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READER RESTRICTIONS: 18+

Disclaimer(s): language, dark themes, self harm

publish date:

Originally published on November 5, 2023

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For Konrad

"Spinning out, waiting for ya to pull me in / I can see you're lonely down there /

Don't you know that I'm right here?"

Harry Styles, "Satellite"

october 2023
somewhere in northern ireland

        Liam looked out across the still waters of the lake. Silver, like glass, reflecting the overcast sky. He spoke softly into the receiver on his phone. "Yes," he said to Kate, "I'm fine. Still set to be back as planned." She told him that she worried for him. She told him that she loved him. She didn't care for the timing of all this--the recent hospital scare, the cancelled tour--and now he was off filming for a travel show. "I love you too," he said softly, to which she expressed another concern, but her words were lost to the impatient hiss of poor reception. 

        After he ended the call, he looked back out across the lake towards the mountains on the opposite shore. It was so peaceful out here. So haunting. So...quiet. He needed quiet. He needed space. He needed peace, to be at one with nature for a little while. Things had been so insane lately. He had been through so much, made so many mistakes, had felt himself slipping away into someone he no longer recognized, figuratively and literally. He missed knowing who he was. He missed his son. He missed when things were...simpler.

        "The last of the crew is ready to leave, Mister Payne," said one of the Production Assistants from behind him. He turned his head, watching one of three remaining vehicles head down the dirt road that led back to the highway, tires kicking up dust as it descended from view. His camper van and his security team's truck were the only ones left. 

        "Can I have ten more minutes?" he said in a tone that conveyed it wasn't really a question.

        "Um." The PA sounded a little nervous. "Sure."

        "I can head back down myself," said Liam, to which the PA needlessly informed him that management would feel more comfortable with him having an escort. "Tell 'em to sod off," he said under his breath. While Liam appreciated all the support as of late, he was starting to feel a little suffocated. That tightness in his chest returned, if only for a moment, as did the ensuing desire to lose himself in a drink, which frightened him. No, he told himself, and grew angry at even having engaged the thought. All of his hard work--the rehab--it would not be for nothing. 

        "Mister Payne..." said the PA. "It's getting dark."

        "Ten more minutes," he repeated, directly but not coldly. He turned his head back to the lake and hugged his knees, the fabric of his orange puffer jacket whispering against itself. He watched the water lap at the shore.

        A drink. 

        Thirsty.

        A chill overtook him. He watched the clouds cascade over the mountains and hillsides for minutes on end. His eyes traced the tree lines, gnarled beeches bleeding into disappearing meadows. The world around him was gray and green and still.

        He thought of the rumors about this place, the hearsay of its hauntings. It was part of the reason why the production crew had been so interested in touring Ireland. So many superstitions. Even the local town--he couldn't remember its name at the moment, something with castle, perhaps? Or maybe Lough something--carried with it legends of lingering spirits. It was a literal sleepy hollow, a literal ghost town. As Liam's caramel eyes navigated the mercury of the mirror-like waters, he heard footsteps approach from behind him again. They were delicate, soft, brushing aside the long strands of grass with their strides.

        "It hasn't been ten minutes," Liam said, without looking over his shoulder. He actually wasn't sure how much time had passed. He realized suddenly that it had gotten a bit darker. It was as if he'd undergone a strange sort of timeslip.

        "Is that any way to talk to an old friend?" said a voice of rich velvet. Smooth. Familiar. An accent that was now strange and multi-faceted, but still rung deep with an evident mix of Manchester.

        Liam knew it wasn't possible. Absolutely not possible. There was no one else out here save for the last few members of his team and himself. But his eyes fell upon a reflection in the liquid glass: a tall, lanky figure with wavy hair, wearing a long peacoat. He was going mad, he thought. Certainly. It was these mountains. This lake. This otherworldly environment. 

        But when he turned around, he saw him. Not a mere reflection or a specter from his past. His old bandmate was standing a few feet away--in the flesh--on the shore, hands in pockets, shoulders back, smirking at him. 

        Liam's jaw dropped, but then he smiled softly. "Harry," he said.

--------------------------------​

        The little pub was called The Mourning Magpie. Nightfall seized the countryside in its grip like an unexpected blow in a fight. Rather than returning to the resort, Harry asked Liam to accompany him to the local village, much to the annoyance of his production team. Despite their reservations, however, it couldn't be denied that Harry Styles was indeed trusted, even if his choice of rendezvous was a bit...out of the way. Still, Liam thought it was better than Strandhill. Even there, he'd found himself quickly recognized and mobbed by fans. The amenities offered by the resort were nice, sure, but his stay hadn't provided him much reprieve from the public eye, hence Harry's proposal to have dinner at the local lakeside pub instead. They'd have the evening to catch up in private, and go, more or less, unrecognized.

        "Good to see you back on your feet," said Harry from across the table in the little, darkened establishment. Almost every other table was empty.

        "Thanks, mate," Liam said. He eyed the dry food on his plate. "You out here just for the weekend?"

        "Aye." Harry nodded. He took a swig of his mineral water--a courtesy to Liam.

        Liam shook his head. "I can't believe you tracked me down. All the way out here."

        Harry set his glass down and ran a hand through his hair. "I've always been good at that. Got my connections, you know?"

        Liam smirked. "I do."

        "How's the trip going?"

        Liam shrugged. "It's been...nice. I've needed it, Haz. Life's been"--he closed his eyes and swallowed a knot in his throat--"rough lately."

        Harry's expression darkened. "I know. I've been...keeping up to speed."

        Liam locked eyes with him. "How much do you know? About what's been going on?"

        Harry shrugged. "Almost everything, I guess."

        "Oh." Liam rubbed at his jaw. "I'm...sorry."

        "For what?"

        "Well, for...everything. Things I've said. About us. About Lou."

        Harry's mouth twisted to the side. "It's okay, mate."

        "No, it's not. I was-- I've been in a...bad place. And I was angry, Haz. Angry and confused and...god, I don't know."

        "Nah." Harry waved away his comment. "Water under the bridge." He took another drink from his glass and looked through the dark window beside them out onto the quiet street. "Look, we've all done things we're not proud of. And it's not like there wasn't some truth to what you said. Things weren't perfect between us. The band. It was just time for us to...forge our own paths."

        "I know, but I could've had more tact. I was struggling with some stuff--my health, the changes in my life, Bear and... Fuck, people always take the stuff you say and somehow make them worse, you know?"

        "Eh." Harry grinned. "Part of being people like us, innit?" He raised his glass as if to toast. "Celebrities and all that."

        Liam sighed. That was precisely the problem. How different, he wondered, would things have been if he had never been catapulted into superstardom at such a young age?

        "Important thing is, we still love you, Li," said Harry. "Always will. We're brothers."

