Harry faithfully continued marking off the passing days, counting the scratches he'd made on the cliff and starting a new tally up near the cave. With no artificial timetable though, no appointments or holidays or imposed deadlines, time lost most of its meaning and the days gradually blurred into each other.
Other than sunrise and sunset, or the waxing and waning of the moon, they came to mark the passage of time by reference to events - the day the turtles came to the beach, the day they found a grove of banana palms in fruit, the night they saw a shower of meteors.
They talked less, these days, about the possibility of rescue, or of going home. No-one liked to say it aloud, but in their hearts they'd given up hope of ever being found, and to think too much of those left behind was painful. They had each other, and mostly that was enough.
By Harry's tally, they'd been there for almost a year.
Arguments came and went, much as they had before, but never lasted. They learned to share each other, and that helped too, sharing the burden of existence whenever things got too much for anyone. For the most part they kept cheerful, but there were times too when they were hungry, or cold, or just overwhelmed by the isolation. Those were the times they were truly grateful for the others' presence. A warm pair of arms and an unconditional hug went a long way to softening the occasional bleakness of outlook.
They still maintained the beacon, adding branches now and then, as bits were swept away by the wind. Lookout duty was rarely kept any more, but to do away with the fire itself felt too much like a final surrender.
It was Liam, who first noticed that Harry was having dizzy spells.
He'd been following Harry at a distance through the trees, having come out on the path some way behind him, too hot and tired to try and catch up. They'd both been making for the cave, Liam with a morning's catch of fish slung over his shoulder. Humming to himself, not really paying attention, Liam had rounded a corner and been surprised to find Harry bent half double, leaning against a rock for support.
"Oh come on, even I can get all the way up without stopping for breath," Liam teased. Harry managed a weak smile, and it was only then that Liam noticed the fruit scattered across the path where Harry had apparently dropped it.
"Harry? You okay?" Liam came closer, abruptly concerned.
"Yeah." Harry licked dry lips, forced himself to straighten up. Liam noticed he was pale, under his tan. "I'm fine. Just - tripped, that's all."
Liam frowned, but took him at his word, helping Harry gather up the spilled fruit and walking at his side the rest of the way.
Without really consciously thinking about it, Liam found himself keeping an eye on Harry. Maybe it was this that made him linger on the beach a few days later, waiting for Harry to dress.
They'd all been swimming - Zayn by now able to swim as well as the rest, and finding that the exercise helped strengthen his leg without making it ache. He'd fashioned a makeshift crutch to help him get around on land, and Louis had taken to calling him Long John Silver - although only when out of crutch-swiping range.
Zayn, Louis and Niall had started off across the sand to where they'd made a fire, intending to barbeque fish for lunch. Liam had hung back, waiting for Harry who was taking ages as usual, and thus witnessed the moment when Harry suddenly swayed drunkenly and would have fallen if Liam hadn't jumped forward to catch him.
Liam lowered him gently to the sand. "Harry? What is it? Are you alright?"
"I'm fine." Harry clutched at Liam's arm, looking disoriented and anything but fine. "Gimme a minute. It'll pass."
"What'll pass?" Liam demanded, considerably alarmed, but Harry didn't reply. All Liam could do was hold him close, wondering whether to yell for the others. Eventually Harry sat up, the colour slowly returning to his face.
"Thanks. Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you," he muttered.
"Harry? Has this been - happening a lot?"
Harry shook his head in instinctive denial, but Liam stared at him and he sighed. "Every couple of days or so. Sometimes it's worse than others."
"Why didn’t you say anything?" Liam demanded.
Harry took a couple of seconds to answer. "Nothing you can do, is there?" he said finally. "No point in worrying everyone."
"Oh, Harry." Liam put an arm around him. "So you've been going through this on your own? How is that better?"
Harry shook his head, looking suddenly tired. Liam hugged him. "You don’t have to suffer alone you know," he promised. "We might not be able to fix it, but we can be there for you."
"No." Harry stood up, a little shakily but resolute. "Promise me Liam, promise you won't tell the others. Especially Louis. They'll only worry, and it's not fair."
Liam nodded helplessly, and was saved further words by a scuffle of sand from the bank above them as Zayn limped back into view.
"What's keeping you? Food's ready. Niall will have eaten it all if you don't get a shift on," he grinned.
starving." Harry smiled back and started up the beach. Liam didn't move from where he was still sitting on the sand though and Zayn frowned down at him, finally taking up Harry's earlier seat next to him.
"Li? What's up?"
"Who says anything is?" Liam muttered uncomfortably.
"Your face?" Zayn suggested cheerfully. "Did you and Harry have a fight or something?"
"He's not well," Liam blurted, then covered his face and groaned at the realisation he'd just spilled the world's briefest secret. "Shit. I promised I wouldn’t say."
"Whyever not? What’s the matter with him?" Zayn rubbed Liam's back and he leaned into him gratefully.
"He's having - dizzy spells. Fainting fits. I don't know exactly. I guess ever since he hit his head."
"Why wouldn't he want you to say?" Zayn asked, lost.
"Didn't want you to worry."
"Oh, but it's fine for you to worry on your own?" Zayn demanded.
"I thought it was going to be okay," Liam whispered miserably. "I thought he was better."
Zayn shrugged, at a loss. "I guess it was worse than we thought." He took Liam's hand in his and squeezed it. "I'm glad you told me. Now it's two of us, whether he likes it or not." Liam gave him a sad little smile and Zayn kissed him. "Come on. Or we really will have to catch our own fish."
Liam's smile widened, and arm in arm they made their way up the beach.
Several days later, Harry and Zayn were harvesting fruit on the northern cliffs. Harry was halfway up a tangle of twisted palms, shaking coconuts and various indignant insects down to where Zayn could gather them up.
Zayn picked a centipede off his arm and flicked it into a bush, stretching thankfully after a long time bending, looking idly out to sea. He frowned.
"Harry? Can you see that?"
Harry slithered back to ground level and joined him. "See what?" He squinted in the direction Zayn was looking without much luck.
"Out there. Something black. Could it be a boat?" Zayn asked excitedly, pointing impatiently as Harry still looked baffled. "Look, there."
"It's too hazy, I can't tell," Harry shrugged. Zayn gave him a funny look and he fidgeted. "What?"
"It's clear as a bell," Zayn said. Harry stared back uncomfortably as Zayn's eyes widened in realisation. "Harry! You told us your vision was back to normal!"
"It was. Is," Harry said defensively. "It just gets a bit - fuzzy, sometimes. When I'm tired. Anyway, is it a ship?" he asked, hoping to change the subject.
Shading his eyes, Zayn looked back out to sea, just in time to see the maybe-boat send up a spume of water and air before disappearing beneath the waves. He sighed. "Whale."
"Oh." Harry gave him a rueful smile. "Bugger." Zayn was still looking him over assessingly, and Harry sighed. "You know, don't you?"
"Liam told me."
"How?" Zayn looked surprised. He hadn't thought he'd acted any differently around Harry, had been careful not to let on.
"You've been watching me." Harry sat down on a fallen branch and Zayn sat next to him.
"Maybe I just like watching you?" he suggested, and kissed Harry on the temple, making him smile.
"And you've been - careful. More than usual. In bed."
"Ah." Zayn had to concede that point. "I was afraid I might hurt you worse."
There was a thoughtful pause, then Harry flashed a sudden grin. "Hell of a way to go though."
Zayn snorted. "Bit traumatic for me!"
"Think of it as how I would have wanted to go," Harry joked, although there was a tightness around his eyes that wasn't lost on Zayn. He put his arm round him.
"You're not going anywhere," he murmured. "We won't let you."
Harry buried his face in Zayn's neck and they held each other tightly for a long while.
"We should head back," Zayn said eventually. "If you're tired?"
"I'm fine," Harry protested, but Zayn shook his head.
"Well I'm knackered, and with this leg it'll take me ages to get there, so shift."
Harry surrendered, hands up and laughing.
"You know, I've always wondered why they didn't just eat the person that died first."
This pronouncement met with baffled silence, and four pairs of eyes stared at Niall over the campfire.
He stared back, surprised. "What?"
"Why didn't who eat whom?" Liam asked carefully.
"The people on the yacht," Niall explained, as if it was obvious. "I've been thinking about it right? One died first, we found the grave. They must have been short of food by then. Proper meat, I mean. So why didn't the one that was left eat them instead of burying them?"
The silence this time was rather stunned.
"Maybe they died of something contagious?" Louis suggested finally, drawing groans of disgust from the others. "What? It's a valid point."
"Maybe they were in love, and it would have been too traumatic," Zayn said.
Niall shrugged. "If it was me, I'd want to think I'd helped my loved ones have a better chance of survival. I'm just saying, if anything happens to me, right, you have my permission to eat me."
Liam and Zayn exchanged uncomfortable glances, feeling the topic was dangerously closer to home than Niall realised, but Harry just grinned at him.
"Do we have to wait for something to happen to you? You don't need both those legs do you?"
Niall gave him the finger. "If we're going down that road, we should eat Zayn's."
"I've got a leg you can eat," Louis volunteered, grabbing his crotch. "It's my third one."
"That wouldn't keep us going long," Niall shot back. "Be like trying to feed four people on a chipolata."
Louis' spluttering retort was abruptly cut off as Liam, in such desperation to change the subject to something less morbid than imminent death and starvation, rolled over to where Louis was sitting and proceeded to start sucking him off.
Sitting there with a startled expression on his face, Louis wondered what he'd done to deserve this and whether it was his birthday and no-one had told him. He caught Harry's eye and got a wink in response. His delighted laugh turned into a groan as Liam really got to work.
Louis was vaguely aware that Niall was watching with his mouth hanging open and that Zayn somehow appeared to have his head in Harry's lap, and then everything that wasn't Liam's mouth went a bit out of focus for a few minutes.
They slept late the next morning. Niall had demanded his turn from Louis, and then Harry had attempted and mostly succeeded to suck Liam and Zayn off at the same time. After that they'd all been so turned on nobody could sleep, and in a fit of enthusiasm had tried to form a daisy-chain with Louis at one end and Zayn at the other. While it hadn't really worked, what with people slipping out at inconvenient moments, or getting cramp, or someone's foot in their face, everyone came at least once more, so nobody really minded.
The sun was high when they finally stumbled out the next morning and set about washing in the stream.
"What's that?" Liam asked suddenly, standing up straight and peering skywards.
"Niall's cock," Zayn replied without looking. "Who knew they even came in that shape - ahhh!" he scrambled away from the wave of cold water Niall had splashed in the direction of his privates, giggling.
"Shut up, all of you, listen!"
Everyone fell silent in surprise at Liam's tone more than the words, and stared at him. And then they heard it too, a faint drone that was neither wind nor insect. Now five pairs of eyes were scanning the sky with intent scrutiny.
"There! Is it?" Louis pointed, and sure enough, the glint of sunlight on metal picked out the position of a small aircraft making its way across the blue.
For a second, unreasoning hope took over and they yelled and jumped and waved their arms, until it became apparent that not only would the aircraft's occupants have no chance of hearing them, under the trees they were probably invisible too.
"The beacon," Harry gasped, and they dashed up the hill.
"Niall! Lighter!" Zayn ducked into the cave and scrabbled for where he knew it was stowed on a rock ledge. He tossed it out quickly and Niall snatched it from the air. "Run!" Zayn urged, knowing Niall could move quicker than him right now, and followed as fast as he could.
When he caught them up the pyre was already flickering into life, and Harry and Liam were throwing armfuls of dried seaweed and damp leaves on top, making the smoke turn black and chokingly thick.
There was silence now but for the crackling of the flames as they took hold, scorching hot against five tense faces as they stared upwards. They held hands, not looking at each other, not daring to take their eyes away from the tiny speck in the sky, willing it to change course, to come and investigate the spiralling smoke.
The plane had passed the island by now, away to the south and east, but it was still in sight. Eyes watering with staring into the sunlight, they had just started to give up hope when the plane's previously arrow-straight trajectory curved into a gradual but unmistakeable turn.
"Oh my God," breathed Niall. "Is it - ?"
"Don't jinx it," Zayn muttered.
They watched, gripping each other harder than ever, as the plane came round in an agonisingly slow circle to approach the island from the other side.
"Fuck," Harry whispered, and felt Louis' hand clench in his.
The plane was coming in lower now, heading directly for the rising smoke, and finally the tension broke, all five boys screaming and waving their arms frantically as it passed overhead, turned a second time and re-crossed the island.
At the end of the next turn, the plane straightened out and headed back on its original course, leaving them staring after it, feeling abandoned and rather deflated.
"Well, they definitely saw us," said Liam, tentatively hopeful.
"And it's not like there's anywhere they could have landed," Niall added. It was true, they realised, even the longest stretch of hard sand at low tide was littered with large rocks.
"They'll tell someone, right?" Zayn said. "I mean - they have to."
"Someone'll come," Liam insisted. "They'll send a - a boat, or a seaplane, or a - a fucking submarine or something." He sank to the ground as his knees gave out without warning, and Zayn dropped down next to him so he wouldn't feel silly.
One by one the others sat down too, away from the hottest blast of the now roaring fire. Nobody knew quite what to say.
It was Louis, who finally started giggling. "Well we certainly gave them an eyeful," he said when they demanded to know what he was laughing at.
Looking round, they realised what he meant. They'd been interrupted in the middle of bathing, and over the months of hot weather and communal living, clothes had become more of an optional extra than anything. Of the five of them, Liam was wearing ragged trousers, Niall a pair of shorts and Louis rather holey pants. Harry and Zayn were entirely naked.
"Hell," Niall said. "Never mind a rescue party, they'll be selling tickets to come here at this rate."
For all of the next day, and the next, they remained in a state of excited anticipation. When the third day came and went with no new developments however, they started to lose heart a little.
"Maybe they didn't report us after all," Niall ventured gloomily that evening.
Louis patted his shoulder. "I guess it'll take a while to get here, if they're coming by boat?"
"Things take time to organise," added Liam. "At least there's a chance, now."
They'd spent the first day after the plane went over spelling 'HELP' out of rocks in huge letters on the beach, and then 'SOS' for good measure. Then because there was a bit of space left, and they were getting into it, they added '1D' at the end.
It was the morning of the fourth day since the sighting, and they were scattered over the hillside gathering food when a familiar drone of engines became audible and another plane was suddenly circling overhead. From their various positions they ran out into the open, frantically waving for attention.
This time, the plane - a smaller one than before - made three circuits of the island before changing course and heading off back the way it had come, as if satisfied with its survey.
They dashed back together to discuss the new development.
"Didn't hang around," Zayn said, sounding disappointed.
"Maybe they didn't have enough fuel to stay long," Liam suggested. "We don't know how far they came."
The appearance of a second plane at least meant their position had been reported, and spirits rose again. Two more uneventful days slid past, but this time they stayed optimistic.
A lookout was posted once more, and the hollow in the rocks at the very top of the island became their default gathering place, eating and talking and dozing in the sun there, where someone was always on hand to keep a sharp and eager eye on the horizon.
The moon rose, bright and full, making the night almost as clear as day. They were still out in the open, enjoying the cool evening breeze and listening to the scritch of insects in the trees. Below them, a shining moon-path lead out across the sea, as if showing the way home.
"I suppose they will come for us?" Zayn said sleepily, his head in Harry's lap.
"Sure to," Niall said. He, too was lying on his back, staring up at the stars. It would be strange, he thought, to be back in a city, where the stars were barely ever visible.
"It'll be weird," said Louis, echoing his thoughts. "After so long..." he let the thought tail off, and Harry turned to him, leaning over for a kiss.
"Aren't you excited?" he smiled.
Louis looked a little lost. "Honestly? I don't know. It - scares me. A bit," he admitted. "It's going to be intense."
"You'll see your family though?" Liam put in, looking up from picking bits of grass out of Niall's hair.
"Yeah." Louis sighed. "Ignore me, I'm just being - stupid," he muttered. Harry pulled him closer and kissed him again, softly.
"No you're not. It's a big thing," he said quietly. "We'll still have each other though. We'll be okay."
Louis looked at him with unhappy eyes, but he said nothing, and didn't object when Harry and Zayn pulled him down between them for a warm, slow, comfort fuck.
Harry opened his eyes and groaned, shading them from the unexpected sunlight beating down on him. He sat up, trying to shake the fuzziness out of his head. They'd all fallen asleep where they were, he realised, still out in the open.
Louis and Zayn were both flat out, snoring quietly, and on his other side Liam and Niall were curled around each other in a tangle of limbs and equally fast asleep.
He fumbled for his trousers, where they'd been thrown over a bush, and stood up a little unsteadily. His throat was dry, and his head ached, and Harry hoped it was just from the sun and nothing worse.
Turning round, intending to head down to the stream, Harry looked out to sea and nearly fell over.
"Hey!" he yelled, all thoughts of thirst forgotten. "Hey, wake up!"
"What's going on?" Niall mumbled, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. "What's the panic?"
"Ship!" Harry cried, unable to think of anything more coherent and desperate for someone else to see it, on the off chance he was hallucinating.
"What? Where?" Niall stood up and his eyes widened. "Fucking hell!"
Harry grinned wildly, and went to shake Louis and Zayn awake. "Lou! Come see this! We're being rescued!"
Blinking sleepily up at him, Louis let Harry drag him to his feet. He woke up quickly when he saw what the others were looking at, and Harry hugged him gleefully.
Liam joined them, yawning. "Bloody hell, have they come to rescue us or blow us up?"
The ship was huge, some kind of battleship, painted grey and bristling with guns. It had come to a stop some way out from the island, and as they watched a smaller boat detached itself from the side and started motoring towards them.
"Shit, we have to get down there!" Niall yelped, in sudden paranoia that if the crew didn’t find them waiting they'd leave without a search.
"I think we'll be okay," Liam smiled. He turned round, wondering why Zayn hadn't said anything, and discovered he'd fallen asleep again.
"Zayn!" Liam knelt by his side and shook him. "Wake up you idiot!"
"Wassit?" Zayn tried to bat Liam's hands away, and Liam caught hold of him.
"What?" Zayn sat up crossly. "I'm sleeping!"
"Time for that later. We're being rescued," Liam told him.
"What?" Zayn looked past him to where the others were standing and they nodded vigorously, pointing at the ship. "Well, fuck, why did nobody wake me?" he demanded indignantly, scrambling to his feet.
"We tried," said Liam dryly. "And you might want to put some trousers on before going down to meet them."
They stopped off at the cave, automatically moving to collect up their few possessions before faltering, realising that in fact, nothing they had would be needed now.
Zayn pocketed his lighter with a shrug. It could barely summon a flame at all any more, and they'd been increasingly paranoid about keeping the campfire burning, but now with an odd feeling of solemnity they scuffed earth over the flames, making sure it was well out. Somehow, that act above anything else made them realise they were truly leaving, that this was really it.
One by one they headed back out into the daylight, and started down the hill. It was only then Harry realised Louis wasn't following, and he walked back inside.
"Louis? You coming?"
Louis just stared at him miserably, and Harry took his hands, concerned. "Lou?"
"I don't think I can," Louis whispered hoarsely. "It's too much." He shook his head, struggling to articulate just how the thought of suddenly having to deal with people who weren't them filled him with horror, how the thought of going back to the world outside their island, once longed for, was now a bustling, clamouring threat that made his chest go tight, and what would happen to them all, and how could he ever make Harry understand?
But rather than laughing, or trying to argue, Harry just put his arms around Louis and held him tight, until slowly Louis found he could breathe again.
"Sorry," he whispered, and Harry hugged him close.
"We're going home," he coaxed. "Isn't that a good thing?"
"This is home," Louis protested.
"Well you can hardly stay," Harry told him quietly.
"Why not?" Knowing it was a stupid thing to say, but feeling obstinate. "You could stay with me."
Harry shook his head sadly. "I can't," he said. Louis shrugged, pinching his lips together, knowing it was true but still feeling obscurely rejected. Harry sighed.
"I can't stay," he repeated quietly. "Because - because I think I need a doctor."
Liam, Zayn and Niall reached the beach just as the boat carrying three men in naval uniforms bumped through the surf and up onto the sand.
"Ahoy there!" one of them called out in an Australian accent.
Niall grinned. "Do people really say that?" Zayn nudged him in the side, smirking.
"Don't take the piss, he's got a bigger weapon than you."
"Um, hello!" Liam realised he seemed to be standing in front, due to Zayn and Niall taking a sneaky step backwards. "Boy, are we glad to see you!"
"Did you guys wreck or something?" the man called out cheerfully. "We got a report of a fire, and possible castaways! Got diverted to come and investigate."
"We were in a plane crash," Liam explained. "We've been stuck here."
"A plane crash!" The men exchanged surprised looks. "We haven't had any reports of aircraft being lost in this area. Not since that jetliner last year."
"Yeah. That was us," Zayn said.
"We've been here ages," Niall added.
"You're winding us up, right?" one asked, dubiously. He took in their appearance - ragged clothes, wild hair, ingrained dirt - and shook his head. "Jesus. You're not, are you? Are there any more of you?"
Liam looked round, puzzled. "Yeah, two more, somewhere. They were behind us a minute ago."
"There." Niall pointed, as Harry and Louis emerged from the trees, hand in hand.
Liam turned back to the officer and smiled. "That's all of us."
"Right." He frowned, realising both the figures coming towards them were boys. "Well, if you're ready?"
"Never readier," said Zayn fervently.
The ship, it turned out, belonged to the Australian Navy, and had been on routine manoeuvres when it was diverted to the boys' aid.
"We were the closest vessel you see," their rescuer explained. "You've caused quite a stir actually. Turns out your little pimple of an island wasn't on our charts at all. Or the British admiralty ones," he added hastily, in the face of five indignant stares.
"It was on the French ones, oddly enough. Bit of cross-referencing and we managed to pinpoint you. Here we go, you can use these two cabins for the time being. Not very luxurious I'm afraid, but I guess after what you guys have been through you won't mind that. And it won't be for long, we'll transfer you off as soon as we're in range. I'll send some food down if you like?"
Before they could ply him with questions, like - where were they being transferred to, and did anyone outside the navy know they were alive yet - he'd hurried off again.
The cabins were windowless and utilitarian, with two sets of bunk beds in each. The mattresses were hard, but after a year sleeping on sand and brushwood, they seemed like a miracle in themselves.
They settled in, a bit stunned by everything that had happened so fast. It was a relief to be alone again for a while, giving them a chance to take it all in.
Before long, another man appeared bearing a container of what proved to be soup, and some rolls. He set down a stack of bowls on the fixed metal table and cheerfully wished them a good meal.
Ignoring his curious stare at their unkempt appearance, Harry shared out the soup and they ate hungrily. No-one had had any breakfast, and the novelty of something different to eat, however simple, meant not much was said until every last drop had been wiped up.
They'd been given some cans of coke as well, and Niall held his up, kissing the side. "I've missed you my darling," he grinned, making the others laugh.
There was a communal washroom next door, and when they'd eaten they all stripped off eagerly for the first hot shower in months.
"Fuck, that feels good," Zayn groaned, face turned into the spray and eyes closed.
"I'm looking forward to a bath, personally," Harry decided. "A nice long, warm soak."
"Room for two in this fantasy?" Louis enquired, resting his chin on Harry's shoulder and smirking at him.
"Room for five if we can get a hot tub," Niall suggested.
"With you in there we won't need a jacuzzi," Liam said and Niall cackled.
"I shouldn't have drunk all that fizz. You'll be regretting it later."
Dried off and dressed in the spare trousers and t-shirts that had been provided for them, they were slightly taken aback to discover they were to be formally interviewed by the commander of the ship.
Feeling nervously like they'd done something wrong, they were escorted to a meeting room and there had to confirm again their names and nationalities, and go over the whole story of the crash and their subsequent survival on the island.
The officer who interviewed them, a serious grey-haired man in his fifties, gave no flicker of recognition at their names and they found themselves edging closer together, trying not to feel like this was somehow an interrogation.
They had no passports or paperwork to identify them, nothing but their word to explain how they came to be there, and it was a relief when he finally seemed satisfied and they were lead back to their cabins.
"Do you think we're in trouble?" Niall blurted out, once they were alone.
Louis put his arms round him. "Don't be daft. He was just doing his job. Never said he didn't believe us, did he?"
"I just want to be home now," Niall sighed.
They waited out the day, the cabin starting to feel unpleasantly like a cell. The door wasn't locked, but they'd been warned not to wander, and no-one was confident of being able to find their way through the maze of metal passageways in any case.
With no natural light they found it hard to judge the passing of time, until Liam finally pointed out with a sheepish laugh that there was a clock on the wall. So used to going by the position of the sun, no-one had given it a second glance.
