He can smell the fire from where he’s standing at the top of the hill, a little too green and thick and reeking of smoke. Louis is using wet wood again. It’s careless work and Harry has a good mind to chew him out, to tug him close and scream in his face and ask him if he wants to die. If that’s what he’s playing at. Maybe that’s what they’re all playing at out here.
He shuts his eyes and bites at the side of his tongue and swallows his rage. That’s not right. That’s not the person he wants to be. He doesn’t want to be hard that way, doesn’t want to get angry. That’s not him. He needs to sit and he needs to clear his mind because there’s too much clouding his vision, thoughts buzzing around in his head like flies and eating away at him like he’s carrion. Like he’s dead meat. He needs to be the calm one, for all their sakes. He needs to let Louis be. The fire will be fine. They haven’t spotted a slow mutant or a wolf in days and Zayn hasn’t had a touch in a week.
—Hadn’t. Past tense now.
He moves the bottom of his coat out of the way and drops to the ground with his legs crossed loosely. The grass on the hill is dry and wiry and it creeps into the seams of his pants and the places where his clothes meet and needles at him, pokes at the soft flesh underneath. The discomfort feels right. It’s something to sit with.
The day works through him—a movement in his chest, an uneasy flutter and a tremble. He presses a palm to his heart and breathes deeply, in and then out, again and again and again and it helps. It equalizes something. He slips a hand into his jacket and it’s warm in there, the leather soft and pliable from being in the sun all day. He tugs a single shell out of a pocket sewn into the lining and lets it rest in the palm of his hand. Studies the worn quality of the brass, the way it’s been rubbed nearly dull by his touch. He feels the barely-there metallic weight of it and for a moment he doesn’t move and for a moment he lets it all wash over him: the abstract concept of loss—not his particularly...not yet. He’s not ready to touch that maybe—his anger, the nagging sense that it’s not over, that none of this is really happening, that Zayn’s not gone, that he’s just pulling one over on them. He was like that, before. Harry closes his eyes and remembers the way Zayn used to laugh, pictures the way his eyes would squeeze shut and the press of his tongue to the back of his teeth.
And then he doesn’t remember. He opens his eyes and he moves his hand and lets the bullet spin and dance across his knuckles. Lets it take him somewhere else. Not here. Not now.
He sets it all aside. He puts it away.
Liam intercepts him on the way back down the hill, his expression wary.
“I don’t know how he’s handling it.”
Harry tucks the bullet back into his coat and lets his hand linger there, two fingers tucked into his pocket and tracing the line of the metal. Liam falls into step beside him then slows. He’s grabbing at Harry’s sleeve.
“Harry, stop for a minute.”
Harry shrugs him off. “I’ll talk with him.”
“Yeah, just…” Liam frowns in a reluctant way, momentary and pained. He’s got something in his hand: a bundle of stained cloth wrapped around something heavy. Harry doesn’t want to look at it, so he looks at the ground. “He left it. And I don’t know what…”
Harry wants to knock it out of his hands—wants to leave it in the dirt and pretend that Zayn walked away with it, that he’s just having some sort of fit. That he’ll circle around and come back in a few days, bruised and shaken and apologetic—but he doesn’t. He pulls his hand out of his coat and takes the bundle from Liam and hugs it awkwardly to his middle with one arm. He puts the other hand around the back of Liam’s neck, holds him at the place that always gets a little too much sun and presses his palm into the heat that’s accumulated there. Liam burns so brightly, more than any of them. His eyes are soft and open and worried and Harry thinks, he’s the only one. He’s the only one of us who can just let himself feel it.
He pulls Liam close and presses their foreheads together, feeling for the line that runs between them. It’s there, thin and all-encompassing and undefinable, and for a moment Harry breaks. For a moment he’s undone, because he didn’t know what to expect, did he? He didn’t know if it would still be there. If it would feel the same.
When he pulls away, Liam’s face is wet.
They walk back to camp together, shoulder to shoulder, and when they arrive Louis is kneeling on the ground. He’s surrounded by emptied packs, waterskins, all the mess of their rations and boxes of spare ammo. Rover hops and chatters and pokes at the cloth of a feed bag and the blue-black sheen of her feathers in the moonlight makes her look dipped in oil, like a filthy small thing. Harry stops short. It’s rising up in him again, that urge to scream, to spit and scold Louis like he’s a child acting out, but he bites his tongue. He kneels and shoves the weight of the bundle down into the bottom of his pack and waves his hands at Rover, shooing her away. Then he sets about cleaning up the mess. Louis doesn’t acknowledge him. He’s holding a knife in one hand and driving it into the dirt at his knees, short sharp thrusts, worrying at the ground.
It’s Liam’s hand on Louis’ wrist that stops him. Liam’s hand taking the knife away and Liam’s arm tugging Louis close. Louis lets him. Just Liam. Only ever Liam. When Louis speaks, his voice is flat, and that’s what scares Harry most of all.
“He’s taken the glass with him.”
They follow the tracks because that’s what they’ve been tasked to do. They move in a straight line along the path of the beam, southeast toward the Borderlands and Calla Bryn Sturgis. Toward the Tower, though Harry doesn’t think anyone’s ever gone that far. He wonders if it’s really there or if it’s just a story: something made up in an effort to explain things that are unexplainable, to inject some sense into a senseless world.
Anyway the Tower’s not the only thing to question. And it’s not what matters. Maps are just guesswork these days and who knows what’s just over the horizon, what comes next. The world’s become...ill-defined. Twisted. It’s moving on. That’s what they called it in school, in the training. Moved on...as if the world had always been keen to leave them behind. To opt out. To be finished.
In any case, the world’s so tilted on its axis that maps can’t be trusted, so they follow the tracks and the river winds away across the plain and back again and everything is dust and scrub and desolation. It’s different out here, not like the ruined city they’ve just left and not like Gilead at all. It’s sparse and desolate and so uniform Harry wonders if they’re going in circles.
They’re nearly set upon their first day out as a trio, when they’ve finally packed up and reached some sort of silent assent, a tenuous mutual acknowledgement that they aren’t sticking around, that there’s nothing to wait for. They move across the plain and meet up with the tracks again and Harry lets his mind wander the way he always did before. None of them see the lobstrosity until they’re nearly on top of it. It’s weak—sluggish and slow—but its pincers are sharp and it nearly takes a bit of Harry with it when it dies with Liam’s knife run through its inky black left eye. It writhes and trembles as it expires, muttering “Da-da-chum? Ded-a-chek?”, and something about the tableau strikes Harry as morose and terribly sad.
“Where the fuck did it come from? This far inland?” Liam’s breath is ragged, like he’s been shaken to his core. He tugs his knife out of the thing’s eye using one foot for leverage, wipes it on a patch of scrub grass and sits, stunned.
“Must’ve been picked up by something bigger and wingy-er hoping to make it supper.” Louis kicks at the thing, turning it over on its side. He spits at the dirt like he’s got a bad taste in his mouth and worries at the tip of his ear distractedly, feeling for the ragged edge of a wound that’s nearly healed over. Then he turns and offers Harry a hand, tugging him up off the ground where his horse has left him. The contact is jarring and Harry allows himself to acknowledge for an instant that Louis hasn’t touched him in days. Not really. He gets Harry back on his feet and then pulls his hand back and puts some distance between them, focusing on Liam and Rover and the thing lying dead on the ground.
Harry wipes at his seat and holsters his weapon. He angles his head at the carcass. “Liam, you’ve got to—“
“I’ll do it.” Louis tugs his cutting knife out of its sheath and looks at the ground, at the animal lying there, and then at Liam, who shrugs a thanks. Louis moves forward and Harry reaches out for him, his hand closing on empty air.
“Just make sure you say the—”
“I know,” Louis says, and his tone says I’m not a child. “Father,” his voice drops to a murmur as he kneels down, “guide my hands and heart so that no part of the animal will be wasted.”
He sets into his work, cutting into the lobstrosity, removing calcified plates to get at the soft flesh underneath. Rover is perched on the upturned stinger of the thing, watching him work with bright hungry eyes. She tilts her head and squawks, and then echoes the lobstrosity’s muttering: “ded-a-chek”.
Louis chucks a bit of meat her way, hard enough to send her reeling into the air. “Don’t be a creep.” He sets about working at the carcass again. “It’ll be our supper now, then.”
“We’re going to get ourselves killed.” Liam’s voice is tight. Exasperated. “We’ve been so fucking lazy…”
Harry watches his horse. She’s milling around in the scrub a stone’s throw away, nosing at the dirt like she’s already forgotten the trauma and horror just five minutes past. Short memories. Small brains. He wipes his hands down the front of his pants and fixes his hat and sets out toward the horizon, clicking his tongue.
“We’ll be better going forward.” Liam seems to be talking to no one. Or to all of them, maybe. “We’ve got to be better.”
They ride, and they keep their minds sharp. Or as sharp as they can in a place like this. They move forward because it’s what they’re meant to do and the landscape rolls under them and everything is dry and dusty and the same for what feels like fathoms. Harry wonders how far they could go if they just never stopped. He wonders if they’d make it all the way to the Tower or if they would fall right off the edge of the world into nothing.
Liam tries to lighten the mood. It’s what he does. He points out clouds that he says look like bumblers or weasels or the metal husks they climbed over and through back in Lud—cars and trucks and vehicles that were more boxy and hulking, like they’d seen in books. The ones Cort called ‘buses’.
“That’s a strange word, isn’t it? ‘Buses’…” He sounds strained and a little regretful, like he’s not sure bringing up their trip through Lud is the thing to do, but it’s already come out of his mouth, he’s married to it. Harry glances back and sees him eyeing Louis uncertainly, but Louis just watches the horn of his saddle. He’s rolling a cigarette between his fingers, tobacco dust sprinkling the leg of his trousers, and Harry should call out to him, should tell him to keep his eyes up. He doesn’t. He turns back around and scans the horizon for the hundredth time and the vigilance is exhausting. It’s frustrating without Zayn. It’s unnerving. Like they’re running blind.
It catches him at the throat momentarily: the idea that they took it for granted. Zayn’s touches. The way he would just know.
And now they don’t know a thing but the feel of their own sore asses on their saddles and the sun coming down on them, relentless and unforgiving, and the anxiety of their own blindness. A thousand imagined enemies just over the next hill.
Quiet voices set him stirring in the dark and he reaches reflexively for his gun. He’s tucked it in the folds of his pack, just under his head. It makes for a terrible pillow but it’s the way he was taught. Keep it close. Keep it safe. He presses a palm to the wood of the grip and waits without moving, without sitting up. He listens, and he knows he’s not meant to hear.
Or maybe he is. There’s something in Louis’ voice...something acidic and pointed, something of an accusation and maybe that’s for Harry and Harry alone.
“We should go back. It’s folly out here, just the three of us. He knows it.”
“It’s what we’re meant to do, Lou. It’s not a choice he’s making—“ Liam’s voice is soft and a little pleading.
“It is. You know that. You know what it’s become for him. What it’d become even before we left. Zayn did too.”
“Zayn made his own—“
“Oh fuck that. Fuck that, Liam. It was him. You know that. You know. It’s always been him, just a bit removed from the lot of us. Holding himself there. Dragging us along with him on some sort of crusade—”
“And you acting like a fucking milk cow, content to follow him over a goddamn cliff. He’ll get us killed Li—“
“Stop.” It’s a cry. It’s a yell, without being anything but a whisper. “You’ll wake him.”
Silence. A scrape and a sigh.
“We can talk, Louis. All of us. We can sit palaver when we—just not here, alright? Here’s not anywhere. Here’s too…in-between.”
Louis mutters something unintelligible.
“Look at me. Not here. And not without him. We’ve already lost Zayn and I can’t—“
“I said alright.”
The quiet is tense, all sharp edges in the dark.
“It’s not broken, Louis. I know you can feel that much. It can still be right with three. It doesn’t have to be the end.”
“Doesn’t have to.” Louis’ voice is quiet and sharp and far away. “That’s what matters, right? What has to happen. Whatever it is we must do.”
He wakes with the sun and the air’s already turning from frigidity to fire, just like that. Like there’s nothing in between those two sorts of discomforts. Louis and Liam are still sleeping under the bare branches of a knot tree, turned on their sides, and Louis looks cinched up tight, like he’s trying to pull the entirety of himself inward, to gather up his loose ends. He looks the way Harry feels and it makes Harry want to kick him. To get him up. To make him move and let the dark parts of himself come spilling out.
Liam is soft but he must be dreaming. His face looks troubled. One arm is stretched out over the ground and reaching for something, for Louis maybe, just out of his grasp.
Harry walks to a spot of brush out past the horses and relieves himself, staring off at the horizon. His mind is all at once frenetic and full up and blank as the sky above him. When he sorts himself and turns around Rover is sitting in the tree, watching him with sharp eyes. Harry meets her gaze and wipes his hands on his pants.
“What do you want?”
“Whaddya?” She cocks her head at him. It’s accusatory, pointed.
“Fuck off. Go find Lou. You’re meant to look after him, so go do it.”
She hops from branch to branch as he moves back toward camp, watching him.
“After ‘im…after ‘im? Look it—“
Harry stops, his fists clenched at his sides. Louis and his fucking bird. He turns and she’s watching him with one eye, her head turned to the side. She clicks her beak twice, clack-clack, and it feels like an indictment. She says Zayn’s name again like a question and Harry crouches carefully. He roots around in the dirt and finds a rock—not too big, nothing serious—then he takes aim and chucks it at her. He’s not making a real effort and he misses by about two bird-lengths but the vindication is in the act, in the feeling of the thing. She squawks indignantly as she takes flight and Harry watches her go, an oily spot of black and blue and bright white moving upward and away.
“It’s not her fault.”
Harry jumps like he’s been caught at something and then turns and walks stiffly past Liam. He’s running a hand through his hair and his eyes look heavy with sleep.
“She’s a bother. Louis needs to mind her, she makes too much noise.”
Liam’s voice follows him back to camp. “She doesn’t understand what’s happened is all. And he was always kind to her.”
Harry flinches in spite of himself. He knows what Liam is getting at, knows he means to cast Harry and Louis as a matched set, to point a finger at them both, but he’s wrong. Harry’s doing what he needs to do to keep them safe. To keep them whole. It’s Louis who’s biting and scratching and kicking and threatening to tear them apart. And now Liam…
“You mind her then.” He means it to sound hard, but it comes out soft. Tired. “She likes you.”
Rover keeps her distance all day. Harry catches sight of her as they’re packing up—a conspicuous speck in the distance, winging through the air—but she’ll not come closer. She’s punishing them, maybe, trying to make a point. Louis doesn’t seem bothered. He gathers his things and saddles his horse and retrieves his knife from the trunk of the tree where he’d left it last night like a warning or a place marker. Like a promise. As he gets his foot in the stirrup and swings upward, Harry catches him and presses a hand lightly to his knee. It feels tenuous and affected, the way he’s touching Louis. Like he’s not sure how anymore. He keeps his voice neutral, deliberately measured.
“Should we call her back?”
Louis doesn’t look at Harry. He fiddles with the reins. “She’ll make her own way. She always does.”
“It’s just if someone—“ he hates the sound of his own voice. Hates what he hears there. Hates that Louis is pushing him to this place, making him play this role.
Louis kicks at his horse and clicks his tongue, jerking the reins hard to the right and setting off. “Do what you need to.”
He leaves Harry in the dust and for a moment Harry is frozen. He just stands there watching Rover glide overhead, executing tight arcs and spirals like she’s broadcasting her frustration and loss in a language none of them can understand. Then he moves away. He leaves her to it.
The sun moves higher in the sky and they continue on their way parallel to the tracks, which feel monolithic. Eternal. The metal beams are so singular and solid and they only ever move in one direction, just like the river that winds close and then bends away. Like the sun in the sky. The world moves on its axis, trundling along a decaying track like a locomotive that’s on the verge of breaking down...the lot of them just passengers. Harry watches the horizon and lets the rocking of his horse lull him. There’s a rhyme running through his head. Something from a long time ago. Something of home.
See the turtle of enormous girth. On his shell he holds the earth…
When he was just a babe—before he left home for school, before he’d felt the sting of a switch or the graze of a bullet or been taught how to carry pain inside himself—he’d fallen from a tree and landed on his arm in a funny sort of way. Pulled it right out of its socket. The pain was like a thunderclap, white and hot and all-encompassing. It eclipsed the world and he nearly vomited right then and there, moaning and incoherent, his face pressed to the dirt. He felt like he was being turned inside out with hurt. Louis had run for help and Harry’s father had gathered him up from under the tree and brought him inside and then left him with his mother while he went looking for the woman from the infirmary.
Harry remembers being in bed. He remembers the discomfort, how he was clammy and sick with shock, waiting for the woman to arrive…remembers how the pain subsided and became more like a dull hum and how his mother sat with him, holding the hand of his good arm and tracing her fingers over the lines of his palm.
“You’ll be fine, my love.” He watched her hand on his and felt strangely light, up above and out of his head. He was divorced from himself, the way his arm felt divorced from his body, lying there on the blanket like so much dead weight. “We’ll set it right.”
He could see the worry in her face and somehow even after all the shock and pain that was worst of all: the thought that he’d put it there. So he’d grabbed at her hand and squeezed and said, “It doesn’t hurt so much now.”
She’d smiled at him in a sad sort of way. “I know it, Harry. I’d like to tell you it’ll keep feeling fine, that you’re done with the worst of it...but we’ve still got to put it right, you see? Sometimes to set things right you’ve got to take a lot more pain. Sometimes fixing a thing hurts even worse than the breaking. They’ll try to teach you that when you’re older but perhaps it’s a thing best learned on your own. You’ll be strong, I know it. As strong as Maturin, right?”
He nodded, though he didn’t understand, not really. He nodded to reassure her, to live up to something she saw in him and she nodded back and said, “Remember, love? How does it go, then?…see the turtle of enormous girth…”
“On his shell he holds the earth.” It wasn’t a thinking sort of thing, it was a knowing. A rhyme every child held in himself and sang while he played.
“His thought is slow but always kind. He holds us all within his mind.”
Harry closed his eyes and imagined the great turtle, his shell lit up with every color in existence, his face soft and patient and kind, the world on his back and him moving it forward. Moving all of them forward: Harry’s mother and father and sister, Louis and Harry and all the rest of them. All the boys in school. Zayn and Liam and even Cort. Cort, who felt sometimes like a person not subject to the current of fate, like an intractable immovable force.
“Does he know where he’s going?”
“The turtle…Maturin…does he know what’s ahead?”
The door opened and the door closed and he heard his father’s voice. The shuffling of feet. His mother spoke.
“Of course, my love. On his back all vows are made; he sees the truth but mayn’t aid. That’s ka, little babe, the moving forward. He presses on and makes the future for us all, but it’s only for him to know. We’ve simply got to trust in that.”
“If we’re riding on his back, all of us in the whole world…then what’s holding him up?”
A laugh then, warm and deep, and Harry opened his eyes. His father was stood just at the edge of the bed, smiling over at Harry’s mother in a knowing sort of way. Harry followed his gaze and looked at her properly, studied her face. She looked tired and…something else. Old. For the first time, Harry looked at his mother and saw that she was no longer young, and in that moment he was struck dumb at the thought that the world really was moving forward, that his mother was growing older and Harry must grow older too. It was sickening to think of it, of everything he couldn’t know. All that lay ahead of him.
The woman from the infirmary moved around the side of the bed and touched a hand lightly to his shoulder. She cradled his arm gently, probing along its length as his father pressed one hand to Harry’s face, solid and reassuring. A quick nod passed between them, some sort of unspoken assent.
“We’re going to fix you up now Harry and if you can be brave, I’ll tell you a secret. I’ll tell you what my father told me and you can tell your own babes someday too. Are you listening?”
Harry nodded once and his father leaned forward with a smile that was intimate and conspiratorial and anxious around the edges. There was a squeeze from his mother’s hand and it was strong and sure, solid and deliberate like the pulling of a trigger. He could feel his pulse against her palm, frenetic like the beating of wings, and then his bad arm was wrenched downward with a tug so sudden and sharp he could swear it was being torn right off his body. The world went white. He was staring into the sun and his ears were filled with a terrible ringing. Everything was blinding pain save for his father’s voice, quiet and close:
“The secret is, it’s turtles all the way down.”
He’s wrenched back to the present by a loud squawking and a flapping of wings.
Harry’s stomach turns abruptly with the memory of their last encounter, at the thought of facing that again, but that’s not right, the sound is too high, too reedy. It’s not a lobstrosity, it’s just Rover regurgitating a noise she knew would shake them up, set them back to rights. Harry curses at himself as he sits up in the saddle. He scans the ground and the horizon, trying to make out whatever it is she’s seen.
Louis paces him on the left and wipes a sleeve across his brow. “There. Just at the crest of the hill.”
Harry follows his gaze and sees it: a stirring of dust and something moving. Something coming their way. “Is it wolves?”
“Can we skirt them?” Liam sounds doubtful.
Harry spits at the ground and fiddles with his hat, straightens it on his head though it hasn’t gone crooked, wipes at the edges of his mouth though there’s nothing to wipe away. It’s unconscious, a sort of tic. He watches the place where the land rises up to meet the sky in a craggy slope and he can just make out the shape of a horse, one and then another. Two at least, and the dusty disturbance of a quick change of tack.
“Too late to skirt them. I gather they’re coming to see what’s what.”
They close ranks. They hold fast and they wait and Rover wings through the air above them screaming bloody murder, the bluish sheen of her tail-feathers flashing in the sunlight. Harry can see one of them—a woman, he realizes suddenly—craning her neck to get a look at the bird like she’s gauging whether it would be an easy shot.
As the riders approach they slow to a trot and then tug at the reins and come to a stop. Harry does a quick visual accounting: two women, dressed in cloth and what looks like boiled leather. One is dirty blonde and fair, but tanned and freckled in the places that catch the most sun. Her hair is piled unceremoniously on top of her head. The other has high cheekbones that glow bronze in the sun and dark hair done up in elaborate plaits. There’s something haughty in the second one’s gaze, something high-born. She reminds Harry of the noble women back in Gilead: smooth and polished, arching brows and graceful comportments, but she’s got leather straps wound up her arms that look like they’ve taken a beating and she’s holding a crossbow that’s aimed right at Harry’s heart. He doesn’t move. He understands so well that appearances count for nothing. That a beautiful woman can be just as deadly as a nasty-looking man. More deadly, maybe.
Harry nods at them in a purposefully benign sort of way. “Long days and pleasant nights.”
The blonde woman reaches across her lap and tugs at something just at her hip. She shifts to the left and Harry sees that she’s carrying a sword. He nearly laughs at the absurdity of it, it’s so archaic, but she slips it out of the sheath and he can see its edge reflecting the evening sun and it’s clearly not a joke. It’s something deadly serious. She lets it hang at her side and nods in turn.
She doesn’t say anything else for a moment. She just sits there, stock-still, like she’s waiting for something. For the three of them to reveal themselves or make a move maybe. Harry doesn’t budge.
“You boys are an awful long way from anything of consequence, aren’t you?”
The sun hangs heavily at their backs and casts a rich orangey light and the silence feels gilded. Painted gold. The leather under Harry creaks as he shifts in his seat and senses the weight of the gun at his hip. “Just headed east. Following the tracks.”
“You got business in Riverbend then?”
Harry doesn’t say anything for a moment. He shrugs noncommittally. “Not as such. Little further up the way.”
The woman with the braids is looking upward again, watching Rover spin and glide. “That thing belong to you?”
Harry follows her gaze and then eyes the crossbow in her hand. He clears his throat. “Louis…”
“Yeah,” Louis mutters. “Sure.” He whistles shrilly and Harry watches the women jump a little in their saddles, their hands going tight around their weapons. He winces, but it does the trick. Rover banks and dips and flies back to Louis, alighting on the horn of his saddle.
“Thanks. Appreciate it.” She lets her hand loosen a little on the handle of the bow and Harry lets his own slide up his leg toward his hip, playing at scratching an itch, nudging his coat to one side.
“I would advise against doing whatever it is you’re doing there, kid.” The blonde woman’s voice is cold. Pointed. Harry freezes. “Unless you fancy an arrow through the windpipe.” She angles her head at something behind them and Harry turns. There’s a third one, loose hair the color of tree bark and eyes that are almost comically large, like a sad doe. She’s holding a shortbow, the string drawn tight, and she pulls a face when he looks back, lets her tongue loll out the side of her mouth, miming a violent death. Harry grimaces and turns back around.
The blonde woman shrugs like it can’t be helped. “Seems we’ve got you covered from all angles, boys. So if it pleases you I’d like to see all your arms in a neat tidy pile on the ground there.”
Harry hesitates. His fingers are twitching against his thigh. Then he glances at the one with the crossbow and sees the intent in her eyes...recognizes it so clearly that it sends a shiver through him, and he nods and reaches for his gun, slow and steady, one hand raised. He hears leather creaking and the sound of snaps being undone and the soft thud of metal on dirt from just behind him. He proceeds. He gets his own gun out of the holster and pops the cylinder, dumps the bullets and stashes them in a pocket and then tosses it on the ground. The blonde woman watches him and he watches her in turn and as the gun hits the dirt he sees her eyes go momentarily wide with dawning understanding. She glances over at her friend and something passes between them. Something unspoken. The woman in braids tilts her head at them.
“Seems you boys are a long way from home.” She nods at the woman to their rear and Harry hears her dismounting behind him and the footsteps that signal her approach. She gathers up the accumulated shooters and knives and throws them in a canvas bag she’s pulled off her back.
“Careful with them, love. They bite.” Louis’ voice is a loaded gun held in a loose hand. Casual and deadly at once. Harry swears under his breath but the girl just laughs like she’s in on the joke.
“Think you lot better come with us, then.” The sword goes back in the sheath. She scratches at the side of her nose and looks out at the horizon. At the setting sun. “Sun’s going down and you don’t want to be caught out here with your asses hanging out after dark.”
They ride northeast, blonde and braids in front and the other behind and Harry can hear murmurs. Louis is saying something, talking with the girl. It unnerves Harry. It grates on him somehow but he just sets his jaw and keeps quiet. He’s got to trust that Louis knows what he’s doing. He’s got to give him the benefit of the doubt. He grips the reins tightly and watches the backs of the women in front of him and lets himself be moved forward.
They ride for just under an hour before they get anywhere, before Harry spots a thin column of wood smoke coming from the horizon up ahead. As they approach, the smoke resolves into a brick chimney attached to a house attached to a sloppily groomed plot of land surrounded by a small grove of thin trees. The women tug their horses to a stop just inside a rickety wooden fence and tie them to a post by a feed trough. The blonde tilts her head, indicating that the lot of them should do the same.
“You can get your horses fed. We’ve got plenty to go around.”
Harry nods and dismounts. He fingers the latigo at his horse’s breast, hesitates and then leaves it buckled. Just in case. When he looks up she’s watching him, smiling a little thinly.
“Do whatever you need to. But we don’t mean to hurt you if you don’t give us reason.” She walks over to him and extends a hand for shaking. “I’m Perrie. That one’s Leigh-Anne.”
The girl with the braids smiles tightly. Harry nods at her and then looks back at Perrie. At the hand she’s offering. He takes it. Squeezes once. Lets it drop.
“Harry,” he says.
He hears someone coming up behind him. “Other one’s Jade, one inside is Jesy, and they’ve got stew on.” Louis sounds relaxed, irritatingly unbothered.
Harry grimaces and follows him inside.
The house is warm and small and smells like simmering stock and dried herbs and burning wax. Like a home. The fourth woman, Jesy, is sitting with her head bent over a battered kitchen table when they come in, working stitches into a piece of leather. Her dark hair shines like an oil slick in the lamplight and she swears under her breath as the door opens and shuts, sucking at the pad of a finger. Perrie whacks her lightly on the side of the head as she passes by.
“You should let me do that, you’re awful.”
“I’m fine. It’s lovely.” She holds the leather up for inspection and Harry can just make out the rough uneven stitching in the dim light. It is awful. Perrie’s right and Jesy seems to know it. She’s grinning in a way that reads like a challenge.
“You’re hopeless. Stick to candle-making, love.”
“I’ve got no more beeswax, have I? Don’t know what I’m meant to do without beeswax and we’ve not had tallow in ages—“ She stops and looks over at the lot of them like she’s noticing them for the first time. Her face falls a little. “Oh. You’ve brought men.” She sounds unimpressed. “They could do in a pinch, though there’s not much fat on ‘em. Should I put more stew on?”
Harry hears Leigh-Anne laughing at his side. Feels her pushing past him and watches her stow her crossbow in a rough-hewn wooden corner bench.
“They’re not for killing, Jes.” She eyes Harry sharply. “Least not yet. The jury’s out. Could be if they keep standing there blocking up the door.” She waves her arms at them impatiently. “Christ, come in then. Have a seat. Did your mothers not teach you manners?”
Liam apologizes quietly and removes his hat, pressing it to his chest. He shuffles awkwardly around the table and takes a seat, sets his hat down next to him uncertainly and makes himself small. Unobtrusive. Harry moves over to the corner, out of the way, and sits on the bench where Leigh-Anne’s just stashed her weapon. She watches him move, her gaze a little cutting, and then rolls her eyes dismissively.
“Yeah, Jes. More stew. Couldn’t hurt.”
The food is good. More than good, even. The stew is thick and flavorful and complex and it’s the most legitimate meal Harry’s had in what feels like ages. He dishes himself a bowl and retreats back to the corner bench and eats, lets the food sink right into him, lets it warm him from the inside out. He doesn’t speak, he just listens. He listens to Leigh-Anne and Perrie murmuring quietly by the fire. Listens to Liam complimenting Jesy’s stitchwork and to her laugh, high and mirthful and disbelieving. Listens to Louis. He’s talking with Jade again, the two of them getting inappropriately cozy in the back corner. Harry sets his empty bowl aside and tries to tune them out. He doesn’t want to scold. Doesn’t want to be caught casting judgement on Louis. Doesn’t want to make it worse.
Jesy is tugging something out of a pocket at the side of her skirt--a deck of cards, the edges curled and stained. She moves it from hand to hand, shuffling and sorting. Liam watches her work.
“I’ve seen something like that before.”
“Have you?” She sets the deck on the table face down.
“My mum said it was like…witch stuff. Odd magic, stuff you can’t trust.”
“Your mum sounds funny.”
Liam just frowns at her.
She taps at the cards with one finger. “Shall I do yours then?”
Harry tunes them out. He tugs his jacket off and inspects it for wear, for holes that need patching of bits that need cleaning. It’s something to do. Something to distract. He doesn’t hear Perrie approach and he starts a little when she sits next to him, reaches for his gun reflexively.
She just watches him. “I’ve never seen a six-shooter before. Not a proper one at least, not with my own eyes. Let alone four of them.”
She waits, but Harry doesn’t answer. She gives him a “suit yourself” sort of shrug and leans back against the wall. “That’s fine, kid. You can play the silent game. I don’t give a rat’s ass where you’ve come from or where you’re going. Just want you to know you’re safe here tonight. As long as you don’t make a move on me and mine, you and yours can get a good night’s sleep and move on in the morning. Riverbend’s about four hours east. A proper town with a provisioner and a tavern and all that sort of thing. Got a friend called Rochelle there who’ll put you up if you give her my name.”
Harry just nods and inspects the seam at the shoulder of his jacket.
“Right.” She rolls her eyes and moves to stand. “You’re welcome.”
“What are you doing out here?” He shuts his mouth the moment it comes out of him. He’s not even certain what he’s asking.
She just watches him for a moment, a little wary. “Just surviving, I expect. What anyone does.”
He shakes his head, tries to make himself understood. “But you’re from somewhere else. Not from here.”
There’s a long pause and Harry can hear Louis murmuring in the corner, the ruffle of Rover’s feathers.
“We were from somewhere else, yeah. But here’s home now. The one that we chose for ourselves.”
“Are you ka-tet? The four of you?”
Perrie screws up her face like she’s taken a bite of something sour. “Is that what you lot fancy you are?”
Harry doesn’t answer. She leans back and watches him. Studies his face like she’s seeing him for the first time. “Should have figured. Your fancy guns, the weird starchy way you’ve got about you. You’ve come from Gilead.”
Harry looks up at her sharply, then over at Liam who’s frozen with half the deck in one hand. He’s watching them. Listening.
Perrie picks Harry’s bowl up off the bench. “Yeah, I know something about all that. Wasn’t born out here in the dust, like you said.” She shrugs dismissively. “Bunch of fucking kids playing at soldier. Musty old oaths and honor. Making yourselves ka’s fools.”
“Let me give you a tip.” She leans forward in a conspiratorial way and Harry can smell something sweet on her, some sort of berry, the scent of burning sage and the warmth of a fire. “You decide your own fate, kid. You make your own choices and you live with them. Leave it up to ka and watch yourself be carried away. Ka like the wind, right? Surrender to it and watch it blow your goddamn house down. Watch it rush like a river and drown you.”
She takes his bowl away. Harry doesn’t move. He squeezes the soft leather of his jacket in his fists and sets his jaw.
“Now give me the bit you pulled off. There you go. Right.” Jesy’s voice is light, cutting through the strange tension in the room. “Aha. The wheel of fortune.” Her tone goes dry. “That’s appropriate.”
Harry glances over at Jesy. She’s looking up at Perrie and smiling wryly but Perrie’s not paying attention. She’s at a basin in the corner, scrubbing at Harry’s bowl in an unnecessarily rough sort of way. Jesy flips the next card.
“The heirophant. Ew. Hate that twat.” Liam laughs a little despite himself at her crassness. “A person from your past. Rigid. Stifling and hard.” She spits at the ground for emphasis and Leigh-Anne cries out in protest.
“Christ, Jesy, not inside.”
Jesy just laughs and flips another card. “Anyway. He’s behind you now, ain’t he? Look at you! Making your way, marching off with your gunna at your back. All your little burdens. How brave of you.”
“Is that calling me stupid?” Liam frowns.
“It says ‘Fool’.”
“Oh, no no no. Not stupid. It’s like…a beginner’s mind. A fresh start. A journey of sorts.” She turns the next card over. “But there’s some conflict, ain’t there? Can’t agree on which way to go...”
Perrie finishes the washing and half turns her head. “Leigh, can you go out and make some more wood?”
Leigh-Anne nods and goes to stand but Harry leaps up, waving her down.
“It’s fine. I’ll go.”
She just stands there halfway out of her chair, eyeing him, then sits back down slowly. “Suit yourself. Maul’s around the side of the house. There’s a pile of dry rounds near the front fence.”
He nods and slips his jacket back on. As he heads for the door he glances down at the table and finds himself caught short. The last card is lying there, a little skewed and covered in old stains. Five figures engaged in a battle. Five people set at odds. Jesy turns another card and Harry can just make out the figure of a man sitting cross-legged on a hill, leaned up against a tree. A hand extends out of nothing, out of the sky, offering him some kind of golden cup or vessel.
“Someone’s had second thoughts. Grown tired of it.” She taps at the card thoughtfully. “Someone’s left.”
Liam glances up at Louis. He’s still engaged with Jade in the corner, pretending not to listen. Harry pulls his jacket tight around him and shakes his head.
“It’s bullshit, Liam. You know that. You just see what you want to see.”
Another card. A man on horseback with a skull for a face. He’s waving a banner. Marching into battle. The meaning is unmistakeable, etched across the bottom of the image in the high speech, the one word in a near-dead language who's definition isn't shifting or mutable: Char. Louis drops the pretense and cranes his neck to see. He makes a sour face.
“Death? That’s fucking cheery.”
Jesy laughs. “Nah…it’s fine. It’s not like death death, you know? It’s not literal. It’s like…necessary ending? Something coming to a close. A sacrifice maybe. Burning up so you can rise again and all that. But look, that’s not all.” She tugs at the card and Harry sees that there’s another card just under it, clinging to its back. “Christ…I’ve made a right mess of these, haven’t I? They’re all stuck together.”
She peels the card off and places it down just overlapping the other. “Seems you lot have two futures, then. Isn’t that lovely? Your little river is splitting in two as we speak.”
Harry studies the card for just a moment. It’s all brightness and blooming growth where the last card was darkness and destruction: a child, fair haired and laughing and riding on the back of a horse, his arms outstretched and basking in the light of a yellow sun.
“See? Not all bad." Jesy taps at the image on the card and nods. "Him I like. Look at him casting his light, nourishing the four little flowers in the back. He's an engine, burning brightly. Illuminating the dark corners. He's growth. Newness. Reconciliation...” Harry shakes his head and moves for the door. Opens it just as she says, “for all five of you.”
There’s a flutter and a commotion from behind him and then Rover is winging past him through the door, making her way out into the dark. The night air is cold on his face and it feels like relief. Like an escape.
“Four of us.” Liam sounds a little uncertain.
“What was that?”
“There’s just four of us, not five.”
“Oh…” her voice trails off as Harry steps out into the moonlight. “Well, like he said, it’s mostly bullshit anyway. Can’t get everything right.”
He retrieves the maul from the side of the house and carries it over to the pile of wood by the fence. The rounds aren’t anything to be scoffed at. They’re wide and solid and heavy and he starts working at them while they’re still on the ground, hoping to split them once or twice before moving them over to the block. He lifts the maul and brings it down and feels it sink in no more than a millimeter. Feels the resistance in the wood. He tugs it out and swings again, putting all his strength into it. It sinks in a little farther but nothing gives. There’s no gratification in it.
He hears Rover somewhere in the distance, calling quietly into the dark.
Harry closes his eyes. He thinks of the lot of them inside and feels like a person removed, like he’s exiled himself. He thinks of exile then, and that’s no good because that’s got him thinking of Zayn. He lifts the maul and brings it down, hard, then tugs it out of the round and lifts it up and brings it down again. He doesn’t stop. The wood presses back against him, resists him, but he keeps on. Keeps going at it like he could drive the thoughts out of his mind by force, exhaust his mind by exhausting his body. He drives the maul into the wood violently with all his might but it won’t give. It won’t split and he’s getting warm, can feel the heat under his arms where his jacket clings.
“You’re going to be out here all night if you keep at it that way.”
Harry jumps a little, taken by surprise. When he turns, he catches sight of Perrie, moving over toward the fence and parking herself on the beam. She’s eating something out of one hand: nuts or dried fruit or something Harry can’t quite make out in the dark. He ignores her and picks the maul up off the ground, pulls up his sleeves and swings it high, lets it sink into the wood of the round and feels the resistance almost like a bouncing back. Like an active rejection. Perrie makes a noise that makes Harry’s blood boil momentarily.
He lets the maul drop to the earth with a heavy thud and leans it against the block. He’s broken a sweat and for a moment there’s something more in it, something in the heat gathering at his middle. Something clawing at the back of his throat. A feeling of restriction, of being trapped. A terrible sense of doom. Everything’s hot and claustrophobic suddenly like he’s being crushed, like he’s burning up. He tugs at his jacket and throws it over the fence and the night air is so cold on the bare skin of his arms that he’s wracked with shivers.
Harry shakes his head dismissively. “I’m fine. Just…goose walked over my grave maybe.” He walks back to the block and glances over at her. “Are you going to sit there all night watching me chop wood?”
“Just enjoying the view.” She pops a slice of dried apple in her mouth and chews, watching him silently. Then she tilts her head and frowns like she’s not happy with what she’s about to say. “You’ll want to travel by day and keep yourselves safe at night. Close ranks and keep watch. There’s things out here. Things that only come out after dark. Things that aren’t to be trifled with.”
Harry just nods and picks the maul off the ground. He lifts it once more and takes a swing at the round, then presses his boot to the edge of the wood and uses it as leverage, wiggles the maul until it comes free.
“Jesy’s asked me to offer you a couple more nights. Says she thinks you might have some things to talk over. Things that aren’t being said.”
Harry shakes his head. He lifts the maul and takes another swing. Nothing.
“We don’t owe you an explanation—“
“I meant amongst yourselves. I may not have Jesy’s touch or her spooky cards but I can sure as hell pick up a vibe. Could drown an ox with the weight of all you’re not saying.”
Harry feels his jaw go tight. He doesn’t answer.
“Suit yourself, kid.” She jumps down off the fence and moves back toward the house, then hesitates. Pauses momentarily like she’s considering something. “You’ll want to use a wedge on those. It’s good wood but it’s all twisted up at the middle. You’ll not get it split just by brute force. Make one clean strike and drive a wedge in…it’ll tell you itself just where it’s keen to split.”
Harry adjusts his grip on the maul and lifts it once more. He sets his jaw and brings it down on the round with another sickly “thud”.
“Or, hell…you can just keep knocking on it until you’re exhausted. If that’s what you’re playing at be my guest. There’s more wood around the back of the shed if you just want something easy. It’ll split clean but it’s rotten at the center and near useless. Pick your poison.”