        Liam thought a moment. Harry was certainly being a bit idealistic, sure, but at the end of the day, he had to admit that Niall, Louis, Zayn, and Harry--despite how distant they'd grown--would always be, in some form or another, family. And no family was perfect; there was dysfunction in every one, good times and bad. He smiled, thinking about his past, remembering how, at one point in time, he'd been so desperate to hold onto the dynamic they'd had. 

        "Cheers, mate," Liam said, and he clinked his glass against Harry's. They each returned to their meal. The soft lights hummed above them. The silence of the pub was only interrupted by the clatter of silverware on porcelain plates. After another mouthful, Liam said, "How have things been with you? Tour wrap up well?"

        "Yeah." Harry smiled. "Been good." 

        "How's Lou?"

        Harry cleared his throat. "He's...good."

        "I'd heard somewhere that you were dating someone...new? Is that true, or are you and-- I mean, are you still--?"

        Harry chuckled. "I'd rather not talk about that."

        "Fair enough." Liam nodded and they spent another moment working away at their food. He decided to switch topics again: "I know I've told you a few times, but I'm really proud of you, mate. The Grammys, the BRIT."

        "Oh." Harry's expression softened. "Thanks, mate." Something strange flickered in his eyes. "If I'm honest with ya, I sometimes feel like I didn't deserve 'em."

        "What?" Liam frowned.

        "I just-- Beating out someone like Beyoncé, Lizzo..." Harry sighed. "And then there was all that backlash from what I said in my speech." He chuckled. "Something I said that was blown up." He gestured to Liam, referencing his comment from before. "And I felt bad. I know that sometimes we don't acknowledge our own privilege. I get that. I just--"

        "Oi." Liam didn't like where this was going. "You deserved it. You're bloody talented, all right?"

        Harry sat on his words. In a low voice, he said, "It's not that I don't believe in myself or anything like that. It's just... I, uh... Well, I've also been in some weird spots before, you know? Some weird places. And right before the wins, for instance, I was struggling a bit. And I... I did some--" His voice cut out. "I got involved with..." He tried again, but it was like he couldn't bring himself to continue. Finally, he said, "Ah, never mind."

        Liam studied him, his brow furrowing. "You sure?"

        Harry smiled. "Yeah. Like I said, we've all done things, haven't we?"

        "I suppose we have..."

        The next bout of silence between them gave Liam an opportunity to study their environment again, reflect on his time out at the shoreline. The grayness. The silence. The natural beauty. "It's a little eerie how empty it is out here," he said after a few seconds. "I know we're off season, but this is a beautiful area. I'm surprised it's not crawling with tourists. Carrick-a-Rede was absolutely packed. So was Strandhill."

        Harry chuckled. "Well, that's exactly why. All the tourists go to the tourist spots. This place isn't really on the map."

        "Better for us, I suppose." Liam smiled.

        "Indeed," said Harry. "It's nice to go somewhere and not be recognized from time to time."

        Liam couldn't agree more. "Where are you staying then?"

        Harry shook his head after taking another swig of his drink. "I'm at the inn just up the road. It's quite nice. Got myself a private room right off the shore. Just for the night."

        "How'd you swing that?"

        Harry raised an eyebrow. "Do you even know who I am?" He winked.

        Liam smirked. "I mean, you traveled out here alone?"

        Harry crossed his arms. " 'Course," he said. "Why not?"

        Liam considered this. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been out in the world, completely alone, completely unrecognized, a stranger, a specter. Untethered. Invisible. He suddenly found himself envying his old bandmate. "Does...anybody know that you're here?" he asked.

        Harry chuckled. "Fuck, Li, I didn't go off grid. Just a weekend trip to see an old friend. Jeff knows. So does the family." He ran a few fingers through his hair and stretched. "Anyways, you didn't answer my question."

        "What question?"

        "Do you want to stay the night?"

        Liam scoffed. "Unlike you, I'm a bit...supervised. I don't think the crew'll go for it."

        "They let you come to dinner with me, didn't they?" asked Harry.

        "I suppose."

        "C'mon. Get your manager on the phone. We can continue our chat back at the room." Harry was already on his feet before Liam could protest further.  

--------------------------------

​ 

        The moon was a pearl on the water. Bright, nearly full. The lakeside hummed with the energy of the stirring night.

        "You weren't kidding," Liam said, looking out in the direction of the opposite shoreline where he had been sitting only a few hours before. The landscape had receded into darkness, transformed into a mosaic of pitching silhouettes, their outlines made visible by the burning stars spinning above the wayward world around them. "You're literally right on the water."

        "Yeah, it's nice," said Harry, toeing off his shoes. "Innkeep was saying that during the rainy season, some of the rooms'll even flood."

        "Is that why it smells kinda...damp in here?" Liam inhaled, catching the hint of musk beneath the birch emanating from the wooden walls around them.

        "Well, this place is old, mate."

        "I guess." Liam stepped away from the backdoor and turned to face the room into which his bandmate had invited him. The space itself was...cozy. Small. Harry flicked on a few lamps, accenting the earth tones around them with spots of gold. "One bed, huh?" he said, nodding towards the single mattress in the center of the room.

        "That a problem?" asked Harry with a smirk.

        "'Course not." Liam shook his head. The boys had slept together many a night during their days in One Direction, but he'd be lying if he said that he could remember what it was like having another man in his bed.

        "Good. Make yourself comfortable then. I'll put on some music for us. Ambience and all that." Harry pulled up Spotify on his phone and selected a song. Liam heard a familiar pulsing beat followed by the sound of his own voice:

You know I've been taking some time, and I've been keeping to myself...

        "Oh, you arsehole." Liam chuckled.

        "What?" Harry snapped his fingers a few times to the beat. "Just trying to set the mood." He winked, then stepped into the small restroom just off the entryway and closed the door.

        In his moment alone, Liam turned the song down low, removed his boots and unzipped his puffer jacket. The cold air sent chills throughout his body. He listened to his song continue softly:

...your love, it hit me hard, girl / Yeah, you're bad for my health...

The back door, still ajar, shivered alongside him in the soft wind, creaking as it danced on its old hinges. From his sitting position on the bed, Liam glanced through the crack in the door towards the black waters again, watching as they beat against the shoreline. The rhythmic sounds of the splish-splash against soft mud fell in sync with the song at first:

...I just wanna have fun and get rowdy / One Coke and Bacardi, sippin' lightly...

        Sippin' lightly. He was thirsty, he realized. He'd refrained from drinking anything at the pub.

        The pub.

        Drinking.

        Rehab.

        Liam thought of Kate, then he thought of his son. He thought of the mistakes he made as the lyrics teased him:

...When I walk inside the party, girls on me...Girl, I love it when your body grinds on me, baby...

