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the dead things we carry

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“I want to know what to do,

with the dead things we carry.”

Aracelis Girmay

 

September ‘49

Louis wakes up on September 1st with a crick in his neck and his right knee throbbing. He winces, hand reaching for his bad leg, stroking his knee in a futile attempt to sooth the ache. There’s not much that works for that these days, but the instinct to try to dull the pain with the heat of his palm still hasn’t died down years after the injury. He shivers a little, burrowing himself deeper under his scratchy blanket for a moment longer, enjoying his last few seconds of freedom.

It’s not quite autumn yet, not cold enough for summer to have fully left, but there is something in the northern air that seems to whisper that autumn is right around the corner, coming a lot quicker than Louis would like. The cold always enhances the pain and it’s frequent during the winter that Louis wakes up in the middle of the night, leg painfully pulsating with the beats of his heart, a constant remember of days he’d like to forget.

He inhales deeply, exhaling loud before throwing the blanket off his body and sitting up, hand automatically reaching for the cane that always rests against his nightstand. He shivers again at the breeze coming from his window, sleepily blinking as he tries to mentally prepare himself for the day. It’s still dark outside, the sun barely starting to poke out of the horizon, but Louis needs to get ready if he wants to make it to the local school in time.

He gets up with a minimum of difficulty, unfortunately used to the way his knee always acts up in the morning. Today is no different and he makes his way to the window, sadly closing it with a thud, already regretting the refreshing summer breeze that made his nights so comfortable these past few months. He won’t be able to afford this luxury anymore, not with the way the temperature has already started to drop. He grimaces, leaving the comfort of his bedroom behind to make the first brew of the day. He can already feel like it’s going to be a long one.

Then again, the first day of the school year always is, the pupils buzzing with nervous energy, half excited to be back and half dreading the amount of work they will be subjected to by their tormentors. Not the most flattering title, but Louis wears it with pride. Besides, the summer always seems to stretch a little too uncomfortably for him to fully enjoy it, a familiar loneliness settling in as soon as the first few weeks of holidays have passed. He’d much rather see his kids every day than spending his weeks reading in his backyard and avoiding the pitying looks of most of the other villagers.

Children don’t give the same sad glances, the silent pity that he’s become so familiar with since he came back from the front. Sure, some of them are rude about his injury, calling him lame or crippled, but they don’t hide beneath the fake indifference Louis can’t stand. They’re blunt and curious, their eyes wide as they ask about what happened in France, what happened to him specifically. He doesn’t always answer, mostly stays silent because it’s easier this way, but there’s something refreshing about the way they are unwilling to pretend it never happened.

It did happen and, some days, it feels like Louis is the only one carrying the memories of it.

He makes his way to the kitchen slowly, still half asleep, putting the kettle on absently, a lifelong tea drinking obsession having made the gestures so familiar he could probably do them in his sleep. He goes through the motion easily, feeding himself, then dressing, reluctantly putting on a formal suit and tie combination to please Headmaster Moore, at least on the first day. Soon enough, he’s ready to leave, brown leather satchel in hand.

*

“Mr. Tomlinson!” a small voice drags Louis out of his thoughts and he turns around to see Jacob Mitchells happily skipping next to his mother. “Mr. Tomlinson!”

“Good Morning, Mr. Mitchells,” Louis calls formally, nodding to both Jacob and his mother, noticirng the way she’s frowning slightly at her son’s buoyancy. “Ready to expand your mind this year?”

Jacob stops skipping, giving Louis a very solemn look. “Very much so, Mr. Tomlinson,” he replies, hiding his hands behind his back.

“Are you looking forward to being in Miss Tarleton’s class?” Louis continues chitchatting, ignoring the way Mrs. Mitchells is smiling a hint too politely at him, like all mothers in town do.

Poor Mr. Tomlinson, all alone in that house of his. He’s handsome enough, but that leg. She doesn’t need to say it for Louis to hear.

Jacob sighs, rolling his eyes dramatically. “I guess,” he replies, too stubborn for his own good. He was always one of Louis’ favourite student.

“Jacob!” his mother chastises straight away, mortified by her son’s attitude.

“Sorry,” Jacob whispers, lowering his gaze. “I am looking forward to learning new things,” he adds diplomatically. “I’m going to miss your lessons though.”

“And I’ll miss your energy in class Mr. Mitchells. Still, forwards and onwards, isn’t it?”

Jacob smiles widely and offers him a nod, waving excitedly to one of his mates as they arrive at the local school.

A small red bricks building, it looks quite quaint in the morning sunlight of September. Still, it’s what Louis is proud to call home more than anything else in the village.

He inhales deeply, slowly making his way to the front door where most of his colleagues are already waiting.

Here he goes again.

*

Louis feels like his head is going to explode by the time he hits lunchtime. He’s pretty sure the children weren’t so … energetic last year. They’re eager to learn, at least, wide-eyed as they listened to Louis go through his lesson plans.

He yawns as he joins the rest of his colleague at the table they share in the small staff kitchen. He can’t believe he’s only halfway through the first day when it feels like a whole week has passed already.

“Were the mornings always this long?” he asks with a small smile as he takes a seat, putting his cane against his chair and letting himself drop in it easily.

Mrs. Padley shakes her head at him like he knew she would, but there’s still a small smile on her face. Out of all his colleagues, she’s Louis’ favourite, not that he’d ever say. A widow from the Great War, there’s something in her eyes that Louis recognises intimately.

“Every year Mr. Tomlinson,” she calls him out kindly with a click of her tongue. “Honestly, you’d think it’s your first day teaching with the way you’re complaining.”

Louis laughs, unwrapping the sandwich he made himself the night before, one of the three things he can confidently cook. “Oh, I’m hardly complaining Mrs. Padley. Just a tiny little bit. Besides, I can’t help myself,” Louis replies with a shrug. “I think the summer is too long, I always forget how terrible our pupils are.”

“Oh, they’re not so bad,” Miss Tarleton chastises bravely before blushing furiously when her eyes meet Louis’.

He can never quite tell if she has a small crush on him, or if she’s simply incredibly shy. Considering the fact that she spends ninety percent of her life painted a raging shade of red, to her students’ delight and amusement, it could be either way.

“Oh, they’re monsters,” Miss Gibson agrees. “I adore them, but they truly are. I’m personally exhausted and have been ever since I had to say the word grammar this morning and they started groaning.”

“Emily,” Mrs. Padley snaps a hint too bluntly, looking over her shoulder to make sure Headmaster Moore hasn’t entered the staff kitchen yet.

Louis snorts, amused by Miss Gibson’s frankness. She’s definitely not Headmaster Moore’s favourite, but Louis always finds her ease to offer her colourful opinions refreshing in this otherwise rather bleak establishment.

“Well, you can’t deny it’s a little bit true,” Louis replies, offering Mrs. Padley a charming smile.

She sighs. “Still.”

“Oh, don’t be so grumpy Mrs. Padley,” Miss Gibson adds teasingly. “You know I’m only kidding.”

“I just think it’s highly inappropriate to mock our pupils while we’re supposed to mould them.”

“Fine!” Miss Gibson agrees, a bit too happily. “Let’s talk about something else. Have you heard about the new doctor in town?”

“Doctor?” Louis asks, surprised it’s the first he’s hearing about it. “Is there something wrong with Mr. Ainsworth?”

“He’s just an apprentice - or whatever it is they’re called - not a replacement” Mrs. Padley explains. “He’s doing a year shadowing a full-time doctor before he can practice on his own. He moved into Dr. Ainsworth’s house yesterday evening.”

Well, that would explain why Louis remained in the dark. It doesn’t usually take more than a day for gossip to make his way through their village, the tongues here quick and snappish.

“He’s fresh out of university,” Miss Gibson says with a dreamy look on her face. “A doctor,” she repeats with a sigh. “A single doctor who is not a hundred years old in our village, can you believe it? Poppy said he was really handsome. Isn’t he, Rose?” she asks, elbowing her colleague. “She’s seen him too,” she adds, obviously delighted.

Miss Tarleton blushes even deeper, giving her friend a panicked look. “Well, I… He’s…” She clears her throat, hand fiddling with her blonde bun uncomfortably. “He seemed very kind.”

“You little minx, that’s not what you said this morning,” Miss Gibson teases. “She said he has quite the striking eyes.”

“Well, would you look at that,” Louis whispers in Mrs. Padley’s ear. “Fresh meat.”

Mrs. Padley rolls her eyes in response, but Louis could swear she looks fond at the younger women’s antics.

“Maybe he’ll stay after,” Miss Gibson continues, a faraway look on her face. “Maybe he’ll find something worth staying for.”

“Emily, leave the poor man alone!” Mrs. Padley chastises. “He hasn’t even been here a full day, at least let him settle in before starting to plan the wedding!”

Miss Gibson has the decency to blush at the comment. “I’m just commenting on the fact that Dr. Ainsworth isn’t quite as young as he used to be. Surely, he’ll need more permanent help.”

“And that’s for Mr. Ainsworth and this new doctor to decide.”

“Of course,” Miss Gibson agrees. “Still, I think he’s going to quite like it here,” she adds, smiling coquettishly.

Sometimes, Louis really envies her that youth and nonchalance. He’s not that old himself, it’s true, but some days he feels a million years old, way beyond the reach of fast-beating hearts in excitement and heart-eyed faces.

*

That night, Louis makes his way back home slower than usual, determined to enjoy the last few days of temperate climate before autumn truly falls upon them.

He breathes in the last of the summer days, enjoying the sound of his cane on the pavement, clicking to the beat of his loneliness.

Clack. Clack. Clack.

It’s more of the same, seasons changing slowly enough to always take him by surprise, especially when he spends so much of his time staying exactly the same. It’s more of the same, the children’s faces unfamiliar, but their eagerness and their energy something Louis would recognise anywhere. The same bricks forming the school building and the same chatter in the staff room.

Some days, Louis feels like his entire life is on pause, others like it’s speeding so fast by him he can’t quite grasp it.

Today feels like the former, so Louis takes his time walking home, happily feeling the breeze brush against his neck. He closes his eyes five minutes away from his house, just on the outskirt of the village, and leans against Mr. Munroe’s apple tree, trying his hardest to enjoy it. 

His knee throbs and he sighs, keeping his eyes tightly close, willing the images of a summer spent in France a lifetime ago away.

*

The next day passes in a similar blur, the children as rowdy as ever and his colleagues burning with the same passion for the mysterious doctor as before. Even Mrs. Padley has now joined Miss Tarleton and Miss Gibson in their admiration now that she met the man. Their paths crossed completely “randomly” when she got bread at Mr. Trout’s bakery early that morning. Or so she claims. Louis still isn’t sure she, with Miss Gibson’s help, hasn’t organised the fortuitous meeting.

By the time they walk back home together, Louis is quite certain he never wants to hear the words “forest green” and “strong jawline” ever again, but Mrs. Padley keeps going on and on. It’s like she’s lost twenty years and Louis would appreciate the rose of her cheeks as she says how delighted she would be if this new man chose to stay in town more permanently, but he is rather tired and she’s being a lot chattier than usual.

He’s about to subtlety try to change the conversation topic when Mrs. Padley grabs his arm and exclaims excitedly “Oh! Here’s right there Mr. Tomlinson!” before starting to wave at a distant figure further down the street.

Louis almost gasps, but he manages to keep quiet at the last moment, every fibre of his being focusing on remaining silent. Instead, his mouth silently falls open as he recognises the approaching lanky frame, heart thumping loudly in his chest. It’s not exactly much better, but it’s the best he can do under the circumstances as unrest settles in his belly uncomfortably.

“Mrs. Padley,” Harry says happily and if there was any doubt it was him before, it dies the second Louis hears the low and slow timbre of Harry Styles’ voice.

He hasn’t seen him since that day in France, that horrible muddy day where for one terrifyingly long second, Louis really thought he was going to die. He winces with the phantom pain, the hand not holding his cane going to his stomach automatically, remembering the franticness, the tenderness, of Harry’s hands while Louis was bleeding out.

This is the man who saved Louis’ life.

For one second, Louis fears Harry won’t recognise him, but his eyes widen when he turns to his left and they meet Louis’. He takes a step forward, reaching for him with a shaky hand before stopping himself.

“Louis,’ Harry says with a shudder and Louis doesn’t think his name has ever carried more weight.

This is the only man Louis ever thought about kissing for real.

“Oh,” Mrs. Padley says, clearly taken aback. “You two know each other?”

And just like that, the tension seems to drop, the intensity on Harry’s face smoothing easily. He gives Mrs. Padley a disarming smile, his cheeks dimpling charmingly as he angles his body towards her again, warm and open.

“We met in the army,” he replies and it seems such a trite way to describe what they shared together.

Still, Louis is familiar with the way people are uncomfortable talking about the horrors of the war. They’ll gladly take the pride of their country’s win as long as no one goes into too many details. Nothing to see, nothing to talk about here, no Ma'am.  It’s the same way people react to his bad leg, their gaze inquisitive, relentless, and their whispers not as subtle as they think. Yet, they’d never say anything to his face, never ask what happened, never wonder out loud.

“Oh,” Mrs. Padley repeats, visibly uncomfortable. Her eyes stray away from Harry’s face, wandering to Louis’ leg for a second as he expected they would. She doesn’t linger though, cheeks reddening when she looks up and meets the steel of Louis’ gaze. She clears her throat. “Well, that’s lovely,” she replies and for one excruciating second Louis thinks about laughing bitterly at the remark.

“Yes,” Harry agrees politely, his eyes searching Louis’ face. “It’s always lovely to see old friends in such good health.”