He looks up then. He means to answer, to say a terse thanks or to tell her to fuck off, but she’s already gone, heading through the dark back toward the house.
He drops the maul and just stands there for a moment letting the cool air move over his forearms. Then he walks over to the chopping block and retrieves the wedge off the ground.
They ride east. They don’t discuss it, don’t say much of anything really when they wake up. They eat breakfast with the women and listen to them laugh and squabble and when they’ve finished they stand and it’s understood that they won’t be staying. Jesy eyes them from her seat at the table and Harry avoids her gaze. There’s something too hard there. Something a little too sad. Some judgement he doesn’t want to acknowledge.
Perrie retrieves the sack of their arms from a back room and hands it over to Harry as he readies his horse. He lifts it experimentally and eyes the shape of it.
“I’ll find everything here, right? Everything in its place?”
Perrie just rolls her eyes. “We’re not thieves.”
“That’s fine. Just want to be certain.”
Louis is wandering away, weaving his way through the grove of knot trees beyond the fence and whistling shrilly.
“Louis, come on. She’ll find her own way like you said.”
He stops but he doesn’t turn around. Doesn’t come back just yet, like he’s got to defy Harry in some small way.
“She didn’t come back in last night…we should wait a little longer. Make sure she knows which way we’ve gone.”
“She’ll find her way.” His voice is hard and final and he hates the sound of it in his own ears.
Louis adjust his gun at his hip in a deliberate sort of way and then turns. “Fuck it. Whatever. She can rot then I guess.”
Harry doesn’t answer him, he just swings up onto his horse and settles in on the saddle. There’s a pressure at his knee. He glances down and Perrie’s still there, looking up at him and holding his leg, her expression clouded in a way that Harry can’t quite read.
“You lot…you help, right? That’s what you’re meant to do?”
Harry watches her for a moment. He not sure how to answer her. Is that it? Is that what they’re meant for? He just nods.
“When you get to Riverbend, keep your eyes open, right? There’s something…” she frowns and shakes her head. “I don’t know what. Just, help might be a thing they need and if that’s the case, you can call on us. On the three of us. We’ll come.”
Harry doesn’t know what she’s on about but he nods. Her words sink in then and he does a quick accounting in his head. “Three of you?”
“Why three? There’s four of you…”
Perrie drops her hand and shakes her head like Harry’s missing something obvious. Like he’s stupid. “Jesy doesn’t fight.”
“What do you mean ‘doesn’t fight’? What does that even—“
“She doesn’t fight.” Her tone is cold suddenly, like it’s not a thing to be discussed. “Not everyone’s got a killer in them, kid. You’d do well to remember that. And respect it.”
They meet up with the tracks and they continue east as the sun continues its slow crawl west. It’s quiet save for Louis’ occasional whistle and the watery rush of the river to their left, curving and bending along with the tracks. Rover hasn’t come back. Her absence nags at Harry but he presses the uneasiness down into himself. He can’t be bothered. She’s Louis’ responsibility and anyway, she keeps her own counsel. She’s probably off stalking sand snakes or digging for grubs. She doesn’t understand how it nags at them just now, her leaving.
“Whoa. Hold up,” Liam says. He tugs his horse to a stop in front of Harry, shading his eyes with one hand. “What’s all that?”
Harry squints and follows his gaze. He’s not sure what he’s seeing at first. A hill? A pile of rocks? It’s a blockage, that much is certain. Some kind of wreckage blocking the track as it curves its way between two bluffs and into the river valley.
He hears Louis coming up behind him.
“What a mess.”
Liam shrugs. “We’ll have something to write home about at least.”
“Need a bird for writing home.” Louis sounds sour. “I’ve lost mine.”
“She’ll come back, Lou. She’s just acting out.” Liam clicks his tongue and sets his horse moving. “Do you hear that, though?”
Harry tilts his head, listening for whatever Liam’s caught on the breeze, and then he hears it: a thin grating whine, more like a sensation than a noise, really. His horse quivers under him like she hears it too, like it’s setting her on edge.
“A thinny, you think?” Liam sounds uncertain. Apprehensive.
“Must be.” Harry presses a hand to his horse’s neck, trying to soothe her. “Be on guard, then.”
Louis rides past them toward the blockage. He’s got a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, unlit. “Weird shit, Liam. Be on guard for weird shit.”
As they get closer it becomes clear that the blockage is more than just rocks, that it’s not the product of anything natural like a landslide or an earthquake. Harry can make out twisted metal, the husks of rusted out oil derricks and the detritus of the old world. There’s a battered metal sign leaned up against the Western slope of the mass and Harry can just make out the text, white on faded rust-spotted green. Top ka 19. It’s meaningless, a leftover, but there’s something else written there, as fresh and new as the other text is old, something scrawled in what looks like red paint:
WATCH OUT FOR BITERS
Louis strikes a match and lights his cigarette. Liam rides up beside him and Louis gestures at the strange graffiti like he’s presenting some sort of evidence. “See? Weird shit.”
“That’s…cryptic. She said there’s a town just up the way, yeah? Reckon this is their doing?”
Harry shakes his head, bewildered. Weird shit, he thinks. That’s about the shape of it. “Maybe,” he says. “It looks…”
“Deliberate.” Liam leans forward and cranes his neck to get a better look at the blockage. He’s right. It has the look of something slowly accumulated, wreckage gathered and piled carefully. An orchestrated disaster. “Why on earth would they block the track? The trade route is—“
“Maybe they’re not interested in trading, Liam.” Louis skirts the wreckage and continues east into the river valley. “We’d best go ask them ourselves.”
They find the town proper another half hour up the way, just where the river makes a sharp bend south then east again. The tracks veer off their path and up to the north edge of town where Harry can see a dilapidated, squat looking old concrete building that must’ve been a train station. Before, that is, back when the world ran on a schedule.
The rest of the town is wooden houses cobbled together from old and new bits and pieces, a few bigger buildings that look like leftovers, and dusty streets of dirt and cracked concrete. It’s quiet when they ride in and there’s no one on the streets which strikes Harry as odd. He wonders if they’re shut up inside or if they’ve gone somewhere. For a moment he’s struck by a weird inkling that he’s missed something important, like the sense you get when you walk into a room that’s just been vacated. But it’s momentary, and then he sees a young boy round the corner of a building carrying what looks like a bucket of rags. When the boy catches sight of them his mouth drops open in surprise and he stops mid-stride. He stands there, stock-still, like he’s not certain what to do or say.
“Long days and pleasant nights.” Harry makes his voice friendly. Benign.
The boy doesn’t answer. He just stares at Harry, eyeing his boots, his face, the curve of his saddle. Then he eyes Liam and Louis in turn.
Harry tries again. “This is Riverbend, yeah?”
The boy looks at him again. Nods tightly.
“Would you happen to know of a Rochelle here in town? We were told—“
“Oh.” Something changes in the set of the boy’s shoulders. His face softens like he’s relieved. Or like he’s made sense of something. “You know Roch?”
“Sure, kid. If you could just tell us where to find her.”
The boy gestures back the way he came. “Down the next street. The one with the porch and broken water pump. She’s out back.”
Harry tips his hat and moves his horse forward. “Appreciate it, kid.”
They move on and they find the house just where he said it would be: a two story wooden farmhouse with a wide porch, a dried out scrubby yard and a water pump with a bit of itself bent and hanging off. They dismount and Louis stays with the horses, scanning the sky in a distracted sort of way. Harry wants to tell him to stop worrying, that she’ll be fine, but he bites his tongue. Louis doesn’t want to hear it. Not from him.
They round the side of the house, him and Liam, and they find a woman and a cow. The cow is chewing languidly and swinging its tail at flies and the woman is seated on a stool, crouched forward and tugging at the animal’s udders, squeezing milk into a small bucket.
Liam clears his throat and removes his hat, holding it at his chest in a disarming manner. The women starts a bit then turns, eyeing them over her shoulder. She appraises them, and then lets her hands drop and wipes them on her pants before standing to face them. Harry studies her for a moment. She’s wearing a stained work shit that’s had the sleeves taken off and he can see the tan on her arms, muscles that are well-defined. She looks like a woman who knows a hard day’s work but there’s something soft about her face and the tight curl of her dark hair, something that seems a little too beautiful for the wasted washed out nature of her surroundings.
“What can I do for you?”
Harry removes his hat and lets it hang from his hand. “Are you Rochelle?”
“Might be. Depends who’s asking.”
He glances at Liam and then back at the woman, trying to make himself as benign as he can manage. “We were told you might have a spare room to let for a few days.”
“Told by whom?” She leans over and retrieves the pail from under the cow and then presses a hand to her flank like she’s letting her off the hook, relieving her of her duties. The cow wanders away toward the fence and Rochelle heads past them toward the front of the house.
“Perrie. And her uh…her friends.”
“Perrie? Should've said that straight away.” She stops walking and turns. She appraises them once more and then extends a hand. “I’m Rochelle, yeah.”
“That’s a relief.” Liam shakes her hand and Harry follows suit. Her palm is still warm from the milking and her grip is strong and sure, nothing to be scoffed at.
“You boys can tie your horses out front there for now. There’s a stable at the West edge of town where you can put them up but come on inside first and I’ll show you the room.”
The house is warm and bright and lived-in and empty. Harry gets that feeling again, like he’s entered a room that was occupied until a just a moment ago, that he’s just missed someone, but it’s just that it’s a house made for more than one person maybe. A house built for a family that isn’t here. They pass a small living room with a faded woven rug and a couch, a bright and tidy kitchen that smells of bacon grease and oats, and two closed doors. Rochelle leads them up a set of battered wood stairs and retrieves a key from the pocket of her jeans. She works it in a door just off the landing and swings it wide, letting them shuffle past her.
They file in and give it a quick visual inspection and find it suitable. Two beds that are more like mats on the floor, set against either wall. A wooden-framed window that looks like it slides open and a small writing desk with a matching chair. Harry turns in a slow circle and then nods. He sets his pack down on the floor.
“This’ll do just fine.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“How much should we…”
“Don’t need to worry so much about that. Perrie’s a friend. Got a couple things need fixing, crooked fence post and the like. You lot can just help out with a few things, if it pleases you.” She eyes Liam in a particular way and smiles. “You look strong enough for it, anyway.”
Harry nods. “Much obliged.”
“What’s your business here in town, if you don’t mind me asking? There’s a latch on the bottom you’ll want to trip, kid.”
Harry frowns at her, confused, and then realizes the last bit was meant for Louis. He’s across the room struggling with the window, trying to get it open. Liam moves to help him and Harry hears Louis muttering under his breath.
“Just in case…don’t want to lock her out if she comes back when we’re not expecting…”
Harry turns back to her. “I’m sorry?”
“I asked what business you had in Riverbend.”
“Oh. Uh…no particular business here, just passing through. Making our way southeast.”
She just watches him for a moment, her gaze a little wary, and he thinks she’s about to say something more, to ask a question maybe, but then her expression softens.
“Alright then.” She offers him the key and he takes it, tucking it into his jacket pocket. “That’s the only one, so your gunna will be safe if you leave it. I would fix you some supper but my suppertime’s already come and gone. I’ll have breakfast in the morning but for now, you can bed your horses down at the stables and have your supper at the tavern. It’s not hard to find. You’ll know it when you hear it.”
He nods and thanks her. She heads for the door and then pauses. Hesitates like she’s debating saying something more.
“You don’t want to stay outside too late here. Not without a friend. So just…mind the hour.”
Harry wants to ask for an explanation but she’s already gone, headed back down the stairs and out the door.
“I worry that she’s gotten lost. Or hurt. Trapped somewhere maybe. She wouldn’t just leave. We should have waited.”
Harry can hear the muffled sounds of conversation coming from the tavern just down the street, a quiet cacophony of voices and the jangling of a piano. They caught sight of it when they came round the corner, its windows aglow with light and the sort of shadowplay that indicates a crowd. The air in the stable is sweet with the scent of oats and hay and musk and Louis’ expression is troubled in the dim light. Liam hangs his tack from a hook on the wall and gets a feed bag around his horse’s nose and then turns to Louis, pressing a hand to his shoulder and walking him toward the door. Louis shrugs him off. He steps outside.
“She’s just upset with us maybe. She’s acting out.”
“She’s a bird, Liam.”
“Dunno, birds have feelings don’t they?”
Harry gets his saddle hung in the corner of the stall and joins them outside. It’s nearly dark now. The sun’s dipped below the buildings and the sky is a deep orangey grey above them. Liam shrugs in a deliberately light sort of way and smiles like he’s trying to lead by example, to calm Louis by osmosis.
“She’s probably just sore over Harry chucking a rock at her. She’ll come around.”
Louis spins around abruptly, his expression hard. “You chucked a rock at her?”
Harry opens his mouth to answer and then closes it again. It’s unnerving, the way Louis is looking right at him. He’s not looked at Harry in days and Harry’s not sure what to say. It’s no great transgression really, tossing a rock Rover’s way or dry-firing at her in frustration when she’s having a particularly irritating day. Liam puts his hands up like he’s trying to talk Louis down.
“He wasn’t trying to hit her, he was just—“
“Just what? Trying to get rid of her?” Louis shakes his head like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “Jesus, Harry. Would you be happier if we left as well? Would that suit you better? If we both just fucked off like—”
“Louis...” There's a warning in Liam's tone.
“Louis, I wasn’t…” Harry shakes his head. His exasperation is creeping, coloring his tone. “She was being obnoxious and I just—”
“Just thought you’d take your bullshit out on her? The same way you did on him? Because that worked out so fucking well, right? Who’ll be next then? Me? Liam?”
Harry feels his jaw go tight. Louis is out of line. He’s making a scene.
“Stand true, Louis.” Harry’s voice is cold and it stops Louis in his tracks. He doesn’t answer for a moment; he just stands there watching Harry. His gaze cuts like a knife. Liam worries at the brim of his hat and glances down the street toward the tavern, then back at the two of them.
He clears his throat quietly. “We should…”
“Yeah, whatever. Let’s go.” Louis spins around again and heads toward the light and the noise of the crowd, and the two of them are left standing in the dark.
The tavern is lit up by electric light and that surprises Harry somehow. It’s been ages since he’s seen a proper lamp. They must have a wheel going down at the river, putting out just enough power to light the bar. The place is about half full of people and the air is filled with conversation but it’s not the cheery sort of vibe Harry would expect from a tavern at sundown. It’s a little too hushed. A little too quiet. There’s a woman in the corner near the bar and Harry thinks she’s crying. She’s being comforted by a young man, but his back is turned to them and Harry can’t make out his face, just that his hair is sandy and he looks slight under his clothes but broad through the shoulders. There’s something familiar about him, even from the back like this. Harry can’t put his finger on it, but it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing to put his finger on. Not really. Harry’s too far from home to know anyone at all. It’s just an echo maybe, the memory of someone from a long time ago.
They find Louis already sitting at a table at the far end of the room, talking with a girl in a tattered-looking apron. They sit.
“I’ve ordered food.” He’s got a pint glass in front of him already and he lifts it to his mouth, taking a deep swig in a way that broadcasts focused intent.
He’ll get drunk tonight, Harry thinks, He’ll drink too much. I should say something.
He holds his tongue. He looks up toward the front of the room, and just as he does the sandy-looking boy looks up too. He’s behind the bar now—must work here or something—and their eyes meet for just a moment and it’s like…Harry isn’t sure. Something impossible. It’s like the boy recognizes him right back. Like he’s trying to place Harry’s face and he’s so intent on it for a moment that he doesn’t see the girl coming up behind him as he takes a step back. They collide and a glass falls from her hands and it shatters on the floor and it’s like a spell breaking. The boy whirls around and apologizes and then he’s disappeared behind the bar, crouching down to help her tidy it up.
They eat. They keep their heads down and they don’t speak, mostly. There’s things to talk about but now’s not the time. They’ve got to sit palaver. They’ve got to hash it out but food and palaver don’t mix, so they sit in silence and when they’ve finished eating, Harry stands. Liam follows suit but Louis doesn’t budge.
Harry tempers his irritation. “Are you coming?”
He shakes his head tightly and gestures at the girl behind the bar, waggling his empty pint glass. “Nah. Gonna sit for a spell.”
Harry wants to argue. Wants to pull him up out of the chair and drag him back to the house where he’s meant to be. With them. But he doesn’t. He just sets his hat on his head and turns away.
Liam follows him toward the door, hesitant and nervy, and as they head out Harry glances back toward the bar, trying to catch one more glimpse of the boy—the one he could swear he’s met before, who he can’t seem to place—but he’s gone. Harry dips his head and steps out into the dark.
The house is quiet when they return and Rochelle greets them at the foot of the stairs looking like she’s headed to bed herself. Liam removes his hat and nods politely as they come in.
“Evening. Sorry for the noise.”
“No trouble. Wasn’t sleeping yet. You go on up and get a night’s rest.”
“Ma’am.” He heads up the stairs, his gait a little plodding and slow, like he’s half sleeping already. Rochelle watches him make his way and then turns to Harry like she knows he’s about to ask something of her. Like she can smell it on him.
“Thank you again for putting us up. We’ll try to stay out of your hair.”
She just shrugs and crosses her arms loosely across her chest. “No trouble, like I said.”
“I was hoping you could tell me how someone would go about posting a letter.”
She studies him for a moment. “A letter.”
Harry just nods. He doesn’t elaborate. He understands that she doesn’t need him to, that maybe she’s simply waiting for him to volunteer more information.
“Niall can help you with that, I expect. Skinny kid at the bar, hair that’s a right mess. He can post something for you.”
The boy at the bar. The one he couldn’t place. Harry feels something turn inside of him and he can’t place that either.
“Right. Thank you.”
She nods. “He’ll be there in the morning. You can head over and talk to him about it. I’ll have breakfast on when you get back.”
She turns to go and he understands that the conversation is over.
He dreams of Gilead. In his dream, he stands in the corridor adjacent to the great hall. Or he crouches. Or kneels. He’s looking for something under a side table and the side table becomes a chair and he curses the dusty stones and the girl from the kitchens who’s meant to clean out here. He stretches his arm long, extending it into the dark.
“Have you got it?”
The voice is strange. The voice is familiar. There’s a lilt to it: something old and new all at once. Harry looks over his shoulder at no one, at the implied presence of a person he’s met and not met a thousand times.
“You’ve got to hurry.”
He can’t reach, so he gives up and he crawls. He pushes his whole body under the table or chair and he squeezes past the stones and into the dark and when he comes out the other side he’s crawling in rubble, in dust and wreckage, and he sees something lying there on the ground: a dark shape defined by its own weight and an absence of life. It’s hard to breathe in here. It’s too close, too tight, and he doesn’t want to look but he’s got no choice. He’s got to know so he pulls himself forward along the ground and crouches over the figure. It's wrapped in harrier’s rags, covered in blood and limp and face-down in the dirt. He reaches out for the body with a hand that won’t stop shaking, flips him on his back and sees his eyes, milky and wide and stained by death but green as the day he was born. A mirror. A bastardized image of himself. He can’t look at it anymore, can’t let it look back at him so he presses upward. He struggles to stand and—
—he’s in a sort of field, a sea of dried up grass and the kind of flowers that last through a drought, small and white and yellow and compressed in on themselves, hardened against the world. He sees Zayn in the distance sitting just at the crest of a small hill, leaned up against the base of a tree. Harry goes to him, wading through the knee-deep grass but Zayn doesn’t look up. He’s peering down at his lap and Harry sees it sitting there: the glass. Deep green and winking like a dragon’s eye.
“It doesn't change. I can't stop it.”
But Zayn isn’t speaking to Harry. He’s talking to himself. Or to the thing in his lap, just the way Harry remembers him. Disconnected. Barely there.
Harry reaches out. He extends his hand toward Zayn, toward the orb resting in his lap. It's a little abyss, like a thing you could fall into, like something that could consume you if you’re not careful. But Zayn is always careful. He’s always so intentional, even when he’s lashing out. Harry presses one finger to the back of Zayn’s hand and it almost feels real.
Zayn looks up then. He tilts his head like he’s heard something but he’s looking right through Harry, like Harry’s there and not there at all.
“I knew you'd come. It showed me where. I saw you.”
Zayn’s gaze drifts. He’s peering out into the grass, at something out there just beyond Harry. At the place Harry’s just been. For an instant the concern on his face is so real that Harry feels like breaking. He’d like to lie down here, to go soft and left himself be cared for. To be held. Just this once.
"Who did that to you?"
Harry doesn't have to look. He knows what's lying there behind him, hidden in the tall grass. He doesn't need to turn around, doesn't want to see his own eyes staring back at him. He just shakes his head.
"I don't know—"
“You’ve got to hurry.” Zayn's voice has gone pleading. Harry can hear a noise in the distance, a scrape and a rattle. Something coming. “We’ll wake them.”
He wakes to a noise, a wooden thud and a breathy laugh.
“Jesus. Keep your feet, you great oaf. Rochelle will have my hide and yours if we wake her. Just…nearly there.”
Harry opens his eyes and reaches under his pillow for his gun. Lets his hand close over the wood of the grip and then waits. He listens. He can hear Liam breathing from the other side of the room, even and deep.
“Fuck it,” it’s Louis’ voice traveling down the hall, the sharpness of it ricocheting off the soft wood of the walls. Another thud and a laugh. “Wake ‘em all up. I don’t care.” He sounds watery around the edges.
“I care. I’m the one who cares.” The other voice is familiar and unfamiliar at once and for a moment Harry wonders if he’s still dreaming.
“You’re a good lad. Fucking thoughtful and shit.”
Harry sits up just as the door swings open and Louis spills inside, half supported by a boy. Or a man, rather. He’s as much a man as any of them but Harry has trouble feeling that of himself these days. He recognizes the boy from the bar, tanned and golden and sandy-haired like the whole of him is kissed or bleached by the sun. The boy helps Louis to the bed in the corner, the one that’s full of Liam, and then drops him half-gently. Louis lands with a soft sort of whump and laughs into the blanket. He crawls up Liam's length and stretches out beside him.
"Liam," his voice is high and cloying, like a whine. He smells like beer and sweat and dust. "Liam wakey-wakey."
Liam grunts and rolls over, still half asleep, and Louis pokes him in the side.
"Lou, stop it.” Harry throws the blankets off and sits up. The air is cool on his bare chest. He reaches over and presses a hand to Louis' shoulder. "Just go to sleep."
Louis doesn't look up at him. He presses his forehead between Liam's shoulder blades and ignores Harry.
"We'll talk about this in the morning."
"Fuck off." It's so quiet it's nearly a whisper.
Harry turns away. He faces the boy. "Thank you for delivering him."
But the boy's not looking at Harry. He's looking at the table in the corner, at something lying there, dark and metallic and oily. Something that shouldn't be lying out at all but Louis isn't thinking straight, is he? He's got his head on all wrong. Harry swears under his breath. The boy looks up at him, his face a question, and then the question becomes something else. Something stranger.
Harry looks back at him and for a moment everything feels sideways. The world’s pulled long and wrong like he's looking into a thinny.
"It's...it's not a problem. I just..." The boy looks at the table again, at the revolver lying there. Louis' revolver. "I've got to get back.”
He turns and hurries out the door and Harry hears Liam stirring, hears him questioning Louis in the dark, his voice quiet and low and comforting. Harry feels caught up for a moment—like something of him has been taken, has fallen right into that boy's eyes—and then he's in the here and now standing in the dark of their room in just his trousers. He tugs his jacket off the chair and hurries after the boy, following him out the door and down the stairs.
Harry catches him on the porch. He grabs the boy's arm as he's fixing to take the first step down to the dirt and the boy reels around, his body tensed. He sees Harry and his eyes soften in a peculiar way and Harry feels it again: that he's losing himself, that he's falling into something. He looks down at the ground, at his own bare feet. He fumbles in his coat pocket and fishes out the bullet.
"What did you say your name was, kid?"
The boy laughs like he's doing it in spite of himself. "Kid is it? How old are you then?"
"Old enough." Harry lets the bullet move over his hand. Spins it between his knuckles and around the curve of his fingers just the way his mother taught him. He looks the boy in the eye and then glances down at his own hand, leading the way. The boy obliges. He watches the bullet dance, his face uncertain, and then he looks up again. He looks Harry right in the eye.
Harry nearly drops the shell. He fumbles a little and then catches it in his palm. Shoves it awkwardly in the pocket of his pants. The boy--Niall--watches him curiously.
"Was that meant to--"
Harry clears his throat. He's not sure what to say. He feels things slipping out of his grasp. "Look, I'd appreciate it if you would just--"
"Keep it to myself?" Niall inclines his head, indicating the upstairs. The room full of their things. The gun on the table. Liam and Louis clinging to each other in the dark. "Yeah."
Harry swallows and speaks slowly. "Thank you."
Niall nods. He looks down at Harry's pocket where his hand is resting awkwardly, half tucked in, one finger pressed against the curve of the bullet.
"That sort of thing doesn't work on me. Better to just ask."
He turns on one heel and moves away. Harry watches him go, his steps quick and light, and then he's gone. He’s been swallowed up by the darkness.
The road is cracked and dusty and lined with weeds and in the light of the morning, everything is painted in shades of straw and copper and piss. Yellows and browns, wilted and dry like the rest of this world. Harry makes his way through town on foot, tipping his hat to what few folks he passes, tapping his throat or his collar politely. Blending in. Making himself just noticeable enough to be utterly forgettable, the way he was taught. The way he’s meant to be.
He presses his hand to his jacket and feels the letter at his breast, secure.
He woke up early and wrote it all down. He always wakes up early. Earlier than the other three, at least. Two now, he thinks, just two. Louis was snoring loudly when Harry let himself out the door, his arm draped over Liam’s chest, and the room smelled of sleep and man and boy and a little like a back alley distillery. Harry woke up irritable. Put upon. Filled with a disjointed sour feeling and something else—a nervous energy, the ghost of something he saw in that boy’s gaze.
His mind is like a storm these days. Like a thing he can’t quite control. His thoughts are dark clouds and his decisions feel more like weather patterns than judgements. Like prevailing winds. He doesn’t like it. It’s not the way he’s meant to be. He thinks of what Perrie said about the lot of them, how she called them ka’s fools, and look at him now: moving down the street, putting one foot in front of the other like has a choice. As if it weren’t a charade, as if he’s not meant to surrender to a strange current he can’t quite perceive.
On his shell he holds the earth…
When he comes to the tavern, he adjusts his hat and knocks his boots against the wooden front step and rubs at his face with the flat of one hand, like he could smooth out whatever’s left its stain there. He straightens his collar and clears his throat and then shoves his hands into his pockets, self-conscious suddenly. He’s not sure who he’s trying to impress. He knows what’s behind the door. He swings it open and walks inside.
It’s nearly empty, which causes Harry to balk a bit. He supposes he shouldn’t be surprised, it’s early. He should’ve expected this. He sets his shoulders and walks to the bar and sits himself down on a stool, scooting it up to the counter. He tries to be inconspicuous about it but the wooden legs scrape across the floor and make an unholy sound, a screeching like a bumbler caught in a trap. He winces. He removes his hat and smoothes his hair and looks up just as the boy behind the bar is turning to see what all the noise is about. When he sees Harry his eyes go a little strange: a little wide...a little hard and a little soft all at once.
Yeah, Harry thinks. His head is swimming. That’s about right, isn’t it?
The kid—Niall…his name is Niall—grabs something from under the counter and tosses it down in front of Harry. A coaster woven from flat dried grass. That makes Harry smile in spite of himself. It’s a queer affectation, an archaic sort of thing, keeping things tidy in the face of a world that’s an ungodly mess.
“A little early for drinking, don’t you think?” There’s a smirk in his voice, the ghost of a laugh, maybe.
Harry tilts his head, playing along. “Who can really tell anymore, you know? Early…late….”
“Fair enough. Not too early for them two anyway,” Niall nods in the direction of the only other patrons in the room and Harry follows his gaze. He sees two very damp-looking men painted in the same dusty piss shades as the rest of the town. One of them seems to be holding court, expounding sloppily on the merits of oxen versus jenny mules, and the other is face down on the table, his hand gripped loosely around the bottom of a pint. It’s a strangely tender scene, his fingers clutching the glass in an embrace that’s just this side of delicate. “Perhaps they’ve got some room for you at their table.”
Harry turns back to the bar and shrugs. “Wouldn’t want to interrupt. Don’t know much about mules.” He sets his hat down in the wood of the bar and runs his hand through his hair again. He’s got to quit worrying at it. “I’ll just have a ginger beer.”
Niall nods and turns away. He fills a glass and slides it across the counter and Harry clutches it with both hands loosely, runs his fingers through the condensation. Neither of them says anything but Niall doesn’t move away. He waits, like he knows Harry is here for something...and of course he knows, he’s that sort. Harry’s felt it. But when he speaks, it’s not a knowing thing. His voice is open and disarming.
“I could send you back with some.”
Harry looks up. Their eyes meet and Harry is taken again for a moment, caught up in the strangeness of his gaze. It’s Niall who looks away now, his face apologetic.
“For your friend. Louis, is it? I imagine he’s in a right state this morning. Could be a kindness to his stomach.”
Harry thinks of Louis…lying there back at the rooming house, dead to the world and curled around Liam. Soaked in rye and resentment and the bitterness of a child who’s been left behind.
Niall only nods, then he eyes the breast of Harry’s jacket. “You’ll be wanting to deal with that, then?”
His voice has gone quiet, just for the two of them. Harry is caught off guard, and it must show on his face, because Niall says “sorry” and sets about wiping down the counter.
“Rochelle said I should come to you if I needed—“
“Lower your voice please.” He smiles amiably down at the counter. Harry shuts his mouth. He waits.
Niall drops the rag and turns away, then comes back with a jug of something and sets it in front of Harry. His eyes are jovial again, open and soft and blue as a summer sky and vast like the sky too. Like Harry could fall right in.
“For your friend. Tell him I’m thinking of him in this trying time.”
Harry laughs despite himself and breaks his gaze. He tosses a few coins on the counter and that gets something like an eye-roll from Niall. Maybe they’re too far out now for coins to mean much of anything. Harry shrugs apologetically and reaches for the jug. As he closes his hand around the neck, slippery with condensation, he feels Niall’s hand press against his just for a moment and just for a moment Harry feels a tugging somewhere beneath his breastbone, in a small secret space. He breathes in, sharp and sudden. Niall pulls his hand away and busies himself behind the bar, barely looking up. His cheeks look ruddy.
“Come back around lunch and I’ll have someone to spell me. We’ll take a ride.”
Liam is singing. Harry can hear it through the door as he steps onto the worn slats of the deck. He takes his hat off of his head and tucks it under his arm, balancing the jug of ginger beer awkwardly as he smoothes his hair. He doesn’t move for a time, he just stands there and listens to Liam’s voice, warm and a little raspy with sleep.
...back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh I've finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road...
It’s an old song, something Harry’s mother used to sing. He closes his eyes and for a moment he tries not to worry or wonder or fret. Tries not to think of what will change when he walks through the door and it’s the three of them together with all their grievances and everything they’ve not yet said.
He can hear Louis’ voice, muffled by the wood of the door, and then a laugh, high and feminine and ringing.
He finds them in the kitchen, sleep-mussed and smiling. Louis looks about the way Harry would expect, his cheeks a little hollow and the underside of his eyes puffy. He’s leaned up against the counter near the stove watching Rochelle as she cooks. Making her laugh. She’s wearing a work shirt, dusty black jeans and boots. Her dark hair is pinned up on her head like an elegant sort of afterthought and Harry is struck for a moment by the look of her. It seems a paradox sometimes, that there are still such lovely things in this world, existing in all the decay, shining brightly in the face of a world that’s growing dim. That’s moving on.
Liam is sat at the table with a battered guitar on his lap. He can barely play but that’s never stopped him before. He moves his fingers awkwardly over the frets as he sings and that’s something he can do. His voice is full and ringing and sweet. It sounds like home. Harry slips into the kitchen and sets his hat and jug down on the table. He takes a seat across from Liam, who nods and smiles, and Harry doesn’t speak for a time. He just listens. The kitchen is filled with sound: Liam’s voice, the rich strum of the guitar, the crackling of the grease in the pan. Rochelle’s laugh and the hushed percussive rasp of Louis’ voice. Louis doesn’t acknowledge Harry; he focuses on Rochelle, on the bacon sizzling in the pan, on the dusty floor and his own two hands.
Harry ignores Louis in turn. He nods at the guitar. “Where’d you find that, then?”
Liam smiles down at the strings. “Was just layin’ about.”
“Belongs to my brother.” Rochelle sets a plate filled with what look like hot cakes in the center of the table and then bacon and a plate of eggs in turn. Liam’s eyes go wide. He misses a chord, then gives up entirely and sets the instrument aside, studying the spread in front of him.
“Holy hell, ma’am. This is…”
“It’s breakfast. And if you ma’am me again, you’ll not get a bite, kid. Do I look like an old maid to you?” Her voice is teasing. Merciless.
Liam blushes and dips his head. “Apologies, ma’a—er…miss—“
“Just call me Rochelle, sweetness. Christ, you’re a cute one. Are they all as polite as you out west?”
Liam’s cheeks are bright red now. “Sorry. Thank you. For breakfast.”
Louis laughs sharply from the corner and joins them at the table. He glances at the jug sitting in front of Harry, curious and reticent at once. Harry’s voice is rough in his own ears when he speaks, a little sullen. He doesn’t feel it, that’s just the way it comes out of him.
“That’s meant for you. Boy from the bar thought you could use it.”
Louis raises an eyebrow, then focuses on dishing himself some food. Liam watches him. He glances at Harry and then at the jug.
“Well…I’ll have a bit if that’s quite alright. You got more mugs or some such around here?”
“Right-hand cupboard, babe. Middle-ish.”
Liam busies himself with serving up the ginger beer. Harry and Louis sit in silence and Rochelle leans back in her chair, her hands wrapped around a mug. She smiles like she wants to laugh, looks between the two of them and takes a sip.
“Stellar company, you two. Great convers—“
“Does he live here, then? Your brother?” Liam’s voice is chipper and deliberate.
Rochelle smirks down at her coffee. “A bit. Sometimes. He gets about. Needs his space, like, but stops by regularly to eat my food and help soggy drunks up my stairs.”
Harry nearly chokes on his next bite of hot cake and coughs into his sleeve. He takes a sip of ginger beer.
“Oh! The one from last…he’s your brother then?” Liam is smiling sunnily, like he’s solved a riddle.
“Alright, yeah. That’s…” Liam looks a little bewildered suddenly. “I wouldn’t’ve…huh…” His cheeks have gone red again.
Rochelle watches him squirm. “It’s alright. We don’t look alike, you can say it. He’s not a brother by blood, just by happenstance. Not an uncommon sort of family out here, more than where you come from I expect. I know how the inner baronies love them a legacy.”
Liam looks embarrassed and relieved all at once. Rochelle trains her gaze on Harry. “Was he able to help you, then?”
Harry clears his throat and takes another sip of his drink.
“Uh…Niall?” The name is foreign and familiar on his tongue all at once and it dawns on Harry that this is his first time saying it, the first time he’s made the shape of it with his mouth. It shouldn’t feel like a thing of any significance. He’s struck then for an instant by the memory of Niall’s hand touching his. The particular strangeness of it. “He asked me to come back this afternoon when he’s free.”
Rochelle’s gaze goes sharp, like she’s trying to look right through Harry, and then she softens. “Did he, then?” She sets her coffee down on the table and starts in on her food. There’s something odd in her voice when she speaks again. “He’s always been helpful, that one.”
When they’ve finished eating, they help Rochelle clear the table and then they walk upstairs to their room to sit palaver.
Harry sits cross-legged on the edge of his mattress, his back straight. He reaches into his pocket and traces the curve of the bullet tucked away there. They sit quietly for some time, like they’re waiting for something. It feels strange with just three and maybe no one wants to acknowledge that by speaking. Harry takes his hand out of his coat and folds it up with the other in his lap.
“There’s something odd happening here.”
Louis sips at the glass of ginger beer he’s brought upstairs with him and makes a sour face. “Did you work that out all by yourself? That’s some top-notch sleuthing, Haz. Bully to you.”
Liam shushes him and then turns back to Harry. “Yeah, we’ve had a chat this morning. The way Perrie was talking, the rubbish on the way into town. The people seem—“
“You sat palaver?” He doesn’t mean it to be so sharp.
Liam glances up at him, his eyes apologetic. “No, Harry…just…it was just a chat, like.”
“You weren’t here when we woke up.” Louis’ tone is corrosive. “We didn’t know where you’d gone.”
It hangs there in the air for a moment, heavy with meaning. An indictment. Heat rises in Harry's cheeks.
“Expect we know now, yeah? Off to see Rochelle’s brother, then? Needed help with a problem?”
Harry isn’t sure what to say. It’s fair, the way he’s talking. The acidity there. “I wrote it all out last night while you were out. Rochelle said he could get a letter posted for me. Get it safely back west. We’ve got to let them know that he’s left.”
“You couldn’t have waited until we sat palaver I suppose, the three of us together?”
“Louis, we’ve got to warn—“
“He’s right.” Liam’s voice is final. Decisive. Harry and Louis look at him, speechless.
Louis frowns uncertainly. “Errrr…who’s right?”
Liam shakes his head and runs a hand through his hair. “What? Fuck, I don’t know. Both of you. You’re both right.” He turns to Harry. “You should have waited. We should have talked it through, the three of us.”
Louis tilts his glass. “Like I fucking said—“
“And you’ve got to get your head on straight. You should’ve been here last night, not soaking up the local flavor.”
Louis is taken aback. He looks like he’s about to argue and then acquiesces, but it's simpering and fractious in a way that's a little too familiar. That means he's not quite finished.
“Oh fuck you, Louis. I’m not your mum. Harry’s not your mum, so quit acting like a sullen child. We’re meant to make decisions together. As a group, alright? But to do that we’ve got to fucking be here.”
His voice cracks a little then, and Harry thinks there’s more he’s not saying. Little nagging fears he’s not letting out, that he’s holding inside just like the rest of them.
Louis looks down at the floor.
There's things to be said. To be parsed out. Harry can feel it like a dam threatening to break and drown them all, but if they let that happen, there'll be no stemming the flow. They've not got time, this isn't the place, and he's not ready maybe. Not ready to face what's bound to come pouring out. It's all too fresh, feels too unsteady, like they could be washed right away.
He presses on. He keeps them on the path. The forward momentum feels right, like a thing that will bind them together, prevent them from spinning off into the void.
“Niall’s going to help me with the letter…but I gather it’s not a simple thing. When we spoke I got the impression that this town has ears and they mayn’t all be friendly.”
Liam nods quietly.
Louis worries at the seam of his pants. “I heard some talk last night,” he glances at Liam, “while I was marinating. Nothing very clear. But there’s a fear. That much I gathered. There’s a certain fear.”
Harry ruminates for a moment. “We’ve got to play it easy, lie low and listen. Keep your arms hidden away but keep them close. And for fuck’s sake, don’t run your mouth.” He looks right at Louis then and Louis grimaces down at the ground. “Does this sound right?”
Louis nods tightly but he doesn’t raise his head.
Liam looks from Louis to Harry and back and sighs softly. “Yeah. That’s about the shape of it, it seems.” He rubs at the stubble lining his jaw. “We’re here because of the track, yeah? That’s still our focus as set by the barony. Clearing the track.”
Harry nods and Liam continues, his voice careful. “Are we gathering that the blockage on the track may be a small bit of a bigger going-on around here? Is that a thing we’re agreed on then?”
Louis looks up then. He nods.
Harry watches the floor in front of him. There’s something nagging at him, the ghost of a feeling.
“Yeah,” he says. Then, “there’s something else.”
He feels them watching him, and he feels them. It’s like that sometimes when they palaver. Their minds settle into each other in the shared space and the connection runs deeper. He senses Liam’s anxiety, like a muddy river of worry running just under the surface of his mind, and Louis’ suspicion. His resentment. Harry deserves that maybe. He deserves it all and he wants to fix it too. Wants to hold them close and say he’s sorry and ask them for help. He’s not cut out for this. He feels like a child, playing at real life.
He wonders what they can feel of him, what parts of himself are reaching out to them through the dusty air of the bedroom. He wets his lips.
“He’s got something of the touch.”
“The boy?” Liam frowns, bewildered. “Niall?”
Harry nods. He bites absently at the side of his thumb, frowning down at the floor. It’s difficult, parsing the feelings out. He shakes his head.
“Not something of it, he’s got it. And it’s strong I think. I felt something last night,” he touches his chest lightly without thinking and then drops his hand, self-conscious. “Then again this morning. It’s…probably just that, the touch in him. Probably that’s what I’m feeling but it could be something more.”