        Outside, the lake waters continued to beat upon the shoreline, their rhythm shifting off tempo, but still steady, just like the sonic drawl of the EKG that he was suddenly hearing in his head now too. He remembered lying in a hospital bed only a few weeks ago, wondering if he'd ever recover from his kidney infection. He'd felt so defeated in that moment. So scared. And now...

        Splish. Splash.

        Heartbeat.

        Splish--

        Splash...

        Pulse. 

        He closed his eyes, but he could still see the water. So dark. So cold. So quenching. He was...so thirsty. Over his lyrics now (come on, strip that down for me, baby), he could hear Harry say, "We've all done things."  

        God, Liam was tired of doing "things." He wanted to just be free. To start over. He would not give in though, no matter how crisp and refreshing the lake waters looked. 

        But...his thirst.

Sippin' lightly.

        He wouldn't be sipping Bacardi, he reasoned with himself. Water wouldn't hurt. It was just...water.

        "Liam?" He heard Harry's voice, but his bandmate suddenly sounded far away. And his song? Even further, as if it had stopped playing completely. In fact, everything seemed so...muffled. It was almost as if he were hearing things from a place that was sunken, veiled, submerged.

        "Liam." Still muffled. Distant. Liam ignored the voice coming from so far away. The chill in his body grew sharper, as if it were biting into his very bones. He felt something strike the soles of his feet. Like ice. Then, it rose to his ankles. 

        Liam closed his eyes and, suddenly, it was as if he'd been plunged into a strange vision. He'd been stripped down, just as his song had instructed. Donning only his white underwear, he was sitting in the shallows of black, inky water. His knees were bent above the surface of the icy glass, and the liquid around him--cold, perhaps the source of his sudden shivering--was gnawing at his ankles and bottom. He hugged his legs and placed his trembling, shivering head against his thighs. The thoughts crashed against his restless mind:

        The mistakes.

        The words he'd said.

        The women he'd loved and left.

         The son for whom he needed to set an example. What kind of example was he?

         The drinks he'd abused.

         The things he'd done.

        "We've all done things."

        He realized that the waters were slowly becoming deeper despite his staying still, sitting in silence. Alone. The biting, consuming coldness rose up to his knees, clutching at his waist and then his chest.

        Was he sinking, or were the waters rising? He looked up to assess what was happening, and saw that the tattoos on his arms were bleeding into the black waters around him. The skull, the eye--crying ink--the rose blossoming into blackness, the shield melting away. And on his right arm, he watched as the chevron shapes slipped away, one by one.

        That thirst inside was still consuming him. He needed a drink. Just water. And it was all around him. He was submerged beneath his chest now. And a few moments later, his shoulders. Would he drown here? Drown in this dream? 

        He'd gone almost completely numb. Consumed by the cold. He prepared to go under. And then--

        "Liam!" Harry shouted, his voice finally breaking through the barrier, breaking through the surface. A hand came down hard on his shoulder.

        Liam gasped. He opened his eyes and he opened his mouth, surprised by the swelling of air in his lungs. 

        "Li!" Harry shouted again, and Liam realized that the waters he'd seen in his vision were not the mere product of some strange hallucination. No. He was standing in the waters of the lake. The very lake just outside their room at the inn. And he had, indeed, stripped down to his underwear and stepped into the water, which was still lapping at his chest. It was like ice. His toes curled, sinking into the mud beneath him. He stood rigid for a moment, unsure of what to do. He felt lost, disoriented. 

        "W-what?" he muttered.

        "Liam," said Harry again. 

        Liam turned around to face him. He had stepped into the lake too, still fully clothed. The waters were up to his knees. He looked back in the direction of the inn. His clothes formed a trail--a thick shirt, his trousers, his wool socks--strewn about the wet grass, leading back to the distant bedside, where his boots and puffer jacket remained motionless. "What happened?" he said, still sounding disoriented.

        Harry gave him an exasperated look. The fear was still evident in his eyes. "You tell me!" he said sharply. "One moment I'm using the bloody loo, the next I'm finding you nearly naked and walking out into the lake like a fucking lunatic!"

        "I..." Liam blinked a few times. "I...walked out here?"

        "Come on, man," said Harry sternly. "Come out from there." He kept his hand on Liam's shoulder, but as he tugged to get him to step out from the icy waters, he felt resistance. 

        "I don't... I don't remember," Liam muttered.

        "It's okay, mate." Harry sounded breathless. "C'mon."

        Liam kept hearing:

        SplishSplash.

        Tick. Tock.

        Beep. Beep.

        Heartbeat. Heartbeat.

        He could feel something humming beneath the soles of his feet, something deep and rich and primal. It was the same energy he'd felt stirring in the pub, stirring in the very night air itself. He looked up and saw the stars spinning. 

        He was truly going mad, he thought. This time, it was real.

        "Li," said Harry softly. It was like a slumbering song. Soothing. Calm. Liam turned and looked his friend in the eyes, and Harry instructed him again, "Come back inside."

        He stood a moment, feeling resistant to the cold. He listened to the whisper of the wind around him. He listened to the drunken sloshing of the lake water. And then he focused on Harry's hand, firm on his shoulder.

        "Right," he muttered, and he let Harry guide him back up onto the shore. As he broke free from the lake's pull, he could hear it beckon:

        Splish.

        Splash.

--------------------------------​

        "Feeling better?" Harry asked, joining Liam at the bed.

        Liam shrugged. "I guess." The hot shower had done him some good.        

        "Tell me what happened." Harry sat at Liam's feet, which were still bare, though now toweled dry, just like the rest of him. He was otherwise only clothed in the pair of red briefs that Harry had let him borrow. His own clothes, still soaked from his strange venture out onto the wet lakeside, were hanging over the restroom door.

        "I'm telling you, Haz, I don't know."

        "Are you trying to scare me? Because it's working."  

        "Of course not."

        "So then...what? You think this is some funny joke or somethin'?"

        "Haz," muttered Liam. "I'm not fucking with you. I don't know what happened." His tone sounded desperate.

        Harry frowned. "How can you not know?"

        "I just don't!" Liam snapped. "How many times do I have to say it? I don't remember walking out there. I don't remember going into the lake. I just..." He closed his eyes and let his words fall away. "I was listening to that damn song you put on, and I started to think about--"

        "The song?"

        Liam hesitated before nodding.

        "You mean your song?" Harry frowned.

        "Yes, my song."

        "You're saying that the song made you walk out into a lake?" Harry's brow furrowed.

        Liam scoffed. "No. What I'm saying is, the song started to make me think about things, and--"

        "What types of things?"

        "Just...everything, I guess. You know?"      

