Fifteen

☼►twenty-nine◄☼

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I double-check the message thread as Marley and I make our way to the doors. The delivered notice has definitely switched to read, but I’m worried that maybe Harry has forgotten to pass the message along—or worse, that he’s changed his mind. My heart thumps painfully in response to the thought.

Though there is a little over another hour before the show is scheduled to start, a line of fans has already formed at the doors. My steps slow automatically, and I draw in a shaky breath. Marley glances back at me over her shoulder and winces in sympathy. Then, taking my hand, she takes charge and tugs me toward the security that stands at the front of the crowd.

“Back there,” the man drawls lazily, pointing to the end of the line.

True to her personality, Marley isn’t deterred. She just grins brightly and bounces on the balls of her feet. “Hi, how are you? I’m Marley, and this lovely lady with me is my favourite ducky, Seren. We were told we’d be able to get in?”

“Seren?” He leans over to speak into his partner’s ear; the other man nods, and the first one looks back at us, gesturing to the side. “Step over here. Someone will be 'round to get you.”

Someone behind us shouts out that they’re with us, and I roll my eyes and follow Marley to where the guard pointed us to. Thankfully, the guards don’t listen to anyone trying to claim to be our friends. They instead shift just enough to form a makeshift barricade between the fans and Marley and me.

We only have to wait a couple of minutes, then we’re told to follow yet another member of security into the building. Nobody bothers looking our way as we’re lead through the large corridors. It’s as if we’re invisible while being lead about. Marley’s fingernails dig into my arm when we finally come to a stop.

All four of the guys are focused on rehearsing, laughing and shoving at each other whenever one messes up. Their voices echo throughout the cavernous arena, reaching to the highest point of the ceiling all the way down to the floor. I tuck my hands in my pockets, lean against Marley, and watch.

It’s different, in a way I can’t describe, to personally see Harry in his element like this. Sure, I’ve watched countless YouTube videos of the band performing, of moments behind-the-scenes, of everything that Harry would give his fans. But it pales in comparison to seeing it all up close.

Harry pushes his hair from his face as one of his band-mates - Liam, if I remember the name correctly - talks to him.his expression stays serious. Shadows and lighting play across his features, and then he smiles. I can’t be bothered to try to overhear; I’m too far away and far too engrossed in cataloguing all the differences between the Harry I used to know and the one that stands before me.

The second the soundcheck is over, Harry pushes past his friends, grinning as he does, though I can tell it’s an absentminded thing. Even after all these years, I can remember that smile clearly. Marley pinches my elbow before dancing away, and he nods at her when they pass each other.

When he comes to a stop a foot away, it’s all I can do to not throw myself at him. He scratches awkwardly at a spot beneath his ear, shifts from foot to foot. I decide to show mercy on him, closing the gap between us to embrace him tightly.

The heaviness that has lived in my heart for so long fades as we hold each other. The distance and loss of his friendship molded me into a different person, one who’s said goodbye to those who meant the most to her and made it to the other side stronger for it. I was forever changed when I was thirteen then again at fifteen and sixteen, and the scars have stayed with me through the years.

But I can’t deny the beauty and warmth of the aching void finally beginning to heal.

Harry pulls back after a minute and gives me that bright, crooked grin I know so well.

“Hi.”

“Hey, Q.”

“You—you look good. Really.”

I shrug, laughing quietly. “Could say the same for you. Seriously, who knew you’d be able to rock long locks like that so well?”

“Yeah, I got tired of getting haircuts,” he laughs as he shoves a hand through his hair. “Oh! Seren, these are Liam, Louis, and Niall, my band-mates. Lads, this is Seren, and… I don’t know her,” he adds as Marley pops up beside me.

“Heya, I’m Marley, Seren’s best friend and platonic soulmate.” She smiles pleasantly, but her hands are trembling at her sides; I link my fingers with hers, squeezing reassuringly. “I’m also the reason she even showed up tonight.”

“Marley.”

She shrugs without remorse, moving away toward Niall and his guitar. Harry huffs out a laugh then beckons for me to follow him. My blood thrums in my veins as we sit on the edge of the stage, our legs dangling over the side; I let out a slow breath and stare out at the sea of seats.