Louis smiles at the comment. “Well, that’s debatable,” he replies, slipping easily into a teasing tone with Harry, almost like they haven’t been separated at all. He leans on his cane a bit more obviously, posture stiff while Harry’s gaze lowers and he scans Louis’ body completely.

“No comparison from the last time I saw you,” Harry admits, obviously trying to remain casual for Mrs. Padley’s sake.

Louis knows they’re both thinking about it now; Louis shaking on the ground and Harry’s reassuring words. Louis bleeding out. Louis dying .

August ‘44

Louis can’t breathe. He can’t breathe and he’s not sure why, everything is happening too fast for him to understand what’s going on except that one moment he was standing, he was fighting, and now he can’t breathe and he’s shaking, Harry’s frantic movement over his chest a blur. He inhales deeply, reaching for one of Harry’s hands, stopping his work to tangle their fingers together.

“I…” Louis tries to say, but he feels his throat closing up.

“Don’t,” Harry snaps through gritted teeth, taking his hand away.

Louis whines, trying to reach for him again. He’s bleeding out, he’s dying, in this muddy patch of grass with his truth stuck in his throat and Harry’s angry, panicked, eyes on him.

“Ha-Harry,” Louis tries, reaching again.

Harry softens, his hands still working as fast as they can on Louis’ wound. Louis’ eyes focus absently on them for a second, loving the delicate birthmark on his wrist. He watches his long fingers being so careful while they apply some pressure on Louis’ wound. They’re stained with blood, dripping with it, and it feels foreign for him to think that it’s his, that it was inside him a few seconds ago before he was ripped apart. It’s poetic, in a way, Louis thinks distantly, for Harry’s hands to be literally painted with his inside. He might not know it, but everything inside of him already belongs to Harry anyway. Why shouldn’t he get the blood flowing through his veins as well?

“Don’t try to talk,” Harry whispers shakily, bringing Louis back to the present for a second, the dizziness parting for a moment in response to Harry’s low timbre. Louis thinks his men are still fighting, he can vaguely hear the sounds of guns over his head, fuzzy and muffled. “You’re going to be okay,” Harry adds, his voice breaking on the last word. “I’m gonna take care of you, we’re all going to take care of you.”

“I…” Louis says again, wanting to say I love you before he never gets the chance again, but his face falls without his permission and what comes out in a small defeated voice is: “I’m scared.”

Harry exhales shakily, putting more pressure on Louis’ abdomen, still trying to stop the bleeding. His helmet is askew and his face is darkened with mud and oil and Louis’ blood, but his eyes shine through, two beacons of light and hope in Louis’ approaching night. The greenest green ever.

“I know you are,” Harry replies softly. “I know Lou.”

*

Mrs. Padley must be able to sense the tension, but she remains silent longer than Louis has ever heard her while Louis and Harry stare at each other, still a little shocked.

“What are you doing here?” Louis finally says after what feels like an eternity, frowning as he tries to understand how it’s possible for their paths to cross again like this.

Harry smiles easily, eyes kind as ever. “I just finished medical school,” he admits a bit sheepishly, clearly proud and trying to hide it.

“Right,” Louis says, shaking his head. “Of course, I knew that. You’re the new blood.”

“Am I?”

“According to my sources,” Louis teases half-heartedly, gesturing towards Mrs. Padley.

“I didn’t know you live here,” Harry admits before smiling. “Doncaster, right?” he asks and Louis’ heart flutters at the thought of Harry remembering his hometown.

He gulps, trying to get rid of the irritating sensation. “Yeah,” he agrees, “I… I couldn’t stay after....” he trails off, lowering his gaze for a second. “And I found a job here, at the local school so… It’s home now.”

Louis looks up, unable to keep his eyes away from Harry for too long, still too shocked by his presence not to need proof this is real. Harry is smiling, a sad little thing like he understands exactly what Louis isn’t saying about the shame and the loneliness of coming back home to a family who could never understand. Well, Louis supposes he would.

“I see,” Harry nods. “You’re a teacher then?”

Louis nods. “I teach eight years old,” he reveals and he can’t help the smile. They’re a nightmare, but they’re his.

“He complains about them every second of every day,” Mrs. Padley interrupts teasingly, pinching Louis’ cheek like he’s one of her students, “but he loves them fiercely.”

Harry laughs. He laughs and it’s like something loosen in Louis that he never even knew was tense.

“I don’t doubt it,” he replies, smirking a little when his eyes meet Louis’, his dimples out like they were never fully during the war and Louis wishes he could reach out, wishes he could trace them with his thumb, those miraculous things.

It’s both a balm and a torture, to see Harry again, to feel that rush of relief that he’s still alive, and not be able to hug him.

“They’re my kids,” Louis admits with a shrug, “they’re little monsters, but they’re very smart.”

“I bet they are.”

“Well,” Mrs. Padley interrupts awkwardly, “I don’t want to stop your little reunion, but I really should head back home and leave you, two youngsters, alone.”

“Oh,” Louis says, shaking his head. “Of course, we should go.”

“No, no,” Mrs. Padley waves him off. “You stay and talk to your friend.”

“I said I would walk home with you and I will,” Louis insists, before turning back towards Harry. “I’m sorry to cut this short, but I gave my word to this fine lady.”

“Of course,” Harry says, smiling again politely. “Please,” he adds, gesturing towards the road. “It was good to see you, Louis.”

Louis gulps. “Yes,” he replies with a whisper. “It was really good to see you. And I suppose, we’ll meet again soon enough,” he adds awkwardly.

Harry shrugs before passing a hand through his hair, his fancy scarf moving with the wind. “It’s a small village,” he says as Louis starts walking away.

Louis’ heart skips a beat and it takes everything in his power to keep walking and not glance back.

It really is.

*

Louis’ hand is shaking by the time he gets home. He struggles with the lock, his key trembling too much for him to open the door easily, and when he finally enters the comfort of his house, he lets out a shaky breath.

“Fuck,” he mumbles to himself, letting his head drop against his front door with a thud when he leans against it.

It feels like too much for him to process, too many battling emotions within him trying to dominate. Relief that Harry is still alive, shock from seeing him again, fear that the feelings Louis tried to bury for five long years are going to resurface now that he’s here, joy that he’s even here existing in Louis’ life again…  

“Fuck,” Louis says again, passing a hand through his hair. He blinks once, twice, three times, trying to stop the tears from coming. But they come. They come and Louis is powerless to stop them, so he cries in his entryway, feeling too much and feeling small.

He closes his eyes, his hands still shaking, hitching to touch Harry, to make sure he was real. Already, the image of him has started fading away and a small part of him is worrying he’s made up the whole thing. 

Suddenly, there’s a small scratching sound coming from his kitchen window and it takes Louis out of his thoughts. He shakes his head before taking his coat off, slowly making his way to the kitchen to try and determine where the sound is coming from. He expects to see the neighbour’s cat begging to be let in and he smiles faintly when his suspicion is confirmed as he walks in.

Alfred meows desperately, pressing his paw against the window, trying to look pitying and underfed.

Louis rolls his eyes, knowing very well the cat has been fed, and generously. They go through this routine almost every night, but unlike usual, Louis isn’t in the mood to pretend to scold the cat and tease him before giving him milk. So, he just wipes the tears off his face as he walks to the window, smiling a little when Alfred shakes his bum excitedly. He lets the cat in, leaning over the sink to open the window and wincing a little when it puts some strain on his bad leg. Still, Alfred slides in and rubs his face against Louis’ stubble, purring when Louis lets go of his cane to pet his head. It’s worth the slight aggravation of his pain for the way Alfred is clearly delighted to be let in.

“Mr. Munroe isn’t giving you enough love, uh?” Louis whispers, scratching the cat’s chin. “Yeah, we all need a bit of love, don’t we Al?”

August ‘44

“What are you going to do after?” Harry asks in a whisper, his shoulder pressed against Louis’, the weight of him both comforting and confounding in the dark.

“When we get back home?” Louis replies, surprised to hear him mention it. They don’t usually. There’s no space here for empty daydreams of the life they left behind, the life they’ll probably never get back to even if they return.

Harry chuckles, head bowed down. He gives Louis a little side glance and he can’t quite see the details in the dark, but Louis would bet his life that there is a teasing smile on his face.

“No,” Harry replies with a sigh. Talking of home is hard for all of them, the mere thought of it burning hopefully, painfully. “I meant Paris,” he adds, pronouncing it the way French people do. “What’s the first thing you wanna do when we liberate it?”

Louis sighs, gazing forwards at the seemingly never-ending French countryside. “You’re optimistic.”

“I’m going to drink champagne,” Harry declares, ignoring Louis’ defeatism. It’s just… Paris still seems so far away.

“Really?” Louis says teasingly, knocking his shoulder slightly into Harry’s and choosing not to voice his uncertainty.

“I’ve never had it,” Harry admits, voice petulant and adorable. He sounds so young sometimes. They all do. “Seems like a perfect victory to try it.”

“And where are you going to find champagne?” Louis asks teasingly, thinking of the devastation they’ve witnessed. There’s no space for fancy things in this war. At least not their war.

Harry, however, seems unbothered by the challenge. “I bet the Germans have loads,” he declares dreamily, allowing himself the possibility.

Louis supposes it’s easier to dream about drinking champagne in Paris than it is to dream about going back home when they know the chances are so slim. When they know nothing but random luck could make it happen, a roll of fate’s dice determining whether they live or they die.  

Louis hums. “We can bring some for the road,” he offers, choosing to join the fantasy. Who does it hurt apart from himself? “We’ll be roaring drunk once we get to Berlin,” he chuckles, spending a second to imagine the victory. “Make it into a proper European Tour like all the other poets before us.”

Harry laughs, cheeks dimpling, and no one should be this beautiful amongst so much destruction, but if Louis closes his eyes, between the feel of the breeze on his neck and the sound of Harry’s amusement, he can almost pretend everything is fine.

*

The next morning, Louis wakes up to Alfred’s cold nose pressing against his. He groans, trying to push the cat away, but if Alfred is anything it’s persistent.

“What are you still doing here, uh?” Louis demands sleepily, still petting the cat exactly like he wants to be petted. “I left the kitchen window open just for you, Mr. Munroe’s going to wonder where you ran off to.”

Alfred meows.

“Yeah, I know. I know. You want milk, you needy thing. Alright, hop off you menace,” Louis says, surprised when the cat actually listens.

He gets up with a shiver, then puts on a maroon sweater over his undershirt before walking to the kitchen, Alfred following behind him.

He doesn’t have the time to pour the cat some milk or to put the kettle on before someone starts knocking on his door.

He frowns, a bit confused. Louis wouldn’t describe himself as a hermit, but he knows he doesn’t have many friends in this village. Certainly, none that would visit him unannounced on a Saturday morning like this.

When he opens the door, a part of him feels like he should have guessed Harry would be standing on the other side, but his mouth still opens in shock.

“Hi,” Harry says nervously, rubbing his hands together.

“Hi,” Louis replies slowly, suddenly hyper-aware of the fact he’s wearing striped pyjama pants and an oversized jumper, his toes cold on the stone of his entryway.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says, shaking his head. “This was a mistake, I shouldn’t have come here so early. I should have…” He sighs, starting to fiddle with his grey scarf, unwrapping it from his neck and starting to play with it instead. “I’m clearly inconveniencing you and I apologise.”

“No,” Louis says even though it’s true. “I’m just… surprised. I don’t often have visitors, especially not so early.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry repeats, cheeks red with embarrassment. “I asked Dr. Ainsworth where you live after we saw each other last night, I just… I had to see you again, our meeting was so brief, I just…”

He looks so frazzled, hair ruffled by the wind and eyes wild. Louis knows exactly what he’s saying.

“I know. I’m sorry I had to leave so abruptly.”

“What?” Harry asks, then he shakes his head. “No, it’s not that. I just… I just really wanted to…” He lets out a frustrated sigh before walking in uninvited and wrapping Louis into a hug, his arms tight around Louis’ shoulders, his nose pressed against Louis’ face.

Louis gulps, shocked and overwhelmed for a second before he melts into Harry’s embrace and hugs him back.

“I didn’t know if you’d die,” Harry admits shyly. “I thought you might have and when I saw you yesterday...I just wanted to do this so badly,” he adds in a small voice. “I’m sorry if it’s an imposition.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Louis replies, letting himself lean against Harry, taking off some of his own weight. “I’m happy you came to see me.”

He stumbles a little when Harry lets him go suddenly and he blushes when Harry has to lend him a steadying hand.

“What’s wrong with your leg?” Harry asks, giving Louis an analytical and worried once over. Now that the relief they’re both still alive has faded, the professional in him seems to take over. “Did they send you back to the front after what happened? I thought that bullet wound would have you decommissioned for good? I don’t understand? What happened? Are you okay? Does it hurt?”

Louis chuckles shyly, taking a step back away from Harry’s body. “Why don’t I get dressed and you can put the kettle on so we can catch up?” he offers.

Harry nods, already starting to take his coat off. He smiles when he notices Alfred looking at him from behind Louis’ body, his eyes narrowed with suspicion.

“You have a cat,” Harry declares happily.

“It’s my neighbour’s,” Louis says with a shrug, trying not to feel too self-conscious in his pyjamas. He really does need to get dressed. “He just likes me better.”

“Well, who wouldn’t?” Harry says candidly like this doesn’t feel like a knife twisting in Louis’ heart.

“Kettle,” Louis says, pointing what he hopes his an authoritative finger at Harry. “I’m going to be right back,” he adds, turning around slowly, hating the fact that he needs the wall’s help to walk back to his bedroom in front of Harry.