        Harry stared at him for a long time, and Liam shifted uncomfortably under the weight of his gaze. "Li, can I ask you something?" he said, and his former bandmate's lack of a response confirmed for him that he could continue. "Do you think you're a bad person?"

        The question caught Liam off guard. He froze up for a moment, then turned onto his side. This move, however, only served to bring his attention to the window, and he immediately sensed the strange beckon of the lake beyond. He closed his eyes, and that's when he saw it again--a flash of black, inky water. And with it, he heard the familiar splish splash of bad memories trickling into the forefront of hos conscious.

        "Hey." Harry's voice cut through the veil and Liam felt his friend's hands on his feet. Soft. Warm. "Hey. Liam."

        This comment made Liam open his eyes. "What?"

        "Do you think you're a bad person?" Harry repeated his question, and when Liam continued to stay quiet, he stood and circled the bed, eventually planting himself on the mattress beside him.

        "I've..." Liam's words failed him.

        "Because you're not." Harry kept looking at him. "We've been over this. You've made mistakes, man, sure. So have I. We all have."

        "Yeah, we've 'all done things,'" said Liam miserably, repeating the line again. "I know, I know."

        Harry's eyes kept on lingering. "I don't think you do."

        Liam sighed. "Look, Haz. It's probably just the exhaustion. I'm tired. It's been a long few days. Maybe we just get some sleep?"

        Harry was clearly not content with this response, but after another long delay, he nodded. "Okay," he said softly, and he agreed to get ready for bed.

 --------------------------------​

        The lake called to Liam again just after midnight. This time, the rhythm of its waves beat in time with a completely different song--not his own, but someone else's. It was a song he didn't recognize. Not at first.

        First came the whispering of the wind, followed by the soft chatter of the shallows on the shoreline, and finally, an ethereal voice:

Tastes so sweet, looks so real / Sounds like something that I used to feel...

        Liam dreamt of the dark waters again. Black ink. He felt a chill, deep and cutting. But the song continued, and hearing this new voice--phantasmic and far away, just like before--brought to him some strange semblance of comfort, like a small ember kindling in the cold:

We're not who we used to be /

We're not who we used to be...

Liam felt the familiar kiss of the water around his body. Wet. Icy. He thought about who he used to be. Who he was. He heard Harry's words: "Do you think you're a bad person?"

        No, he told himself, but the waters grew colder still.

We're just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me...

Trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat.

        "No," he muttered, as he felt the waters rising again. "No, no, no." His own pulse felt so faint. When Harry managed to wake him, Liam found himself standing at the side of the bed, bare feet on the hardwood floor. 

        "Li," said Harry, sounding confused and worried. "You were sleepwalking," he murmured. "You good, mate? Is that what happened before?"

        "Maybe," said Liam softly and, even in that moment, he found himself wondering if he were awake or dreaming.

 --------------------------------

        The next instance came right around two in the morning. Liam saw a vision of those same inky waters, the same strange, soothing song trying to break through a choking, frigid veil.   

   

We're not who we used to be...

...two ghosts swimming in a glass half empty...

       He'd gone further than the bed this time, able to return into the physical night. He'd nearly stepped out onto the grass when Harry was able to catch him a third time, breaking from his sleep in a panic and grabbing his wandering friend by the arm. 

        "Li," he said, trying his best to remain calm despite the wild protests of his heart. "You are sleepwalking."

        "I...am?" said Liam, still reeling from his sudden shift from the precipice of phantasmagoria.

        "C'mon, mate. I've got an idea on how to stop this thing."

        As Liam followed his friend back into the warmth of their room, dazed and only semi-conscious, he swore that he saw a figure standing out on the endless lake this time, hovering over the waters that were stretching into the black mountains and sparkling under the stirring stars.

        

 --------------------------------​

        "Is this really necessary?" asked Liam, as Harry guided his wrists to the bed posts.

        "You have a better bloody idea, I'm all for it. But you're not staying put, and I can't trust myself to stay awake and monitor you all night." As ridiculous as the premise was--tying Liam to the old bed--Harry was quite serious. It was too late to seek shelter elsewhere, and far too dark out in the wilds of the Irish countryside to try and drive safelty back to the resort at Strandhill. He'd be damned if he let anything happen to Liam while under his watch.

        "I don't know what's happening to me," said Liam weakly.

        "Doesn't matter." Harry was determined. "You're gonna be okay. We've just got to make it till morning, then we can get you some help, okay?"

        Liam wanted to argue, but he was far too exhausted, far too scared. The only thing that seemed to bring him some comfort was the feeling of the silk ties tightening around his wrists. It stabilized him, made him feel more secure, and not just literally. But then came the ankles. "Wait, what are you doing? My feet too?" he asked.

       Harry's hands were a little cold. He said, "I'm just trying to cover all my bases here."

        Liam asked, "You just happened to have this many ties with you?"

        Harry's frown persisted. "I always bring a full wardrobe with me. You know that," he explained, though something shifted in his voice. He almost sounded...embarrassed. Guilty, even?

        "Sure," muttered Liam, now feeling his body stretching slightly as his left ankle was secured to the corresponding post at the foot of the bed, then his right.

        "Right, there we are." Harry finally allowed the serious expression on his face to soften. He crossed his arms against his bare chest. "Let's see if that'll finally hold you."

        Liam looked up at him, his eyes tracing the edges of Harry's silhouette. His mate was barely visible in the weak glow of the single lamp on the bedside table. The rest of the room remained dark. Harry's white night shirt was far too big for him, its hem dangling down to his skinny knees in the manner of a skirt. His legs and feet were bare. "Where are you planning on sleeping then?" Liam asked, noting that his own body--still clad in the borrowed red underwear--was occupying the majority of the mattress, splayed out now in the manner of a starfish. 

        "I don't mind the floor," Harry said.

        "You are not sleeping on the floor."

        "Well, I'd rather you stay put."

        "Haz."

        "It's fine, Li. I promise." Harry stepped away from the bed and lowered himself into a small chair by the back window. "For now, just try and get some rest. I'll watch over you a bit."

        "You're going to watch me sleep...?" Liam couldn't help but chuckle.

        "You make it sound creepy." The sound of Harry's drawl suggested that he'd also found humor in the situation.

        "It is. Just a bit," said Liam. He tugged instinctively at Harry's makeshift bonds. They didn't give, which suggested to him that his old friend, whom he knew was no stranger to experimentation, both in and out of the bedroom, must have had some practice. Kinky bastard.

        "This whole scenario is a bit creepy, innit?" Harry's smile caught in the glimmer of moonlight that slipped between the curtains; his face followed suit, illuminated by the screen of his phone, which he'd grabbed from the nearest dresser. "Try and get some sleep, will ya?"

       Liam lay on the bed in silence, staring up at the ceiling. His muscles twitched. His mind spun. He listened to his heart pump in his chest, thinking again of the EKG in the hospital: 

        Beep.