It isn’t a secret that One Direction sells out their shows in enormous venues, and I’ve gone to plenty of big-name concerts over the last few years. But nothing compares to this, to being on this side of the barriers. Nervousness floods through me, even though I’m not the one meant to perform tonight.

Harry nudges me with his shoulder, and I inhale slowly as I tuck a lock of hair behind my ear.

“Tell me what’s new with you,” he says softly. “We haven’t talked in so long, I feel as if we’re strangers now.”

I bite back what I really want to say—that we are strangers, we stopped knowing each other when he stopped writing. Casting a dark cloud over the evening isn’t a good idea. Hurting him is the last thing I could ever want to do, no matter how he’s hurt me, inadvertently as it may be. I still love him enough to want the best for him.

So I start talking about how I’d moved from West Point to Huntington Beach, leaving within hours of my graduation ceremony. I told him how Marley and I met, how she and Travis had brought me into their fold so wonderfully. How my days are spent working or at home with my friends.

He listens intently, and for a split second, I am transported back to when we were fifteen, making confessions in the dark of night while sitting knee-to-knee on my bed. His hand shakes minutely, almost going without notice, as he wraps his fingers around mine. I drag my gaze from the seats to his face; the expression there says something I can’t understand.

“Do you do anything for fun, or do you only ever work?”

Huffing out a laugh, I shrug. “I basically do nothing but work. What else is there to do when you’re not touring the world and singing to millions of people?”

“Hey, Q, I like this one!” Liam calls through his laughter, but whether he’s laughing at th gentle teasing or Marley’s behaviour, I’m not entirely sure.

Harry’s head whips around with a quickness that startles me, but what’s even more surprising is the vehemence with which he tells the others that they’re not allowed to call him that. I gape at him in shock, heart stuttering in my chest, but he avoids my gaze.

Thankfully, no one questions it further, though I do catch the puzzled looks his friends shoot him once his back is turned. Marley frowns, cocks her head, and all I can do is shrug helplessly. I have no answers for her - none for myself, either.

“So where do you work?” Harry asks, as if nothing happened.

“Uh, a, a tattoo shop. My aunt’s. PermanInk. Been working there since I got here.” That achingly familiar look on his face tells me he’s planning something, and I raise a brow. “What?”

“Nice tattoo,” he comments instead, turning my wrist over to see the rubber ducky more clearly. “D’you ever get that duck farm?”

I pout exaggeratedly, and my chest tightens as he laughs. “No, but there’s still hope yet.”

“There’s a reason I call her ‘ducky’, and it ain’t ’cause she lived in the UK for a spell!”

I flip Marley off over my shoulder, but my smile breaks free regardless. Our friends’ voices are all that I can hear for a long moment, then Harry sighs, brows drawing together over his eyes. The squirming and the hesitation tells me exactly what he’s going to ask before he does.

I shrug and stare out over the seats as I tell him we haven’t heard anything about Sophie, but the authorities are no longer actively searching for her. It’s been too long without any sort of lead, any conclusion to her disappearance, and it’s wasting “valuable manpower” to continue trying to rescue someone who doesn’t want to be found—or is dead. From the corner of my eye, I see his face fall, his mouth opening. I shake my head.

I don’t need apologies, especially not from him.

The show is absolutely amazing, full of energy and passion. Marley keeps an arm looped in mine as she bounces on her toes, singing along to the words, but I can’t focus on anything other than Harry. There’s a light in his eyes that I can see even from the wings, a looseness in his body as he and his bandmates give the fans what they came here for.

I know it’s going to hurt like Hell when I lose him again.

The bubble that surrounds me bursts a few hours later, pierced into nonexistence by the reality that I have to say goodbye—again. I hold on to Harry as tightly as I can, for as long as I can, but even then, it comes to a close much too soon. Stepping back, I force myself to stand a little straighter and to hide how I feel.

His eyes lose their glimmer as he glances over his shoulder where his friends are heading toward the back exit, then he meets my gaze. All I can do is force a smile; the security guy taps at his watch with a grimace of sympathy, and I nod shakily. One last hug, then I step back.

Marley laces her fingers with mine and tugs on my hand until I slowly fall into step with her. When I look back a moment later, Harry and Paul are gone.