They were starting to feel seasick too, the constant, barely perceptible movement of the deck beneath them hard to reconcile without a window. Their brief time in the meeting room several decks up had provided a view of the huge empty ocean they were ploughing through, and more than one of them was secretly glad they could no longer see it.
Towards evening another meal was brought down, stew and potatoes, and they ate it yawning. It was barely seven PM, but they'd been awake since just after dawn, and were used to sleeping out the darkness.
"We'll have to split up," Zayn said uncomfortably, looking from the four bunks to the five of them.
Louis slid his arm round Harry's waist. "We could share?" he murmured. Harry nodded, kissing him lightly. Ever since he'd confessed his dizziness and blackouts that morning, Louis had been a constant, worried, solicitous presence at his side, and Harry had been careful to reassure him.
They all climbed into bed, Harry and Louis crammed uncomplaining into one of the bottom bunks and talked quietly until one by one they fell asleep, wondering what tomorrow would bring.
Everyone woke early and it was just as well, because breakfast was delivered with the message they were to be ready for transfer in half an hour.
Escorted to the open deck, they looked around, eager to see where they were. No-one had the slightest idea which direction they'd been sailing in, and had assumed they would be making for Australia. It was something of a surprise to find they were still surrounded by empty sea.
Herded across the deck, wind plucking at their hair and making them shiver even in their new clothes, the penny finally dropped that they were to be taken off by helicopter.
"Where are we going?" Liam asked the least-scary looking person in their escort.
Liam bit his lip to stop the giggle escaping. The man had been entirely straightfaced, and Liam suspected he wouldn't take kindly to being laughed at.
"Fort Shafter. Army base rather than naval, but it's next to the airport. I guess they want to get you guys home quick, huh?"
"But which airport? I mean, where?" Liam persisted.
The man gave him an odd look. "Hawaii, of course. Honolulu."
So it was that something like twelve months after taking off on the first leg of a flight from Australia, they found themselves finally approaching the island of Oahu by air. Strapped into the back of a large military helicopter the opportunity for sight-seeing was limited, but they caught glimpses of the coastline as they came down, the specks of people on the beach, the tall buildings jutting up against the wooded hills beyond.
Soon they were being lead across the tarmac of an airfield, a little shaky-legged from the two hour-long flight in the noisy, juddering helicopter and sticking as close together as they possibly could without tripping each other up.
They were taken into a long, low building that had tinted windows and blessedly cool air-conditioning, and told there was someone waiting for them in the room at the end.
A little apprehensively they walked across, wondering if they'd have to go over who they were all over again. Maybe it would be the British consul or something, someone who could arrange for them to finally get home.
They trooped through the door, and stared at the man there, who got up from a sofa and stared back at them with the dazed expression of someone who was wondering if he was still asleep.
It was Harry who finally broke the silence.
"It's you. It's really you," Cowell said faintly. "All of you. I didn't dare - " he broke off, expression of disbelief becoming a grin of amazement. "Oh my God."
They came together in a sudden rush, laughing and scuffling as he tried to hug everyone at once.
"But let me look at you." Simon stood back and peered from face to face. "How did you even - no, you must be exhausted, let's go somewhere more comfortable first, then you can tell me everything."
"We can just - leave, then?" Zayn queried, looking around at the military presence evident all around them.
"Of course." Simon looked surprised. "It's not as if there's any question over who you are," he laughed, and they exchanged furtively sheepish glances.
"But what are you doing here?" Louis asked as they made their way back into the sunshine and out to a big black limo.
"When your plane went down, it was assumed most of the passengers had gone down with it," Simon sighed. "Search and rescue was - brief, to be honest. I sent out a couple of teams myself in the end." He smiled, awkwardly, adding softly; "no-one wanted to believe you were dead. Least of all me. If it wasn't for me you wouldn't have been on that flight in the first place."
"Bollocks," said Niall succinctly, and there was a certain amount of nodding.
Simon laughed, gratefully. "Anyway. I kept in touch with a lot of the coastguards, had reports of anything unusual being sent through. Just in case, you know? It had been so long, that - well, I'd forgotten, to be honest, that I'd never cancelled the arrangement. And then a report was emailed through to my office of a charter plane pilot who'd recorded seeing possible castaways on an island not unfeasibly far from the original flightpath."
He sighed. "I followed it up, and discovered that nothing was being done about it. There was no record of an island at the position reported, and it was assumed that the co-ordinates were wrong."
"But something was done," Harry said, "there was a second plane?"
Simon nodded. "I chartered one myself. Sent someone to investigate. I figured I owed it to you - or, at least, to whoever might be down there. I didn't dare hope - " he fished in his pocket for something. "Until I saw your message."
He passed over a crumpled printout of a colour photo and they bent over it curiously. It had been taken from a plane, and clearly showed their beach, with the rocks spelling out HeLP SOS 1D.
Zayn elbowed Niall in the ribs. "One job. You had one job, Niall."
"I didn't know we were doing all capitals," Niall objected. "They were too big to read at that level!"
Simon laughed at Niall's indignant expression. "Well, it did the job. They contacted me again when you'd been picked up, and I came over from LA. And here you are." He sat back, marvelling at them, and they grinned back at him. They were travelling through the suburbs now, up into the hills.
"Where are we going?" Zayn asked curiously, looking out at the passing traffic. "Not the airport?"
"Thought you might want to unwind a bit before facing the world," Simon told him. "There's a villa I like to hire. We're going there. Private."
"Do our families know?" Louis asked, unable to keep it in any longer. "That we're okay?"
Simon shook his head. "Not yet. I wanted to see you for myself first. Make sure there hadn't been any - mistake, before getting their hopes up. I'll arrange for them to be told as soon as possible now. Arrange for you to speak to them."
The car pulled in between stone pillars and up a long driveway. They got out in front of a large, sprawling house, covered in flowers spilling from baskets and window boxes, and climbing up the walls.
"It's lovely," said Niall, admiringly.
"Make yourselves at home. My room's first on the right, you can use any of the others that take your fancy."
They wandered in, staring at the plush carpets and expensive furniture, wide-eyed and slightly nervous. It all felt like being on another planet.
"Like Judges' Houses all over again," whispered Zayn, and they nodded, knowing what he meant.
Just being indoors felt unfamiliar, and Harry crossed to the french windows in the living room, pushed them wide open, breathing in the sea air. They joined him there looking out at the sparkling water in the distance, arms around each other.
Nobody had quite felt up to the task of having to deal with things on their own, and it had been a relief, to find they had someone to take care of the details for them. When Simon came back in, followed by a woman pushing a trolley laden with tea and plates of cakes and sandwiches, they crowded round him eagerly.
"Thought it might have been a while since you had a decent cup of tea," he laughed, and Louis blew him an ostentatious kiss.
"Zayn, are you alright?" Simon frowned, taking in the way he was limping and occasionally leaning on the others for support.
"I did something to my leg. It's never really healed properly," Zayn explained, mouth already full of cake.
"He fell down a mountain," Niall elaborated, and Simon looked startled.
"We'll get you seen by a doctor," he said. "You could probably all do with a once-over, come to that. You look half-starved."
"Harry needs one," Louis interrupted quickly, despite an embarrassed glare from Harry. "He hit his head and he's not well, and he won't bloody say so."
"Right." Simon looked over at the woman standing by and she nodded.
"I'll make the arrangements sir."
As she went out, closing the doors behind her, Simon turned back to the boys and smiled. "So. Do you feel up to telling me everything that's happened? You must have quite a story."
By the time they'd finished relating their exploits, the sun was sliding down in the sky and they'd polished off a second round of tea. By unspoken agreement nobody had mentioned the physical side to their relationship. It was slowly dawning on them that discussions would need to be had, about what they told and what they kept quiet about.
Left to themselves to decide upon sleeping arrangements, they found a selection of clothes had been delivered for them to choose from.
Zayn held up a pair of trousers against himself in the mirror and sighed. "I'm not sure these will even stay up. I hadn't realised just how thin we'd got."
Liam came up behind him, put his hands round Zayn's waist. His fingers reached almost all the way round. "Eat many more of those cakes, you'll be the size of a balloon by morning," he teased, planting a kiss at the nape of Zayn's neck.
It was true though, it had been so gradual that none of them had really noticed how malnourished they'd become. Ribs were clearly visible on all of them, and their bodies were covered in scratches and scars, old and new. Seeing their own brightly lit, full length reflections came as a shock to everybody.
"I don't like it," Zayn whispered. "We all look ill."
"Well, we can at least tidy ourselves up a bit," said Liam briskly. "Have a shave and such. Harry, you can get that bath you wanted."
They dispersed between the two rooms they'd picked out on the basis there was a connecting door between them. Each had a double bed and its own bathroom attached, and was more luxury than any of them had ever thought to see again.
Harry was soon nose-deep in a hot bath, watching Louis shaving carefully over the basin. Through the open doors they could hear Niall singing in the shower, and Zayn complaining that Liam was pulling his hair, as he tried to comb out the knots out from it.
They all had hair almost to their shoulders, Niall's with a last remaining fringe of blonde at the tips, and while most of them had made an attempt at shaving at least occasionally, Liam had been sporting a beard for months.
Harry was climbing out of the bath when he slid sideways with a gasp, only to be brought up sharply by Louis grabbing at him.
"Are you okay?" Louis demanded, searching his face anxiously.
"I'm fine. It's just the heat, that's all. Made me go a bit swimmy. Louis, I'm fine. You can let go," Harry insisted, and Louis realised he was still gripping his arms.
"Sorry. I just - you need to be careful. I thought they were supposed to be getting a doctor for you?" Louis fretted.
"I'm fine," Harry repeated softly. "It'll be okay."
They were kissing, slow and comforting on both sides, when an alarmed yelp from the other bedroom made them look up in surprise.
Going to investigate, they found Zayn and Niall in hysterics on the bed, and Liam holding a towel over half his face.
"What's going on?" asked Louis, starting to laugh himself.
"Show him Liam," Niall demanded, but Liam shook his head vigorously.
"Liam shaved his beard off," Zayn said cheerfully. Except he's had it for so long the rest of his face is tanned and his chin isn't. Looks like he's been dipped in wax or something." He collapsed into giggles again and Liam glared at him.
"Thanks for the support guys," he muttered.
"Let's have a look?" Louis insisted, and Liam dropped the towel with a resigned sigh.
Louis and Harry tried not to laugh, but it was no good. Liam did look ridiculous, and eventually he too joined in with the laughter, dropping down into the middle of them all, cackling wildly.
Harry was lying on a towel, face down on the bed with the windows open to feel the breeze on his naked body. Outside, the sun was setting in a wash of pink, and nightbirds were starting to call mournfully to each other from the bushes.
In the bathroom, Louis was brushing his teeth. To be truly clean again felt more heavenly than amount of new clothes or soft pillows, and he was idly poking through the well-stocked cabinet to see what else was in there.
He picked up a box, and stared at the label. Opened it out of curiosity, and stood there with the little tube in his hand, considering.
Harry looked up as Louis came out of the bathroom and switched off the light, coming to sit next to him on the bed.
"Harry. Will you - will you make love to me?" he said quietly.
"You hardly have to ask," Harry smiled, sitting up and wondering if Louis was worrying that things would change now they'd been rescued.
"No - to me," Louis said, flushing a little. Harry's gaze lit on the lube Louis was holding, and let his fingers come to rest on it too, wonderingly.
"Are you sure?" he breathed, leaning forward to catch Louis' eyes.
Louis nodded. "I've - wanted to. For a while. I guess I was just a bit scared for my first time to be in front of everyone. In case - you know. I need to stop or something."
Harry took him into his arms and held him tight. "We could have snuck off somewhere," he said after a second's thought, and Louis laughed, relaxing a little.
"Well. Here we are, anyway. If - you want to, I mean."
"Of course I want to." Harry took his hands, eyes shining. "I love you. I want to do everything with you."
Louis nodded. "Me too. With you and the others. But I wanted my first time to be with you."
They leaned together, kissing softly, smiling against each other's lips as sounds of merriment drifted in from the room next door.
"Do you reckon Simon thinks it's weird?" Harry mused. "That we're all sharing just two rooms? Two beds?"
"Not as weird as if we'd all piled into one," said Louis with a smirk. "I thought he very carefully didn't ask, earlier, about how we'd got by on that front."
"Do you think he guesses?" Harry lay down in Louis' arms, nestling against him happily.
"If they don't shut up in there he won't have to guess," Louis said dryly and Harry laughed.
"We could join them, if you wanted?"
Louis shook his head. "Is it greedy, to want you just to myself for a night?"
Harry kissed him. "If it is, then I am too. We can be greedy together."
They stretched out, skin to skin, enjoying the novelty of a soft bed beneath them. They explored each other slowly, such familiar territory now and yet with a frisson of nervous anticipation at what they were going to do.
Nothing was rushed, Harry took his time to make sure Louis was hard and wanting, on the edge of panting desperation before he even turned his attention to what they'd been building up to.
Louis simply let Harry take charge, trusting he would take care of him. He'd watched him have sex with the others often enough to know Harry knew what he was doing. Louis wanted this now, unreservedly and passionately, and he sprawled beneath him, open and willing as Harry prepared them both.
When neither could wait any longer Harry finally pushed into him, slowly, gently, conscious that Louis' eyes were scrunched up in either concentration or pain, but also that he was gripping Harry against him for dear life, making it abundantly clear he didn't want Harry to pull away.
When Harry was all the way in, holding himself still, Louis opened his eyes and smiled raggedly up at him. "Harry," he breathed, sounding overwhelmed and aroused and astonished all at once.
Harry smiled back, kissing him softly. "Okay?" he whispered. When Louis nodded, shaky but determined, Harry started moving, carefully at first, shallow thrusts that made Louis clench and spasm around him, gasping for breath.
As Louis relaxed into it more and more, Harry's movements became faster, firmer, still deliberate and careful but with an intensity that left them moaning out each other's name.
Louis had hoped, trusted, that this would feel good, whilst being prepared for discomfort or even pain. What he hadn't expected was quite how emotional he would get. Lying there with Harry inside him, holding him, completing him, Louis swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat, blinking away the awful sense that he might cry. He wasn't somebody who cried during sex, he fucking wasn't, and he wasn't going to start now.
"Lou?" Harry trailed the backs of his fingers over Louis' lips, half laughing at the almost fierce expression on his face.
Louis kissed Harry's fingertips, arching up into the body pressed against him.
"I love you," he breathed, and Harry's smile split into a wide grin.
"I love you too." He kissed Louis' lips, his cheek, his jaw. "Forever."
They were both close to orgasm, Louis' legs hooked around Harry's thighs, Harry's hands now flat against Louis' back, holding him, bracing him, as they rocked against each other.
Louis came first, groaning wordlessly, his release splattering hot against Harry's chest. Harry wasn't long joining him, taking a last few deep thrusts to finish himself off, coming exultantly into Louis' tight, shaking body before slowing gradually to a still.
Wrung out, they collapsed against each other, Harry still hard inside him, until they could finally breathe properly again.
Harry carefully withdrew, whispering apologies as he caught Louis wincing.
"Was that okay?" he asked a little nervously, as they lay in each other's arms afterwards, kissing quietly.
"It was better than okay," Louis assured him, making Harry smile. "It was perfect."
They gathered in the living room the next morning, where breakfast had been laid out for them on the coffee table. Harry and Louis were the last to arrive, and found Liam curled in a ball on the sofa with his head on Zayn's leg. Zayn was stroking his back comfortingly, whilst using his free hand to stuff his own face with toast.
"What's up with Liam?" Louis poured them both tea, as Harry helped himself to a bowl of fruit salad.
"Stomach ache. Think the change back to processed food's done him in," said Zayn through a mouthful of crumbs. "He was up half the night."
Liam whimpered and pulled the rug over his head. Zayn rolled his eyes. "How about you two? Sleep okay?"
"Yeah, good thanks." Louis blushed, and hoped they didn't notice.
He was saved from further elaboration by Simon coming into the room, beaming widely.
"I remember that look," said Harry suspiciously. "You're plotting something."
Simon gave him a look of mock reproach. "You can go last, in that case."
"Last at what?" Niall asked.
"Your parents have all been notified you're okay," Simon announced, and held up his hands for quiet as they all put down what they were eating and started firing questions at him. Even Liam sat up, the rug falling to the floor, his aching guts forgotten.
"Shush! Bloody hell, I'd forgotten how loud you lot could be."
"Can we speak to them?" Niall asked hopefully.
"Better than that. We've got a series of Skype calls set up for you. You'll be able to see them as well." He smiled as the noise level rose once more in an indistinguishable clamour.
"Louis' first," Simon said, when he could hear himself speak again. "They're lined up now, if you're ready?"
Louis got to his feet silently, looking stunned. Harry gave him an encouraging nod, and he followed Simon out of the room in a daze.
Ten minutes later he was back, eyes suspiciously red and face streaked with dried tears.
"Lou?" Harry got to his feet, alarmed, but Louis smiled.
"They were all there," he said in a disbelieving whisper. "My mum. My sisters. I never thought I'd - " he broke off and Harry pulled him into a fierce hug.
"Zayn, you're up next," Simon said quietly, and lead him out of the room.
One by one, they were reunited with tearful parents and siblings, and by the end of the morning there wasn't a dry eye in the place. They ended up all huddled onto the same sofa, sharing moments and laughter, passing tissues and exchanging kisses.
That their ordeal was finally over was gradually sinking in, becoming a reality. Up to now it had felt like they barely dared accept it, as if they might wake up at any minute and find themselves back on the island.
When Simon came back in a while later, he laughed to find them all jammed together in the same seat.
"Your flight's fixed up. First thing tomorrow you'll be on your way home."
"Thank you," Harry said sincerely. "For doing all this."
Simon shook his head. "It's a pleasure. Just to know you're all alive - I can still hardly believe it."
"Was it - awful?" Niall asked quietly. "When everyone thought we were dead?"
"You can't imagine," Simon said, shaking his head. "It was like half the world was numb and the other half went crazy." He laughed, a little disbelievingly, and smiled down at them. "Not as crazy as it's going now, however."
"People know? Can we see?" asked Louis. There was no television in the villa, and Simon had kept them oblivious to the press storm building outside.
Simon shook his head. "It's going to be intense. Enjoy the peace while you can." He hesitated. "I have no right to ask this really, not before you've had a chance to acclimatise, but - I suppose you do want to carry on? As a band, I mean?"
"Yes," said Harry, at the same time the others came out with "Of course," "Yeah, we do," "Obviously," "Uh huh."
Harry smiled. "We, uh, haven't discussed it actually. But apparently yes, we'd kind've been assuming that we would. If we're not yesterday's news by now, anyway."
"Oh, trust me," Simon said meaningfully. "You thought you were big before. It's about to get insane."
That afternoon they were seen by a doctor, brought in by Simon from a private clinic somewhere on the island. A bedroom was pressed into service as an examination room, and they went in one by one.
Overall, he pronounced them all in astonishingly good health given what they had been through, prescribing only a vitamin supplement to build up their rather deficient immune systems.
Zayn emerged with a certain amount of strapping on his leg, and instructions to seek a referral to a physiotherapist once he got back to London. He rejoined the others grinning, relieved that the doctor didn't seem to think he'd done any permanent damage, and that he shouldn't need surgery.
Harry was the last to be seen. When he came out some time later, he hesitated in the doorway to the living room, looking bewildered. The others, waiting together for his diagnosis, jumped up anxiously.
"Harry? Is - are you okay?" Louis asked, scared to death that it was bad news.
Harry just looked at him helplessly and Louis scrambled over the coffee table in his haste to get to Harry's side.
"I'm - fine," Harry said faintly, letting Louis lead him over to sit down.
"Harry, you're not fine," said Zayn baldly. "What did he say?"
Shrugging awkwardly, Harry stared at his hands. "Just that. That sometimes the effects of a concussion can - be experienced for some time. That I seemed okay, and - and the dizziness might just be something I have to deal with for a while."
There was a startled silence, before Louis exploded indignantly. "Seemed okay? What kind of medical term is that? Is he a proper doctor? Shouldn‘t he be - I dunno, getting you scanned or something?"
"Did you tell him about the blurry vision?" Zayn asked.
Harry nodded. "He checked out my eyes, to make sure it wasn't a detached retina or anything. Said it would probably clear up on its own. Gave me some pills, for the headaches." He fingered the little silver strip uneasily, wincing as Louis started ranting again.
"Are we sure he's a proper doctor? Not just some botox-peddling quack?"
"Louis - don't," Harry protested. "Of course he's a proper doctor. Look - it's good, right? I'm okay."
"Well - yes. Of course." Louis faltered. "But are you? You don't seem all that convinced."
"I don't know any more," Harry mumbled. "Maybe I've just been making a fuss over nothing."
"Harry, no," Liam protested, taking his hand. "We've seen how you've been. Nobody thinks that."
"I want to believe it," Harry said in a small voice. "But part of me's still scared that he's wrong."
"We'll get a second opinion, yeah?" Louis promised. "Back in London. From a proper doctor," he added, raising his voice and making Harry flush with embarrassment.
Harry let Louis and Niall cuddle him between them, both relieved and unsettled that none of them thought he'd been overreacting.
They were finishing their evening meal when Simon came in with an armful of brand new coats and jumpers for them.
"Expecting rain?" Louis asked, raising an eyebrow.
"It's November," Simon pointed out. "The weather in London right now's a bit different."
"I've quite missed drizzle," said Harry dreamily, and Zayn snorted.
"Give it a couple of days. You'll be longing for the sun again when we've all got colds and a sore throat."
"I'll give you a sore throat now if you like," suggested Niall, and Liam elbowed him sharply as Louis had a suspicious coughing fit.
Simon shook his head, laughing. "I'm leaving tonight, to see to things at that end. You'll follow on tomorrow."
Zayn was already sorting through the pile of clothes speculatively and scratching his head. "Do we get a makeover too?" he grinned. "I'd kill for a haircut right now."
"Hang on a while longer?" Simon recommended. "At least for your homecoming."
"The sanitised, airbrushed version of shipwreck chic?" Louis suggested rather acidly.
"I wouldn't have put it quite that way, but yes, if you like."
"Shut up Louis. We'll do whatever you recommend," Harry nodded. "You know we will."
When Simon had gone, Louis stuck his tongue out. "We'll do whatever you sa-ay," he mimicked, and Harry punched him in the arm.
"Stop it!" Liam threw a cushion at them. "Harry's right, we either let him guide us or we don't. There's no point in making waves."
Zayn sat down again, fidgeting with the buttons on the coat he'd selected. "Anyone else not particularly looking forward to it?" he mumbled.
"What, to going home?" Niall asked, looking surprised.
"No." Zayn sighed, looking a bit queasy. "To getting on a plane again."
"Oh." Niall bounced onto the sofa next to him and gave him a hug. "It'll be okay. I mean, what are the odds against two planes going dow- "
Niall broke off with a squeak as Zayn slapped a hand over his mouth, looking horrified. "Don't even say it!" he hissed, looking embarrassed at himself.
"Bit of a long swim if you don't fancy the flight," Louis yawned, stretching.
"Yeah." Zayn tried and failed to summon a convincing smile, and Niall gave him a squeeze.
Zayn nodded uncertainly. "You'll be there, right? If I freak out?"
"Right next to you," Niall promised warmly. "You can hold my hand if you want."
"You can hold my dick if you want," Louis offered, and Harry hit him in the face with Liam's cushion. "What?! Made him smile didn't it?"
Zayn was trying not to laugh. "What's got into you this evening Louis?"
Louis shrugged. "I dunno. I suppose - it's all going to change, isn't it? Tomorrow I mean. It's going to get nuts."
"We'll be the same though," Harry pointed out. "We just need to stick together."
They slowly got ready for bed, then sat around talking; all too wound up to sleep yet.
Neither bed was quite big enough for all five of them, and there was an unspoken feeling that tonight at least they didn't want to be apart. In the end, Louis fetched the duvet from the other room, and he and Niall curled up on the floor while Harry, Zayn and Liam took the bed.
With the lights off, they murmured to each other in drowsy conversation for another hour until finally sliding towards sleep, wondering how long it would be before they were again able to share the same space like this.
"That's - for us?"
Standing on the tarmac, shading their eyes in the bright morning sunshine, they stared across at the private jet in disbelief. Setting out from the villa, they'd assumed they would be taking a commercial flight, but apparently Simon had other ideas.
Escorted across, Zayn hesitated at the foot of the steps, and Liam paused with him, resting a reassuring hand at the small of his back.
"Mmmn." Zayn was tightlipped and tense, and Liam smiled encouragingly.
"You were okay in the helicopter?"
