It's a long night full of hiccups and tears. Harry refuses to make phone calls, and a pang of guilt seizes him when he sees Liam Payne's eyes well up with tears as he holds the phone away from his ear in a poor attempt to shield himself from Jay's tears. She asks for Harry, but he refuses to talk to her, doesn't want to explain that he saw her son fall apart and crumble in front of his eyes and did nothing to save him.
The families trickle in, Zayn's sisters, bare faces devoid of make-up, looking tiny and scared. They hug him like he's a lifeguard and not a culprit, and they plant kisses on Liam's cheeks – he hugs them too tight but they don't seem to mind, muffle choked sobs in his neck before straightening their shoulders and breathing in deeply. "Let's go in," they say with a tiny voice, and always startle when they see Zayn, pale and ugly in the harsh hospital light.
Harry knows he should go check on Louis – Jay isn't there yet – but he can't quite bring himself to do it, can't shake the anger off his skin and go sit next to him, take his hand and wait for him to wake up. He can't be quiet and caring, not now, this isn't him, and the white walls and the thick, metallic scent aren't either, the blood coating his fingers.
"I want to leave," he says to Liam Payne.
Liam Payne looks down at him with broken eyes, and for one second Harry thinks he's going to say no, but he nods. "Okay," he says, his voice small.
They slip through the doors and into the night, unnoticed. Jay's car drives by them, and Harry sees Lottie and Phoebe leaning against each other, wide eyes red with tears, hissing what he can imagine are little strangled cries, small and kittenish.
"Faster," he urges, and Liam Payne obeys, his foot crushing the accelerator. The nightlights flash on the side of the road, trying to blind them. Harry tries to fight back the tears and the fragmented whimpers. There's a tinge of bronze dawn at the edge of the sky.
The silence descends on them like a blanket made of lead.
Harry feels drained when they reach his dorm. He thinks about his cold bed and the remnants of Louis and Zayn's pathetic tragedy on his carpet, the blood and everything that they broke, and he thinks about making tea in his kitchen tomorrow morning and breaking down in tears, because he knows himself and he knows he can't take it. The noise of the engine dies quietly. The night floods them. Harry doesn't get out of the car.
Despite everything Harry says, Liam Payne isn't an idiot, and he doesn't ask anything, doesn't do anything, lets the silence drag on, only broken by their labored breathing. Harry feels like the night is strangling him, a quiet, terrifying agony. His lungs are filling with molten steel.
And it's really the only thing he can do with all this slimy mess in his chest – the sadness and the tears and the anger and everything else, everything else that brews and never gets out, his mother's fingers on his forehead and the grief that doesn't go away and will I save them and will I save him and I could have saved her and will I save myself –; he doesn't think about it, just hooks his fingers at the base of Liam Payne's neck, grip tight enough to make it hurt, and pulls him in. It's the only way he can deal.
And he knows he isn't the only one who's angry when Liam's tongue thrusts into his mouth, and he feels absurdly elated by it, suddenly turned on to the point of bursting. Liam Payne – he isn't as much of a good boy as he likes to make people think he is, Harry knew that, but there’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the proof right there, hot beneath his palm.
Liam doesn't need to be asked when Harry pulls away and starts the car almost instantly, knuckles white from gripping the wheel too hard. The only thing Harry can think when he catches sight of his clenched teeth is, glorious. He doesn't feel guilty. He doesn't want to feel guilty ever again.
He lets his hand slip on the seat and slide across Liam's thigh. His shiver makes the car veer with a screech, and a sort of bubbly elation – danger and recklessness – soars in Harry's chest. Yes, he thinks, this is it. But this isn't it – the two of them, it will never be it, at best a pale parody or the frantic desperation of the not enough. Harry decides that he doesn't care.
He drags the zipper down very slowly, his dick already straining against the material of his trousers, rough and painful. He sucks his bottom lip into his mouth as he slips his hand inside Liam's boxers and seizes his cock, making Liam groan, something low and rumbling at the back of his throat, that Harry's never heard before. It sounds like music.
"Fuck," Liam Payne says, and for once he sounds unapologetic.
The night is aflame in front of them, red and blazing. Harry wonders how it would look if they crashed into a wall, the long flames lapping at the asphalt and dragging them into nothingness.
But he isn't crazy, not yet, so he settles for leaning against Liam's tense shoulder and whispering in his ear, filthy nothings he doesn't think about, that slip out of his mouth before he even has the time to check if they're true. "You want me to suck you off, don't you, Liam Payne... you want me to suck you off so hard that you won't even be able to think, and then you want to fuck me into the mattress and make me beg, is that right, don't you, Liam Payne..."
He isn't so clumsy usually, but Liam makes these noises, high and desperate, and it sounds like he's enjoying this, so Harry doesn't search further. He doesn't care. Tonight he doesn't care. Caring exhausts him. He's through with it. He's through with everything.
(He spares a fleeting thought for his violin that he's left in the dorm, lying forgotten on the floor of his room, the scent of blood and pain sinking into the golden wood.)
"Are we there yet?" he asks in Liam's neck as he pulls over, and Liam grunts something that must be a yes since Harry sees his dorm, looking gloomy and sinister in the half-moonlight.