When he raises his head, Louis is looking right at him, his eyes dark and cutting.
“How romantic.” His voice is flat. Emotionless. He stands and downs the rest of his drink. “I’m sure the two of you will have a brilliant time together, then.”
Liam watches him, his face uncertain. “Lou—“
“Liam and I will make ourselves innocuous and see what we can see, sound good? We’re done here, yeah?”
Harry nods. “Yeah, we’re done.”
Liam is fretting again, hovering like a mother hen. “Can we just…can we sit a while longer and…talk?”
Harry catches his eye and shakes his head. Liam looks like he wants to argue.
“No time, Liam.” Louis tugs his boots on and reaches for his hat. He sets it on his head and then he pulls Liam up off the floor. Liam goes soft. Lets himself be lifted. “We’ve got recon to get to and Harry’ll be late for his romantic rendezvous.”
“It’s not a…” He picks himself up off the bed and looks at Louis and he understands that it doesn’t matter. Louis is just exorcising something. Needling at something Harry can’t quite fathom. “Never mind.”
Then Louis is out the door, his footsteps echoing down the stairs. Harry focuses on sorting himself out. He reaches under the pillow and finds his gun nestled in his holster. He shouldn’t need it just to post a letter but it’s something of a comfort to him, having it close.
Harry jumps a little at the sound, like he's been caught at something. When he turns, Liam is hovering there halfway out the door. “He’s not dealt with it yet. He needs time…and I think he took you wrong, the way you were talking. He’s worried you’re trying to replace him already or some such thing, you know?”
Harry doesn’t meet his eye.
“That’s not what you meant, right? You were just speaking about the touch?”
“There’s nothing to replace.”
Liam doesn’t say anything. He watches Harry for a spell and then he nods. “Right.”
Harry focuses on buckling his holster and getting the gun snug against his hip. When he looks up again, Liam is gone.
Harry can hear folks in their houses as he walks the streets, can hear them singing or speaking in hushed tones or just moving around. Disembodied voices and the bark and scrape of everyday life. A town’s worth of orphaned sounds. There’s a small child leading a piglet on a rope just down the way from Rochelle’s and a woman hanging laundry on the withered old branches of a knot tree out behind her house, her hands as withered and dried up and craggy as the tree itself.
Rochelle told them it’s not always this way. There’s seasons here, not like some places. Things haven’t moved on so terribly far. The rains will come soon, she says, and the dust will turn to mud and they’ll slide around like pigs on a slaughterhouse floor and be lucky to not break their necks or ruin their nice city boy’s boots.
He half can’t believe it, that a place like this could ever be other than what it is, anything but dehydrated and still—like the heaviness in the air is causing time itself to drag, along with the horses and the river and the thoughts in Harry’s head—that a place like this could move through a cycle or evolve.
Something rolls into his peripheral vision and across the road in front of him, a mess of twigs and dried up shrub, and it’s such a desolate and lonely image it presses at something in his chest. It’s weird, he thinks. Weird that there’s not more people about. He knows they exist, that this town isn’t abandoned. It’s like they’re perched around every corner or behind every door the way a word sits on the tip of your tongue: immediate but just out of reach, unnervingly close but not there at all.
He rounds the corner and comes up on the tavern and spots Niall leaned up against the slats of the wooden porch, hunched over and fiddling with the top of a boot. He hasn’t spotted Harry and Harry measures his gait, comes up on him slow and quiet like. There’s no particular reason for it, he’d just like the time to study Niall maybe, without the distraction of an answering gaze.
Niall finishes playing with his boot and stands, peering down the road away from Harry like he’s looking for someone. Like he’s worried. He brings a hand to his mouth and chews at the side of one nail and it’s a reflex, unconscious and nervy all at once. Harry clears his throat quietly and Niall looks up, dropping his hand. He smiles.
“Long days and pleasant nights.”
Harry nods. “May you have twice the number.”
He taps three fingers to his collarbone, which seems to amuse Niall. He laughs and mimics the motion and then presses himself off the wood of the porch, adjusting his hat on his head.
“Proper. You’ve got it, then?”
Harry taps at the breast of his jacket and nods. Niall jerks his head toward the western edge of town where they came in.
“We’ll take your horse.”
He’s walking before Harry can say a word and all Harry can do is follow. Niall walks quickly, like he’s in a hurry, and Harry finds himself struggling to keep up. His legs simply don’t want to move that fast. It’s been that way lately, everything feels weighted and difficult. It’s the heat maybe, or all the travel. The way they’ve been moving forward for ages. Or it’s the three of them, the weight of everything unspoken between them dragging at their heels like wet sand.
Harry pushes himself and quickens his stride, falling into step beside Niall. He tugs the letter out of his pocket and holds it loosely between two fingers.
“Are we riding all the way to Gilead ourselves, then? That’s not exactly what I meant when I—“
“You’re funny.” He glances over at Harry, at the letter in his hand. “Put that away, you idiot.” He bats at the letter with one hand, pressing it back toward Harry’s coat.
There’s something about Niall’s laugh and the warm touch of his hand, casual and fleeting, that loosens a part of Harry. He hasn’t made anyone laugh in what feels like an eternity…everything’s been so fraught since Lud. Since before that maybe. He used to be funny, didn’t he? It’s strange to think of, like he’s remembering a friend he’s left behind. Someone not entirely himself. It shocks him a little, to find that person in him again, to hear Niall’s laugh. You’re funny.
He tucks the letter back in his coat and shrugs like he doesn’t know better and it feels performative, like he’s playing to something. To Niall. To impress him. To make him laugh, because his laugh is like something out of time. Something that doesn’t belong here in this place. It’s too light or too warm or it burns too bright, like a sun.
They reach the stable and the horse is just where Harry left her, looking well-rested and fed. He’s been riding her so hard and for so long that he almost feels guilty pulling her out of the stable and saddling her up, but when they get her outside she seems antsy, like she can’t wait to stretch her legs. She stamps a little and shakes her mane and it’s hard to get the blanket straight or the saddle on at first, what with all the moving about.
“Calm down, babe.” He’s wrestling with the saddle, trying to get it slung over her back, but she’s shying away like she’s distracted and Harry feels himself turning red. He must look a fool, letting his horse get the best of him.
But Niall’s not watching Harry. He’s moving toward her head, reaching out for her neck and running a hand over the ridge of her nose. He’s speaking but it’s not meant for Harry, it’s nothing more than a murmur. It seems to help. The horse calms down, lets Niall’s tone soothe her. Harry works the saddle onto her back and runs the strap across her chest, pulling it snug.
He doesn’t register Niall’s presence until his hand is on Harry’s, just over the latigo. He jumps a bit, startled.
“Jesus. You’re quiet as a mouse.”
“Sorry.” It sounds like a laugh. “Would you let me?”
Harry hesitates for a moment and then relents. He drops his hand and steps back. “Knock yourself out.”
Niall tests the tension on the strap and then loosens it a bit. Then cinches it up again. He moves to the horse’s head, reaches for her lead and then clicks his tongue and walks her in a slow circle, one hand grasping the rope and the other on her cheek. Her nose is pressed against his shoulder and it looks strangely intimate, like Harry should avert his gaze. Niall presses his cheek against her jaw and closes his eyes and then nudges her to a stop. He walks back to her belly and cinches the strap up once more, one hand pressed to her flank and then moves forward and repeats the process. When he’s cinched the latigo down a third time, he turns to Harry and gestures to the saddle.
“She seems content with it.”
Harry wants to laugh. It seems so absurd. “She does, does she? That’s good to know.”
Harry gets a foot in the stirrup and pulls himself up. He throws a leg over the saddle and sits and it’s…surprisingly stable. Like the saddle is a part of her, snugged right up against the curve of her back. He looks down at Niall and raises an eyebrow but Niall just smiles and reaches a hand out and waits. Harry grips his arm just below the elbow. He feels Niall’s hand wrap around his arm in turn and his touch is warm and soft and real and sends something like a shock through Harry, like an electrical current. He pauses then and considers.
“Do you prefer in front or behind?”
Niall chews at his lip for a moment, then glances at the horse’s flank. “Behind, if you don’t mind.”
Harry nods. “I’d prefer that too.” He tugs at Niall’s arm and feels him clamber up onto the horse and then he laughs. He’s not sure why he’s laughing, doesn’t really understand what’s funny, but Harry is filled with a particular mania. Like he could do something reckless. “We fit.”
Niall sorts himself out with his front pressed to Harry’s back and Harry can feel him laughing too, in a nervous, exasperated sort of way—like he’s not sure what to make of Harry. Something about it helps Harry feel just a tick more undone.
“Right. Hang on tight and tell me where to go.”
Niall shifts and snakes one arm around Harry’s middle. It feels tentative, like he’s not sure how to touch Harry. Like he’s frightened of being too familiar. And it is. It’s too familiar. Like he’s not a stranger to Harry. Like they’ve done this a thousand times. But that’s not Niall’s fault, it’s nothing to do with the way he’s touching Harry, it just the same unquantifiable closeness he felt when Niall walked into their room last night. The same something he felt in the bar.
“Just ride west. I’ll tell you when to turn.”
They ride west. They ride west and they’re following the sun as it makes its slow descent. They don’t speak, save for Niall’s directions, and they make their way out of town and along a ridge and through a grove of burnt-looking trees and over a dilapidated footbridge that crosses the river. They don’t speak, but Harry could swear there’s a conversation taking place in the varied pressure of Niall’s hand at his middle. The press of his chest to Harry’s back. Their breath has fallen into a rhythm. It’s a necessity when you’re this close but it feels like something more. Like symbiosis. The horse moves beneath them and Harry lets the rocking motion lull him. He feels relaxed. Open sort of, the way he does when he watches the bullet dance over his knuckles. Like his mind has gone soft and pliant and he could just let all his worries pour out onto the dusty ground.
He lets his mind wander to a memory of his childhood, when his mother taught him to ride. The way she steadied him around the middle, the way her legs bracketed his own. The bigness and warmth of the horse under him. The way he’d felt exhilarated and nervous and safe and held all at once. Harry feels the heat and solidity of Niall at his back and he tries to imagine him as a boy. Who taught him how to stay on a horse? He thinks of Rochelle, the way they look nothing alike, and he wonders which of them is the odd duck, the interloper.
“Jesus!” Harry jolts and the horse twitches in response.
Niall’s voice was so matter of fact, so soft and unobtrusive, it was like he was continuing a conversation. How long has he been in there? Harry goes tense and tugs at the reins, slowing the horse. He feels Niall shift at his back nervously.
“Fuck. Sorry, I’m—“
Harry shakes his head and sits up a little straighter. “Did no one teach you how to control that?”
He feels Niall shudder a little, like he’s laughing. “Didn’t they teach you not to leave your pantry door hanging open?”
Harry frowns down at the saddle. He’s right. Harry’s not a child. He knows better.
“Anyway, yeah.” Niall shifts at Harry’s back. “I know how to rein it in. There’s just something…you’ve got this…particular loudness to you. I’m having a hard time tuning it out.”
“Well…” Harry kicks at the horse and moves them forward. “I’m having a hard time shutting myself up around you so if you could just…pretend it’s not—“
They ride in silence for some time and eventually Niall moves his arm around Harry’s middle again.
“Is it like that with your others?” His voice is quiet. A little hesitant. “It’s just…I’ve heard tell of it, the way of a ka-tet.”
“What makes you think we’re ka-tet?”
Harry wrinkles his nose. He thinks of Louis. Of the acidity in his voice and the way he won’t look Harry in the eye. Of the exasperation on Liam’s face. His turbulent mind.
“Sure. We’re meant to be.”
“Do they find you to have a particular loudness?”
Harry laughs at the way Niall echoes his own odd wording. Like he’s poking fun at himself.
“Nah…they’ve never complained. And it's not as clear as all that, between us. More like...impressions. Bit and pieces, stray feelings. And anyway it’s all quieter now, since—“
He stops himself. Niall adjusts his hand on Harry’s chest and it would feel like comfort if it wasn’t so unconscious.
“Since your friend left?”
Harry squirms a bit in the saddle. How careless has he been? What else has Niall caught wind of in the storm of Harry’s thoughts? He thinks of that morning, the brush of Niall’s hand on his own. He feels himself blush. “I thought we were going to pretend…”
“Oh, I didn’t catch that off you. Got wind of it from the other one. Louis.”
“Does he have a particular loudness as well?” Harry grimaces down at the saddle horn, thinking of Louis and Niall together. Then he looks up at the horizon and rearranges his face, though it’s not like anyone can see it.
Niall laughs and Harry’s not sure what he’s laughing at, at Harry’s words or his thoughts. “He does have a particular loudness, yes, but not the same sort as you.”
Harry swears under his breath. “His fucking mouth.”
“He’s certainly got one. But it’s fine. It was nothing. Nothing anyone would take to be of any consequence. He’s just…grieving I suppose. In a fashion.”
Harry grips the reins so hard his knuckles go white. Then he relaxes. He lets it go. He can hear Niall fidgeting behind him. Can almost see it in his head: the nail biting and the worrying, his hands moving like nervous birds. He imagines catching Niall’s hands in his. Pressing them to his chest. Holding him still.
“Did he have it, then? The other one?”
Harry doesn’t answer. He doesn’t want to talk about Zayn, but he doesn’t want to be rude and he doesn’t want to come across as sulky or reticent. That’s not who he is. He doesn’t like that part of himself.
“His name was Zayn.”
“Zayn. Did he have it, the same way as me?”
“Yeah.” Harry nods. “He had it.”
“I reckoned.” It sounds final, like something's been decided. Like the end of the conversation. “You’ll skirt round the edge of that hill and then we’re there.”
“Where exactly is there?”
Niall gives Harry’s chest a pat, familiar and light.
The house is cramped and stuffy and smells of a hundred strange unidentifiable things. Like must and grass and old paper and the tea that’s sitting on the worn wood of the table just in front of Harry. There’s steam curling up and out of the cup, traveling through the air past the man in the suit, who is wrinkling his nose in a peculiar way. Peculiar because Harry finds his face unreadable. Peculiar because he has the head of a weasel or something akin to a bumbler, but peculiar too because despite the alien quality of his features, he manages to radiate a staunch sort of disapproval.
The man---or the weasel---smoothes the lapel of his jacket and takes a drink from his cup, his tongue lapping gently at the surface of the water. Harry is trying not to stare but it’s difficult. He’s never seen a Taheen in the flesh, let alone had tea with one.
The old man who greeted them when they arrived, whom Niall introduced as Willem, emerges from some shadowy back room and smiles solicitously, setting a plate of biscuits on the table. His face is friendly and has a healthy weathered look, like leather that's worn soft. He has the wear of someone who’s gotten around in his life, the wrinkles and scars forming an odd sort of cartography on his person, a complicated map of journeys made long ago. He’s wearing a colorful crocheted blanket around his shoulders and his dark curly hair is shot with grey, standing out from his head in a wild sort of way.
“Oliver was relating a story just before you arrived. Something about the strange appearance of multiple lobstrosities on the inland ridge. Very queer, yes?”
Oliver, the bumbler—or weasel...or neither. It’s neither, Harry shouldn’t be so crass and reductive, even in his own head—nods in a disinterested sort of way. He rubs at his nose with a hand that looks decidedly human and presses it to his chest again, just over his breast pocket. It’s all very dainty and affected, the way he moves. His voice is oddly rich when he speaks and Harry supposes that shouldn’t surprise him but today is a day for recalibrating his expectations.
“Three reported over three moons. We’ve gathered it’s an increase in activity from the—ah…”
“The thinny?” Niall’s mouth is half full of biscuits and it comes out sort of muffled but matter-of-fact. Oliver makes another disapproving face and glances Harry’s way. Their eyes meet for a moment and Harry feels like he’s been caught staring. He looks down at his tea and then over at Niall, who’s wiping at his mouth with a kerchief.
“Harry’s good, Oliver. You can trust him. He’s a—“
“A gunslinger. I gathered that.”
Harry feels himself go red. He thinks of his clothes, his face, his thoughts…frantically auditing, trying to suss out what gave him away.
“Look at his face, Oliver.” The old man is laughing. “Jesus, give him a break.” He reaches over and refills Harry’s tea. “You’re fine, kid. You’re doing a proper job of it and your mind is sealed up tight. We’ve just had more dealings with your sort than most. You’ve got a way about you is all. And I suppose you know something of us as well, when most men would see us as a weasel-headed oddity and an old kook with a messy house.”
Willem is right. Harry’s heard enough, learned enough in the course of his training to know that Oliver is Taheen. And he’s gathered a thing or two about Willem since they’ve arrived as well: his isolation…the state of his home and the odd nature of its contents…
“I’ll choose to overlook the weasel comment.” Oliver’s tone is corrosive. “I’ve known many good men who were gunslingers. I’ve known bad men who were not. But that doesn’t mean all gunslingers are good men. It’s simple logic.”
Oliver’s mouth goes tight like he’s pursing his lips and his small pink nose twitches ever so slightly. It’s…cute. Harry feels terrible thinking it, he’s just having a difficult time divorcing his lived experience from the reality of this…person sitting next to him.
When they were kids, not more than nine or ten, they’d found an orphaned bumbler just outside the city when they were wandering. Harry and Louis, that is, the two of them. They weren’t meant to be out there so far from home but they never paid much mind to what they were meant to do. Not back then anyway. The bumbler’s mother had been crushed by falling rocks and it was nursing at her teat in a futile, depressing sort of way. They’d carried it home and fed it sheep’s milk and named it Fizzy after Louis’ sister, just to irritate her. Had taught it a few words even.
“I find humans can be altogether too trusting.” Oliver wiggles his nose again in disapproval and Harry forces his mind back into the moment…empties it of baby bumblers and Louis’ soft expression. “That’s all. I don’t believe in good faith. I believe in the sanctity of the transaction. I believe in give and take. This is what binds us to one another.”
“I know, Oliver.” The old man laughs appreciatively. “I know you only like me for my tea and biscuits.” He stands up from the table again and turns, rooting through a pile of what looks like thin paper books piled on top of an old piano. “Here we are, anyway.”
He turns and slides something across the table. Harry can just make out a grainy image—a bared breast and a curved silhouette, a mess of blocky text—and then Oliver gathers the papers up and tucks them inside his jacket.
“Much appreciated Willem, as always.”
Willem just laughs and sits back down. “You’re more human than you know, Oliver.”
Oliver ignores him and turns to Niall expectantly. “And you, boy? I gather you’ve a favor to ask of me today as well, or your timing is very peculiar…perhaps you just enjoy my company?”
Niall laughs and drops the biscuit in his hand back onto the plate in front of him. “I do in fact enjoy your company. I know how awful that is for you to hear…but yes. Also we’ve got a letter needs delivering.”
Oliver nods. He holds out his hand and Harry jumps, put on the spot. He clears his throat nervously and reaches into his coat, tugs the letter out and offers it up. Oliver doesn’t move to take it, he just glances down and smirks, which makes Harry feel like a fool. Harry didn’t know a weasel was capable of smirking.
Niall bends down and retrieves a bottle of something out of his pack. He hands it over and Oliver holds it carefully, scrutinizing the label, and then he smiles, his teeth small and sharp and white in his mouth.
“Very nice. Even better than I expected.”
“Have I ever let you down?”
He scratches at one ear and sniffs, but his face is soft, like this isn’t a new conversation. Like they’ve done this song and dance before.
“No, you haven’t.” He tucks the bottle into his jacket and then plucks the letter from Harry’s hand. “I’ll mind this like it was my own. You needn’t worry. I assume you’d like it taken to the inner baronies?”
“I’ve men I trust. It will be done.”
When Oliver leaves, Willem walks him out the door and they’re left alone, Niall and Harry. Just the two of them in the silent stuffy air of the house. Harry hears muffled laughter coming from the other side of the door and it doesn’t sound like Willem. Harry wonders how they met. How long they’ve known each other and in what capacity. What sort of stories they’ve told and shared and how often they laugh together. He glances up and Niall is looking at him, smiling softly in a way that sets Harry blushing again.
Willem shuffles back into the room and sits. He smiles right at Harry in an eager sort of way. “So. Hile, little gunslinger.” He laughs, like he’s amusing himself. “You’re an awful long way from home.”
Harry squirms in his seat. There’s something about Willem. Something in the way he speaks that makes Harry feels small, like a child. There’s something of Cort in him maybe, something of a teacher. Cort was always slippery that way, impossible to pin down, liable to change tack mid sentence and catch you off guard.
“We’ve…” he speaks slowly, weighing his words and how much to tell. He glances at Niall but Niall is looking down at something on the floor, a small black cat weaving through the legs of his chair. “We’ve been tasked by the barony to walk the tracks. To ensure they’re clear and unimpeded.”
Willem nods. “Ah…I see. Seems an appropriate task for ones so fresh.” Harry winces at the word. “Quite literal!” Willem gestures grandly with one hand. “Clear the track, stave off decay, restore, repair…a lesson, yes? A symbolic journey. Very apropos.”
“Come on, Willem.” Niall’s voice is quiet but there’s an edge to it. Willem glances at him and lowers his hand. His expression softens.
“My apologies, Harry. It’s an important thing. And I’m an old man and a cynic.”
“You think there’s no point to it.” Harry sets his cup down. He looks Willem in the eye and Willem looks right back, his face unreadable. Harry lowers his gaze. “You’re right, you know. They’ve stopped teaching it that way really. Stopped trying to convince us we’ll keep the world from moving on. I suppose it’s just…we’re meant to slow things down, or maybe give folks some kind of reassurance, a little hope.”
“Aye. You’re a good boy, I’ve just always failed to see the wisdom and utility of delivering hope on the end of a sword.”
Harry doesn’t look up. Something in Willem’s words needles at him. The echo of something Zayn said once.
How are we meant to help if all they give us is bullets?
He was too rough. He can’t stop thinking of it, the way the frustration colored his actions. How he’d dragged Zayn up off the ground, marched him down the hill and made him dry-fire at the trees in the distance until his fingers went stiff. He wasn’t careful. He wasn’t thinking straight. He wonders if his grip bruised, if it left a mark.
It’s a matter of discipline, Zayn. It’s a matter of tradition. It’s not just a bullet. It’s not just a gun. For your father’s sake—
“I do not aim with my hand…” Willem’s voice pulls him back. “Are those the words? It’s been so long since I’ve heard them spoken…”
Harry pushes Zayn out of his mind. He doesn’t want to think of their last few days together. He doesn’t want to consider everything he said or the way he said it or what he should’ve done differently. There’s a pressure at his leg and when he looks down, Niall’s hand is resting there. It should be strange and unwelcome but it’s not. It’s familiar. A comfort. Harry swallows thickly and then he recites:
“I do not aim with my hand; he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I aim with my eye. I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I shoot with my mind. I do not kill with my gun—”
“He who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. I kill with my heart.” Willem presses one hand lightly to his chest and nods like he’s satisfied. “And how does your heart sit, gunslinger?”
There’s no edge to it, no hint of malice or mockery. Harry thinks of the boy, the one in Lud, and feels the bottom fall out of his stomach, feels his heartbeat quicken in his chest. He can see the kid’s face in his mind, fierce and desperate and angry. Young. He doesn’t answer Willem. He just grimaces. Niall’s palm is pressing into his leg, warm and steady and real, and the touch is calming in an inexplicable way, like something tethering him to this moment. Harry moves without thinking and lets his own hand brush over the top of Niall’s knuckles lightly, a fleeting acknowledgment, and he could swear for an instant that something passes between them that’s deeper than touch. Then Willem reaches out with one hand and squeezes Harry’s shoulder, quick as anything. He stands.
“Let’s have a song, shall we? And you can needle at me for a spell. You’ve earned it.”
He turns to a shelf half-obscured in the corner and starts moving things about, searching for something.
Niall clears his throat conspicuously. “You left it over round the other side of the cupboard last time, Willem.”
Willem straightens up and makes a “hmmm?” noise. Then he moves past the table and over to the cupboard at the other end of the room. “Aha. Yes. Thank you.” He comes back to the table, holding a guitar by the neck in an awkward sort of way. Niall pulls his hand away from Harry’s leg and takes the guitar. Rests it across his lap.
“Requests?” He’s fiddling with the little knobs at the head, turning them in increments and plucking out single notes, adjusting the tone.
“Just something conducive to a chat, lad. Nothing fancy. You’ve got no one to impress here.”
Niall dips his chin. He smiles down at the guitar and then starts picking out a tune. It’s meandering and quiet and a little melancholy and he looks at peace sitting there, watching his own hands or letting his gaze wander over the room, his eyes unfocused. Willem nods approvingly and sits back in his chair. He watches Harry and waits, his expression open. Harry licks his lips and considers his words.
Willem nods encouragingly.
“But you’re not like the Manni I’ve seen or met.”
“I can’t grow a beard to save my life, my cully. And a robe doesn’t suit me.”
“Cort, I gather?”
Harry looks up sharply, but WIllem just waves a dismissive hand. “I know of your teacher, boy. I expect he had a few things to say about my sort.”
Harry nods, and Willem waits. “And?”
“He said…’the Manni are nosey, overly familiar and solicitous, and always with one foot out the door of the universe’.”
Willem laughs explosively and there’s a scrabbling as the cat hurries out of the room, spooked by the noise. “That man…he’s a…” He laughs again like he’s getting the last of it out of his system and then wipes at his eyes with the corner of his crocheted blanket. “He’s a piece of work. I don’t begrudge him his opinions, mind you. I understand that our preoccupations can seem at odds. He wants to protect the world, stop it moving on, and he sees our work as traitorous, perhaps. That we’re treating this world as nothing more than a pit stop.”
Harry shakes his head. “The way you speak is…”
“I cry your pardon.” He thinks for a moment. “Like a watering hole. Like an inn. One point in a constellation of worlds, so to speak.” He chuckles again. “You know, he once said to me, ‘you treat this world like a cupboard where you store all your junk’.”
Harry studies his surroundings then, the stacks of paper and boxes and strange contraptions.
“You knew him.”
“You don’t sound surprised.”
No. Not surprised. He learned a long time ago not to underestimate Cort, not to take him at face value. It was a lesson with sharp edges, learned in increments, and ironic in a way because Cort would have dug at that part of him if he'd caught wind of it, tried to excise it like a cancer. Cort would have told him that face value was all that really mattered, that you could take the measure of a man in one glance if you were wearing the right eyes. Harry must be wearing the wrong sort; people have never seemed so simple to him. More like puzzles without solutions. Riddles with no proper answers. He tries to make sense of them and ends up spun around, lost in their layers and the tangle of their intentions.
He eyes a shelf across the room that looks full to bursting with detritus, a cornucopia of odds and ends and mysterious knick-knacks. “Is all this—“
“My dirty laundry.” Willem nods, and Harry hears Niall laugh. His fingers falter on the strings. Willem glances over at him and laughs as well. “Sorry. Yes. My dirty laundry and assorted detritus. The flotsam and jetsam of other worlds. Bits and bobs I couldn’t part with.”
Harry studies another shelf filled with books. More books than he’s ever seen outside the library in Gilead, where they’re all locked up tight. He’d like to have a closer look but he’s not sure he should, if it would be rude or—
“You may. Poke at whatever you’d like, boy. Go wild.”
Harry nods. He stands and walks to the bookcase and runs one hand along the edge of a shelf. Embossed letters, silver and gold, the smell of old paper and glue. Some of them are illegible, the writing foreign and strange. Some of them are written in the high speech and he can sound them out just fine but can’t suss out their meaning—Beowulf, The Plague, Salem’s Lot. He presses his finger to a spine and runs it along the title, reading.
“The History and Mythology of Arthur Eld.”
“I expect they have that one in the library back at Gilead, no?”
“I’ve never been allowed…”
“Go ahead, then.”
Harry takes the book out and carries it back to the table. He thumbs through the pages, looking at illustrations of men on horses wielding swords, their faces shining and grim, their postures stiff and filled with an unfathomable honor.
Willem studies him as he studies the book. “Are they still hung up on lineage and all that nonsense? I expect—“
“Less so now. It’s all become a little…” Harry waves his hand vaguely, searching for the words.
“Muddled,” Willem says. “I expected so. The world moves on and we move on as well. I see something of an Eld in you, though. You’ve got a way about you, like Cort, though he wore it differently. A little uglier.”
Harry is overcome by a surge of pride that’s tainted by shame and a hint of nauseous dread. He’s not sure what to say. He shuts the book. “Why do you live out here alone, apart from others of your order?”
Willem shrugs and takes the book from Harry’s hands. He places it back on the shelf and returns to the table. “Because I’m a bit of flotsam myself and perhaps I’ve never quite…seen things eye to eye with the other Manni. They’re a uh…”
“Stuffy bunch of old codgers.” Niall’s voice is distracted. He doesn’t look up from the guitar.
“That’s a thing I said in confidence, lad.”
Niall just shrugs.
Willem turns back to Harry. “Anyway, they’re a stuffy bunch of old codgers.”
Harry studies him. “You came through from another…?”
“Me? No no, just from another town far away from here. That’s where I learned about thinnies, about what was in my own head…before I had any idea what I was doing. I was a child playing with forces I didn’t understand.” He glances at Niall then but his face betrays nothing. Niall looks up in turn and then back at the guitar. “I studied with the order but we had…differences of opinion. So I took my plums and bobs and made my way out here, where I can be nosey, overfamiliar and solicitous in my own particular sort of way without anyone disapproving.”
“Did you find yourself here particularly, or was it by chance?”
“Nothing Willem does isn’t particular,” Niall snorts.
“That’s a double negative, boy.”
“You’re a double negative.”
Harry ignores their ribbing. His curiosity is running away with him. It’s something Cort used to counsel him about, or lecture rather. There’s a fair distance between keeping your eyes and ears open and poking at a hornet’s nest, boy. We sit and we observe, and we deliver the justice that’s deserved. We don’t get clever. Cleverness is for liars and cheats. The truth reveals itself. We do not needle it open.
“Did you find yourself here because of the thinny?”
Willem just watches him for a moment, his eyes sharp. “What do you know of thinnies?”
“Just that…they’re places where the world’s gone thin. Something to do with the way it’s moving on. Deteriorating. That they work as a…bridge of sorts.”
Willem nods. “I imagine you didn’t learn all that in your training…Gilead has always preferred to turn a blind eye to that sort of thing, hasn’t it? What did they tell you of the shape of the universe, boy? What stories did they put in your head?”
Harry can hear his father’s voice in his ear, the memory of a violent pain.
“See the turtle of enormous girth…on his back he holds the earth.” Niall’s voice is light and melodic like he’s singing a song, like he’s pulled it right out of Harry’s head.
“I expect so,” Willem says. “Maturin, the world turtle. A tale for babes who are taken with the sniffles and can’t fall asleep at night. Did they tell you the punchline then? What’s beneath the turtle?”
Harry nods. He understands now that it’s child’s business. Something to grow out of. “Turtles all the way down.”
“It’s what they call ‘infinite regress’. Never-ending worlds, nested into each other. But what they don’t tell you is that it’s not altogether wrong.” He considers for a moment, measuring his words. “Folks speak of the nature of the universe, how it revolves. The turtle moves along a path and the path is a circle. The wheel of ka spins on its axis, and at its center the Tower. Some Manni speak of a world tree, of worlds that branch off of other worlds, of a new universe born with every choice. And the circle again: branches growing, decaying, returning to the earth, growing again. It’s a tidy metaphor, but I’ve always been more fond of the turtle thing, childish as it is. Of worlds that exist within worlds, infinite layers and spaces worn thin with wear…”
He looks up then, over at Niall, and then he smiles. “Forgive me, I forget myself.”
“It’s alright.” Harry waits and when he can’t wait any longer he says, “The Manni…they navigate those spaces.”
“They navigate the space between. Todash space.”
It’s an old word and one that carries a kind of terrible weight. A word that’s whispered.
“It’s dangerous, I gather. I’ve heard tell of walk-ins, of inhuman things slipping through when a thinny is opened…” Harry trails off. He knows nothing, really. Nothing of any substance. It’s all old wive’s tales and whispers in the dark. Stories to scare children.
Niall looks up then and Willem meets his eye. Something passes between them silently and Harry wonders for the first time if there’s a conversation happening. Some exchange he’s not privy to.
“It’s not untrue. But there’s plenty that’s dangerous in this life, plenty that carries a risk, like making a child…or carrying a weapon at your hip.” Willem eyes Harry’s side, at the place where his jacket falls over his gun. “The potential for terrible things is inexhaustible…but that rarely stops us does it? It’s not a sloppy business, going Todash. It takes care and it takes skill and it takes training…and it takes a bit of the touch.” He taps at his own temple lightly. “There are some, a very rare sort, who take to it more natural, who needn’t bother with the mathematics of the thing or deal in plums and bobs. But…it is rarely a thing one stumbles upon.” He glances at Niall again. “Not a thing a person simply plays with.”
Niall smiles then, like he’s humoring Willem somehow. He sets the guitar aside and sits up. “I think it’s about time for us to be going, Willem.”
“Off already? I meant to make spaghetti.”
Niall laughs and stands, smoothing the front of his shirt. “You know we can’t stay. Got to get back before dark.”
Willem grimaces. “Ah yes. That…” He and Harry stand in unison and Willem bows his head lightly. “It was lovely to meet you Harry, after hearing so much about you.”
Niall goes tense at Harry’s side suddenly. He clears his throat briskly. “Willem, I’ve not—Harry’s only just arrived…“
“Oh! Ha…” Willem laughs and he knocks one fist on his head demonstratively. “Old man’s brain. It runs away without me on occasion.” He winks at Harry pleasantly and suddenly all his edges have gone smooth, his expression disarming. “It was lovely to meet you, anyway. You must come back. Do you play an instrument?”
Harry frowns, caught off guard. “A bit of piano. Not as well as uh…“ He trails off. He thinks of Louis and Liam and for a moment he’s split in two. It’s so strange being here, having a conversation with strangers. He feels unfettered in a way. Harry thinks he could be anyone to Niall and Willem. He could be funny or sarcastic or earnest or mean. He could be curious. He could be clever. He could ignore the bits of him that have gone hard, that have calcified like the plates on a lobstrosity. The parts of him that cinch up tight when Louis looks right through him…that sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Willem is clapping his hands like something’s been decided. “That’s fine. That’s just fine. Niall, you bring him back by and we’ll have a song out of him and some more friendly conversation.”
“Right, Willem. We’ll see ya.”
They step out the door and everything outside has turned from dust into gold in the afternoon sun. They walk to the horse and Niall helps Harry up, one hand steady at his knee. Harry looks down and Niall’s been painted gold too and for a moment it’s like the glow is coming from inside him. Like he’s a light source in himself. Then he gets his foot in the stirrup and Harry helps him up and he’s out of sight, pressed up against Harry’s back.
He feels Niall shifting around behind him, getting comfortable. His hand moving over Harry’s front, tugging at his shirt.
“Why did you bring me here?”
“What do you mean?”
“You didn’t need to bring me. And I gather that Willem is something you keep to yourself. Am I wrong?”
Niall sits up and yawns, then pats Harry’s chest. “You’re not wrong.”
“So why? You don’t even know me. I could—“
Harry doesn’t answer. It’s a ridiculous question. They’ve only just met and Niall doesn’t know Harry from Adam, can’t trust him, not really. He has no idea what Harry’s done or where he’s headed. But Harry can’t say that because for some unfathomable reason it would feel like a lie. There’s something strange happening, playing out in the space between them.
“Why is that?”
“Why is what?”
“You know what I’m asking, you can feel it. Why do I know you? Why do I feel so strangely when I look at you?”
Niall sighs quietly, then Harry’s hat is plucked off of his head.
“What? Give me my hat back.”
“Nah, I’m gonna wear it for a spell. But like…I dunno what it is, or what it is exactly. I just know it is. It’s a funny thing, right? Feel like I know you inside and out. Like I’ve always known you.”
Harry doesn’t answer. He just nods and he doesn’t worry about whether Niall can see it. Knows that Niall doesn’t need the acknowledgement. It just is. He clicks his tongue and tugs at the reins and they get moving, headed toward one horizon while the sun sinks toward the other. Niall’s grip on his middle tightens, keeping them steady. Nested together.
“Anyway, that’s not why I brought you.”
“Nah.” There’s a rustling and then Harry’s hat is back, a little crooked and warmed by a head that’s not his own. “I brought you because I like you.”
Harry laughs as he reaches up to straighten his hat, and it feels a little like a letting go.
“There’ve been folks going missing.”
Louis is sitting on the floor next to the bed, his knees pulled up to his chest and falling outward lazily. He looks tired, like he hasn’t quite recovered from last night. Like his hangover’s been chasing him all afternoon and has finally caught him dead to rights. He rubs at one eyebrow like he’s trying to smooth out a knot, to massage away a pain, and then he continues:
“A young girl about two weeks ago. Thirteen or fourteen. A farmhand last month.”
“Missing.” Harry worries at his bottom lip with the back of his thumb and stares down at the floor. “You mean taken? Or do you mean wandered off? There’s more than one way to go missing.”
Louis shrugs and lies back on the bed. Harry glances over at him and then looks away again. He should sit up. He should take this seriously, but Harry doesn’t want to nag. He’s not got the energy for it. Liam watches Louis, his face a little uncertain, and then he clears his throat.
“I gather they were taken. There’s no evidence per se, nothing we hear tell of, but it’s the way folks speak of it. Like they’re frightened they could be next?”
Louis runs his hand through his hair and then holds his palm just over his face, studying it a little absently like he could read an answer in the lines and creases. “Seems like something more than simple outlaws. Something stranger.”
“Is it them blocking the track? The townsfolk?”
Liam nods. “It seems that way.” He glances at Louis. “I spoke with a few folks and gathered that the taking is a problem outside of town as well? More of a problem even. That maybe they’re trying to keep safe, here in town. Restrict the access somehow. Heard tell of someone called Winston. Seems the blockage was his idea and that the folks trust him…look to him for guidance. He could be someone we want to speak with.”
Harry nods. “Good. That’s good.” He looks up and Liam’s watching him, his face unreadable. Harry sits up a little straighter and clears his throat.
Liam raises his eyebrows. “How did it go for you?”
“With the letter?”
Harry opens his mouth to speak and then shuts it. He thinks over the events of the day: the ride out west, Oliver and Willem, their conversation. Niall’s hand on his thigh. The shape of him pressed against Harry’s back. He should tell them about the Taheen, about the strange something he feels when he looks at Niall. He should let them know about the thinny and the history of Arthur Eld.
“It’s uh…it’s copacetic. It’s with someone we can trust.”
Liam nods like he’s satisfied, like he doesn’t need to know more, and Harry’s chest feels momentarily tight. He thinks of Liam…thinks of the way he’s always been. All the uncertainty he keeps locked up tightly, his heart filled with doubt and wrapped up tight in swaddling clothes made of implicit trust. The love he feels for the three of them. And then there’s Harry, whose heart feels like a closed door. Who’s greedy. Who wants to keep today for himself.
He stands and wipes at the front of his trousers. “We should find supper.”
The town is transformed in the darkness. The shadows are rich, inky and wet like the dry and dustiness of the landscape has been left behind with the daylight. They walk together to the tavern, Louis lagging behind and whistling sharply. Calling for Rover. Just in case she hasn’t really gone.
“She doesn’t like it here maybe. I don’t know.”
She’s done things like this before. She’s wandered off for days at a time, but there’s something different about it now, something unnerving…Harry can hear it in Louis’ voice. It’s like they’ve just collectively awoken to the idea that sometimes things change or are lost and they’re never set right again.
“She’ll be back, Lou. She always comes back.” Liam’s voice is soft and careful. It reminds Harry of his mother, the way she would reassure him when he was just a babe. If Harry tried to speak to Louis that way…
He crosses his arms and tucks one hand under his coat reflexively, feeling for something that’s gone missing. They’ve left their guns…hidden them under a floorboard back at the house. It’s a calculated risk but everything feels like a risk these days. Everything feels uncertain.
The tavern is alive with light and voices when they round the corner and Harry is taken aback by the cacophony. It’s been so quiet here, like a ghost town. He’d begun to doubt there were even enough souls in this town to make a racket. When they step inside, it’s a non-event. No one cares to look at them or wonder who they are. No one turns to say hello. Everyone is shouting or murmuring. A few folks seem to be crying. There’s a man over by the piano holding a hand up and calling for order. He’s tall and broad with face full of stubble and a strong sort of brow. He looks calm. Authoritative and patient like he could wait all night for quiet.
The man scans the crowd as Harry watches him and just as his eyes fall on the doorway where they’re standing, Harry hears something in the back of his mind. Or feels it. A thought like a wave rushing into shore and then Niall’s voice, loud and clear.
Sew it up tight.