*

“They did what?” Harry asks a while later, putting his mug back on the kitchen table angrily.

“It’s fine,” Louis replies, scratching the back of his neck awkwardly. “It happens.”

“No it doesn’t,” Harry protests with the cutest frown on his face. It’s been a long time since someone has been offended on Louis’ behalf.

“I think I’m the living proof that it does,” Louis says, gesturing to where his cane is resting against the table. “It was an accident.”

“An acci-” Harry scoffs, stopping himself in the middle of his sentence to look indignant. “Competent physicians don’t accidentally break their patient’s legs. And they certainly don’t let it heal wrong.”

“I think under the circumstances-”

“Don’t defend them.”

“Alright,” Louis agrees before taking a sip of his tea. He winces when it burns the tip of his tongue. “I just think there’s no point being angry. It is what it is.”

“Does it hurt?”

Louis shrugs. “Not too much,” he lies easily, used to saying the same thing to his mother and sisters when he visits. It doesn’t happen very often, but he’s gotten quite good at faking his way through the pain.

“Good,” Harry whispers. “I’m glad.”

“What about you?” Louis says, definitely deflecting. “You’re a fancy doctor now.”

Harry shrugs with a small smirk, half arrogant and half bashful. It shouldn’t be attractive, Louis shouldn’t find it attractive.

“I’m not a doctor yet, I still have a full year of learning with Dr. Ainsworth to get through.”

“I never imagined that’s what you would do,” Louis admits, blowing on his steaming mug before taking another small sip. “I know we didn’t really talk about the future over there, but… I don’t know, it didn’t seem like something you were planning on doing.”

“It wasn’t.”

“What made you decide?”

Harry shrugs. “I just wanted to help. After everything…” He shakes his head, eyes absent for a second. Louis can too easily imagine where he’s going. “I just wanted to help,” he repeats, “and this seemed like an easy way to do it. I liked the medical aspect of the war. I liked the work I got to do there. I think I was good at it. When I came back, it made sense to me that this was the path I should take.”

“You were,” Louis agrees, remembering all the men Harry saved, all the men anyone else would have abandoned on the field thinking they didn’t stand a chance, the men Harry was stubborn enough to work on as long as necessary. Louis was one of those men. “You saved my life.”

“Anyone would have done the same thing.”

Louis chuckles, remembering the stern doctor at the army hospital who couldn’t believe Louis was still breathing, still wasting a precious bed, with injuries this severe.

“No,” he replies seriously. “Not anyone.”

*

Miss Gibson reacts to the news of Louis and Harry’s wartime friendship with as much decorum as Louis expected.

The next Monday at lunch, she shrieks loudly, dropping her sandwich and pressing her dainty fingers to her chest, her mouth opened in excited shock.

“Thank you, Mrs. Padley,” Louis says through gritted teeth, trying his best not to feel too annoyed at being sold out like this.

Mrs. Padley shrugs awkwardly. “I just mentioned in passing the fact that we saw him last Friday after school that’s all. I mean, we did see Dr. Styles, I don’t see why that should be a secret.”

Louis sighs. He supposes she’s right. And it’s not like there’s much that stays secret for a long time in the village anyway, but he’s not looking forward to having Emily Gibson harass him for information now.

She’s gone over the shock pretty quickly, her eyes sparkling with interest as she leans over the table to look closer at Louis. Miss Tarleton blushes, as usual, elbowing her friend discreetly.

“Emily,” she whispers warningly, but she remains ignored as Emily smirks at Louis.

“Did you really fight with him?” she asks. “I had no idea he served, what an honourable man,” she adds with a sigh like she isn’t faced with the painful proof of Louis’ honourable service every single day and doesn’t care about it.

“Yes,” Louis replies, trying to loosen his tensed shoulders. “He was a nurse in my unit.”

Miss Tarleton gasps quietly and Miss Gibson smiles even wider.

“Of course,” Emily says, nodding quickly. “Of course, it makes sense. He’s a good man who worked hard to put people back together. And now he’s a doctor. It’s like it was his destiny or something.”

Louis smiles bitterly, looking down on the table, fighting off the desire to make an angry comment.

Destiny, he thinks, shaking his head a little, like it’s anyone’s fate to see the world tearing each other apart.

“Was he really brave?” Miss Gibson continues, barely even looking at Louis, too excited by the picture of Harry she’s painting in her mind to be aware of her surroundings.

Louis chuckles darkly, face falling when three pairs of inquisitive eyes turn towards him at the sound. “Yeah,” he replies sadly, “Harry was really brave.”

August ‘44

Louis wakes with a gasp, his back protesting where it's leaning against the stony building. His hand automatically go to his rifle, his eyes wide in the dark as he tries to figure out what woke him up. It takes him a while to locate the sound with his heart beating so loudly in his chest, but he winces when he finally hears the sniffling coming from one of his men.

Most of the unit is sleeping except for Zayn and Louis waves at him discretely where he’s guarding their makeshift camp. Zayn nods back before pointing to one of the bodies a little bit further away from the rest of the unit.

Louis sighs, taking off his helmet and dropping his gun before making his way to where Harry is curled up on himself.

The sniffling gets louder as Louis gets closer until he gets too close and Harry stiffens when a branch cracks under Louis’ foot. He stops moving, stops crying, and tries to pretend to be asleep. Louis smiles a little sadly, feeling fond despite the exhaustion, despite the circumstances.

“Hey,” Louis whispers, crouching down next to Harry’s body, letting his eyes caress the back of Harry’s head the way his fingers are dying to. “It’s okay, it’s just me,” he adds, but Harry doesn’t resume crying, nor does he move.

There a few seconds of silence before Louis sighs and decides to lay down next to him.

“I’m fine,” Harry finally whispers back shakily. Louis wishes he could see his face, wishes he could dry his tears, wishes there was something to say to make it better.

“‘Course you are,” Louis agrees looking up to the stars, a millimetre - an entire world - of space between their bodies. He gulps, folding his arms across his chest, regretting the blanket he left with his helmet and weapon. It’s supposed to be summer, but the French countryside is still freezing at night like even the land knows there’s no hope. Louis shakes his head like he does every time an invasive pessimistic thought enters his brain. “Just in case you’re not though, I’m gonna stay right here, is that okay?” Louis adds in a small voice.

Harry lets out a choked sob, curling in on himself. Louis inhales deeply, his hands curling into tight fists as he presses them against his ribs.

“Yeah,” he agrees softly, feeling a tear slide down his cheek. “I know. I know, Harry.”

Harry keeps crying as silently as possible, and Louis lets him, hoping at least he isn’t feeling too alone.

“I’m fine,” he repeats through the tears after a while.  

“Harry, you don’t have to be fine,” Louis replies in an exhale. “This week, it’s been…” his voice catches and he chuckles darkly. “It’s fucking shit,” he finally adds, “and you have nothing to be embarrassed about, okay?”

Harry stays silent for the longest time, so long Louis thinks maybe he hasn’t even heard him, until…

Louis looks towards him when Harry starts moving, smiling at him when he turns around, resting on his side, but finally facing Louis.

“Hey,” Louis whispers in the dark, shivering a little when Harry replies by pressing his forehead against Louis’ shoulder with a small sniffle.

*

Louis is halfway through a passionate speech about the Tudors when Mary Kingsley collapses in the middle of class, her cheeks abnormally flushed as she slides off her desk and onto the floor.

Louis gasps, moving quickly to get to her, kneeling brutally to the floor. He’s so worried the pain of the movement doesn’t even register and he lets a sigh of relief when he realises she’s not bleeding and she’s still breathing. Her eyelids move slightly before she opens her eyes, focusing a confused gaze on Louis’ face.

“Emma, carefully run to get Mrs. Padley and tell her to come right away, will you?” he asks his most responsible student, doing his best to sound calm. “You’re going to be alright Mary,” he adds soothingly.

Emma nods seriously, getting off her seat in a flutter of her grey skirt, out of the room in an instant. Thankfully, none of the other students have gotten off their seats to get any closer, all of them too shocked to move.

“Is Mary going to be okay?” one of the small voices asks and Louis gulps.

He presses a careful hand against her forehead, even more worried when he realises she’s burning up. At least she’s still conscious, even if she hasn’t said a word yet.

“Mr. Tomlinson!” Robert Stevens insists, voice shrill with worry.

“I don’t know Mr. Stevens, I certainly hope so. She seems fine if a little flushed. Mrs. Padley used to be a nurse so she will be able to tell us more once she gets here. For now, please do stay calm and remain in your seats. We wouldn’t want Mary to feel crowded, now do we?”

All of his students agree with small voices, some of them nodding carefully. He’s about to give them further instructions when Mrs. Padley bursts into the room, followed by a panting Emma, her braids all untangled.

“What happened?” Mrs. Padley asks, approaching both of them. “She fell?”

Louis nods. “She was feeling a bit poorly when she came in, but her mother assured me it was nothing. Then she collapsed in the middle of our history lesson…” He gives Mrs. Padley a worried glance, then adds a little lower: “Is she going to be alright?”

Mrs. Padley remains neutral, but she leans forward, looking at Mary’s face thoroughly. “I’m not sure,” she replies, biting her lower lip. “I think… I definitely think she shouldn’t be in school right now. Someone needs to take her to the doctor, quickly.”

“I’ll do it,” Louis replies automatically, already feeling relieved at the thought of Harry getting to look at her. He’ll know what to do.

“Mr. Tomlinson,” Mrs. Padley says warningly, “what about your class? Surely, we can get someone else to-”

“No,” Louis replies, shaking his head. He gets up carefully, wrapping his arms around Mary’s body and carrying her as he tries to remain balanced through the pain.

“Is this wise?” Mrs. Padley asks, eyeing Louis’ leg. “Who is going to take care of your students?”

“Mary is my student and she’s the one who needs help. She’s my responsibility, I will get her to the doctor. You can take care of both of our classes for the hour we have left, I assume?” Louis asks, already on his way to the door.

He doesn’t wait for Mrs. Padley’s answer.

August ‘44

Like most things in the war, it happens very fast. One second, Niall is grinning at Louis from across the battlefield, his helmet as crooked as his teeth, and the next, he’s on the ground. There’s no ugly bleeding out, no screaming, no agonising. One second, Niall is grinning, and the next, he’s dead. His eyes are wide open, blue and unmoving against the grass and Louis feels so angry.

He makes his way across the village, eyes locking with the man responsible for this, and suddenly it’s not a man anymore, it’s not a human being. It’s every single man Louis has seen falling under German fire, every single child screaming in fear, every single friend he hasn’t had the time to mourn, every single second he’s spent in fear in this godforsaken war. He’s firing at him before he even has the time to get to him, the killer’s body falling easily next to Niall’s and Louis is shooting at him, shooting at him, shooting at him. Over and over again, until-

“Hey,” Harry yells over the sounds of gunfire, somehow still tender as he grabs Louis’ bicep and pulls him out of the way, “he’s dead, he’s dead. You can stop now.”

Louis lets go off his gun with a gasp and it’s only when it falls to the ground that he realises he’s sobbing.

“Don’t-” he shakes his head through the tears.

“You’re okay,” Harry says, holding him upright, knocking their helmets together. “You’re okay, Lou.”

He’s not. He’s really not. Niall is dead, gone in a flash and any of them could be next. Harry could be next. He could be next. He’s shaking as he looks at his bloody hands against the green of Harry’s uniform.

“Don’t let them see me like this,” Louis begs through the tears. “Please,” he sobs, closing his eyes painfully as he feels Harry moving them, hiding them against a building, shielding him from the rest of their unit. “Don’t let them see me like this.”

“Okay, okay,” Harry replies soothingly, one hand on Louis’ shoulder, the other anchoring and steady on the back of his neck.

“Don’t let them see me like this,” Louis repeats in a whimper.

*

Looking back on it, dramatically bursting into Dr. Ainsworth’s practice and calling out: “Help me!!!” might not have been the best way for Louis to announce his presence, but Mary is really poorly and his leg hurts so that’s what Louis does regardless.

Harry and Dr. Ainsworth both gasp at his theatrical entrance, frozen in surprise for a second before they start moving. Harry takes a step forward, grabbing Louis’ shoulder to make sure he won’t collapse under the weight of Mary’s body. She’s a little thing, but it is quite a distance from the school to the doctor’s office and Louis is starting to feel exhausted.

“What’s wrong? What happened to her?” Harry asks, peering at Mary’s flushed face.

“She wasn’t feeling well this morning and she collapsed in class.”

“Over here,” Dr. Ainsworth says, pointing to the door of the examination room. “We’ll examine her while you send for her mother.”

Louis tightens his grip on Mary’s body automatically and Harry chuckles. “It’s alright,” he whispers, reaching for the child. “I’ll take care of her. You have nothing to be worried about.”

They stare at each other for a second before Louis nods, letting Harry grab her carefully.

Both doctors disappear quietly into the office while Dr. Ainsworth’s secretary gives Louis a calculating look.

“Well?” Louis says expectantly, hating the way his voice is a bit shrill with worry. “Are you going to call her mother or not?”

That seems to wake her up and she nods before asking for the last name to give to the phone operator.

Louis sighs once the phone call has been made, letting himself fall into one of the uncomfortable chairs of the waiting room with relief, extending his throbbing leg slowly. He shakes his head, trying to chase the images of dismantled bodies, bodies as small as Mary’s, from his brain. It’s fine. He’s fine. He’s safe and so is she. It’s probably nothing to worry about, he reminds himself, letting his head thud against the wall as he exhales. It’s fine.