He gets his fingers out of Liam's jeans and doesn't smile when Liam makes some sort of desperate noise, embarrassingly hard. He doesn't even have the time to close the door that Liam is all over him, pressing him against the hood of the car and rubbing their crotches together like an over-enthusiastic teenager. Harry can't help but buck up into it, and he bites at Liam's shoulder, hard, letting a small smile spread on his lips when Liam visibly winces.
The cold is seeping into his skin and Harry could easily use something more comfortable to be crushed against than this, especially if he's going to bottom, which by the looks of it is definitely happening, so he bites down on Liam's bottom lip to get his attention, not bothering to be gentle. This isn't about gentle.
"Inside," he orders, and Liam nods mutely, his pupils blown almost entirely. He's hotter than he's ever been, at least to Harry, with his rumpled clothes and set jaw, dark eyes burning with determination and something else that Harry doesn't want to get into.
They clamber up the stairs blindly, groping at each other, desperate for flesh under their fingers and heat beneath their mouths, nails raking backs and hair. Harry is being eaten alive by the hunger, but it isn’t painful, it just feels like the best ending he could ever get, consumed by this fire that doesn’t belong to him. He hurls himself at Liam while he tries to insert the key into the keyhole, and Liam falls against the door with a thud, hissing a loud groan when his head connects with the hard surface. Harry doesn't even pretend to be apologetic.
When Liam finally manages to open the door, he hooks his fingers into the collar of Harry’s shirt and drags him in, sniggering under his breath when Harry's foot catches in the rug and he stumbles, bones clinking when one of his knees hit the floor. Harry doesn't like being here, kneeling, his skin scraped and hurting, but the low thrum in his stomach says otherwise. Resistance is futile, he thinks, and he wants to laugh but it's not funny. He gives in.
Liam seems surprised by the fingers curling around his hip, and a strangled noise escapes his lips as he stumbles forward, pelvis almost hitting Harry's nose. Harry's fingers are shaking as he pulls Liam's trousers down along his thighs, not from nervousness, more from something like anticipation. Liam has goosebumps, Harry realizes as he drags his fingers along a vein on his calf. Time stutters to a halt; Liam sighs softly – everything seems to be forgiven.
But of course it doesn't last (they're never forgiven) and it all starts back in earnest, the blood thumping in their ears, their hearts pounding as though they were going to explode, any moment now, time bombs firmly rooted in their chests, doing more damage than anything else.
Harry looks up at Liam (the rug is drawing tiny symbols in the skin of his knees, maybe Arabic characters), his pupils blown. "You owe me one," he says.
Liam stares back at him, hard and unblinking. He doesn't answer, instead threads his fingers in the wisps of hair at Harry's nape and pulls him in, pressing his face against his crotch. Harry struggles against the iron grip, half for show.
"Come on," Liam growls. Harry wants to praise him and shake him and hurt him. He should be like that all the time, he thinks, but he's not sure it's what he wants.
He obeys anyway, pulls Liam's dick out of his boxers, red and swollen, and gives a nasty lick at the head. He doesn't want it to be good – he wants it to hurt. He always wants it to hurt. He's just lucky that tonight it's what Liam Payne wants too. (That's the taste of luck – the sick green of the hospital walls and the bitter, salty stench of precome.)
He wastes no time in taking him whole in his mouth, and Liam releases an angry sigh, teeth clanging from above. The crimson dawn is filtering through the blinds, leaking blood. It's not even a good blowjob, messy and sloppy and too angry, too rushed to be good, but Liam thrusts into Harry's mouth like there's no tomorrow, holding him down with clenched fingers, his nails sinking into Harry's flesh, and it's something. It's something.
This time Harry doesn’t hesitate before swallowing when Liam comes with an aborted shout, hips stuttering that Harry holds in place with long, claw-like fingers, but possibly it's just for the unpleasant taste and the wince that he can't suppress, another way of hurting them both in the process. He feels like he'll have failed if any of this is anything more than painful.
Liam hauls him up, his hands curled on Harry's biceps, and suddenly they're face to face, panting heavily at each other. For a second it's like Liam's surprised to see him, as though he expected someone else to have been down there all along, sucking his cock with desperate franticness, and Harry can't find it in him to be hurt. It's how it is. It's enough – or it isn't, but he'll take it anyway, because it's better than anything else he could have had right now, better than his tear-stained pillows or than Louis's bedside, crying and angry and wishing he were somewhere else.
Liam kisses him, and Harry can't discern if he's doing it out of a twisted sense of obligation or if he really wants to feel the taste of his own come on Harry's tongue, possibly just to make sure that it really was him. There is something odd about this being the two of them – maybe Harry's not the only one to feel that anyone else would've made more sense than them. But they don't need to make sense for that.
He tells himself to stop thinking and dives into the kiss headfirst, trying to map every corner and nook of Liam's mouth. Suddenly it feels like an entire universe, like there are so many things to discover in this damp heat (there aren't), and Harry gladly forgets everything that isn't it to immerse himself in feeling. He's tired of thinking, to be honest.
They're both panting when they break the kiss, and Harry feels against his hip that Liam's hard again, his erection digging painfully in Harry's skin. Liam flushes. Harry smirks. His hands are up under Liam's T-shirt that he for some reason hasn't taken off, splayed against the hot skin of his back. They're both sweating. It isn't entirely bad.
If it were anyone else, Harry would probably ask what they want. (He asked Caroline, and she laughed against his neck, said, "You'll figure it out," with sparkling eyes, wet and hot against his thigh.) He doesn't ask Liam. Liam wouldn't know what he wanted even if Harry asked. He probably never asks – probably only takes when he's like that, lost between dusk and dawn and tired and unhappy.