He looks down at the ground and reorients. Locks his mind away tight the way Cort taught him and then turns and scratches at his temple with two fingers. It should be enough for Louis and Liam. They should understand and fall into line. Harry tries to let should feel like enough. They press into the room and find a space near the back corner and they wait and they listen.
“How are we meant to trust that a blockade will help when our own are still going missing? What are we meant to think?”
“Listen! You need to set yourselves down and we can talk this out calmly. Getting flustered won’t help anyone.”
“We should be out there looking! We should bring them back!” The woman’s voice is watery, like she’s been crying. “If Reggie’s seen her out past the river, then why aren’t we out there? Why haven’t we gone to get her?”
The man at the piano is shaking his head regretfully, his jaw set tight. “I’ve explained this, Camilla. We’ve seen it with our own eyes. Whatever’s out there, she—it ain’t your daughter. You’ve got to let her go. You’ve got to allow yourself to grieve.”
“How can I grieve? What’s to grieve, Winston? She’s out there, walking about and crying for her mother.”
The man—Winston…Harry should’ve known it—shakes his head in a minute sort of way and then makes eye contact with someone at the edge of the crowd. A man steps forward and puts a hand on the woman’s shoulder, speaking quietly in her ear and steering her toward the back of the room. She acquiesces, lets herself be led away. Winston looks back at the crowd.
“We’ve got to take care. We’ve got to be vigilant. We’ve got to stay close and not wander off. That goes for you as well, Reg.”
A salty-looking man at the bar looks up then and shrugs in an embarrassed sort of way, his arms crossed over his chest. “Can’t catch moonfish without moonlight, I just—“
“You’re tempting fate. Stick close. Don’t wander off. I’m trusting you, friend.”
The man nods curtly and sip at his pint. Harry watches him, then lets his gaze wander left and spots Niall leaned up against the bar, watching him in turn. Harry nods and Niall smiles tightly. He raises his eyebrows and jerks his head in Winston’s direction. Listen.
“I’ve heard rumblings in the past week, folks. I ken what’s on your minds. Some brave souls think it wouldn’t be a fool’s errand to march up north and find the lot of them. To hit them where they’re lurking. I am telling you now that you are wrong. Whatever you see…whatever’s become of your friends and neighbors, that’s not the whole of it. There’s something much darker and much stronger out there. You do not want to stir that hornet’s nest. So we stick together, and we w—“
There’s a stirring at the entrance, a confused muttering that builds to shocked surprise. It moves through the crowd like an infection until they’re all abuzz. Something outside. Something happening. Harry watches Winston and finds his face calm as he pushes through the crowd, joining the procession of bodies that’s spilling out into the street, trying to get a peek at what’s going on. Harry glances over at Louis, who looks confused and haggard and like he wishes he were back in bed. They press forward and join the flow of people. Make their way out the door.
Winston is standing at the edge of the road just beyond the wooden slats of the porch and he’s holding onto the woman, the one from before. He’s got his arms around her like he’s restraining her and she’s struggling against him, wailing something incoherent.
There’s a girl in the street.
It’s the eeriest thing, because it’s so mundane. Just a young girl standing there, wringing her hands at her middle and wearing a soiled-looking dress the dusty color of everything else in this place. Her hair is a mess and her face is smudged like she’s been out digging in the dirt. It makes her look even younger than she is, like a child that’s just come in from playing.
The woman in Winston’s arms cries out and it sounds like a name---Julia or Julie or something like it---and the girl reaches out a hand. Her skin looks blinding in the moonlight, like she’s glowing.
“Mia…I want to come home.”
The woman makes a noise that sounds inhuman with frustration, like her whole body is crying out, and Winston hugs her tighter, murmuring something in her ear. He looks up at the girl and shakes his head.
“You’ve got to leave, Julia. You don’t belong here anymore. You know that.”
The girl ignores him. She watches her mother with a strange focus. There’s something in her eyes that unsettles Harry. Something not quite right, feverish and sharp.
“I want to come home, mia. I’m hungry and it’s so cold out there.”
The crowd is abuzz with uncertainty. Harry can feel their hesitation. Their frustration and their fear. He doesn’t need the touch to catch all that. There’s a warmth and a movement, someone coming up behind him and then a pressure at his elbow. He doesn’t turn, he simply softens into it.
Harry shakes his head. “I’m watching.”
“I know. But watch.”
It’s a lesson.
The last bit rings in the back of Harry’s head. Niall’s voice, unspoken but clear as day. A lesson.
He watches and he waits. The woman struggles, calling out to her daughter, and the girl stands there like she’s waiting for something, for the other shoe to drop. For the engine of fate to move the three of them into position. Harry looks back to Winston and Camilla, studies the way he’s got her wrapped up tightly, the way he’s speaking in her ear and the set of her jaw. The way her face seems to go softer as he speaks. There’s a pause. It’s nothing tangible, nothing changes per se, but it’s like time stands still for an instant and suddenly, somehow she’s gotten away from him. She’s slipped out of his arms and is rushing forward. Winston stumbles back like he’s been struck and reaches out with both hands just as Camilla’s find her daughter, just as she pulls the girl into an embrace, her cheeks wet and her chest heaving with sobs.
“Mia! Oh god…I’ve been so alone.”
“It’s alright babe, you’re home now. We’ll fix you up. It’ll be alright—“
“I’m so alone and I’m so goddamn hungry I can’t—“
“Camilla, get away from her!” Winston fumbles for something at his belt and moves forward, but he’s not quick enough. The girl looks up at him and she…snarls. It’s like an animal hiss and something in Camilla’s expression shifts, her relief colored by uncertainty. She barely has time to react before the girl dips her head and opens her mouth wide and sets on her mother, sinking her teeth into the woman’s neck. There are screams from the crowd, frantic shouts and a percussive chorus of boots on wood.
There’s blood. A mess of blood down the woman’s neck and over her coat and down to the ground, staining everything, and then Winston is on them, tearing the girl off her mother and tackling her to the ground. She makes a noise that sounds eerily like a giggle, breathy and surprised, and he presses one hand to her neck like a vise, pinning her to the earth.
She’s laughing. Her face is bright in the darkness and she writhes under his grip and her mouth is open wide, stained with her mother’s blood, and she’s laughing.
“What in Gan’s name—” Liam sounds like he’s going to be sick.
They watch—and Harry watches—and Winston brings his other hand up, the one that’s not holding her still, and he’s holding a knife. He raises it up and the blade catches the moonlight but Harry doesn’t follow the arc of the weapon. He watches the girl. Watches her face change suddenly from laughter to confusion to panic. She’s looking Winston right in the eye now, her expression frantic. Winston looks right back at her, his face unreadable in the darkness.
“You shouldn’t have come back, Julia.”
He brings his arm down, swift and sure, and she screams. It sounds inhuman. Just before the blade sinks into her throat, her face changes once more, softens with a sort of realization, an understanding, and Harry could swear he understands too. That he could look right into her mind and read her last thought.
This wasn’t how you said it would go.
Her scream is cut short abruptly. The crowd falls eerily silent and for a moment, no one moves. Not Camilla, lifeless in the dirt, covered in her own blood. Not Julia, who’s got a knife through her neck, pinning her to the ground. Not Winston and not the assembled onlookers, reduced to a chorus of silent witnesses, suddenly made complicit in atrocity.
Then Winston sits up and he tugs the knife out of Julia and out of the ground and he wipes it on her soiled dress. He tucks it back in his belt and stands up, stumbling a bit. It’s strange, the way he moves. Weirdly deliberate. Harry wonders if anyone else can see or if it’s all in his head or if it’s just that Niall told him to watch so he’s watching. Noticing the odd exaggerated way the man carries himself, like he’s playing at something. Putting on a show.
Winston stands and he wipes his brow and he shakes his head regretfully and then he addresses the crowd. He looks very handsome in the moonlight, like a man who doesn’t quite belong. Like one of the engravings in Willem’s book, one in a procession of sad stern faces reflecting the weight of a purpose that’s bigger than them, that they never chose for themselves. He’s like a man a little out of time and it’s striking in the moonlight. The crowd seems rapt.
His voice is weary when he speaks. There’s something pleading in it and that feels calculated too. Like he’s thinking ten steps ahead. Playing a game Harry’s not privy to.
“We’ve got to learn from this.”
It’s a lesson.
A wave of murmured assent moves through the gathered crowd. A chorus of regretful sobs. The soft rumble of hardened resolve. We, we, we…
Harry glances over at Niall but he’s watching Winston, chewing at the ragged edge of one fingernail. Harry reaches out without thinking and bats his hand away, pushes it down and gives it a quick squeeze. He’s not sure what he’s trying to communicate, reassurance or acknowledgement or his own nervy uncertainty.
Niall meets his eye momentarily and nods. But he doesn’t answer.
I saw him let her go.
They sit, and they eat, and the assembled crowd is quiet, their tones subdued and a little reverent. They don’t speak, the three of them, and Niall goes back behind the bar. It’s understood somehow that now is not the time. This sort of thing requires a palaver. A proper accounting.
After a time Winston comes back inside along with the other men and they move to sit. Harry watches them without watching and listens without listening, but their tones are hushed as well. They reach a table in the corner and the men sit but at the last moment, Winston pauses like he’s thought better of it. He turns and makes a beeline for their table. For Harry and the rest of them.
“Look alive,” Harry mutters. He says it to his plate, to the pile of peas he’s prodding at with his fork, but he can feel a shift in Liam and Louis, senses their awareness.
“Long days and pleasant nights.”
Harry stands as Winston approaches and extends one hand for shaking. “May you have twice the number.”
Winston takes his hand and shakes it firmly and something needles at the back of Harry’s mind. Like a creature trying to burrow its way in. He smiles tightly.
“I cry your pardon, lads. I’ve not seen you lot before and it’s not often we get new faces round these parts.”
“Just passing through, sai. Making our way.”
He lets Harry’s hand drop and nods grimly toward the door. “A regretful thing you had to see out there. I hope it doesn’t color your opinion of our little berg. It’s just…” He rubs at one side of his face solemnly, like he’s thinking rueful thoughts, and Harry sees the pretense in it. Just a hint. Just because he’s looking. “We’ve come upon hard times of late.”
“It’s the way of the world I suppose. You seem like honest folk.”
Winston nods. “Ben.”
Harry balks for a moment, confused, then he understands that the man is introducing himself.
“Ah…Harry. And this is Liam and Louis.”
“And you’ve come from out west?”
“More west than here I suppose. But not so very far.”
“You have business beyond Riverbend?”
Harry shrugs and tilts his head. “Not proper business, I reckon. Got an uncle a ways south, just sort of making our way in that direction.”
“Who knows what constitutes proper business in these times, eh?”
“Well lads, I’d wish you luck on your journey but I don’t know that I’d recommend that sort of wandering just now, considering the situation out here. I know you’d likely love to be on your way after the thing that just happened but I’m afraid we’ve got to keep everyone close for the time being.”
“The blockage on the track—”
“What do you know of that?” His voice is cold for a moment, like he’s let something slip. Harry doesn’t react.
“Just saw something of it on the way in. Didn’t make much sense til now.”
“Yeah well…there’ll be water if god wills it, as the saying goes, but you do what you can with your own hands. Got to make due and trust each other and stick close.”
“I’m glad. Don’t let me keep you lads from your supper. I’m certain I’ll see you around.”
“Well met, sai.”
Ben just nods and then turns away and makes his way across the room. Harry sits back down and picks up his fork. Frowns down at his plate. His mind feels rattled and a little disordered like someone’s snuck in and turned out his pockets and found them empty.
“So we’re staying then.” Louis sounds tired. Not entirely surprised.
“Yeah.” Harry takes a sip of his drink and swallows. “I reckon we are.”
When they arrive back at the house, Rover is perched on the wooden railing of Rochelle’s porch, preening herself.
“You little mite magnet, where have you been?” Louis’ voice is sharp and scolding and edged with relief. He stretches one arm out and clicks his tongue and Rover flies to him, alighting on his wrist. Harry can just see in the dark that there’s something tied to her foot, a small roll of thick paper. Louis glances down at it and his face blanches just for a moment but he doesn’t say anything. He just makes his way inside.
“What do you reckon that—“
“What do you reckon, Liam?”
“Yeah…” Harry spits at the ground. His stomach is turning a bit from the food or the blood or the anticipation of what’s to come. “Zayn.”
They sit and they palaver and when they’ve finished, Louis goes. Harry’s not certain where but he can hazard a guess. Away from them, away from whatever he’s feeling, out to the tavern to drink himself into a stupor or fall into a stranger’s bed or both. Harry doesn’t stop him. He doesn’t feel capable of it.
I guess I never explained why I left…
When he’s read the letter four or five times, when he’s committed it to memory, he tucks it into his coat and tugs his boots on. Grabs his pack off the table and heads for the door.
“Are you going to get him?”
For a moment Harry isn’t sure what Liam means. How the fuck am I supposed to find him he thinks. I don’t know where he’s gone I just know the why of it. But Liam’s talking about Louis, isn’t he? Is that where Harry’s going? Across town to drag him out of the tavern by one arm? To retrieve him like a misbehaving child?
“I’m taking a walk.”
“There’s fearsome things out there, Harry. What we saw today and worse maybe.”
He doesn’t look at Liam. The air in the room feels thick and strange and quiet, save for the soft rustle of Rover cleaning her feathers in the corner.
“I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can. Just…be careful.”
He’s careful. Not as careful as he should be maybe. His mind wanders and his feet take him down unfamiliar streets and out to the Northern edge of town where the land goes rocky and rough. He thinks of the days before Zayn left, tries to remember everything he said. It’s difficult. That’s the thing about catastrophe, isn’t it?…the funny thing about loss. It comes on sudden like an earthquake or an electrical storm and leaves you reeling. You don’t realize what you should’ve been looking out for until it’s already too late.
He walks and he leaves the houses behind him. Wanders up a hill at the edge of town and drops his pack at the base of a tree just at the top. The tree looks gnarled and a little sallow in the light of the moon. The moon looks sallow too: half there and ghostly and grayish white like bleached bone. What his mother would’ve called a dead moon.
A dead moon, made for killing.
He stands there for a moment and lets himself remember. Lets a memory breach the surface of his mind: his mother seated at the table the night before he went away to begin his training. The way she held the revolver in her hands and turned it over carefully like she was measuring the weight of it, or maybe of the thing he meant to do. The sadness he saw in her. His confusion. The sharp bitter edge of childish indignation. Searching her face for some hint of pride.
“Say the words back to me, Harry. Say them and listen to yourself. Hear them, just this once for your father’s sake.”
Harry sits and he opens his pack. He digs around and finds his spade and turns to the base of the tree. He gives the soil there a few experimental pokes and then he sets about digging in earnest, scraping and stabbing at the ground, breaking it apart with the metal edge. The ground is cold and a little hard and he hits rocks as he goes and it’s jarring each and every time, makes him cry out in pain and frustration.
“Say it again.”
“I kill with my heart.”
He works harder, tearing at the earth, bringing the spade down with a force that feels alien. Like he’s possessed by something. Like he’s being driven. His hand moves upward and the spade shines in the moonlight and he brings it down with all the force of his anger and resentment and fear.
“Hold it in your hand, Harry, and feel its weight.”
He thinks of the woman, her daughter, the knife. He thinks of Zayn. He thinks of the boy back in Lud and he thinks of the way Louis looks at him, like he’s an asshole. Like he's unreasonable. Like Louis’ not the one forcing him into it, into being this person he never wanted to become.
He thrusts the spade hard into the ground one more time and the force of it causes him to cry out. It comes out of him animal and strange and desperate with rage and when he breathes in again, it sounds like a sob. He drops the spade and pulls at the dirt with his hands, clearing the hole he’s made, then wipes his nose on one sleeve and sniffles and it feels pathetic. Like he’s a child again, running away from home and crying over a scolding from his mother. He drops his pack to the ground and opens it up, rough and careless, and pulls the bundle of cloth and metal out. He holds it in his lap and runs his hand over the curve of the grip. Feels the cool metal of the barrel and the cylinder—still loaded, he expects, he never bothered to check. He feels an urge to tug the fabric wrapping aside and look at it one last time. Like a goodbye. But he’s too angry maybe, wants to deny himself that, or deny Zayn that. He doesn’t even know. He just pulls the cloth tight around its edges, drops it unceremoniously into the hole and pushes the loosened dirt over it, packing it down tight with his hands.
When he’s done, he stands and tamps the dirt down with his foot and then retrieves a small pile of brush from the Northern slope of the hill. He covers the freshly turned dirt, obscuring it from view, and then steps back. Takes a pause. He reaches into his coat and pulls the letter out of his pocket, holds it between his thumb and finger and studies it in the moonlight. Wonders if he should read it once more or if that would just be punishing himself.
“You shouldn’t be out here alone.”
“Jesus—“ Harry turns, his whole body tensed like a bowstring, his heart leaping into his throat. He feels addled and sluggish, ashamed that he’s let someone come up on him, catch him unawares.
Niall is standing there just at the crest of the hill, his eyes shining strangely in the moonlight. They look wet like he’s been crying and Harry reaches up to his own face self-consciously, wipes at his cheeks roughly with the palm of one hand.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“Are you following me?”
Niall shakes his head. He moves closer and joins Harry at the base of the tree.
“Not as such. Just…felt something.” He wipes at his eyes and looks at the ground, at the place where Harry’s just finished working, at the pile of brush there. It looks stupid now that Harry’s looking at it through someone else’s eyes. Obvious and manufactured and amateurish.
“Did something happen? You haven’t said…why he left.”
He opens his mouth to speak, to give Niall some version of the story, and he suddenly realizes that it’s not a story he’s told before. It’s strange, standing there on the cusp of the thing…the moment when a hurt becomes past tense. When it becomes a tidy narrative rather than a thing you’re living through. He shuts his mouth and he’s maybe made a decision before he’s had time to really think it through, because he finds himself passing the letter over to Niall, letting him have it.
Niall takes the letter from him and pulls it open. He reads it quietly. “He quit? He’s going back?”
“And he knows what that means?”
“He knows. It’s the choice he’s made.”
“He’s carrying something with him.”
Harry nods again. He takes the letter back from Niall and sits on the ground, stretching his legs out. “We came across it three weeks ago, passing through the city northwest of here.” He feels Niall moving to his right, sitting down and arranging himself on the ground. “A real city. Buildings and concrete and glass. Old things. Mechanical wreckage and the mess of the old world.”
“Harriers then as well.”
“And harriers, yeah. The tracks run right through the center of the city. We were meant to insure that they were clear. It’s what we’re meant to do out here as well: take note of damage, blockages. It’s fucking…It’s kid’s work. Green stuff. We’re intended to cut our teeth on it.”
“And you were set upon.”
Harry kicks at a stone with the heel of his boot and watches it tumble down the slope of the hill.
“We spotted a group of them before they did us. Figured we could skirt them…go around, like. We’re not…we weren’t ready for it, you know? We’d taken on slow mutants, dogs out in the scrublands…things like that.”
“It’s a different sort of thing, other folks.”
Harry looks over at Niall then. Really looks at him. His face is dark save for the line of his cheekbones and chin, the hair on his head. He looks like a picture in relief, like something old and carved out of stone, but he’s chewing at the ragged edge of a fingernail and that makes him look so real Harry feels a little unbalanced for a moment by the idea of this person sitting next to him, living and breathing. He wonders what Niall’s seen in his life, the sort of things he’s had to do to get here. You can never know…Harry’s realizing that. You can never know what a person’s capable of.
“It’s different when they’re more like you,” Harry says. He looks back down the hill and he remembers. “We tried to give them a wide berth but we ran into a scout of some sort, or maybe he was just on his way back to camp. I don’t know. Louis was out in front…came upon him first. I think…I think he was as shocked as the rest of us. Wasn’t out there looking for trouble but he found it.” Harry remembers the look on the boy’s face. The way he stumbled back and reached for his knife. “He made a choice and set on Louis. Got him pinned. Zayn was the closest…he had the shot. He took aim.” Harry swallows thickly. “The kid…he had the knife on Louis, there was no time to think it through and…”
The light changes just then. A cloud moves across the face of the moon and the hill goes dark and then light again, the shadows shifting like the terrain is alive. Harry is lost in thought momentarily, remembering. He’s gone over it so many times now: who was closest, how it all played out. It’s so strange the way time stretches out in hindsight, the protracted nature of memory.
Harry nods. He drags his heels toward his seat and presses his palms into his knees, rubbing at them like he’s trying to work a stain out. The canvas is rough on his hands and it stings a little. He’s given himself blisters with all the digging.
“It was more than that. More than a miss. You couldn’t understand without knowing him. He was like…a natural. Better at it than any of us. Took to shooting like…I don’t know like breathing. Made it look easy.”
He feels sick, remembering the look on the boy’s face. The crack of the pistol and the way Zayn fell back like he’d been defeated. Like something had been decided. “He brought the knife down and Louis managed to get his head out of the way of the worst of it. It nicked him,” he reaches up and touches the tip of Niall’s ear, runs a finger over the curve of it, “just there. And then Rover was on him, screaming bloody murder and clawing at the boy’s face and…he let up…made a decision. Did the math I suppose: the four of us, one of him…the lot of them down the hill. He tried to run back toward the camp.”
There’s a stirring at his side and Niall is next to him. Properly next to him, pulling him in and holding him by the shoulders like he knows what comes next. And doesn’t he? Isn’t Harry like an open book to him? He wonders what Niall can see…what Niall is getting off of him. The look on Zayn’s face? Soft and defeated and sickened? Harry’s rage? Or the boy’s blood soaking the pack when they pulled it off his back. The press of Harry’s gun against his side when he holstered it, the heat of it like an indictment, like it could burn him right through his clothes.
“There was no time after. We took his pack and ran. We couldn’t know if they heard the shots, if they would make anything of it…didn’t know who he—“ he feels his breath hitch and he swallows, deliberate and slow. “Who he was to them. We couldn’t know. We had to go.”
“You’d never killed a person before.”
Harry wants to relax into Niall and let himself be held but the night is cold and his body feels tensed, like he can’t let down his guard. Like if he allows himself to be soft he’ll start shaking and he’ll never stop. Niall holds him a little tighter…sets his chin on the top of Harry’s head and speaks.
“It’s ok. It’s a…it’s a hell of a thing. And you were right. They would’ve come after you. You weren’t ready.”
“I blamed him for it.”
He feels Niall nodding against the top of his head.
“I hated him for making me…you saw what he said in the letter. That he couldn’t stomach the killing. That he didn’t believe in the oath we’d taken anymore. Didn’t believe it was what he was meant for, couldn’t be responsible for taking a life. But in a world that turns on death…that’s chock full of killing, what decision are you really making? You’re just letting someone else do it for you, aren’t you? Passing the killing on to the next man.”
Harry presses the heel of his hand into his eye, rubbing at it roughly like he’s working something out. “I hated him for that. I hated him so much just then for making me shoot that boy in the b—“ his voice catches suddenly with the weight of what he’s saying, “—for putting that on me. For forcing me into that choice. And…I was too hard on him maybe. When we were clear of the city, I took him out to the scrublands, away from camp, and I made him practice. I made him dry fire at the trees for hours on end, even though I knew that it wasn’t—I told him he’d forgotten the face of his father. Told him he’d nearly gotten Louis killed. His best friend. I was livid. I didn’t know how to just…talk to him about it—“
He breathes in raggedly and tries to collect his thoughts. Tries to sort through his memory. “And there was the glass. The fucking glass. We emptied the pack we’d pulled off of him and it was there in the bottom, wrapped in an oilskin. Zayn knew what it was straight away, said it was dangerous, that we needed to keep it safe but…”
Harry nods, though he’s not even certain what that means. “Dark green and deep like...like you could fall right in. He wouldn’t let us carry it. Said it had to be him. And he sort of like…drifted those last few days? Would just sit there…looking at it. Looking into it. Like it was speaking to him. He was barely eating, barely speaking, even to Louis.” His jaw is tight. He doesn’t want to remember. “I was angry and I was content to ignore him. I thought he was being childish. Petulant…I thought his silence was like…I thought he was angry with me. Thought he was acting like a fool. I took it for granted maybe, the link between us. The connection there. I could still feel it, so I thought it was like…a given. That this was just another battle to win, that he would come around and apologize or…“
He swallows thickly and breathes in, deliberate and slow, then lets it out again. “there’s a word back in Gilead. A word for a certain feeling…the knowing that comes when a ka-tet is on the verge of breaking? Like…when things hang in the balance. They called it ka-shume, but they wouldn’t just talk about it, you know? There were…whispers. Like it was a thing you shouldn’t speak of. A regretful thing. I just…” He wraps his arms tight around his bent legs, pulling them into his chest. “I never felt it. I couldn’t feel it so I wasn’t ready when it came. I didn’t know.”
“There’s plenty you can’t know, Harry. You can’t be expected to.”
“But if I can’t see a thing like this coming, how am I meant to protect them? Any of them?”
“When did that become your responsibility?”
Harry laughs a little and it comes out edged with bitterness. “You sound just like Louis.”
Niall pushes at him then. He sets Harry upright and Harry thinks for a moment that he’s said the wrong thing, let his resentment color whatever’s between them. But Niall just turns to look at him and presses a hand to each of Harry’s cheeks. He wipes at the place under his left eye with a thumb and it feels slippery. Wet with tears.
“Don’t let all that you’ve yoked yourself to prevent you from tending to your own mind. If you assign all your worry to other people, who’s meant to care for you?”
He smiles then, and there’s something so tender in it that Harry’s breath catches in his throat. It unnerves him a little...feels like more kindness than he should be allowed, but he doesn’t pull away. He lets Niall hold him this way: a little strange and a little awkward, his hands warm like he’s had them turned toward the sun.
“Why do you look at me that way?”
Niall laughs. “What way?”
“The way you do.”
He shrugs and moves a bit of Harry’s hair off his brow and that’s much too soft as well. Too familiar. “Why do you look at me that way?”
Harry shakes his head. “I don’t.”
Niall moves his thumb—presses it into the soft part of Harry’s cheek and then to the swell of his bottom lip—and his face goes oddly quizzical, like he’s exploring the tender bits of Harry, trying to access him through his softest parts. For a moment the press of Niall’s thumb on his mouth feels like the entire universe, like all there ever was, and he lets himself imagine what it would feel like if Niall kissed him. It would be nothing, just a matter of leaning forward and letting go.
Niall drops his hands and tucks them under his arms, hugging himself across the chest. “Sorry.”
“It’s just strange. It’s funny timing, you appearing just now. But it’s like…I suppose everything is strange these days. What’s one more bit of insanity, you know?”
Harry shakes his head. He’d nearly forgotten, he’s so caught up in the past. That’s a bit of insanity in itself, isn’t it? “That girl…the one that Ben—”
“Ben? That’s familiar of you. Did you speak with him then?”
Harry nods. “He won’t let us leave. Didn’t say it in so many words, but…”
Niall stands and wipes at the seat of his pants, then tugs Harry up off the ground. “You felt it. In the back of your mind.”
“I felt something.”
“Figures. Did you sit palaver? Did you tell the others what you saw?”
He let her go.
“I don’t know what I saw. We sat palaver but…” He looks down at the letter in his hand. “This sort of…clouded things.”
Niall doesn’t look at him. He’s looking at the moon, or the horizon maybe. The rocky ridge just to their North. “It’s good they don’t know. Keep it close for now, ok? And keep your mind shut tight. For now it’s just folks going strange. A sickness.”
“Niall, what’s happening here?”
“It’s late…too late to get into all that. Enough death for one night of talking.”
Harry wants to protest. Wants to press him, but he holds his tongue and Niall turns back to him and smiles. He reaches out and tugs at the front of Harry’s shirt, quick and light.
“We’ll go see Willem. And we’ll talk.”
He turns and snakes his arm through Harry’s. Tugs him close and leads him away down the hill, back toward town. Harry wants to laugh at the absurdity of it, at their casual way with each other. He wonders what a person would see looking out their window: a couple of young people, some kind of secret rendezvous in the dark. Something innocent and unfettered. For a moment it nearly feels that way: like the world has been put on hold, the darkness and the chaos and the death suspended just for a moment. They walk back to town and Niall is warm at his side and for the time being nothing else is real. The rest of the world doesn’t exist, or can’t touch them at least. For a moment it’s just Harry, Niall and the moon.
When he slips into their room, Louis is lying there on the mattress…the one that Harry’s been using. His face is turned to the wall and he’s breathing fitfully. He looks young in the dim light coming in the window, a little like the boy he used to be. Harry slips out of his boots and his jacket, undresses and sits on the edge of the bed. Rover watches him. She clicks her beak quietly like she’s threatening to make a noise and he presses a finger to his lips, shushing her.
He watches Louis sleep and a thousand words move through his mind like a river. None of them seem adequate. None of them feel right so he doesn’t say anything. He just smoothes the hair at Louis’ temple and runs one finger over the rough scar at the tip of his ear. Lies down beside him, not quite touching him. Just out of reach. He watches the back of Louis’ head and he feels released, like he’s been granted some kind of reprieve. Like he’s left a burden with Niall to hold, just for now.
He feels younger than he has in years. Feels almost like he used to, when he and Louis were just best friends. When they used to share a bed like this and talk until they couldn’t keep their eyes open and nothing had gone strained or sour between them. He watches Louis in the dark and wonders where he’s been and what he’s done. Wonders what he’s dreaming about. He smells acrid, of whiskey and smoke and the faint sour smell of cranberries a person gets when they’ve had a thorough soaking. Harry lies there and he closes his eyes and he listens to the sound of them breathing in the dark, the two of them left with him, the ones who haven’t gone, and tries not to think of what comes next.
It’s not that he sneaks out. Not that he slips away. He just wakes early, the way he does, and when he comes downstairs Niall is there. He’s sitting in the front room, strumming the guitar softly and looking up at the ceiling, his head resting lightly against the back of the couch. Harry doesn’t interrupt. He just hovers in the doorway for a moment, watching him. He understands that Niall sees him there even if he’s not looking, but neither of them says anything. They let the moment stretch on, becoming protracted in the morning light. Then Niall plucks at a string and the sound is discordant and he lifts his head, frowning down at his hands like he’s sore at them for not cooperating. Harry clears his throat and speaks.
“Are you waiting for something?”
Niall tilts his head and looks at Harry. “Yeah. For you maybe. I dunno.” He sets the guitar down at the end of the couch, leaning it up against the arm. “We can leave now if you’d like. Raid Rochelle’s pantry and go.”
Harry glances up at the ceiling, toward the room upstairs and everything filling the air up there, turning the space claustrophobic, making it difficult to breathe.
“Yeah,” he says, and it feels reckless, like he’s putting something off. Opting out of something, just for now. “I’m ready.”
“My ma used to say ‘everyone leaves, Niall. Now or later, in a day’s time or at the end of your life. Everyone’s got an expiration date’.”
Niall stands, straightening up from where he’s been crouched at the river’s edge filling a canteen. He walks back to the horse and passes the water up to Harry and then extends a hand, letting Harry pull him back up.
“It is though, isn’t it? I mean…I get what she was on about. Like…everything has an ending, even the forever stuff. So you can’t let the end like…I dunno…discount everything that came before. You’ve got to take the time that comes to you.”
Harry tugs at the reins and runs the flat of his palm down the horse’s neck, soothing her. She’s nervous today. Restless like she knows something. It’s the thinny maybe, she can hear the whine of it out here and it’s unsettling her. He sits back up, kicks at her flank and considers what Niall’s said as she moves them forward along the river.
“That’s fair but…the end matters, doesn’t it? He’s told us his heart was never in it. That he was just like…going along with it for our sakes, trying to convince himself it was what he wanted. Does that not change the whole of it? Does it not color our time together with a sort of lie?“
“For your sakes.” His voice is quiet, almost like an afterthought.
“Dunno. Just seems like he was in it for a reason, and the reason was you lot. Seems to me it might get sort of muddled: the thing that you’ve been sent out to do and the folks you’ve chosen to do it with.”
Something about it nags at Harry, the way Niall’s talking. Something in the words, but he can’t put his finger on it so he bites his tongue.
Niall considers and then continues. “And the thing itself perhaps. Seems to me he only ever wanted to help people. There’s a lot to be reconciled when that comes wrapped up with killing. Killing is…” He pauses, like he’s choosing his words carefully. “it’s giving a part of you away. There’s always a bit of you that’s being compromised in that. At some point I guess you’ve got to decide if that’s something you’re capable of and out here it’s like…you don’t often get the chance to sit and meditate on it, you know? It’s more like BANG. There you are. This is it. You do or you don’t. Nothing in between.”
His arm goes tight around Harry’s middle and Harry probes at the edges of his own discomfort. He tries to imagine anyone else saying those words, the way it would ring like an accusation or a challenge, like he was expected to defend himself or his actions. But it’s Niall and he can feel the truth of it, the softness and the understanding. He leans his head back against Niall’s and closes his eyes and just for a moment, he lets in all the comfort Niall is sending his way. Allows it to ease his mind.
“Can he feel us coming?”
“Hmm?” Niall’s voice sounds distant and a little slow, like he’s lost.
Harry picks his head up and things become clear again. He can feel the sharp edge of the heat and the saddle beneath him and Niall pressed up against his back. “Willem. Can he feel us? Or you? Is that how it works when there’s two of you?”
“Nah…nothing like that. You’d need a wizard glass for that sort of knowing.”
Harry tugs at the reins a little too hard, caught off guard. The horse whinnies in protest and then course corrects, ignoring his outburst, and he feels a change in Niall’s energy. A tension, like he’s said something he didn’t mean to.
“Is that what they’re for? The bends?”
Niall shifts uneasily and nudges the back of Harry with one elbow. He doesn’t answer.
“Niall are you chewing on yourself right now?”
“What? No.” Niall’s free arm is around Harry’s waist then, securing him in a sort of backwards bear hug. “Shut up.”
“Is it though? Is that what they’re meant for? Is that what Zayn was—”
“I can’t know that. There’s different sorts and it’s not as simple as all—”
“But he could’ve…it’s a thing you can do.”
“Yeah…it’s a thing you can do but…” Niall’s mind has been set to stirring, Harry can feel it: a nagging fear, a dark memory. A little abyss. Something winking in the dark.
“Have you seen one before? A bend of the rainbow? Like the one we found?”
“No…not seen. Felt maybe. Or like…encountered. They’re bad news, Harry. He was right about that much, about the danger. They’ve each got their uses, their own sort of magic, and folks have been known to harness that but…they speak to a person. They sway.”
“What sort of magic?”
“Seeing stuff, mostly. Some show you other worlds, some show you what’s not yet come, show you all the evil deeds you’re capable of, what’s lurking just around the darkest corner. Some are…stranger. Show you the ugly side of love or places where you can access Todash space, help you open those doors…one of them, the last of them…” He falls silent for a moment. “It doesn’t matter. Point is, they’re not to be trusted. They’re not evil, I wouldn’t go that far but...they’re cursed. Look into a bend of the rainbow and it’ll look right back at you. It’ll always try to exact a price.”
Harry remembers Zayn’s face those last two weeks. The strange set of his shoulders. The weight he’d lost. His reticence.
“That thing…is it why he left? Did it sway him somehow?“
“Maybe, but…does that feel true? Does it not feel like a choice he made himself?”
Harry chews at his lip. Tries to audit his understanding of that last week, but it's like holding onto dry sand. The memories slip through his fingers. “I don’t know.”
But he thinks of Zayn’s face—remembers the apprehension there the day they’d set out east, the trembling in his hands that Harry had stilled with his own—and it feels a little like a lie.
The house is warm and there’s proper food. Some sort of stew with venison and root vegetables and a loaf of hard bread that Niall’s brought with him. They eat first despite Harry’s insistence that they get down to the business of talking. Willem says something about food and palaver not mixing and Harry can’t tell if he’s making fun. It doesn’t matter. He’s right and Harry acquiesces.
He feels like an impatient child out here, away from Louis and Liam and the particular roles each of them fall into when they’re together. He’s volatile and demanding, burning with curiosity. But he understands that there’s an order to things. So they sit at the table and they eat and Willem asks after Rochelle and other folks in town and Niall fills him in on what sounds like idle gossip. The harvest, the selling of livestock, the festival at the reaping in two weeks time.
When they’ve finished eating, Niall sets about clearing the table and Willem sits back in his chair. He watches Harry, his eyes narrowed but bright like he’s considering a problem or about to present Harry with some sort of riddle. There’s something calculating about him and for a moment Harry is reminded of Cort again. But Willem is nothing like Harry’s teacher, is he? Cort was all brute force and violence. His cleverness showed itself in calculated blows and the particular sort of knowing that only serves you in a fight. He was a blunt instrument. Willem is more complex. Like a contraption, something with cogs and wheels and complications.
“May I see it?”
Harry doesn’t speak. He affects a blank sort of expression—tries to remain unreadable—and Willem smiles in a conciliatory way, raising his hands like he’s surrendering to Harry’s will.
“It’s alright boy, I’m not trying to be rude. And I won’t put my grubby mitts all over it. Simple curiosity is all.”
Harry doesn’t make a move. He sits and he deliberates. He thinks of Cort and imagines all that he would have to say about Harry’s imprudence. Thinks of his training. Thinks of the day his father loaded the first cartridge into his gun and Cort said the words—have you come here for a serious purpose, boy?—remembers the edge to Zayn’s voice and the quaver in his tone that betrayed his nerves—I have come for a serious purpose. He thinks of Zayn’s gun, rusting in the dirt just outside of town.
Harry reaches into his coat and undoes the snap that holds the revolver snug in its holster, nested against his side. Keeps his eyes on Willem as he tugs the gun out of its cradle. He pops the cylinder and drops three shells into his hand and then he pockets the bullets and sets the weapon on the surface of the table. The noise it makes as it hits the wood betrays its heft, betrays the significance of the action.
Willem leans forward and studies it, making no move to reach for it or explore with anything more than his eyes. Then he frowns and nods like something’s been confirmed.
“That’s a mighty nice gun for someone so young. Would’ve expected something more akin to a first year’s arm. Is that silver plating?”
Harry doesn’t answer. He picks the gun up off the table and slips it back into its holster, securing it into place.
“It was your father’s, then?”
Harry shakes his head. “My mother’s.”
Willem’s brow twitches with surprise and he sits back again, studying Harry’s face anew. Like he’s seeing him for the first time.
“Your mother. Now there’s a peculiar thing.”
Harry just shrugs. He and Willem both know the truth: that it’s something more than peculiar. That women don’t take the test. That they’re not allowed. Willem watches him with eyes that have gone sharp, like he could cut an explanation out of Harry, like he’s itching to ask. Then he softens.
“I’ve heard tell of this. Word gets around when something so strange…” He goes contemplative for a moment. “Her name was Anne, yes? That’s good. Very good. It’s always been a little archaic and outmoded, you know…the masculinity of the thing. All the patriarchal trappings. Makes it all so unfortunate and inhospitable. I can imagine Cort had a few choice words to say about her, though. That man…” His face goes dark. “He doesn’t take kindly to being made to play the fool.”
Harry doesn’t answer.
“She must be a very strong woman.”
“She was as strong as any I suppose. Doesn’t take might to wield a gun.”
Willem studies him. There’s a rustling and Niall appears again, coming out of the kitchen with a pot of tea and a tray of chipped mugs. He sets them down on the table and Willem nods appreciatively.
“Not the sort of strength I meant.”
He reaches for the pot and pours them each a cup of tea and then shifts in his chair, his comportment changing abruptly. He folds his hands in front of his chest and nods. “Now…we’ll talk. Tell me what you saw.”
Harry takes a moment to consider. He feels strangely like he’s being given a test he’s not studied for and it’s making him nervy, hesitant. He rubs at the sides of his mouth and then speaks.
“I saw a woman killed.”
Harry glances at Niall, then he nods.
Willem grimaces. “Shame. She was kind. Deserved a gentler end probably. Go on.”
“Killed by her own kin as I took it. A girl who’d been taken some weeks past.”
Willem sips at his tea and nods. “You saw a woman killed. What manner of killing?”
“It was like…” Harry swallows thickly, remembering. “Someone being set upon by wild dogs. The girl, she was…feral. Like an animal. But she wasn’t just that. She seemed…”
“Human?” Willem nods and sets his mug down. “She seemed alive…coherent?”
“What else did you see?”
“I saw the man, Ben…er…Winston. He was holding her back—Camilla. The mother. He was holding her away from her daughter but she…she got away from him and ran to her and—”
“How did she get away?”
Harry falls silent. He remembers it: he way Ben fell back, clutching his middle like he’d been struck. The way his arms went soft around her just before—
“He let her...get away. He allowed it.”
“He let her go?”
Harry nods. “He said something in her ear, he loosened his grip, he let her go, then fell back as if she’d hurt him somehow.”