"That was different. It was open, and - and not so high." Zayn flushed, knowing he sounded irrationally idiotic. The others had already climbed inside, and people were waiting for them to board.
"It'll be over before you know it," Liam coaxed. "We'll distract you, okay? Nothing bad's going to happen."
"I know. I know." But still Zayn didn't move, and Liam finally took his hand.
"Come on. We'll go up together."
Zayn made a face, but he took a deep breath, and let Liam lead him up the steps and into the plane.
Inside, the others gathered round, slightly shamefaced that they hadn't waited, and to Zayn's immense relief, not taking the piss. He took a seat, Liam on one side and Niall on the other, and closed his eyes firmly.
"Wake me up when it's over."
The next twenty four hours gradually passed in a mind-numbing, leg-cramping blur, as they seemingly inched their way home. They stopped in LA to refuel but stayed on the plane, and eventually even Zayn lost most of his nerves in the face of hours of tedious waiting.
At long last the journey drew to a close and they found themselves on the final approach to Heathrow. Niall slid his hand over Zayn's where he was gripping the armrest, white-knuckled. He took it gratefully, and concentrated on remembering how to breathe.
Despite Zayn's fears the landing was without incident, and after hours of waiting in limbo suddenly they were preparing to disembark.
"D'you think our families will be waiting?" Niall wondered hopefully.
Liam shrugged. "Depends what Simon's got planned. He might want to keep it low key, sneak us back in, like. I'm sure they'll be in London, anyway."
"Um. Guys?" Harry was looking out of one of the windows. "You should probably see this."
They gathered round, curious. Outside, confined behind barriers and what appeared to be a small army of police, was spread one of the largest crowds they'd ever seen.
"That can't be for us," said Louis, disbelievingly. "Can it?"
"Low key huh?" Zayn nudged Liam, grinning.
"I - could have been wrong about that," he conceded with a stunned smile.
Now the engines had been turned off they could hear the crowd, a dull roar of background noise that increased to screaming fever pitch as they appeared on the steps of the plane. It was overwhelming, and Niall would have turned around and fled back inside if Harry and Zayn hadn't grabbed him.
"I can't," he mumbled, going white. "There's too many, it's awful."
"Hey, it's okay," Zayn soothed, his confidence returning now he was on solid ground again. "They won't make us walk through them."
"How do you know?" Niall protested, but now Harry was pointing.
"Look! It is our families, they are here!"
They looked, and made out a group standing by the terminal building, waving madly. To the side of them was an enormous bank of reporters, cameras already flashing frenziedly as the boys carefully made their way down the steps.
"Oh my God." Liam flushed red, hesitating in sudden confusion. "Danielle's there."
"And Eleanor," said Zayn, staring across at the distant knot of people. "No Perrie though. Guess she got a better offer." Harry elbowed him, and he grinned, shrugging. "Hey. So did I."
Niall had pushed himself to the back, looking unhappy, and Harry took his hand. "We won't let you get hurt, okay?" he promised.
Zayn took Niall's other hand, and squeezed it. "Together, yeah?"
Niall nodded, a little of the colour returning to his face. Zayn looked up as someone else took hold of his free hand, and found Liam smiling at him, looking nervous. "Together?" Zayn repeated, and Liam nodded.
Harry reached out without looking, and felt Louis' hand slide into his. "Let's do it then."
A pale winter sun was breaking through the clouds as they made their way across the tarmac. They were grateful now, for the long coats and scarves that protected them from the temperature shock, and concealed the worst of their scarred, starved looking bodies from the baying press pack.
Hand in hand, they strode forwards in silence, rather serious-faced despite the occasion, each boy preoccupied with his own thoughts.
The image was captured by the waiting photographers and flashed around the world in seconds, becoming instantly and enduringly famous. Later, Simon would be accused of setting it up, of telling them to hold hands, but he just smiled from behind his sunglasses and said, "Some things you can't stage-manage, and some things you don't need to. Those boys are the real deal. And they're back."
Reaching their families at last, everything else was forgotten as they hurled themselves into waiting arms. Hugs and smiles and tears were shared as the five boys were reunited with the parents and siblings who'd thought they'd lost them forever.
After an emotional few minutes clinging to his sisters, Louis straightened up to find Eleanor standing there, waiting patiently for her turn to greet him, knowing his family had to come first. He swallowed awkwardly, mind going blank as he wondered what the hell to say.
Louis looked round, acutely conscious of Eleanor smiling up at him, of Harry standing at his side, of the masses of people and press following his every move and reaction. Liam had picked Danielle up and was swinging her round and laughing, and to Louis it felt like everyone in the world was watching him and judging.
In the end, he did the only thing he could do. He kissed her.
"Fancy a snog?" murmured a low voice in Harry's ear. He looked round and found Zayn grinning at him.
"I think Simon would kill us," he laughed, appreciating the arm that settled round his waist, and wondering whether Zayn was struggling with the same uncomfortable spike of jealousy that he was.
As if his thoughts had conjured the man up out of thin air, Simon appeared in the middle of their group. He'd tactfully hung back during the initial reunion, but now he was taking charge again, directing people here and there, and at his side was a familiar figure that made Harry forget all about the looming complications in his love life.
At his cry, everyone looked round, and seconds later Paul had disappeared under a shrieking, bouncing mass of boys.
Laughing, he finally fended them off before picking Niall up bodily and lifting him up like a kitten, all waving legs and helpless giggling.
Once Niall was back on the ground, Paul smiled round at them all, looking rather emotional. "I thought I'd lost you all," he said, shakily. "I should have known you'd turn up like bad pennies."
"Good thing you weren't on the plane," Liam said soberly, reminded of those in their party that hadn't made it. "Best timed ear infection you've ever had!"
Paul shook his head obstinately. "I should have been there to look after you."
"Could have been awkward later," Niall whispered, and Zayn snorted with laughter, grabbing and squeezing Niall's hand behind his back.
Danielle was looking at Zayn, pushing her hair back nervously and exchanging a glance with Eleanor, who nodded encouragement.
"Um. Perrie said to send her love," Danielle began, then hesitated.
"Is she on tour or something?" Zayn asked, and Danielle bit her lip.
"Not exactly. Um - well the thing is - "
Zayn caught on quickly. "She's with somebody else now?" he guessed.
"We thought you were dead," Danielle wailed, and Zayn shook his head sympathetically.
"It's okay. Really. Hey, look, it's okay." He held his arms out and gave her a hug. "Really. It's fine. Trust me."
Danielle hugged him back, sighing. "Sorry. She was invited to come today, but - yeah. She didn't want to look like a hypocrite."
"Dani, it's fine," Zayn repeated. "I'm fine. It's not a problem." She nodded, relieved, and fled back to Liam's side.
When their attention was drawn away, Harry edged back to Zayn and stroked a quick hand down his back. "You really okay?" he asked, under his breath.
"Yeah," Zayn nodded. "Kind've expected it, to be honest. At least that's one awkward conversation I get out of, anyway," he added, looking over at Liam and Louis and wincing.
For a while, the five of them posed obligingly for the press, and despite the ear-splitting noise and sense of imminent riot even walked down along the line of the barriers so the assembled fans could get better pictures too.
After months of peace and solitude it was utterly overwhelming, and they were all heartily relieved when Simon announced that they wouldn't be answering any questions today and asking, however redundantly, for people to respect their privacy and let them settle in for a day or two.
In the bosom of their families, who were proving reluctant to let go of them for a single moment, they were finally shepherded into separate cars and driven away.
Outside, there were even more people lining the roads that hadn't managed to get access to the airport, and the cars passed between rows of screaming, waving people.
"It's mental," said Louis, staring out through the tinted window. "It's only us."
"You've no idea what it's been like," said his mother, softly. "When we all thought you'd been killed - well, it was hell for us, obviously. But it was like the entire country - the world - went into mourning. There were a few who were cruel and stupid, there always are. But mostly people were so kind. It was like nothing I've ever seen." She wiped a stray tear from her cheek, and hugged him fiercely. "And then you were found, and it was like some sort of miracle. It's been like an explosion, everyone's going crazy."
Louis looked at his sisters squashed into the seat opposite and realised he had a daft grin on his face. "I missed you," he murmured. "So much. I thought about you every day."
"We knew you weren't dead," insisted Phoebe.
"We told everyone," added Daisy.
"They did too," Louis mother smiled. "Maybe I should have listened harder." She pinched her lips together in an effort not to start crying again, and Louis took her hand.
"I'm back, mum. And I'm sorry, so sorry that I went away."
The cars moved on through the outskirts of London, taking different routes to throw off any reporters trying to tail them.
Niall looked out at the passing streets, frowning. It was wonderful to be back with his family, and it had been barely an hour since they set off, but he was missing the others already. It wasn't as if they'd spent every waking moment together, but this sense of separation was new and strange.
Miles away and slightly to the east, Zayn was leaning his head against the window, looking up at the same sky, feeling boxed in and restless.
Stuck in a traffic jam, Harry kicked his feet against the seat and tried to concentrate on the voices around him. Gemma was attempting to bring him up to speed with everything that had happened in the past twelve months, his mother and step-father frequently interrupting and talking over each other. It was hard to focus; he had a growing headache, and unconsciously clenched and unclenched his fingers, longing for one of the others to be there with him, and take his hand.
Liam was half-watching Danielle, reflected in the window glass, rehearsing and discarding words in his head. What had seemed a certainty just days before, a concrete forever-bond between the five of them, now seemed like an impossible dream. It was dawning on him just how little they'd thought it through, how the promises they'd made each other would be so hard to keep - at least without bringing a lot of people's worlds down around their ears.
"You okay?" Danielle covered his hand with her own on the seat, and smiled.
"Yeah." He sighed. "Sorry. It's - all a bit much, that's all. Sorry if I'm being weird."
"You don't have anything to be sorry for," she said, making him feel even worse. "I've got you back, that's all that matters."
After a journey through London that felt nearly as long as the flight from LA, the cars pulled into the drive of a north London house, arriving almost together. Heavy gates were closed behind them, and as the boys and their families climbed out they looked round in wonder at the high brick walls enclosing the property.
Instinctively they made a bee-line for each other, going into a huddle and reaching out to touch each other comfortingly, a hand on a shoulder here, an arm round a waist there, hips pressed together, a cheek brushed against another cheek. They barely realised they were doing it, only knew that being apart for however short a time had felt unsettling and they needed reassurance.
"Look at them," Danielle murmured to Eleanor, laughing fondly. "It's like they've formed a pack or something. They'll be sniffing each other's arses next."
A final car drove in and Simon emerged, smiling round at them.
"I'm afraid your homes are all somewhat under siege right now. I've arranged for you to stay here with your families for the time being. There'll be security outside all the time, and we'll monitor access."
"Wow. You have been busy," said Liam, and Simon patted him on the shoulder.
"I know it'll take a bit of getting used to, being back. I thought you'd be happier all together." They all nodded vigorously and he laughed.
"Also - I don't know if this is something that you'd want, but if you can feel it would help I can arrange a counsellor to talk to? I don’t think any of us can imagine what you've been through, and if talking to someone would help you adjust...?"
They exchanged glances, each thinking privately that there was quite a lot about the last year that they didn't necessarily want anybody knowing right now.
Zayn shook his head slowly. "I think we're okay thanks. I mean - we've got each other, to talk to. Who else is even going to understand?"
"That's fine. It's totally your choice. Just let me know if you change your mind, or if anyone wants to ask in private, you know where I am."
"Harry still needs a proper doctor," Louis insisted, making Harry blush red and elbow him. Louis gave him a stubborn face until Harry sighed and nodded reluctantly at Simon.
"Lou's right, I'd feel happier with a second opinion, yeah."
"Alright. Well, I know a good man on Harley Street, I'll set up an appointment."
Inside the house, and left alone to explore the rooms they'd been allocated, the boys were pleasantly surprised to find that various clothes and personal items had also been brought from their homes.
Niall bounced into Zayn's room, brandishing a new phone. "Look what was in my room!"
"Yeah, I've got one too. And an iPad," Zayn grinned, and Niall did an abrupt about-turn to go and check what else he'd been left. Zayn followed him next door, and sat on the bed. "Did your mum bring you clothes?"
"Yeah, loads. Not sure they'll fit any more though," Niall complained good naturedly, flinging himself down next to him. "Don't want me trousers falling down in the middle of a press conference do I?"
"You'll have to borrow some of Louis' braces," Zayn smirked. "Or we could probably buy you some string?"
"It's so cold in here," Niall grumbled, burrowing his hands under Zayn's jumper and making him squeak in protest.
"Heating's on. I think we just haven't acclimatised yet. A year of tropical sun's probably buggered our tolerance right up." Zayn shrugged, and wrapped his arms round Niall's body, rubbing his back to warm him up while Niall snuggled into him making approving noises.
In a room across the landing, Louis was standing in the window staring pensively out over the back garden whilst Eleanor wandered around the room, exclaiming over all the little touches.
"Isn't it lovely?" she joined him at the window and leaned against him. "Really romantic."
He looked over at the bed, a study in white flounces and deep pillows. "Give it till tomorrow morning, I'll have spilt tea on it and filled it with crumbs."
"Oh, you." She barged him teasingly with her shoulder and he took her hand, squeezing it absent-mindedly, then looking startled when she let out a little yelp.
"Shit, sorry, did I hurt you?"
"No, it's okay," she laughed, patting his hand with her other. "Just don't know your own strength, you!"
He folded her into his arms instead, feeling guilty. He'd got used to being with the boys, where a loving touch was frequently disguised as a slap round the head, and there could be a thin distinguishing line between group sex and a wrestling match.
"Are you staying here?" Louis asked suddenly, realising she hadn't mentioned a room of her own, and having the awful thought that Eleanor might be expecting to share. Not that that would be so bad, ordinarily - having her pressed up against him was reviving all kinds of memories, none of them bad - but with Harry in the next room, he just didn't think he could.
"I've been staying with Dani," Eleanor said, resting her chin on his shoulder and smiling flirtatiously. "But I could stay here if you're offering?"
"Would you - mind if we didn't?" Louis asked awkwardly. "I just - need to get my head round a few things. Sorry."
Eleanor hugged him. "Don’t be silly, of course I don’t mind. This must all be so strange for you." She kissed him on the cheek. "Take all the time you need. I'll leave you in peace for a bit, eh? Come back tomorrow?"
He nodded gratefully, and she kissed him goodbye, slipping out of the room to go in search of Danielle. Louis rubbed a hand over his face and sighed.
Harry looked round at the quiet tap on his door, and instinctively beamed in relief when he saw it was Louis. He'd been imagining all kind of things going on next door and trying desperately not to mind, but now here was Louis, alone, and somehow Harry had closed the gap between them without noticing and thrown himself into Louis' arms as if his life depended on it.
Louis kicked the door shut and held him back just as tightly, and for a while they just stood there and clung to each other without speaking.
Eventually, Harry pulled back and cleared his throat, running an embarrassed hand through his hair. "Sorry. Not like I didn't see you ten minutes ago."
"I'm not complaining," Louis murmured, and Harry smiled in relief, moving closer again to kiss him.
"Look, about El - " Harry hesitated, wondering how to say that he understood, that it was okay, that he knew Louis would have things to work out, and that he shouldn't worry.
Louis though, took the unfinished thought as one of impatience and sighed. "I know, I know. I'll tell her."
"You will?" Harry looked surprised. He'd been half afraid that now they were home Louis would choose to go back to her, regardless of his feelings for Harry and the others.
"Yeah." Louis took hold of Harry's hands and looked into his eyes. "I have to, don't I?"
"Well. You don't - have to," Harry conceded. He already shared Louis with three other boys, he was fairly sure he could accept Eleanor as well if that was what Louis wanted.
But - "Yeah. I do," Louis said softly. "It's not fair otherwise. I hate this - this - feeling like I'm cheating. I'll tell her. I just - don't know how yet."
Harry hugged him. "Take as long as you need," he said, unconsciously echoing Eleanor and making Louis laugh. "What?"
"Nothing." Louis buried his face in Harry's shoulder and sighed. "Sometimes I think I don't deserve either of you."
"Well, tough." Harry smiled, and kissed the top of his head.
It was a cheerful and rowdy evening, with so many people crammed into the same house. Harry and Niall's mothers cooked for everyone, and the boys were pressed to relate tales of their time on the island to an appreciative and open-mouthed audience. They kept it light, instinctively glossing over the darker and more traumatic moments in front of the younger children.
When it was time for bed they dispersed to their separate rooms, too embarrassed to discuss possible sharing arrangements in front of their parents. They were too shattered to think much of it, quickly undressing and falling into bed.
Some time later Louis awoke, staring into the darkness, disoriented and wondering where the hell he was. He reached out instinctively for the warm bodies he was used to being snuggled into, but his hand found only cool sheets.
Louis sighed, remembering. He rubbed his eyes, wondering what time it was, and what had woken him. Somewhere on the floor below a toilet flushed and a door opened and closed, then all was quiet again. He and the other boys had this top floor to themselves, and if everyone else had gone to bed, Louis reasoned no-one would know if he snuck in with Harry.
Feeling faintly silly that he couldn't manage even one night on his own, Louis got out of bed and padded to the door. Creeping out into the dark corridor, he pushed Harry's door open and stuck his head in cautiously.
"Haz? You awake?" There was no reply, so he tiptoed into the room, reasoning he could just slip in beside Harry without waking him up. The curtains were only half-drawn, and a shaft of moonlight falling across the bed showed it was empty, the covers thrown back.
"Oh." Louis frowned, at a loss. He walked out again, wondering if Harry had gone to the loo, and bumped into a warm body coming the other way.
They both yelped in alarm, clutching at each other and giggling.
"Zayn! Scared me half to death. What are you doing?" Louis demanded under his breath, laughing at himself and the way his heart was pounding.
"I was just - going to the bathroom," said Zayn, clearing his throat.
"Uh, yeah. Me too." They looked at each other sheepishly, knowing perfectly well they'd both been in search of company.
"I'll leave you to it, huh?" Zayn offered, inclining his head at Harry's door.
Louis shook his head. "He's not in there."
"You haven't lost him already have you?" Zayn teased. "Careless!"
"Do you think he's alright?" Louis wondered, suddenly worried Harry might have passed out on the loo or something. They pushed open the bathroom door, but it was empty.
"Niall's room?" Zayn suggested.
They snuck along the hall and carefully inched open the door to his bedroom. And there, fast asleep in each other's arms, were Harry and Niall.
Louis quietly closed the door again, and stifled another yawn. "Mystery solved."
"Guess we should go back to bed," Zayn muttered. Louis looked at him.
"Wanna come in with me?"
Zayn grinned. "Thought you'd never ask."
Soon they were tucked up in Louis' bed, side by side. Louis thought happily that with the warmth of a second body, and the comforting sound of Zayn's breathing next to him he'd soon be able to drop off again. But Zayn was fidgeting, and finally gave a loud sigh.
"Wha's matter?" Louis asked, face half-buried in the pillow.
"Not tired now."
Louis snorted. "Try."
Zayn's hand burrowed under the covers and slid up Louis' thigh. "Or I could just wake you up instead."
"No you couldn't," Louis muttered, but he didn't object when Zayn's hand moved up to his dick. He wriggled instead, somehow accidentally giving Zayn better access.
"Like that?" Zayn whispered, grinning.
"Nope. Doing absolutely nothing for me," Louis lied, his cock already hard under Zayn's fingers.
"How about now?" Zayn had shuffled closer, his breath warm on Louis' neck, his hand cupping Louis' balls, gently massaging. Louis gave a stifled moan and gave in, rolling over and pressing himself up against Zayn's body.
"Fuck." Louis kissed him, demanding and rough. He could feel Zayn's own erection jammed up against his stomach, and they quickly shoved their pyjama bottoms down around their ankles, pushing needily against each other.
They jerked each other off without ceremony, both knowing what the other wanted. It was fast and messy, the only sounds their laboured breathing and the quiet, wet noises of flesh on flesh. Louis came first, biting down on his lower lip to force back a groan. Seconds later Zayn followed suit, his teeth in Louis' shoulder, coming all over their hands and groins, already sticky with Louis' release.
Panting, they lay down together with matching grins, covered in sweat and spunk. Louis wiped them both off cursorily with his pyjama bottoms and tossed them to the floor.
Zayn was yawning by now. "D'you think Harry and Niall did this?" he murmured speculatively, snuggling into Louis' side and closing his eyes.
"If they had any sense," Louis smirked, settling down with a feeling of sleepy contentment. It passed through his mind that he probably shouldn't have done this before he'd straightened things out with Eleanor, but right now he was having difficulty bringing himself to care.
In just a few minutes' time, they were both fast asleep.
It was daylight when Zayn next opened his eyes, and he squinted up to find a surprised looking Harry standing by the bed, holding two mugs of tea.
"Hey Harry." Zayn wriggled into a sitting position. "Ooh, tea, thanks." He grabbed one of the mugs before Harry could object.
"That's Louis'. It's got sugar in."
Zayn made a face, and Harry sighed and handed him the other mug as well.
Harry rolled his eyes and went out again, just as Louis stirred and sat up, yawning. Zayn handed him a mug, and he blinked.
"You made tea?"
Zayn blew across his mug, smirking. "Harry made tea. Technically I stole tea."
"Harry was here?"
"Yeah. I guess he went to make some more." Zayn looked up as the door swung open again and Liam stuck his head in, looking tousled and bleary.
"Morning." Liam wandered over and sat on the end of the bed, only now taking in the fact that they'd apparently spent the night together. "You two look cosy."
"Guess it felt weird sleeping alone," Zayn confessed. "Harry and Niall - " he broke off mid-sentence, realising it would look like they'd left him out.
"Harry and Niall what?" Liam looked at him, bemused.
"Harry and Niall are here!" Louis cried hurriedly, and as Liam turned to look at the door he exchanged a conspiratorial look of amusement with Zayn and crossed his eyes.
"Hi Liam. Cuppa?" Harry offered him one of the fresh mugs he was holding and Liam blew him a kiss. Niall came in behind Harry, hair wet from the shower, holding a towel up with one hand, sipping from a mug of his own.
"Hey guys. Sleep well?"
"Eventually," Zayn winked, and Louis spluttered tea everywhere.
They spent the morning with their respective families. Most were going to have to go home, returning to jobs and school at least until the weekend, and they wanted to spend as much time together as possible.
After lunch when most had gone, they were sitting in the living room feeling a little flat when someone arrived at the front door. They looked up expectantly, and Harry's face split into a grin when he saw who it was.
Louis scowled. "What's he doing here?" he muttered, not entirely under his breath, and Harry flushed with embarrassment, hoping Nick hadn't heard. Already on his feet, he grabbed his friend's sleeve and pulled him into the kitchen.
Nick let himself be shoved along without complaint, laughing. When they were alone, he took Harry by the shoulders and just smiled helplessly at him. "I can't believe it's really you. I just had to see for myself. Oh my God, Harry."
Harry laughed, and flung himself into Nick's arms for a hug. "It's so good to see you," he said. "I was going to call you, but - yeah. I don't remember your number any more."
"Well we can fix that," Nick grinned. "God, you're so thin," he added, running his hands over Harry's sides and frowning.
"We can fix that too," Harry laughed. They were pressed up close, Nick's face just inches from his, and when he bent for a kiss Harry didn't move away.
He'd told Louis the truth about his relationship with Nick being just friends-with-benefits - but he'd possibly been less than clear on just how often those benefits were realised.
After a moment, Harry reluctantly pulled back, resting his hands on Nick's chest and sighing.
"We can't," he murmured.
"We can't?" Nick cupped Harry's face in one hand and gently made him look up.
"I'm - with someone now," Harry confessed. Nick just raised an eyebrow.
"I didn't say that," Harry objected, and Nick snorted.
"I'm not daft. And I'm not deaf, either."
"Ah. Yeah. Sorry about that."
Nick shook his head, smiling. "It's okay. Hey, you're alive, I'll settle for that, yeah?" He pulled Harry back into a hug.
"Thing is..." Harry took a deep breath. "It's not just Louis. It's all of them."
"What's all of them?"
"That I'm - you know."
Nick took a step back and studied Harry's face, trying to decide if he was being wound up. "No way are you're shagging all of them?" he demanded, with a sceptical expression of incredulous delight. Harry nodded sheepishly, and Nick cackled. "What, do you have, like, a rota or something?"
"It's more of a mutual thing," Harry muttered, glad at least that Nick didn't look appalled.
Nick was wheezing with hysterical laughter, trying to get a coherent sentence out, and Harry slapped him on the arm. "Shut up!"
"I can see the headlines now," Nick grinned. "Dirty Harry's Island Gangbang!"