*

By the time her mother shows up, Mary is sitting between Louis and Harry in the waiting room, happily drinking some cold water and telling Harry about what they had been learning in class that day. Louis smiles to himself, pleased to see that she was listening to him babble even with such intense symptoms. She seems much better now, at least, even if she’s clearly still tired.

“How is she?” Mary’s mother asks when she stumbles in, one gloved hand holding a dainty hat on top of her head.

“She’s all fine,” Harry says reassuringly, getting up from his seat to introduce himself. “I’m Dr. Styles,” he adds, holding out his hand for her to shake. “I’m working with Dr. Ainsworth. Mary here was feeling a bit poorly and her fever got bad, but we brought her temperature down and all she needs is a little bit of rest and plenty of fluids.”

Mary’s mother exhales shakily, shaking her head. “I should have kept her at home, but my husband-”

“Oh, no,” Harry interrupts politely. “Don’t you dare blame yourself for this. We’re all good now, aren’t we Mary?”

Mary nods happily, her eyes sparkling as she looks up to Harry with reverence. Louis knows the feeling.

“Just make sure she gets plenty of rest,” Harry continues kindly, patting Mary’s head as she walks past him to grab her mother’s hand.  

“I will. Thank you, Dr. Styles.” And just like that, they’re both gone.

Louis sighs, trying to mentally prepare himself for the long walk waiting for him.

“That went well,” Harry says absently, biting his lower lip. He nods to himself before turning back towards Louis. “It’s always a bit nerve-wracking with new patients,” he admits shyly. He wrinkles his nose for a second before focusing back on Louis. “Your kids are lucky you care so much.”

“Oh,” Louis replies with a small chuckle, surprised to have it mentioned as a compliment. Headmaster Moore usually finds it unmanly and inappropriate. “Well, she wasn’t very ill,” he adds self-deprecatingly. “I could have just let her be, or let Mrs. Padley take care of her. I got worried though.”

“It’s good that you got worried,” Harry says easily, crossing the waiting room in two easy steps and taking the chair next to Louis’ that Mary previously occupied. “It’s good that you care. You’re a good teacher.”

“Thank you,” Louis replies, head down and a bit shy. He swears he can feel his cheeks heating up and he bites his lower lip, trying to control his body and stop the blushing from happening.

“How about I look at you now?”

“Excuse me?”

Harry laughs. “Your leg?” he offers. “It’s quite a way from the school, no? And she’s not light, no matter how tiny she is.”

“I’m fine,” Louis replies proudly, getting up from his seat swiftly. It’s a bit clumsy, but he doesn’t stumble.

“Of course,” Harry says slowly. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“I’m not offended,” Louis says defensively. He’s not. Embarrassed? Perhaps. Humiliated? Certainly. He’s not offended though.

“Are you sure? I didn’t mean to suggest-”

Louis sighs loudly. “It’s fine Harry. It was kind of you to offer, but I’m quite alright. I’m crippled, but not completely useless.”

Harry’s eyes widen and he gets up from the chair quickly, getting his feet tangled in themselves and almost falling on his face. “That’s not-” he starts saying once he’s regained his balanced, but he stops when Louis starts laughing fondly.

“Don’t worry about it, but you’re right. It does take awhile to get back to the school and I completely forgot my coat and all my things there so I should go.”

“Oh!” Harry gasps. “I’ll go with you,” he offers, walking to the entrance, grabbing his coat from the coat peg.

“You don’t have to…”

“I know,” Harry shrugs.

When Louis joins him by the door, Harry offers him the coat with a big toothy grin, clearly pleased with himself.

“You don’t-”

“Have to do that,” Harry finishes mockingly. “I know that too. It is cold though and unlike you who is wearing a suit, I have a jumper on. So please, take the coat and stop whining.”

Louis rolls his eyes before grabbing the coat and quickly putting it on, trying to ignore the inviting smell.

*

“Do you still do some gardening?” Harry asks after they’ve grabbed Louis’ things from the school and they start walking towards Louis’ house.

He’s holding his coat over his forearm, the green of his eyes matching his jumper in alarming ways, his hair tousled from the slight wind and his cheeks red from the cold. He’s quite as devastating as Louis remembered.

“Not really,” Louis replies with what he hopes is a casual shrug. “I can’t believe you remember me telling about that.”

It had always been one of Louis’ favourite things to do with his mother, spending hours tending to their garden with careful hands as soon as Louis knew how.

“Of course,” Harry says with a small frown like he can’t believe Louis could ever doubt it. “I remember everything you told me. I don’t have a lot of good memories from the war, but I’m certainly not about to forget the precious few.”

Louis gulps, thinking back to the nights spent cuddling with his unit, huddling close together for warmth, Harry’s body next to his in the dark. He thinks back to whispered conversations near the campfire, little moments who kept him sane amidst the chaos.

“Right.”

“Why did you stop?” Harry asks insistently and from anyone else, Louis would find it rude and annoying, but it’s Harry. It’s Harry and it’s clear from the soft way he asks that he actually cares.

“No reasons,” Louis lies, looking straight ahead at the little quaint houses that form the village he now calls home. “I moved away and it became a bit difficult to do it by myself, I suppose,” he adds, more honest than he means to be.

Harry makes a humming sound of understanding.

“I don’t know,” Louis continues, awkward and vulnerable. “It’s a lot of work.” A lot of kneeling and carrying heavy things, stuff that he can definitely still do, but not with as much ease as he used to.

“Right,” Harry says. “Not much time left with all the correcting you have to do.”

“There’s that,” Louis agrees, accepting the excuse easily. It’s better than admitting the truth that he stopped trying because it got hard.

“I could help,” Harry offers casually after a few minutes of silence. “Next spring?”

Louis opens his mouth to reply, but Harry beats him to it.

“And I know that I don’t have to,” he says teasingly. “But you’re… you’re my friend, and it always seemed relaxing when you described it.”

“You really want to?” Louis asks, uncertain even though he’s never known Harry to lie.

“Yes!” Harry laughs.

“Well, then I guess we can arrange a little gardening lesson for you if you insist.”

“You’re hard to persuade Louis Tomlinson,” Harry says, giving Louis a little side-glance. “But I’m glad I managed.”

“Not that hard,” Louis protests with a chuckle, just for the sake of it. “I did agree pretty quickly just then.”

Harry hums, tapping his index on his chin exaggeratedly. “I suppose,” he finally says with a shrug. “I mean, you are bossy and used to making all the decisions though,” he adds with a little eyebrow raise.

“I beg your pardon?” Louis says with a laugh.

“I mean,” Harry laughs again, a bit playful, “Sergeant Tomlinson? Professor Tomlinson? How often do you hear no?”

Louis’ smile slides off automatically and he gulps, thinking of all the closed doors he’s never going to walk through, of all the things war and who is he robbed him of. “You’d be surprised,” he says carefully.

Harry bites his lower lip, giving him an inquisitive look. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

July ’44

It doesn’t take very long for the enemy to surround them.  They’re more familiar with the terrain, used to the way the village they’ve occupied for months twists and shapes. The little-cobbled streets have become a second home for the German soldiers and it shows in the way they aggressively defend the space they’ve come to see as theirs.

Louis swears under his breath as they barricade themselves inside the church that stands proudly at the centre of this village. His men grim-faced, yet determined, amidst the wide-eyed villagers who have also taken refuge in the supposed house of God. The bullets echo loudly against the stone of the church, distant yet alarmingly real. A baby starts crying in its mother’s arms, a long piercing wail that reminds Louis of the urgency of the situation.

“Fuck,” he mumbles, one hand pressed against the door, the other still holding his rifle.

“We can’t stay in here,” Niall says, approaching him carefully.

“Well, what do you suggest? They’ve got us completely trapped.”

Louis gives the church a small once over, his gaze lingering on Harry’s frame as he wraps an elderly woman’s arm carefully near the back.

“I don’t know,” Niall replies, tensed as he tries to look through one of the beautifully decorated stained glass. He ducks when one of the soldiers outside starts shooting, miraculously managing to avoid the bullet at the last second. It pierces through the glass, fragmenting the image of Christ.

“Bloody hell,” Louis whispers, grabbing Niall by the arm and dragging him towards the middle of the church where most people are huddled close together, “stop dicking around.”

“We have to get out soon,” Liam declares, joining them at the front, flinching visibly when another bullet goes through the glass. “Niall is right, we can’t stay in here.”

“How do you propose we do this Payne?” Louis demands sharply before sighing loudly. “I’m sorry,” he adds quietly, eyeing the worried villagers as they wrap their arms around each other. “I don’t wanna yell at you guys, I just…”

“It’s not going to be pleasant,” Liam replies solemnly, “but we’re just gonna have to push through. There’s more of them than there is of us, but not by many. Malik can go up in the church tower, cover us and take some of those bastards out.”

It’s not much of a plan, but it’s all they have so far.

“Okay,” Louis nods, mumbling to himself. He looks up, searching through the crowd for his best sniper. “I’m going to talk to Malik, you two get our guys ready.” He keeps looking for Zayn, eyes stopping a second too long on Harry as they always do without his consent these days, before he moves on and finds the man of the hour all the way in the back, smoking a cigarette.

It takes Louis a few seconds to walk up to him.

“Where you’d get those?” Louis asks, pointing at the pack peeking from one of Zayn’s pockets.

Zayn smirks, pushing it all the way inside, hiding it from view.

“Let me guess,” Louis says before Zayn gets a chance to reply, “one of those french ladies gave it to you.”

Zayn smiles, devastatingly beautiful despite the dirt on his face. It’s no wonder everyone wants to give him what’s left of the world. Louis rolls his eyes, offering his hand and wiggling his fingers until Zayn agrees to share the fag.

Louis closes his eyes when he first smokes, letting the bullet sounds fade away for a second.

“Let me guess,” Zayn imitates not unkindly, “I’m going up there to cover your ugly arses.”

“Up for the job?” Louis demands, handing back the cigarette.

Zayn looks up for a second, taking in the delicate beauty of the architecture. For a small village Church, it is quite beautiful. Not a bad place to die, Louis thinks, as he usually does.

“Someone’s got to do it.”

They make it, somehow, and Louis can’t help finding Harry’s eyes through the crowd after they’ve liberated another village, barely looking at the grateful villagers trying to offer him money and food.

Their eyes meet.

Harry smiles.

Louis lets out a breath he’s been holding since those heavy doors closed in on them earlier.

They get to live another day.

October ‘49

September passes in a flash, the days blending into one another until suddenly it seems like every leaf is a darkened orange, making a crunchy sound under Louis’ feet as he makes his way to school every morning. Life has gotten mostly back to normal after Harry’s arrival, though no matter how used to his presence people get, the gossip following his every move is continuous. Louis feels like no matter where he goes, the chatter never ceases. It’s always Dr. Styles here and Mr. Styles there . Sometimes, it’s just that gorgeous new assistant of Dr. Ainsworth . Either way, the entire village has fallen in love with Harry’s smile and charming nature as easily as the leaves started falling from the trees. It didn’t take very long, but he has them all eating in the palm of his hand.

Not that Harry is doing anything in particular to encourage them. He’s going by his business, day to day, seeing patients and shopping at the local grocery store. Louis has bumped into him quite a lot over the past few weeks, always quick little stolen moments, and he always seems delighted by his new small village life.

“How is Dr. Styles?” Miss Gibson asks that day at lunch, looking down at her nails like she’s being casual about it. “You two are friends, right?” she adds like she doesn’t know.

Every week, it’s the same old thing.

“He seemed well enough when I saw him a few days ago,” Louis replies casually.

“Has he talked about me?” she continues, lips pursed and eyelids fluttering.

It takes everything in Louis’ power not to sigh.

“He was in a hurry, we didn’t really talk about people we both know,” he replies carefully. It’s not technically a lie since they’d only talked about Alfred. Harry had spent twenty minutes in the grocery store asking Louis questions after questions about the pet that is most definitely not his.

“Oh,” Miss Gibson says, clearly dejected.

Miss Tarleton puts a friendly hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure he’s thinking about you.”

God, Louis hopes not.

“I saw him a few days ago,” Emily reveals with a shaky exhale. “And I was very explicit about my schedule and when I’d be available for us to go out.”

“I’m sure he’s thinking about it,” Miss Tarleton insists even though she seems doubtful herself.

“Yeah,” Louis adds in a strained voice, “maybe.”

“He’s so charming,” Miss Gibson continues with a pout. “And when he took care of poor Mary when she fell ill in class? He was so careful with her, going to her house the next day to make sure she was alright? He’s such a good man…” She sighs exaggeratedly. “Of course, every single lady in this town has her eyes set on him,” she adds possessively like it’s her place feeling that way.

“I don’t think he’s really looking for a wife at this stage in his career,” Louis says quickly even though he’s never heard Harry say such a thing. It’s not jealousy if he’s saving Harry from a life of misery with Emily Gibson, Louis tells himself firmly. It’s not.

“Oh?” Miss Tarleton says, her grip tightening on her friend’s shoulder.

“Has he said that?” Emily insists, eyes suddenly wide and intense.

“Not… explicitly. It’s just an impression from the way he was speaking. He’s very excited to finally be practising and he’s got a lot to look forward to professionally. I think marriage and children are far far from his mind.”

Both ladies pout.

“Well,” Miss Gibson says with a small giggle. “We’ll see.”

Louis supposes they will.