Willem looks at Niall then and Niall nods, confirming what Harry’s said.
“This is…a surprise.” Willem’s tone is grave. “But not so surprising. We’ve felt for some time that the man Winston was involved somehow but there was never any sort of…nothing tangible. Him…involving himself…getting blood on his hands. This is new. He’s making a sort of demonstration. Trying to manipulate through fear as well as whatever hold he has on their minds.”
“What’s happening to these folks,” Harry asks. “The ones who are taken?”
Willem holds his tea in two hands and makes an odd face, like he’s uncertain where to begin.
“What do you know of vampires, my cully?”
Harry nearly chokes on his tea. “You’re not serious.”
“Dead so I’m afraid.”
He glances at Niall, then back at Willem. “They’re a joke…a story like…like unicorns or the lady of the lake. Stories to tell children.”
“Stories are a funny thing, lad. They live a long time. They change shape. They begin as truth and evolve into legend. So again…what do you know of vampires?”
Harry just stares at him for a moment, feeling like he’s being taken in. He looks over at Niall and Niall’s face is serious in a regretful sort of way that makes Harry’s stomach turn.
“They’re…creatures. They survive on human blood…they’re immortal maybe or just strong. Difficult to kill.”
“There are ways,” Willem says. “Wood through the heart. Taking the head off. Fire.”
“There’s…” Harry grimaces and rubs at his face. It feels absurd talking this way. “Something about garlic…something else. Crosses or some such thing. I don’t—“
“The garlic thing is a bunch of—” he waves his hand dismissively. “Don’t really know who came up with that. Same folks who thought you could stave off disease by shoving flowers up your nose I reckon. The cross thing…there’s more weight to that one. Not crosses specifically but something about objects of faith. It’s the belief behind it that matters.”
“Are you saying Riverbend is being…besieged by vampires?”
Willem and Niall exchange a glance and then Niall smiles regretfully over at Harry. “Yeah…I suppose we are.”
Willem sets his tea down. “Listen boy, and listen very well. This is where myth intersects with truth. Vampires are old things. A relic of a world not so far moved on. They haunted cities and villages…anywhere people congregated. They followed death. Chaos and disease. They would move most freely in places where order had broken down. In the spaces between civilizations, in the midst of wars. Those places where things become…mutable. People become pliant…vulnerable. And a parasite can latch on and feed without fear of being caught out. But…perhaps things became difficult for them, before the cataclysm. The structure and order of the world before drove them into the dark or to their death. I don’t know. I know that here, in this world, they’ve become nothing more than a story.”
He looks at Niall then and something passes between them. Then Niall speaks.
“We think Winston may be one of them.”
Harry shakes his head. “But he’s…human. He lives with you. Among you. He’s not some feral dog.”
“No, that’s…that’s the new ones. It spreads like a disease and…we think that he may be the source. Willem tells me that there are different sorts. The older ones are much more powerful. More human in their comportment but…not human at all. There’s something much darker in them.”
“Where did he come from? And when?”
“The when of it is clear…he came to town four or five turns ago now. Set himself up nice, held court at the tavern and made friends with folks from town. The disappearances started…a year after that maybe. Just one or two every few months. Nothing suspicious, just the sort of unfortunate happenings you’d expect out here. Then there were…sightings.”
“Disappeared folks, spotted outside of town?”
Niall nods. “The where of it is trickier. Where he came from.” He looks over at Willem but Willem’s face is impassive. Patient. Niall continues. “He’s likely a walk-in.”
“You mean he’s come out of the thinny? How?”
Niall doesn’t meet his eye. “The way things do. No rhyme or reason to it. One day it’s calm, the next it’s spitting up electric ovens and dead leaves and the occasional vampire…just…thinny stuff…flotsam and jetsam.”
Niall looks down at the table and turns his mug in slow circles, his expression strange and uncomfortable. Willem watches him. Harry can sense a tension in Niall’s mind…can feel the turbulence just beneath the surface. Something unsaid. Flashes of memory. Niall is thinking of Rochelle, thinking of the thinny and something older. The smell of blood and someone calling his name, broken glass and a thunderous roar—
“Niall.” Willem’s voice is quiet but sharp. Like a warning. Niall looks up at him, his expression clouded, and then he smiles and it’s like sun breaking through the clouds. Like nothing’s wrong.
“We’ve got a plan.” He turns to Harry. “We’ve sussed out where they go, where he goes in the daytime. That’s their weakness. Books were right about that much.”
“They can’t be out in the daylight, then, just like the stories?”
“Some of them. The newer ones…the ones closer to human. But they’re not a thing to worry about. They can’t spread the disease only carry it. It’s the one’s who’ve been properly turned that are to be feared. They’ve got to go underground when the sun comes up. And we think we know where.”
“But has no one noticed? The strangeness of a man who only appears at night? It seems—“
“You spoke with him, Harry.” Niall’s voice is insistent. “You felt it…the burrowing at the back of your mind.”
“He’s got some kind of touch?”
Willem glances at Niall and then back at Harry. “Something like, but something stranger. Older and much darker. We think he has folks under some sort of thrall.”
Niall nods, his jaw tight. “You saw the men he keeps counsel with. They’re regular folks, not turned, just…”
“Taken.” Willem taps at his own temple. “We supposed we had time…that things were at a sort of standstill. But the happening last night…” Willem rubs at one eyebrow fitfully. “I believe Winston is making a move of some sort. That he plans to take the town.”
“A massacre, boy. Feed on some, turn the others. It’s what he’s been working toward, a critical mass of force maybe. Enough folks turned to overwhelm the town without any trouble and then to move on. As Niall said, it’s a disease. Whatever’s inside this man, it wants to spread. It wants to press outward and consume the world. Where Winston comes from there’s…a lot of world to take. But there’s borders. Governments that aren’t crumbling, order and law that makes spreading en masse a difficult thing. But this world, our world…a world that’s so far moved on…it’s ripe for the picking. And I imagine he’ll start here and work his way west.”
Harry’s stomach turns in a sickening way. “To Gilead?”
Willem nods. “To Gilead.”
“And do you think he knows? About us? Where we’ve come from?”
“I had hoped not, but if he did it might be cause for accelerating his plans. Folks don’t know much about your sort out here. You’re…halfway to a legend yourselves and he’s not of this world. He’s an interloper. I’d hoped he would remain ignorant the way he’s stayed ignorant of our kind,” he glances at Niall then and it seems unconscious, “of the mechanics of the thinny.”
Harry looks at each of them in turn. “Your kind.”
Willem waves his hand dismissively. “Forgive me. My kind…I mean the Manni. The ways of Todash space. I settled out here for a reason. To be left alone. Most of the townsfolk just know me as a batty old man. The Manni, the ways of Gilead, the oaths we’ve taken…folks in these parts are largely ignorant of these things. Out here, gunslingers aren’t much more than legend and the thinny is a dangerous thing, not a thing to be manipulated, not a thing to be navigated. It’s a thing to be feared and left alone.”
“You think he would try to take advantage of it if he knew? That he would use the thinny somehow?”
“I know that his sort aren’t solitary. I know that they run in packs. And that means when he crossed over, he left someone behind. Perhaps many someones. I believe…” Willem glances at Niall again, “that Winston’s crossing over was an accident. A trick of fate. The ugly side of that thing your sort call ka. But I believe if he were to gain access to the thinny, he would attempt to cross over again and he would bring more of his kind back with him.”
“More of his kind…you mean the old ones.”
Willem nods. “One of them we stand a chance against. Just one man. But the lot of them…”
Harry nods. This he understands. This he can grasp: the simple truth of numbers and might. The mathematics of war.
“What’s your plan…and how can we help?”
The ride east from Willem’s is quiet. Niall seems troubled, his mind a mess of white noise, and Harry wonders if that’s a symptom of his unease or if it’s something deliberate. If he’s shutting Harry out somehow. Harry’s mind is abuzz with information. It’s a risky plan, a complicated plan. It’s not the sort of thing that comes natural to him, that sort of cleverness. He’s been trained in the way of justice and in the way of killing. A bad deed punished by death. An eye for an eye. The simplicity of superior might. He thinks of Cort, of the way his lip would curl as he spoke of tactics. Of the thousand ways your own cleverness could get you killed, the sacrament and purity of a simple bullet to the head.
He tugs at the reins and pulls the horse to a stop.
Niall sits up behind him, suddenly alert. “Why’ve you stopped?”
“I want you to show me.”
“I want you to show me what you’ve stockpiled. Where you keep it. I want you to show me the place where they go in the daylight. I want to see it with my own eyes. I can’t…I can’t conceive of all this without…”
“Why not now?”
“I don’t know…because I’m tired. Because I want to think about something other than death for a while. I just…” He laughs incredulously and it’s colored with exhaustion and some great weight Harry can’t fathom. “Do you remember what that felt like? To just…exist? Before everything was tainted by death and destruction?”
Harry kicks at the horse and moves them forward. “This world is built on the back of death and destruction. There’s no such thing as existing apart from that. It’s deluded to think you could.”
Niall laughs and it’s short and bitter. “I suppose you’re right. A world that’s on its way out. That’s slowly fading away or…Willem says it’s more like a wilting. Like it was…bigger before? More wheres and whens. That it’s more like a slow collapse inward, a bloom that’s losing its freshness, so to speak. All the wheres and whens fold in on themselves. Things become muddled. Let’s stop at the river.”
“Let’s just…let’s stop for a bit. I don’t want to go back there yet. I want to stay here…in between, like. With you.”
It presses at Harry’s middle, that last part. The way he says it. Like they could just step off the path of their lives, suspend time for a moment, the way it felt suspended last night when they went walking together toward town. Harry is struck suddenly by the depth of his own want. The desire to chase that feeling to its end. He thinks he could become addicted it, the way being with Niall is like a thing separate from the world. Like something bigger and older and safer. But it’s a distraction maybe. It’s something to be wary of.
He tugs at the reins and moves them toward the river.
“I like thinking of it as a river. Moving forward and only ever flowing one way. Like…you can divert it to an extent, send the water into one stream or the other, but it never stops going and going.”
He’s holding a twig in his hand, something he’s snapped off a gnarled willow just at the bank of the river. He pokes at the earth, drawing meandering trails in the dirt. Harry watches him and he listens. Niall lies back in the dirt and gestures up at the tree above them, tracing the line of the branches that stretch out over the water. Harry follows his gaze, craning his neck awkwardly, then gives up and lies back as well. Lets himself be soft. He listens to the sound of the horse drinking from the river, the flow of the water over the rocks, the rising and falling tone of Niall’s voice. Lets it relax him.
“I like it because it’s about like…patterns that repeat. Like…the branches of a river, the branches of a tree. You see the way a tree grows…the way it sprouts into smaller and smaller versions of the same shape. Branches from branches. A thousand versions of itself but with unique alterations. Scars. Bits lopped off and growth that goes a little wrong. Each one only itself and each one an echo of all the others. The same places, the same stories, told again and again. The same faces meeting the same fate and other fates too. A thousand deaths a thousand times over.”
“I thought we weren’t speaking of death.”
Niall turns his head and studies Harry for a moment. Harry looks back at him and he’s struck by the way the light falls on Niall’s face, the pattern of the branches above them casting a shadow over his brow. There’s a particular watery motion to it from the reflection off the river or the heat in the air and Harry feels something catch in his throat, some vague feeling of urgency like he’s got to say something quick or it’ll get away from him. Niall looks up at the tree again and smiles.
“Sorry. The same babies born, the same lives lived, slightly altered maybe. Little changes or big ones but the same folks living through them.”
Harry frowns up at the tree. “We learned of ka in our training. And from our mums, you know? But it was…a different sort of thing. Less like a river and more like a path you were bound to. A road that leads to a singular fate, sort of. And that binds you to your purpose, too.”
Niall tilts his head and watches Harry, his face troubled. “That seems very rigid…Willem was right maybe, about you lot.”
“It’s not just—there’s something to it, right? Ka’s what gives you meaning and it’s something to surrender to and it’s what binds you to your ka-tet. That shared purpose. That you’re moving along the same path to the same end. It’s…bigger than me. Bigger than all of us.”
“That seems like a dangerous sort of thinking.”
Harry shakes his head. He feels a hardness rising in him. “It’s all we know. Ka moves us forward, ka’s what binds us.”
“Is that all?”
Harry isn’t sure what to say. What Niall’s asking. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Do you not love them? Your ka-tet? Did you not make that choice out of love, to be together? To bind yourselves to one another?”
Harry sits up and looks out over the river. He thinks of Louis back in town, god knows where doing god knows what. Liam’s nerves and uncertainty, Zayn’s quiet intensity…and then the three of them. The way they were before. Just kids.
“Of course I love them. It’s…that’s what it is to form a ka-tet…you’ve got no choice but to love them. They become a part of you.” It feels uncertain. Or perfunctory. Or colored by hurt.
He hears Niall sitting up at his side.
“You’ve always got a choice though, don’t you? My mum used to speak about ka, and she would speak about love and how they’re not the same thing. My sister Rochelle…she had a man once. Years ago. Marvin. He was…good. And they were so fucking in love, you know? It was like…blinding. I could barely stand it sometimes. We all knew they would be married and have a million babies and grow old together. It was a given. Then Marvin went and fell off a horse one day. Broke his neck. It was just…it was the stupidest thing. Spooked by a bumbler or something like that. And Rochelle was…broken. She couldn’t understand how it could happen like that. How…if you were bound to a person by fate, if your love was that strong, how it could end that way. How you could be left alone like that. But like…that’s ka right? Ka’s what brought the two of them together maybe, and ka’s what tore them apart. The love, though? The love was something else. It’s something they grew together. It was real and it was powerful and it was good and the way it ended doesn’t change that, you know? My mum used to say, don’t underestimate ka…but don’t let it blind you to the choice you do have. Don’t rely on it to keep people around. Don’t confuse ka with love, or the other way round.”
“But if ka is what brings people together…if it’s what defines us and moves us forward, isn’t love just a part of that? Isn’t the script written? How can you separate the two?”
Niall shakes his head, frustrated. “No it’s like…ka is a force, right? A river moving forward. And love is a force too but it’s not the same thing. A river can deliver a seed to the earth…and it can provide the water that seed needs to grow. But the tree that sprouts from that seed,” He gestures at the branches above them. “would you call that a river?”
Harry laughs dryly. “No…obviously.”
“That’s love though, isn’t it? Ka’s like a river moving forward but love’s like…a blooming thing. Something that grows independent of ka’s flow. It’s like a tree that takes root but a tree takes more than water to grow. It needs sunlight and care, it needs soil and food. The river’s just one piece of the puzzle, right? There’s so much more that goes into it, that feeds it. Ka has sway over love, sure. It can nourish love or it can starve love out. It can flood and become violent and tear love down. But love’s got it’s own power too. It can grow so big and strong and overwhelming that it diverts the river’s flow…or splits it right in two.”
Harry thinks of his mother then. Of the gun at his hip and the bullet nestled in his pocket. He thinks of Zayn, making his way toward exile by way of Gilead, moving forward on a path that’s all his own. It shouldn’t be like that…their paths should never have diverged. He was taught to trust in the connection between them, solidified by a shared purpose. It should have been enough—
“So…do you love them? Really? Do you love them?”
Harry watches the river. He chews at the corner of his lip and considers. He searches his heart. The deepest parts of himself. Tries to access the love he’s sure is there, wilting away under all the anger and fear and resentment and hurt, struggling to breathe.
Niall nods once, satisfied. “That’s good.”
“I’ve just done a shit job of it, maybe.”
“Dunno...I can feel a tenderness in you...and maybe it takes practice. Loving’s not an easy thing to do sometimes. It can open you right up and leave you raw, but it’s worth the pain, you know? Because love’s not the only thing that blooms, or that binds you to folks. Not the only thing that can split a river in two or drink it dry. Hate can work just as well in a pinch.”
Harry doesn’t answer. He’s not sure what else to say. If he thinks too hard on all of it he’ll never stop…the cataloging of his mistakes, every harsh word. Every criticism and bit of tenderness he’s withheld because it felt like the right thing to do. Because they had to be serious men, had to grow up and grow out of childish sentimentality. He was wrong maybe. Maybe he already understood that. He thinks of a river flowing forward, moving him toward his fate. He thinks of Niall…whatever it is that moves between them, and he wonders where it fits in.
“You can ask me.” Niall’s voice is quiet. “What’s there in the back of your mind. I can feel it.”
Harry swallows. “What are we to each other? What’s this thing between us?”
a river or something that blooms?
“It’s a seed maybe. I don’t know. I just know that ka is the thing that’s delivered you to me. All of you. That I’ve met you a thousand times in a thousand different worlds…that we’ve been a thousand different things to each other, the five of us. That maybe I’m tied to them too. To all of you. But what I am to this you…right here in this world…in this moment…” He shakes his head. “I can’t know that. I can just feel it.”
“That’s—” Harry presses the heel of a hand to his temple. “I can’t wrap my mind around that sort of thing. All I’ve got is this world…the one we’re living in. The one that’s all death and blood and a slow moving on and every mistake I’ve ever made. Everything turning to shit…and then you. The way you make me f—” He shakes his head. He feels confused. Like the world’s tilted on its axis. “There’s…something of you that moves in me, is all. That’s what I know. That’s what I’m struggling to make sense of.”
“Why make sense of it?”
“I don’t know it just…seems futile, trying to make sense of anything in a world that’s gone senseless.” He leans over then and tugs Harry by his jacket, pulling him close. “It feels right, being with you. But it’s more than that. More than just right.”
“That’s what worries me maybe.”
“I’d gather that’s just you telling yourself you’ve got no right to happiness. Willem always said you lot thought misery was some sort of professional prerequisite.”
“That’s not true.”
“We used to be…” He shakes his head. He can’t remember when it got so twisted. “We used to laugh. It was…different. We were different. Louis was funny. He was…himself. The two of you would’ve—” He stops himself. He doesn’t like the way the words are coming out, past tense and morose. “I don’t know what I’m meant to do anymore. How to fix it. It used to seem so clear. The oaths we took, what came next…all of it.”
“So maybe it’s not about what you’re meant to do…maybe it’s just what you choose.”
The word hits him square in the chest like a challenge. It’s frightening to think it, that he could drop all the imperatives and just…act. Make a decision for himself. Not for anyone else, not because he’s duty-bound or because he’s been ordered.
Niall shrugs and looks out over the river, then he stands. “We should get back. It’ll be dark soon.”
Harry picks himself up off the ground and sorts himself out quickly. He can’t take his eyes off of Niall suddenly. The light’s gone all golden and saturated and the air feels thick, like it’s loaded with uncertainty and that strange sense that he’ll miss something if he doesn’t act quickly, with the weight of a thousand choices he could make and no one to spell out the right thing to do. Maybe there’s no right thing to do, just what he wants to do. It feels subversive thinking that way. The idea that he could give a voice to his desires, translate them into action. He thinks of Louis and all the times he could have held him, given him comfort. Laughed with him. Every bit of reassurance he’s withheld from Liam and every ugly feeling he never let Zayn see that Zayn saw in him anyway—as if Harry could hide it. As if Zayn couldn’t read him like a book. Every time what felt like the right thing to do pulled him further and further away from them.
Niall turns to go. He heads back up the bank and clicks his tongue, calling for the horse who’s wandered off up the river.
Niall turns back to him and Harry moves before he can think too hard about it. He closes the distance between them before the doubt can creep up and freeze him in place, reaches out and gets a hand in the front of Niall’s shirt.
Niall’s lips are warm just like the rest of him, a little chapped but soft against Harry’s, and kissing him feels a little like coming home. Like a folding in on one another. Niall is pressed to Harry’s lips and there inside his head and there’s a spinning sensation, a bird’s wings beating against the inside of his chest. He’s not sure if that’s him or if that’s Niall or if it’s the both of them. They kiss and there’s a heat to it, like the sun at midday. Like an evening fire. Something that seeps into you and warms your bones. Like a slow thaw.
Harry pulls away just far enough to free up his mouth so he’s not speaking into Niall’s lips. He presses a kiss to Niall’s throat and feels his pulse there, quick and fluttering and wild.
“That was my choice.”
“Ok.” Niall laughs and it sounds a little giddy. “Bold. I like it.”
“Let me stay with you tonight.”
Niall pulls back and looks at him. Harry can sense the uncertainty in his mind, the question there. “You don’t need to go back? To the others?“
“No. Tomorrow. I’m—you’re right. I’m tired of need and must and should. I want to stay with you tonight. That’s what I’m choosing. Right here and now, in this particular tilted world. That’s what I want. I want to feel like a person with a choice, who’s not bound to anything but my own will.”
Niall doesn’t say anything for a moment. Then he smiles. “Yeah. Okay.”
“I mean…me too. I want that. I’ve wanted that for ages.”
Harry laughs. “You haven’t known me for ages.”
“You know what I mean.”
“And tomorrow we think about what we have to do. We’ll ride out and you’ll show me what I need to see. The wheres and the whats of it.”
“Yeah, sure.” For a moment Niall’s face is strange, like he’s just fathomed something he never bargained for. “Yeah…I’ll show you everything.”
They reach the edge of town just as the sun is dipping below the horizon and they sort the horse out, leaving her in the stable with fresh hay and a blanket. Niall leads him through the streets, around blind corners and through alleys until they reach the tavern, glowing with lantern light and alive with voices. Harry balks and reaches for Niall’s sleeve.
“We’re not going in there, are we? Not tonight.”
Niall glances back at him and laughs, taking his hand. “I live there, you idiot.”
“I live there. Above the bar. Aren’t you lot supposed to be all observant and clever and stuff?”
“Observant, yeah. Calculating maybe. Clever was never…” Harry falls silent. Lets himself be led by the hand. They skirt the front of the tavern, avoiding the lit windows and ducking into the alley. He grimaces in the dark, remembering. “He used to hit us for that sort of thing.”
Niall moves them around the back of the building and toward a rickety-looking staircase. It’s his turn to be baffled now, and he looks back at Harry with a wary expression.
“For being too clever. Our teacher would beat us for it. Said that cleverness masked the truth. That…’justice can’t abide a lie’. Louis got the worst of it I think. Could never hold his tongue.”
“Jesus. Your teacher sounds like a mean piece of work.”
He doesn’t know why he’s thinking of it. Of Cort. Of their training. Any of it. Why he can’t stop thinking about his mother. There’s so much of it he wants to forget, to press downward into the deepest parts of himself. It’s easier that way. But something’s been set into motion inside him: an unraveling that started with Zayn’s leaving, or with the boy, or before. Maybe a long time before.
“I hated him.” The rawness of his emotion makes it feel like blasphemy. Like the words should burn his tongue. “We all did.”
Niall pauses at the top of the stairs and tugs a key out of his pocket. He works it in the lock and nods like he’s just decided something and then swings the door wide.
“Then if you don’t mind, I’ll go ahead and hate him too.”
They light a lamp when they get inside and it casts a dim golden glow just bright enough to illuminate the sharpest edges of the room. A small battered desk, folded clothing on a chair and a shelf that seems to be overflowing with detritus. Like a miniature altar to the same god of junk that Willem’s been making offerings to for decades. Harry moves toward it, drawn by his own curiosity, but Niall catches his sleeve.
“What is all that?”
“I’ll show you tomorrow. After.”
Harry bites back his curiosity and nods. “Okay.”
He turns and then it’s just the two of them, alone together in a room bursting with unspoken intention. Harry thinks he should say something, that they should talk, but Niall’s eyes are shining in the lamplight and the angles of his face and the little dip just at the center of his chin are cast in stark relief and Harry is struck by it, by how lovely every part of him is in the midst of all the dust and dirt and blood and chaos. How disarming it is just to look at him. Niall presses a finger to Harry’s cheek lightly, like he’s feeling something out. Finding its shape. Then he smiles.
“You’re very beautiful.”
Harry laughs, caught off guard. It’s a ridiculous thing. It feels divorced from its own meaning. He’s not meant to be beautiful. It’s not what he was made for. He thinks of everything he’s been taught to be: Imposing, serious, quiet, taut, calculating, wound up tight and cocked like the hammer of a gun. Beautiful was never…
He shakes his head. “It’s frightening, being here with you. Like I’m not sure who I am anymore.”
“I scare you?” Niall laughs incredulously.
“You unnerve me.” Harry reaches out and tugs at the front of Niall’s shirt. Pulls him close. Dips his head and presses his lips to the curve of his neck. “You get under my skin.”
Niall’s breath catches a little at the contact. “Has no one told you that before?”
“Told me what?”
“That you’re beautiful.”
Harry doesn’t pull away. He moves his mouth to the line of Niall’s jaw, drags the tip of his nose along the curve of his ear and buries it in his hair. Presses a kiss to his temple and one to his brow. Niall doesn’t move. He stands there with his eyes closed, taking shallow stuttering breaths.
“No. No one’s told me that before.”
“Well you are.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“No I…I do…”
Harry pulls away then, taken aback at his own words and the feeling behind them. It’s like a light’s gone on. Like the darkness around them has been illuminated and he understands exactly where he stands with Niall, how far down this peculiar path they’ve walked. He speaks and it’s like an untethering.
“…I believe every word you say. I trust you completely.”
They don’t speak—not until after, when the wick in the lamp has burned down and the corners of the room have gone dim and they’ve been illuminated and enlightened and have touched every inch of each other’s bodies—but they converse. Niall is in his head like a part of him and he’s next to Harry too: something new and unique and exhilarating that smells of cinnamon and a little like sunlight. It’s intoxicating. Harry thinks he could lose himself in it, in the depth of their shared awareness and in the physicality of the thing. Both at once.
Their way with each other isn’t lustful or desperate, not like anything Harry’s ever experienced before. He’s made love…or fucked, or whatever you would call it. He’s not a child. But with Niall he’s an explorer, mapping every inch of his body and taking note and holding it close.
Everything is new and everything is a revelation but it’s familiar too...like he’s coming home for the first time in years and wants to revisit every inch of the place he was always meant to be. He traces the line of Niall’s ribs and feels the way his chest dips and rises, the sparse dark hair there and the soft flesh on the inside of his arms. The places where he’s ticklish, where he laughs and pulls away. The back of his knees and the line of his pelvis and the shape of his cock and the taste of him and the way Niall’s mouth feels on every square inch of Harry’s skin. The heat and the cold and the wetness of his tongue and the callouses on his fingers and the way his hands feels rough and soft at once and warm, warm, warm, like the heat of a sun.
It’s that heat—holding him and surrounding him. The sense of a warmth radiating outward that never stops, an engine that burns and creates and never dies, the movement of Niall’s fingers and of his mouth at Harry’s throat—that does him in. He presses his head back into the pillow and closes his eyes and he sees a darkness and then he recalls a single image, just for an instant: a yellowed paper card tossed down on a battered table. A child on a horse, radiating light. He feels the acuteness of his own bitterness and skepticism in that moment, like a knife at his throat, and remembers a voice.
“The Sun. Reconciliation.”
When he comes, it’s sharp with the memory and explosive with release and he laughs despite himself. He can’t stop it. It just bubbles up and out of him, strained and exhausted and choked with tears. He can feel Niall’s face pressed against his chest and Niall’s laughing too, nervous and breathy and undone.
“Do you always laugh like that? At the end?”
Harry throws an arm across his face, embarrassed, and quiets himself. He can feel the wetness of his eyes against the crook of his elbow. Can taste the salt of his tears. “No…that was just for you.”
Niall shifts at his side and tugs at his arm gently. “Are you crying? Did I make you cry? Jesus, was I that terrible?”
“No…” he drops his arm and moves to pull Niall close, to hold him there, but Niall is gone. He’s slid down the bed and away. “You were perfect.”
“Thanks. You too.”
Niall’s across the room now rooting around in his pack. Harry can just see him there in the dark, his skin bright and reflective with the sheen of sweat. The bare shape of him is weirdly breathtaking, even crouched down the way he is. Harry reaches a hand out weakly. He feels spent. Wrung out.
“Where are you going? Help me, I’m a mess.”
“Hang on, you’re fine. We’ll get cleaned up in a minute I’m just fucking starving. Willem gave me a thing.” He digs around and then sits back on his heels. “Aha. Here.”
He tosses something Harry’s way and it lands on the bed with a soft thud. A rubber ball, or…not a ball, a—
“Oh christ. Where did you get this?“ Harry sits up and picks the orange up off the blanket. He holds it in two hands with something like reverence. Like a thing to be treasured.
“Told you.” Niall crawls back onto the bed and sits next to Harry. He takes the orange and holds it up to the light. “Willem gave it to me.”
“Did he find it like…out there?” He waves his hand around vaguely to indicate…something. Other worlds maybe. Other whens and wheres. His head feels cottony and soft and stupid.
Niall looks confused for a moment and then he laughs. “Did he go Todash and pick up groceries? Christ, that would be hilarious, wouldn’t it? Nah, I expect Oliver brought them. One of his sacred transactions or whatever. Anyway it’s ours now.” He sets to work peeling the fruit and the air is filled with the fresh tang of citrus.
Harry’s mouth waters indecently. “I haven’t had a fresh orange since we left home.”
“Jesus. You’ve not been living. Here.” He finishes peeling the skin off, then splits the thing in two and hands Harry a slice, tugged off a little sloppily and dripping with juice. Harry pops it in his mouth and bites down and—
“Holy shit.” His voice is comically slurred, muffled by the food in his mouth. But it’s like…it’s not like anything he’s tasted before. The tartness and the sweetness and the juice of it. It’s so good he feels a sudden rush of inexplicable guilt, like he shouldn’t be allowed this sort of indulgence.
Niall studies his reaction, his face incredulous, and then looks at the orange in his hand. “Okay wow. You really haven’t had an orange in a while. That good?”
Harry swallows and shakes his head. “No it’s like…that’s a really good orange or something. It’s unreal.”
Niall laughs and tugs a slice off the round. “Alright, I believe you.” He pops the orange in his mouth and bites down, his face curious, and Harry watches his eyes go wide.
“See? What the hell, right?”
“Wow.” He looks down at the orange suspiciously. “What kind of…it’s like the sweet and the tart mixed together is….but like…there’s a bitterness too, and a salt to it—“ He swallows and it’s a little choked with laughter, like something’s just dawned on him. “Oh my god.”
“What?” Harry reaches out and takes another slice off the round. He puts it in his mouth and lets it sit on his tongue, sucks at it gently and lets the juice fill his mouth.
“Don’t move, okay? I want to try something. This is going to be weird but don’t—“
Niall doesn’t explain, he just leans down suddenly and licks a quick stripe along Harry’s stomach where the mess of their lovemaking is slowly drying in the night air. Harry inhales sharply and nearly chokes at the sight of it, the indecency of the act and the unexpected drag of Niall’s tongue along his skin.
“What are you—“
Niall sits up and pops another slice of orange into his mouth, his face curious like he’s conducting some sort of experiment. Then he closes his eyes and smiles blissfully.
“Yeah. That’s what it is. It’s you.”
Harry chews and swallows and considers and he understands that Niall’s right. It’s not just the orange he’s tasting. It’s a mixing together. The tart and sweet of the juice and the bitter salt and musk of Niall lingering on his tongue. Something about all of it at once is transcendent. Like nothing he’s ever tasted before.
Niall reaches over with one hand…turns Harry’s head just enough to get at his lips and then kisses him, working his mouth open and pressing their tongues together. It’s slow and soft. There’s nothing insistent in it. Harry can taste the orange and the salt of their sweat and the bitterness of himself and of Niall mingling on his tongue and then Niall pulls away and pops another slice in Harry’s mouth. He holds the remainder of the orange up to the light and it glows, semi-translucent in its bareness and dripping with juice. A citrus half moon hanging in the sky between them.
“Mark this moment down for posterity, Harry. This discovery is going to save the world.”
They sit quietly and finish the orange together, their legs tangled in the blanket and in each other, and they watch the movement of the lamplight on the ceiling and listen to the muffled sounds of the tavern coming up through the floor. Harry feels it again, a freezing in place. A suspension. Like they’re hanging in this moment together just slightly removed from the world--from every possible world--but like they’re existing everywhere at once, too. Momentary and infinite. Both at the same time.
“It’s weird, this thing between us. The connection.” Niall’s voice is soft.
“No…great weird. Like…when we were together,” his face goes a little flushed in the dim light, like he’s embarrassed. “It was like I knew what you wanted from me. Like I was right there with you in the wanting.”
Harry nods. “Like an-tet, but I’ve never…I’ve never connected with anyone that way outside the others. And it’s something else with you. Deeper, like.”
“An-tet? You lot have a fancy word for everything, don’t you?”
Harry shrugs. “I suppose we do. An-tet is the…it’s what passes between you when you’re linked by ka. It’s the connection there between me and them…and you now. Somehow.”
Harry feels his cheeks go warm…his turn to be embarrassed. “It means something else, too. It can mean like…physical joining. Like…” He gestures vaguely at the air between them, at a loss for words.
Niall looks uncertain and then his eyes go wide. “Oh. Wow. That seems…confusing.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
“What does it mean, the ‘tet’ part? I know ‘ka’.”
Harry watches the ceiling and considers. “It’s…a few things at the same time, most words are, in the high speech. Like maybe…” he weighs his words. “Something singular, so ‘an-tet’ is something like ‘the field of one’. The idea of sharing a mind? But ‘tet’ isn’t just ‘one’. It’s more like a joining, a narrowing of focus or something akin to ‘small’. You can’t…there’s not a word for it in the low speech.”
“If ka is a river and tet means small…”
Harry laughs. “Yeah. Sure. Like a small river within the bigger river that’s ka. A bit of ka that’s just for you and a few others. Or like...the idea that you’re one thing made from many, with like…a shared trajectory. You’re moving along the same path in the same dir—”
“Christ.” Niall laughs in an odd unfathomable way.
When they’ve finished Niall gathers up the peel and goes to get a cloth. He wets it from the canteen and sets about cleaning them up, wiping away the mess and the stickiness of the juice and leaving the skin of Harry’s stomach a little flushed and pink and pleasantly raw in the cool night air. Then they lie down under the blankets and they adjust in increments and recalibrate until they settle in on their sides with Niall at Harry’s back, an arm around his middle and snaking up to his chest, one hand on his heart. It feels right being held this way. Familiar.
Harry closes his eyes and lets himself be vulnerable. He remembers how it felt to be a child, to be held tightly by his mother and the feeling of her hand in his hair, soothing him to sleep. She could be so soft when she wanted to be. Later, when he was older and understood more, he would think of her hands like a paradox: soft and gentle and capable of brutality too. Of killing. Hands that existed in two ways at once, divided in a way that he could never quite reconcile.
“Will you tell me about her?”
Harry twitches a little in Niall’s arms, caught off guard, and Niall presses his hand tight against Harry’s heart.
“Sorry, I can’t…I can’t shut it off. We’re all like…opened up or something.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything.”
“No…it’s fine. I want to.”
“She was like you?”
Harry nods into the pillow. “She wasn’t meant to be. No woman is meant to be. The barony wouldn’t allow it. But her father was a gunslinger and her brothers. She didn’t think it was fair, I suppose. She was a better shot than any of them and…”
“If they wouldn’t allow it then how—?”
“She was clever. She took the place of another boy during the final test. He’d gotten cold feet, couldn’t go through with it. It happens sometimes. They think they’ll fail and they can’t bring themselves to risk the alternative. If you pass the test you’re a gunslinger. That much is set in stone. It’s not the training that matters, really. The training is just preparation. The training ensures that you’ll fall into line, it hones your skills, but it’s the test that decides it. She knew that. And she was clever. And she understood that the price of failure was exile.”
“But how could she know it would work? That they wouldn’t exile her anyway for what she’d done?”
“She couldn’t know. She made a choice. Took a chance. She covered her face—some boys did it that way, got dressed up. The hiding, the trickery of it wasn’t so hard to do but…”
He can see her in his mind’s eye as clear as a memory, though he’d not been born yet. There’s no way he could’ve seen. But he’s heard the story so many times, he knows the test and he knows his mother. The set of her jaw and the sharpness in her eyes. And he knows Cort too, understands him with an intimacy that makes his stomach turn.
“He knew it was her?”
Harry nods into the pillow. “He knew. He knew the minute she stepped into the courtyard and faced him. Maybe before.”
“Why did he let her do it?”
“Because he was certain she would fail. That she would learn her lesson and suffer the consequences. He wanted to make an example of her, I guess. Cort is…he’s a force to be reckoned with. He’s dangerous but he’s…rigid. Set in his ways and always looking for a lesson. She knew that. She was banking on his own principles to undo him.” He falls quiet then, remembering.
“She was clever. You said he….how could he accept that? That she bested him that way, through trickery?“
“Like I said, he was rigid. He believed in oaths and principles and the letter of the law. She bested him in combat. She passed the test. To exile her, to deny her the thing she’d earned every right to…He couldn’t do that. Couldn’t compromise his principles that way.”
“Christ. She had him dead to rights.”
“He hated her for it.”
He’s lost then in the memory of harsh words, of screaming. A ringing in his head and the crush of a fist against his cheek, slippery with tears.
“Say the words, maggot! I want to hear you say them.”
“She was stupid.”
“Stop crying or you’ll feel my fist again. Say it once more. All of it.”
“It was stupid and wasteful. She’d forgotten the face of her father.”
“You’re weak. You’re just like her but not so clever. Not nearly so. That could save you yet.”
“I think he hated me for it too. He saw her in me and he tried to beat her out of me. Tried to make something better of me out of spite, or to prove a point. I don’t know.”
“That’s horrible. How could you stand it?”
“It’s the way of things. It’s always been the way.” His breath catches in his throat and it feels ragged and raw. “It’s what we were meant for.”
Niall doesn’t answer for a moment but Harry can feel him. Can feel the disgust and anger radiating off him in the dark. “I’m not convinced that’s true.”
“Yeah.” It turns his stomach, saying the words aloud. Letting them hang in the night air unchallenged. “I’m not so certain either. Not anymore.”
They sleep, and he dreams of his mother. Of the night he went away. The way her face looked: tired and worn and a little resigned. The way her hands shook in his. It unnerved him, her uncertainty. It seemed too close to weakness. He wanted to tear his hands away. To run out the door and be done with it. It’s the same in him now, a dream sense of a remembered feeling. An urge to pull away.
“You don’t have to do this. I don’t expect it of you. Your father doesn’t expect it of you.”
Harry shakes his head adamantly, just the way he did that night. “You can’t tell me that. It’s not fair, saying that sort of thing. I just want—”
“I know what you want. I know it doesn’t feel fair. I’ve been there, believe me. I’ve felt it too. I know what’s in your mind and what you’ve decided but I need you to listen to me, Harry.”
“I’ve heard all of it, I know-“
He closes his mouth, shocked into silence by the rough edge in her voice.
“Shut up and listen to me. Hear what I’m saying to you and keep it close. Hold onto it as tightly as you can, because he’ll try to drive it out of you. He’ll cut you open and try to dig it out. Are you listening?”
“They’ll make you into a killer. They’ll tell you it’s about justice, about what’s right, but killing’s what it’ll come down to. They’ll find that seed inside you, the little bit of it that comes natural the way it does in me and in your father too. They’ll feed it and they’ll help it to grow. This—” she gestures to the gun sitting between them on the table. “This is a killing tool but it’s not what kills. I need you to remember that. Say the words, the way they’ll have you say them tomorrow. What I need you to hear is in the words. Say the words back to me, Harry. Say them and listen to yourself. Hear them. Just this once, for your father’s sake.”
He swallows. His throat is dry. The air is thick and heavy and his mind feels dulled like he’s half awake. Everything is the same and everything is different, a little crooked and misremembered the way things are in dreams. He looks away from the gun and over at the corner of the room. He sees Niall standing there silently, watching them.
“How does it go, Harry?”
He opens his mouth to speak. “See the turtle of enormous girth…” but no. Those aren’t the right words. That’s not here and now, that was another time. He blinks once, deliberate and slow. Clears his head. Remembers. “I do not aim with my hand. He who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I aim with my eye.”
“Go on.” Her voice is insistent, just the way he remembers it.
“I do not shoot with my hand. He who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I shoot with my mind.”
She nods. “I do not kill with my gun…”
“I do not kill with my gun. He who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father.” He hesitates. Glances up again and sees Niall watching him. “I kill with my heart.”
“Say it again.”
“I kill with my heart.”
He shakes his head. He doesn’t understand what she wants from him. “I kill with my heart.”
“You kill with your heart, Harry. Every time. Each and every time, a bit of it presses up and out of you like a bullet out of a gun and then it’s spent. You can’t get that part of you back again. To kill is to die. It’s death in increments…“
He watches the gun on the table and as she speaks her voice changes, becomes strange.
“..it’s giving a part of you away. There’s always a bit of you that’s compromised in that—”
He looks up at her sharply, over at Niall and back. “No. That’s not…this isn’t how it went. You didn’t say it that way. That was him.”