        Heartbeat.

        Pulse.

        The silence was deafening. The stillness was unsettling. Suddenly, Liam found himself wide awake. "Haz?" He glanced over at Harry, who was still immersed in his phone.

        "Hm."

        "Now I can't sleep."

        Harry looked up. "You're joking." 

        Liam shook his head.

        "You've been knocking out and sleepwalking all bloody night! Now you decide you're no longer tired?"

        "I guess." Liam sighed heavily. "I don't know, mate. I'm... This is madness."

        Harry snickered. "Aye. But I'm glad I'm here to help."

        Liam thought that, perhaps, he wouldn't be in this situation at all had Harry not shown up and whisked him away to the nearby village. But then again, he also remembered being plagued with strange thoughts since that morning, even before his former bandmate arrived. After another minute or so of silence, during which Liam tried again to relax, Harry stumbled upon something on his phone that intrigued him. He tossed an accusation at his friend: "You never answered my question from before."

        Liam, his eyes remaining closed, said, "What?"

        "My question. From earlier."

        "Which one?"

        Harry took a breath. "Do you think you're a bad person?"

        Liam moaned. "Not this again."

        "Tell me."

        "Why, Haz?"

        Harry placed his phone down on the dresser again. From it, he pulled up his Spotify playlist again and put on another song. Soft. Faint. But still audible.

What do you mean? / I'm sorry by the way /

I'm never coming back down / Can't you see?

        The music conducted Liam's attention and he opened his eyes again. Harry stood from the chair, bare feet slapping down on the floor. He stretched and yawned, starting to feel sleep-deprived himself. He had, after all, been jolted awake twice that night. "Tell me you're not a bad person," he said.

        Liam scoffed and lowered his head back down onto the pillow.

All the lights couldn't put out the dark / 

Running through my heart /

Lights up and they know who you are / 

Know who you are / 

Do you know who you are?

        "Li," said Harry as he casually approached his friend, his fingers ghosting through the cold air before landing upon the rim of the bed's footboard. "Say it." 

        "Say whaaaaat," Liam moaned. 

        "Say that you're not a bad person."

        "I..."

        "You don't believe you are, do you?" said Harry. "Not anymore."

I'm sorry by the way / I'm never coming around

It'd be so sweet if things just stayed the same...

        "Honestly, Haz," muttered Liam softly. Weakly. "I don't know if I ever was."

        Harry's heart broke, right then and there, and it became apparent to him--in that very moment--what he needed to do, why he'd felt compelled to hop on a plane and venture out to the northernmost edge of the nation, to find his friend standing at the precipice of it all.

        Harry was here to vanquish the ghosts that Liam was keeping so close to his heart, to combat the darkness that was haunting him, pulling him out into those strange waters. And what other way to banish darkness then with...light?

 

Shine /

Step into the light / 

Shine / 

So bright... 

        Harry's fingertips traced the wooden footboard down to the silky restraints securing Liam's right foot. And then, ever so delicately, he drew his fingers downward onto the cold flesh at the base of Liam's toes.

        The response was instantaneous.

        "F-uck!" Liam hissed, jolting upward, as much as his restraints would allow. His leg tugged against the knotted tie, but his foot remained firmly in place. "What was that?" he asked.

        "Oh, nothin'," said Harry innocently, and he immediately returned his fingertips to Liam's sole, his painted, polished nails applying a feather-light touch to the meaty ball of the foot.

        "N-no! Haz! S-stop it!" Liam protested, his foot shaking back and forth, his toes curling.

        Harry ran his index and middle finger down to the heel. "I'm not doing anything."

        Liam hissed again. The sound was like air escaping a tire in quick bursts. A soft reaction for a soft sensation. "Ch-christ."

        "Some people have referred to me as such," Harry joked, and he removed his hand just long enough for Liam's foot to relax--for his five toes to uncurl--before he pounced hard, fingers diving right into the smooth, pale expanse of Liam's instep.

        "AHHHAHAHA!" Liam yelped loudly. Fortunately, the rest of the inn was vastly vacant; it was unlikely that any other guests were around, so Harry wasn't overly concerned about the noise his friend produced. As he continued to tickle away, he watched with glee as Liam's foot did its best to navigate itself away from Harry's persistent touch. He'd forgotten how small Liam's feet were, but damn, were they attractive. His big toes were wide and egg-shaped, his four smaller toes--much skinnier--curved downward to form perfect arches. And speaking of perfect arches: Liam's were thick with a padding of supple flesh.

        "Ticklish, Li?" asked Harry as he watched his friend begin to crack.

        "Y-you know bloody w-well that I am."

        "Well, good. It's been a long time since we've done something like this, hasn't it?"

        Liam gritted his teeth, forced to endure the electric sensations sparking and crackling along his sole's sensitive skin. Damn, Harry was...good at this. It was as if he knew what he was doing. A hardness was beginning to grow beneath his underwear. God, how long had it been since he'd had a proper tickling? And even so, never before had he experienced anything quite like...this.

        Back in the days of One Direction, he'd discovered that he'd developed sort of a thing for it, often taking opportunities to go at his bandmates during performances. Behind the scenes, however, his experiences with tickling had been far more intense. Intimate, even. He'd turned Niall into a red-faced, teary-eyed, quivering ball of exhausted giggles on many occasions. Zayn once too--and that had been after his departure from the group. But that had been a very long time ago, back when he'd been a different person.

Lights up and they know who you are / 

Know who you are /

Do you know who you are?

        "How's that feel?" asked Harry as he increased the swiftness of his fingers on Liam's foot.

        "St-sthahap it." Liam squeezed his eyes shut. He tried to kick Harry's hand away, but to no avail.

        "Why?"

        "Ha-haz!"

        Harry turned and sat on the edge of the bed, right beside Liam's twisting foot. He used his left hand to hold the ankle down, and with his right, he continued his assault of the ticklish flesh, nails first biting into the arch, then maneuvering back up across the wrinkling instep. Liam sputtered and giggled, arching his back as he tried to peel himself up from the bed. Harry looked over his shoulder at Liam's face.

        Bright.

        For the first time that evening, there was a genuine sparkle in Liam's eyes, which quickly closed shut as Harry's fingertips found the base of Liam's toes again. His nose crinkled up, his smile was wide and bracing. From over his shoulder, Harry watched his friend giggle and writhe under his tickling touch.

        "S'nice to see you laughing."

        "S-sohawhawd off!"

        "No. Don't think I will." Harry used his left hand to peel Liam's toes back. The foot flexed, the soft flesh of the instep pulled taught. With his other hand, he struck down, nails biting into the newly vulnerable stretch of skin. 