July ‘44

It seems wrong, that a place that could carry so much peace and so much joy would be in such disarray. They had it, is the thing. They had the village, they’d push the Germans further inland, captured the wounded and freed the villagers from their oppressors. They’d eaten their food and danced to their songs. Louis had laughed with them even if he couldn’t understand a word coming out of their mouths. It was supposed to be a victory.

They should have been more vigilant than this. Louis should have been more vigilant, but he celebrated the win with everyone else, relieved to see how well they were doing. If he had been more vigilant, he would have seen the counterattack coming. He could have protected the village better.

A bullet whistles next to his ear and his heart skips a beat. That was close, too close.

Louis turns around, shooting the soldier who barely missed him, watching him tumble down with a groan without satisfaction.

He takes a step back, trying to locate Harry and the rest of his men when he gets caught up in some rubbles and almost falls. He grabs the half wall of the house that is still standing, looking down at his feet, heart in his throat when he realises what he almost stepped on.

His eyes blur with tears, fixed on the red ribbons in her hair. She is so little, so delicate, and if it weren’t for the blood in her blonde curls and the awkward angle of her body, Louis would almost think that she’s asleep.

He closes his eyes in anger.

He doesn’t have the time to mourn the children of this war, but his heart still twists painfully in his chest. She didn’t get to live yet, to become a person, and now she’s already gone.

Still, he takes a second to kneel next to her to close her eyes, fingers accidentally brushing against one ribbon as he gets back up.

Rouge, she’d said with a laugh the day before.

Just like her blood.

*

“We have to stop meeting like this and starting meeting on purpose,” Harry calls across the town square one afternoon, making Louis jump a little.

He turns around, a smile already blossoming on his face. It’s ridiculous how easy it is for Harry to cheer him up, for the sound of that voice to send tingles through Louis’ body.

“Hello stranger,” Louis replies with a small wave, laughing when Harry starts running to get to him.

“Hello,” Harry finally replies once he’s reached him. He grabs Louis’ bicep, squeezing it for a second before putting his hand back into his pocket.

Louis gulps, trying to ignore the way his arm is still tingling from the touch, even through his coat and his shirt. “How have you been?” he asks, rubbing his fingers together. It’s a sunny afternoon, but the air is cold, a reminder that winter is slowly creeping forward. “I feel like you’re so busy I keep only catching tiny glimpses of you.”

Harry laughs. “Well, there’s so much to learn and so little time,” he admits.

“Right. I don’t doubt it. I hear about your prowess everywhere though, seems like the whole village has fallen in love with you.”

“Really?” Harry asks, eyes inquisitive as he frowns a little. “The whole village?”

“You’ve certainly impressed the teachers at the elementary school,” Louis continues, avoiding Harry’s gaze in fear that he will be able to read the bitterness on his face. “Your heroic care of little Mary hasn’t gone unnoticed.”

Harry laughs. “My mission in life,” he replies jokingly and Louis’ heart skips a beat. Of course. He should have known.

“Miss Gibson is going to be thrilled to hear that,” he says, pasting a fake smile on his face and finally looking back at Harry.

Harry winces a little. “Right. She’s very…”

“Eager?” Louis offers casually. “Enamoured?”

Harry snorts, trying to hide it into a small cough. “Enthusiastic,” he says politely. “A little too much, though don’t tell her I said that. I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings when she’s been so kind and welcoming.”

Louis nods, pursuing his lips. “You’re too kind, you know that,” he finally says after a moment.

“There’s no such thing.”

“I guess not...” Louis whispers. “How is Dr. Ainsworth’s attic?” he asks, purposefully changing the subject. “You’re living comfortably there?”

Harry hums, gesturing vaguely. “It’s a bit cramped,” he admits. “But after some of those nights overseas, I think anywhere with a bed would satisfy me.”

Louis snorts. “That’s true.”

“And Dr. Ainsworth is such an amazing mentor, it’s great to live with him.”

“His wife is an amazing cook as well.”

Harry moans, loud and obscene, eyes widening in agreement. “She is an angel on earth.”

“She makes better food than me own mother, not that I’d ever admit it.”

“Me too!” Harry says with a giggle, pressing his shoulder against Louis’.

They stare at each other for a long second, closer than they were before, and Louis is not sure where he’s supposed to go from here if he’s supposed to move away or pretend like he hasn’t noticed.

“I-”

“Listen-”

They both stop at the same time before Harry smirks. “You go first.”

“No, no. Go on, please.”

“I was thinking we should meet on purpose, for once. Not that meeting you randomly isn’t pleasant, but you’re my only friend here. I’d love to spend some time with you. If you want.”

Louis’ heart chooses this moment to manifest itself, beating so loud in his chest that he’s sure Harry can feel it where their shoulders are still pressed together.

“Oh.”

“I understand if you’re busy, but I was thinking I could go yours tomorrow morning? Around eleven?”

“No… That’s… I’m not busy. That’s fine. You can visit me.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Harry smiles, wide and excited, his dimples deadly on his flushed cheeks.

“Great! I’ll see you tomorrow.”

July ‘44

It’s distracting is the thing. He’s trying to coordinate their next move for tomorrow with Liam and Niall, but he keeps glancing back to the fountain in the middle of the village every time Harry giggles.

He needs to focus.

Harry laughs again, this time accompanied by a higher smaller voice and when Louis turns his head to look, Harry has taken his helmet off and the small french girl is putting blue flowers in his hair. It’s starting to get a bit longer, the tips curling delicately against his temple.

“Et voilà ,"   the little girl says happily, her own blonde curls moving with the wind.

“Merci,” Harry replies with a big smile. “I look just like you now,” he adds, pointing to the red ribbons in her hair. “How do you call them?” he asks and she looks confused for a second, her face finally lighting up when he gestures some more.

“Mes rubans?” she says.

“Rubans,” Harry repeats hesitantly, trying the foreign word.

She nods firmly. “Rubans rouges.”

“Rubans rouges.”

She laughs, wrinkling her nose. “Non. Rouge,” she repeats, her tongue wrapping around the r sound easily.

“Rouge?” Harry tries again, messing it up on purpose to make her laugh, Louis suspects. He’s seen Harry speaking with too many French people to know that, while far from being bilingual, he can definitely get around more than all the men in their unit combined.  

“Pas trop mal,” she finally agrees after humming for a moment.

“Merci,” Harry says, bowing his head to her dramatically and Louis manages to contain his fond smile to the corner of his mouth.

“Sarge?” Niall asks over the sound of him opening a map.

Louis shakes his head and looks away. “What?”

“You’re with us?” Payne asks, tapping the paper.

“Yeah. Yes.”

*

When he opens the door the next day, Harry is holding a plaid blanket in one hand and a basket in the other. He’s wearing his scarf again and a blue sweater under his coat, looking warm and cosy, like a hug decided to become a person for a bit to torment Louis.

“Good morning,” Harry says, making his way in without waiting for Louis to invite him.

“Planning something?” Louis asks, raising an eyebrow at the baggage.

“I thought we could go eat lunch near the river. It’s not too cold today and I haven’t had the chance to walk along the banks yet. Mrs. Ainsworth says it’s lovely, especially this time of year.”

The path is uneven and the rocks are slippery, but it is the prettiest spot in their village. Louis hasn’t been there since the first time he tried and almost broke his neck on his way down.

“Hum, sure,” he replies, keeping the hesitation at bay.

He can do this. He certainly wants to and it’s a feeling he had almost forgotten in the bleak routine of his life since he came back from the front. Harry’s reappearance in his life is like a breath of fresh air, reminding Louis what it’s like to want things. It’s frightening and painful, especially considering the things that he wants are so out of reach, but he feels awake for the first time in a long time.

“We don’t have to,” Harry says easily, reading him like a book, as usual.

“No, I want to. It’s a good idea. I haven’t been there in forever and the fresh air will do us both some good. Let me just grab my coat.”

“Alright.”

*

It takes Louis three times almost slipping on the rocks near the river before Harry offers his help in a timid voice.

“I can do it,” Louis replies through gritted teeth, tightening his hold on his cane in one hand and pressing Harry’s blanket against his chest with the other.

“Alright,” Harry says softly, staying at a respectful distance.

Louis can feel his gaze burning on his back though and he shakes his head, trying again. He slips, this time properly, and he closes his eyes waiting for the crushing impact when he feels a warm hand on his waist.

“Here,” Harry whispers against his ear, much closer now, “I’ve got you.”

Louis feels his cheeks burning and he gulps with his eyes closed, hoping the embarrassment will fade off.

“It’s alright,” he says after a minute, “I can walk by myself now.”

“You’re not weak for accepting help, Louis,” Harry says, tightening his grip on Louis’ waist, his fingers spread over Louis’ hip, five burning points against his covered skin. “There’s no one here to judge you, it’s just me.”

“I know that,” Louis replies weakly. “But I can do it.”

“I know you can do it, it’s not about that. I’m just trying to make things easier for you, that’s all. I wish you’d trust me to do it.”

Louis sighs. “Fine. Help me.”

“Really?” Harry says, so close his breath is ticking Louis’ cheek and for one terrifying -glorious- second, Louis thinks Harry is going to kiss it.

“Yes, really,” he replies impatiently, heart thundering in his chest. “Now get on with it, will you?” he adds, making Harry laugh.

“Okay, okay. Let me just,” Harry begins, walking around Louis to lock their arms together so they can walk side by side with Harry carrying most of his weight. “There we go.”

*

“Did you make all of this?” Louis asks when they’re finally sitting down, the blanket unevenly spread over the rocks. It’s not exactly comfortable, but the sun is bright and the leaves are golden, their reflection surreal and beautiful on the calm water.

Harry’s head raises from where it was buried in the basket. “Uh?”

“The food,” Louis explains, pointing at the plates Harry has already taken out.

“Oh, well. Yes. Most of it,” Harry replies automatically. “Some,” he amends after a beat, giving Louis a wink.

“I thought I recognised one of Mrs. Ainsworth’s famous salads.”

Harry winces. “Alright, I had some help. But just a little bit.”

Louis grabs a piece of bread, before trying to position his body in a casual manner. He hesitates for one second before speaking. “Careful, she’s going to think you’re trying to court me, or something,” he says, in what he hopes is a teasing manner.

Harry doesn’t respond straight away and when Louis finally gathers the courage to look up to him, his head is still bowed over the basket, his cheeks a delicious shade of red.

“I was just joking,” Louis quickly adds, “I’m sorry. It was stupid.”

“No,” Harry laughs and Louis can’t quite tell if it’s forced or not. “No, it’s… Good one.”

There are a tense few more minutes while Harry finishes emptying the basket and Louis desperately tries to find something else to say.

“Talk to me about university,” he finally demands after the silence has stretched way beyond comfortable.

“What do you want to know?”

“Everything,” Louis says with a shrug. “I never got to go, you know.” 

“You didn’t need to for teaching?”

Louis shakes his head. It always seemed strange to him too. “They made me take a few tests and then they hired me. I’ve always been curious about what that was like. And studying medicine as well, it must have been challenging?”

Harry inhales deeply, before starting to speak, Louis’ mishap mostly forgotten.

July ‘44

Louis lowers himself into the water slowly, closing his eyes and letting himself soak in the river. The water is cold, blissfully refreshing, and for one second Louis just… enjoys it. Enjoys the sensation of finally being clean, after longer than a week brewing in his and his unit’s filth, enjoys the sun’s warmth against the nape of his neck, the laughs of his men as they splash at each other like fucking children.

“Stop it!” Liam shrieks and when Louis opens his eyes, he’s holding his junk with two hands and glaring at a cackling Niall.

Louis snorts before letting himself float on his back, eyes on the sky. He spends a few seconds trying to identify shapes in the clouds. He smiles at one that looks like a train, so lost in his thoughts that he almost jumps out of his skin when Harry speaks.

“That one looks like a horse,” he says and when Louis gets back up, he’s close enough to touch, his skin golden and drops of water stuck to his eyelashes.

“What?” Louis asks with a nervous laugh, his eyes drifting to the width of Harry’s shoulders, his biceps, his pink nipples, the place where his hips narrow…

He gulps, looking at where Niall and Liam are still fighting while Zayn laughs.

“The cloud,” Harry explains and when Louis looks back at him he’s staring at the sky, his throat exposed, perfect and delicate.

Louis imagines pressing his mouth to it in a flash of heat before he shakes his head.

“Which one?” he asks, voice gravelly.

“That one!” Harry says, taking a step forward and putting a hand on Louis’ shoulder, too trusting for his own good.

Louis looks up, ignoring the miles of unexplored skin at his mercy.

“Oh,” he replies after a bit,” I see it.”

“Told you,” Harry says smugly, taking his hand away.

Louis shivers, suddenly cold.

“That one looks like a train,” Harry continues like nothing happened.

And, Louis supposes, nothing did.

*

After the picnic, Harry becomes a permanent fixture in Louis’ life. They see each other every Saturday afternoons and sometimes, if Louis is lucky, Harry gets out of the practice early enough to walk Louis home. He’s not quite sure what Harry gets out of it, but he’s long since learned not to question the good things in his life. He supposes Harry has a fondness for the nostalgia of Louis’ presence, of Louis’ friendship. Whatever it is, it transforms Louis’ life overnight. That afternoon, Harry arrived with the rain, a little later than usual, but wearing his trademark smile, eyes shining when Louis opened the door and it’s a bit strange and magical to think this is normal now.

“She is the most precious thing I’ve ever seen,” Harry says over a mug of tea a few hours after his arrival. “She started talking now, so whenever I see her she tries to say my name, but she can’t do the Rs properly?”

“My little brother was like that too for the longest time!” Louis replies, stretching his leg and jostling Alfred from his spot on Louis’ lap. The cat drops to floor with a nasty look towards Louis. “Oh, don’t be like that Al! I’ll give you some more milk if you stop pouting.”