“It doesn’t matter. Listen to me, Harry. Killing is suicide. It’s giving away a piece of your life, of your humanity. To sacrifice yourself that way, to inflict that sort of damage on your soul...it takes all the love in your heart. Without love behind it, it becomes meaningless. It’s just violence. It’s violence against the world and violence against yourself. Don’t forget that. Don’t let them take it away from you and leave you with nothing but brute calculus.” She pushes the gun across the table toward him. “Hold it in your hand, Harry. Feel its weight. And feel all the weight of the love you hold in your heart.”
He takes the gun off the table and cradles it in two hands. Feels the press of it against the flesh of his palms.
“It doesn’t do the killing, but it makes the killing easier. Remember that. Never forget it. Killing should never be easy. That ease is what corrupts. It should feel like dying every single time. He’ll try to take that away from you. He’ll try to distance you from that truth. Don’t let him. Don’t let him cut the love out of you.”
She pulls something out of her pocket and sets it on the table between them. A single bullet. “This is a piece of you, Harry. A bit of your soul. Don’t squander it. Don’t send it off if you’ve not put all the love in your heart into the act, if you’re not willing to sacrifice your whole self. They’ll teach you about blind justice, about an eye for an eye, but justice is a dangerous thing when it’s divorced from caring.”
Harry sets the gun on the table. He’s heard it before. He’s gone over it a hundred times in his memory and in dreams just like this one and forgotten it again a hundred times over. He has the scars to show for it, for that forgetting.
“This is just a dream. This already happened. You’re already gone.” He can’t look at her so he looks down at the table, at the rough wear of the wood. “You let yourself be killed for no reason. For nothing. It was stupid and a waste.”
He shakes his head. That’s not what he meant to say. Those aren’t his words, they’re Cort’s. The words Cort forced on him, the ones he made Harry say when he found him there in the dorms crying over her. Crying for everything he’d lost.
We don’t shed tears over stupidity, maggot. Say it again.
There’s a receding. A pulling up and out, and Harry knows the dream is ending. Everything is confused. His mother is young and old and alive and dead all at once. She’s lying on the ground with her head kicked in by a horse, her body shielding a screaming child. She’s at his bedside smiling down at him, holding onto his hand.
“Stupid and a waste. Hey…yeah, maybe.” Her expression is alien. Not like her at all. “You don’t often get the chance to meditate on it, you know?” Her face changes, and Harry’s looking at the boy, the one in Lud. The one he killed with a bullet from his gun. With a piece of himself. “It’s like…BANG. There you are. You do or you don’t. Nothing in between.”
But that’s not right either. That’s Niall again: something he said last night or a hundred years ago. Everything’s muddled. She sits back in her chair and she’s his mother but she looks tired, like the life is draining right out of her, leaving her sallow and grey like a living corpse.
“Sometimes to set things right, you’ve got to take a lot more pain. Sometimes fixing a thing hurts even worse than the breaking…”
It’s dark when he wakes and he feels too hot, covered in sweat and tangled up in the blankets. Niall is still beside him, fast asleep and snoring gently into the pillow.
Something’s woken him. A noise from down below maybe, something standing out from the muffled din of the bar. He lies there and listens, trying to make it out, then he hears it: a particular voice, high and rough and familiar. Insistent and filled with indignation, piss and vinegar.
“Christ, Louis.” He says it aloud to no one in particular and then he climbs out of bed, making an effort not to wake Niall as he goes. He dresses in the dark and straps his gun to his side, secrets it away under his clothes and he lets himself out.
He rounds the front of the building and the noise from the bar resolves itself, becomes individual voices and the sound of a piano and the shuffle of glasses on wood, and Louis’ voice ringing out over the rest.
“How do you stand it anyway? You all drink this? Christ, this town is a fucking toilet. You don’t even know good beer from piss.”
Harry pushes through the door and catches sight of Louis leaning against the bar, his face sharp and slack at the same time the way it gets when he’s had too much to drink. There’s a man standing a few feet away from him looking red in the face and volatile, his fists balled up tight like he’s about to clock Louis in the face.
“Shit beer, shit food, shit company. Letting some fucking weird-ass cannibal harriers get the best of you and no one’s got the balls to fight back. Back in Gilead they would hang the lot of you for being fucking coward—“
Harry is on him then quick as anything, pulling him out of reach just as the man grabs at him, intent on tearing Louis limb from limb if the look on his face is to be trusted.
“I cry your pardon!” He drags Louis backward toward the door, raising one hand in supplication. “My friend doesn’t know what he’s saying—“
“I know exactly what I’m—“
Harry knocks him on the side of the head just hard enough to shut him up and Louis cries out in protest.
“He’s had too much to drink and he’s not in his right mind. He’s grieving. We’ve lost one of our own, you see. It’s just acting out.”
The man watches them uncertainly but it’s enough. He knows what it is to lose someone. They all do here. He steps back and sits down on a stool, red-faced and shaking.
“Keep him out of here. We don’t stand for that sort of talk. If I see him here again—”
“Understood. We’re going.”
Harry hurries out, pressing Louis ahead of him and grappling with him as he struggles. Just as they reach the door Harry is struck by an uneasy sensation: a pressure at the back of his mind and a nagging sense of intrusion. He looks up as they exit, glances toward the back of the room, and for a moment he’s looking right at Winston and Winston is looking right back at him, meeting his gaze. He’s holding a pint in one hand, frozen halfway between the table and his mouth, and he’s smiling. Then they’re out the door.
They spill outside, the two of them entangled, and they move through the street toward Rochelle’s house. Louis is unsteady on his feet and stumbling. He squirms against Harry’s grip, muttering something nearly unintelligible.
“Get the fuck off of me! I don’t need you dragging me around like a child.”
“You’re acting like a child, Louis. What the fuck were you thinking in there?”
“I was thirsty. You were gone doing…whatever you were—” He dips his head toward Harry’s coat, his expression strange. “Ugh. Let me go, you smell like oranges and—”
Harry loosens his grip and Louis stumbles forward toward the wooden steps of Rochelle’s porch, rubbing at his nose fitfully. “Jesus. You reek of sex.”
“Louis, we need to get inside—”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Is that what you’ve been doing? Is that the important business you’ve been taking care of when you run off with him? That’s what you can’t be bothered to share with us?”
“Louis, that’s not…” Harry feels waylaid, spun around. He can’t think straight. “That’s only just happened. It doesn’t matter. I haven’t told you what’s going on because there’s things being set in motion that can’t be disturbed. I worried you’d get sloppy, that you wouldn’t be able to keep your mouth shut—”
It’s meant to be pointed. Accusatory. But even as he says it he feels the lie just under the surface of his words. Or the half truth, maybe. He’s worried, that much is true, but he’s been selfish too. He wanted to keep it for himself—Niall and Willem, the understanding between them, the person he felt he could be in their company. Wanted to hold it just outside of his real life, away from the person Louis and Liam know him to be. He was recklessly chasing a feeling as much as he was being cautious. But that’s beside the point isn’t it? It’s incidental.
Louis just stares at him and his eyes are viciously cold. “You’re saying you didn’t trust me. That’s your excuse?”
Harry’s jaw is tight. He wants to scream. He can’t believe what he’s hearing after what he’s just seen. “Should I? Honestly, Louis, what was that in there? Were you trying to be killed? Did you want him to hit you? Are you armed? Were you about to draw your gun?”
“I could have handled him.”
“Handling him is not what we’re here for.”
“Then what? What are we here for? I can’t know because you won’t fucking tell me! You keep your own counsel, you’re gone most of the time, God knows where.” He laughs bitterly. “I guess I know where now, don’t I? Off sticking your dick in the fucking barkeep, right?”
Harry flinches like he’s been struck. He looks up at the house nervously. They’re making too much noise. He feels the situation spinning away from him and out of his control, feels his hands trembling with anger and nervous energy.
Louis sits down on the step and spits at the ground, his face hard. “Or is it the other way around? Is that what you like? God. This trip is so fucking illuminating. I’m learning so much about all of you. Liam just sits up there hand-wringing and waiting on your word, you’re content to leave us in the lurch and wander around town dick-first and Zayn is a fucking impotent coward who can’t even—”
Harry hits him then. He doesn’t mean to, it just happens. It’s like his hand has a mind of its own. He wants Louis to shut his mouth. Doesn’t want to hear any of it. Doesn’t want to hear him talk about Zayn and Liam that way, about Niall. Harry strikes him right across the face with the flat of his fist and Louis’ head jerks to one side with the force of it. He hears it as he feels it: a sickening smack and the sharp ridge of Louis’ cheek against his knuckles as he lands the blow. The sound of it rings out in the dark, loud and ugly and final.
And it works. He gets just what he wanted: a fractured, tense silence. The night air goes quiet and still as the grave.
Louis doesn’t move. He doesn’t fight back. He just sits there, staring at the ground between them and holding his cheek. When he speaks again his voice is hollow.
“Did I speak out of turn, sai?”
Harry takes a step back. He feels something working at his middle, a sick creeping shame. “Don’t fucking do that. Don’t you say that to me.”
“I cry your pardon. Have I forgotten the face of my father?—”
“Stop it. I’m not him.”
“Would you strike me again?”
“Louis, I didn’t…“
Louis stands and looks him right in the eye. He holds his gaze for just a moment too long and in that moment, Harry grasps something for the first time, a truth he’s never let himself consider. He sees every ounce of Louis’ focus and determination and he fathoms suddenly that Louis is a gunslinger to the core. Maybe more than any of them.
“If you touch me again I’ll kill you.”
He doesn’t say anything more. He turns and he walks inside and Harry’s left standing alone in the dark.
He sits. He stays there for what feels like a long time, staring at the ground. Occupying the space that Louis has just vacated. He looks at his hands, at the redness in his knuckles just visible in the dark, standing out like evidence of a crime, and then he reaches into his pocket and traces the shape of the shell. He closes his eyes and visualizes it dancing over and through his fingers. Dancing over his mother’s fingers. Her hands are so delicate in his memory: slender and light and blemish free and deadly. Instruments of violence. He takes his hand out of his pocket and stands and then he walks inside.
Rochelle is waiting for him at the foot of the stairs, looking like a person who’s just been woken up, a little disapproving and a little tired and a little something else. Something sharp. She watches him come in the door and he raises his hands in capitulation, opens his mouth to speak a moment too late.
“You boys need to do your arguing on your own time. On your own porch maybe.”
“I’m sorry about him—”
“About him. Alright. Sure.”
Harry makes his tone repentant. “About both of us. About all of it. It won’t happen again—”
“What business have you got with my brother?”
There’s wooden scrape. Or something like a creak or a moan. The bones of the house settling maybe, or maybe Louis has woken Liam and they’re up there moving around and Liam’s seen what he’s done.
“I don’t know—”
“Don’t lie to me, please. Look…I don’t begrudge him a little happiness. God knows he deserves it. And I never expected he would stick around here once he was grown. I know one day I’ll wake up and he’ll be gone, alright? But I’m not an idiot. I can see you.” She gestures up the stairs. “All of you. And what I see is violence and death and a heap of bad news.”
Harry just watches her. He’s not sure what to say. No? You’re wrong? He opens his mouth. Closes it again.
“If you drag him into something…if you get him hurt.”
He shakes his head. “I won’t let that happen.”
She’s quiet then. She just watches him and her expression is impenetrable, a little far away and colored by doubt and the ghost of a memory Harry isn’t privy to.
“You better hope it doesn’t. For your sake.”
It should hit him like a threat. Like an oath. But it comes out all wrong maybe because all Harry hears is the sorrow behind it. A hint of grief that’s nearly hardened over. He’s not sure what to say so he just nods and makes his way up the stairs.
He wakes to a creaking floorboard and a pressure at his side, the weight of someone settling on his mattress. He’s got his face turned to the wall but he knows who it is, can feel the concern and uncertainty and sadness coming off of him in waves.
“Let me sleep.”
There’s an insistent tugging at his shoulder. A quiet voice. “C’mon, Haz.”
He opens his eyes. Not Liam then.
When he rolls over, Louis is looking down at him, his face strange. Harry can’t parse out what he’s seeing there: some mixture of sadness and worry and cold resignation. It’s the last one that worries him, cuts him right down to the quick. Louis looks like he’s finished.
He watches Harry and Harry studies his face in turn, makes himself see the purple near-blackness of the bruise marring Louis’ cheek, an ugly dark stain that Harry’s put there himself. That he’s responsible for. Louis doesn’t break Harry’s gaze. He reaches down and tugs at Harry’s hand and then pulls it to his own chest. Presses it there. Harry can feel Louis’ heart beating through the thin fabric, the warmth of his skin. He wants to close his hand around Louis’ shirt and pull him down onto the bed. Hold him close and say...what? I’m sorry? You’re right? I don’t know what I’m doing? But he doesn’t move. He can’t move, because Louis made a promise last night, didn’t he? It’s the least Harry can do to take him at his word. Let him be the one to change the rules. Louis holds Harry’s hand against his chest, lets Harry touch him, and Harry’s not dead yet. The clock ticks forward. So that’s something.
Louis shakes his head. “We’ll palaver after breakfast.” He drops Harry’s hand and stands up, turning back toward his own bed, toward Liam and the mess of his belongings. “Then we can talk.”
“Cakes.” Rochelle gestures to a plate in the center of the table when they walk in. “Eggs. And this one’s brought you more ginger beer.” She angles her head at the corner of the room where Niall is leaning against the counter, holding his guitar and plucking absently at the strings. Harry stops short in the doorway to the kitchen, a little taken aback. A little dumbfounded. Niall glances up at him, surreptitious and strange, like he’s not sure how to act. Harry glances back at Rochelle, who’s busying herself with some sort of aggressive shucking at the other side of the table, then back at Niall, who looks a little folded in on himself, something like a human question mark. Harry catches his eye.
They all know.
Niall trips over a chord and clears his throat, his face turning reddish in the morning light of the kitchen. Harry seats himself at the table just as Liam comes through the door and drops into a chair, pillow marked and sleep mussed.
Apart from Liam. Maybe.
Breakfast is polite conversation mostly led by Liam and Rochelle, who are probably the best of them honestly. They talk about Rochelle’s harvest coming up, about some happening last time Jade came into town. Something about a horse getting loose and trampling a geriatric neighbor’s butterbush. Nonsense. Small town stuff. Liam laughs and Louis smiles tightly, like it pains him and Harry tries not to stare at Niall but it’s difficult, isn’t it? Every time he lets his mind wander he’s right back in last night. The good part of last night before all the awfulness and yelling. Every time he looks at Niall he’s seeing him in lamplight, bronze and gold and shining in the dark. He’s tasting citrus on his tongue. He’s feeling Niall’s lips against the curve of his throat and his hands at Harry’s hips and the softness of it and the bruising quality of—
Niall clears his throat nervously and Harry clears his head. He looks up and Niall’s face is red as a barberry. He’s looking down at the table but his attention is on Harry. Completely.
Harry focuses on his food. Thinks of the broken water pump in the yard outside, about those weird dried up twiggy things that roll around the streets here, derelict and aimless, about anything but Niall. Anything but last night. He thinks about the hole just beginning to form in the seam of his left boot, how he’s going to patch it. About Louis. He glances up at Louis and Louis is watching him, his face a little sour like he’s been put off his food. Liam and Rochelle continue their conversation and when breakfast is finished Louis stands and gathers their plates. Puts them in the sink and then presses the tips of his fingers to his cheek a little unconsciously, worrying at the bruise there. He angles his head toward the upstairs bedroom.
Liam wipes his hands on his trousers and thanks Rochelle, then he stands and heads up the stairs. Harry nods and says his own thanks and that’s met by a hard sort of stare and something akin to a “not a problem”. He goes to follow Liam and just as he rounds the corner he hears Louis speak again, his voice cracking and edged with exhaustion.
“You coming, kid? We’ve not got all day.”
So they’re four again. Just for now. It feels right in a way that unsettles Harry…for Louis’ sake more than his own. For Liam’s. When Louis comes through the door with Niall trailing just behind, Harry watches Liam’s eyes go wide in shock then hard with something akin to irritation…and it dawns on him abruptly that maybe it wasn’t Louis who was fretting about a replacement, about overwriting Zayn’s place in the group. Maybe Liam had been expressing his own anxiety all along, dressed up as concern for his friend. Harry should’ve seen that. He should be able to parse them out, the two of them. But he’s been sloppy. Blinded.
They sit like four corners of a square and they don’t say much at first. The room is quiet save for the sound of Rover chattering softly to herself on the window ledge and the unconscious tapping of Louis’ foot against the floor. Niall glances between them, apprehensive, and Harry can sense his confusion. He’s never done this before. He doesn’t know how. Harry reaches out and tries to extend a modicum of comfort.
It’s just talking. You’ll be ok.
Harry glances up. “What?”
Louis is looking at him strangely. “I felt you—” He looks at Niall and then back at Harry. “Was that for him?…”
Harry just shakes his head impatiently. “Let’s just palaver. I can expl—”
“You’ve gone an-tet? With him? That’s impossible, Harry. Outside of the ka-tet there’s no way—“ He shuts his mouth abruptly, like something’s just occurred to him. And it must’ve. He must feel it. Their connection hasn’t been this clear since—
“I’m going to need a kind of refresher here boys.” Liam sounds like a man at the edge of his patience. “Because I don’t know what the fuck is going on and it’s frankly beginning to piss me off.”
Louis doesn’t take his eyes off Harry as he speaks. He moves his mouth like he’s sounding the words out, weighing them on his tongue:
They all look at Niall then. Harry with something like worry, Louis with strange discomfort, Liam with something akin to offense.
“Yes but why is he here? We’re meant to palaver, yeah? What the fuck is he doing here?”
“Liam, listen to me. Listen to what I’m saying. We’re ka-tet.” Louis gestures between the four of them, his tone resigned, and Liam falls silent. He shakes his head like he could deny it. Like it’s something he could opt out of. Louis shrugs. “I don’t like it either, Liam, but hey. Fuckin’ ka, right? All things serve the beam.” He shakes his head bitterly. “We’re just along for the ride.”
“He’s not our fourth.” Liam’s tone is final. “Zayn is our—”
“He’s our fifth, Liam.” Harry says the words and they feel right. The truth of them settles into his heart.
Liam looks for a moment like he’s going to argue, like it’s not a thing he can accept…and then his face changes. His expression goes soft, becomes colored by something like dawning awareness, the clarity of nagging memory coming to the surface and the helplessness of being swept away. Harry can sense it. Can see it in his mind’s eye: cards on a table. Five figures, engaged in battle.
“Jesus christ.” Liam shakes his head, his face sour like he’s swallowing some sort of acrid medicine. “It was bullshit. You said so…”
“It is bullshit.” Louis’ voice is clipped. “It’s all bullshit, but that’s ka, right?” He looks over at Niall and then at Harry in turn. “A winding river of bullshit.”
“Stand true, Louis.” Harry hates the way he sounds. Hates to hear it come out of him but it’s got to be said. They’re veering off track. Wasting time.
Louis shuts his mouth and nods tightly. “Right. I suppose you’d better fill us in, then.”
Harry isn’t sure where to start. “There’s—”
“I’d like to hear it from him if you don’t mind.”
Harry falls silent and Niall looks up at Louis, his eyes wide.
“I don’t know if I should…”
“He’s right.” Liam’s voice is soft. “If you’re a part of this now…go on.”
Niall doesn’t move for a moment. He glances at Harry and Harry just shrugs.
“Can we…it would help if we were like…touching. With the connection. I wouldn’t have to explain so much.”
Liam and Louis exchange a glance and then Louis reaches over and takes Liam’s hand with an “oh well, fuck it” look on his face. He reaches the other hand out and Niall takes it, hesitant and awkward. When they’ve formed a loop Niall nods, closes his eyes, and opens the four of them up.
“If it’s the Winston man who’s orchestrating the thing…if he’s the one we’re after…”
“It’s more complicated than one man, Louis. He’s got others. He’s been building his numbers for years.”
“He’s in that fucking shithole tavern every night—“ There’s a tremble, some sort of disturbance in the air between them. Niall’s face turns momentarily sour and Louis waves him away. “Sorry. But honestly, it’s a dive. My point is he’s there. We could walk up and put a bullet in his brain, easy as anything. If Cort were here that’s what he’d have us do. The quickest path. The simplest solution.”
Harry feels his fists clench at the name. He shakes his head tightly. “Cort isn’t here, Louis. And nothing about this is simple.”
“It wouldn’t work.”
They all turn their attention on Niall, who’s chewing at his lip fretfully. They wait for him to speak again.
“A bullet. It’s…not enough. It’d knock him on his ass maybe but he’d be up again in moments. And angry. He’s not…” Niall frowns like he’s searching for the words. “He’s not like the thing you saw the other night. Julia was…she was closer to human than animal, freshly turned and not all the way at that. She was…disposable.”
“Christ.” Liam's tone is unsteady, a little disbelieving.
“He’s got to have others down there, ones he’s drained completely and given his blood to. Stronger. More like him. Not old ones but hard to kill all the same. Even if we could take him out with a single bullet…we’d still have the rest of them to contend with. And anyway you’ve seen the men with whom he keeps his counsel.”
“The assholes that follow him around like hungry dogs? Half turned, like the girl?”
Niall shakes his head. “Nah. Not turned. In some kind of thrall. We can’t know who else he’s got. Who would come out of the woodwork and rain hell down on us the minute we made a move on him.”
Liam worries at the stubble along the edge of his jaw, one arm crossed over his chest. “So it’s your plan then, I suppose.”
“A fucking mess is what it is.” Louis lets himself fall back on the bed. Harry opens his mouth to scold him, nearly tells him to sit up. There’s a gentle pressure at his forearm: Niall’s hand, staying him. Harry keeps his mouth shut.
“It’s a mess…” Niall shakes his head. “Sometimes the only way to fix a mess is by making a mess of your own.”
Liam shakes his head skeptically. “And you’re sure it’s unstable? That it’ll fall inward the way you mean it to? That you’ve got enough stockpiled to do the job?”
Niall nods. “We’re certain. Those mines have been fixing to cave inward for decades. Just need a good push in the right direction.”
“And that’ll kill them?”
Niall glances at Harry and then back at Liam. “The fire should do it and any who are left…” He makes an unsettled sort of face. Harry senses it: a discomfort that borders on nausea. Niall’s mind touching on darkness, the stifling closeness of a tunnel and the claustrophobia of a collapse inward. “They’ll be good as dead. Buried down there for good.”
“Jesus.” Liam looks a little sick.
“I’ve asked Niall to take me there. To show me what they’ve gathered and where they sleep. We’ll ride out as soon as we’re finished here.”
“I want to come.” Louis speaks a little too quickly, his voice edged with the restless anxiety of someone who’s tired of being left behind.
Harry shakes his head. “We need you to ride out of town. Back to Leigh-Anne and the rest of them. We’ve got to get folks here who can handle a weapon and who we know aren’t under Winston’s thumb.”
“Why?” Liam shakes his head, confused. “Why do we—”
“Because they don’t all go to sleep at dawn, Liam. Some of them—the new ones—can abide the sunlight just fine and those are the ones that’ll be watching when we set it all in motion.” Harry looks at Niall and then back at Liam, his jaw set tight. “Those are the ones we’ll have to fight.”
When they’ve finished, Niall leaves. He’s got to retrieve his pack and make sure all’s well back at the bar. The rest of them have business as well.
“We need to talk, Harry.” There’s a grim tone to Louis’ voice. Something that doesn’t sit right.
“I thought we’d been talking.” Harry’s being obtuse. Avoidant. He feels like a sullen child suddenly and it twists something in his gut. He knows what Louis means. He looks over at Liam, who’s worrying at a stray thread at the hem of his trousers.
“This…” Louis gestures between them. “It’s broken.”
Harry shakes his head adamantly. “It’s not though. You’ve got to feel it. It’s still—”
“He’s right, Harry.” Liam sounds resigned, more sad than angry and that hits Harry deep, like an aching at his core. “We’re ka-tet. That’s not changed. I feel it too but…I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t feel like enough anymore.”
Harry doesn’t know what to say. I’m sorry? What would that even mean? What is he sorry for?
“Once this is done Liam and I are finished. We’ve talked it through. We had already…before—” He falters like he doesn’t want to say it but Harry knows what he means. Before last night. Before Harry crushed whatever trust was left between them with the flat of his fist. “It’s just…not working. We can’t keep walking this path with you. We never should’ve let…”
“We’ll see this through and then we’re done.” Liam’s tone is even. It betrays nothing.
Harry shakes his head. “If you turn around…if you stop. What does that even mean? Deserting? Going home? Admitting that we couldn’t hack it out here? Letting him win—” He stops himself. Shakes his head. That’s not what he meant to say. That’s not what matters. “It’s not an option. We’ll be exiled.”
“We’ve just made it an option, Harry. Zayn made it an option alright?”
“But we’re four again now.” He hears desperation creeping in at the edges of his voice, turning it high and ragged. He hates the sound of it, but he can’t help it. Can’t measure his tone. “Somehow, we’re four. I don’t know what it means but he’s a part of this. Niall found us for a reason, alright? We’ve got to see it through. Ka’s clearly got some kind of plan. We’re meant to press on—”
“We’re not meant to do anything, Harry.” Louis shakes his head, his voice sharp. “Don’t you get it? Perrie was right. Ka doesn’t give two shits about us, it’s got no plan…for any of us. We’ve made ourselves its fools and we’re paying the price for that. We’ve been so hung up on ka and duty what it means us to be, we’ve forgotten what we’re meant to be to each other.”
“I haven’t forgotten, Louis. I know I’ve been…stupid. That I’ve been too hard on all of you, that I was too hard on him. I’ve held myself above you because I thought…I thought that’s what was best. I tried to steer us true but I see how I’ve done wrong. I understand that we’re meant to be equals in this. No one above anyone else—”
Liam shakes his head in a disbelieving way, his eyes wet with tears. “We’re meant to be friends, Harry. That’s what’s broken here. You’ve got to see that…that’s what we can’t repair.”
It shocks him silent, the certainty in Liam’s voice. “Liam, I—”
“You’re blinded, Harry. You’re dangerous. And we can’t keep following you, but...we can revisit this later, alright? After. We can…let you say your piece. Louis and I have to go and you’ve got places to be so…” He stands and pulls Louis upright. “Tonight. Tomorrow. Whenever. We’ll come back to it. Let’s see this thing through, and then we’ll figure out the rest.”
Harry just looks at the floor, dumbfounded. He doesn’t understand the finality in their voices, how they’re so sure. It doesn’t make any sense…Niall’s only just appeared, Zayn’s only just left—something presses at his throat, sudden and desperate.
“Will you go and find him?”
But there’s no answer. They’ve already slipped out the door.
He tugs his boots on and packs his bag and then straps his gun to his side. He keeps his footsteps quick and light as he makes his way down the stairs and out the door. Niall will be back soon to retrieve him, so he hurries out of town and up the hill, his mind clouded by a sinking sense of grief run through with confusion, a sense that he’s been knocked off his axis. He’s a stray bullet. He feels like he’s been shot blind, sent spinning into an uncertain void. Like he could hurt someone if he’s not careful. He can’t stop hearing their voices in his head like a chorus. Like an indictment.
He reaches the tree and does what needs doing and heads back to the house, dirt pressed up under his nails and a heaviness in his heart.
Niall is leaning against the porch railing when he arrives back, his pack slung over his shoulder.
He worries at the brim of his hat and nods. “Suppose so.”
Niall turns and jumps the steps to the ground, setting off across the street toward the west edge of town. Harry follows, matching his strides.
“Rochelle gave me an earful when I came downstairs earlier. How the hell did she know?” He laughs and it rings out in the morning air. His face looks flushed like he’s embarrassed just remembering it and he presses the back of one hand to his cheek. “Fuckin’ mortifying, I swear.”
Harry falls into step at his side. “Louis and I sort of…had it out last night. On the porch there. Might’ve gotten a touch too loud.”
“Jesus. Is that where you disappeared to? That’s good I guess. When I woke up I thought…I dunno what I thought. Thought you were like a…use em and lose em sort.”
“I’m not any sort.”
“Nah, you are…just haven’t figured out which yet maybe. What did you have it out over then?” He glances over at Harry, and he must see something in the set of his brow. That things aren’t quite copacetic. He slows his gait. “Louis' face this morning. Was that...is everything okay?”
Harry shakes his head and presses forward. He just wants to go, to get out of town and do what needs doing. “No…I don’t think it is.” I’m dangerous. I’ll hurt you. I’ll get you killed. “I think Louis and Liam are…” He doesn’t know how to explain it. He can’t find its edges or define its shape, what they’re feeling. What they told him. “He was belligerent last night. Out of control. He wouldn't stop saying...I just wanted him to shut up and—" He flexes his hand at his side. Senses the muscles and tendons and the soreness in his knuckles. "But that's not...it doesn't matter. I think they were already finished. With me.”
Niall nearly trips over his own feet. “They can’t be. What about the ka-tet?”
“What about it? It’s like you said, it means nothing if you don’t care for it. If you don’t tend to that connection. I think I’ve just…let it turn sour. Let it go to seed.”
Niall grabs at his sleeve, slowing him. Trying to make him stop for a moment maybe but Harry presses on. “They can’t mean it, Harry. It’s just…you’ve all been through so much and maybe you just need to—”
“Can’t they, though?”
“Ka doesn’t mean anything, right? It’s not some force that ensures everything works out. Sometimes it just…rips and tears at your life. Maybe that was our fate all along, you know? Dissolution…Maybe Zayn was just the beginning.”
“I can’t believe that.”
“You didn’t hear them. You didn’t see their faces, Niall. You can’t know.”
“I know what I feel. And what I’ve seen. I know we’re bound to each other.”
“I know that too. I’m just not certain it means much. Not anymore. Maybe there was a time for slowing down…a time for fixing what’s broke between us. But I think that time’s passed. I can still feel it, we’re still ka-tet, but it’s like you said...love’s not the only thing that can glue you to a person.”
Niall looks like he wants to argue. Harry can sense the tumult of his thoughts but he stays quiet. When they reach the horse he lets Niall saddle her up, adjusting the latigo at her breast and pressing his cheek to her nose. Speaking to her, or whatever it is he does. Harry drops his pack in the dirt and pulls the bundle out, stained with mud and spilling bits of dirt over his hands and onto the ground.
His voice sounds muffled in the thick air of the barn. It’s too quiet in here, the light’s too soft coming through the gaps in the wood. Niall turns, his face a question, and then looks down at Harry’s hands.
He knows, Harry can hear it in his voice. The way it's gone flat.
“You need to take it.”
Niall doesn’t move. He just stands there holding the lead, one hand pressed to the horse’s flank. “I don’t want that. I don’t need it, I can take care of myself without—“
“It’s not meant for me. It’s his.”
“He’s not using it and I can’t—” Harry feels his breath hitch. His eyes have gone tight and hot so he shuts them and then opens them again. “I can’t lose you now that I’ve found you. I can’t let you—I can’t lose all four of you.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“I need you safe, Niall. If there’s a fight coming…I need to know you can protect yourself.”
Niall shakes his head somberly, regretfully, but he steps forward and takes the gun out of Harry’s hands, cloth wrapping and all. He holds it awkwardly but he takes it.
“These things…” He shakes his pack off his shoulder and opens it up. Drops the gun in. “They hurt more than they help, Harry.”
Niall watches him and Harry can sense a question lingering at the edge of his mind. “I can’t use it…but I’ll carry it. For you.”
“That’s fine. That’s enough. Thank you.”
They don’t move for a moment. Niall slings his pack over his shoulder and watches Harry, his face troubled, and there are a thousand words on the tip of Harry’s tongue, things he wants to say…but it’s like he can’t quite access them. Like he can’t pull an articulate thought out of the tangle of his mind. So he doesn’t say anything. He pulls Niall to him gently and presses their mouths together, just once, and it feels like something is being cemented. Like a promise is being made. He doesn’t want to pull away—he’d rather stay right here, kissing Niall in the dim light of the morning while dust motes and bits of hay dance around them in the air—but he does. He pulls away and takes the lead out of Niall’s hand and then they go.
“We can’t just ride right up to it, you know. Like you said, the younger ones…they’re bound to be watching. Looking for folks who come too close.”
“Yeah, I know. I just…take me as close as you can just so I know where we’re going, okay?”
Niall hums an assent. He directs Harry north along a ridge that rises out of the ground and slopes slowly upward toward the sky. The air feels strange this morning, thick and a little electric, and the sky is half full of clouds, the sort that look like they have some sort of agenda.
“Rains will be coming soon.” Niall chews at a nail nervously. “It’s best that we’re doing it now. The rain just…it makes everything harder.”
“Not certain I can imagine this place as anything but dry and dusty.”
“Nah, you’ll see. It’s like night and day.”
You’ll see. It strikes him funny right in his middle, Niall saying that. The implication of some vague but definite future. Harry will see the rain and the other shoe will drop and Louis and Liam will go, won’t they? He can’t imagine what sort of shape his life will take without them. Where he’ll go from here. If he’ll go. He’ll see the rain. That much is certain, though it feels impossible in this moment. Everything else is mutable.
“Ride up between those two boulders. There’s a path and we’ll come to an overlook. You can see it from there.”
He directs the horse up over the crest of the hill and then they’re standing on the edge of a drop, the valley spread out in front of them. It’s breathtaking despite the dried out wasted quality of the land. The clouds are moving in the sky and casting dynamic shadows across the valley floor like a painting formed from darkness and light. He sees it there across the way: a hole in the world where the ground rises up at the other side of the valley. It’s oddly rectangular, supported by concrete that looks pitted and wasted with the wear of time. There are formations scattered about the valley floor, the remains of buildings and the occasional glimpse of faded grey on the ground peeking up through the dust and scrub.
“What was it? Before?”
“Salt.” Niall’s fingers tangle absently in the fabric of Harry’s shirt. “It was a mine. They like, carved it out from salt and…dunno. Doesn’t matter now, does it? Most of it’s collapsed. This is just the leftovers, like everything else here.”
Harry’s not sure what here means. This particular moved-on world? This town? The two of them? In any case, it feels apt.
“We’ll place the barrels…how deep? Do you have knowledge of the structure?”
“Yeah. Willem sourced an old map. Oliver’s spoken to folks about the deterioration. I’ve gone back and—“ He shuts his mouth suddenly like he’s said something he didn’t mean to.
“Gone back where?”
“Nothing. You’ll see in a bit. Let’s get to Willem and he’ll let you see what we’ve gathered.”
They ride on and the path becomes familiar. Willem greets them outside the house, his trousers streaked with dirt. He tugs leather gloves off his hands as they ride up and Harry is struck by a change in him. Maybe it’s that he’s outside, that he’s not wearing a blanket cape or looking at Harry in his particular solicitous way surrounded by strange artifacts. He’s wearing a work shirt and boots and he looks younger, wiry and tough, like a man who could do damage if he needed. He eyes them oddly as they approach, his gaze moving over the two of them and lingering at Niall’s hand pressed to Harry’s breast, then he smiles.
“Hile, little gunslingers.”
Niall slides down off the horse. “I’m not one of them, Willem.”
“Sure. That’s fine.”
Harry dismounts and ties the horse to the hitching post. He pushes a shallow trough of water her way with the side of his foot and then turns to Willem.
“I suppose you’re here to eye up the goods, then. I figured you’d want that. You sort are so physical, you know? Always have to put your hands all over a thing to know it’s real.”
He smiles again and it looks like he wants to laugh and that makes Harry blush, though he’s not certain why. He doesn’t know what’s gotten to him. He looks over at Niall and his face is beet red so maybe that’s Niall, then. Harry’s picking something up off him.
Willem shakes his head and pats Niall on the shoulder, his face apologetic. “Jesus, I’m just messing with you, lad. You’re fine.”
Harry understands then that Willem has read something in their posture, in their way with each other, and now it’s his turn to feel mortified. Willem turns his gaze on Harry and Harry wants to sink into the ground.
“I was wrong about you maybe, kid. Not so much Arthur Eld, maybe more of a Lancelot.”
“Oh christ, Willem. Spare us, please? I got enough grief from Roch about it already.”
“Sorry!” He holds his hands up in surrender and turns away, heading toward the back of the house. “I don’t get to play embarrassing uncle very often. Humor me, alright?”
Willem leads them around the side of the house and past an anemic-looking garden, then over a small hill to what looks like a pump house. It’s faded and grey and worn by wind and sunlight. Nondescript. Willem crouches at the door, fiddling with some kind of lock, then tugs down once. There’s a metallic “clunk” and the door swings wide. They follow him in.
The smell hits them like a wave. Harry reaches for his scarf reflexively and tugs it over the bottom of his face. The shed is filled with strange fumes, biting and acrid and emanating off of stacks of barrels and rectangular metal containers dented and worn with age. He nearly gags and his eyes start to water. He can just make out faded lettering on some of the containers. Coffeyville, CVR, NCRA, TESORO.
“Where did it all come from?”
Willem is pressing one hand over his mouth and nose. He turns and waves them back outside and then shuts the door again and drops his arm. He takes a deep breath and spits at the ground. “I’ve had Oliver gathering it for me. Him and some others. There’s plenty if you know where to look. Lots of old places. Called them refineries before the cataclysm. Refined poison.”
“I thought most of that sort of thing had been exhausted. Used up.”
Willem nods and angles his head back toward the house. They follow him across the yard. “Like I said, if you know where to look. The Taheen have always been better at that sort of thing. Pays to have a friend and all that.”
“Most of it is leftovers.” Niall rubs at his nose fitfully, like he’s trying to get the smell out. “Droppings from the bottom of old barrels, too dirty to be of any use for anything but a big boom. Consolidated. We’ve got enough now, though. Enough to set it in motion.”
Harry nods. “And how will you get it there? You’ll have to move it first thing once the sun comes up. It’s got to be what…hours of travel? And with a load of that size?”
“We’ve got a wagon. We’ve got the material. We’ve timed it. We can get it placed and set it off before sundown. Oliver will be here this afternoon with a dry fuse. We’ll place it about thirty yards down the entrance and set the fuse, blow it from the outside.”
“And the young ones? They won’t let you just walk in there. They’ll fight you.”
Willem nods and crosses his arms over his chest. “Well it’s a fortuitous thing we’ve got you lot now, isn’t it? Evens the odds a bit.”
Harry frowns. He rubs at the sides of his mouth with two fingers in an unconscious sort of way.
“It’ll be tight. The timing.”
“It would be wise to wait. We can send our bird to Gilead with a message, with more men we might be able to—”
“No.” Niall’s voice is sharp.
“Niall, It doesn’t make sense to—”
“No, Harry. It’s got to be now. He’s making a move, I know it. He’s onto something. Maybe it was the lot of you riding into town, I don’t know. If we wait we lose our edge. I can’t allow him that sort of leverage. If he overwhelms us…If he presses west…”
Harry thinks of Louis. Remembers him, drunk and sloppy in the bar, making a scene. Yelling about Gilead. Ben’s smile as Harry went out the door, something small meant just for him. It nags at him, that look. The feeling of intrusion at the back of his mind. He shakes his head. “I still think more men…more folks who know how to fight—”
Niall is shaking his head adamantly. There’s a storm brewing in his mind, an agitation Harry can’t fathom. “Harry, I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to fix it, ok? And it’s got to be now.”
“Niall, it’s not about you. You’re just a kid, you can’t make yourself responsible for this sort of—”
Something in Niall’s face stops him short. A hardness that Harry would never have expected.
Willem clears his throat deliberately. “He’s right, Harry. There’s no time. It’s got to be us. We’re the only cavalry we’ve got.”
Niall just nods stiffly.
“You boys should be going.” Willem turns and retrieves his gloves off the ground. “I gather you’ve one more stop to make before nightfall.”
When they’re back on the horse, Niall is quiet. Harry wants to reach out to him, to understand, but his mind is a dark cloud. Troubled and strange.
“Veer back north when we come around this hill.”
“Shouldn’t we head back to town?”
“I’ve got one more thing to show you.”
He turns them north. They skirt the side of the valley and around the west edge until they’re past the old mine. As they ride the land shifts. There’s more green than Harry’s seen in ages. Unfamiliar plants and small blooming weeds. Niall directs him to ride down into a sort of gully that’s shielded by piled rocks, the detritus of a long-ago landslide. Harry can hear, or sense maybe, a strange whining in the back of his mind. It’s not sudden, he realizes, it’s been there for ages, growing louder as they move forward on their path. They round a corner and Harry is struck suddenly by a vision: a raging fire reaching up toward the grey sky, flashing yellow flame so bright it hurts his eyes. The horse shies away, her hooves clattering on the loose rocks, and then Harry’s vision resolves itself. It’s not a flame, it’s some sort of bush. Or a small tree maybe. Something he’s never seen before.