If he had to say something, it would probably be, "Take," but he doesn't say that either. Instead he digs his nails into Liam's flesh and claws at his back as though he were trying to tear him in two, to open him and rummage inside, in the dark and wet redness of his alien body. Liam's breath catches in his throat. Harry smiles and moves closer, pressing until there isn't any closer, only a more.
"More," Liam says in his ear, tight and furious.
"No," Harry answers.
He gives more, and he will give more, and he says that just to be contrary, but it feels good and Liam leans in again to kiss him, scraping his teeth against his bottom lip with something that feels like intent. Harry claws harder, and catches the hem of the T-shirt to pull it off, suddenly frantic. They stand face to face with bare chests, feeling strangely vulnerable. Harry still doesn't know what the room looks like (he can imagine it – tidy tame furniture and a perfectly-made bed, with a clock somewhere in a corner and lots of books, maybe a picture of his parents and something that suggests piano, an edge of flair that isn't his and the memory of talentless love), but he isn't sure if he really cares.
"Strip," he says, his eyes probably wider than they should be.
Liam doesn't say anything, doesn't say no but doesn't strip either. They look at each other like enemies, ready to lunge.
It seems to take an eternity before Liam finally slips a finger between his shirt and his chest. The first button unhooks with a deafening plop that makes Harry's eardrums shake. Liam shimmies his hips and his pants fall on the ground with a rustle. He steps cleanly out of them, sending them a forlorn look that suggests that he wants to pick them up and fold them. His boxers are tented. Harry looks at him with something that's half hunger and half something else.
"Your turn," says Liam. His voice isn't as steady as Harry's, probably because he couldn't be commanding even if he tried, and especially not like that, now, with open eyes and a clear moonlight hitting his shoulder-blades.
Harry complies anyway. He wants this, for some reason. It's done in a few seconds, and he sheds his underwear too, and then they're face to face again, naked as though in mirror. Liam's boxers are on the floor. Harry sends them under the bed with agile toenails as he steps forward to kiss Liam again, one hand on his neck and the other splayed on his stomach, nails scraping to collect the sweat.
Harry pushes him in the general direction of the bed with both hands on his naked chest. He's more muscled that Harry expected – it's a good surprise. He holds back a chuckle between his teeth; Liam loses his balance and falls half against the hard edge of the bed. He lets out a loud "Ow" but Harry swallows it as he straddles him, elbows on each side of his head. He knows what he wants, and he wants it now. He'll get it. Harry always gets what he wants. (It's always like that in moments like these, too – the crazy desire that races through his veins and the need for egoistical satisfaction, the low thrum of mineminemine that doesn't apply to the person but only to the feeling.)
He spits in his hand and wraps it around both their dicks in a lightning moment, making Liam's hips buck up. Their teeth clang noisily, and Harry laughs into it with an edge of cruel. Liam hisses. Harry jerks them both off, roughly, not entirely pleasurable. It's probably too much to be good, but it's okay for tonight – somehow it feels like the perfect reminder of exactly how much there's at stake, even though there's nothing, not really.
"You have lube?" he asks, and Liam nods jerkily. Harry lets go of their dicks to let him scramble over to his bedside drawer, and he groans a bit at the loss of sensation, his angry-red dick bumping against Harry's stomach as he wriggles ridiculously.
"So," Harry says, voice steady as though he weren't announcing the menu of the night's festivities, "here's what we're gonna do. You're going to finger me, right? And then you're going to stay like this, on your back, and I'll ride you until we both come so hard we won't remember our names."
"We'll figure out the rest tomorrow morning. Okay?" he asks, his lips obscenely red in the half light. His eyes are gleaming with something strangely machiavellian.
"I'll take that as a yes," Harry says, and for some reason it seems to unleash a frenzy in Liam's body. He tugs Harry down brusquely and crashes their lips together as he somehow manages to squirt lube on his fingers one-handed, which is a skill that Harry will have to ask him about sometime when a finger isn't being pushed into his hole.
He swears. It feels halfway to good, but Liam doesn't really seem to care, only pushes another one, too soon, and kisses Harry again and again, probably to shut him up. He bites his lip hard enough that it seems like he wants to draw blood, but Harry's lip doesn't split. Liam draws back, looking strangely guilty, as though his wanting to hurt Harry was only a spur-of-the-moment thing, which Harry knows it wasn't, and crooks his fingers in apology, making Harry hiss and writhe against them wantonly.
"Third," he says, voice tight, body rocking.
It all goes marginally better after that, with less thoughts flashing through Harry's skull and more blinding sparks of pleasure, making his toes curl and his thighs squeeze Liam's hips tighter, his hands trapped between them. Harry's moans echo crudely in the empty room; there's just enough light that Liam must be able to see him, his no doubt red-faced desperation. Harry is past caring.
"Now," he says when he feels open and exposed, grabbing blindly for the condom he's seen Liam retrieve from the bedside drawer. He wants it so bad that he's almost shaking, and Liam's mouth is obstinately clamped shut, as though he was determined not to let one sound cross the barrier of his lips. Of course, it immediately makes Harry want to make him scream. He shoves the resolution at the back of his mind as he tears the wrap open with his teeth. Here we go, he thinks, and he's done this before, enough so that he couldn't count them he tried, but there's always this edge of expectation and wonder mixed with fear that curls at the base of his stomach. It's part of what makes it good.