Harry laughs. “You two have a very interesting relationship, you know.”

“No, we don’t. We’re antagonists who share a space and are perfectly happy to do so.” Louis looks at the back of Alfred’s head. “Well, mostly.”

“Completely normal,” Harry agrees, taking a small sip of tea. “Just like it’s normal to steal your neighbours’ pet.”

“Alfred comes here of his own free will,” Louis protests with an indignant face. “Trust me, I’ve tried to dissuade him multiple times.”

“Of course, it’s not like that cat is your best friend.”

“It is not!

“My mistake then.”

“You’re my best friend,” Louis adds, feeling a bit awkward. It’s so much more than that. “How old is your niece again?”

Harry smirks like he knows exactly the source of Louis’ discomfort and it’s disconcerting as usual, but he chooses to ignore it. “Sixteen months and driving my sister mad.”

“First baby?”

Harry nods. “Yeah, she’s really happy though. Says it’s the best thing she’s ever done.”

“My little sister says the same every time she has a new one,” Louis replies with a small chuckle. It’s hard not to feel jealous sometimes.

“Do you want any?” Harry asks, raising an eyebrow before looking down to the floor and bending to pet the top of Alfred’s head.

“Children?” Louis shakes his head. He loves kids, more than anything. He’s just not sure he could make the sacrifices necessary for him to get some. Maybe before the war, he would have gone that path, put on a fake smile and done like everyone else does, but he can’t. Not anymore. Not when his country almost stripped him of his life like it was nothing. It’s the only thing he has left now and he wants to live it as true to himself as he can. “I don’t think so.”

“No?” Harry demands, looking confused. “I’m surprised.”

“I have children,” Louis explains like it could ever be enough. “Educating them is a hassle, but it suffices.”

Harry laughs, but the smile slides off his face when it suddenly starts thundering. His head turns towards the window, eyes widening as he grips the sofa’s armrest tightly. He exhales deeply before speaking. “My niece is scared of thunderstorms,” he reveals with a little eye roll. “It’s quite adorable, but then again everything she does is adorable.”

Louis licks his lower lip, before nodding, suspecting Harry’s niece is not the only one. “What about you?” he asks, not unkindly.

“Uh? If I want children?” Harry says, jumping a little in his seat when the thunder booms again.

“Are you scared of thunderstorms?” Louis corrects gently, leaning forwards on his sofa. If he reached a little, he could touch Harry’s knee.

Harry gulps, then laughs nervously. “Sometimes,” he admits with a small shrug and it sits between them uncomfortable and tense, the bombing sounds and the gunfires. In moments like these, it feels like they were there yesterday, like they're there right now. 

“Yeah,” Louis agrees. “Me too.”  

July ‘44

“You know,” Louis whispers across their makeshift camp, shivering under the rain, “this is not what was advertised when I signed up.”

“No?” Harry asks, moving a little bit closer while he tries to wrap his wet blanket tighter around his body. “What part isn’t up to your expectations?”

Louis sighs. “Well, they promised me so many things. I mean, glory? Fighting against tyranny? Defending our island whatever the cost? Really this is just a rainy holiday with poor company.” Louis finishes the list with a huff.

“Heyyy,” Harry protests, kicking Louis’ shin half-heartedly.

Louis snorts, wiping water from his forehead. It feels like he’s never going to be dry again.

“I meant the Germans,” Louis says teasingly, “but good to know you recognised yourself.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Harry laughs, muffled but beautiful under the rain.

“I’m just sayin’-”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever Louis.”

November ‘49

The sideboard cabinet makes a loud screeching sound against the floor and Louis winces before tapping his chin with his index. “Are you sure you’re up for this?” he asks, looking at Harry struggle against the furniture. The cabinet seems to be winning.

“I’m fine,” Harry says in a strained voice. The cabinet screeches again. Harry stops and looks down at it. “This thing is really heavy,” he adds in a whisper.

Louis sighs with an eye roll, pressing both of his palms against his kitchen table. “Don’t I know it. I’ve been wanting to move that thing for three years. I’ve tried so often and it’s won over me every single time.”

Harry huffs at that, getting into position again. “Yeah?” he says, stubborn as hell. “I’m not letting it win against me. ” He groans loudly when the cabinet refuses to bulge. “Why do you even need this thing?” he adds, giving it a half-hearted kick.

That is a good question, Louis thinks, looking at his tiny, but cosy kitchen. There’s not even enough space for it. “It was my grandfather’s,” he explains. “Me mother was so happy to give it to me, what was I supposed to say? No? It’s a family heirloom!”

Harry inhales deeply, grabbing it again and giving it a firm push. “Couldn’t she give you a normal sized heirloom?”

Louis smirks, looking at the way Harry’s biceps are bulging. “What would be the fun in that?” he asks sarcastically.  

It takes thirty more minutes but Harry finally manages to push it across the room into its new rightful place. hidden away in a corner, where Louis doesn’t have to see it while he’s eating. Harry is sweaty, his hair falling wetly across his forehead, panting a little. It shouldn’t be attractive, and yet.

“I hate that thing,” Harry declares once he’s done, stripped to his undershirt and hands on his waist.

“Oi!” Louis replies from where he’s lazily working on the crosswords, sat at the kitchen table, his glasses perched on the tip of his nose. “That’s my heirloom you’re complaining about!”

“Your heirloom almost broke my back,” Harry teases. “And I’ve always had a bad back.”

“Now I’m going to feel bad for asking you,” Louis says with an exaggerated sigh, putting the newspaper aside for a second.

“Don’t, please. I was happy to,” Harry says reassuringly, taking a seat next to Louis. He grabs his shirt from the chair before sitting down and for one second Louis thinks he’s going to be spared the sight of Harry’s arms, but he uses it to wipe his forehead then puts it down.  “I still think it’s ugly,” he adds with a smirk, “but I was happy to.”

Louis chuckles, tapping his pen nervously against the table. “Listen, I’m not saying you’re wrong, but as long as my mother might visit, it needs to be right where she can see it.”

Harry snorts. “Yeah, I get that.” He turns his head, looking back at the cabinet. “At least you don’t have to stare at it too much in that corner.”

“Well, why do you think I wanted to move it?” Louis asks.

Harry laughs, then rubs at this nose with index before pointing at Louis. “I see your point,” he says, raising an eyebrow.

“Can I offer you something to drink?” Louis asks when he feels himself blush. “As a sincere thank you? Tea? Beer?”

Harry nods. “I’d take a beer, thanks.”

Louis is about to get up to get it when Harry puts on hand on his shoulder. “I’ve got it,” he says, getting up himself and walking to the fridge. “Oh, by the way, Dr. Ainsworth told me to invite you for dinner next weekend.”

“What?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, turning away from the fridge and smiling at Louis. “He and his wife said they hadn’t seen you in ages when I mentioned I was coming over to help you out, so they told me to ask. Can I tell them you’ll come?”

“Sure. I mean, if they want me to.”

“Well, considering the fact that they asked,” Harry says, leaning back against the fridge, one leg crossed over the other, “I’m going to assume that they want you to.” He takes a gulp from his beer bottle and Louis lets his eyes stray on his jawline. In this late afternoon light, it’s a work of art. “You’re teaching their grandson, right?”

Louis smiles, looking away. “Alexander,” he replies with a soft look. He’s progressed so much, Louis can’t help the burst of pride flaring in his chest. “He’s been struggling,” he admits.

“Yeah, that’s what Mrs. Ainsworth told me. You’ve been a tremendous help apparently? She says he’s miles beyond where he was last year with Miss. Gibson.”

It takes everything in Louis’ power not to smirk self-satisfyingly. He has a few years of experience over Emily, he shouldn’t feel smug like this.

“Sometimes all it takes is a little push or a new way of explaining something,” Louis replies vaguely. He’s a better teacher than her, he thinks bitterly, hoping that Harry can sense it.

“Or you’re just a great teacher?” Harry offers like he’s read Louis’ mind. It scares Louis sometimes, how easily they connect.

“Or,” Louis confirms, wrinkling his nose.

“So you’ll come?”

Louis huffs. “I already said that I would.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

*

The next Saturday comes by quicker than Louis would have liked.

He’s spent the entire week nervous at the thought of having dinner with both the Ainsworths and Harry. It was like a faint buzzing in his ears, a constant reminder that he was going to have to exist in Harry’s vicinity with people to witness it. Now that he’s approaching the house, a bottle of wine tightly clutched in one hand, he feels like he’s going to throw up.

There’s nothing to be scared of, he knows that. They can’t peer into his brain, they can’t know how he feels just by looking at him, and yet. He still feels his heart beating loudly in his chest when he finally reaches the front door and knocks with his cane.

Harry’s smile when he opens the door almost soothes his nerves.

“Good evening,” he says with enthusiasm, gesturing invitingly at Louis. “Come in, come in. Give me your coat!”

Louis laughs, taking a step in before Harry starts grabbing his scarf and untying it himself. “Are we in a hurry?” he asks, unable to hide his grin while Harry still fiddles with his clothes.

“Uh?” Harry asks before he looks down at his hands and stops touching Louis abruptly. “Sorry,” he says, sheepish and blushing faintly. “I’ve never had guests before. I mean, my family received guests of course, but not guests that were just mine, you know? I got a little bit carried away I think.”

“I thought I was Mr. and Mrs. Ainsworth’s guest?” Louis says, giving the bottle for Harry to hold while he takes both his scarf and his coat off.

“Oh.” Harry’s face falls a little. “Well. Yes, I suppose. It is their house.”

Louis laughs, unable to keep a straight face with how dejected and disappointed Harry looks with such a big pout on his face.

“Don’t worry, you’re definitely the one I came to see,” Louis replies, patting Harry’s shoulder comfortingly when he walks past him on his way to the living room.

“Louis!” Dr. Ainsworth says happily, getting up from his armchair and offering him a massive hand to shake.

“Mr. Ainsworth,” Louis replies happily, letting his hand be engulfed for a few seconds, stopping himself from wincing at the tight grip. “It’s good to see you, Sir.”

“It’s good to see you to my boy, I feel like I haven’t caught more than a glimpse of you in forever. What do you get up to in that hermit house of yours anyway?” he asks, gesturing at him to take a seat. “Drink? Cigarette?”

Louis laughs, accepting the cigarette with a grateful nod before sitting down on the sofa, glancing up when Harry finally enters the room.

“It’s only five minutes away from the last houses in the village, Dr. Ainsworth,” Louis replies teasingly, squirming a little when Harry takes a seat next to him, the sofa too small for them both to sit comfortably. Their thighs press together and Louis gulps. “I’d hardly call it a hermit house.”

“It’s too far away,” Mr. Ainsworth protests. “Harry dear, tell him he lives too far away. We hardly get the chance to see him. He’s so stubborn he barely even takes appointments with me for his knee, honestly. You’d think he’s avoiding us.”

“You’re not taking care of yourself properly?” Harry asks with a worried frown, ignoring everything else that Dr. Ainsworth has said.

“See, now you’ve gone and worried him,” Louis says, ignoring Harry’s questioning look. “He’s a new doctor, you shouldn’t play with him like that when we both know there’s nothing to do for me and seeing you often would be pointless.”

Dr. Ainsworth laughs warmly before shrugging. “What can I say, I like you son. I wish you’d pretend you need the appointments just so you could visit.”

Louis blushes, a hint uncomfortable with the kindness and affection. He likes Dr. Ainsworth too, but as a newcomer, not matter how long he’s lived here now, the feeling of being a foreigner intruding on the village never quite goes away. This is why he likes living on the outskirt so much. It reminds him he doesn’t quite fit in.

“Unfortunately we can’t have everything that we want in life,” Louis replies teasingly, winking at Harry to try to make him smile.

His mouth twitches for a few seconds as he tries to resist. Then, he looks down at his feet, but Louis is certain he can see the hint of dimple of his cheek, the undeniable proof that he was successful in his endeavour.

“Don’t we know it,” Dr. Ainsworth says gravely, tipping his glass towards both Louis and Harry, eyes suddenly serious with the horrors he’s witnessed in the Great War. Louis, once again, is reminded why he likes coming here so much.

“So,” Louis says after a few seconds of silence, “how is Dr. Styles doing over here? Seems like he’s conquered the entire village, but your opinion is the only one that count, isn’t it?”

Dr. Ainsworth grins, a self-satisfied look replacing the grave one on his face. “Flattery will not get you leftovers Louis,” he warns, even though Louis knows it’s not true.

Still, he pouts exaggeratingly before snapping his fingers in disappointment to make the two men laugh. They do and Louis sighs, content to have managed to lift the mood.

“He’s doing extremely well,” Ainsworth continues, widening his eyes to emphasis his point, “and he’ll be a skilled physician by the end of the year, I can tell you that.”

“We don’t have to talk about that,” Harry says awkwardly. “Nobody wants to hear about that.”

“I do,” Louis protests, hitting his arm half-heartedly. “I literally just asked.”

Harry sighs. “I swear, you’re worse than my mother. It’s like you’re asking for my report card… You know, I’m not one of your students, right?” Harry teases, but he looks pleased to be talked about so positively. He passes a hand through his hair before unbuttoning and buttoning the first button of his brown waistcoat.

“No, but you’re his in a way,” Louis replies, pointing at Dr. Ainsworth. He takes a drag of his cigarette. “I’m nosy,” he adds with a shrug. “What can I say.”