“It’s called a forsythia. They grow in the park there.”
Niall presses his hand to the horse’s neck, calming her. The whining in the back of Harry’s mind grows more insistent, more grating, like a scream.
“I’m sorry about the noise. You can try to like…filter it through my awareness maybe. It doesn’t sound like that to me.”
Harry shakes his head. It makes no sense but he closes his eyes and he reaches out, lets his awareness join with Niall’s. He’s right. The sounds changes, or becomes clear maybe. More like a melodious ringing.
When Harry was a boy, his father took him to see music. A group of folks passing through the city. They’d played old songs on old instruments, a mess of strings and keys and skin and brass. Harry doesn’t remember much about the songs they played but he remembers the before if it, how his father left him sitting there alone before the show began, the meandering atonal melodies of the band warming up, tuning their instruments. The way the different tones—strings, horns, a woman singing—swelled and ebbed and flowed. It’s like that, the thinny. Filtered through Niall’s perception it sounds something like an orchestra. Like something building to a crescendo, just on the cusp of resolving into a melody.
“This is where he found me.”
Harry opens his eyes and listens.
“I was just a baby, really. Not more than five or six. I barely remember it. Just…a great flash and a terrible noise. Someone calling my name. My father, I guess. Then it was all quiet. Willem found me wandering in this gully, covered in blood. My own and…others.”
“You’re a walk-in.”
“It’s more than that.” He presses at Harry’s leg and Harry kicks at the horse, moving them forward. “He recognized something in me. Took me into town and gave me to Rochelle’s mum. Asked her to care for me. Told her…said if anyone asked, she’d found me on one of her trading trips, that my folks had been set upon by harriers. Said he’d come back when I was older and…” He shakes his head like he’s trying to clear it. Like he’s not sure how to explain it.
“You heard him talking the other day about the mechanics of it. Of going Todash. That some just sort of take to it naturally. I guess sometimes it’s like…something terrible happens? Something that jolts you to your core, and that thing is what pulls it out of you. He explained it later, when I’d grown. When I was old enough to understand. Something happened to me over there. Something so frightening I ripped a hole in the world.”
He laughs then, like it’s preposterous. “I didn’t believe him until he showed me.” He pats at Harry’s chest. “Nearly there. We can leave the horse, she’ll be more comfortable here.”
They dismount and Niall takes his hand. He leads Harry down a narrow winding path that’s bordered by a rock face on both sides. They walk for a few minutes give or take and then they reach…nothing. A sudden terminus. A rock wall. But it’s not nothing. Harry can see the air move, can see something distorting it the way the heat of a fire does, or the fumes coming off the mess in Willem’s shed.
Niall stops, but he doesn’t drop Harry’s hand. He turns to face him and gestures at Harry’s jacket. “The bullet.”
“What?” Harry presses a hand over his pocket reflexively.
“It could help if you did the spinny thing. You can do it to yourself, yeah? Do it now. Might make it easier on you.”
“Niall, what are we—“
“Just…you’ll see when we get there.”
Harry wants to protest. He wants to ask a question but there’s something in Niall’s face begging him not to so he holds his tongue. He reaches into his pocket and tugs the bullet out. Holds it in his hand and lets it dance over his knuckles, slowly at first, experimental.
Harry looks up. “What?”
Niall is tugging something out of his pack. A linen scarf, yellowed by dirt and sand. He wraps it around his neck, halfway over his jaw, and nods at Harry. “Pull your scarf up over your face a bit.”
Harry does as he’s told, holding the bullet in his fist as he adjusts his clothing. “Why?”
“Because it’s cold where we’re going…and we don’t want to attract attention.”
“I know how to make myself uninteresting. They’ve trained us.”
“Not for this they haven’t.” He nods at Harry’s hand. “Go on.”
He does. He lets the bullet dance over his hand and through his fingers. Watches its careful arc and spin and lets his mind go soft. Lets it carry his awareness away. He feels Niall tugging at his hand somewhere close but far away, pulling him forward, and then the world is turned inside out.
It’s a shuffling. Like a deck of cards being reordered, bent and dropped and slipped in between each other. Messed around. And it’s like a tugging at his middle, his stomach turning over in a violent way, and then it’s done and he’s retching dryly, one hand pressed up against a smooth stone wall. He can feel Niall at his side, worrying at him.
He tries to speak but he just retches again and then swallows thickly. Niall hovers there, holding him by the arm gingerly.
“I’m sorry, I should’ve…it can be a little sick-making the first couple times. It’ll pass, just give it a moment.”
Harry doesn’t look up. He’s staring down at the ground but the ground itself is strange and only adds to his sense of vertigo. It’s uniform grey like the patches of asphalt they encountered back in Lud, but it’s much too clean. Unblemished and uncanny. He breathes slowly, in then out, and then tucks the bullet back into his pocket.
It’ll pass. He presses himself upright and turns in a slow circle, trying to process what he’s seeing. Not stone, something else. Smooth and uniform like the ground, towering over them on both sides, like the rock walls back where they entered the thinny but angular and strange. He thinks back, racks his brain for something familiar to latch onto. Something that will make it more real. Buildings. Concrete. Asphalt. Sharp angles and wreckage.
“Are we in Lud?”
Niall takes his hand and tugs at it, leading him toward the open end of the corridor. He laughs.
“Nah…no, not Lud. Somewhere else entirely. Though…” He slows for a moment, thoughtful. “Perhaps it is…Lud that was, at least. Some part of this place makes up some part of the Lud we know, I think. I’m learning over time that it’s not analogous. That sometimes you can’t line one world up beside another and draw parallels that way.”
They’ve reached an opening of sorts and Harry hears a terrible noise, muffled at first, then building to a cacophony. Voices. People shouting and murmuring. The roar of a thousand engines and music and other noises, unfamiliar and alien, crashing and squealing and electronic cries. He falters, pulls against Niall’s hand.
“What is all that?”
Niall turns back to Harry and presses a hand to his shoulder. “It’s okay…the noise just takes some getting used to.” He tugs at Harry’s scarf, pulling it up over his jaw. “Keep that up.”
“We’re in another world, Harry. One that’s older…or younger maybe. Depends how you look at it. One that’s not moved on.”
Harry shakes his head. The nausea is clearing but the unease is just settling into his middle. He doesn’t belong here. This is all wrong.
“Specifically, we’re in New York City. That’s what they call it here. And it’s Spring, that’s what they call the growing season, and we’ve got to hurry. I don’t like to stay here very long and I’ve got something to show you.” He tugs at Harry’s hand. “It’s overwhelming, I know. You can close your eyes if that’ll help. I’ll show you where to go.”
Harry shakes his head. He presses forward, letting Niall lead him out onto what feels like a freakish approximation of a boulevard. They’ve got that sort of thing in Gilead. Cobblestones and wide thoroughfares and buildings that dwarf you, but this place is something else entirely. Sterile and filthy at once. The people move past them like a river, groomed and brightly colored and smelling of fruit and musk and citrus and a sickly sweet something that fills his nose and makes him feel like gagging. He pushes his scarf up over his face, holds it there and inhales the scent of home.
They walk to a corner and wait while a hundred gleaming cars glide by on the street. Real cars, cars that work. Cars that look alive with their newness and graceful gliding motion. He can smell their exhaust and he’s reminded of Willem’s shed. The fumes. This is what it will smell like when it burns, he thinks.
They cross the street and become lost in a mass of other people. He catches the eye of a woman walking the other way, young and fresh-faced and smooth like a baby, wearing a dress that’s exploding with color and light. A pattern of flowers, shockingly pink and garish. He can’t look away and she meets his eye and for a moment she seems shocked. Like she can’t believe what she’s seeing. Harry balks and looks away again. He rearranges the scarf over his face.
“This is the first crossing I made. Years and years ago.” Niall slows and lets Harry fall into step beside him. “Willem came to me when I was about twelve. Told me he would be giving me lessons twice a week in exchange for…whatever. Whatever I could bring him. It was nonsense, he just wanted it to feel less strange to me maybe, more like something folks in town did. Trading. Tit for tat.”
They’re walking through something like a courtyard now, lined with small deciduous trees unfamiliar to Harry, young and fresh and blooming like the rest of this world. There’s some sort of expansive structure to their right that’s made of smooth marble or stone, a large square with a hollow middle. Squat walls that come up to Harry’s waist, if that, engraved with words...or names maybe. There’s a sound coming up from below where Harry can’t see. A rushing like running water.
“What is this?”
Niall looks over at the stone wall and his gaze is strangely apprehensive. “It’s like a…monument. To remember a thing. There were buildings here once. Something happened.”
Niall shrugs. “Of sorts.” He purses his lips like he’s considering his words. “That’s not what I brought you here to see but...there’s something down there, underneath. I gather it’s what makes the crossing to this place so natural. Like it’s…exerting a force.” He frowns and falls silent for a moment. “I’ve been to other worlds, ones nearby. Ones where the buildings still stand. I’ve gone down below and searched but there’s nothing. A basement filled with lockers, impossible trains that run underground through the whole city, smooth and quick like a bullet from a gun. But whatever’s speaking to me…it’s only ever here in this particular where and when.” He shakes his head. “But that’s not…I’ll tell you about it another time. That’s not why we’re here, it’s just why I don’t like staying for long.”
He moves them past the strange monument and through a maze of trees to the other end of the courtyard. “When I started studying with Willem, he explained the how of it. How thinnies worked, the way you could manipulate and move through them, this thing that was inside of me, what you call the touch, the particular access it allows but…he would never let me just try. He made promises…’later, Niall, you’re not ready’. Swore that once I understood enough, once I could open and close a door safely…” He shakes his head in a regretful sort of way. “He doesn’t understand kids. Even still, after everything. Doesn’t remember what it was like being one himself. Doesn’t grasp that ‘you mustn’t’ feels like a challenge so much of the time.”
“You defied him.”
Niall nods. “I couldn’t just…not…I had to know. I could feel it, calling to me at night.” He shakes his head. “I thought it was the thinny itself but maybe…”
Harry catches something off him then, a discomfort that radiates outward from his mind. Something like fear and a vision of the monument they’ve just passed by. A rectangular rupture in the surface of world, black water cascading toward a void and a blacker sphere, buried deep. Smooth and radiant like polished glass. A little too familiar. Like an abyss. Like something you could fall into. That could consume you.
“Niall, what’s down there?”
“Nothing. It’s not important now. Something old…like the thing you found in Lud but...much worse. The worst of them I think. Whatever it is, it’s trapped here, at least for now. Another casualty of blind fate. I think that’s why it’s trying to…” He grimaces. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not part of all this. I can ignore it but we should hurry. Come on, not far now.”
He rushes them across another street and as they pass a group of people waiting for a light to change, Harry glances up and catches another eye. His scarf slips then, falls down off of his face, and he feels the chill of the air on his lips. One of the people standing there makes a surprised sort of noise and her expression turns strange. He sees that look again, the odd mix of recognition and doubt, surprise and silent shock. He tugs at Niall’s hand.
“People are—they’re looking at us.”
Niall glances back at him. “Jesus, cover your face.”
“But why are they—”
“You’ll see. In here.”
He leads them through a doorway into a shop of some sort. There’s shelves lining the walls, racks displaying rows of glossy paper books, like the ones in Willem’s house. Hundreds of them, covered in text and pictures and shapes, overwhelming in their aesthetic dissonance. Photos of women kneeling in the dirt and smiling as they cradle green growing plants that look so waxy and fresh they must be artificial. Cars and trucks like the emptied husks they found back in Lud but shining and whole and new, like the ones outside, barreling down the street and blaring their horns. Words that look familiar. Old speech, a dead language Harry learned in school. He reaches over and traces a set of letters.
“Car and Driver.”
“Is that what it says? I can make out some of it but mostly it’s gibberish, you know? Need you for that.”
Harry nods. “I’m rusty but…we learned this. It’s a version of the high speech, something much older though. These are magazines, right?”
Niall nods and tugs at him. He leads him away toward another rack, one that’s garish and blinding, an incomprehensible mess of color. They stop, and Niall gestures at the rack.
“I found it on my second trip. It’s…it’s why I keep coming back, despite that…thing out there. It’s why I can’t stay away. I needed you to…” He drops his hand like he’s at a loss for words. “I just needed you to see.”
Harry doesn’t understand what he’s seeing at first. Some trick of the light, an illusion maybe, but then Niall plucks the magazine off the rack and holds it in his hands and Harry can see that it’s not a trick. That it’s real. He takes it from Niall hesitantly, like something dangerous. He holds it gingerly in two hands and stares at it and struggles to process what he’s seeing.
It’s them. It’s him. It’s Harry, looking back at him from the cover, but it’s not him at all. His face is softer, smooth and light and young like the woman on the street. The face of a person who’s never known hardship. He’s smiling—or smirking maybe—in a knowing sort of way. This impossible other Harry is looking out from the cover of magazine and he’s making eye contact with some invisible audience and he’s smiling like they have an understanding, just the two of them, like they’re both privy to something unspoken. He’s wearing a tailored shirt, trousers that look impossibly tight and boots that look like they’ve never seen a day’s hard work. His hands are long and smooth and clean and adorned with rings and resting on the shoulders of another boy. The other boy is Niall.
It’s not just Niall though, it’s all of them. All five of them. Louis is just to Niall’s right and he’s smiling tightly in a way that’s so familiar it makes Harry’s heart ache. He’s reaching over with one hand and grabbing at Liam’s chest and Liam is laughing, his face contorted in simple unbridled joy, and then…
“That’s him, yeah?” Niall reaches out and presses one finger to the photo lightly, just where Zayn is standing half behind Liam, his shoulders loose and easy. He’s clean, smooth and unblemished and fresh like the rest of them. And so fucking young. But there’s something sad in his eyes, something held back, and it makes Harry feel a thousand worlds away. Like he’s standing on the hill just outside of Gilead ready to move east, Zayn there at his elbow, his eyes dark with apprehension.
We’ll be alright, Zayn. We’ll be together. That’s what matters.
“What does it say, then? I’ve gotten the basics, but…”
Harry scans the text, parses it out and forms the words in his mind. When it coalesces, he nearly drops the magazine.
“Christ. This is a joke.”
“One Direction. That’s what it says, right?” Niall laughs and it sounds giddy, like a release. “Little river. A shared trajectory, like you said. Do you see now? Do you get it?”
“Niall, what is this?”
“It’s ka, Harry. It’s just ka.” He takes the magazine from Harry’s hands and places it back in the rack. “I just needed…I needed you to see…I can talk myself blue in the face but you had to see it for yourself. That we’re something in this world. Something important maybe. I think maybe not just here…maybe everywhere. That it’s meant to be the five of us together. I think maybe in every possible world it’s meant to be the five of us…”
But Harry’s stopped listening. He’s been scanning the racks, his mind a mess of questions, and something’s caught his eye. Something familiar and ugly that cuts him to the quick. A photo of Zayn…just Zayn, alone. His face is strange and hollow and far away and there’s that sadness in his eyes again, sharper now. More immediate. And large blocky text exclaiming it for the world to see:
He reaches up and plucks the magazine out of the rack, his heart sinking. He feels sick with loss suddenly in a way he’s maybe not allowed himself before, not since that first morning, when they woke up and he was gone. He hands the magazine to Niall.
“Is there a universe out there where he doesn’t leave?”
Niall takes it. He studies the cover, his brow knit with confusion. “Is that what it says?”
Harry nods and Niall chews at his lip uncertainly. Then he shakes his head like he’s rejecting something. Like he’s making a point. He sets the magazine back on the shelf.
“Plenty. There’s plenty of them, Harry. I’ve seen them, okay?” He grabs at Harry’s hand and tugs him back toward the door. “I’ve been reckless. I’ve gone places I shouldn’t have, before I was ready. It was stupid but I had to—“ He stops short and shakes his head like he’s changing tack. “Point is, yes. I know…I understand that there are worlds where he doesn’t leave, where it’s the five of us, just the way it’s meant to be.”
They move out into the street, hurrying back toward the courtyard and the terrible something that calls to Niall through the thinny, back toward the alley.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. There are infinite worlds, Harry, and in every world it’s us. All five of us. I expect there’s a thousand worlds where we’re born for each other, five of us together from the start. A thousand worlds made of near misses where we never quite manage to meet and feel some…I dunno…some great sense of unknowable loss. Worlds where the love between us is reshaped into something like hate. Where we’re set at odds. Worlds where we love each other the way you and I—” He falters, his cheeks flushed. “Just…every possible way, every possible thing we could be to each other, it’s out there. But one thing never changes: we’re five. We’re ka-tet. I know it, Harry. I feel it. I felt it the minute you arrived in town. Like it was all falling into place. Like the world made sense suddenly.”
Harry can’t focus on what Niall is saying to him. He’s filled with a terrible sinking. A weight that won’t let up. The words are ringing in his head. Zayn quits…
“The world makes no sense, Niall. Not our world, at least. Maybe it’s one of the terrible ones, the ones that go wrong. Maybe our world is just…chaos and death and…separation.”
Niall squeezes his hand and leads him back toward the alley where they came in. His voice has gone quick and insistent, like he’s frantic to make Harry understand.
“You’re right, maybe. Our world is moving on but it’s ours. Our world. We’ve got each other now and I think we can fix it, okay? Liam and Louis…even Zayn. I don’t think they’re lost to us. That’s what I wanted you to see. Just…one thing at a time, right? We’ll fix my mistake first, then we’ll take care of the rest—” He laughs, high and reedy with disbelief. “Here I was, ready to leave home, ready to wander the world searching for the lot of you, and then you walk right into my life? I can’t ignore that. It’s got to mean something.”
Harry shakes his head and pulls Niall to a stop. There’s something wrong. Something in Niall’s words that isn’t adding up. Niall turns back to him, radiating impatience.
“Your mistake? Niall what are you talking about? What do you mean your mistake?”
Niall shakes his head, exasperated. He won’t look Harry in the eye. “Don’t you see? What I’ve been trying to explain?”
“I don’t unders—“
“Winston…the folks gone missing…the whole terrible thing. All of it.”
“What does that—“
Niall brings one hand up and presses it to his chest insistently, just over his heart. “It was me, Harry. My fault. I’m the idiot who let him through.”
Harry doesn’t answer. He doesn’t know what to say. Maybe he already understood it, somewhere deep down. Maybe Niall’s been broadcasting it all along. He doesn’t know what to say, so he lets himself be lead back down the alley toward the same impossible doorway they’ve just come through, back to the terrible strange and familiar world they left behind.
It’s jarring, coming back through. It’s the silence that strikes him more than anything. More than the twisting in his gut and the vertigo of the crossing. Just…he’s never understood how quiet this world can be so much of the time. Like a mausoleum.
Harry can hear his own ragged breathing, the noise of the thinny—more like a sensation than a sound—Niall’s boots on the rocky ground, the call of a hawk from somewhere far off…nothing more. He presses forward away from the thinny and then he turns and leans back against the wall. His legs feel weighted and unsteady. His mind is clouded by something akin to grief, or regret. Something dark that presses down at his middle. He lets himself sink to the ground, his knees folded in front of him.
“I’ve been stupid, I think.”
Niall joins him on the ground. “That makes two of us I guess.”
Harry grimaces and folds his hands over his knees. “All along I thought—they told me—that it was duty. Duty’s what binds you…what cements you to one another. I thought that’s what mattered. The oath. I thought I could hold us together if I steered us right, kept us on the correct path…”
“It’s not your fault…”
“Isn’t it? Do you know what the worst part of it is? I knew. I knew the minute I took my mother’s gun and I saw the look in her eye. I understood that it was all meaningless, that all I was yoking myself to was death. But I did it anyway because I was a child with something to prove…and by the time I finished the training…by the time I faced him…” He shakes his head. “I’d shaped it into something ugly. I’ve been blinded by my own pride maybe. I thought that turning my back meant letting him win. Proving him right about me…about her. When I saw that doubt in Zayn’s eyes it was like looking in a mirror and…all I could see was that concession. That failure. Everything else just…fell away. I hated him so much just then. I hated myself for wanting to follow him.”
Niall nods, watching his hands.
“Now this.” Harry breathes in and then out, steady and slow. “You take me by the hand and you show me that we’re meant for something more. So much more…and all I can feel is that I’ve squandered it. Crushed it under the weight of my own fear.”
“Haven’t I? None of this was…” He swallows thickly. “We began the training together, the four of us. But it was always my dream, my legacy, something I had to live up to. I wonder sometimes if Louis would’ve even…” He falters. “I just…I think maybe I took our connection for granted. Perverted it or…made it something ugly. We were meant for something maybe, but all we’re meant for now, in this world, is death. That’s what my mother was trying to tell me. That’s the oath we’ve taken. We sign our own death warrants the moment we pick up the gun. And for what? Some archaic idea of justice? Honor? I don’t know anymore.”
“Death isn’t all you’re meant for, Harry.”
He shakes his head. He wants Niall to be right but it’s too late. Always too late. He thinks of the boy in Lud, face down and breathless. “You’re wrong. You don’t know what—”
“Shut up. Just…stop. You’re meant for more than death. More than killing. I know it. I’ve felt it. There’s so much love and care and joy in you, you’ve just pushed it down inside maybe. Locked it away where he couldn’t touch it. But it’s there and it’s stronger than any stupid oath. You’re made for more than just death, Harry.” He laughs, disbelieving. “Can you imagine? That would be such a waste! You’re made for something much more and you’re made for me and you’re made for them.”
Harry shakes his head. “I don’t know what to say…how to make them understand. It comes out all wrong and I just…drive them further away. I don’t know how to care for them. All he ever taught me was how to fight.”
Niall stands and brushes the dust of their world off of his trousers. He extends a hand to Harry.
“So fight.” He pulls Harry up off the ground. “Fight to get them back. All of them. And then fight to keep them. Fight for it with every ounce of love in your heart.”
They walk back to the horse in silence, the insistent whine of the thinny receding behind them or slotting into the back of their minds maybe. It’s always there, Harry realizes. Always calling. The horse is where they left her, tethered to a tree and tamping at the ground with her hooves impatiently. The sun is dipping low in the sky and Harry realizes that it’ll be dark soon. That it’s already late.
“How long were we gone?” He asks. He feels odd, a little outside himself.
Niall looks up at the horizon to the west where the sun is sinking, turning the sky a burnt sort of orange. There are clouds gathering, grey shot with pink and umber, and Harry can smell something on the breeze. Something electric and heavy that lingers in his nose. Like the leading edge of a storm.
“Don’t know, exactly. Sometimes it’s a few minutes, sometimes it’s hours. Sometimes…” He falls silent, like he’s said too much.
Niall shakes his head. “No. Not anymore. That was…when I started, when I was coming up here behind Willem’s back I was less…precise.” He adjusts the saddle and fiddles with the latigo but Harry’s not sure he’s really checking it. It’s more like a tic. Something distracted and unconscious. “I went in for nearly a week once.” He laughs ruefully, remembering. “Didn’t feel like more than a few hours but…I must have misjudged. Rochelle nearly bit my head off. Mum was sick by then, pretty bad like…I think she thought I’d just…” He shakes his head. “I dunno.”
“Did they know where you’d gone? What you could do?”
“Not so much, no. Willem took the heat for me. Told them I’d been with him, that he’d taken me on a kind of educational jaunt out east and I’d neglected to get permission. That was…It’s how he found me out. That’s when he knew I’d already been going Todash…behind his back.”
“He was angry?”
Niall shakes his head. “Nah. Just disappointed I think. It’s funny, he should be, you know? Angry. I deserve that I think. But we don’t talk about it…not in so many words. I think we both understand that it was my doing. That Winston is my mistake. But he’ll never come out and give voice to it. Maybe it’s…maybe he’s trying to spare me something. Maybe it’s another lesson, because he understood that I knew better. I don’t know. But I understand that feeling, Harry. When you’re standing on the edge of something and it’s like looking off the edge of a precipice. You know in your heart it’s a terrible idea, that it’ll likely kill you, but when you’ve been lying awake nights imagining it, building it up in your head, convincing yourself it’s what you’re meant for it’s like…maybe you know you’re making the wrong choice, that you’re setting something terrible in motion but you just…you do it anyway. Because you can’t imagine not—”
He stops short then and glances up toward the ridge on their right, his face troubled. Harry follows his gaze but sees nothing. The fading blue-grey of the eastern sky, a few small rocks tumbling down the side of the hill, gently percussive but harmless.
“What is it?”
Niall shakes his head. “Nothing. I thought…nah. I’m just spooked. It still gives me the willies, you know? Going back there.”
Harry nods and mounts the horse, pulling Niall up after him. He takes the reins in one hand and presses the other to her flank as Niall gets situated at his back. He thinks of the place they’ve just come from. The monument to something awful. Niall’s strange violent memory of home.
“Is that where you come from? The thing that happened there, was it—”
Niall laughs in a mirthless sort of way. “Nah.” He taps at Harry’s leg, urging them forward. “No I come from somewhere else. Similar maybe, a version of that world. But not the same. I understand though, why you would think that.”
“You said it was a cataclysm, the thing that happened there. And your memories of home…or where you came from. The blood and the smoke—”
“It’s funny, that. We talk about the cataclysm…what left the world this way, turned it wrong and started it moving on. But if you could see, like really see…what the world was before…” He wraps his arms around Harry’s middle, holding him close. “It wasn’t just a single moment. It didn’t burn out in a great big blaze of fire, not really. It was more like a slow burn I think. Whatever happened back there in New York…and whatever it was that pushed me to go Todash that first time, that tore a hole in the world...you’ve got to understand, it was nothing spectacular. They were just…little cataclysms in a world defined by sweeping destruction. Violence on a massive scale. A single event, one bad day, a hundred deaths…it was like a drop in the bucket.”
“That’s not how we learned it. It was meant to be safer then. More peaceful.”
“Nah…Just different I think. A matter of scale, maybe. Willem used to talk to me about entropy, the idea that all things tend toward chaos? That everything unravels, slowly over time. I think maybe the world began its moving on the moment it was born.”
It’s well after dark when they arrive back in town and by the time they get the horse settled in for the night, the moon is high in the sky and the the streets are bathed in shadow, save for the yellow light spilling out of the tavern. Niall digs his key out of his trousers and slips it into Harry’s hand.
“You go on up to my place. I’ll bring us some food.”
“We’ve got to get back to your sister’s—“
“We’ve got to eat. And I’ve got to gather my things. And I just want—I dunno what I want. A moment more with you…before we go back there and everything is set into motion. Just a moment of peace.”
Harry nods and takes the key. He makes his way around the back of the tavern and up the stairs, lets himself into Niall’s place and sets the key on a side table. Then he lights the lamp and he sits on the edge of the bed and he waits.
It smells faintly of oranges. There’s a wood stove in the corner of the room, small and black and compact, and Harry can just make out the shape and color of the orange peel from last night, set on the top of the stove and making the air fragrant. There’s coals inside, he can see the faint red glow of them through the creosote-stained window at the front. His gaze wanders over the stovepipe, traces its long stretch up to the ceiling, moves over the scored and twisted wood of the wall and then falls on the shelf in the corner. He bites at his lip, curious and antsy and then stands and walks across the room…kneels before the bookcase and examines its contents.
There’s a couple of magazines like the one Niall showed him. A few pages that look hastily torn out. Something like a doll made of molded plastic that looks vaguely like Louis, and that’s way too weird, so he shoves it under a glossy magazine page where he doesn’t have to look at it. An ink pen, but it’s not like any pen he’s seen before. It’s got their names emblazoned up the side, impossibly. He picks it up gingerly and runs one finger over the text. Harry, Louis, Niall, Liam…Zayn.
There’s footsteps on the stairs and a rustling at the door. He considers backing away from the shelf, like he’s been caught at something, but he doesn’t. He just watches as the door swing open and Niall backs inside carrying a thick wooden board loaded with food, a jug of something dangling from one finger. Harry leaps up and takes the food from him. He sets it on the table.
Niall retrieves some cups off the desk by the window and nods at the shelf.
“Were you having a look, then?”
Harry just nods and sits down on the bed.
“Weird stuff, yeah? It’s mostly things I pilfered. Stuff I thought I could get away with clean. It’s…dicey. The taking things.”
“Is it difficult to pull things back through with you? Something about the thinny?”
Niall laughs. “Nah, nothing like that, just like…a nightmare if you get caught. It’s not an easy place to live, that world. The world before. To find yourself there with no money, no name….you know they’ve got everyone listed? Like on a big roster? Every single person, assigned a number. It’s mad.”
He hands Harry a glass of ale and a slice of bread that’s spread with a thick fragrant sort of cheese and a smear of honey and Harry’s mouth sets to watering. He’d not realized how hungry he was but they haven’t eaten since breakfast. It makes sense. He takes a quick bite and talks around it.
“They’ve got a census back in Gilead.”
Niall waves a slice of bread in the air, faux impressed. “Well aren’t they fancy then. Out here it’s a challenge just figuring out who came out of who.”
He picks the board up and walks it over to the bed, sets it in the center of the blanket and sits. Harry kicks his boots off and lifts his legs up onto the bed, tucking them under him. It feels strangely delicate, sitting this way. It’s all a little dreamlike: the board filled with bread and cheese and dried bits of fruit, Niall sitting across from him in the lamplight and licking drops of honey off of his fingers. It’s indulgent, like they’re living a comfortable fiction, like all of it is a thing Harry shouldn’t be allowed. He looks down at his own lap, at the cup of ale he’s holding in his hands.
“No problem. They let me eat whatever, really. It’s no trouble.”
“No I mean…for everything. For like…giving me this. All of this.”
He looks up and Niall is watching him, his eyes soft.
“Do they not teach you to just live?”
Harry frowns. “No there’s…no room for letting yourself just enjoy a thing. No room for simple pleasure. Even like, lovemaking…eating, filling your own needs. It’s just…constant vigilance. No being carried away. No allowing yourself to be open or to be cared for. No acting according to feelings or a whim. That’s weakness. Allowing yourself that sort of vulnerability is…it’s anathema.”
Niall takes a bite and swallows, considering quietly. “They got it all backwards I think. I think maybe opening yourself up…allowing yourself to care and be cared for…letting yourself love…that’s what takes strength. More strength than most folks have got maybe.”
The word strikes him. He can feel it in the air between them, in the place where their two minds overlap.
“Is that what this is?”
Niall just shrugs and then reaches out. He tugs at Harry until he’s leaning over the food, brushes a bit of his hair off his face and gives him a soft kiss on the lips. Niall’s mouth tastes like honey. When he pulls away he shrugs like it’s obvious. Like there’s no question.
“Yeah. I love you.”
Harry just nods. He’s not got to say it. He can feel it pressing out of him, threatening to break him open at the seams. Niall presses another kiss to the line of Harry’s jaw, one to the curve of his neck, reaches down and takes Harry’s cup from his hands and sets it on the side table. He nudges the food to one side until it’s just out of their way and presses forward…and Harry lets him. He falls back onto the bed in surrender, lets his fingers rest in Niall’s hair and feels the vibration of Niall’s words against his skin.
“I reckon I’ve always loved you.”
His touch is light and it sets Harry trembling. He’s not sure why…whether it’s the physicality of the thing or his desire or the overwhelming sense of something more: the idea that every touch between the two of them is nesting into something bigger and more important than they can really comprehend. Two fingers, tracing the lines etched on his skin, curious and hesitant and barely there.
“What do they all mean?”
Harry lets himself be soft and breathes evenly, in and out. “Nothing…not really. Or everything. Some of them are place markers…signposts or like…a record of a thing that happened. We’ve all got them.”
“Is it part of the training?” Niall’s hand presses to the curve of his hip, traces the leaves there.
“No, it’s not allowed. If they find you with ink on your skin…” He shakes his head. “He would make an example of you. But it didn’t—that never stopped us. I think it’s like…you need a reminder sometimes? That you’re still yours. That your body belongs to you.”
“Does it work?”
Harry isn’t sure what to say so he just says, “Sometimes.”
Niall nods like he understands and Harry wonders if he ever could. If anyone could ever understand the depth of it.
They make love then, and Niall catches Harry’s wrists together in his hand: pins them to the bed and presses down on him and holds him still, acting according to a wanting that comes from somewhere deep inside Harry, some need to give himself over and to be held, a thing he didn’t know was there until Niall pulled it up and out of him and into the light.
“We’ve got to get back.”
“You can’t fall asleep.”
Harry presses his face into the pillow and squeezes his eyes shut tight. “I know.”
He doesn’t want to move. He wants to suspend time, to delay the inevitable. Once they leave, when they return to Rochelle’s and find Louis and Liam and the rest of them, that’s when it starts. When they sit down and they talk and everything is set in motion. The hammer will drop soon. Within a week they’ll make their move and it’ll all be decided.
He’d like to just lay here for a while in the warmth of Niall’s bed.
They dress slowly and Harry thinks that Niall feels it too, that yearning for a little more time. Like they’re coming to the end of something, or to the beginning maybe. Like there’s no knowing what’s around the next bend.
Harry tugs his boots on and reaches over to Niall. Presses a hand to his forearm. “We’ll be together.”
Niall doesn’t answer. He just chews at his lip, his expression troubled, and then he nods.
“Whatever happens, Niall. We’ll be together. If not the lot of us then at least me and you, okay? Always me and you.”
“Yeah…” He works at his boots and then sets about dropping things into his pack: spare clothes and enough supplies for some kind of journey, just in case. He doesn’t touch the gun. Harry can see the shape of it there, weighing down the bottom of the bag. “I’ve got this feeling though…Like it’s all going to work out.”
“Everything, Harry. I don’t know what it is…blind faith or wishful thinking or like…the knowing. But I can feel it…that we’ll be alright, all five of us. That we were always going to be alright.”
Harry nods and studies the floor for a moment. “…Reconciliation.” It’s not meant for Niall, really. It just comes out of his mouth, soft and quiet and a touch hopeful.
“What?” Niall slings his pack over his shoulder and heads toward the door.
“Nothing. It’s just something Jesy said…it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to get back, they’ll be wondering after us. We’ll sit palaver and then we’ll get some sleep. We’ve got a long day tomorrow getting everyone up to speed, tying up all the loose ends.”
Niall tugs the door open and nods. “Yeah. Best that we get a little rest.”
They step outside.
“That’s mighty funny, kid. Talking about rest when it looks like you’re heading off on some kind of little journey.”
The voice comes from somewhere down below, just beyond the stairs. Harry’s eyes haven’t adjusted to the dark yet and for a moment he’s blinded, his entire body tensed like the string of a bow.
“Seems like your bed’s behind you. Ain’t that funny, Reg?”
“Sure is, Ben.” The second voice is quieter, a little uncertain.
Niall is frozen at Harry’s side, his mind broadcasting alarm. he knows he knows he knows
Harry spies Winston as he steps out of the shadows, the shape of him just visible in the light of the moon. He smiles up at them and gestures at the bottom of the stairs. “Why don’t you boys come on down here and have a chat with me for a moment?”
Harry glances over at Niall uncertainly. He reaches down and feels for his gun, snug against his side, and undoes the snap at the top of the holster. Niall shakes his head, a nearly imperceptible movement in the dark.
“Smart kid.” Winston looks at Harry. “He’s right, that thing strapped to your hip won’t do you any good. Might as well come on down here.” He grins up at them, his teeth shining peculiarly in the moonlight. “I promise I don’t bite.”
Niall moves down the stairs and Harry follows. They’ve got no choice really. If the plan is to run, they can’t do it from up here. As they reach the bottom of the stairs Harry feels himself grabbed bodily from behind, his arms pinned to his side by someone strong and solid and immovable. He struggles but the arms around him are like a vise, tightening as he squirms against them. One of the men at Winston’s side rushes forward and grabs at Niall, wrenching him by the arm and throwing him off balance, pulling him away from Harry and back toward Winston. Toward the dark.
“Reg here just told me the funniest story. Seems he saw the two of you messing around up by the thinny. Isn’t the the strangest thing? Now what would you be getting up to out there, is what I’m wondering. Thought you might have an answer for me.”
Niall is next to him now, struggling futilely against the man’s grip, his eyes bright and wild in the dark. He shakes his head defiantly. “I don’t know what you’re—“
“Oh cut the crap, kid.” Winston’s voice has gone sharp suddenly, cold and hard as a razor’s edge. “I can’t peek in your head but I know when I’m being lied to.” He frowns down at Niall and then reaches out and tugs at bit of his hair, just at the temple where it’s still a mess from all the rolling around in bed. When he speaks again the hardness is gone, his tone is all smooth edges. “Funny, I should have known it was you. I knew it…I knew someone out here could open it up, and your mind was always so inaccessible. Like weird white noise.” He laughs. “Figured you were just stupid. That happens sometimes, you know. Some folks I just can’t read.”
He looks up at the sky in an impatient sort of way, his expression troubled. Then he glances over at Harry. “But then you show up. Out of nowhere. And it’s something else with you, isn’t it? Like you’re pushing me out. Like it’s something learned.”
He takes a step toward Harry, his face curious. “That’s a clever trick, kid. I imagine you’ve got lots of clever tricks, huh? I’ve heard tell. Half thought your sort were just a kind of fairytale but here you are. Here you are, and you’ve taken a shine to this one.” He cocks his head at Niall. “Got me thinking. Wondering if I’d been wrong about him. Anyway shows me, right?” He laughs and gestures at the air around them. “The world is wild and weird, isn’t it? And here we all are. Just a bunch of dumb stories and fairytales come to life, set all at odds.” He spits at the ground, and it’s more of an affectation than a tic, like an air he’s putting on. “Tell you what though, it doesn’t have to be like that. Doesn’t have to come to a fight that way. Thing is, I need him.” He jerks a thumb at Niall, still struggling behind him. “Got some family back home I’m missing sorely and I believe he can help me out. So my associates here are going to take him back over to my place. Hope you don’t mind.”
Niall catches Harry’s eye just as the man holding onto him drags him backward around the corner of the building, Reg trailing not far behind, and Harry redoubles his efforts. He tries to get away, tries to get at his gun, to do something, anything but be held here, impotent and weak. Then Niall’s gone. He’s disappeared into the dark and it’s just Harry, the man at his back and Winston watching him, silent as the grave. He approaches and there’s something alien in the way he moves, something too smooth, a kind of unearthly grace. When he’s close enough he reaches around quick as anything and tugs Harry’s gun out of the holster. He cradles it in his hands and he’s careful at first, like it’s a thing that could burn him. He studies the metalwork, running his fingers over the grip.
“You know it’s funny. I wondered a bit if I’d be able to touch it. All the stories about you lot…they make you sound like some sort of wild cult. More like a religion than a…” He shakes his head. “…whatever you are. Anyway I thought maybe this would be like your article of faith.” He lets the gun hang loosely from his grip, appraising it. “But it’s just a gun, isn’t it? A nice gun, though. Near useless, but it’s pretty anyway.”
He looks up then and smiles ruefully at Harry, his face apologetic. “Listen, I don’t like to act the brute. I’m not…” He frowns like he’s picking his words carefully. “I’m not a monster, Harry. And I want you to know that normally I would put a little more like…finesse into this, but time’s wasting, we’ve lost half the night already and I just…don’t have time to deal with you properly so…” He looks down at the gun in his hand and bobs it a little up and down like he’s testing its weight. “I dunno, just…sorry about this I guess.”
Harry opens his mouth to speak or to spit in his face maybe, anything but cow to him, but Winston raises his arm up and it’s so quick Harry’s barely registers the movement before it’s swinging back down at him with inhuman force. The butt of his gun is cold and hard and final as it strikes his head, just where his hair meets his brow, and it’s like his skull is being cracked in two. A searing, explosive pain that turns his vision white and sends him flying toward the ground. His last thought, strangely, is a single word.
There’s nothing, after. Nothing but the dark.
The deck shuffles. The dark lifts and then he’s remembering. He’s been here before.
His ears are ringing. A high keening buzz, incessant and maddening like the whine of a thinny. His sinuses throb with the memory of an impact and his head feels cottony, strangely pressurized and aching. He keeps one hand on the wall to steady himself and wipes at his eyes roughly, sick with the weight in his middle, consumed by it.
How long has Louis been there, calling Harry’s name? He can barely hear over the ringing. He wonders if the beating’s done permanent damage, if there’s something broken in there. He feels a hand on his shoulder. Louis’ voice is soft when he speaks, like he’s frightened. Like he’s worried he might say the wrong thing.
“Harry, I heard. They told me. About Anne…are you…” Louis spins him around gently and the light from the wall lamp hits Harry across the face. He watches Louis flinch, hears his sharp inhale as he reaches out and touches Harry’s jaw. Fingers the swelling at his lip and the crush of his nose, throbbing and bruised.