"Shut up!" Harry repeated, more forcefully. "You can never tell anyone, okay?"
Nick shook his head, trying to arrange his face into something more serious. "I would never tell, you know that. Your secrets are safe with me."
"I know." Harry sighed. "Do you think it's - weird?" he ventured.
Nick sniggered. "Of course it's weird. But who cares? If you're happy, that's the main thing. Are you happy?" Harry nodded, and Nick hugged him close. "Then that's all that matters."
In the living room, Louis was saying final goodbyes to his mother. The rest of his family were already in the car waiting to be driven home, but she was reluctant to let go of him.
"I'll be back soon, okay?"
"Okay, mum." Louis ruffled her hair, grinning. "I'm not going anywhere this time okay? I'll be fine."
"I just keep worrying that I'm going to wake up and it's all been a dream," she sighed.
"It's real," Louis promised. "We made it. We beat the odds yeah? The five intrepid survivors."
"Yes." She squeezed his hand. "Well, you and the others."
"What others?" Louis looked confused.
"Those other two men." She took in his blank expression and shook her head. "There were two survivors, at the time. I thought you'd know, did nobody tell you?"
"No. Because, y'know, why would anyone bother to give us major information like that?" Louis asked sarcastically, and she gave him a little push.
"Look it up then. They were all over the media for months. Spencer and - Davis? Davies? I forget." She paused, biting her lip. "I used to feel guilty because I hated them, for surviving when you hadn't."
"No need to now though." Louis hugged her. "Love you."
When she'd finally gone, he dropped onto the sofa next to Liam and smacked him over the head. "Look it up dude."
"I am." Liam was already studying his iPad, scrolling through news stories dating back to last year. "Here it is, two men, Spencer and Davison, both British, picked up from the water the day after the crash. Thought to be the only two survivors..." he tailed off, skimming the rest that was an account of their own presumed deaths, then clicking a link to the next story. "Oh. Oh God, no."
"Liam? You okay?" Niall asked. Liam had gone deathly pale and the hand he was holding the iPad with was shaking.
"That's - no, that can't be true, that's - " Liam stood up, clapping a hand to his mouth. "I'm going to be - " he dashed out of the room.
"Liam!" Zayn ran after him, and Louis and Niall looked at one another.
"What the hell?" Niall said. "What did he read?"
Louis picked up the fallen iPad gingerly, as though it might bite him. Looked at the article Liam had clicked onto.
"What is it?" Niall came to look over his shoulder. "Oh. Oh."
The story described how in the wake of the crash, in separate incidents, two teenage girls in America had committed suicide when the search for survivors had been called off.
"Shit." Louis rested his head against Niall's, as they took it in.
"That's - awful." Niall curled up miserably, hugging his knees to him. "Those poor girls."
Louis put an arm round him, feeling sick. Clicked back through the browser history, looking for something to distract them and came to the previous article Liam had been reading. He scanned it briefly, then came to the photograph of the survivors. And sat up so quickly Niall fell sideways.
"Have you seen this?"
"I don't want to."
"Not that, this. About the survivors. Fucking - " Louis checked the names. "It's them!"
"Who?" Thoroughly confused, Niall sat up and peered at the screen. "Who are they, I don't get it?"
"Craig Spencer and Brendan Davison," Louis read out. "They were the bastards who tried to kill me!"
Zayn found Liam in the downstairs cloakroom, on his knees by the toilet.
"You okay?" he asked gently, crouching down next to him in the confined space. "What's wrong?"
Wretchedly, Liam told him what he'd read, and Zayn put his arms round him comfortingly.
"It's not our fault. Not your fault. You do get that, right?" he murmured.
Liam shook his head miserably. "They did it because of us though. And their families, what must they - " his eyes went wide as an even worse thought occurred to him. "Oh God, how must they feel now? Now that - it was for nothing?" he bit his lip, fighting the urge to cry or throw up again.
"Liam! Listen to me, you can't blame you yourself for what crazy things other people do. Chances are they had other problems, you don't know that. If it wasn’t us it would have been something else."
"You don’t know that."
"And you don’t know otherwise," said Zayn stubbornly.
Liam leant against him sadly. "I wish we'd never come back," he whispered.
The kitchen door burst open and Louis walked in brandishing an iPad. "Harry have you seen - oh, for fuck's sake!" Louis did an abrupt about-turn and marched out again, cursing his own stupidity. In his indignant fit at discovering who the other survivors were he'd completely forgotten Harry was in there with Nick, and he'd just interrupted what looked like a fairly intense embrace. He flung himself back on the sofa and shook his head obstinately at Niall's questioning look.
In the kitchen, Harry and Nick pulled reluctantly apart. "Erm. Sorry, about that," Nick winced but Harry just shrugged.
"He'll get over it."
When Nick had gone, Harry went to find Louis, braced for an argument. He found him still in the living room with Niall and was taken aback by their gloomy expressions. Surely Louis hadn't taken it that hard?
He sat down cautiously next to Louis, and gave him a tentative smile.
Louis sighed. "Sorry about just now. I forgot you were with him." Telling himself sternly that he had no right to criticise Harry for anything when he was in exactly the same position with Eleanor.
"Lou - I told him. About us. That was a goodbye hug," Harry said quietly.
Louis looked round in amazement. "You did? I mean - shit Harry, I'm sorry, I just assumed - "
"I know how it probably looked." Harry slid his arm through Louis'. "But yeah."
Louis kissed him, but he still looked miserable, and Harry frowned. "What's up? Did something else happen?"
They told him about the suicides, and then Louis showed him the article on the other survivors and explained again who they were. Harry was horrified.
"But - can't we like - get them arrested or something?" he demanded.
Niall stared at him. "You need to see all the stuff on here. These guys have become like - national treasures. We can't just accuse them of attempted murder."
Niall went red. "Well - it's just Louis' word against theirs isn’t it? And there's two of them."
"There's five of us," Harry objected.
"Yes, but we weren’t there were we?"
Louis looked round at him. "You do believe me?"
"Of course I do!" Niall looked more miserable than ever. "I'm just saying. It's not going to look good if the first thing we do is make that sort of claim is it?"
Harry and Louis exchanged glances. "If you want to, it's up to you," Harry said. "We'll back you."
Louis shuffled uncomfortably. "Niall's right. If they deny it - well not everyone's going to believe me, are they? They'll say it's - I dunno, a publicity stunt or something."
"We should tell Simon," Harry said. "See what he thinks."
Niall agreed with relief, glad to pass on the responsibility. Louis nodded too, more pensively, and Harry hugged him tight.
"We'll sort 'em out," he promised. "Let's face it, proven or not, one word on Twitter and you could make their lives hell."
Niall looked alarmed. "Don't!"
"I'm kidding," Harry grinned. "Dick."
Niall threw a cushion at him, and knocked two mugs off the coffee table just as Liam and Zayn came back in.
"Woah!" Zayn pulled a face. "Tantrums?"
"It's past Nialler's bedtime," Louis smirked. "I think he's jetlagged."
"I think we all are." Zayn stifled a yawn. "Everybody's on edge." He had his arm round Liam's waist, and kept it there even when they sat down.
"So." Zayn put his feet up on the coffee table, searching for a change of topic. "Did we find out who the other survivors were?"
Later that afternoon a car arrived to take Harry and Zayn away for further medical check ups. It was after dark when they returned, and the others rapidly appeared from various corners of the house to hear their news.
Zayn had had his leg re-strapped, and was tired and grumpy. "I've got to go back once a week for physiotherapy," he told them. "And they've given me a load of stupid exercises to do. And I've got to have it massaged regularly."
Niall sniggered. "That doesn't sound so bad. Depends if they get the right leg."
Liam grinned at him. "It's not going to be a sexy masseuse though is it? He'll end up with a hairy fat bloke called Barry."
"He might like that," Niall suggested, and Zayn gave them both the finger.
"What about you Harry?" Liam asked. "Everything okay?"
Harry shrugged. He'd been quiet for the whole journey back, and looked a little pale. "Yeah. He's referred me for a scan. Just to make sure."
"So - they're taking you seriously then?" Louis said. "That's good, right?"
"Yeah. I guess." Harry looked away. The part that had prompted the referral had been his confession just how many painkillers he was still taking, and he hadn't told anyone else about that, not even Louis.
"So when is it?"
"Dunno. I'll get a letter. Couple of weeks maybe."
"Weeks?!" Louis shrieked, making Harry wince. "What good is weeks?"
"There's a waiting list," Harry sighed. "It'll be fine Lou, leave it."
"But - well - can't you queue jump or something? Bet Simon could get you in quicker. Go private."
"This is private. It'd be months otherwise. And how would you feel if someone died or something because I took their turn? You'd hate it."
Louis subsided, and gave Harry a hug instead. "Sorry. I'm just worried about you. They obviously think there's something wrong still."
"It's just a precaution," Harry lied. "I'm fine."
They sat down for supper, all of them yawning as the change in climate and lingering effects of jetlag took their toll. Niall and Zayn's mothers had stayed behind in the house to look after them, and they all were heartily grateful they didn't have to fend for themselves any more.
"So." Zayn shuffled deeper into the sofa afterwards, nestling against Harry's side for warmth. "Who's sleeping with who tonight?"
"What do you mean?" Liam looked at him and Zayn winced as Louis kicked him in his good ankle.
"Don't like sleeping alone any more," said Niall, oblivious. "It feels all wrong. Lonely."
"Right. Yeah." Liam looked sympathetically awkward. "Um. I guess you can come in with me if you want?"
Niall beamed at him, and Louis and Zayn exchanged looks of surprise. Liam had been a little remote since they'd returned to London and they'd assumed he'd need a while to work things through.
"Just sleeping though, right?" Liam added, and Niall looked a little disappointed.
"Uh. Yeah, okay. Whatever you want."
The next morning they had a surprise visitor in the shape of Lou Teasdale, who squealed at them in excitement for a good five minutes, and then another five in distress at the state of their hair, before corralling them into an emergency hairdressing session.
"Got to look your best," she declared, as Niall tried to escape.
"Who's going to see us though?" he complained. "We don't really leave the house at the moment."
She looked surprised. "You've got a press conference tomorrow, didn't they tell you? Now, we're going to leave you looking a bit natural, which means no drastic cuts yet, we'll leave it long-ish..."
"...and Niall, no bleaching for you yet,"
"...but we'll smarten you all up a bit, and Harry, how have you got lumps in your hair?"
Harry looked defensive. "We had one comb. It's sort of turned into dreadlocks underneath."
Lou wrinkled her nose. "I think I'll have to cut bits out."
When Simon arrived later on, Zayn was submitting to the scissors and everyone else had been groomed to within what felt like an inch of their lives.
Having enquired after how they'd been getting on, Simon proceeded to outline what was in store for them the following day. They would be taking part in a brief open-forum press conference, sitting on a panel with Simon, and then spending the afternoon in a series of interviews with carefully selected newspaper, radio and television representatives.
"Don't feel you have to go into too much detail at this stage though," Simon warned. "I've got a book deal lined up and possibly a documentary. But people are clamouring for your story, and this is a good way of getting titbits out there to whet their appetite."
"Not sure I want to be eaten," Zayn muttered.
Niall nudged him. "Speak for yourself."
Louis cleared his throat. "Actually - there was something we - I - wanted to run past you. You know I told you back in Hawaii about the two guys who pushed me off the wreckage just after the crash?"
Simon nodded. "Exactly! That's just the kind of thing to grab you the headlines!"
"Yeah. Erm. Well, see, they were the ones who later got picked up. Craig and Brendan whatever-their-names-were. The survivors. They were the ones who tried to kill me."
"We can report them, right?" Harry put in, absent-mindedly sliding a hand over Louis' knee. "They can't just get away with it."
Simon looked taken aback. "Well, wait a minute. You can't just go accusing these people. What proof do you have?"
Louis made an exasperated noise. "Some days there's just never a documentary crew around when you want one, is there?"
"I didn't mean - look, Louis, you have to understand you can't just make wild accusations, there's libel laws and all sorts to think of - even if it's true..."
"It bloody is! I'm not likely to forget them am I?"
"...then they could still argue you slipped in accidentally and they couldn't rescue you. I seem to remember by your own admission you were asleep when it happened."
"But - but - " Louis groaned. "It's not fair. They just get off scot free?"
Simon spread his hands helplessly. "I'm sorry. I don't think there's anything we can do. I would strongly advise not making any rash statements, certainly not at this stage. Neither of them mentioned any such occurrence in their interviews, and to be honest it's only going to reflect badly on you if you're not believed. You would almost certainly be sued."
He eyed Harry, still absently stroking his fingers over Louis' knee and frowned. "Thinking about it, perhaps you'd all better draw up a list of things you're likely to bring up, and let me see it beforehand, hmmn?"
Harry belatedly realised what he was doing and made to move his hand away, but Louis covered it with his own and glared mutinously at Simon. "Trying to censor us?"
Simon sighed. "Trying to protect you."
They were interrupted at this point by the arrival of Eleanor and Danielle, and everyone took this as an excuse to disperse.
Left alone, Harry surreptitiously washed down a couple of painkillers with a bottle of water and lay down on the couch, dozing off within minutes.
Niall went to seek out his mother and pick up where they'd left off catching up.
Zayn went to his room and tried to work through a few of the exercises he'd been given to strengthen his leg, but they soon made it ache unbearably. He gave up and hauled himself upright, wincing. Liam and Louis were busy with the girls, which left Harry and Niall. He'd go and find them, Zayn decided.
He wandered downstairs again, limping slightly, and stuck his head into the living room. Harry was apparently fast asleep on the couch, so he made his way into the kitchen. A movement in the garden caught his eye, and Zayn slipped out of the door hoping it was Niall, only to find it was Simon, smoking a cigarette.
Simon turned and saw him, nodded a hello, then offered the packet politely. Zayn froze. It had been so long since he'd had one he'd imagined the cravings were long past, but suddenly being enveloped in a cloud of smoke brought it all back.
He shook his head, hesitantly. "I've given up."
"Oh, of course." Simon slipped the packet back into his coat, and Zayn followed the movement covetously with his eyes. "Sorry. God, yes, you must have gone complete cold turkey out there. How was it?"
"Hell," Zayn muttered, feeling suddenly unpleasantly prickly all over.
"Well, good on you. Stick to it." Simon ground his own out on the patio and gave him a smile before going back inside.
Zayn made to follow him, and found to his surprise Niall was watching him from the door. He smiled, a little guiltily. "Hey Niall."
"You okay?" Niall cocked his head to one side, looking concerned, and Zayn wondered what his expression had looked like. He rubbed his bare arms, shivering.
"Cold out here," he said, avoiding the question.
"Let's go inside then." Niall slipped an arm through Zayn's and led him up to his bedroom. Zayn flopped onto the bed groaning and Niall poked him in the stomach.
"What's the matter, misery-guts?"
"I want a cigarette. Like - really want one," Zayn admitted.
Niall looked troubled. "You shouldn't."
"I know that, dickhead," Zayn huffed. "I just - I thought I was done with all the cravings, y'know? That I'd got through it and that was that. Turns out all I fucking needed was to smell it again and - bam."
Niall lay next to him and propped himself up on one elbow. "You'd be daft to start up again."
Zayn gave him a half-hearted glare. "You're not helping. Distract me, can't you?" he demanded, and Niall leaned over to deliver a sloppy kiss.
"Better?" he smiled, his lips still brushing against Zayn's.
"Good start," Zayn said begrudgingly. "Could try harder though."
Niall grinned, and tweaked his nipples. "Talking of harder..." He shuffled further down the bed until he was in a comfortable position to start unfastening Zayn's jeans.
"So - exactly how distracted do you want to be?" Niall asked with a smirk, unzipping him slowly. "Mildly distracted?" He slid his hand inside and fondled Zayn's cock through his boxer shorts until he could feel he was getting stiff.
"Quite distracted?" Niall pulled Zayn's jeans down over his hips and leaned over to mouth at his growing erection through the cloth. Zayn gave an involuntary groan, and Niall laughed, pleased.
"Very distracted?" Niall hooked his fingers into the waist of Zayn's boxer shorts and inched them down teasingly slowly until Zayn's cock sprang free. He was fully hard now, and Niall ran the tip of one finger up his shaft, dropping a feather-light kiss onto the head.
"Fucking - " Zayn gritted his teeth and pressed his shoulders back into the bedclothes, determined not to give Niall the satisfaction of seeing him squirm or beg.
Niall sniggered. "Fucking distracted? Okay. I guess we can manage that." His tongue flicked out, drawing a wet line up the side of Zayn's cock. "Say please."
Niall licked a stripe up the other side, pulling away again before he reached the tip.
"Say please." Niall drew a fingernail along the inside of Zayn's thigh, leaving a thin red line and making Zayn jerk in surprise.
"Please! Shit, fuck, please, okay, please!" Zayn gave in, choking out the words, half-laughing.
Smirking inwardly, Niall finally slid his mouth over Zayn's cock and sucked him deep. He hollowed his cheeks, working him with lips and tongue until Zayn had given up any pretence at nonchalance and was writhing underneath him, giving out little panting mewls of approval.
Niall wrapped a hand around the base of his cock, started pumping in time with the bobbing movements of his head, gasping in breaths whenever he could snatch them, rather than let up for a second. His free hand was splayed across Zayn's belly, stopping him from thrusting up with his hips and choking him.
Zayn's breathing was ragged by now, he'd abandoned himself to Niall's attentions and was riding waves of arousal rushing through him. He could feel his climax fast approaching, and tangled a hand into Niall's hair in warning. Niall carried on, patting Zayn's stomach with his fingers to let him know he understood. Zayn had wanted a distraction, and Niall wasn't going to wimp out at the last minute.
Seconds later Zayn's cock was pulsing between his lips and thick warm come flooded his mouth, forcing him to swallow convulsively, again and again.
When it was over, Zayn relaxed limply with a contented sigh and Niall sat up, wiping his mouth. "Marks out of ten for distraction?"
"Eleven," Zayn said generously, and held his arms out, grinning. Niall settled against him, Zayn immediately seeking out his sticky lips for a kiss.
"Thank you," Zayn said softly, after they'd lain there a while in sleepy silence.
"I love you," was Niall's simple and instinctive response, before blushing in embarrassment. But Zayn was smiling, and pulling him closer for another kiss.
"I love you too."
When the girls had arrived, Liam and Danielle had retired to his room, and as soon as the door was closed firmly behind them, she planted her hands on his chest and pushed him over to the bed.
"What's going on?" Liam laughed, falling back onto the covers and watching as Danielle climbed on after him, straddling his legs and smirking down at him through falls of dark hair.
"I'm going to give you a treat," she said mischievously, stroking a hand over his groin. "Can you guess what it is?"
Liam tried to form a reply, but she hadn't stopped moving her hand and his brain was refusing to co-operate. Soon Danielle could feel his body starting to respond and bit her lip, smiling.
She unbuttoned his fly and pulled off his trousers and underwear, before sitting back and peeling her dress off over her head. Underneath she was wearing a matching lacy purple bra and knickers, and Liam gave up on words entirely.
Danielle wriggled forwards, lace rubbing against his erection, and Liam moaned. Her smile widened to a grin.
"You must be so ready for this. I know I am. You poor thing, all that time and only boys for company."
"Uh." Liam felt he should protest somehow, confess all, or at least hint that he hadn't been all that faithful in the strictest sense, but now Dani had produced a condom from somewhere, and his mouth was too dry to speak and in any case his cock was telling him in no uncertain terms to shut up.
In the next room, Louis and Eleanor were sitting on the floor leaning back against his bed, looking out of the floor-length window at the winter garden. They were talking, or at least, she was talking, and Louis was answering mostly in distracted mono-syllables.
When something banged against the wall in the next room, they both jumped. When this was followed up by a sequence of filthy moans from what was unmistakably Danielle, Louis coughed awkwardly and turned the radio on.
Eleanor nudged him hopefully. "If you wanted, we could - you know?"
Louis sighed. "I'm not really in the mood."
She nodded, slowly, even though he wasn't looking at her. "What's up, Lou?" she asked quietly. "Because something is. Is it me?"
He did turn then, glancing at her with a pained expression then back out of the window, as if he could read the answer in the bare branches of the trees.
"It's not you," he said. "Don't ever think that. You're - amazing." There was a beat of silence, and he sighed. "It's me."
She sagged a little, confirmation none the less painful for having half-expected it. "Is there someone else?"
Louis hesitated, finally gave a jerky nod.
Eleanor twisted her fingers into the hem of her jumper, wanting to know but not wanting to ask. Curiosity finally got the better of her. "Is it Harry?"
Louis looked round as if he'd been stung. "What makes you say that?"
He looked so paranoid she laughed. "Louis, you've been stuck on a desert island for the last twelve months. In the absence of any hula girls, it had to be one of them." She shrugged. "Harry just seemed the most likely."
There was a renewed series of pornographic thumps and groans from next door, and they both blushed. "Well I guess it wasn't Liam anyway," Eleanor murmured, and Louis cleared his throat noncommittally.
"It's Harry," he confessed, figuring this seemed to be the lesser of two evils. "I'm sorry. You waited so long, and I've fucked everything up."
"No you haven't." She put her arms round him, and he buried his face in her hair, trying not to cry. "Thank you," she added in a whisper. "For telling me."
"I'm so sorry," Louis said plaintively. "Can you forgive me?"
She nodded, wiping her eyes and sniffing hard. "Course. We're still friends, yeah?"
"Always." He hugged her to him, and they stayed like that for a long while, as the noises next door reached a peak and finally subsided.
Eleanor finally pulled away and stood up, straightening her clothes. "I'd better go."
Downstairs, a bleary-eyed Harry came out of the living room just in time to see Eleanor run down the stairs and out of the front door, clearly fighting back tears. She was followed down more slowly by a stony-faced Louis.
"Louis? Everything okay?" Harry said uncertainly.
Louis shook his head. "I told her. About us. It's finished."
Harry caught his breath, hope mingling in his heart with uncertainty. He hadn't really believed Louis would go through with it, not so soon, but the grim expression on his face frightened him a little. He reached out, meaning to comfort, but Louis pulled his arm away roughly.
"Don’t. I don’t want to see anyone right now." He stalked off into the kitchen and Harry made his way back to the sofa, feeling like he'd just been slapped. He sat down, suddenly shaky.
Harry had no idea how long he sat there staring into space, but Louis finally reappeared, a little shamefaced. He sat down gingerly next to Harry although leaving a wide gap between them.
"I'm sorry." Harry whispered. "Are - are we okay?"
Louis closed his eyes briefly against the prickling of threatened tears. "I love you," he breathed. "I just hate myself right now." Harry shuffled closer, moving to kiss him, but Louis shook his head. "Don’t. I don’t deserve it."
Harry sighed sadly. After a while he lay down again, curling into a ball and hesitantly resting his head on Louis' leg, half expecting to be pushed off. But Louis let him be, and after a minute of two his hand came to rest on Harry's neck, fingers idly toying with strands of his hair.
They were still there an hour later when Niall and Zayn burst in in search of food.
Everyone was awake early the following morning, hyped up for the press conference. They'd had yet another delivery of new clothes arrive, and excitement mingled with nerves as they got ready. Everyone seemed a little on edge, and multiple arguments flared up and died away just as quickly. No-one could eat much breakfast, and they were relieved when the cars finally arrived to ferry them to the venue.
Marshalled in a room behind the main hall, they could hear the buzz of the assembled press on the other side of the doors. Simon gave them a few last minute pointers, advising them to stick to the positive things, with a sharp glance at Louis. He got a look of extreme innocence in return, and snorted.
"Five minutes guys, be ready." Simon hurried off to check a few last minute details and left them alone.
"You're not going to do anything stupid, are you?" Liam asked warily.
Louis was indignant. "What do you take me for? I might just give them a shock though. Serve 'em right."
Louis looked confused. "Who do you think? Mr and Mr Murdering Bastards of course."
"Attempted Murdering Bastards," Niall amended and Louis conceded the point with pursed lips.
"Oh. Right. Yeah." Liam cleared his throat awkwardly.
"Why, what did you think I meant?"
"I just thought you might be planning on - " Liam glanced at Harry. "Never mind."
"What? Coming out to a room full of paps? No ta."
Harry looked rather hurt. "Would it be that bad?"
Louis stared at him. "Maybe you'd like me to declare the fivesome, while I'm at it?"
"I didn't say that." Harry sighed, wishing he'd thought to bring more painkillers with him. The couple he'd taken before breakfast were already wearing off.
Liam was looking increasingly alarmed. "We're not going to mention any of - you know - are we?" he demanded. "That needs to stay between us."