        "NOHO! You bastarharharhard!" Liam shrieked. His right leg shook as if he were being electrocuted. Harry chuckled. Liam's foot was strong; his toes wriggled within his grasp. "St-stop tickling my f-foot!" Liam begged.

        "What if I try the other one?" asked Harry.

        "W-what? No! No more!"

        Harry ignored Liam's request. He stood and made his way over to Liam's left foot, which was secured to the opposite bed post. He took a moment to admire its masculine shape before spidering a few fingers down to the pronounced heel and back up again.

        Liam reacted with another violent jolt. "Agh! Haha! No!"

        Harry's smile persisted. As he tickled, he noted the location of the screw tattoo on Liam's ankle, which was situated just beneath the silk tie. It made him think of the matching tattoos on his own feet--tattoos that signified connection, being grounded. That what this night was for--initially an attempt to reconnect; now, it was a tactic to try and ground someone who, for some reason, was teetering on the edge.

       Liam felt the tingle of sweat on his scalp. He continued to thrash and buck as the gentle, but insanely unbearable sensations rocketed across the surface of his left sole. Up. Down. Up. Down. Harry was relentless. "P-pleeeheeeheeheease! H-Hazzahahaha! E-enouhuhuhuff!" he cried.

       "Oh no, my friend. We're just gettin' warmed up, aren't we?" Harry said. In another swift movement, he swung downward onto the floor, centering himself at the foot of the bed. Balancing himself in a squatting position, and with both the bottoms of Liam's pale-pink feet in front of him, he reached out and began to tickle both targets at once.

        "NOHOHO! H-Harreeheeheehee! Th-that's toohoo muhuhuhuch!" Liam threw his head back and let out a loud bellow that eventually broke away into a percolation of frantic giggles. His body trembled as he tugged and tugged at the ties in vain.

       Harry laughed too. The sight and the sound of Liam's suffering--if he could even call it 'suffering,' given the evident bulge beneath his underwear--was spectacular. Harry felt the evidence of his own excitement starting to mount within his groin as well. "Yeah, mate? You all good?"

        "Nohohohohoho!"

        "You seem happy. Happier than I've seen you all night." Harry plunged his fingernails into the divots between Liam's toes. It was a little hard to manage, given his position, but the result was well worth it.

        "AIEEEHAHAHAHAHA!" screamed Liam, voice nearly cracking. He shook his head back and forth against the pillow, cheeks slapping against smooth, damp fabric in alternating succession. His face was starting to grow sore from smiling; his eyes hurt from being so tightly shut. This was hell. Absolute hell. But it was also...something else. Something...amazing. He could feel his erection growing larger, laboring against the cotton walls of its cell.

        "This is quite fun." Harry grinned. "And, if anything, it'll tire you out. Get you to sleep 'till mornin'. Win-win."

        "This i-isn't a win for meeheeheehahahaha!"

        "You sure about that?" Harry raised a brow. He finally pried his fingers away from Liam's thrashing feet and directed his attention up to his friend's waist, on which a crimson-fabric tent was pitched. "You seem to be enjoying yourself." Harry stood and clambered up onto the bed, skittering his fingernails up Liam's sculpted, hairy legs as he ventured forward.

        "A-ahhaha! C-cut that out! Heheh." 

        "Oh, that's just a little transition," said Harry in a sing-songy tone, scribbling his fingers lightly over Liam's kneecaps, which elicited a few more gruff giggles from his friend. "I'm much more interested in these armpits of yours." He straddled his mate's waist, taking care not to sit directly on the evidence of Liam's excitement. "Whattaya think?"

        Liam's eyes widened. Harry sitting here, on top of him, made him realize just how completely vulnerable he was. "Haz, no." He spoke firmly amidst heavy breaths. "No, I won't be able to take it. P-please. This is madness." He swallowed heavily and threw his head back against the pillow.

        "Li, we've already determined that everything about this evening has been madness." Harry reached down and patted Liam's rising and falling chest. "We might as well enjoy the ride. At least you're not walking out into that damn lake." As soon as he bent forward, hair falling into his face, Liam began to beg.

        "No, no, no, no," he muttered again and again. "Please, no."

        Harry curled his fingers, his hands hovering over the sculpted, hairy divots beneath Liam's tensing biceps. Even in the dim lighting, they looked damp with sweat. "Tell you what," said Harry, trying not to break his composure as he watched Liam brace himself--his anticipatory smile was absolutely adorable. "I'll knock this off if you take back what you said before."

        Liam's brown eyes went wide. "W-what did I say?"

        "About you not being a good person." Harry began to wiggle his fingers, lowering them, inch by inch into the silky hairs of Liam's broad underarms. 

        Liam began to giggle madly. His neck tensed. His jaw went rigid. His Adam's apple bobbed beneath the birthmark on his neck. "S-s-s-stop it!" he hissed. "N-nohoho!" He was completely at Harry's mercy. His pulled against his bonds, but--no surprise--they held. He felt so exposed. So helpless. But this helplessness was different than the one he'd been feeling before, in the pub, at the lakeside, in the strange and confusing madness of his dreams.

        This was exciting. Raw. Real.

        "Say it," Harry instructed.

        "S-s-say wh-AHHHHAHAHAT!" Liam was interrupted as Harry plunged into his pits, eliciting from his tickle victim a howling eruption of panicked belly laughs. Harry could feel the tightness of Liam's stomach beneath his thighs. The bed frame groaned as Liam tossed violently atop the mattress, sandwiched beneath Harry's solid weight.

        "Say you're a good person." Harry raised his voice so that he could be heard over Liam's wild laughter.

        "OH MY GAWHAWHAD! HAHAHAHAZ! FUHUHUHUCK!" Liam screamed, as Harry applied more pressure, digging the pads of his nimble fingers into the soft flesh at the sides of his pecs. Liam rocked and twisted as much as he could manage, his wrists and ankles held firmly in place, and his waist pinned beneath Harry's bottom. 

        "Say it," Harry sung gleefully, his heart racing from his own excitement, his hard-on nearly touching down on the solid expanse of Liam's abs.

        "HAHAHAHAHA!" Liam just continued laughing.

        "I won't stop until you say it." Harry moved his fingers to tensing muscles of Liam's shoulders and instead pressed his thumbs into the exposed armpits.

        Again, Liam squealed and he tried to pull his arms down to shield himself. "OHHOHOHO FUCK MEEHEEHEEHEE!" 

        "I'd rather cuddle, if you don't mind," Harry said with a smirk. He slowed the rhythm and softened the pressure of his tickling fingers. "Plus, I don't think your girlfriend would appreciate that."

        "Sh-shut up," Liam snickered.

        "Li. You're not saying it. Are you going to make this even worse for yourself?"

        "H-How could you possibly? Th-this is already hell."