Liam looks up at him, and for a strange little moment their eyes are locked, no distinguishable colors in the dusk, only the mirrored fierceness of dark, liquid lust. They breathe rhythmically for ten seconds. Harmony, Harry thinks, and he doesn't have time to berate himself for the cheesiness of that thought before he slides on Liam's dick and everything breaks.
They stay still for a moment, panting loudly in the silence that amplifies everything and makes it outrageously obscene. Harry hums tightly through his teeth. A thought flies in one of his ears and out the other, Louis being glorious and golden and happy with salty skin and blood pulsing in the veins of his wrist. He could've thought of anyone else, except not really – but it's gone as soon as it came, and suddenly it doesn't really matter anymore.
He takes a second to adjust to the feeling of being so full before he starts moving. It's slow at first, the torturous slide of skin on skin, and Harry brings his arms up to hook them around Liam's shoulders, pulling him close. There's sweat glistening on the skin at the junction of his neck and jaw, and Harry licks it absent-mindedly, drawing a tiny, broken moan out of Liam. Harry's cock is trapped between their stomachs, leaking and somewhat beautiful in its out-of-place profanity.
He picks up the pace, and soon everything is amplified, the slide and slap and the grunts as Harry digs his teeth into Liam's shoulder and Liam's blunt nails scrap at his back, squeezing a surprised moan out of him. He didn't expect this – but Liam isn't as bad a lover as he could've been, knows how to move his hips in this way that's just the right kind of maddening, knows how to make it good without making it personal. Harry is grateful. He wasn't sure, coming here. It was one of these wild guesses that could've turned awful just as well. He's lucky. It isn't really unusual.
There is a moment when Liam looks up at him at their eyes lock, still moving against each other, lost in the reckless bliss. Liam says, "God, you're beautiful," like it's slipped out of his lips, and looks half-horrified a second after. Harry knows he's beautiful, but it's always something to hear someone say it like that, looking genuinely amazed by it, as though it were a complete discovery now that they have him with flushed cheeks and errant curls grazing his cheeks. He hides a ferocious smile against Liam's ear and gives it a playful nip. He doesn't return the compliment, even if it's true. It would mean something else that he doesn't want to say and that Liam doesn't want to hear.
He knows that Liam won't last a lot longer from the congested look on his face, so he grabs his own dick and starts jerking himself off, trying to coordinate his movements. Liam's hand quickly moves to cover his own – Harry’s strangely grateful for the firm press of his fingers and his sweaty palm against his knuckles. He feels a tiny bit glorious like that, wanton and open, sliding up and down with wet sounds. Each time Liam's cock slides back inside him he can't help but look down and watch, and it's obscene but it's also sort of beautiful, Harry's vision clouding every time it hits his prostate and sends sparks fuzzing all over his body.
The air smells like laundry detergent. It makes Harry want to sneeze, but he doesn't, he holds on, his head white-hot, Liam's hand curled around his limp one. Liam bites his shoulder when he comes, hard, like he wants it to leave an imprint, and it probably will. Harry wonders if there's blood, but it's a little hard to decipher in the jumble of sensations and then he's coming too, jerking in hot white spurts on both their stomachs. He feels boneless and limp, ready to slip into oblivion. Liam is breathing heavily in his shoulder, leaving wet patches on his skin. Harry doesn't mind too much. He takes a second to wonder if he'll stay for the night, but he remembers the apartment, cold and reeking of death, and Liam is too polite to throw him out, even though he probably wants to.
He vaguely feels Liam get up and clean them both up. He thinks to apologize for a second, but his mouth feels slow, and he doesn't really want to. Later, he thinks, and he falls asleep, limbs haphazard and with a fleeting thought for what he looks like, naked and exhausted, spread on Liam Payne's bed.
Life doesn't really change after that.
Harry hadn't expected it to, but he was probably the only one – and that's not because he's special, if for the fact that he's already had something turn his world upside down and leave the others blissfully unaffected. He remembers at his mother's death, when he shrugged off his suit after the funeral (it's one of his most vivid memories about clothes – the way this suit didn't fit him at all, and how he didn't feel old enough to wear it and bear the pain that came with it) – he was so certain that if he came out of his house, he would find the world frozen, black shawls over hunched shoulders, waiting for him to be through with his grief before they resumed with their lives.
But life kept going. It only took a few weeks for people to stop being careful with him, and he hadn't liked it then, their pity and their nauseating goodwill, but he liked it even less now that they pretended that nothing had happened. He wanted to stomp and cry that there wasn't an expiration date for grief – for God's sake, that was his mother in this casket, how could he be expected to get on with his life after that? But he did. He had to, and he did.
Harry observes Liam for a few days after they sleep together. He doesn't suggest a repeat performance, because it was great and Liam would probably say yes but it's not a good idea and it wouldn't do anyone any good. At first, Liam looks like he's waiting for something to blow up, head permanently bent over his books as though he were trying to hide behind them. If Harry were a good person, he would probably go up to him and tell him that it's going to be okay, but he's not, so he doesn't.
The only things about him that have changed are the way he looks at Niall (darker, more feral – but Harry's not even sure he realizes) and that he somehow seems more cruel, less naive. Harry isn't sure if he should feel proud for toughening him or ashamed for spoiling him, whatever there was there for him to spoil. But he's never ashamed and he's too tired to feel proud, so he settles for not feeling anything at all. He's getting pretty good at that.