Louis gave him an acid look. "Would cramp your style with Danielle if she found out, huh?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Liam snapped.
"Very. Thin. Walls."
They glared at each other, while the others looked at them, confused.
"Liam? Do you not - want to carry on with us?" Harry asked in a small voice. "Like we were, I mean?"
Liam gave a groan of exasperation. "Can we not do this here?"
"He's already back sleeping with Dani," Louis blurted.
"Really?" It was Zayn's turn to look hurt and Liam looked like he was a second away from punching Louis.
"Why shouldn’t I? She's my girlfriend." he hissed.
"I thought we were your boyfriends," Harry muttered, then flinched as Liam rounded on him.
"Are you actually crazy? You really think we can pull off a five-way relationship in the real world without being found out?"
A protective arm slid round Harry's shoulders and he thought for a second it was Louis, but Zayn hugged him and glared at Liam.
"Leave him alone."
Liam threw his hands up. "You're all mad."
They all jumped, not having Simon's approach.
"Yeah," said Louis, quickly.
"Fine," Liam muttered, and they all moved slightly closer together, instinctively closing ranks. They might be fighting, but it was their fight, no-one else's.
"Well, they're ready for us. Shall we?"
They filed into the next room and took their places behind a long table, Simon at one end. The rest of the floorspace was crammed full of reporters, and the immediate onslaught of camera flashes left them blinking, half-blinded.
Harry swallowed nervously, feeling increasingly sick and dizzy. He was between Simon and Liam, and wished briefly that he'd hung back long enough to sit next to Louis.
A reassuring hand squeezed his shoulder, and Harry looked up in surprise.
"You okay?" Simon murmured, turning his face away from the rest of the room. "You've gone ever so pale. We can stall things if you need a moment?"
Harry managed a tight shake of the head. "I'm okay. Thanks, though."
Simon nodded cautiously, wondering if he'd pushed things too fast. It was vital to catch the crest of the wave of interest in their return, but Harry really did look ill, and there'd been an odd tension in the air between all of them. He sighed and turned a confident smile back to the waiting press.
To the faint surprise of those involved, the next half an hour went relatively smoothly. A little tentative and hesitant in their answers at first, the boys gradually recovered some of their old confidence and were soon fielding questions with ease, even laughing and joking with the reporters.
The story of how they survived after the crash was the hottest topic of interest, particularly the way they'd found each other again. Harry looked tearful as he re-lived how he'd felt on the island, finding Liam and Niall and not yet knowing if Louis had made it.
Much to Simon's discomfort, this lead into Louis seizing the opportunity to tell his story. The room listened to his depiction of being trapped by his lifejacket in sympathetically horrified silence, but when he reached the part where he was pushed into the sea by his raft-mates, the audience erupted in consternation.
Louis sat back, unable to be heard over the hubbub, looking both impressed with the reaction and slightly taken aback.
"But who were they?" demanded one reporter at the front. "Do you know?"
Simon cleared his throat. "We're getting short on time, perhaps we should move on - "
Louis though, leaned forward and addressed the questioner, making sure he was in good view of the nearest television camera.
"I - " he paused deliberately, waiting for the room to quieten a little. "I never got their names, sorry," he said ruefully.
At the end of the table Simon visibly relaxed and Harry shot him an apologetic smile. "Drama queen," he mouthed, and Simon smiled back tightly.
"Have you met the other survivors yet?" another reporter was asking, and Harry was fairly sure he caught Simon mutter "Oh for fuck's sake," under his breath.
"Not yet." Louis beamed down at them brightly. "Someone should set that up. Can we make that happen?"
"Well I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen, but that's all we've got time for," Simon announced, getting to his feet hurriedly. "If those of you that have one to one interviews would like to make your way next door, and everyone else, thank you very much for coming."
He gestured to the boys and they got to their feet, waving and smiling for a final photo before making their way back into the anteroom.
They were more cheerful now, buzzing slightly, the differences of earlier put aside. It was slowly sinking in just what an achievement it had been to survive at all; seeing it reflected back in the faces of other people made them realise how amazing their story must seem to outsiders, when to them it had only been day to day life.
"What the fuck was all that?" Simon demanded, having stormed in after them.
Louis raised his chin defiantly. "I didn't say anything! But now they know I know. And I know, they know I know. And - "
Simon held up a hand to stop him. "Can we perhaps drop the game playing? You might think it's funny - "
"Funny! I could have died!"
" - but you're toying with things best left alone, Louis."
As the argument went on, Harry drifted away to the buffet table, picking up a bottle of water with a hand he was vaguely surprised to find was shaking. He unscrewed the cap and took a drink, leaning against the edge of the table for support. Adrenaline had got him through the press conference but now it was over, reaction was kicking in and his head was thumping worse than ever. He was sweating, his shirt sticking unpleasantly to his back, and the voices behind him were a blur of noise.
He went to set the bottle back on the table, and took three attempts to get it down safely. The patterns in the carpet seemed to be swirling round his feet, and Harry wondered if he was going to throw up.
"Louis?" He'd meant to call out, was fairly certain his lips had formed the right shapes, but couldn't be certain that any sound had come out. Tried again.
"Louis - I don't feel - I think I'm going to - " Harry was bending over now, holding onto the tablecloth with both hands to keep himself on his feet, but the others were still talking to Simon, and nobody heard his whispered plea for help.
Harry blinked hard, spots encroaching on his vision like after-images from a camera flash, but there were no cameras in here, and he couldn't call out any more because it was taking all his concentration just to remember how to breathe.
It seemed to be getting darker, and Harry's last clear thought was to wonder who'd turned the lights down before he crumpled silently to the floor.
Most people had their backs to him, but Niall saw him fall and cried out in alarm.
Everyone spun round, and there was a general shout of alarm. In seconds, Louis was on his knees next to Harry's still form, grabbing his hand in shocked fright.
"Harry? Harry! What's wrong, what - please wake up. Harry?"
"Give him some air." Simon herded the rest of them back, but Louis refused to move. Simon looked across at the huddle of assistants and staff staring at them in frozen surprise and snapped, "Call an ambulance!"
"Is he - ?" Liam sounded frightened, but Louis didn't look round, wouldn't take his eyes off Harry.
"He's breathing," Louis nodded, folding Harry's hand more securely between both of his own. "It's going to be okay," Louis whispered down to him, pressing his lips together when they threatened to tremble. "Please be okay."
When the ambulance arrived ten minutes later, Harry still hadn't regained consciousness. The paramedics loaded him onto a stretcher, and when Simon tried to usher Louis out of the way he wrenched his arm free and retreated to Harry's side.
"I'm going with him," Louis said firmly.
"Louis - they'll do all they can, you need to - "
"I'm not leaving him!" It came out as half a scream, and Louis forced down his panic as he took in the shocked faces around him. "I'm going with him," he repeated more calmly. "Somebody has to."
No further objections were raised and the others watched silently as Louis followed Harry into the ambulance, departing in a wail of sirens moments later.
"He'll be okay - right?" said Niall shakily, feeling like he'd got stuck in a recurring nightmare. It should have been better this time round, Harry had all the medical attention he could need, but somehow it felt even worse.
"Sure." Zayn's hand found its way into his, for his own reassurance as much as Niall's.
Liam was standing a little apart from them, looking sick. When they turned to include him, he moved away, shaking his head.
"Fine time to be worrying about cameras," Niall muttered. They were outside on the pavement, and the legions of gathered press were watching them intently. He hadn't meant Liam to hear, but a break in the traffic noise meant he caught it, and walked even faster towards the waiting car. To know that Niall thought that was the reason he was reluctant to accept comfort was like a knife in the heart, but Liam wasn't ready to voice his actual feelings yet.
At the hospital, Harry was whisked off by a team of medics and Louis was abandoned to hard plastic seating and his own troubled imagination. In the ambulance he'd told them the history of Harry's accident, and could only hope that this had been passed on to the next group. Everything was happening too fast for him to cope with, and now suddenly he was alone again. He settled down for a miserable wait.
In light of events the scheduled interviews had been postponed, and it was a sober group that returned to the house. Liam didn't speak at all in the car, and hung back when they reached home. Zayn and Niall still had their mothers there, and he disappeared into the living room rather than join in with the explanations and comforting hugs.
After a while Zayn and Niall came in alone and settled on the sofa. Liam had curled himself up in an armchair and ignored the curious looks they gave him. He'd half hoped they'd call him over, but his spiky body-language suggested he wanted to be left alone, so they did just that.
Liam squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the urge to burst into tears. He prided himself on being the strong one, the sensible one, but sometimes he envied the way people like Harry or Niall found no shame in openly crying and accepting comfort.
Across the room, despite being cuddled up in quiet conversation, Zayn had been watching Liam worriedly over Niall's shoulder. When he saw a tear slide down Liam's cheek, angrily dashed away, he sat up.
"Liam? You okay babe?"
Liam looked round, face scrunched up and miserable. "It's all my fault," he said wretchedly.
Zayn frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"Harry. It's my fault, everything's my fault."
"The fuck are you on about? Is this about this morning? I hardly think you yelling at him made him collapse, it was going to happen sooner or later. Li - two doctors saw him and didn't notice anything wrong enough to admit him straight away, how can it be your fault?"
Liam shook his head. "Didn't mean that. Meant - everything. I was there, Zayn, when it happened, I should have - stopped it somehow. I shouldn't have let him go up on those bloody rocks, or gone with him, or done more when he fell, or something - " Liam was crying in earnest now, and Zayn was on his feet, horrified.
"Is that what you think? Liam - nobody blames you?" Zayn dropped onto the arm of Liam's chair and took him into his arms.
"I do." Liam snuffled into Zayn's shoulder, holding him tightly back, feeling Niall's arms settle round him too.
"Well - you're an idiot then," said Zayn helplessly, stroking Liam's hair and rocking him.
Liam's shoulders were shaking and he couldn't stop the sobs breaking out of him.
"I just keep fucking everything up," he said dejectedly. "And now you all hate me, and - "
"We don't hate you!" Zayn objected. He sighed. "If you'd rather be with Dani, we understand. Nobody's going to hold it against you."
"I don't, though." Liam's voice was muffled against Zayn's shirt, and at first it wasn’t clear what he'd said. Zayn and Niall exchanged puzzled glances.
"You don't?" Zayn said carefully.
Liam shook his head. "I want to be with you." He looked up, wiping his eyes. "Of course I do. I just - I didn’t see how it could work, I thought it'd all go wrong, but you were all - just ploughing ahead with it, when all I wanted to do was be careful." He sniffed, and Niall handed him a tissue. "Thanks. I dunno, maybe I'm just a coward."
"You're not a coward." Zayn kissed him on the cheek. "You're just the only one with any sense. That's why we need you, Liam."
"You still want me?" Liam looked disbelieving, and Zayn kissed him again, on the lips.
"Course we do, you twat."
Liam managed a watery smile. "I love you. All of you." He looked round and Niall grinned back at him, gave him a kiss as well.
"It's going to be okay," Zayn said, hugging Liam close. "We'll figure it out. All five of us. I promise."
They slid together until the three of them were occupying the same seat, tight in each other's arms, blocking out the world.
It felt to Louis like he'd been sat there for hours before anyone came to see him. Maybe he had. Finally a nurse came to find him, a tired but cheerful looking West Indian woman, who escorted him to another waiting area in a different department, this time with blessedly cushioned seating, and left him again.
Another hour dragged past, then another, even slower. People came and went, some crying, all looking preoccupied and worried. It was calmer up here than the main waiting room he'd been in at first, but the quiet itself intensified the fear growing within him.
Eventually the nurse walked back through, and Louis leaped to his feet, afraid of making a scene in this place of hushed voices, but more afraid of not knowing.
"Excuse me. Harry, is he - can you tell me anything?"
To his relief she paused, looked at him with compassion. "You're with the lad who came in with the head trauma, aren't you? Styles?"
"Yes." Louis was taken aback to hear it put like that, but supposed it was true.
"Are you family?"
She didn't look particularly suspicious, but for a second Louis was lost for words. He was so used to people recognising them that he didn't quite know what to say. A mad urge to tell her he was Harry's brother rose to his lips, in case she refused to tell him anything. He bit it back, realising that to lie would be the worst thing he could do. And anyway, he had a reason to be here, didn’t he? The best reason of all.
"I'm his - his boyfriend," Louis told her, swallowing anxiously. It was the first time he'd said it to an outsider, and it both scared him, putting it out in the open like this, and at the same time filled him with a sense of warmth.
The nurse just smiled, and nodded understanding, and Louis felt some of the tension go out of him.
"He's in surgery just now," she said. "We won't know more for a while."
"But - he's going to be okay, right?" Louis blurted, sensing she was keen to get away to wherever she was going. She turned back and patiently started to explain the issues more fully, but it was full of terrifying phrases like 'hairline fracture' and 'relieving pressure on the brain', and Louis' own head seemed to be full of static, the words slipping away from him as he tried to grasp them.
"Do his parents know he's here?"
This last phrase finally penetrated the turmoil of Louis' thoughts, and he blinked in shock. One of the others surely would have called Anne, wouldn't they? He fumbled his phone out of his pocket, then had second thoughts, looking up guiltily. "Am I okay to use this in here?"
The nurse nodded. "You're alright in the circulation areas. If you go into intensive care or theatres at all, turn it off." She moved on, leaving Louis staring at the phone in his hand and feeling sick at the thought of the call he had to make.
More time crawled past. It was dark outside now, and he was the only person left in the waiting room. Louis had started to wonder if the world outside these four walls still existed.
He'd phoned Anne, and found to his relief that Niall's mother had already called her. She'd been desperately grateful for anything he could tell her, which wasn't much, and thanked him profusely for being there. She would come down, as soon as she could.
After that he'd texted Zayn, letting him know Harry was still in the operating theatre, and that he'd let them know as soon as there was news. He'd been grateful to get an immediate reply, and they'd sent messages back and forth for a while. Now though, he was back to staring at the wall and trying not to imagine all the things that could go wrong.
Noise in the corridor spurred him to get up and look out of the door, in time to see a bed going past surrounded by a group of staff. There were drip poles and wires and all sorts of things attached to it, and Louis' heart leaped into his throat as he looked down at the figure in the bed and recognised Harry.
"That's - can I - I mean, I'm with him," Louis stuttered, as a male nurse gently but firmly ushered him back into the waiting area.
"Give us a chance to get him settled eh? Someone will come and get you shortly," he was promised.
"But is he okay?" Louis cried after them, but the party had vanished through a secure door and didn't answer.
Louis couldn't face sitting down again, and paced back and forth anxiously. 'Shortly' turned out to be almost another hour, but eventually a doctor came to find him.
"Your friend's stable," she explained, "but he'll be unconscious for a while yet. You've been here a long time, if you wanted go home for a bit, take a rest - "
"No," Louis interrupted. "I'm staying until he wakes up." He hesitated, almost afraid to ask. "He - will wake up, right?" To his relief, she nodded.
"We've done everything we can, and the operation was a success. It's up to him now really, how long his body takes to recover." It was her turn to hesitate. "There is - always a possibility of complications, I should warn you. I can't promise you that he'll be okay, but it's looking hopeful."
"Can I see him?"
"Yes, of course. Don't be intimidated by all the kit, okay? Most of it's just monitoring him now, not keeping him alive. It's worse than it looks."
"Okay." Louis swallowed, wishing he wasn't on his own as he followed her into the unit. It was split into individual bays around a central desk, each with a single bed in it, one side open to the main floor. He carefully sat in the chair next to Harry's bed, despite her reassurance still terrified of knocking something vital out of a socket.
Harry looked pale in the dim light, dwarfed by the machines around him and his head was swathed in bandages.
"We had to shave his hair," explained the doctor, seeing Louis' rueful expression.
"Guess that's a fair price to pay for keeping him," Louis smiled, plucking up the courage to reach out and take Harry's hand. He'd been afraid it would feel cold, or lifeless, but it was warm and dry and he squeezed it gently.
"He'll probably be disoriented when he does come round," the doctor was explaining. "And it's not uncommon for there to be some short-term memory loss."
"What?" Louis looked up, startled. "How much?"
"It varies. He probably won't remember events leading up to his collapse. It may be more extensive. There's a chance he will have lost everything from the accident itself onwards, I understand that was actually some time ago?" Louis nodded, looking stricken, and she smiled sympathetically. "On the other hand, he may remember everything. Like I said, it varies. The important thing is a friendly face when he wakes up, right?"
Louis smiled and nodded again, inwardly queasy. She showed him how to operate the nursecall system in case he needed help, and finally left them alone.
Louis lifted Harry's hand to his lips and kissed it. "You're going to be okay you little sod, you hear me?" he whispered.
He settled back, resigned to another long wait. Realised he should tell the others Harry was out of the operating theatre, then remembered guiltily he shouldn't have his phone on in here at all. Sent a fast text to Zayn, then turned it off hastily, expecting to be yelled at at any moment.
The doctor's words were churning round and round in his head. If Harry didn't remember anything since the accident - well, he'd be confused waking up here, for a start. Louis' lips twitched slightly, until he realised that that would mean Harry wouldn't remember making love to him in Hawaii either, and his face fell.
The important thing was Harry being okay, Louis told himself. Everything else they could rebuild. The nasty thought occurred to him that Harry might not remember anything - what if he didn't know who he was? Who Louis was? He shook himself crossly. No point in worrying about things until they happened.
Louis was half asleep, and thought at first he'd imagined the twitch of fingers in his hand, until it came again. He sat up hurriedly and leaned forward.
"Harry?" he said hopefully. Harry had a little frown crease between his eyes, and Louis could see his eyes flickering behind the lids. "Harry, wake up," Louis urged softly.
Harry's lips were parted slightly, they looked dry and cracked, and Louis longed to kiss them. His eyelids fluttered, and Louis clutched his hand harder. "Harry?"
For a second his eyes flickered open, distant and unfocussed, and Louis caught his breath. "Come on Harry, you can do this. Wake up now."
After a long moment, Harry opened his eyes again, blinking weakly. He looked up at Louis' worried face, and frowned slightly, licking his lips and swallowing painfully.
It was barely a breath, but Louis broke into a broad smile.
"Yeah. I'm here Harry. I'm not going anywhere. Ever. It's going to be okay."
As Harry's eyes drifted shut again, Louis kissed his fingers and although his eyes stayed closed, as Harry fell back asleep this time there was a slight smile on his lips.
Louis took a shuddering breath, feeling like a weight had been lifted off him. He realised he should tell someone that Harry had woken up, however briefly, and pressed the button he'd been shown.
Someone was quickly at his side, and Louis smiled nervously, hoping he hadn't done wrong.
"He woke up. Just for a second."
The nurse went to check Harry's monitors, nodding. "How did he seem?"
"He knew who I was. That's good, right?"
The nurse gave him a smile. "That's good," she confirmed. "Let me know if he wakes again, okay? Are you alright? You've been here ages, you want a cup of tea or something?"
Louis looked uncertain. He'd tried the tea from the vending machine outside and it had borne as much resemblance to tea as to puddle water. She seemed to guess his thoughts, and winked.
"We have real teabags in here, and everything."
Niall, Zayn and Liam were asleep together in Niall's bed when the buzzing of Zayn's phone woke them up. Zayn reached out blearily, accidentally smacking Niall in the face before he found it.
"Well?" Liam asked impatiently as Zayn squinted at the text.
"He's come round," Zayn read with relief. "Just for a bit."
"Oh thank fuck." Niall flopped face down in the pillow, and Liam hugged him.
Zayn quickly sent a reply, telling Louis to let them know when they could come and see Harry, or to tell them if he needed anyone to relieve him for a bit.
They knew Harry wasn't necessarily out of danger yet, but it was definitely three happier boys who went back to sleep.
Louis got back from a hasty trip to the loo and from texting the others, to find Harry still sleeping peacefully. He resumed his seat, stifling a yawn. Every second he'd spent away from the bedside had been one of heart-thumping paranoia, but nothing had changed and he realised this might be the case for a long while to come. He settled down, resigned to another long wait.
Some hours later, Louis became aware of several things at once. It was daylight, he appeared to have fallen asleep slumped face down against the bed, and there were fingers in his hair, trying to get his attention.
He looked up, fuzzy and disoriented, and found himself looking into Harry's matching expression of confusion.
"Harry!" He sat up with a jerk, and stared at him with his mouth hanging open. "You're awake."
"What happened?" Harry's voice was low and rough, and he looked bewildered.
"You passed out," said Louis. He pressed the button for a nurse, realising he should let someone know Harry had come round again.
Harry's gaze flicked around, taking in the machines and the hospital bed, then back to Louis. "Guess it was a bit more than just passed out, huh?" he said quietly, finding the tubes taped into his right arm, and discovering the bandages round his head.
Louis captured his roaming hand in his own. "Yeah," he admitted softly. "They - had to operate. I'm not sure what they did, exactly."
"I'm okay though?" Harry looked frightened and Louis nodded quickly.
"Yeah. Course. You're going to be fine."
Harry nodded cautiously. "You wouldn't lie to me?"
"No!" Louis pressed Harry's hand tighter and shook his head. "I wouldn’t. I swear. Not about something like that." Harry still looked worried, and Louis nudged him. "Only thing - no matter how hard they looked, they still couldn’t find any trace of a brain."
Harry gave a coughing laugh, then winced, and Louis felt immediately guilty. "Sorry."
"No. It's okay." Harry smiled at him, and Louis couldn’t help himself, he leaned over and kissed him softly on the mouth.
"Hey now. Kiss it better isn't a medical term you know."
Louis turned guiltily to find the same nurse from the day before smiling at him.
"So you're awake are you?" she said to Harry. "How are we feeling?"
"Been better," he rasped. "I'm so thirsty."
"I'll get some water." She went out again, and Louis caught Harry's eye, blushing slightly at having been caught kissing him.
"I told them I was your boyfriend," he confessed in a low voice.
Harry smiled, brushing his knuckles against Louis' cheek. "You are."
When the nurse came back, Louis had a daft grin on his face, and she gave them both a speculative look as she helped Harry sip from the water.
"I looked you two up you know."
"You did?" Louis looked startled.
"Uh huh. I get in to work this morning, there's about two hundred teenage girls blocking the ambulance bay. And somebody says it's because of who we've got up here. So yeah, I looked."
"Oh God." Louis closed his eyes. "Sorry."
She shrugged. "You should maybe tell them he's okay, huh? Get them to move on."
"They never listened to me yet," Louis said ruefully. "But I can try. Although if I confirm he's here, it'll probably just make it ten times worse." He thought of something else. "I should probably tell the others you're awake though," he said, looking back at Harry. "And your mum. She should be on her way here."
Harry nodded, and Louis got to his feet, then hesitated.
"I'll take good care of him," promised the nurse, and Louis flushed.
Before he left, he bent down and kissed Harry again, just in case, then looked nervously at the nurse. It had been different when they'd just been two random boys, but now -
"Go on." She shooed him away. "I need to take a look at your friend here, and it'll be easier if you're not getting in the way."
"Um - " Louis started and she rolled her eyes.
"Far as I'm concerned, anything that happens in my ITU is confidential, okay?"
"Thanks." Louis shot her a relieved smile and disappeared.
He was back barely a quarter of an hour later, having bolted down a roll for breakfast, and made a couple of calls.
"Hey." Harry reached out for his hand, and Louis clasped it tightly, glad he was still awake, and that some of the colour had come back to his cheeks.
"The lads send their love," Louis said. "They want to know when they can come and visit."
"He can have two visitors at a time," the nurse said. "No set hours in here, but don't wear him out."
"We won't," Louis promised. "Oh, and your mum's about half an hour away."
"Have you been here all night?" Harry asked. Louis nodded awkwardly.
"I wasn't going anywhere till I knew you were okay."
Harry watched him fondly until Louis met his eyes again, then smiled. "Thank you," he said softly. "I'm glad you're here."
They were talking quietly when Harry's mother arrived, shown in by another nurse.
Louis moved back out of the way to make room, but as soon as Harry had hugged her hello, he reached out for Louis' hand again.
"Hello Louis," Anne smiled. She looked tired, and he realised she must have been up all night to get here.
"Mum." Harry took a deep breath. "There's something you should know." He looked at Louis and raised his eyebrows a little, and Louis realised with a pounding heart what Harry meant to do. He nodded immediately, and Harry relaxed a little, looking back at his mother.
"Louis and I - are together, now."
Anne took in their two anxious faces and their joined hands, and smiled at them, understanding.
"Well. I'd say welcome to the family Louis, but you were already a part of it."
Louis sagged in relief, and she hugged him.
"Seriously. Thank you for being here for him Louis," she said. "I mean that."
"No problem." The way Louis felt right now, he thought maybe he could face anything after all.