        Harry leaned back and crossed his arms. "Is that a challenge?"

        "N-no!"

        "'Cuz here's the thing," said Harry, now sliding backward over Liam's hard groin, placing himself in the space between his friend's solid thighs. "I'm curious to see how ticklish these hips of yours are." He brought himself down on his front, keeping his head and hands right above Liam's waist.

        "NO! HARRY! DON'T!" Liam said.

        Harry's hands transformed into claws, pinching in the manner of a crab as they descended towards the spot of flesh just above Liam's hipbones on each side. "You ready, Payno?"

        "NO! HAZ, I SWEAR!"

        "Three..."

        "Harry!" Liam tried to pull himself up, but all he managed to do was buck his waist upward, his bulge nearly making contact with Harry's chin, which caused his bandmate to laugh and pull away.

        "Two..."

        "NO! HARRY! DON'T! I GIVE!"

        Those weren't the words Harry was looking for. He shook his head. "One..."

        Liam slammed his eyes shut and braced himself.

        Harry struck, fingers kneading into Liam's sides at the exact same time. Hard, but not too hard. The pads of his thumbs worked their way into the firm flesh on either side of his abdominals' V-cut. His fingers jabbed rhythmically into the flesh at his sides. 

        "OHHHOHOHOOHO FUHUHUHUHUCK! AAAAAAAIIGGGHHH!" Liam roared, his body bucking upward. He slammed the back of his head into his pillow, over and over again. His torso writhed. The mattress bounced, and Harry bounced along with it.

        "Saaaaaay it!"

        "Y-YOU'RE KIHIHIHIHILLING MEEHEEHEEEHEEHAHAHAHA!"

        "Don't be dramatic. Say it!" Harry worked his hands lower, his thumbs following Liam's V-line to the hem of the underwear.

        "HAAARREEEEHEEEHEEHEE!" 

        "You're a stubborn bastard, aren't ya?" Harry grinned. "Well, I know how to get you to crack." He paused at the precipice between fabric and flesh. Liam bucked again, almost causing Harry to lose his balance. Heat was radiating from both of their bodies. The energy and exhaustion and excitement between them crackled through the air. Harry brought his thumbs inward, pressing into Liam's stomach just beneath his navel. As he swirled his thumbs around in deliberate and strategic circular movements, they slipped, every so slightly, beneath the waistband of Liam's red briefs. The forbidden flesh there was far warmer, softer, and damper than the exposed skin of his stomach only a quarter-inch above. This did him in.

        Liam cracked. "OHHHHOHOHOHOOHHKAY! OKAYHAYHAYHAY! HAHAHAHA! I'M A BL-BLOODY GOOHOOHOOHOOD PERHERHERHERSON! NOW STOP! STAWHAWHAP! FOR THE L-LOVE OF GAWHAWHAWHAWD!"

        And Harry stopped.

        The silence encroached upon them almost instantly, kept only somewhat at bay by both of their heavy breathing. Harry looked up at Liam with a triumphant smile. "Yes," he said after a moment. "Yes, you bloody well are. And don't you forget it."

        Liam continued to inhale and exhale as if his life depended on it. His groin throbbed. His arms and legs ached from pulling against his restraints. His back was cold with sweat. So was his scalp. "F-fuck, Haz."

        "Hey. Look at me." Harry slowly lifted himself from on top of his friend. He stood from the mattress and turned so that Liam could see him without straining his neck. Liam, still silent save for his tired panting, met Harry's gaze. "You need to believe it."

        Liam closed his eyes and swallowed. "I kn-know."

        "Yeah, you're the guy who said some shit he shouldn't have said. Did some things he shouldn't have done. But you know who else you are?"

        Liam looked up at the ceiling. "W-who?" he muttered.

        "I'll show ya." Harry returned to the dresser and grabbed his phone, which was now playing another song. It had been impossible to hear before over the sound of his laughter, but now, in the quiet of their room, he could hear the lyrics, clear as day. Clear as night.

We're just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me...

        Harry approached the bed again, bringing the song with him as he walked. Once more at Liam's side, placing himself on the edge of he mattress, he turned and flashed him a glimpse of the phone's screen.

      Liam squinted and blinked a few times. It took him a moment to realize what he was looking at. As his eyes adjusted to the lighting, he saw that Harry was showing him an Instagram post. His Instagram post, from earlier that year:

IMG_1266.PNG

        "You're the type of person who'll reach out to a friend to congratulate him on a huge win, even when he sometimes thinks that he doesn't deserve it," Harry explained, voice catching on something strong. He flipped his phone back around and scrolled for another few moments before presenting Liam with a second picture:

IMG_1265.jpg

        "You're the type of person who'll offer beautiful words of support when you find out that a friend is going through one of the most difficult times of his life."

        Liam heard the emotion in Harry's voice--suddenly so serious and almost desperate--and he felt the sting gather behind his eyes. He blinked a few more times, his jaw going tight.

        Again, Harry withdrew his phone and swiped through a few more screens. The next set of images was...unexpected. Not social media posts, but rather...

        GIFs.

        Two of them:

tumblr_b06eea72117f99a498b1d5c9988e0266_dfec6d46_250 copy.gif

        A surprised chuckle bubbled out of Liam's throat as he watched a past version of himself tickle-attack Harry's ribs on two separate occasions. The way Harry jolted away from him. The way Harry's face exploded into a grin. Liam remembered the rush of it all, the roar of the crowd. He felt a pulse of excitement down south again. "W-why do you have those?" he asked.

        Harry shrugged. "To remind you who you are, mate. The guy I'm talking about--this fun-loving, crazy, kind-hearted guy, who happens to be a devil of a tickler, by the way"--Harry's voice cracked and he made a sound that was something between a cry and a laugh--"he's just as much a part of you as the guy who's made all those mistakes. One is not more you than the other. You're not only defined by the mistakes you've made. You get me?"

        "Y-yeah," Liam muttered.

        "I saw that video you posted on YouTube. Back in July," Harry said. "You remember it?"

        "Of course."

        "You were open and honest about what you'd gone through. You said you were in a better place. You said you'd learned from your mistakes. Right?"
        Liam nodded slowly.

        "So...what happened?"

        Liam took a long breath. He didn't know. Not entirely. It was something about this place. Something about being alone. He'd craved solitude, sure, but the quiet here...the all-consuming quiet...Sometimes the quiet meant the only things to which to listen were his thoughts. And when the insecurities crept back... and the regrets... they were just so loud that sometimes he'd get overwhelmed. He remembered what he'd said in that YouTube video, about his son: "There's no point in being a dad when you've got nothing to teach."

