recognize Niall, and Liam after him. Even with Zayn, there was a moment of hesitation, but Zayn was gentle, careful, and the ripple which welcomed him was almost like the one which greeted Harry, except Harry's was different, molecule-deep and familiar, like hello, missed you.
When Niall was saying something excitedly to Liam, Harry listening and nodding in agreement, Zayn said, "It's only him, then? Who can see them."
"Yeah," said Louis, "only him."
Zayn quirked a smile at him, an affectionate proud smile. "They're gorgeous, Lou," he said.
"You can't see them, though," Louis said.
"They're different kinds of grey, aren't they?" Zayn asked. "Like owl feathers, like the sea when it's stormy. They're gorgeous."
Louis nodded, and caught at Zayn's blue sleeve, with all the words, with the leaking relief. He didn't need wings to touch him.
Harry turned to him, then, as if he'd felt the spilled-over emotion.
Which he probably had, as Louis' wing hadn't shifted away from Harry all this time, was probably transmitting vague Louis dust motes to Harry, messy and constant.
Louis liked the idea, didn't want to ask Harry about it, was going to keep it.
He smiled at his boy, and Harry, reassured, turned back.
Louis didn't know what they were for.
He knew what wings, per say, were for - flying, but he couldn't, at least not yet. There were times when he felt like he was about to - post-show, or deep inside Harry, when he could swear that he was there, that knife-point of freedom, but it was gone, quick, tumbling down the wrong edge when he blinked, or moved too fast.
He went out on the roofs of the buildings on starry nights and full moons and tried to breathe in and grasp it again, but it didn't work, when he was calm like that. And besides, he missed Harry most on nights like those, so he went back inside to him, listened to him murmur slow and rough, tangled his hands in his hair, loved him fiercely and achingly and constant and all-consuming.
So no, Louis didn't know what they were for. He'd die before he parted with them, though.
It was - like. Before this, Louis had felt so defenseless, unable to protect his boy from the world, which was cruel; mocking and fickle. Wings didn't do much, in the grand scheme of hiding HarryandLouis from the world, but they seemed to comfort Harry a bit more at night, could curl around him possessively when Louis was feeling particularly frustrated.
And it wasn't much, but it was enough.
Sometimes they came out when Louis was angry, especially in Those Meetings, the ones that ended up with Harry in LA for a few days or so, inking his skin in retaliation for the miles. It wasn't what they were made for, but Louis knew that one swipe could knock them all down.
Harry usually reached around Louis' chair to rub the back of his hand along the feathers, or tangled his leg with Louis' under the table, and it'd get better, a bit.
After those meetings, when he had something to do with El, he never got around to telling her. It wasn't that he didn't trust her, or anything - she was quite a good friend now - it just didn't feel like it was something she'd be able to grasp.
Like how the color of Harry's toothbrush was always that brighter shade of orange, something Louis could trawl entire supermarkets for, something so insignificant but crazy important to the both of them, except on a slightly larger, more feathery scale. She wouldn't get it, and Louis got that.
He had a strong feeling the feathers would shrink away from her anyway, as Harry-twined as they were.
They unfurled when Harry was sad, too, unconsciously, to wrap around him, to shelter them both, a cocoon of grey. And when Harry was happy, because it made Louis happy. And sometimes during a show, Louis would get lost in the lyrics and would open his eyes to see Harry staring adoringly at him, eyes fixed somewhere along his back. And then during sex, which, fucking hell, because combined with the power vibrating in his veins and the noises Harry made whenever they brushed over the shell of his ear, or the tip of his dick, everything was kind of hyped up and amazing.
A few months after that, they started talking about coming out.
They hadn't meant to, and it wasn't anything dramatic.
It was just that Louis had accidentally kissed Harry on the corner of his mouth one too many times or the other when a camera had gone off, or Harry had stared at Louis like he was the moon a few seconds to long than for it to be remotely plausible that they were Just Mates anymore, and a lot of people in suits had thrown up their hands and started thinking about damage control.
Harry got a tattoo that day, a tiny feather, inked on a shoulderblade.
"You know what color your wings are?" he asked conversationally, on his stomach at the tattoo parlor, while Louis played absentmindedly with the fingers of one dangling hand and flipped through some designs.
"No, baby," he said. "What?"
Harry smiled dreamily down at Louis. He always got like this before a tat, what the boys called his fuckin needle high.
"They're like - they're like," and Louis let him think for a bit. They had time.
"They're like the smoke in the night air of the barbecue at Robin's house, and they're like your eyes sometimes right before you shout, and they're the sleeve of the hoodie you were wearing when you told me your name. They're, they're. They're the grey of our nursery ceiling, perhaps, so our daughter can look up and feel - encompassed, safe."
Harry paused, contented dimple eating at his cheek.
"They're the color of the ceiling when we fuck without the lights on and everything's slow and hazy and delicious. They're the thunderstorm which cancelled that flight to Vancouver, remember? The night you let me curl up and fall sleep in the airport seats even though you couldn't because it was too uncomfortable for you. They're the soap suds from your football jersey. They're brighter than the flash left in my eyes from the stage lights, and they're the way my hands move when I can't touch you on stage, and, Lou, they're also how I feel now, because I'll be able to."
Louis surged up and kissed him.
"Love you," he managed.
The tattoo artist probably thought they were high, or just weird, because he started work, ignoring the words they were muffling into each other's skin.
Later, they talked to the boys.
"This is gonna fuck shit up," Louis told them bluntly.
Harry, always quieter, more placating, said, "It'll be pretty bad, sometimes."
The truth was, they'd had this conversation, a few times before, and it always ended the same way.
Niall shrugged, and clasped them both into a bone-crushing embrace, grasping tight at Louis' wing, always steady and wonderful, that was Niall. "Lads," he said, "I'm so fuckin' proud, it's been too long."
Liam said, "We know that," and, "and we also know that it's gonna be worth every second," which, god, had Harry wrapping his arms around his neck and nearly strangling him, even had Louis tearing up a bit.
There was a soft happy sigh-like feeling from the general direction of his right wing, and he could see the feathers doing that contented feline ripple where Zayn was stroking them. He didn't need to say anything. Louis nodded back.
The day Louis and Harry came out was the day Louis learned how to fly.
Harry was on the floor, long limbs huddled in, on twitter, scrolling through his mentions and pausing longer over the hate, the vitriol, because as much as he'd needed this, it had always bothered him, what people thought. Had always made him hunch a little smaller, bite his lower lip a little harder.
It had used to bother Louis too, but then he'd grown wings.
So Louis went over, dug the phone away. He glanced at it briefly, to the tweet Harry'd had opened up: "faGGOTS omg. totally called it !!!! @Harry_Styles @Louis_Tomlinson do i get a prize ??!!?", placed it on the bedside table, then took his hand. He brought him up the fire escape.
They looked out upon the sprawling skyline of the city they were in - last leg of tour, Berlin - and amidst the uproar in a lot of people's heads and the headlines being rushed and approved all over the world, Louis unlocked the birdcage, and his wings thrummed with readiness, with flight.
They were actually humming, a sort of birdsong, the not-quite tune of the low pleased sounds Harry made when he was cooking, or in the car before a show. A low vibration of energy, of jittery molecules.
He was holding Harry's hand, and they rose through the sticky humid morning, to something cooler, rushing across their skin, settling fizzy into their veins.
Harry laughed, ecstatic and flying, a moth, a sparrow, a thousand breaths of helium - he laughed, and Louis paused in midair to look at the shine of his eyes, the outstretched line of his throat, and thought, oh.
He thought, so this is what they're for.