As soon as he set foot in the door, Louis was pounced on by the others, eager for news.
"He's okay," Louis promised, fending off the torrent of questions. "At least, he will be, now. It might take a while. His mum's with him at the moment, I'm going back this evening."
"What about you?" Zayn asked, taking in Louis' red-eyed exhaustion. "Are you okay?"
Louis nodded tiredly. "I just need a few hours' sleep, I'll be fine."
Zayn put an arm round him. "We're here for you too you know. Don't shut us out," he murmured, meaning to comfort, but Louis flinched, looking stricken.
"I didn't mean to - I'm not - " he stumbled, suddenly conscious that the others might think he was implying they weren't as invested in Harry's recovery.
Zayn hastily waved away his concern. "Hey, I didn't mean it like that. It's right, okay, that it was you, went with him. I'm just saying we're here, if you need us? All of us," he added meaningfully, and Liam nodded sheepish agreement.
Louis smiled. "Thanks, guys." He sagged a little, and they clustered round him, hugging him tight. For a while Louis let himself just lean there in their arms accepting wordless comfort, then pulled reluctantly away.
"I'd better get some rest." Turning down offers of food, he dragged himself upstairs to his room, kicked off his shoes, and crawled under the covers fully dressed.
Exhausted to the point of collapse, Louis had imagined he'd pass out straight away, but as soon as he closed his eyes his brain decided to go into overdrive. He tossed and turned, trying to shut out torturous thoughts of Harry having a relapse, or how things could have turned out so much worse.
After about half an hour, the bedroom door inched open and Niall peeped through the gap. Seeing Louis was awake, he smiled.
"Hey. You okay?"
"Can't sleep," Louis sighed.
"Zayn said not to disturb you, but I figured I'd check if you were alright." Niall came right in and sat on the bed. "You want some company?"
"Yeah," Louis admitted softly. "Wouldn't mind. You wanna come in?"
Niall climbed into the bed, then before Louis could object, rolled him over onto his side and spooned up behind him, one arm wrapped protectively round Louis' waist.
"Better?" Niall smiled hopefully.
Louis slowly relaxed against him, breathing out with a sigh. "Yeah. Yeah, it is."
Warm and drowsy now, and lulled by the rhythm of Niall's breathing, Louis finally slid into a peaceful sleep.
The next couple of weeks were hard for everybody. Harry remained in the hospital, and while they all took turns at sitting with him, Louis took by far the lion's share, and went about in a constant state of fatigue.
Liam, too, was distracted and pensive. Harry's collapse had shocked him into admitting to himself he wanted to be with them still, and the subsequent mutual need for comfort had lead to him resuming a physical relationship with Louis, Zayn and Niall - but he still hadn't told Danielle, and was being slowly pulled emotionally apart.
Simon was sympathetic but insistent that they continue with their press engagements despite their reluctance to appear without Harry, and so they had to endure a seemingly endless round of interviews and appearances as a foursome. It felt all wrong, unbalanced, but they had little choice. They couldn't even use the sessions as a distraction, as the first questions were invariably about Harry.
He was making progress, slow but significant. After a week he'd been moved out of intensive care into a side room, and ten days after that had been moved to a private hospital closer to the house.
It was a few days after he'd been admitted here that Louis arrived at the ward reception only to be told Harry wasn't accepting visitors.
"What? He wouldn't mean me, though?" Louis said to the sister in charge, taken aback.
"No-one at all, those were his instructions," she told him. "He was very clear there were to be no exceptions."
Louis stared at her, confused and a little hurt. After the hours and hours he'd spent at Harry's bedside, to be told he wasn't wanted was more than a little upsetting. And more than that, he was worried, wondering what was behind it.
At that moment the phone rang, and as the nurse turned to answer it, Louis eyed the door to Harry's room across the corridor. He looked at the nurse who was busy writing something down, her back to him, and made his mind up. Slipped quickly across the hall.
Harry had spent a long time with his system full of intravenous painkillers and various other medications that had left him sleepy and disinterested in his surroundings. For a while now as he healed they'd been reducing his dosages, and this left him both physically unsettled and more aware of his situation. He was weak from lying in bed so long, and increasingly embarrassed that he needed help with everything down to and including going to the toilet. Especially that.
Today, to cap off his misery, the final dressings had been permanently removed and he'd spent most of the last hour staring dismally at his own reflection. He had a livid red scar across the top of his head, and dark stubble instead of hair. They'd kept shaving it in order to keep the area around the incision clean, and he thought he looked like some kind of repulsive alien. The thought of anyone else seeing him in this state had been just too much for him to handle.
The sound of the door opening made him spin fast enough to make him dizzy, and he flinched in mortification when he realised it was Louis.
Louis stared back at him, hesitating just inside the door. Harry's appalled expression at seeing him was like a knife in the heart, but he offered a tentative smile.
"They said - you didn't want to see me?"
Harry blinked, belatedly realising how it had come across. "Oh. I - no, I didn't mean - not like that. I just - I'm tired, that's all," he mumbled. "I didn't really feel up to visitors."
"Oh." Louis relaxed in relief, coming right in. "Well, I won't stay long then." He took in Harry's tense expression, and frowned. "What's wrong?"
Harry swallowed. "So? How do I look?" He didn't want to know, but on the other hand couldn't not ask. Louis didn't hesitate.
Harry gave a reluctant laugh. "Liar," he said, but his lips curled into something approaching a smile.
Coming closer, Louis reached out to take Harry's hands as he finally realised what this was all about. He shook his head slowly, holding Harry's gaze, eyes shining with emotion.
"Harry - I thought I'd lost you," he breathed. "You will never look anything other than beautiful to me."
He folded Harry shakily into his arms, and they clung to each other in a fierce embrace that became a hard, passionate kiss.
"God, I'll get thrown out," Louis laughed, as they finally pulled apart, sitting side by side on the bed.
Harry tangled his fingers into Louis' and smiled. "I won't let them."
One night after dinner the following week, Louis' phone buzzed in his pocket, and he found a text from Harry. "Hey, listen to this - Harry's says the consultant's just told him he can go home on Friday!"
"Finally!" Zayn grinned, as Niall drummed jubilantly on the table.
"We should make him a cake or something," Liam said seriously then looked hurt when they laughed. "What? Everybody likes cake."
"Have you ever even made a cake?" Zayn enquired, and Liam shrugged.
"Okay. So we could buy a cake..."
The four of them spent the next morning flitting in and out of Harry's room, putting on fresh bed linen and arranging a small proportion of the epic quantity of flowers he'd been sent, whilst trying to pretend they absolutely weren't doing anything that remotely soppy.
They were on their own again in the house by now, although random family members tended to drop in at weekends with casseroles and a critical eye for the lack of housework being achieved.
After lunch, Louis set off for the hospital with a lighter heart than he'd had for weeks. He arrived at the same time as Anne, and Harry greeted them both excitedly.
"I just can't wait to get out of here," he said feelingly. "I'm going nuts."
"It'll be good to have you home," smiled his mother.
Louis, about to tell Harry how they'd been getting things ready for him, faltered. It honestly hadn't occurred to him that Harry might go home to his family to recuperate, and he closed his mouth hurriedly, feeling silly.
From the expression on Harry's face, it looked as though it hadn't occurred to him either, and he glanced from his mum to Louis and back. "Oh. Er. I kind've assumed I'd be - um."
"So did we," Louis said quickly. "We're all ready for you to come home."
Anne looked surprised. "I don't think that would be right. Louis, you're welcome to come too, of course you are. But Harry's going to need a lot of help at first," she explained gently.
"I know that," Louis said, feeling stung. "We've talked about it," he added, turning back to Harry. "Everybody understands. We're all up for it."
"Louis, I understand you care about him, but he needs to be with his family," Anne protested, shaking her head with a touch of suppressed irritation.
Harry reached out and took Louis' hand. "I will be," he said quietly. "Mum, I know you want me home, but - well I'm not a kid any more. I'm staying in London with the lads."
"Harry - "
"No. It's not up for debate." Harry swallowed, looking upset but resolute. "I need to be with them right now, okay? I just - I just do."
"We'll look after him," Louis said quietly. "I promise."
Anne gave in, looking troubled. "You better had," was all she said. Harry hugged her, apologising again, and Louis could tell he was wondering whether to come clean about their whole five-way relationship. In the end though Harry kept quiet, and although the mood was strained for a while the fact he was well enough to be discharged was enough to raise everyone's spirits again.
The following day Louis was back, and found Harry dressed and waiting nervously.
He smiled. "Ready?"
"Yeah." Harry nodded, looking suddenly unsure of himself. Louis remembered something.
"Oh, hey, I brought you something." He dug it out of his coat pocket and handed it over. Harry looked at the woolly hat in grateful surprise.
Louis shrugged. "Well, it's cold out there," he muttered. "You've got to keep warm." He watched as Harry thankfully pulled it on, concealing his scars and cropped hair.
"For the record, you're still beautiful, okay?" Louis added under his breath. Harry smiled, and kissed him on the cheek.
"Thank you," he whispered, and Louis held him close for a moment, in shared understanding.
Louis drove him home, and as soon as he pulled up outside the house the others poured out of the front door to help Harry inside.
"I can walk you know," he laughed, as willing and conflicting hands all tried to hang onto him at once. "I'm just a bit weak, not broken!"
They ushered him quickly into the warmth of the house, and he hugged them all in turn. Liam was last, and he held back a little, looking guilty. Of all of them, he'd spent the least time at the hospital with Harry, and finally burst out with long-festering self-reproach.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Harry," he blurted.
Harry looked blank. "Okay? Um. What for?"
"The way I yelled at you, the day you collapsed. It's haunted me ever since, like, what if I made it worse, or brought it on, and, yeah, I'm so sorry."
Harry shook his head. "I don't remember." Liam frowned, and he shrugged. "Don't really remember much from that morning, to be honest. They said it's quite common apparently. So yeah, don't worry, okay?" He held his arms out for a hug, and Liam cuddled him close in relief.
Behind Liam, Louis frowned a question. As far as he knew, Harry hadn't suffered any memory problems at all in the end.
Harry caught his eye, and winked.
Later that evening, they gathered in Harry's bedroom. Harry had tired quickly, and despite protesting that he wanted to stay up had been overruled by the overly protective boys. As a compromise, they'd all come up with him, and Louis and Niall were tucked up on either side, while Liam and Zayn perched on the end of the bed.
"Aren't you hot?" Zayn asked, looking askance at the hat Harry was still wearing even in bed.
He hesitated, and Louis stroked his hand. "You've got to take it off some time you know."
Harry nodded reluctantly, and pulled it off with a sigh. There was a moment's awkward silence, and he winced.
"Somebody bloody say something then."
Zayn grinned. "Well - I'd still fuck ya."
Harry burst out laughing, and Niall leaned over and planted a kiss on the side of his shaved head.
Louis nudged him. "See?"
Harry smiled back at him, then looked up in surprise. Liam had leaped off the end of the bed without a word and hurried out. Everyone exchanged baffled glances, but could only conclude he must really have needed a piss.
Ten minutes later, Liam reappeared in the doorway. Harry was the first to notice him, and clapped a hand over his mouth in amused surprise. Zayn turned round to see what he was looking at, and cracked up laughing.
Ignoring him, Liam came back to sit on the bed, smiling self-consciously. He'd shaved his head to match Harry's, down to the shortest fuzz.
"You've been dying to do that since we got back," Zayn needled. "Don't make out it's all some big solidarity thing."
"Ignore him," Harry smiled. "Thank you." He kissed Liam softly on the mouth, making him blush.
"Shall we all do it?" Niall suggested. "I'm game."
Zayn groaned. "Harry, I love you, but a man's gotta draw the line somewhere. Right Lou?"
Louis looked at Harry, smiling reluctantly. "I'll do it if you want me to?" he offered, to a groan of protest from Zayn.
Harry laughed. "Nobody has to do it, okay? It's fine. You're all lovely though. Insane, but lovely." A yawn caught him by surprise, and Niall hugged him.
"We should let you rest." Niall slid out from under the duvet, and jerked his head at Louis. "Come on you, leave him in peace."
Louis hesitated, and Harry took hold of his hand under the covers. "Stay?" he said quietly, and Louis nodded immediately.
"Don't wear him out," Zayn ordered sternly, from the door.
"No, mum," Louis answered meekly, and Zayn rolled his eyes.
"If we hear fornicating, we're staging an intervention," Liam warned, as the rest of them left the room.
"Jealousy's a terrible thing!" Louis called after him, but when they'd gone he turned out the light and lay down quietly with Harry in his arms.
They kissed each other, soft and lingering, savouring the moment, of being able to do this again. They pressed together, half-hard but not going anywhere with it, just holding each other close in the darkness and finally letting themselves believe that maybe, after all, everything would be alright.
A few days after Harry's return home, Simon arrived at the house with a mysterious envelope. He'd been in LA for a couple of weeks, and was keen to hear how they'd been getting on.
In between the interviews and various press engagements, they'd been working on writing down all the songs they'd composed on the island, and on material for the planned book about their ordeal.
A ghostwriter had been arranged to develop it with them based on their experiences, and many afternoons had been spent telling their story over and over into a tape recorder. They had a tendency to talk over each other, not to mention contradict each other, and the sessions tended to end with irritation on the part of their writer, and a laughing scuffle between themselves.
No-one liked to admit they'd been stalling for time until Harry could join them, that having to tell his side of things had felt wrong. Some progress had been made though, and they explained this hurriedly to Simon, in case he was cross about the time it was taking.
Simon though, had come for a different purpose. He opened the large padded envelope he'd been carrying and spread across the table before them a set of high quality aerial photographs. It took a moment or two to realise they showed the island, and everyone pored over them in fascination.
"There's the lagoon," Zayn said, pointing eagerly. Liam pushed his hand out of the way.
"Don't get fingermarks all over it. Look, that must be where the cave was, in those rocks."
"And the beacon. And that was where the boat was," Niall added, nose hovering a few inches above the picture until he, too, got pushed out of the way.
"The wreck is partly why I'm here," Simon explained. "The navy want to go in and retrieve the two bodies that you mentioned. See if they can be identified. Do you think you can pinpoint exactly where they were?"
There was a certain amount of humming and sighing and loud disagreement, as five fingers promptly pointed to five different spots.
"It's tricky," Louis said apologetically. "Both sites were under the trees, and it all looks different from above."
"Take your time," Simon said. "It's not that big, they should be able to track them down anyway, but any help you can give will be appreciated."
After a further few minutes' debate, and close scrutiny of the shots taken from different angles, they finally reached a consensus.
"The skeleton was here," Zayn said, pointing. "I'm almost certain. I was heading towards those rocks when I fell, and I think that dark line is the ravine."
"And the grave site was about here," Harry added. "Just back from the cove."
The others nodded agreement, and Simon carefully marked the points they'd indicated.
"Thank you. Much appreciated." He slid the identifying pictures back into the envelope. "You can keep the rest, if you want?"
"Yes please." Louis was still staring at them, tracking events in his mind, remembering. It was an odd feeling, seeing the place spread out before him like this. Their time there had started to feel rather dreamlike, and the pictures had unexpectedly brought it all back into sharp relief. It also felt strangely intrusive, to know other people would soon be tramping across their island, as if it shouldn't actually exist for anyone else.
"There was one other thing," Simon said with uncharacteristic hesitation. "This house - well, I'm sure you agree it's larger than you need, it was rented so all your families could stay together, and now that it's just you here - " He held his hands palm upwards apologetically. "I left you all to it while Harry was ill, with all the media attention it was much more private for you, but, well, I expect you'll be keen to get back to your own homes by now, won't you?"
"I - I guess so, yeah," Liam said, as Simon appeared to be expecting an answer.
"That's good." Simon stood up, putting his coat on. "The lease has been arranged to the end of the month. That should give you plenty of time to move back to your own places. Let me know if I can help with anything? I'll be in town for a week or so."
When he'd gone, they exchanged rather stunned glances. Nobody had really given any thought to the fact this was only temporary accommodation, and the idea that they might be split up again so soon after being reunited was an uncomfortable one.
"But we can still stay together, right?" Harry said. "I mean - we can all go to mine or something. It's big enough for all of us."
"Won't it look a bit weird?" Liam sighed.
"Who cares?" Harry shot back. "Do you want to go back to living on your own?"
Liam shook his head, but said nothing.
"End of the month?" Niall mused. "That's like - immediately after Christmas though?"
"Bloody hell, I'd forgotten it was December already," said Harry, startled.
"Well some people spent most of the last month lazing around in a hospital bed," Zayn teased.
"Niall's right though. We need to start making decisions," said Louis, sighing. "We've avoided talking about this, and maybe we shouldn't have."
"What is there to talk about?" Niall asked plaintively. "We stick together don't we?" There was an awkward silence, and his face fell a little. "Don't we?"
"Yes." Harry looked stubborn. "Of course we do."
Zayn put his head in his hands. "How though? I mean - yeah, no, I'm not saying I don't want to - but honestly, practically, how can it work? The five of us just move in together in one house, permanently? Liam's right, it'll look well weird."
"We could - go back to all having flats in the same block?" Louis suggested, and Harry threw him a grateful look. He'd been harbouring a worry Louis was going to agree it wouldn't work, or suggest that he and Harry break off by themselves. He loved Louis, but he loved the others too, and Harry wasn't prepared to give them up willingly.
"Yes!" Niall seized on the idea hopefully. "No-one'll know what we do behind closed doors. And it makes sense, people'll just think it's for practical reasons, being close to each other and stuff."
"And we hide it, is that what you're saying?" Zayn asked, sounding tired and defeated. "For the rest of our lives, or careers, or whatever. Or until someone slips up and it's a massive scandal. You're saying we hide the fact we're in love, and nobody's ever going to think it's peculiar that we don't date anyone else, and where we get to the point where we're terrified to show affection in public in case someone guesses?"
Niall shrugged, helplessly miserable. "What's the alternative? We can't just stop loving each other. I can't, anyway."
Zayn grabbed him roughly, yanking him into his arms. "I will never stop loving you," he forced out through gritted teeth. "I never fucking said that."
"Then why don't we do it?" said Harry. "Come clean. Tell everyone. What's the worst that can happen?"
"You're not serious?" Liam sighed. "Can you even imagine the shitstorm that would create?"
"No such thing as bad publicity?" Harry ventured. Liam scowled.
"That's bollocks and you know it."
"We could at least ask Simon?" Harry persisted. "See what he thinks?"
There was a hesitant silence as they considered this.
"You really want to tell Simon Cowell his entire band are screwing each other?" Zayn asked dubiously.
"To be fair, he's probably heard worse," Louis smirked. "I vote it's worth a shot. Toe in the water, sort of thing."
"You're all mental," Liam groaned, but he didn't object further, and the decision was made.
It was a nervous group that sat facing Simon the following afternoon. They'd called him back over, saying they had something important they wanted to discuss without saying what, but now he was actually here, everyone was having second thoughts.
Zayn nudged Harry in the ribs, prompting him. They'd decided Harry should be the one to break the news, on the grounds Simon seemed to be the most fond of him, and also given his state of convalescence he was least likely to be shouted at.
Harry swallowed nervously, and looked round at them all, getting reluctant nods of confirmation from everyone, even Liam.
"There's - something you need to know," Harry said carefully. "About us. Um. Because it might come out at some point, and you should probably know first."
"Go on." Simon kept a studiedly neutral expression, bracing himself for the worst.
"We're - together. As in - like - " Harry floundered, looking desperately round for support.
"Sex," Louis supplied helpfully. Liam covered his face, and Niall gave a nervous giggle.
Harry blushed. "Yeah. Um. Sexually. We're - sort of - in love, you see. All of us. With each other."
"Is this some kind of wind-up?" Simon asked, and five heads shook vigorously.
"It's been a while," Harry went on, sounding apologetic. "I mean - it's not something we've just suddenly decided. We're serious about it. About each other."
Simon shook his head slowly. He'd been afraid they were going to tell him they didn't want to continue as a band, so this was both a relief and a shock. If it had been just Harry and Louis he wouldn't have been particularly surprised, and it would even have been manageable to an extent, but with this - he wasn't sure he knew where to start.
"Just so I'm clear - you're telling me this why, exactly?"
"To see what you think," Harry said. "What the reaction would be, if we - if we came out."
"You really need me to tell you that?" Simon drawled, and Harry flinched uncomfortably.
"Would it be so bad?"
"Harry - look, one gay member would be fine, it's practically traditional. Two would be manageable. Three unthinkable. All five of you? You'd be throwing away everything you've worked for."
"We're more like - bi, though," Zayn offered. "Wouldn't that mean we'd just appeal to twice as many people?"
"Nice idea." Simon sighed. "Sadly the world doesn't run on ideals. And anyway, if you're telling me you're in some kind of relationship, you're essentially saying you're all now unavailable."
They all looked uncomfortably at each other and Simon softened his tone
"You must know it would be a publicity disaster. There'd be some positive support, of course there would, but the major part of your fanbase, the casual listeners, the ones that aren't die-hard supporters? They'd inevitably slip away, move on. And then you've got to think of the press, the entertainment networks, the labels, the promoters, the radio broadcasters. For every station that thinks it's funny, or not of consequence, there'll be ten that find it an issue, particularly in more conservative countries. They might not make a big fuss about it, you might just find they've quietly stopped playing your records. We're talking about embarking on a major comeback here guys, an album, a film, a book, a tour. You really want to jeopardise all that?"
"We don't want to screw anything up," Louis said quietly. "But we can't change the way things are."
Simon pinched his eyes shut, feeling a headache coming on. "Look, what you get up to in private is your own business. You asked for my advice and I'm giving it. To go public on this would almost certainly be professional suicide."
There was a shifty sort of silence, and he groaned inwardly. "Tell me nobody else knows about this - arrangement?"
Harry bit his lip. "I - might have told Nick," he confessed. Simon's head shot up incredulously.
"Grimshaw? Jesus Harry, that struck you as a good idea did it? Telling a national radio DJ with a penchant for celebrity gossip that you're part of some kind of perverse boyband orgy?"
"He won't tell," Harry said, feeling embarrassed and all too conscious of the startled looks the others were giving him as well.
"Oh, because he's known for his discretion," Simon snapped back sarcastically.
Harry fidgeted. While most people had been trying fiercely to protect Harry's privacy while he got his strength back, only the previous day Nick had tweeted a picture of him curled on the sofa, sporting a bobble hat and palm-tree patterned onesie.
"He won't," Harry insisted.
"You seem very sure of him, that's all I can say."
"Well he didn't say anything when it was him fucking me, did he?" Harry blurted angrily.
Simon looked like he needed a drink. Liam nudged Niall next to him, frowning. "Did you know that?" he mouthed, wondering if he'd been left out of the gossip loop, but Niall shrugged and shook his head.
"Anyone else?" Simon asked exasperatedly. "Zayn?"
Zayn shook his head. "No. I ain't told anyone."
Simon looked at Louis, who gave an apologetic smile. "Eleanor knows, but only about me and Harry. And, um, the nurses at the hospital know. Sorry."
"Fine," Simon sighed. "People will believe what they want to believe. The thing I'm trying to get across is that it's what you do or don’t confirm to the press that's the important thing." He moved on, looking enquiringly at Niall.
"I told Sean," Niall muttered, and went red as everyone stared at him. "What?"
Simon rolled his eyes. "If you're not even open amongst yourselves about who knows what, how the hell do you expect to carry this off?" He looked at Liam, exasperatedly. "I suppose Danielle knows as well?"
Liam shook his head defensively. "No. She doesn't know anything." Simon looked relieved, but Liam wilted a little in shame, and Niall put an arm round him.
"Well at least there's a couple of you that haven't taken leave of your senses," Simon declared. "Seriously, think about what I've said, for your own sakes if nothing else."
The silence stretched out for a long time after Simon had gone.
"Well. That's that then," said Louis flatly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry looked near tears, and Louis moved quickly to his side, catching hold of his hand reassuringly.
"Just - that it has to stay our secret."
Liam sighed. "Part of me wonders if it's all worth it," he said. Scandalised and indignant faces looked back at him, and he smiled sadly. "I don't mean that I don't love you. I do, I always will, that's forever. I just - love and sex are two different things. Are we just making things difficult for ourselves trying to keep it physical? Things were different on the island. Everything was different."
"No it wasn't." Zayn folded his arms. "We were the same. And we still need each other, maybe not in an actual survival sense any more, but just as much."
"Maybe we just need to remind him what he'd be missing," Niall said slyly. "I mean - sex is so much more - " he searched for the right word, " - comfortable, now."
"Comfortable?" Louis sniggered.