“I’m surprised you’re asking.” Dr. Ainsworth interrupts their bickering easily. “I expected you to know… I mean, from my understanding you’ve seen him in action?”

“Right,” Louis says with an uncomfortable laugh. He can feel Harry tense next to him at the allusion, his body suddenly rigid and his breathing rapid. Louis nudges him discretely with his thigh before speaking again. “In a matter of speaking, but I’m assuming these were very different conditions than here... Unless your office is even worse than I remember.”

Dr. Ainsworth laughs loudly, slapping his knee. He’s about to speak again when Mrs. Ainsworth appears in the doorway, an angel coming to save them all.

“The food is ready if you’re done with all your babbling now,” she declares, her eyes lighting up when she spots Louis. “Louis!” she calls happily, opening up her arms invitingly, waiting for him to get up and reach her before wrapping him in a warm hug. “I’m so happy you’re here, darling. I’ve been telling Harry to invite you for weeks! I couldn’t believe it when he told me you two have been friends for so long, what a coincidence that he got his internship here!”

“Yeah,” Louis laughs, letting her go quicker than he’d like. “It is quite a coincidence.”

“Oh, it’s wonderful. Finding people again after all these years. James was the same with one of his war buddies, weren’t you love? They hadn’t seen each other in oh…. Ten years at least? And they met up completely randomly when James went to London for a conference. Honestly, it was such a lovely thing, he was so happy. Weren’t you love?” She keeps babbling, dragging Louis through to the dining room, completely ignoring her husband’s answer as she keeps talking about how wonderful it was and how she can imagine how wonderful it feels for Harry and Louis right now.

Louis smiles and follows her happily, thinking he’s pretty sure it wasn’t quite the same for Mr. Ainsworth as it is for him. Or at least, he hopes not. For her sake.

July ‘44

“Just let him go!” Malik yells, grabbing Harry’s shoulders and trying to drag him away. There’s hell raining from the sky, bullets and bombs, and there’s no hiding from it.

“He’s my patient,” Harry fires back, hand still working on the soldier who is more dismembered limbs than man right now.

If they weren’t in such a shitty situation, Louis would admire his tenacity.

“He’s not going to make it,” Zayn insists, trying to get eye contact with Harry. “Just look at him! He’s already dead.”

“You don’t know that!” Harry yells, pushing Zayn away. “You don’t know that,” he repeats desperately. “None of us know that, so let me do my job.”

“Come on,” Louis says, grabbing Zayn by the shoulders, dragging him up. “Cover for him while he takes care of that soldier, alright?”

“But-”

“Just do it!” Louis yells over the thunder.

“Yes sarge,” Malik replies through gritted teeth. 

“Thank you,” Harry says, eyes still fixed on his patient.

Zayn is right, Louis thinks sadly. He’s not going to make it, but Louis certainly won’t be the one to steal that anomalous shade of hope in Harry’s eyes.

*

A few weeks later, Harry shows up to Louis’ house wearing the ugliest sweater he’s ever seen in his life.

“I’m not sure I can let you into my house wearing that thing,” Louis declares jokingly before letting Harry in. Obviously.  

Harry who sighs, cheeks flushing. “Don’t,” he says, exasperated.

He takes the jumper off smoothly, his white shirt a bit wrinkled underneath. He’s about to hang it up when Louis protests.

“Oh, don’t think you can hide this so I’ll forget about it!” he says with a giggle, holding his hand out.

Harry sighs again. “I hate you,” he whispers, dumping the wool mess into Louis’ expectant hand. “You better have a kettle on,” he adds walking past him to get to the kitchen.

“Always for you!” Louis calls back after him before taking a closer look at the jumper.

It’s… It’s worse than Louis initially thought. Maybe if it were another colour… But it’s not. It’s brown and uneven, with clear mistakes throughout. To top it off, there’s a … creature on the front and Louis can’t tell if it’s meant to be a bird or a cat. It looks like neither. The whole thing is quite sad to look at really and Louis grimaces before joining Harry in the kitchen.

He’s shivering a little, hands tightly wrapped around his mug, looking cosy and like he belongs right there in Louis’ kitchen, in Louis’ life. He looks like he always belonged and like he’s always been here, and it’s painful sometimes to think it’s only true in Louis’ head. In Louis’ heart.

Harry looks up when Louis walks in, blissfully unaware of the turmoil he constantly puts Louis through.

“Are you gonna make fun of me some more?” he asks, wrinkling his nose adorably. Louis needs to get a grip.

“Of course not,” he says easily before proceeding to do just that. “Did your niece make it and that’s why you subjected yourself to such torture?” he asks, dropping into the chair next to Harry and reaching for his mug.

Harry smiles, handing Louis his tea without protesting. “My niece is an infant,” he replies while Louis takes a sip, grimaces because of the sugar in it, then hands back the mug.

Louis nods slowly, “I know.”

“It’s not that bad!” Harry defends weakly.

“It’s atrocious.” Louis stops speaking for a beat, narrowing his eyes with suspicion. “Did you make it?”

Harry rolls his eyes before shaking his head. “Honestly… No. I did not make it. I don’t know how to knit. It was a gift though and a kind gesture so I’m wearing it.”

“Who?” Louis demands, eyes lightening up excitedly. “Who made this? Please tell me it wasn’t Mrs. Ainsworth!”

“I’m not sure you deserve to know,” Harry replies, folding his arms across his chest defensively. “You’ll only make fun.”

Louis snickers.“Oh please, I’ve already made fun of it,” he says, shrugging delicately. “And I will continue to do so regardless of whether I know the artist,” he adds, making quotation marks with his fingers and rolling his eyes mockingly. “But if you don’t want to give me extra material against this thing, fine.” He pauses for a moment, looking at his nails as casually as he can. “Do you think the creature -and I still don’t know what it is- is meant to represent death?”

Harry snorts before putting a hand over his mouth, eyes widening. “Shit,” he mumbles. “I’m not making fun of it!” he adds, panicked. “It’s a… it’s a nice gift. I … I love it.”

“How much did it hurt to say that? Be honest.”

“Stop it!” Harry says with a giggle. He looks at the mysterious animal, then giggles again. “It does kinda look like it’s dead, doesn’t it?”

“Doesn't it?” Louis repeats dramatically. “It looks like it already started decomposing!”

Harry shakes his head, biting his lower lip to try to contain his amusement. “Poor Miss Gibson,” he mumbles.

Louis’ eyes widen and he opens his mouth in excitement. “Miss Gibson made this for you?” he asks, delighted. Oh, this is too good.

“Don’t tease her about it, please. She was so proud of it, what was I supposed to say? I couldn’t refuse it. She said she knitted it with me in mind. She did it specifically for me.”

“Wow,” Louis whispers, shaking his head. “That’s a plot twist if there ever was one. Miss Gibson actually hates you. I would never have guessed with the way she almost faints every time someone says your name.”

Harry laughs and laughs, so hard he starts crying. “Lou, please.”

“What? I’m just saying… This is clearly a ploy of hers to embarrass you. Maybe she feels scolded because you haven’t asked her out on a date yet?”

“She seemed so proud…” Harry replies, looking desperate. “What was I supposed to do? I don’t want to mislead her, but I couldn’t refuse it.”

Louis smirks before pushing the jumper towards Harry across the table. “I suppose not.”

*

Louis is about to walk into his classroom after his students when he sees Miss Gibson letting her own students into her classroom across the corridor. He doesn’t mean to call to her exactly, but he says her name just as she’s about to close her door.

“Did you call me?” she asks, stepping outside the class with a small frown on her face.

“Oh, uh…” Louis mentally swears, cursing his inability to stay out of it when it comes to Harry. “Harry showed me the sweater you knitted for him,” he finally says, as neutral as possible.

Her face actually lights up and Louis… Louis feels bad for her sometimes.

“He liked it?” she asks, a faint blush decorating her cheeks.

It can’t be easy, he supposes, when almost every eligible young man you’ve ever known left to fight and never came back. Including the one you wanted to marry. He doesn’t like the idea of pitying people, but it’s quite a sad story for everyone involved. She might pretend like it's behind her and act like optimism and excitement are her only two settings, but Louis knows there must be more than that. 

“He thought it was a kind gesture,” he replies diplomatically instead of making fun of her. “I don’t know that it means what you want it to mean though,” he adds warningly, not without kindness.  

They’re in the same boat, after all, pining after the unattainable, after the same bright boy they both can’t have. He knows her pain, but not her hope, desperately aware how out of reach Harry is for someone like him.

“You never know!” she replies brightly like he’s giving her a great gift with that comment.

“Well-”

“Thank you for telling me Mr. Tomlinson,” she adds, disappearing into her class and ignoring his protest.

June ‘44

Niall is the one who finds them. He makes the entire unit stop as they’re walking through an abandoned village, shushing them loudly when some of the men start asking what he’s doing.

They’re about a month old, cuddled together in a box in a deserted alley and they start meowing loudly when Niall finds them.

“Kittens?” Malik says with an exasperated look on his face.

“Kittens?!” Harry repeats happily, trailing after Niall in the alley.

“We’re not really stopping to pet kittens, are we Sarge?” Malik asks, watching Louis with disbelief.

Louis looks at the smiles on Harry and Niall’s faces as they let the kittens try to climb on their laps, laughing when they clumsily tumble down one after the other with flailing limbs.

Louis sighs, then reaches inside his pocket, taking out a pack of cigarettes. He offers one to Zayn silently.

“We’re due for a small break anyway.”

*

The next day, Mrs. Padley sits next to Louis during lunch, starting to gush about a new movie she absolutely needs to see.

“It’s with Gene Kelly,” she reveals excitedly to the table, a dreamy look in her eyes. “On The Town, it’s called.”

“Sounds interesting,” Louis replies politely, not quite sure what the movie is supposed to be about.

“It’s showing in town this weekend,” Mrs. Padley continues with enthusiasm. “Of course, I can’t drive the late Mr. Padley’s car, I never learned, so I thought maybe you’d like to come.”

“Me?” Louis asks, a bit surprised. They’re friends, of course, but they’ve never been known to do many activities together like this.

“Yes you, silly boy,” Mrs. Padley replies with a chuckle. For one second, Louis thinks she’s going to pinch his cheek and he flinches preemptively. “You can drive us there, right?”

“I mean… technically,” Louis says, uncertain. “It’s just a bit difficult sometimes, with the knee.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Padley says, face falling. “Well, I suppose that’s understandable. It doesn’t matter. It seemed like a good movie, that’s all. I thought you might enjoy it too.”

She looks so sad Miss Tarleton bravely gives Louis a nasty look, wrapping a comforting arm around Mrs. Padley’s shoulder.

“I… I guess we could ask Harry to come too?” Louis offers casually. “He knows how to drive.”

“Oh!” Mrs. Padley says, almost jumping out of her seat. “What a wonderful idea!”

Miss Gibson's face also lights up at the suggestion and Louis already knows what’s coming.

“I like Gene Kelly too,” she declares casually, eyes still fixed on her lunch. “I haven’t been to the movies in ages.”

“Oh honey, you should come with us!” Mrs. Padley replies, annoyingly predictable. “It’ll be a nice little outing for all of us.”

Miss Gibson, of course, is delighted. “Well, it’s a date then!”

Unfortunately, Louis thinks. 

*

The next Saturday, they pick Louis up last on their way out of the village. It’s late in the afternoon, but still early enough that they’ll have time to drive into town and get dinner before the movie starts.

The car beeps loudly and when Louis steps out of his house, he’s faced with the sight of Harry in the driver’s seat and Miss Gibson smirking next to him. His eyes stray to the back of the car where Mrs. Padley is waiting for him and he sighs, tightening his scarf around his neck.

This might be a long day.

They make it through the car ride and dinner with awkwardly stilted conversation, Emily trying to enthusiastically engage Harry with question after question that he expertly deflects or ignores. By the time they take their seat in the movie theatre, waiting for the show to being, no one is talking at all.

The first half of the movie passes without incident, Louis trying to focus on the comedy rather than on the feeling of Harry brushing against him, but it becomes hard to ignore when Harry starts squirming once they hit the halfway point.

He’s moving uncomfortably, twisting in his seat, and Louis is about to ask him if he needs to go to the bathroom or something when he stretches his arm awkwardly away from Miss Gibson’s seat before putting it against his chest, as far away from the armrest he shares with Louis’ colleague as possible.

It takes everything for Louis’ eyes to stay focused on the screen instead of trying to catch a glimpse of Miss Gibson’s face and more importantly Harry’s, but he struggles on, watching Gene Kelly without interest, palms sweaty and heart beating loudly in his chest.

It takes a few minutes before Louis feels Harry shifting again, getting closer and closer until his breath hits Louis’ cheek.

Louis’ heart jumps in his throat when Harry starts whispering in his ear.

“Someone needs to tell her my hand isn’t the armrest.”

Louis gulps, looking down at the way Harry twisted his body away from Emily’s seat.

“I think she knows,” Louis replies, barely making a sound, and he has to stop himself from laughing when Harry lets out a little sigh.

“Yeah, that’s what worries me,” he replies sadly before getting up from his seat.

“Where are you going?” Miss Gibson tries to whisper, grimacing when a lady a few rows down hushes her loudly.

“I’m hungry,” Harry replies dismissively, leaving the theatre without a look back.

For a second, Louis considers going after him, asking if he’s alright, but he’s not that pathetic. At least that’s what he tells himself, wide eyes glued to the screen as he stares at the movie without watching it.

He’s not quite sure what this is supposed to be about. Soldiers on leave and love? It’s all the same unrealistic bullshit that neither Louis nor Emily will get to experience.

Well, she might if she gets lucky.