Zayn and Louis get out of the hospital. It's a hot day when Harry goes to get them, the hesitant beginning of the summer, but they're huddled together as though it were freezing, Louis's head tucked safely in the crook of Zayn's neck, Zayn's hand tight around his waist. Harry is too far to see, but his grip on the wheel tightens, knuckles paling. He wonders if Louis will have finger-shaped bruises on his side tomorrow. He won't look, he swears to himself, but he knows he will.
For a second he wants to steer the wheel of Matt’s car and leave, run as far away as possible from this trainwreck, but he's Harry Styles and there's nothing he's more attracted to than trainwrecks, so he stops in front of them and gestures for them to get inside.
"Hi," Louis says, half-defiantly and half-apologetically.
"Hello," Harry answers curtly. He doesn't want to forgive this – and his anger feels strangely good, simmering in his loins, on beat with the tight heat that makes the sky low and heavy. Zayn doesn't say anything, breathing slowly like he has to focus to remember how to, in, out and trying not to die in between.
The ride home is silent and uneventful. The tension floats between them, not really uncomfortable but not really comfortable either. Louis fidgets guiltily and bites his lip. Harry feels mean, satisfied – he wants to soothe the red swell on Louis's lip with his own, just for the feeling, and it feels strange to say to himself that he can't, because it's not even that Louis is with someone, it's that he belongs, whole-heartedly. Harry is surprised he even finds time to worry about being guilty.
He drives them home but doesn't stay with them, because it's just too much, too much to see them look at each other like that, and share a kiss with dry lips, and hold hands but it all seems wrong – even the way their fingers are laced, too tightly, feels like a fraud. He retreats in his room and tries to ignore Louis's hurt look when he whispers a quick, "Good night". He closes his door and stays there for a second, back straight against the hard surface, just breathing and trying not to think about how they even managed to get back together after what happened.
He tries not to think about life, because he doesn't know what to think. He's not exactly alone, and not exactly empty, skirting at the edges, staring at the outline of what happens. It's not excruciatingly painful, but it doesn't satisfy the hunger nestled in his stomach either. Harry's always been extreme, but in moments like this he feels like just giving up and letting himself be carried by the flow. It can't be that hard – everyone does it, don't they?
He's feeling trapped in his room, knowing that Zayn and Louis are here, a wall away, probably speaking in hushed tones about whatever it is they talk about when they aren't fighting, so he grabs his coat and walks out of his room.
He finds Louis and Zayn in the kitchen, kissing. They're standing a bit apart from each other, their hands reached to touch, Zayn's curled at Louis's nape and at the small of his back, and Louis's cradling his face. It's slow and tender, a kiss that feels like it's two sick men kissing, that feels like convalescence and doctors' blank faces. Harry steps back as though the intimacy had slapped him right across the face.
He runs away.
He thinks indistinctly as he calms down that he should look for another place to live, but he doesn't really want to – maybe he's afraid that he'll lose Louis if he lets him out of his sight, now that he barely looks at him anymore. For some reason he wants to keep breaking with them, hold onto their hushed pain and go down with them. Who knew he was like that, he thinks as he wanders down the halls, feeling numb. The harsh lights blind him. He passes by someone that looks like Liam Payne but really doesn't, with glasses and nothing in his eyes and a book under his arm. Spit gathers in his mouth. He feels sick.
Liam Payne finds him some time after that, still dizzy with images of Zayn and Louis and bare skin brushing, white with old scars, quietly suffocating. He isn't really sure how long he's been here, but a sharp disgust rolls over his tongue as Liam Payne kneels before him – why does he always find him? Can't he have a fucking second alone, without Liam hovering over him, trying to find reasons to everything?
"Are you okay?" Liam asks.
Harry can't really control the way his hands ball into fists.
"No," he spits, saying can't you see and why are you so blind. He wishes Liam Payne would feel things like he does, just for a day, just so that he knows how it feels.
"What's going on?"
And Harry knows that it isn't his fault, but these words aren't the good ones, they're not the words he should say, and it makes Harry so angry – he's not asking for much, but these words are so blatantly wrong, you see? And he knows too, distantly, that Liam has never done anything knowingly, but wasn't he the one who brought Zayn in, who wrecked everything – isn't he the silent, serious-faced devil of this story?
"It's all your fault," he sneers, and it isn't, but it feels good to say it. Why is he even here? What does he want? What is he looking for? Harry despises him for not taking what he wants – he has a lightning thought for Niall, an arm looped around his girlfriend's waist, and he thinks meanly that they deserve each other, Niall with his sunny eyes and Liam with his empty words.
Liam Payne recoils, looking confused but not angry. Harry hurts all over.
"Did something happen?" he asks again, pragmaticality dripping from his words, and Harry wants to say, no, nothing happened – or did it? He doesn't know.
He scrambles to his feet, hating himself when he stumbles; "Go away," he breathes, despising the way his voice is so close to quiet, hoarse and wheezing. Liam Payne looks at him with brown eyes, unremarkable, useless.
"Go away," he says, louder, and when Liam doesn't, he yells, "leave me alone!"
Liam Payne leaves.