"Yeah." Niall shrugged. "I mean - proper beds instead of a pile of branches and a manky blanket. And, y'know. Lube." He went red as the others sniggered, but Louis at least was nodding.
"He's got a point you know."
Liam shifted uneasily, as four pairs of eyes turned to look at him speculatively.
"So how about it?" Zayn said bluntly. "Wanna fuck?"
Shocked into laughter, Liam broke into a genuine smile and immediately felt somehow lighter.
"You're awful," he whispered, but he let Zayn take his hand and pull him to his feet. Niall seized the other hand, and with Harry and Louis pushing from behind, he found himself being propelled up the stairs.
They piled into Niall's bedroom because it was closest and fell on the bed in a tangle of limbs, Liam giggling helplessly by now. Despite the serious mood of a moment before, sex between more than two of them at a time was rarely anything but ridiculous and this was a case in point.
Somehow Louis' head had ended up between his legs, or at least Liam's knee was hooked round Louis' neck, and Louis was wearing a surprised expression like something that had just popped its head out of a burrow. Niall appeared to have become trapped in his own t-shirt, Harry was draped over Zayn's shoulders trying to pinch his nipples, and Liam himself was half-upside down with someone's toes tucked under his arm trying to tickle him.
Eventually they managed to extricate themselves and took off the rest of their clothes rather more sensibly, before less sensibly trying to fit everybody under the same duvet.
"Now I'm cold!" Zayn complained, as Harry pulled most of the covers off him. "We need bigger beds!"
"You'll soon warm up," Harry smirked, pulling Zayn back underneath him. "Gissa kiss."
Niall straddled Liam's lap and cupped his face between his hands, kissing him deeply. He could feel Liam's cock pressed hard against his own and rocked against him with an eager enthusiasm.
No-one had particularly felt like having much sex while Harry had been in the hospital. Louis had been flat-out exhausted most of the time for a start, and Liam too conflicted to want to do much more than cuddle. The four of them had slept together for comfort and reassurance, and there'd been a certain amount of sleepy fondling and the occasional morning blow-job, but little else.
Since Harry had come home, all he'd managed to talk Louis into letting him do was a single night of slow and tender love-making, and he felt impatiently ready for something a little more boisterous.
Seemingly having given in, Louis had produced a thing of lube from Niall's bedside cabinet and insinuated himself between the two couples, where he was currently working both Liam and Zayn with slick fingers and a look of amused concentration.
Liam lay back with a startled smile on his face, firstly as Louis stroked him, firm and fast, and as then Niall crawled back over him and with a minimum of fuss, lowered himself neatly onto Liam's straining cock.
"Fucking hell," Liam managed faintly, reaching up to steady Niall's hips as he started to move purposefully astride him.
"Yeah, baby!" Niall snickered, briefly pretending he was riding a horse until Liam tickled him into desisting.
Next to them, Louis had his arms round Harry and was helping him lift himself into a matching position on top of Zayn. Zayn was sitting up, his arms around Harry's waist to brace him, Louis staying plastered against his back, all three of them moving now in a haphazardly matching rhythm.
Thighs already aching with the unaccustomed effort, Harry closed his eyes and let himself get lost in the feeling of having Zayn inside him, hot and hard, in having two sets of arms round him, two mouths on his skin, kissing and biting with gentle teeth.
The bed was bouncing and squeaking alarmingly beneath them, mostly from the exertions of Niall who seemed intent on screwing Liam right through the mattress, and Harry couldn't keep the grin from his face.
It was good to be home.
When it was over, and everybody had collapsed together in various states of sweaty stickiness, Harry nuzzled up to Liam and bit him on the chin.
"So - is it all worth it?" he asked, innocently.
Liam looked round at them then slowly and deliberately kissed them all, one by one, on the lips. "Thank you," he said quietly. "For reminding me not to be a twat."
"As long as you're our twat," Zayn yawned. "That's all that matters."
"Lou? Can I talk to you?"
Louis looked up from pouring out a bowl of cereal to find Liam hovering in the kitchen doorway. "Yeah, course. What's up?"
Liam wandered over, looking distracted. "You told Eleanor, right? About you and Harry?"
"How?" Liam sighed. "I mean - I have to tell Danielle, but I just don't know what to say. And I figured - well, you've been there."
Louis made a face. "To be honest, she pretty much guessed something was up. All I really had to do was say 'yes' and 'sorry' a lot. Which doesn't really help I guess?"
"Not really." Liam forced a smile. "She doesn't suspect a thing."
"I suppose - you don’t have to tell her?" Louis ventured, although he fully sympathised with Liam needing to. "Simon would probably prefer that you didn't, at least."
Liam shook his head. "I can't go on like this," he admitted. "It's pulling me apart. And it's not fair on her. It just makes me a dick."
"Whose dick?" Zayn wandered into the kitchen, looking interested.
"One track mind, you," Liam jibed, and Zayn grinned at him, patting his bottom. "I need to tell Dani," Liam explained reluctantly. "And I need to figure out how. And - who."
Zayn caught on. "Oh, right. Do you need to say it's anyone though? Can't you just - you know. Dump her?"
"Charming." Liam shook his head. "I'm going to need a reason. A convincing one. She's not just going to take it lying down - oh, shut up," he complained as both Louis and Zayn sniggered at his choice of words.
"Sorry." Zayn slung an arm round him "So - who're you gonna pick?"
Liam looked miserable. "That's the problem, isn't it? I can hardly tell the whole truth."
"What about Harry?" Louis suggested, and Liam looked surprised. "I mean - it'd make sense, his collapse making you realise your feelings and all that?" Louis went on. "And let's be honest, out of all of us Harry's the one least bothered about people knowing he's bi."
"Won't that sound odd?" Liam frowned. "With some people knowing that you're with him?"
Louis shrugged. "On the other hand, it keeps down the numbers of people involved if it comes out. So to speak."
Liam considered this, then shook his head. "Nah. Too complicated."
"It's me or Niall then," Zayn said, and Liam looked guilty, realising he had yet another hard choice ahead of him.
Zayn guessed his dilemma, and gave him a hug. "I promise not to get pissy if you want to pick Niall."
"Pick me for what?" Niall came in with Harry at his heels, and looked enquiring.
"Liam needs to tell Dani he's with someone," Louis explained before Liam could open his mouth.
"And you want me to take the rap?" Niall grinned. "Okay."
Liam immediately looked awkwardly at Zayn, and Niall hesitated.
"Sorry, was that wrong? Are you picking Zaynie?"
"He hasn't decided yet," Zayn smirked, as Liam looked increasingly uncomfortable. "I think he wants us to fight over him."
"That's not what I - " Liam looked mortified, then slumped in annoyed relief as he realised Zayn was taking the piss. "I just didn't want anyone to think I was - you know. Picking someone over anyone else."
Niall slung an arm round Zayn's shoulders and they both grinned at him expectantly.
"I hate you both," Liam declared huffily. "You're not helping."
"I did offer him you," Louis told Harry solemnly. "But he turned you down."
"Louis!" Liam spluttered indignantly, as Harry gave him a mock-hurt look, before dissolving into giggles.
"It's just a story," Niall said, taking pity on him. "Nobody's going to mind if you pick someone else."
Liam sighed. "Then I was going to say - Zayn?" he muttered tentatively. To his relief, everyone just nodded. Niall came over and gave him a hug.
"Stop looking so worried," he whispered in Liam's ear. "We've got your back, okay?"
Niall, Louis and Harry filed discreetly out of the room, leaving Liam and Zayn alone.
"You don't have to do this you know," Zayn murmured, taking in Liam's tense expression.
"Yeah. I do."
Zayn nodded slowly, coming to lean next to Liam against the counter, their arms just touching. "Want me to be there when you tell her?"
Liam looked startled. "No. That'd be awful for both of you. Thanks for the offer though," he added, and Zayn squeezed his hand.
"It'll be okay," he reassured him. "I mean - she's a reasonable person right? And Eleanor took it pretty well. You'll be fine."
"Yeah." Liam sounded unconvinced. "Sure. Now I just have to figure out - how."
"Liam! Hi!" Danielle's smile of pleased surprise at finding him on her doorstep made Liam feel more of a heel than ever. He hadn't admitted it to himself, but he hadn't phoned first in the hope that she'd be out, and then he could legitimately put it all off. But here she was, and now Liam was being ushered into the living room of the flat they'd briefly lived in together, what felt like a lifetime ago.
"So what's new?" She bustled round making two mugs of tea, and he followed her into the kitchen.
"Not much." He searched for a neutral topic of conversation, not wanting to leap straight in. "Been told we've got to move out of the house though. End of the month."
"Does that mean you're coming home?" Danielle turned to look at him hopefully, and Liam inwardly winced.
"Um - we were - kind've thinking about all staying together," he said cautiously.
Danielle shook her head, smiling. "I know you boys are close, but there comes a limit. You need your own life back," she urged. "You're welcome to move back in here you know. Any time you like. I miss you." She insinuated herself into his arms, leaning up for a kiss and Liam bit his lip.
"Dani - I can't."
"Can't move in?"
Liam sighed, stepping back a pace and she looked confused. "Li?"
"Can't do this. I'm sorry."
"What are you talking about?"
Liam took a deep breath. "Us. This. I - I'm really sorry, but - it's over, Dani."
Danielle was shaking her head in vigorous denial. "No, what are you saying? Liam, this isn't funny."
"I'm not joking. I'm so sorry - " Liam made to take her hands and she jerked them out of reach, angrily.
"What the fuck? What even brought this on? I saw you two days ago, you were fine. We were fine."
"No." Liam wished he was somewhere else, anywhere else. The look of hurt betrayal on her face was like a punch to the gut, and he hated himself.
"Are they making you do this?"
"They - ?" Confused and guilty, Liam thought she meant the others, but Danielle was scenting a higher conspiracy.
"Bloody Cowell and that lot. Are you not supposed to have a girlfriend now, is that it? Bad for sales?" She softened her tone. "We can hide it, if you want? I don't mind if you have to tell people we're not together?"
Liam almost laughed. Little did she suspect how exactly the opposite was true, and that right now Simon was the keenest supporter of them staying together.
"It's not that," he said quietly, "and it's not you. It's - it's me. I guess I've - changed, that's all. Being away - I've realised things that maybe I wasn't completely honest about, before."
"What are you saying?" Danielle looked half baffled and half angry. "I mean - there can't be anyone else right? You haven't had time for one thing! Liam, don't do this, I'm not just letting you give up on us!"
Liam sighed inwardly, wishing she'd stop arguing, stop making it so much harder. He'd hoped to get away without explaining further, hoped even that she'd get angry and throw him out, but it wasn't going his way.
"It's - Zayn," he admitted. Danielle frowned at him.
"I'm - in love with him."
For the first time, Danielle's conviction looked shaken. "What? Don't be stupid. How can you be? He's - well, he's a he."
"I know." Liam sighed. "It doesn't change anything."
But - does he know?"
"Yes?" Danielle echoed, incredulous. "Well - doesn't he think it's weird?"
"He feels the same way."
"What?" Breathless, a whisper.
"I'm - sorry."
"Have you been fucking him?" Danielle demanded, face flushed with sudden anger. "Is that what you're telling me? All this time, since you've been back? You've been sleeping with me, lying to me, and all the time you've been screwing him behind my back?"
Liam nodded, hesitant and shamefaced, still trying to apologise in the face of her rage.
"That's - disgusting," Danielle spat. "You've been sticking yourself in both of us? Oh my God."
"No, Dani, listen, I - " Liam protested, trying to explain, desperately wanting her to understand that he hadn't meant to hurt her, that he was hurting too. But she was too dismayed to spare any thought for him, too furious to care.
"Get out. Get out!"
As Liam hesitated, still trying to explain, she picked up the closest mug of tea from the counter and hurled it at him.
Louis and Zayn were in the living room when they heard the front door open and close with a discreet click, as if whoever was coming in didn't want to be noticed. They exchanged glances, and immediately popped out of the door to see if it was Liam returning.
They caught him in the hallway, creeping towards the stairs. He stopped when they called out, and sighed.
"Woah. What happened to - " Louis started, seeing Liam's shirt was drenched down one side. Liam turned to face them and they both did a double take,
"Liam! What - ? Are you okay?" Zayn hurried forwards, reaching out in concern. There was a long cut above his eye. Liam had obviously tried to stem the bleeding, but only partially succeeded, and there were trails of dried blood down the side of his face.
He let Zayn pull him into a hug, feeling sorry for himself.
"What happened?" Louis demanded. "Did someone hit you?"
"Danielle did this?" Zayn pulled back to stare at him in guilty horror. He realised they'd pushed Liam into making his confession without any real concept of how it might go.
Liam shrugged sheepishly. "She threw a mug at me. She missed, but it smashed on a cabinet, and one of the bits caught me on the rebound. Not the world's most macho injury."
"Oh God." Louis joined Zayn in hugging Liam apologetically. "Sorry."
"Not your fault," Liam mumbled into Zayn's shoulder. "Had to be done."
Niall and Harry appeared on the landing above, leaning over the banister and calling out in alarm at the sight of Liam's blood-streaked face looking up at them.
"I'm fine," he protested, half-laughing as they hurtled down the stairs and flung themselves on him as well. "It's just a scratch."
"Fed up with Harry getting all the sympathy huh?" Zayn grinned, rubbing his knuckles through the fuzz of Liam's close-cropped hair. "She's not going to come after me with the rest of the tea-set is she?"
Liam shook his head. "I hope not," he said, looking doubtful. "She was pretty upset though. Oh God I've made a complete balls-up of it, haven't I?"
"None of us thought she'd take it this hard," Louis said contritely.
"Guess you must be worth keeping, huh?" Niall smirked, arms wrapped round Liam's waist from behind.
"As long as you still want me?" Liam said, hating himself for fishing for the reassurance but feeling battered inside as well as out.
"What d'you reckon lads?" Niall mused, winking.
Harry nodded, seriously. "A Liam is for life, not just for Christmas," he announced, and Liam laughed, kissing him fondly.
Zayn plucked at Liam's damp sleeve. "You should get out of these wet things," he murmured, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.
Liam let them lead him upstairs, bickering and teasing the whole time, and finally let himself relax. For weeks he'd been haunted by indecision, by the fear of doing the wrong thing - but now the choice was made, and whatever might come out of it, right here, right now, he was knew it had been the right one.
Christmas was fast approaching, and they started looking forward to going home for a few days. Previously, the idea of being parted for however short a time had unsettled them, but Liam's commitment had somehow left them all feeling more secure.
In the short term, they all moved out of the rented house and straight into Harry's. As far as the world outside was concerned they were all back in their own places, but in practice it was a far more communal affair.
Coinciding with the move, a flurry of rumours circulated in the press. As well as the usual suggestive articles about Harry and Louis there were also rather more barbed comments appearing about Liam and Zayn, quoting an unnamed source 'close to Danielle'. They all assumed that these stemmed from Danielle herself, but for the moment at least she had held back from putting her name to it, and as just one more piece of anonymous gossip it was mostly ignored.
At the same time it was announced that they would be performing a come-back concert in February. Initially just one show, it was expected this would lead to a full tour later in the year once they were all back to full strength and had had time to record some of their new material.
Excitement over this effectively eclipsed the relationship rumours and provided a timely distraction for the press, one that Simon steadfastly refused to admit he had orchestrated.
Before they knew it, Christmas had snuck up on them and everyone dispersed to their families with varying levels of enthusiasm. Last year had been a miserable time for those at home, with the holiday coming soon after the boys had been presumed lost and all searches called off, so this time everyone wanted to make it a huge occasion.
It was hard to explain to friends and family so pleased to see them back how all these social gatherings could feel daunting, but at least they had the comfort of knowing that an understanding voice was only the press of a button away, and between all the parties and reunions and present giving, they frequently snuck away to call each other.
Harry and Louis were the first back in London, travelling down together the day after Boxing Day. They cited birthday celebrations for Louis as a reason for their escape, but after a week at home were both longing for some peace and quiet.
They were joined a day later by Zayn, and by New Year had acquired Liam as well. Niall took longer to extricate himself from both his family and an inconvenient snowfall, but eventually turned up a week later in a Christmas jumper, carrying the biggest tin of biscuits any of them had ever seen.
Gradually life in the city began to feel more natural to them again. Physically too, they were stronger, and while Harry still tired quickly, they all felt like they'd been handed a new chance at life. They were aware it wouldn't last, that they would slide back into taking things for granted, but for the moment they still took amused pleasure in just being able to turn on a tap, or an electric light, or a television.
Half-heartedly, they looked for new houses and apartments where they could move closer together, but no-one had started to quiz them on their arrangements, and for now they were all happy to stay settled at Harry's. He had four bedrooms, but they could almost always be found sharing in one combination or another. Meals were mostly communal. So were showers.
'It won't last,' people said, even those in the know laughing at their stubborn determination to remain together.
'It won't end,' they promised each other in whispers, holding each other close in the dark.
Mid-January, and the evenings were still dark from an early hour. Louis was walking home from the shop one night, swinging a carrier bag from one hand and texting with the other when he became aware of a looming figure in his way.
"Sorry mate." Louis sidestepped, but the man moved with him. Louis gave an apologetic laugh, thinking they'd both made the same attempt to get out of the way and stood still, waiting for the man to go around him. But he didn't move, and Louis was abruptly conscious of a second figure coming up behind him.
"Alright lads?" Louis edged towards the wall, trying not to look nervous. Appearances could be deceiving and they probably just wanted an autograph for a daughter or something. On the other hand, there was a definite sense of menace, and Louis wondered if it was more likely his phone they were after.
"Little shit doesn't even recognise us," said the first man, and Louis squinted through the gloom, frowning.
Realisation came like a bucket of cold water, and he stepped back sharply, coming up short against old bricks.
"Now he does." The second figure gave an unpleasant laugh. "Not pleased to see us then? Bit of a survivors reunion and all?"
"Not so brave without the TV cameras, are you? Or your little friends?"
"What do you want?" Louis asked. He'd meant it to sound tough, dismissive, but his throat was dry and it came out raspy. He knew them now, with a chill that ran the length of his spine. Craig and Brendan. Last seen drifting away on a piece of plane wreckage, having pushed him into the sea.
"That very much depends on you." Brendan said, folding his arms. "We were rather - disturbed, by your veiled little threat the other day."
"It wasn't - " Louis stammered.
"Oh, I think it was. And I think you need to learn to keep your mouth shut, do you hear what I'm saying?"
"How did you even find me?" Louis was edging along the wall, trying to keep them talking. He wasn't that far from home, the front door was round the corner but somewhere along this wall was an iron gate into Harry's back garden.
Craig snorted derisively. "Are you kidding? Turns out there's entire fucking websites dedicated to tracking you little twats down. Didn't take a detective."
Behind him, Louis' fingers encountered rusty wrought iron and he turned, quickly scrabbling for the latch. It refused to give, and he realised with a sinking heart that - of course - it would be locked.
"I don't think he likes us." Hands grabbed Louis' shoulders and yanked him backwards, unbalancing him. He braced himself for a punch, or worse, but they just flung him back against the wall.
"Like you? You tried to fucking kill me!" Indignant anger pushed back the fear for a second, and Louis glared at them.
"Now, see, that's the kind of nasty false rumour we don't want appearing anywhere, you get me?" Brendan murmured. "It was just - survival of the fittest. And you apparently need a lesson in holding your tongue."
They advanced on him slowly, and Louis swallowed. He wasn't a coward by any means, but they were a lot bigger than him, and looked like they meant business. "You're making a mistake," he stuttered.
"And what would that be?" Craig smirked, cracking his knuckles and making Louis wince.
"Assuming he was on his own, for a start," said a voice from behind them, and both Craig and Brendan spun to face the newcomer.
It was Liam, scowling from one to the other. Louis thought he'd never been gladder to see him, and wondered how long he'd been there.
"Walk the fuck away," Brendan spat. "This isn't your problem."
"Can't do that."
Louis realised they probably had no idea who Liam was, with his shaved head and bulky coat he looked a million miles from the grinning boy in the magazines. He looked older, and angrier. People tended to forget Liam had a temper on him, and that could be a mistake.
"Well we'll just have to sort the both of you then," Craig snapped. "One on one. Piece of piss. You're nothing but fucking toddlers."
"How about three on two? Still feeling brave?" From another direction the flare of a match lit up Zayn's face, all hard lines and dark stubble. Louis wondered incongruously when he'd started smoking again.
"What the fuck? How many of you cunts are there?" Brendan demanded, but he moved closer to Craig, and it wasn't lost on them.
"More of us than you," Zayn said quietly. "I suggest you fuck off. Or you'll find out."
They looked at each other, then back at Louis, clearly undecided. Louis stepped forward, braver now that he had back-up.
"I won't say anything. Okay? I don't want to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder. So let's just - forget this happened, yeah? We're all alive, we all made it, let's - leave it that way."
A long, tense pause, then Brendan nodded. "You just keep your mouth shut, you hear?" he growled with the remaining shreds of his bravado.
Louis nodded, sensing Zayn and Liam take up positions either side of him. They all watched the two men walk quickly away, and only when they were out of sight did the others turn to Louis, alarmed and solicitous.
"I'm fine." Louis was angry more than anything, angry that he'd been so scared. His legs felt like they wanted to give way and he was grateful when Zayn slipped an arm round him without saying anything. He leaned into him, taking steadying breaths that tasted of frosty air, of the scent of Zayn's leather jacket, of cigarette smoke.
"How long have you been - " Louis nodded at the glowing cigarette between Zayn's fingers and he shrugged, looking guilty.
"It's this show," Zayn finally admitted, taking a last drag before crushing it out underfoot. "Just so fucking nervous about it. Don't tell Niall?" he pleaded. "He'll kill me."
"No he won't." Liam slid a hand across Louis' back, squeezed Zayn's shoulder.
"He'll be disappointed then. That's worse," Zayn muttered.
"I'll do you a deal," Louis said. "I'll keep your secret if you keep mine. Don't tell Harry and Niall about this? I don't want them to freak out."
"Don't you think we should warn them?" Liam asked dubiously. "If those two clowns are going to hang around...?"
"I don't think they will," Louis said. "I think they wanted to beat the crap out of me with nobody looking. If anything happens to me now, they'll know you guys will come forward."
They let themselves into the house, all relieved to be able to shut out the night behind them.
That evening, Louis couldn't settle. He felt like he should be grateful to Liam and Zayn for their timely rescue, but he just felt silly that he'd needed them, that he hadn't been able to take care of himself. It made him prickly, and he fidgeted and paced about the house until even Harry snapped at him.
Louis finally threw himself down onto the sofa, sighing. Zayn wandered across, leaning over the back and whispering into Louis' ear.
"Wanna come in with us tonight?"
Louis looked up, startled. For a moment he wondered if Zayn was suggesting he still needed comfort, and had a scornful reply on his lips until he met Zayn's eyes and saw the understanding there.
"Come and take it," Zayn murmured. "If you want." He sauntered off, throwing a suggestive look back over his shoulder as he followed Liam out of the door.
For a minute, Louis stayed where he was, jiggling his feet restlessly. Hauled himself up and went over to hover where Harry was attempting to watch tv.
When Harry looked up, he gave a quick smile, almost nervous. "Do you mind if I - go in with Zayn and Liam?" The nights he hadn't spent in Harry's bed once they'd got back could be counted on one hand.
Harry shook his head, reaching out for him. "You okay?" he asked. "Something on your mind?"
"Nah." Louis kissed Harry's fingers. "Just - need it hard tonight."
Harry smirked. "Am I not hard enough?"
"You know what I mean."
"You can be rough with me you know," Harry murmured, pulling him down for a hug. "If you want."
"Don't want to hurt you," Louis protested. "Need to - to not have to worry, if I am or not," he sighed.
Harry kissed him. "It's okay. I know. Go on." He gave Louis a little push, and he slid off the arm of Harry's chair and threw him a grateful smile.
Liam and Zayn were waiting for him in Zayn's bedroom, stripped down to their boxers already.
"Weren't sure you'd come," Liam smiled, as Louis closed the door behind him and leaned on it.
"About earlier - " Louis hesitated.
Zayn shook his head. "You'd have been there for us. We look out for each other yeah? It's what we do."
Louis came closer, rubbing his arms and still looking troubled. "I hate this. Just - the way those bastards left me feeling."
"Come here." Zayn lay back, kicking off his underwear. "Come and take it out on us."
"Sure?" Louis watched as Liam leaned over and started lazily palming Zayn's cock. He felt a reciprocal twitch in his own pants, and bit his lip. "I'm not feeling very loving right now."
Zayn grinned. "Think you can break me, do ya?"
Louis sank down onto the edge of the bed as Liam stripped off his own boxers and lay back next to Zayn. He patted the space between them invitingly.