“Fucking christ. What has he done to you?”
Harry shakes his head and pulls away. He continues on down the hall, slowly. “He came into the dorms. Saw me crying over her and…he wanted me to understand. Told me she was weak, that it was wasteful and stupid, the way she died. That she wasn’t worth crying over.”
“He’s a fucking monster.” Louis’ voice is cold, hard like a promise. “He can’t get away with this.”
Harry breathes in deeply and his ribs cry out in protest. “It doesn’t matter.”
Louis grabs at his sleeve. “It does. It matters. You’ve got to be allowed to grieve. It’s inhumane—”
Harry slows to a stop. He stares at the ground, his jaw set tight, and his vision is red at the edges, red with blood or with the rage he can’t seem to shake. When he speaks his voice is quiet.
“You mistake me.”
Louis looks bewildered. “What?”
“Just like he did.”
“What are you—“
“He’s right.” He spits the words out like poison. His mouth tastes like blood. “Don’t you see? She’s dead…and for what? To save one child? A harrier’s brat she didn’t know from—“ His bruised ribs ache with the force of his words and he gasps, leaning against the wall. “Who’ll be dead himself in a couple years or worse: a killer. A thief. It was stupid. It was a waste. Just like he said. She was stronger than that. Worth more than that.”
Louis just shakes his head. “You don’t mean that.”
“Look at me. These aren’t tears of grief, Louis. I’m not sad. I’m fucking livid. I’m so furious I can’t see straight. Don’t you get it?
“All she’s done is prove him right.” He hates the way his voice cracks. The rawness in his throat. “She let him w—” He exhales sharply, clutching at his side. He needs to lie down. He can’t focus. He feels consumed by it: the pain, the rage, the grief he’s got to deny. “I won’t, though. We won’t. I’ll see myself dead before I let him win.”
The deck shuffles. The pain transforms itself and the memory becomes something more immediate. A sickening ache and pressure in his head, a violent nausea and feverish heat and something underneath, the barest whisper, calling to him.
Come and find me.
He blinks, once. The light in the room is blinding.
“Harry, can you hear me?”
He rocks his head back and forth and opens his eyes. It’s sluggish but he manages to pull himself half upright. There’s a searing pain at his brow and when he presses his fingers to it they come away tacky with half-dried blood. The hair at the side of his head feels thick, matted to his face. He opens his mouth to speak and it feels dried out and strange.
“Whoa there.” Rochelle is at his side and pressing at his shoulder. He looks around and sees that he’s in her kitchen, that they’ve got him on his back on the table. Louis and Liam hover nearby looking like they’re trying their best not to worry. “You’d best lay back for now, kid. You took a mean hit. Think you might be concussed. Or worse.”
“They took Niall.”
Rochelle recoils like he’s burned her. “What? Who took him? Took him where?”
Harry tries to sit up again and the room spins sickeningly. “Winston.”
“Winston? What the hell are you—“
“Rochelle,” Liam is there at her side, pressing a hand to her elbow. “It’s Winston. He’s the one responsible for the folks gone missing. We’re setting things in motion but…Harry, when did he take him? How long ago?”
Harry pushes past the nausea and unsteadiness and swings himself over and off the table. His legs feel rubbery and weird when he stands. The light hurts his eyes.
Come and find me.
“We’ve not got time…He’s going to use him. To open the thinny. He’ll bring more of them through.” He looks at the window. It’s too bright. Too late. “What time is it?”
“To open the thinny?”
“It’s nearly ten. Harry, you’ve got to rest. You’re not well. You’re running a fever and—”
“No…we’ve got to go.” He presses himself up, away from the table and across the kitchen. “We can’t wait, we can still…” He keels right and catches himself on the counter. His face feels hot right down to his throat, like he’s burning up. “He knows about Niall, about the thinny, but the rest of it…the plan…we can still get the jump on him. But it’s got to be today.”
Louis and Liam exchange a glance and then Louis shakes his head. “It’s a stretch but it’s not impossible. Perrie and the rest are here in town, waiting on our word. The other one, Oliver or whatever, he’ll have brought the fuse, right? If it’s got to be today—”
Harry nods and swallows thickly. He presses a hand to his collar and feels the heat of the fever on his skin, burning him up. It doesn’t matter. It’s something to push through.
“It’s got to be today.”
They gather at the edge of town. Louis and Liam, their faces set and stern, and Harry, verging on feverish delirium and trying to ignore the pounding in his head. Perrie and the rest of them are there, their horses saddled and ready, and Rochelle, wearing her work clothes, her hair tied up and a mean-looking knife strapped to her thigh. He’d tried to discourage her when she insisted on coming but she’d shaken her head adamantly.
“He took my brother. You expect me to sit here and trust that you assholes will bring him back to me?”
“I won’t let anything happen to him, Rochelle, I swear it—“
“You already have! Fuck you. All of you. I won’t lose him. Not until he walks away on his own two feet. I’m tired of being left in the dark. I’m coming with.”
When they reach Willem’s the sun is already high in the sky, obscured by clouds, and their shadows have gone short. Harry stands at the apex of the small hill to the west of Willem’s shed. There are dark clouds gathering at the horizon, headed their way.
Louis stands just to his right, watching Willem and the rest of them load the wagon. The smell is overwhelming, even out here in the open air.
Louis grimaces and shakes his head. “We’re pushing it, Harry.”
“We can make it. We’ve got time. It’s three hours to where they sleep…or nest or whatever. A little longer with the wagon. We’ll get there, we’ll fight our way in and then we’ll have daylight left to set the charges.” His guts twist strangely and he doubles over despite himself, retching dryly at the ground.
Come and find me.
“Jesus, Harry.” Louis is pressing a hand to the back of his neck, worrying at him. “You’re not well.”
He spits and stands up, his head spinning. “I’ll be fine. It’s just my head. The concussion. I’ve had worse. It’ll pass.”
“Have you eaten?”
“I told you I’ll be alright.”
Louis won’t stop looking at him. It’s like he’s trying to puzzle Harry out. “Harry listen…what we said, what we decided. It’s not like…final. When this is done, when we’ve seen it through…”
Harry just nods and wraps his coat around him. He doesn’t want to hear what Louis’ saying. Not now. He reaches for the gun at his side and feels the jarring, sickening fact of its absence wash over him for what seems like the hundredth time since he came to. He looks up then and catches sight of Willem. Rochelle is standing just to his right and giving him an earful it looks like, berating him for something, for any number of things. He deserves it probably. They all deserve it. But Willem isn’t watching her. He’s looking right back at Harry, his face dark and his eyes sharp and strange, like there’s something brewing there, a question that needs asking. Harry looks away. He stumbles back, shaking his head, his palms clammy and cold, and then he turns and heads down the hill. Louis calls after him.
“Where are you going?”
Harry doesn’t turn around.
Come and find me.
“I’ve got to go ahead. I’ll be quicker alone and they’ll be expecting me to come after him.”
“It’s alright. I’ve got to get him out, Louis, before it…” He waves Louis off, hurrying away toward the horses just as the first few drops of rain fall, hitting the dusty ground and filling the air with the scent of petrichor. “I’ve got to go and find him.”
The horse is unsettled when he mounts her. She whinnies uncomfortably and he spends a moment wrestling with her, tugging and the reins and trying to calm her down. When she finally acquiesces they head northeast toward the salt mines, toward the whispering in the back of his mind, urging him forward.
“I’m coming, okay? Christ. Just hold tight.”
The journey is halting and fraught. The horse won’t settle and Harry’s stomach twists violently, his head a mess of pressure and an ache that won’t let up. He wonders if the fever will break or if it’ll just burn indefinitely, on and on until it burns him right up. The rain is steady and light and cool on his face but it’s not enough to calm the heat moving through him. Rochelle was right maybe: he’s taken too hard a hit. He shouldn’t be pushing like this but he’s got no choice. Their time is running out.
The rest of them can’t be far behind. He’s not that much quicker after all, but it’s something. Enough time to find him. To get Niall to safety. That’s what matters now. The rest of it is mutable.
Come and find me.
It’s louder now, like a beacon showing him the way, drawing him in. He’s getting close.
He crosses paths with the first of them about quarter mile out, passing through a narrow ravine that leads to the valley. She’s perched on a boulder just to the right of the path and watching his approach, her hair limp and wet with rain. He reaches for the knife in his boot and steels himself for a fight, for a challenge, for an attack, from her or from some unseen other and then he kicks at the horse and presses forward. He keeps his eyes on her. Doesn’t look away. She’s not young but not old either. His mother’s age maybe, or her age when Harry last saw her. She’s wearing a pair of worn jeans and hand knit jumper matted with dirt and she sits very still with her legs crossed in front of her.
He thinks it must be a trick, her casual comportment, the way she seems not to give a damn, but he rides forward until she’s right beside him and his fingers tighten on the hilt of the knife and then…she smiles—soft and small—and nods, as if they’re two travelers well-met on a path well-traveled.
“Long days and pleasant nights.” She laughs like it’s a joke, high and melodious. “Not too long though. I hope.”
Harry doesn’t answer. He doesn’t let up off the knife. He just watches her as he passes by and then when he can’t watch her any longer, he turns and looks forward toward the valley. Toward the opening in the earth, the tunnel that leads down and down indefinitely, toward whatever waits for him down below.
Come and find me.
He passes two more, further away than the first, spots them in the distance watching him. One of them is older, pushing fifty maybe, his hair shot with grey, and one is just a boy, so young it tugs at something in Harry’s middle, delivers a sickening dread that mixes with the nausea of his physical condition and sends him slumping forward in the saddle, his head swimming. When he looks up again the boy is waving.
He leaves the horse just outside the entrance to the mine, untethered, and watches her wander away nervously. He’s sorry to leave her, sorry to have brought her at all, but it can’t be helped.
The ground is wet now. The sparse spotted quality of a new rain has given way to a uniform dampness that’s giving off a peaty green smell, greener than Harry would ever have expected from this place, but the world’s full of surprises. He brushes water off of his hat and then takes it off entirely…tosses it on the ground just inside the opening to the mine and makes his way down the sloping corridor toward whatever comes next. He presses a hand to his gut in an effort to calm the nausea still threatening to incapacitate him.
The light from the surface lasts about ten minutes, give or take, a soft grey glow that recedes as he presses forward, leaving just the light of the mine itself, an ambient greenish pallor that just illuminates the path ahead of him: the rough and curve of the walls, pitted cement and cracked dirt and then salt. Salt packed solid, carved out over centuries. The aching in his head has eased off a bit at least. It’s better here underground, out of the glaring light of day.
Come and find me.
It’s so loud now it threatens to knock him to his knees and it’s got a sort of backing track: a warm encompassing hum that pulls him forward, guides him down what he hopes is the right path when the corridor splits in two, then in two again. It’s been nearly half an hour, he thinks. Half an hour of quiet, halting progress and then he starts to see them: bodies lining the edges of the corridor, laid out on mats of cloth and rags. They’re unmoving—still as death—but he understands that it’s an illusion. That in an hour or so they’ll come to life. They’ll quicken and wake and make their way en masse to the surface. Harry looks up at the ceiling, worrying at his lip. They should be there by now, the rest of them. They should be there, up above, which means they’ll be fighting. They’ll be at odds with every one of the folks he saw on the way in: the damp haired woman who greeted him as he passed. The old man, the young boy. He shakes his head and steadies himself on the wall. No…not a boy. Something else. Something inhuman now. Beyond saving.
His stomach twists again and he feels the heat flare in his throat, up to his cheeks. He’s thirsty, he realizes. He tries to remember when he last drank water. He hasn’t eaten since last night, there on the bed with Niall, and not much then. There was so much to distract him, the press of Niall’s lips to his throat, the redness in his cheeks and the rough quality of his breath, the thin bits at his wrists where you could see his pulse, just there under the skin, beating like a drum.
Harry shakes his head. He presses on. Niall. He’s got to find Niall. Get him out. Get him clear of here before it happens.
He wishes he could hear them, know that they’re pushing through, that they’re winning, but there’s nothing but silence, the calling in the back of his mind, and then—
He breathes out sharply, overcome by a mixture of nausea and relief.
I’m coming. I’m nearly there.
He can feel it now, the warm hum sharpening to something particularly Niall and guiding him forward, deep into the mine.
Harry finds him in a chamber of sorts, about five more minutes in. He finds Niall with his hands and feet bound, laid on his side near the back wall with his eyes shut tight. He looks bruised, like he’s been knocked around. His pack is lying just to his left, turned out and rifled through, and Harry hurries to it, gathering Niall’s things. Clothes, a utility knife, an assortment of strange items he must have taken off the shelf in his room: magazine clippings, the pen, something that looks like a clover, enameled and green and hanging by a chain from a small metal loop. Harry digs in the pack, searching for the shape of Zayn’s gun. Comes up empty.
He scoots along the floor over to Niall’s prone body and slips the knife out of his boot. He works the blade carefully, cutting into the binds at Niall’s wrists, holding him still and pressing a thumb to the skin there. It’s so fragile. He could cut it open so easily and then there would be blood. Blood flowing like a dam breaking, running everywhere.
His fever flares, setting him to a strange shuddering, but he focuses on the task at hand, on not hurting him. Then he sets to work on the ankles.
“I’m here. I’ve got you.”
“I can’t see anything.”
“It’s alright, I’ll show you the way. I’ll get you out.”
“We’ve got to hurry. We’ll wake them.”
Harry cuts through the last of the rope around Niall’s ankles and pulls him upright. He looks back over his shoulder across the room and he can just make out a bed in the corner, the shape of a man lying in repose, dead to the world. There’s a roaring in Harry’s head like a rushing tide, threatening to wash him away, threatening to make him forget himself.
“It’s okay, we’ve got time. They’re up there setting it in place.“
He sees it then: a gleaming from under the bed, silver and shining and familiar. His gun. He leaves Niall at the edge of the room and crawls toward the bed.
“It’s okay, I’ve just got to get my gun. I’ve got to…” He reaches the edge of the bed and leans down, pressing his face to the pitted concrete of the floor. He can see it there just at arm’s length. He reaches out with one arm, can just brush it with the tip of his fingers.
“Harry, we’ve got to go. Have you got it?—“
“Nearly. I’ve almost got it.”
He reaches one last time, shoves his whole arm forward and feels his hand close over the grip just as his shoulder contacts the frame of the bed, a jarring impact that shakes the mattress. He pulls the gun to him and scuttles away toward Niall, pulling him up off the ground, a little too rough maybe, but they’ve got to go.
Niall presses against his side, pawing at his chest, his throat, feeling for Harry’s face. “It’s pitch black in here, I can’t see anything.”
“Just hold onto me, I know the way.”
“Jesus, your hands. You’re burning up, Harry.”
“It’s fine, I got knocked around some. It’ll pass.”
He pulls Niall out the door, ignoring a restless rattling from the bed frame, the rustle of shifting cloth.
He’s quicker on the way up. He holsters his gun and takes Niall by the hand and leads him upward, twisting through maze-like corridors, passing body after body illuminated in the greenish light of the tunnel. The nausea is letting up, he thinks, the discomfort is waning. He still feels the rushing in his head, the tide-like pulling at his consciousness, but not so much pain now, just a dull steady throb.
“He took me to the thinny. Made me—“ Niall sounds exhausted, haunted. “I tried to stall, to kill time, but he understood what I was doing…”
“Are you badly hurt?” He tugs Niall close, guiding him through the tunnel. Presses at his arms, at his throat, feels for damage. His face looks strange and shaded, an ugly cut and a bluish purple bruise marring the line of his cheekbone.
Niall shakes his head. “Nothing that won’t heal. And it worked anyway, there wasn’t time. He hasn’t brought them through yet. We can still—“
“Good. That’s good.”
The greenish glow of the tunnel resolves into the faint grey of daylight and Harry can hear it now: pounding footsteps, the sound of something being dragged across the ground. He wonders what it is, if it’s the canisters being tugged along the earth into place or if it’s bodies. Both maybe. He hears shouting but it’s not frantic or panicked, just run through with urgency, and he can smell the acrid waft of gasoline fumes. They’ve done it then, they’re setting it in place. He hurries forward and feels Niall lose his footing momentarily, nearly slipping away out of Harry’s grasp.
“Jesus…Is the ground wet?”
Harry shakes his head, confused, and pulls Niall upright before crouching down and pressing a hand to the floor of the tunnel. He can feel it, a wetness, a rivulet of water flowing back down the path into the mine. “The rain…it was raining when I—”
“We’ve got to hurry.”
“I know, I’m—“
“The rain makes everything more difficult.”
They round a bend in the tunnel and come upon it roughly thirty yards in from the opening, just as they’d planned. Willem and Liam are dragging the last few canisters into place and Rochelle is just behind them, handing the bundled fuse off to Louis. It’s Rochelle who catches sight of them first. She shoves the fuse unceremoniously toward Louis, nearly knocking him off balance, and runs toward them down the corridor. When she reaches them she throws her arms around Niall, squeezing him so tightly all the air is forced out of him in one sharp exhale.
“Roch, let up, I’m f—”
“You are in so much trouble!” She pulls back, her expression frantic, and paws at his face, cataloging his bruises with her fingertips. “What has he done to you?” Harry can see a shallow cut just over her eye, seeping blood and half-congealed. He looks away, back up the tunnel toward the entrance. Louis is just staring at them, his hands tight around the bundled fuse.
“I’m fine, just got knocked in the head a bit.” Niall bats her hands away and then it’s his turn to worry at her, tilting her head to get a good look at her face. “What happened?”
“I fought the motherfuckers holding you here, what do you think happened, you idiot?” She shoves at him, frustrated. “I can’t believe you left me out of it. That you didn’t trust me!”
“It’s not like that, Roch…” Harry heads up the tunnel, lets them work through it. Niall’s voice recedes behind him.
“Is it in place?”
Louis nods but he looks hesitant. Uncertain. “Yeah, it’s set. Harry, are you…you still look—“
“I’m fine. Let’s just get it done.”
Louis nods again and then moves to join Willem at the pile of canisters. Harry watches him go and notices a strange hitch in his step, the dark stain of blood at his thigh, soaking through his trousers. Willem’s got the top of a gas can opened up and he helps Louis feed the end of the fuse in, soaking it thoroughly. The air is filled with the scent of old gasoline, the coppery tang of blood, sour sweat and rainwater. Harry rubs at his nose with the sleeve of his coat, trying to block out the smell. He looks down and sees water running around his boots, flowing along the floor toward the bend in the tunnel.
“Will it work? All the rain…”
Willem glances at him then and Harry sees something in his eyes: a dark certainty, but not the sort that’s a comfort.
They retreat, moving back up the tunnel toward the surface, and the sound of the rain intensifies. When they reach the opening the light hits Harry hard, blinding him momentarily before his vision resolves. He catches sight of Leigh-Anne and Perrie crouched at the base of the jagged bluff to their left, tending to what looks like Jade. She’s leaned up against the rocks, breathing hard and bloodied but smiling like she’s not bothered. Like everything will be alright. Harry would like to think that’s true, that the worst is over. He scans the ground and sees the shape of a body lying face down on the ground. Not one of theirs, thankfully. One of the others.
He feels a hand close over his shoulder.
“Are you alright?” Liam pulls him into a one-armed hug, warm and tight and encompassing, and Harry can smell the blood on him. Can feel the shaky quality of his composure. He pulls away and looks Liam in the face, surveying the damage. Liam’s pressing a bit of cloth to a wound at his throat with one hand and there’s blood seeping through his fingers. Harry reaches up and touches the line of his jaw. Tilts his head to one side.
He laughs in a good-natured way that should sound strained or unnatural but is just…thoroughly Liam. So Liam it makes Harry’s heart ache. “They bite. Hard. The little one, he came at me quick and I…couldn’t make myself—“
“It’s alright, Liam, they’re not human. Not anymore.”
“But they look it, you know? If it wasn’t for Leigh-Anne. She saw him come at me. Put an arrow through him.”
He pulls Liam close again. Holds him tightly, just for a moment more. “I’m glad. I just…I’m glad you’re alright. You did good.”
“Did you get him out?”
Harry nods into Liam’s shoulder. “Yeah. I got him.”
There’s a commotion from the entrance to the mine. Louis’ voice, calling to the others. “We’re set! Leigh-Anne, Perrie…take Jade and Liam and get them clear. Rochelle, go with them. The rest of us will follow.”
They move, Leigh-Anne and Perrie helping the others onto their horses. Harry holds onto Liam’s hand as he gets settled on the back of Perrie’s horse.
“I’ll see you in a bit, alright?”
“Don’t be long.” Liam’s voice is run through with worry. “Get them clear, okay? Before it—“
“I promise. Liam…”
“I love you, okay?”
He doesn’t say anything for a moment, he just squeezes Harry’s hand and then lets it go. “Okay. Hurry.”
They ride south, back toward town. Toward safety. Harry watches them go and tries to ignore the ugly sinking in the pit of his stomach, the creeping dread he’s been trying to shake since he woke up in Rochelle’s kitchen, sickly and sore. He turns back and joins the others at the mouth of the tunnel. Louis is digging in his pack and as Harry approaches he comes up with a flare, faded and stained and old but still workable. He hands it up to Willem.
The rain falls hard. The ground feels spongy and strange and Willem cracks the top off the flare. It explodes with a violent light, shining and spitting sparks in the wet air, and Niall comes up on Harry’s right. Takes his hand.
“This is it. We’ve done it.”
Harry squeezes his hand, holds it tight. “Yeah.”
Willem picks the end of the fuse off the ground and holds it to the flame and they watch it catch fire, bright and orange and robust, and then they watch the flame move down the length of the cottony weave, down toward the blackness of the tunnel, toward the accumulated fuel they’ve amassed there.
Niall pulls him close. Harry can feel the pulse of his heartbeat in his palm, can sense the hopeful anxiety buzzing in his mind. Willem and Louis turn tail and run away from the tunnel, back toward Harry and Niall, toward safety. It’s nearly time. Nearly done.
The flame burns out.
Harry doesn’t move. He just watches it shrink and struggle and then fizzle unceremoniously, leaving nothing but the wet and the rain. Niall is shaking his head.
“No. That’s not…”
Harry doesn’t speak. Willem and Louis must see it in their faces because they stop running and their shoulders sag like they already know. That they don’t need to turn and see. Harry thinks they all knew what was coming, really, but Niall shakes his head like he could deny it. Like he could refuse the fact of the thing.
“This isn’t how it was supposed to go…fuck. FUCK.” His voice is frantic.
“Niall, it’s okay. We’ll—”
“It’s not okay, Harry. It was meant to work. This wasn’t how it was meant to go, we were meant to get through it.”
Louis and Willem approach them, their faces grim. Harry can’t look them in the eye. He glances up and sees Rover winging through the wet air above them.
“It’s the rain.” Willem shakes his head. “I had hoped it wouldn’t—”
“Harry, give me your gun.”
Harry looks over at Niall, bewildered. “What? No.”
“Give me your gun, Harry. I can still finish it. I can make it right. If I put a bullet in it, right in the center, it should—”
Harry recoils. He presses a hand to his holster reflexively. “No! Niall, that’s not—”
“Harry, you have to let me do this!” His voice cracks and Harry’s struck suddenly by how young he is. How young they all are. He’s right maybe. It is unfair. “You have to let me fix it. It’s my mistake. If I hadn’t let him through…if it wasn’t for me, he would never have—”
Louis is shaking his head. “There’s got to be something we can do—”
Niall reaches out once more. Fumbles at Harry’s coat. “Give me your gun Harry.”
“No.” The dread is eating at him, spreading outward from his middle like poison. Consuming him. Becoming nauseous certainty. Something in Niall’s words is pressing at the edges of his awareness…if it wasn’t for me, if I hadn’t let him through…the idea of a river that diverges, how fate can turn on a dime. He understands suddenly, so clearly, how this is meant to go. How it’s got to be.
“No.” He shakes his head adamantly. “I’ll go.”
“What?!” Louis sounds on the verge of losing his cool. “Harry, there’s no way in HELL. You can’t—”
“It’s already too late. It’s alright, Louis. It was always going to be me.”
“You’re not making any sense,” Louis insists. Harry thinks he might be crying, but he can’t tell for sure. It’s getting lost in all the rain. “You’re sick and you’re not thinking straight—Harry, you’ll die. There’s no way you’ll make it out—”
“He’s right.” Willem’s voice is so calm and final it shuts them all up for a moment, and for a moment there’s nothing but the sound of the rain pounding on the rocks around them. “It’s got to be him.”
“Willem, what…” Niall sounds uncertain now, sick with apprehension.
Harry tugs at the scarf wrapped around his neck and feels the heat of his own skin on the back of his hand. He pulls the sodden collar of his jacket and his shirt aside so they can see it. He doesn’t know how it looks, hasn’t had a chance to see it in a mirror since he woke up, but it must look as ugly as it feels because they recoil with something like horror. Even Willem, who already knew. Who knew—impossibly—the moment he caught sight of Harry. Who could sense it maybe: Winston’s blood working its way through Harry’s veins, consuming him from the inside out.
“I’m already finished, Niall. Do you see? It’s got to be me.”
Niall is shaking his head like he doesn’t want to believe it, like he could reject the simple truth of it. Louis just stands there, stock-still and grief-stricken like he understands completely. He steps forward and pulls Harry into a hug, pressing his face into the curve of Harry’s throat, and he smells like smoke and sweat and like coursing blood and Harry is hungry. He wants to pull away, to get as far away from them as he can. He wants to tug them close, to consume them. He pushes Louis off of him.
“Go. Go back to town. I’ll finish it. Take care of Liam, okay?”
Louis sets his jaw. “I always do.”
“You’ll be alright, the two of you. I know it.”
Willem tugs at Louis’ sleeve, leading him back toward the horses. “We’ve got to go. The sun will set soon. It’s got to be now…”
Louis swallows and nods. He smiles tightly at Harry as he lets himself be moved, lets Willem lead him away. When he speaks again, his voice is sad.
“You’ll do fine, Harry. You’ve always been quick and you always stand true. Swift as Gan, right?”
“Yeah,” Harry says. “Right.”
Then he turns away and Harry can’t see his face anymore, just the back of him moving away toward the horses and Rover spinning and turning above his head.
“This is all wrong.” Niall’s voice is insistent, full of vehemence that verges on anger. “This isn’t how it’s meant to go. It was going to work, we were all going to come out okay. I felt it.”
Harry turns and drags him into a hug. Holds him tightly and tries to ignore and also memorize the particular scent of him, the way it clouds his judgement and makes his mouth water. Niall has such a sweetness to him, like honey warmed by sunlight.
“It’ll be okay, Niall. This is right. I think maybe this was always how it was going to go. You’ve got to let me do this, okay?”
“It doesn’t make sense.”
“It does. You’ve got to let me fix your mistake so you can go and fix mine.”
Niall goes still in his arms. “What are you talking about?”
“Reconciliation. For all five of us.” He presses Niall away and holds him at arm’s length. Looks him in the eye. “I screwed up…pushed them away and made an ungodly mess…and I’m sorry, but I’m asking you to fix that. You’re the only one who can now.”
Niall shakes his head, his eyes wet with tears. Harry can sense the desperation coming off of him in waves. “How?? How am I meant to fix it? Without you what’s there to fix? I can’t lose you now, I’ve only just found you.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. I know it’s asking too much of you but you’ve got to go and do it again.”
Niall doesn’t answer. He looks shocked into silence but Harry thinks he must understand. Harry pulls him in and kisses him. He tastes the sweetness of Niall’s mouth and the chill of the rain on his lips and it feels like he’s cementing something, making a sort of oath.
“Let me do this, okay? I love you. I’ve got to believe I love you this much in every possible world. Let me save you in this one…and then you go and save me.”
The quiet is jarring when he steps back into the tunnel, out of the rain and the grey light of the sinking sun. He can smell the fumes and the wet dirt and something else, deeper and muskier: the scent of bodies lying dormant, familiar to him, calling him to join them, to lay his head down and sleep just for now. He unholsters his gun. He holds it in one hand and makes his way deeper in, toward the pile of canisters, toward the end. Some kind of end, anyway. Maybe this was where he was headed all along. He reaches into his coat pocket and presses a finger to the bullet nested there.
“There you are.”
He’s leaned up against the tunnel wall just past the blockage, in the shadows where the light from the surface can’t quite reach. Waiting.
“I figured you’d come back.” Winston presses himself upright, a little sluggish and slow like he’s battling an unnatural lethargy. It’s early still maybe, he shouldn’t be awake yet. “Figured actually that you wouldn’t make it back out, what with my blood working in you, drawing you here. But seems you’re full of surprises.”
Harry is exhausted. He’d like to stop struggling so much, to stop fighting for just a moment. He’d like to rest, so he does. He sinks to the ground and kneels there, holding his gun in his lap. He pops the cylinder and spins it, checks that it’s loaded and snaps it back into place. Winston just watches him.
“It’s inconvenient, you pulling him out of here, but it’s nothing that can’t be put right once the sun sets. You’ll help me, won’t you? Look at you.” He crouches down then, meets Harry at his level and looks him in the eye. “I’ve never seen anyone quite like you, kid. I could smell it on you the minute you walked into town. You’re a killer…it’s like you’re born for it. I can’t even imagine what’s inside you. What sort of potential…”
Harry grimaces down at the ground. He’s not listening. He doesn’t want to hear any of it. He breathes in and out, sharp and ragged and strained, and he pulls the hammer back. Listens to the cylinder click into place. Lifts the gun and points it at the pile of canisters, dead center.
Winston laughs and shakes his head. “You don’t want to go and do that.”
The words work into him, call to something in his blood. Harry lets the gun drop.
“We weren’t finished talking.”
He takes a deliberate breath and lifts the gun again, aims it dead center and presses his finger to the trigger. He imagines its long slow pull but he can’t translate the thought into action. There’s something working against him.
“Come on now. Stop it.”
He drops the gun again like he’s possessed, like he can’t access his own will. He lets it rest in his lap. He’d like to swear, to cry out in frustration, but he keeps quiet. He won’t give Winston the satisfaction.
“You know I’m not gonna let you do that, kid, so why don’t you quit trying and we’ll talk this through?”
Harry shakes his head. He lifts the gun again and this time he swings it wide, aims it square at Winston’s heart.
Winston shrugs and smiles. “You know that won’t do you any good. But go on. If it’ll make you feel better, go ahead. Don’t reckon there’s enough fumes in here to set it off without a direct hit, and if you’re looking for some catharsis…”
Harry drops the gun once more.
“Like I said, it doesn’t have to be this way, the two of us set at odds. We’re both just trying to survive out here, aren’t we? Trying to get by. I think we could learn to get along. Could do incredible things together. Me and you and the kid up there. You love him, don’t you?”
Harry raises his head and looks him hard in the eye, then away. He tries his best to tune him out. Looks at his gun and pops the cylinder one more time. He reaches into his pocket with the other hand and feels for the curve of the bullet there. Holds it between his finger and thumb and studies its shape.
“I thought so. We’ll keep him, you know. You don’t have to lose him. I see that he’s special, that he’s a thing to be treasured. I can promise you he’ll be alright…if that’s what you want. You’re not in the position to be asking things of me I know, you’re all but under my thumb, but I want you to know that’s not how I’d like it to be. I’d like to work with you, not against you. I’d like to come at this like men…because I see something in you. Something that burns so bright it’s blinding. And here you are prepared to throw it all away.” He shakes his head ruefully. “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. Seems like that would be a mighty big mistake. Seems like an unforgivable waste.”
He thinks of Cort that night in the dorms. The jagged edge of his voice. The contempt informing every word.
It was stupid and a waste.
He thinks of Niall at his back, holding him tightly. BANG…you do or you don’t. There’s nothing in between. He tugs the bullet out of his pocket and holds it in his hand. Thinks of his mother spinning it on the surface of the table, the worry in her eyes. Her hand holding onto his. The weight of her words.
Sometimes to set things right you’ve got to take a lot more pain. Sometimes fixing a thing hurts even worse than the breaking.
He closes his fist tightly around the shell. Digs his nail into the flesh of his own palm and shuts his eyes and imagines it: everything he’s been pressing downward and tucking away. All the weakness inside of him. Every bit of vulnerability. Every ounce of love he holds in his heart, because what’s faith if not love in sharp focus? Love applied with singular trust? He holds the bullet and thinks of Niall. Thinks of his mother giving every bit of herself, whittling away at her own heart. Thinks of Louis and Liam and Zayn, how badly he wants to care for them, to keep them safe. And he thinks of Harry. A different Harry but the same, living and breathing and making the same stupid mistakes in a world where nothing’s really changed but everything is different. A world without a Niall, one that’s got a space for him. He’s got to believe it’s out there, that Niall can find it and that they’ll all be okay. He imagines a river split in two. A river that bends back on itself. A river diverted by the roots of a tree, a new path carved by their love. Then he opens his fist and breathes out slowly and slides the bullet into the chamber. Presses the cylinder back into place.
This is a piece of you, Harry. A bit of your soul…
He lifts the revolver and aims it at the canisters and he hears Winston sigh heavily, like he’s growing weary of Harry’s defiance.
“I told you kid, I won’t let you do that.”
Harry swallows thickly and drops the gun. When he opens his mouth to speak his throat feels ragged and rough, dried out by fever.
“What was that?”
“It’s not a waste.”
“Kid, I don’t know what you’re—“
“It’s a sacrifice.”
He lifts the gun again, swift and sure, and aims it right at Winston’s heart. For a moment everything goes silent and still and he can see Winston’s expression shift from impatient frustration to something more wary, something more like alarm. Winston opens his mouth and says something that sounds like “what did you—“ just as Harry pulls the trigger, hard and fast and final.
The barrel of the gun explodes, impossibly loud in the dark of the tunnel, and Harry feels the kick of it against his palm, violent and bruising. The bullet hits Winston square in the chest and sends him stumbling back. It’s a clean shot, straight to the heart. There’s an acrid burning smell, smoke from the barrel of the gun and smoke from the hole in Winston’s chest and then he’s screaming, a loud animal cry, inhuman in its wild rage. He falls to the ground, writhing and clutching at his heart, and Harry scrambles back, shocked at the violence of his reaction. It’s like Winston’s being burned up from the inside, hollowed out and corroded. Eaten away.
It won’t kill him, Harry thinks. It’s not nearly enough to finish him but it’s enough for now. He can feel it already, Winston’s influence receding, his grip on Harry’s will loosening. He works quickly, blocking out the screams and narrowing his focus. He breathes in deeply, even and measured, pulls the hammer back once more, hears the cylinder click into place and his own voice, barely more than a whisper.
“I kill with my heart.”
He raises the gun one last time and aims it dead at the center of the canisters. Then he pulls the trigger.
There’s a roar and a blinding flash and the world is torn apart at the seams.
He lets the maul drop to the earth with a heavy thud and leans it against the block. He’s broken a sweat and for a moment there’s something more in it, something in the heat gathering at his middle. Something clawing at the back of his throat. A feeling of restriction, of being trapped. A terrible sense of doom. Everything’s hot and claustrophobic suddenly like he’s being crushed, like he’s burning up. He tugs at his jacket and throws it over the fence and the night air is so cold on the bare skin of his arms that he’s wracked with shivers.
Harry shakes his head dismissively. “I’m fine. Just…goose walked over my grave maybe.” He walks back to the block and glances over at her. “Are you going to sit there all night watching me chop wood?”
“Just enjoying the view.” She pops a slice of dried apple in her mouth and chews, watching him silently. Then she tilts her head and frowns like she’s not happy with what she’s about to say. “You’ll want to travel by night and keep yourselves safe in the day. Close ranks and keep watch. Harriers work in daylight and it’s them you’ll want to be worried about. Things that come out at night aren’t much to be concerned about. Not for your sort.”
Harry just nods and picks the maul off the ground. He lifts it once more and takes a swing at the round. It sinks in, but just barely. He can feel the knot at the center working against him. He presses his boot to the edge of the round and uses it as leverage, wiggles the maul until it comes free.
“Jesy’s asked me to offer you a couple more nights. Says she thinks you might have some things to talk over. Things that aren’t being said.”
Harry shakes his head. He lifts the maul and takes another swing. Nothing.
“We don’t owe you an explanation—“
“I meant amongst yourselves. I may not have Jesy’s touch or her spooky cards but I can sure as hell pick up a vibe. Could drown an ox with the weight of all you’re not saying.”
He opens his mouth to answer, to give her a piece of his mind, but he sees her sit up, go strange and alert. She’s looking past him out into the dark.
Harry shakes his head. “Well what?”
He turns and follows her gaze and he can just make out a shape in the moonlight: a horse moving over the crest of the hill. Two riders.
His heart turns over in his chest, fluttering like the wings of a bird, and for a moment he’s sick with it, with a desperate hope that comes upon him like a wave, threatens to wash him away.
“Looks like you’re being followed, kid.”
She whistles, loud and clear in the night air, and Harry hears a rustling from inside the cabin. The door opens and Leigh-Anne comes out, her crossbow dangling from one hand and her comportment deceptively casual. She glances at Perrie and then across toward the crest of the hill where the horse and riders are making their way down the path.
Perrie shakes her head. “Nah. Just a couple more strays I think. We’ll want to heat up more stew.”
Louis and Liam come out of the cabin just as the horse moves past the fence and the moonlight strikes the first rider’s face—Zayn’s face, soft and uncertain and wary in the moonlight. He tugs the horse to a stop and watches Harry as he slides down off her back. He looks exhausted, like he’s not slept, like he might fall right over. Harry wants to say something: his name, a hello…anything, but he feels frozen in place. There’s too much, a thousand questions piled up at the back of his throat and threatening to choke him. He doesn’t know what to say so he just stares. He watches Louis rush up to Zayn and nearly crush him, hugging him so tightly Harry worries he might break.
“What the fuck were you thinking, you idiot? Rover’s been such an asshole! We didn’t know where you’d gone!”
“I’m sorry…I had to—”
Liam’s there now, reaching out to him, cupping the side of his face, squeezing his arms like he’s checking for damage or making sure he’s real maybe. “It’s alright, you’re back now. We’ll figure it out, okay?” He looks over at Harry then like he’s asking a question. “We’ll talk it through. All of it.”
Harry just nods. Rover flies overhead making an ungodly racket and Leigh-Anne makes a sour face. She aims her crossbow up into the dark.
“Can someone shut that thing up before I make it food?”
“Sorry,” Louis presses at Zayn, steers him toward the house. “Rover! Shut your face, he’s fine!”
They move toward the house and Zayn’s horse wanders left, over toward the others, and then Harry sees him: a boy…or a man rather, standing there in the moonlight. He’s slight, thin and wiry but broad in the shoulders, sandy-looking and fair and uncertain. Harry watches him and he’s overcome by an inexplicable rush of feeling: like the corrosive grief that comes with a loss but run through with a sense of relief so powerful it threatens to knock him back on his ass. The boy watches them move toward the house and then he turns and watches Harry and Harry’s mind goes strange, like he’s looking into a thinny.
“Hey.” The boy waves and it’s awkward and uncertain. He approaches, his gait a little funny and lopsided, and as he gets closer Harry sees that he’s had a beating: he’s got an ugly cut along one cheekbone, the bruising left by a vicious fist.
Harry doesn’t know what to say. Hello? Thank you? Where have you been? He doesn’t know what’s right but he can’t shake this strange sense of familiarity so he just says:
“Have we met before?”
The boy laughs and it sounds like a sob, like he’s been crying, like he’s about to start crying again, and he says, “No…not us. Not really.”
Harry reaches out without thinking and presses a finger to the boy’s face, to the purpling of the bruise, and the boy flinches a little but lets him. Leans into his touch.
“Who did that to you?”
“Ha. That’s the first thing he said as well.” He angles his head toward the cabin, toward Zayn, and his voice goes soft like it’s not meant for Harry at all. “The two of you are so alike. I never would’ve…” He shakes his head and fingers the bruise at his cheek. “Anyway, it was no one. Literally no one. It doesn’t matter anymore. Not here.”
“What’s your name?”
“Niall.” He says it and it dawns on his that this is his first time saying it. The first time he’s made the shape of it with his mouth. It feels significant somehow. “I’m Harry.”
“What are you doing with him? With Zayn?”
“He’s the one who brought me here.”
It’s not an answer. It’s a near meaningless thing to say. Of course Zayn’s the one who’s brought him. But there’s something in the way he says it that makes it sound like more, that makes Harry feel like he’s missed something important.
“But why are you here?”
Niall shrugs and pulls on Harry’s sleeve, leading him back toward the house. He retrieves Harry’s coat off the fence as they pass and it’s all so familiar it makes Harry’s heart ache.
“Just keeping a promise to a friend.”
Harry lets himself be led, lets himself be soft for once in his life, and they go inside to join the others. Five of them moving along the same path just for now.