Harry cries until his cheeks are fields of salt. He goes back to the apartment to pick his violin up and he sleeps at Aiden's, cheek buried deep in the borrowed pillow, the wood pressing bruises into his chest. He wonders briefly how he can be so unhappy from other people's problems, but then he thinks that he isn't unhappy, and there's tomorrow floating at the surface of his brain, and he's asleep.
Piano, first, a hesitant, growing shiver – and then the violin, quiet, joining in (they took weeks to manage that part – because Liam Payne's piano said I'm here instead of I don't know, and Harry can't help being too ardent, but he must only explode a few seconds later, when the low murmur of the piano trails into silence).
It's a jittery piece, bursts of nervous anxiety. The piano is brooding, dark and low, looks like a man's voice when you listen to it the right way, when you bend to listen to it thrumming in the ground like a quiet earthquake – and the violin is a high-pitched woman, shrill, with explosions that feel like hysterics or bursts of laughter. She's not always on key, on beat, on rhythm, perfectly aligned with the more stable piano, but Harry loves her and his bow slides effortlessly through her bipolar moods, one moment shy and tender like a mother putting her child to bed and then, abruptly, high and flaming. (But what he prefers is when she turns melancholic – there's always the flowing, plaintive hum of distant unhappiness, that fades into bursting joy.)
He feels like he can trace an itinerary, like in every melody, in every piece, every instrument that tunes to another – and maybe this one is a little harder, because there's so much, and you have to lend an ear to really get it, and Harry isn't sure if he even can, if he's old enough or wise enough or whatever it is you have to be to understand music, but it's worth it to understand the story. God, is it worth it.
He'll sit down in front of Liam, put down his violin and sit cross-legged on the floor before him; he'll look up at Liam who's stopped playing too, his arms hanging useless at his sides, and he'll try to explain. He'll say, you see, this – and point at the score, but Liam sees nothing in it, nothing but the dark smudge of his thumb over the instructions, staccato, piano as though it didn't mean agitatedly, tenderly – this is a story, right?
And Liam Payne will look back at him blankly, and Harry will shrug but he'll explain, because he wants him to get it too, because he can't play one half of a love story with the other one not knowing they're in love. He'll say – right, so, there's this man (and mean you), and he loves this woman (me). But she isn't sure, and – (he points, listen) she's restless like a hummingbird, tiny wings flapping at one hundred miles an hour – and he wants to follow her, he wants to love her (you want to love me) but he can't and sometimes she slides out of his grasp and (a violin solo, high notes flying in the air, tearing the skies apart) then she remembers.
(Do you know what remembering is? he wants to ask, but doesn't. Liam Payne looks like someone that doesn't have memories, a slate that cleans itself after every few seconds, blank again, and never really fills, whose remedy for the vicious chalk isn't a slow healing but the low thrum of delete, delete, delete. Harry wants to say, she remembers like London rain – but Liam Payne wouldn't understand.)
And he looks at Liam Payne, jittery, feverish, eyes shining with the frustration of him not understanding, and continues – she wants to be happy, they try to be happy together, but – (have you ever tried being happy, Liam Payne? Do you know just how hard it is?). And there's quiet pain, and quiet joy, and he's there for her, reassuring, the touches light like a slow piano in the background, but sometimes she has nightmares and he struggles to catch up with her.
Almost no time left. They're happy, two bursts of laughter, coordinated, almost identical but not really. Think flowers in gardens and children and sun when you touch your piano, Liam Payne. Then – doubts, maybe, or happiness so hot it burns (he shrugs – he can't always say, but he's an optimist, for him it's a celebration) and something fervent and ecstatic, uncontainable, spilling from all sides in boiling, bubbling flows – a happy ending or the last scene of Moulin Rouge, passion, a curtain falling, and here. It's over.
He looks up at Liam Payne, saying, look. A love story.
But he doesn't really want to see if Liam's understood, so he doesn't look too hard, gathers his violin and leaves, caressing with shaking hands the indents in the wood that are like reminders of all the idylls he drew with his bow, sliding up and down, easy like breathing.
One morning Louis walks into the kitchen with a silver necklace, tiny little circles of steel against his neck. A ring dangles in the crease of his collarbones.
"What's that?" Harry asks, and he regrets the words as soon as they're out of his mouth. He doesn't want to know.
Louis shrugs and pours himself a glass of orange juice. It's a good day, remarks Harry off-handedly, and wonders when he began thinking of good days as the days when ZaynandLouis don't stumble intp the kitchen with teeth marks on their arms and their eyes red from crying.
"Zayn," Louis says, as if that were an answer in itself. It sort of is.
Harry doesn't say anything. The silver gleams mockingly in the sunlight, looking like another scar.
Harry inhales. His collar smells like laundry detergent, and it makes him think of Liam Payne's room for a second, bared teeth pressed against the skin at the small of his back. The shirt is crisp, white, rustles with a papery sound when he moves. Sweat is dampening his brow. The light is low, but Harry knows that it's blinding out there, and for a second he thinks about running away, running until his lungs are on fire and he doesn't feel this void threatening to devour him.
But Liam Payne walks over to him, slow and steady (Liam isn't someone that just appears, like Louis sometimes did, when there was a Louis that wasn't LouisandZayn, that wasn't broken beyond repair – he's someone that you can see coming from afar, walking in even strides, always at the same pace), and it's over – suddenly he can't escape, he has to go out there, and maybe it's pride but it doesn't matter.