        Was this what he wanted to teach? Weakness? An inability to process? Self-loss? Self-loathing? The tears started to spill and when he looked up at Harry again, he saw only empathy and love. "It was a bit of lapse, Haz," he stammered before explaining the theory on which he'd just reflected. "B-but I'm glad you're here." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I'm glad y-you helped me." Liam sniffed and smiled. "Who knew you were such the therapist?"

        "I'm a man of many talents," Harry joked, and after another dive into his phone, he pulled up one last GIF. "By the way, this one's my favorite," he said. "Thank god for Tumblr, eh?"

        Liam looked at the phone:

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        Despite his tears, Liam laughed again and shook his head. "Yeah?"

        "Always loved how, out of the five of us, you were one of the most ticklish. Always dishin' it out, but not takin' it too well."

        "Excuse me," Liam scoffed, gesturing with his head at his current predicament, glancing at all four bed posts to which he was still secured. "I'd say I handled this pretty well, don't you think?"

        "Maybe." Harry jabbed him gently in his exposed armpit again, and he immediately yelped. "I did give it to you pretty good, didn't I?"

        "Yeah, yeah." Liam rolled his eyes. "That was...actually quite fun, thanks."

        Harry beamed proudly. "Glad to be of service."

        "But, will you untie me now? My arms and legs are killing me."

       Harry curled his lip in thought. "Can I be certain you won't go sleepwalking out into the lake again?"

        Liam inhaled, the crisp air swelling into his lungs. He closed his eyes and cleared his throat. He tried to picture the image that had been plaguing him since his arrival to the lake earlier that afternoon--the silver waters gone black. The endless looming mountains. He tried to concentrate on all of the thoughts that had incessantly possessed his mind since right before Harry's arrival--the things that haunted him--but he found they no longer sat at the forefront of his mind. It as as if a reversal had occurred, another shift, another slip. Now they, though still present, were muffled and distant, as if the shadow of his past were submerged instead. He remained on the surface, breathing, awake, present. Finally, he said, "I think I'll be okay."

         He and Harry listened to the song gently close out:

How it feels to have a heart...

...beat

        "Right then." Harry offered a small smile and he closed out his playlist. Placing his phone on the bed, he reached up and began to work away at the first tie around Liam's wrist. "We'll see how you do. I'm not afraid to put you through this again if I have to."

        Liam chuckled. "Understood."

--------------------------------​

        Liam didn't remember falling asleep. The next thing he knew, he was stirring awake, listening to the sounds of the birds, the sounds of lake.

        Splish. Splash. Splish. Splash.

        He made to stretch, his body still sore from his workout the night before, and he found once more that he had trouble moving. He quickly found that he'd been wrapped up, bound not by ties, but by the bear-like grip of his friend. Harry was spooning him, his bare, tatted arm draped lazily over his shoulder and chest. Liam looked down to see a giant inked heart, solid and bold on Harry's flesh.

       "Get off of me," he muttered with a sleepy smile. Harry's body was very hot and a little sticky with sweat, but he still smelled strangely clean. Earthy, sensual, ethereal.

        "Hmm?" Harry moaned, goaded gently from his own slumber as Liam wriggled in his grasp.

        "You're holding me awfully tight there."

        "S-sorry," Harry grumbled. "Wanted to make sure y-you didn't try anything."

        Liam laughed. "I'm good, mate. Promise."

        Harry released him and turned onto his back. Liam stretched and yawned and looked toward the window and the back door. Gray light was streaming in through the curtains. The day was new, and it was welcoming him. He then looked back to his bandmate beside him, this ghost from his past who had come out of nowhere and been there for him when he had, much to his realization, needed him most. Liam felt something tug at his heart, something sad and happy and grateful all at once. He leaned over and pressed his lips into Harry's silky hair, musky with sweat and product, and he kissed him softly.

       "Thanks, Haz," he whispered as he pulled away.

       Later that morning, after he had finished helping Harry pack up to leave, Liam found himself standing, in his newly dried clothes and puffer jacket, at the threshold of the door that led back out to the shore. He looked out over the overcast world--the quiet, calm solitude of it all--and saw a stream of sunlight slip through an opening in the rolling cloud cover. The beam of soft gold struck the shifting silver of the water; from where warmth met icy surface, Liam saw swirls of color pooling outward. Rainbow, like bleeding paint, like the mixing palette of an artist.

       Harry called out to him. "Ready, Li?"

       Liam watched the colors grow brighter and warmer and he felt a similar pulse of something kindle inside of him. When he turned back into the room, he saw Harry with his bag at the bed, dressed in something fun and flashy and flamboyant. He smiled.

        "Ready."

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Author's notes: 

This story was originally published on November 5, 2023. It's been a long time since I wrote a new fan fic, let alone a One Direction fan fic, but I always envisioned this tickle series--featuring Liam as a protagonist--having three parts. Given the season, and life as of late, I wanted this finale, so to speak, to have a little bit of a darker feel, hence the setting and narrative. As I continued to write this fic, I found myself drawing some minor inspiration from Black Mirror's "Loch Henry" as well--such a chilling episode! As with the previous two parts, I dedicate this story to my online friend, Konrad (Pyrokar1990). Thank you for all of your patience and all of the laughs over the years. I hope this story proves to be reflective, enjoyable, and brings closure!

DISCLAIMER: 

Though this story features actual persons and references actual events, it is entirely a work of fiction and is in no way affiliated with, or endorsed by, those individuals. It is written solely for the purposes of entertainment and should not be taken seriously.

This story, though fantastical, contains allusions to depression, rehabilitation, and the potential for self-harm. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, call 800-273-TALK (8255) or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org for resources and support. You can also learn more from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at afsp.org

REVIEWS: 

"You did it again...Once more, a beautiful insight into the inner-workings of a human mind, a psychological analysis, a stroll along the train of thought of someone struggling with anxiety and depression. That and a bloody good tickle fic...Thank you for writing that...thank you for dedicating it to me (YAY!)" @pyrokar1990

"I absolutely loved [this]! The writing was so good with the emotions, setting, and descriptions. Everything about this fic was amazing. Love your writing style." @beau

"I absolutely love how you write the two boys together...they feel so real as characters (your inclusion of aspects of Liam's personal life makes him feel just that more 'real')...loved it -- as I read along I wondered how Liam would get tied and tickled -- and then when Harry bound him to the bed to stop him from walking into the lake, I thought YES, genius! And the tickling was great! You write foot tickling very well. I've never been into Liam but now I'm very much into the idea of [him] being tickled by Harry. Such a great read! And so emotive too -- a full fircle conclusion at the end -- just so damn great. Thank you for work." @famous&ticklish

"Excellent! Harry using tickling to cheer Liam up, even if he hates it, is really sweet and sexy...[though] I thought with them both getting hard, it might go a bit further. Perhaps another time!" @jakenayna150

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