In her usual fashion, Marley chatters on exuberantly as she drives us home. I know she’s aware that I’m hurting, just like we both know I won’t talk about it. Not right now. So she’s taken it upon herself to distract the both of us.

“That was so much fun,” she squeals. “And oh god, Liam is just holy balls gorgeous, I swear.”

I can’t stifle my snort of amusement, but all I do is roll my eyes even as she flashes me a victorious grin. Reaching for her phone, I bring up the Pandora app and switch over to the My Chemical Romance station. Gerard Way’s voice flows from the speakers a second later, so I grab my own phone.

The message thread with Harry is on the screen once I unlock the device. I stare down at the white and pale-green bubbles, trying to think of what I could possibly say without sounding like a maniac. Or a creep who’s been in love with him for years even without contact. My fingers tap out the words before I can overthink it and change my mind.

To: Q
< Thank you for inviting us to the show. Mar and I had loads of fun. You all are so so so talented.
< It was wonderful to see you again, Q.

I don’t expect a response, but his comes almost instantly. I wonder absentmindedly if he was in the middle of texting me when I sent my message.

From: Q
> Thanks for coming. It was great to see you, too, Star.

Surprise floods through me at the nickname. I can’t believe he still remembers it. Warmth burns in my eyes. Marley has stopped talking, switched to singing along to Helena, and I let out a breath on a shaky exhale. Before I can respond to Harry’s text, another comes through.

From: Q
> I got all the letters you sent me. I’m so sorry for not writing back like I should have.

To: Q
< It’s okay, I understand. You got insanely busy after X Factor, and I really doubt your life has slowed down since lol. I can’t blame you for not having the time.

From: Q
> I still should have made more time. You were important to me. You still are. I had no right to push our friendship aside like that. I can’t tell you how sorry I am about that.

To: Q
<
Harry…
< Q…
< Suzie Q…
< Curly Sue…
< Shut up.
< If you say you’re sorry one more time, I’ll tell the entire world about the time I walked into your room to wake you up for school and found you cuddling the bag of flour.

From: Q
>
I’m glad that smartphones weren’t a thing back then

To: Q
<
Seriously, it’s okay. I get it. I’m not mad. Besides, now we have each other’s numbers, and I can pester you THIS way instead!

Harry doesn’t reply, but I try not to take it personally - the message only says ‘delivered’, after all, so I know he isn’t leaving me on read. He’s probably busy. I set my phone down in my lap and stare out the window at the scenery flying by. My heart feels lighter in the absence of the anger I’ve been carrying since I first realised he was no longer going to write back.

Marley unlocks the door to the flat, and I shake my head as she dances her way through our home toward her bedroom. Her voice floats from behind her door, I hear them callin’ for ya echoing in the silence. Pushing the door shut behind me, I twist the lock into place and head to my own room.

Brilliant light fills the room as soon I flip the switch. My pastel-purple comforter rests at the end of my bed, a mass of cotton and fluff after kicking it off of me this morning. The desk in front of the window is covered in sketchbooks, pens, and a large fluorescent-orange stress ball that I throw at the wall when I get frustrated. Clothes spill out of the hamper by the closet, reminding me I need to do laundry. Immediately.

My Chucks hit the wall with a thump-thump as I beeline for the dresser. I quickly strip off my halter-top and jeans, grabbing my favourite T-shirt from where it hangs from the edge of my bureau. Not bothering to pull on sleep-pants, I drop onto my bed and flop backwards.

Marley pokes her head into the room without knocking. “Hey, babe. Just wanted to say I’m proud of you for going. I know I didn’t give you much of a choice, but… I’m proud of you anyway.”

“Thanks for making me go. I, I needed it,” I admit sheepishly, and she gives me a succinct nod and smug smirk.

“Damn straight you did. All right. Night, sweetie.”

She flips the switch for me, pulling the door shut as she walks away. I grab my phone from where I tossed it onto the mattress when I entered the room and stretch out, curl on my side. My teeth chew at my bottom lip - an instinctive habit that’s followed me throughout my life - as I stare at the screen.

To: Q
< This is going to sound creepy, but because you were my best friend, I… kinda kept tabs on you through the years. Just thought you should know.
< I’m glad you’re doing well xx

I fall asleep before his reply comes in.