"Are you ready?" Liam asks, eyes soft and concerned. Harry hates that Liam can still be soft to him, despite all the pain they've caused each other.
No, he thinks. He isn't ready. He'll never be ready.
"No," he says.
Liam Payne doesn't startle, doesn't look surprised, doesn't say, you'll never be ready.
"Take your time," he says instead, even though Harry can't take his time, because everyone is already clapping on the other side of the curtain and this means something, it does. He can't breathe.
(Important people are going to be coming, his teacher said with this sort of half-smile that only teachers can carry off, like I know something that I'm not telling you, and all Harry could think about was Gemma, her face when he'd come off stage and fall into her arms, dried of all his liquor. He looked at Liam and saw recruiters on his face. Does he even have a family?)
But this Liam Payne is still another one (masks, something chants in his skull), and he takes a step forward, slowly, as if to say, stop me if you want. Harry doesn't stop him. He's always been one to see the story unfold, even if he knows that the end will hurt him (and this one will). Closer, his eyes say instead, closer. (Harry can't bear the in-betweens – it's either too close or far away.)
"All right, then," says Liam Payne somewhere in a reality where people clap behind a curtain that'll lift too soon, his words not sounding like words.
Another step forward. Harry's heart beats like a drum in his chest, and collects every memory to paint them on the walls of his lungs. It isn't for Liam, but Liam isn't looking at him either. Harry thinks about a sun-haired boy on one of the plush red seats in the room, holding his girlfriend's hand over the arm.
He isn't surprised when their lips connect, but he doesn't move, and for a moment they just breathe like that, mouth to mouth, like CPR, trying to revive each other.
(They part lips at some point, and Liam slips his tongue inside Harry's mouth, almost guiltily, a hand cradling his nape and the other hanging limply at his side. It tastes like Harry's fear and Liam's impassibility, and it's interrupted by someone who doesn't care, doesn't gasp, has probably seen this a million times over, and tells them, you're on like it's nothing. It isn't nothing.)
They don't step on stage together. It's Liam first (everyone claps politely and thinks with an internal shrug, another one – another one of these perfect child musicians, that will impress us but won't enchant us – except the six teenagers in the back, but maybe they're too wrapped up in themselves to think about it), walking to his piano and sitting, looking over at the crowd with a dull smile; and Harry then (more clapping, maybe, at least brighter, more enthusiastic – oh, but this one will entertain us, he looks like a prodigy in training, and look at those curls), who all but wobbles – the one who has to stay standing –, his violin flush against his heart.
Silence (not really. Intakes of breath, the whispered end of conversations, the nervous babbling of the next performer, muffled by the curtain).
The music, then.
Music – writing it would feel redundant, like writing a painting, and you can't write a painting, but you can't write music either, can you?
Harry's eyes, flashing (anger? Something else? His default switch seems to be anger these days, so Liam Payne doesn't wonder) as he tears a cry out of his strings.
Liam Payne, head bent over his piano like it had been over his books, trying.
The audience not caring, not seeing, only those who listen. Those ones see.
(The man and the woman, drawing away, butterfly touches, reuniting, blurry in the background, fading to reveal two boys, one next to a piano and the other melted with his violin.)
Harry's wrists, flying like every stroke breaks the bone, tiny indents. (Liam Payne waits for them to snap.)
Harry's eyes, again (Liam Payne's fingers thick like a butcher's on the keys, and this thought, murder, murder, bloody murder).
Debussy – the sharp melancholy, liquid mercury, acid rain.
Harry and Liam (but not HarryandLiam, not LiamandHarry either, barely held together by this tiny 'and') standing close, dancing with the music, flesh wound tight around their ribcages. Close, but not too close. Not closer.
A tan boy in the back, hungry eyes hidden, whispering, "This feels important," with something like wonder, lips still raw and branded.
They don't want it to end – the music. It doesn't deserve to be stretched, but they're the faded, washed-out end of teenagers and they want it to last.
It's selfish, thinks Liam Payne, and he's never been selfish, but he presses his fingers to the keys and rumbles a breathy it's going to be okay.
She's too far gone (high high high in the sky with the clouds and the stars) to listen to him.
But it ends.
Harry looks at Liam Payne who doesn't look at him, stands up with steady legs and bows lightly, as though nothing has happened, with future and career written on his shoulders.
Whatever this was, it's over, he thinks over the applaud, too loud.
Then: the summer punches them in the stomach, a flurry of declarations, diplomas, teary promises to call, girlfriends with waterproof mascara running down their cheeks.
Harry watches. Louis's embrace takes him by surprise and crushes his bones. Harry understands, goodbye. Louis is leaving with Zayn, traveling. Zayn looks like he'd be a good traveller. Harry is past hoping they'll disentangle, so he settles for hoping they won't break further.
He watches out of the corner of his eye as Liam and Niall embrace too, for too long – the last beat feels desperate, reeks of never-said I love yous. Harry doesn't intervene.
Aiden and Matt don't look like they're leaving. Their faces are calm, lit with quiet elation. They don't hug, because they aren't parting.
They trickle out of the door one by one – Liam off to London, a pianist in training, Niall leaving for somewhere and Juliette for somewhere else, maybe-broken-up. Zayn and Louis slide out of the room when Harry isn't looking. It could feel like a betrayal.
Harry is the last to leave, lock the door, pick up his violin case with light fingers. He doesn't look back, but he doesn't really look forward, either.