With a jerky nod of decision Louis hauled his shirt off over his head and started unbuckling his jeans. Normally there would be eager hands willing to help at this stage, but both Liam and Zayn suspected any attempt at assistance would be met with irritation.
Naked now, Louis knelt before them, stroking himself stiff. Both Liam and Zayn were already hard, and casually keeping each other that way without taking their eyes off Louis.
Louis was moving his hand faster on himself now, breathing getting heavier, and Zayn let his legs fall apart, beckoning Louis in between his drawn up knees. He sat up to meet him, sliding his arms around Louis' neck and laying biting kisses along his jaw.
Growling something inaudible, Louis shoved him back down on the bed, hands tight on Zayn's shoulders. Liam was behind him now, Louis could feel the press of his cock against the small of his back, blunt fingernails down his spine. Beneath him Zayn was squirming, not trying to get away, just pushing up against him, provoking and teasing.
Louis slapped Zayn's knees further apart and pushed him back against the pillows, pinning him down with his body. Zayn's erection was a warm pressure against his stomach and Louis shoved his own between Zayn's legs, making him grunt.
"Should I get lube?" Liam muttered, mouth wet on Louis' neck, fingers kneading his buttocks greedily.
"No." Zayn met his eyes, gave a breathless laugh. "Louis wants it mean. Don't you Lou?"
Louis didn't answer, just bit down on Zayn's shoulder, hard.
"Uhh." Zayn drove his head back into the pillow, arching his back. "Go on then. What are you waiting for?" he goaded. "Fucking take me."
"I'm not sure that's - " Liam began, but Louis had already accepted Zayn's offer and slammed inside him with no warning.
"Fuck." Zayn screwed his eyes shut, gritting his teeth as Louis thrust roughly into him. He curled his fingers around the metal bed frame above his head, bracing himself against Louis' continued angry pounding.
Louis snapped his hips forward, driving himself deeper and harder into Zayn's body, letting his frustrations pour out in a frenzied, liberating onslaught. With no preparation Zayn was amazingly tight, and while part of Louis knew it must be hurting, that same guilty knowledge turned him on more than ever.
He'd lost track of Liam, barely knew where he was himself any more, the world had contracted to nothing but the skin dimpling under his fingers, the soft heat around his cock, the sound of his own laboured breathing and the occasional gasping groan from Zayn.
Louis felt his orgasm building, a hot tension that coiled up through his stomach and groin until he ached to scream out loud, wordless and exultant. In the end it was Zayn who cried out first, taking everyone by surprise by coming suddenly all over Louis' chest.
Seconds later Louis followed suit, pumping his release into Zayn's shaking body with a drawn out moan of satisfaction. When it was over, he slumped forward weakly, and felt Zayn pat him reassuringly on the back. Zayn was still shaking, and Louis had a moment to worry he'd taken things too far before realising he was laughing.
"Fuck, Louis." Zayn pushed ineffectually at his shoulder.
Louis tried to move and couldn't find the strength, but then Liam's arms were round him, lifting him off. He slumped against him, relieved that Liam was holding him close rather than berating him.
"You alright?" Liam's voice was oddly tight, and Louis raised his head, about to reassure him that yeah, he felt a lot better thanks, only to realise he was talking to Zayn.
"Yeah. Fuck." Zayn looked slightly dazed. His legs were still splayed apart and he had come streaks glistening on his thighs. He blinked a couple of times to focus, and realised Liam was staring at him. "What?"
"That was - " Liam swallowed. "Fucking hot."
Louis realised Liam had one hand clamped around the base of his dick, as if he'd been sat there in an agony of not letting himself come until he knew if Zayn was really okay with it all.
"I think he wants a go," Louis smirked, suddenly feeling much more well disposed towards the world in general.
"Yeah?" Zayn held out his arms, but Liam hesitated. "You might as well," Zayn grinned. "It's not like I'll be able to walk tomorrow anyway."
Liam crawled forwards, and settled between Zayn's legs. He took him into his arms and kissed him until Zayn started laughing again and wriggled pointedly against him. Liam took the hint, and positioned himself carefully. Louis had left Zayn wet and open, and Liam found he could slide inside him with barely any resistance.
He was a little embarrassed at how turned on he'd become watching Louis fuck Zayn so brutally and conscious that even now Zayn must be sore and tired, but Zayn was softly encouraging and Liam soon started thrusting in earnest.
The knowledge that Zayn was already full of Louis' come made him harder than ever, and he was already close, so it wasn't long before Liam's climax hit him like a truck. With a strangled gasp of completion, his face buried against Zayn's shoulder, he came in hot, thick, spurts that trickled over Zayn's skin to soak the sheet as soon as he pulled out.
It was Louis' turn to guide Liam gently back and hug him, whilst Zayn attempted to wipe up the sticky mess as best he could. It already hurt to move, and he knew he should probably shower or bathe to ease the inevitable stiffness, but it was too easy just to roll into the welcoming arms of the other two and fall into a thoroughly sated sleep.
Mid-way through a rehearsal for their comeback show, they received an unexpected visitor. A smartly dressed lady was shown in to where they were taking a lunchbreak, and smiled round at their curious faces, looking a little shaky.
"My name's Mary. You don't know me," she said, "but in a way, you met my parents, and it's thanks to you that I now know what happened to them. You see - when they gave up work ten years ago, they bought a yacht, intending to spend their retirement sailing round the world. And one day they sailed out of a port in Tahiti, and just - disappeared. It was like they'd sailed off the map. We thought we'd never know what happened to them, but now - " she broke off and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. Harry sprang up and ushered her into his seat.
"We're so sorry," Liam told her, embarrassed. "To have brought you such bad news."
Mary shook her head vigorously. "No, no, I came to thank you. If it hadn't been for you boys, they'd still be lying out there, and I'd never have known. But then out of the blue somebody contacts me, and says they've been identified, and now - " she sniffed, trying to hold back tears, then laughed as three tissues of varying degrees of cleanliness were offered up. "Thanks, er, I'm fine. Now they can at least have a proper burial. And I wanted to ask if you would maybe come? To the funeral?"
"We'd be honoured," Louis said. "If it wasn't for the things we salvaged from their boat, we'd have found surviving out there a lot harder - maybe impossible. Thanks to your parents we had blankets, and knives, and cooking pots, and a roof and, er - yeah. We should probably pay you for that or something."
Mary laughed again. "No, really. I'm glad. They would have been pleased, to know they helped you. I guess I'll never know exactly what happened to them out there, but it's enough, to finally have closure now." She got to her feet, and they all shook hands. "I'll send details, if that's okay? Of when it will be?"
"Of course." Niall gave her a hug instead of shaking hands, and Mary left looking more cheerful than when she had arrived. Conversely, they sat back down feeling rather subdued. An anonymous grave and a skeleton had suddenly become actual people to them and it was an uncomfortable feeling, not to mention a reminder of how close they'd come themselves to not making it at times. They still bore the scars, literally and emotionally of their time on the island, and even now some days were harder to get through than others.
"Could have been us," Zayn said softly, finally voicing what everyone was thinking.
"Wasn't, though." Harry put an affectionate arm round him, and Zayn leaned into him gratefully.
"True. I guess we were lucky."
"We still are," Harry smiled, and kissed him to prove his point.
The show was scheduled for Valentine's Day, in the O2 arena. It had sold out within seconds of tickets going on sale, and as the big day approached they got more and more nervous.
Niall finally bowed to pressure and agreed to get his hair bleached again. Harry's was growing back to the point of unruliness, and Liam had shaved his off again.
Louis and Zayn went out and came back with matching blue streaks in the front, which they were promptly ordered to get rid of.
To top this, Harry went out and came back with a tattoo of a giant squid all the way down his calf, and pointed out smugly that nobody could tell him to get rid of that.
Lying in bed the night before the show, sick with nerves and in need of distraction, Louis traced the curving lines of its tentacles with his fingertips and realised for the first time that Harry had done it to disguise the red scars that still speckled his skin.
"That was a jellyfish, not a squid," Louis pointed out, but he pressed a kiss to Harry's leg anyway.
"Squid are sexier," Harry yawned, and on the other side of him, Zayn snorted.
"Don't want to know what comics you've been reading."
Muffled noises from the next room suggested Niall and Liam had found their own method of staving off the nerves. Zayn nuzzled into Harry's side, turned on but too tired from rehearsing to do anything about it.
The day of the show dawned bright and cold, a crisp February morning that raised their spirits after preceding days of relentless rain.
Backstage, they could hear the roar of the assembling crowd, and felt a thrill of nervous excitement.
"Think I'm going to throw up," Harry muttered, looking queasy. Liam gave him a hug, as much for his own comfort as Harry's.
"Where's Zaynie?" Niall complained, looking round. He could have sworn he'd been there a few minutes ago, but he'd been concentrating on checking over his guitar for the sixth time since they'd arrived, and now Zayn was nowhere to be seen.
"Loo?" Louis suggested non-committally, knowing perfectly well where he'd gone. Niall slipped out of the door to go and look for him regardless, and Louis and Liam exchanged glances.
"What?" Harry caught the look and frowned. "Where is he?"
Louis sighed. "Having a fag."
"Louis!" Liam objected, but Harry just nodded understanding.
"Doesn't Niall know?"
"You mean you do?" they looked at him in surprise, and Harry shrugged.
"Well, yeah. You can taste it when you kiss him." He looked faintly embarrassed. "I quite like it."
"There you are!" Niall turned a corner and ran right into Zayn coming the other way.
"Hey babes." Zayn turned their awkward collision into a hug, trying to hide the flustered expression on his face.
"Where have you been? We're on soon." Niall wrinkled his nose. "You stink of smoke."
Zayn coughed. "Walked through a cloud of it outside. Bunch of the roadies are smoking out there." He made to move on, but Niall caught his sleeve.
"What were you doing outside in the first place?"
"Er..." Zayn groped for a plausible answer, but Niall just shook his head disgustedly.
"Don't bother." He turned away and it was Zayn's turn to grab at him.
"Hey! Wait. Look, I'm sorry, I - it was the nerves, okay? It was just the one."
"Do I look like I was born yesterday?" Niall pulled out of his grasp, folding his arms defensively. "Look, I don't give a shit if you want to start smoking again, it's your body you're screwing up. But don't fucking lie to me about it. I thought I meant more to you than that."
He marched off down the corridor, leaving Zayn to kick the wall furiously.
When Zayn re-entered the dressing room, Niall was curled up with his legs over Liam's lap, and turned his face away when Zayn tried again to apologise.
Fifteen minutes later, they were lined up beneath the stage waiting to go on. The past quarter hour had been uncomfortably tense and not just from the nerves; but now it was almost unbearable. Every one of them was convinced he'd forgotten every lyric he'd ever learnt, or that he'd fall over on stage, or despite compulsively checking, would get out there to find he'd somehow forgotten his trousers.
Niall glanced sideways through the dim light at Zayn's profile, face taut with stress, and sighed. Without speaking, he reached out and slid his hand into Zayn's.
Zayn looked round in surprise, and smiled at him, squeezing his fingers. Niall smiled back, and around them up and down the line the others relaxed a fraction too. And then the waiting was over, and they were being launched into a maelstrom of screaming, of flashing lights and the opening strains of a song that flowed back to them with relieved familiarity.
Afterwards, it felt like the maddest show they'd ever done. The time flew past in a blur, all of them carried through on a rush of adrenaline, spurred on by the screams of the crowd and sheer unmitigated joy at just doing this again.
As they stood in a line to take a bow, having played three encores before the noise level dropped enough to let them even think about leaving, they stared out at the vast crowd with matching expressions of stunned and disbelieving happiness.
Arms around each other's shoulders, as Harry and Louis straightened up from the bow they turned to each other, grins of delight softening into a lingering smile of simple pleasure at being alive, and at having the others to share it with.
Harry could feel his legs starting to tremble with reaction and exhaustion, knew he was going to pay later for the exertions of the last couple of hours. Louis' arm tightened around him supportively as if he knew what Harry needed even without asking, and in that moment Harry experienced a pang of intense longing. He wanted so much to kiss Louis, here, now, in front of everybody, to let everyone know beyond a shadow of a doubt what he meant to him.
Louis met his gaze, eyebrow quirking slightly in response to Harry's rather intense expression. He studied Harry's face for a moment and guessed what he was thinking. It was easy enough to do. He was thinking it himself, after all.
Fuck it, Louis thought, and gave a slight nod in response to Harry's searching look. He'd let Harry decide. But he would go along with whatever that was, without hesitation.
Feeling like he was teetering on the edge of a precipice twenty times higher than the actual stage, Harry leaned in towards him. He faltered as he got close, afraid he'd read Louis' nod of consent wrongly, and so it was Louis who finally closed the gap, who angled his face up and kissed Harry on the mouth.
It felt like they stayed like that for a lifetime. A chaste press of lips only, but long enough for there to be no ambiguity about what they were doing. Not whispering in the other's ear, not hugging, not pretending.
The stage flickered bright as day as thousands of camera flashes went off at once, and the noise level reached a staggering new peak they hadn't believed possible.
Hardly daring to look round, they finally broke apart and faced the crowd. It was a feeling of weak relief, to realise that the screams were after all screams of approval.
A few feet away, Zayn caught Liam's eye and gave him a wicked grin. He'd watched Harry and Louis' little display with something between amusement and shock, but there was a rebellious streak in him that it definitely appealed to. He raised his eyebrows, a direct and silent dare that he didn't imagine for one second Liam would take him up on.
Liam bunched his fist in the front of Zayn's shirt and pulled him forwards, kissing him so hard on the mouth that their teeth clashed with a jolt. He let him go just as quickly, looking horrified at what he'd done, and Zayn starting laughing helplessly, slinging an arm around Liam's shoulders and hugging him close.
Louis and Harry were grinning too, having turned around just in time to catch it, and Niall was actually fucking clapping. Zayn stuck his tongue out and Niall cracked up laughing, bouncing on the spot in sheer glee.
The crowd, that had screamed in delight for Harry and Louis and reached an even more deafening pitch for Zayn and Liam, now appeared to be chanting something, and it took them a few seconds to make out the words.
kiss niall, Kiss Niall, KISS NIALL!
Laughing in disbelief as they heard the demand, Louis stepped forwards and waved his arms at the crowd.
"Who?" he yelled out over the sea of heads, then cackled as everyone screamed a different name at the same time.
As the closest, Zayn reached out and pulled Niall to him, kissing him firmly on the lips before pushing him towards Liam who kissed him too, before guiding him onwards.
The now furiously blushing Niall was seized by Louis and Harry who planted simultaneous kisses on his cheeks because he was giggling too much to get near his mouth.
The five of them linked arms and took a final bow, feeling physically buffeted by the noise coming from the audience now, ears ringing and half-dizzy with shock at what they'd done.
Eventually escaping backstage, they piled into the dressing room and locked the door hastily behind them. Everyone felt drunk on the adrenaline and they fell into each others' arms, kissing and hugging and laughing.
"Fuck," Louis spluttered, hanging round Liam's shoulders, his other arm round Harry's waist. "What have we done?"
"We've told the truth," Harry said quietly. "Just for a second. To the people that matter."
"I daren't even think what's going to happen now," Liam groaned. "Simon's going to kill us."
"At least we went out with a bang," Zayn smirked.
Niall laughed. "Now that would have been a hell of an encore."
"Well it's not too late," Harry suggested with a grin. "Although maybe it should be more of a private show." He slid both arms round Louis' chest and kissed his neck. The performing high had left him horny, and he'd been uncomfortably hard for what felt like hours.
Louis turned willingly into his embrace, seeking out Harry's mouth with his own, and Harry realised Louis was just as hard. He fumbled with Louis' trousers, unzipping him clumsily because he was unwilling to break the kiss. Niall was helping now, Louis laughing against Harry's mouth as two pairs of hands conspired to drop his trousers and underwear round his knees.
Harry grinned at him, still buzzing from the earlier rush, and slid his arms around Louis' waist, cupping his arse. As he took the strain, Louis realised what he was going to do and batted at him with protesting hands, yelling at him in laughing indignation.
"Don't you dare Styles! I am not a fucking Barbie doll! Put me down!"
Harry ignored his objections and hoisted him up bodily, walking him over to the dressing table and planting him on it, stepping in between his kicking legs. Louis' trousers were hanging off one foot, his cock pressed against Harry's fly, and his continuing protests at being manhandled like this in front of everyone were abruptly muffled by Harry's mouth closing over his again.
Niall appeared to have adopted the role of wardrobe enabler for the night, and his nimble assistance meant Harry's trousers were soon pooled around his ankles. Louis' continuing grumbles turned into a much more approving moan as Harry's cock slid warmly against his own.
The dressing table shuddered as Zayn shoved Liam up against it next to Louis and kissed him hard. Pulling at each other's clothes they ground against each other, sending small items rolling to the floor all around them.
Harry was bent forward over Louis, his arms around Louis' neck, bracing them while Louis jerked them both off. Behind Harry, Niall had loosened his own trousers and was plastered up against Harry's back. Harry groaned into Louis' kiss as he felt Niall's finger push inside him, spreading his legs obligingly wider.
Beside them, Zayn had dropped to his knees and was sucking Liam's cock with a messy eagerness that made Liam's knees go weak and forced him to grab Louis' arm for support.
Niall had two wet fingers inside Harry now, thrusting and scissoring in a rushed and haphazard attempt at working him open, his cock leaving smears of pre-come on the hem of Harry's shirt.
Harry was pinned between the two of them, Louis pumping him hard, fingers slippery now, his own erection pressed hot and firm against Harry's. A moment later Harry gave a sharp gasp, lurching forward and throwing Louis off stroke, as Niall's cock finally pushed up hard inside him. Stretched, filled, kissed, held, he abandoned himself to the sensations and let Louis and Niall take everything they wanted, rocking between them in a dazed blur of happiness.
By now Liam was thrusting helplessly into Zayn's mouth, heedless of Zayn's guiding hand, pushing between his lips greedily until he made him gag. Coughing, Zayn pinched Liam's leg hard in revenge, and Liam grabbed him by the hair, tipping his head back until Zayn opened his mouth again, accepting Liam's cock without protest.
Harry came first, unable to withstand the two-sided assault any longer. He spilled over Louis' fingers, shaking bodily while Louis held him up and covered him in kisses. Niall came soon after, the feeling of Harry's body spasming around him in orgasm enough to push him over the edge and he lost his load moments later, fingers gripping Harry's hips hard enough to bruise.
"Fuck." Liam was struggling for breath, for control, but the sight and sound of Harry and Niall climaxing just inches away from him had left him on the edge, and when Louis half-screamed his own violent orgasm seconds later, Zayn found his mouth suddenly full of Liam's hot, thick come.
He sat back on his heels, trying to swallow and half choking, wiping his mouth with his wrist. Liam reached down and hauled him up into his arms, settling Zayn on the table between himself and Louis.
Louis reached over, transferring sticky fingers from Harry to Zayn and starting to stroke him, firm and fast. It didn't take long before Zayn too found his own completion, his cock pulsing in Louis' hand as he added unrepentantly to the filthy condition they'd all ended up in.
Panting, groaning and laughing, they managed to climb off the increasingly rickety dressing table before it collapsed beneath them and make it as far as the couch, where they all collapsed in a happy, exhausted heap.
For several days after the show, they barely left the house. For one thing they were all shattered, and for another there was an army of tabloids camped outside. In the absence of any instructions to the contrary they'd stuck to Simon's previous advice and refused to confirm - or deny - anything put to them, leaving the initial frenzy on interest to burn itself out.
Various representatives from their label and management company had spoken to them, but it seemed they too were at a loss as to how to address such an unprecedented event, and finally they received a message to say that Simon himself was coming to see them.
While they were waiting rather nervously for him to arrive that evening, Harry took a call on his mobile and came back in grinning.
"That was Grimmy. He's just seen the mid-week charts - apparently both our albums have shot back up to number one and two."
Zayn punched the air triumphantly. "Yes! Not a total fuck up then?"
"Apparently not." Harry jumped as the doorbell rang, and scurried out again. A moment later he came back in with Simon, who looked round at their sheepish expressions and shook his head slowly in exaggerated disbelief. To their relief, he looked more like he was trying not to laugh than actually angry.
"That was your idea of keeping it low profile, was it?" he asked.
"We didn't plan it," Harry said apologetically. "It just sort of happened. And then - kept on happening."
"Nobody really seemed to mind?" said Liam, hopefully.
Simon sat down with a sigh, rubbing his face. "The general response has been more positive than I'd have predicted, I'll grant you that. But I'd leave things unclarified if I were you," he added quickly, as they started to exchange triumphant looks. "Let people believe it was just a publicity stunt."
"You're not mad at us then?" Louis asked cautiously.
Simon shook his head. "You took a gamble. Luckily for you, it paid off. Demand for tickets for your summer tour has apparently now trebled."
"Fuck, yes!" Niall exclaimed, then clapped a hand over his mouth.
Simon snorted. "Yes, well, I wouldn't push your luck. Let's all just move on, eh?"
"Thing is...." Louis let the sentence trail off, looking round at the others for support. "My twitter feed right now is full of people who couldn't get tickets for the show we just did, demanding that we do exactly the same thing on the tour."
"He's right," Zayn said, as Simon looked disbelieving. "Nobody wants to feel like they missed out."
"We are trying to maintain a clean-cut image for you here," Simon protested. "Sometimes, it feels, despite your best efforts."
"Maybe it's time for a change," Louis suggested. "We're all older now than we were. Let everybody else see we've grown up."
"It could be our thing," Niall said. "End the concerts with a kiss?"
Simon opened his mouth to argue, then closed it again without saying anything, looking thoughtful. Louis nudged Harry and smirked, caught Zayn's eye and winked at him. Niall poked Liam in the leg and grinned. They waited patiently for the verdict, and after a moment's consideration, Simon finally sighed.
"Well, I suppose it's something we can discuss," he conceded.
"We still need a name for this tour and album you know," Zayn pointed out to mask their badly suppressed jubilation. "Are we just picking a track name, or what?"
"How about 'Love Will Out'?" suggested Harry, smiling innocently when Simon gave him a sharp look.
"It's our comeback tour right?" Louis said, looking mischievous. "What about 'Can't Keep A Good Man Down'?"
Niall stifled a giggle, and Simon got to his feet. "Maybe keep working on that one, eh?" He looked down at where they were all crammed onto the same sofa and hid a smile.
He was conscious they had all changed in subtle ways from the largely carefree boys of a year ago, but it was inevitable their experience would have affected them. The surprise was perhaps the degree to which it hadn't, and that, he now realised, was down to the bond between them. There was a genuine mutual devotion there that shone through everything they did, and if anyone could convince a cynical world that this was a good thing, Simon was starting to think it just might be them.
He'd noticed watching their performance back, how they seemed more aware of each other on stage than before, not in a conscious or choreographed way, but instinctively. Simon wondered how much of that was down to the fact they were sleeping together, having to co-ordinate five bodies in close proximity, then quickly pushed the thought away again as if they might guess what he was thinking.
For a while he'd been worried that the level of co-dependence they seemed to have developed would ultimately be bad for them, but as time went on his fears in that respect had eased. A year of isolation would have driven some people crazy, but they had met it head on, drawn it into themselves and become stronger because of it. While they were still five distinct, determined personalities, they were also now more than ever the five equal, stable points of a star.
As he said his goodbyes, it occurred to Simon that while they were still adjusting to being back, there was a self-sufficiency there now that meant, however unlikely it had seemed, that to a certain extent part of the world was having to adjust to them.
When he left, they waved from the window, then turned back to each other in suddenly high spirits.
"We should celebrate," said Niall immediately.
"Celebrate what? Not being fired?" Louis demanded, and Niall stuck his tongue out.
"Being right?" Zayn suggested, sliding a hand down the back of Liam's jeans and squeezing his bum.
"Being alive?" Harry offered, then laughed at Louis' stricken expression. "What?"
"Hate being reminded," Louis muttered, but he let Harry kiss away the clouds from his face and was soon smiling again.
By mutual consent they gravitated towards Harry's bedroom, unhurried but bright with anticipation. Harry had taken delivery of a custom-made bed the week before, a huge thing that finally they could all fit into comfortably. Bedding had proved an issue, but with five conflicting opinions on sleeping position, three separate duvets had turned out to be a solution rather than a compromise.
This thing between them, it was about comfort and proximity as much as sex, it always had been. As they lay down together, Harry had a second of clarity, glimpsing for a moment the truth, the shape of this thing that had let them survive first the isolation of exile, and now the isolation of being home again, which in many ways was so much harder.
They'd become their own island.