The room is bigger, filled with strangers like the other one had been. The seats are red, plush – some things never change. Excited chatter is buzzing in his ears, "I've heard that -", "The best pianist in a while", "You'll see", "Have fun", "How much did they cost you?", "Am I -".
Harry thinks back of Liam Payne at seventeen, eighteen, with not-quite-red lips and dull brown eyes. He looks down at the photograph, crumpled in his fist. His eyes are green. Probably enhanced, he thinks, but maybe he wears colored contacts. Liam Payne wouldn't have been the type to wear colored contacts, but this isn't Liam Payne. Only their name is similar, and it's small, almost ineffective.
The chatter dies down. Harry can't stop thinking. This time it's Zayn sitting on a stool in front of a gigantic, ornate harp, his hands sharp like blades, bespoke suit keeping his heart into his chest.
Liam Payne walks in. He crosses the stage the same way he did eight years ago, long, determined strides. Harry misses the familiar heat of Louis's body against his side, insinuating himself between his ribs.
Harry glances down at the paper when he starts playing, startled (you know any Gould? I don't like him. But do you know any?) – but here it is, printed in mocking black, loopy lettering, Bach, Toccata in E minor.
(In the seconds (one, two, three, ten) between Liam's appearance and the first pressed key, hanging in the air, already wrong, Harry thinks about his family. He thinks about them methodically, like Liam Payne would have done if he were still alive, one after the other, in alphabetical order.
Anne, first – her grave that doesn't look the same, but he still goes, and he wonders each time if it means that he'll never not be broken, and he touches the necklace and pushes it against his flesh, tries to imprint the crescent shape of it (beloved) into his skin. The world still hasn't stopped turning to let her fade away, and he still goes to see her, each year, the sixth of May, not always alone. Once he brought peach-colored roses and sweet liquor chocolates on Valentine's day and spent the day with her, his violin and Suskind.
(Robin comes soon after, but he's slotted in the empty space between Anne and the rest, always there, older each time Harry visits him, gentle and fatherly.)
Gemma – the order is perfect, he thinks, lightning-quick – holding him ten years ago when he slid off-stage like he’d imagined she would, and holding Louis too, his body light and hollow in her arms, ready to be blown away by the wind. Gemma who's still happy, a steady happiness that seeps into Harry's skin when he visits her and Derek, a quiet hum. (Gemma, pressing her lips to his temple and loving him deeply, unfailingly, through everything, his only anchor, his only pillar.)
And Louis. Louis doesn't fit into this countdown, amongst the tidy numbers and names. He doesn't fit between the 'she's happy' and 'he's not'. He never fit anywhere in Harry's life, and maybe that was what made him so interesting, this inability he had to be stashed in a drawer and fondly forgotten, Louis, because he was always too bright and garish and cheerful and blinding.
(But Louis, Louis isn't like that anymore. When they came back eight years ago Louis already wasn't this boy, and he watered down with the years and the abuse and the unhappiness. Harry would hate Zayn for breaking him if he didn't see that Zayn's broken too, completely, utterly wrecked beneath his share-holder smile and slender fingers. Harry remembers the years of seeing them fall apart in periphery as if it were yesterday, the distant, muffled sounds of their brittle bones bending and breaking.
Now Louis is here, with Harry, and it's almost ironic but it isn't. He's here with empty eyes and a blanket tight around his chest and at night he has nightmares that he wakes up shaking from, damp with sweat and angry tears.)
Niall is in Canada somewhere, busy with being happy. Sometimes when Harry sees him he whips out his guitar and smiles with too much white, white teeth.)
- - Liam Payne on the stage, sitting down in front of this piano, too big for him, of course, a real grand piano because he is a professional now - -
(Aiden and Matt belong with Niall in this alphabet, and they all belong under 'e', easy, or 'h', happy. Harry doesn't even feel jealous, but sometimes he sees them, Aiden and Matt, bickering over what to get for dinner in a supermarket, and he turns on his heels and tells Louis that they're going shopping elsewhere.
Zayn is with Louis in the middle, between the 'k' and the 'm', broken in two, their bodies hanging limp and empty and apart, dry sand ingrained in their skins with the scars not to let them forget. Harry wants to cry for them and he wants to run away – it's always been that.)
Liam Payne looks at the keys like they hold some kind of answer, and he starts playing. Harry doesn't know what he's expecting. He thinks he came to reassure himself that he hadn't missed on anything, but now he's not so sure.
He aches to leave as soon as he hears the first note, as crudely and blatantly wrong as it always was. He half-wonders if he's still hearing eighteen-years-old Liam Payne, with his stiff fingers and rigid back.
He claps with everyone when Liam finishes, until his fingers are numb and red. He tries not to listen to what everyone says, but it's kind of hard, and he catches parts of conversation that feel in turn too intimate and too trivial.
He puts his coat on slowly. He doesn't like his new body, thin and wiry – and he doesn't like the balance it has with Louis's either (the hard shoulders and scarred wrists, hesitant chin, twisted fingers). He wishes he could take his violin and walk to the lake, barefoot. He wishes he were still seventeen.
But he isn't, so he walks along the Thames, hoping that his feet won't remember the way home, and he doesn't think about that trick of light that made it look like Liam Payne may have been looking at him when he bowed, one hand behind his back, with something in his eyes that said, I'm sorry or I won.