When Harry finally comes back, Louis automatically moves his legs to let him pass in front of him and his eyes widen when Harry decides not to and simply takes the seat before, leaving the one next to Emily glaringly empty.

“Popcorn?” he offers Louis kindly, already more comfortable.

*

When they finally exit the theatre, Miss Gibson makes her way straight to the back of the car, face completely blank, but her red-painted lips pursed.

Mrs. Padley gives Louis and Harry a sad look before joining her in the back seat, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Ready to go?” Louis asks softly against the wind, looking at the way Harry is standing stoically next to the car.

It takes a while for him to get an answer.

“I don’t know how to let her down easily,” Harry whispers sadly, a frown that Louis wishes he could chase away on his face.

“You have to be honest,” Louis replies, the weight of his own feelings, his own lies, heavy on his chest.

Harry gulps. “I suppose,” he says before opening Louis’ door and gesturing for him to get in.

They drive back to the village in silence, Louis looking at Harry’s clenched jaw and his worried eyes every few seconds, wishing he could make it better.

“You were right,” Miss Gibson tells Louis coldly the next day. She doesn’t elaborate, doesn’t tell him what Harry told her after they dropped Louis off, but there’s a hardness in her eyes that wasn’t there before.

He’s almost tempted to gloat, but he feels just as wounded as she does. That’s what Harry Styles does to people, Louis figures. Enchants them, then devastates them without even trying.

June ‘44

“What do you think?” Niall asks Liam with a laugh, elbowing him carelessly.

Louis shares a look with Zayn before rolling his eyes. “Stay focused please, this is still technically enemy territory,” he says as a warning, looking at the vastness of the French countryside.

Some days, he feels like France is only a series of never-ending fields that they’ll never manage to get through.

Niall laughs before twirling on himself, looking around the deserted field. “I think we’re good,” he replies. “And I think you’re a bit cranky because I said I expect you to last less than a month.”

Louis smirks. “Please, if anyone is going to last less than a month it’s you. Have you seen how reckless you’re being?”

Harry laughs at the comment, trying to muffle it with his hands.

“Oh, that’s how it is?” Niall asks with a click of his tongue. “5 quids I make it back home and you don’t.”

“Deal.”

Liam frowns, shaking his head at Niall. “Stop that,” he says after a few seconds, looking spooked. “That’s not funny.”

“Oh, don’t be like that Payne,” Niall says reassuringly, wrapping an arm around Liam’s shoulders. “S’just some banter.”

“How would you even enforce the bet if one of you actually dies?” Liam mumbles, worried and irritated. “This is stupid. You’re going to bring bad luck onto yourselves.”

“I didn’t take you for the superstitious type Payne,” Malik teases, licking his lower lip. “And I suppose the family of whoever bites the dust first would be happy to settle the debt, right boys?”

“I mean, not that it’s going to be necessary, but Bobby Horan would be ready to settle my gambling debts,” Niall declares. “What about you Sarge?” he asks Louis before saluting him teasingly.

“As you said, my family won’t need to, but they have the means to pay you back if needed.”

“Seems like there’s an official bet going on,” Harry agrees with them to Liam’s exasperation.

“It’s not funny, what if one of you actually dies?”

Louis’ face falls for a second. He hates to be pessimistic, but… “Liam, most of us are probably going to die,” he says seriously. “Will you let us have a bit of fun while we’re still kicking?”

December ‘49

Harry shows up to Louis’ house one evening mid-December with a Christmas decoration in one hand and one of Mrs. Ainsworth’s pie in the other, looking so beautiful Louis thinks he might scream.

He turns his back to him after letting him in, walking back to his living room with his heart in his throat, feeling the weight of Harry’s eyes on his back as he follows him through the house.

When they get to the living room, Harry puts the pie on the table before handing Louis the wooden snowman with a bright smile on his face.

“I found him in a market a few villages over!” he declares happily. “I thought he would be perfect for your house.”

“I don’t really decorate for Christmas,” Louis admits, refusing to take the gift. He can’t let himself pretend anymore, it hurts too much to see Harry like this and to still not have him.

Harry’s face falls. “Why not?” he asks, putting the snowman next to the pie on the table. He gives Louis a worried look. “Is it because you need help? Because I’d be happy to do it for you,” eyes soft, filled with compassion.

Sometimes, Harry’s eyes look green like the fields of France that robbed them of their innocence and sometimes they’re like a bottle, like glass, with a hint of stormy blue like the water that carried them over the Channel, and it hurts - it hurts - to look at him.

Louis takes a shuddery breath, closing his eyes painfully. “I can’t do this,” he whispers shakily without meaning to. “I can’t even look at you.” 

He can hear Harry gasp, can hear his uncertainty, but he still can’t bear to open his eyes, to look into that malleable, confused face, to see the frown on Harry’s forehead.

“What are you saying?” Harry demands and when Louis finally gathers the courage to look back at him, his eyes are sad. They’re searching Louis’ face for an explanation for his erratic behaviour and Louis knows he can’t say it, but it’s building inside of him like a wave, encompassing and unstoppable.

“It....” Louis chuckles wetly and he gestures towards Harry’s frame, the broadness of his shoulder, the kindness of his soul. “It hurts to look at you, Harry. It hurts so badly because I want you. I want you and I know that it’s wrong. I’ve always known that you could never love me back but -” Louis stops himself with a sob, shutting his eyes painfully, hating the words stumbling clumsily out of his mouth.

“You love me?” Harry asks, voice empty, and that makes Louis laughs a little hysterically.

He shakes his head, passing a hand over his face slowly before looking back at Harry with teary eyes. “No, I’m in love with you. And I’m sorry.”

Harry’s face falls, surprisingly not with disgust, but he looks shocked, his face pale and his eyes wide. “Oh, God,” he whispers and Louis looks up to the ceiling of his tiny lonely house, blinking quickly to try and stop the tears.

“I’m sorry,” Louis repeats and he knows he shouldn’t have anything to be ashamed of, but it slips through him anyway, squeezing his heart with poisoned claws.

“Jesus Christ,” Harry snaps, taking a step forward, “don’t be sorry.” He reaches up, grabbing Louis’ face with steady hands, forcing Louis to look at him. When their eyes finally meet, he shakes his head. “Don’t be sorry,” he repeats softly against Louis’ face before kissing him.

Harry kisses him like in the pictures he used to take Lottie and Fizzy to back in the days, where all the women are beautiful and the men wrap their arms around them dramatically, sweeping them off their feet to the local pianist’s music swelling. Harry kisses him with purpose like he wants to breathe Louis in and never let him go. Harry kisses him like Louis never expected to be kissed.

Somehow, it feels like they were always made for this.

When they finally come up for air, Louis’ body is pressed against the wall of his living room, Harry’s taller frame caging him in, and he has no idea when or how they got like this, but he tightens his grip on Harry’s shoulders, wrinkling his shirt without care.

“You….” Louis gasps, searching Harry’s face for an explanation, still not daring to believe.

Harry shudders, pressing one of his hand against the wall next to Louis’ face, eyes wide and intense.

“You too?” Louis asks in a shaky voice, feeling small and big at the same time.

Harry laughs wetly, a low chuckle that gets lost between their bodies pressed together. He nods, slow and soft, letting his nose drag against Louis’ cheek, his eyelashes tickling and miraculous on Louis’ skin.

“Of course,” he replies, reaching up to cup one of Louis’ cheeks, stroking his face with his thumb. “Louis, I… I never thought…” Suddenly, he laughs again incredulously and Louis can’t help but do the same.

“Me neither,” Louis admits, sighing against Harry’s face.

“I love you too,” Harry says, bringing his second hand to cup the entirety of Louis’ face, looking at him like he’s holding the entire world in his palms. And maybe he is, with the way his eyes are shining with sincerity.

Louis never let himself believe that he could have this, but when Harry holds him this way, looks at him this way, he thinks that things could be okay. Maybe.

“You’re the only thing that kept me going over there,” Harry admits, a hint of vulnerability in his voice. “You’re the only thing that kept me brave and honest. After you got injured, I thought the only light in this fucking war had been taken away from me… I thought I was going to die in the fucking darkness.”

“Harry-”

“No matter what horrible things happened, having you there… It didn’t make it okay, but you made it so much better. And even after you were evacuated, it’s the thought of you that made it better. I never got a chance to say it then, but I sure as hell am not going to pass on the opportunity now. I would have died without you there. My soul would have died without you there, so thank you. Thank you so much,” Harry finishes his speech with a sob, then he starts pressing small kisses on Louis’ cheeks. “I love you. I love you.”

“Oh, Harry,” Louis replies, wrapping his arms around his shoulders and tangling his fingers into Harry’s hair like he imagined doing so many times when they were in France, bringing him close and bringing him home, right against Louis’ chest where he belongs. “Me too darling, me too.”

June ‘44

The house shakes under the impact of the bomb, walls trembling and barely holding. Louis inhales sharply, taking his position at the window, rifle in his hand as he looks down for any targets he can find. He can hear Zayn do the same next to him.

The house shakes again and Niall curses. When Louis looks back at him, his eyes are wide and his knuckles bloodied.

It’s been a long day.

*

Nothing changes, except for everything that does.

Harry still comes around to Louis’ house every few days and they still go on walks when the weather isn’t too unforgiving. They still have tea together, they still share their insecurities with each other in the dark, they still pet Alfred when he’s brave enough to face the cold and walk to Louis’ house. They talk about their lost friends and the years they spent apart.

Except now, when Louis wants to reach for Harry’s hand, he doesn’t hesitate if they’re alone. Now, Louis traces his fingers against Harry’s face, content to know that he’s the cause whenever Harry dimples happily at the contact. Now, when Harry walks in, he kisses Louis before even taking his coat off, not even caring if he’s wet with rain or snow. Now, they lay together for hours, legs tangled underneath Louis covers as they have whispered conversation before Harry has to leave.

Louis looks at Harry’s peaceful face from across his bed, his eyelashes’ shadow against his cheeks and the beautiful slope of his nose. He’s going to have to wake him up soon, he’s going to have to send him away to make sure Mr. and Mrs. Ainsworth don’t get suspicious. The thought should hurt, but there’s something comforting about knowing that no matter how many times Harry has to leave, he’s Louis’ now.

Now, Louis gets to be happier than he ever thought he would be.

*

Louis is pretty sure the nativity play his children are performing in the town square is excellent right now, but he can’t seem to keep his eyes on them no matter how hard he tries.

What were they thinking, standing so far apart like that, Louis thinks, looking away from Harry’s profile across the square.

It lasts barely a second before Louis looks again.

Harry is smiling at the children, tiny snowflakes melting on his cheeks and his jawline perfect as ever and Louis just…. can’t stop looking at him.

He looks away again, biting his lower lip. The children are singing a song about Christ and Louis has practised that song with them more times than he’d be willing to admit, but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t seem to recall any of the lyrics right now.

Are they even still singing? He certainly couldn’t say because Harry just passed a hand through his hair before whispering something in Mrs. Ainsworth’s ear that makes her giggle like a schoolgirl.

Louis smiles then looks away. He risks a glance back a few second later, thrilled to find Harry staring right back at him, a soft smile on his face.

“Hey,” Harry mouths silently across the square. Louis kissed those lips.

“Hey,” he mouths back, wiggling his eyebrows.

Harry laughs, then looks down, cheeks flushed. He looks back up hesitantly after a few seconds, looking pleased when he meets Louis’ gaze again.

Much later that evening, Louis springs out of his armchair as soon as he hears his front door open and the familiar weight of Harry’s steps into his entryway. He walks to the front door as quickly as possible, supporting himself with the corridor’s wall at first, then with Harry’s body.

“Hi,” Harry whispers before kissing him, his face still cold from the snow. He wraps his arms around Louis’ waist, holding him tightly with gloved hands.

“Hi,” Louis replies when they finally stop kissing. He reaches up to Harry’s hair, passing a hand through it to get rid of the snowflakes.

“Congrats on the play love,” Harry whispers. “The children did good.”

“Did they?” Louis asks with a laugh. “I wouldn’t know.”

Harry smirks. “I don’t know either,” he admits. “You were too pretty for me to watch anything else.”  

*

“Are you sure we have to say goodbye?” Harry demands cheekily, blocking Louis’ exit. He bites his lower lip and it almost convinces Louis to cancel Christmas with his family. Almost.

“Yes,” Louis replies insistently, pinching Harry’s lower belly. “Unless you want to explain to your family why you missed the holidays?”

“Emergency patient,” Harry says automatically and he’s clearly been thinking about this, the little mischievous thing. “One of your kids actually. A tragic accident…. The parents were so worried,” he adds, shaking his head. “And I didn’t want Dr. Ainsworth to miss Christmas with his family, so I had to sacrifice myself and stay. What a shame.”

“It’s a nice little story you’ve told yourself there,” Louis agrees with a nod.

Alfred meows between them and Harry’s face lights up. “He agrees,” he says, leaning into Louis’ space to whisper it in his ear.

Louis shivers, reaching for Harry’s waist and wrapping him in a hug. “Too bad I don’t,” Louis replies, settling in the hug and nuzzling into Harry’s shoulders.

Harry sighs, putting a hand on the nape of Louis’ neck. “I know,” he says defeatedly. “I want to see my family too. I just… I wish you could come,” he admits in a small voice. “I’m so happy and I wish I could tell them.”

Louis closes his eyes, inhaling Harry’s comforting scent, pretending for one short second that they’re the only two people on Earth.

“Me too.”

There’s a beat of silence before Harry speaks again, this time a bit more cheerfully. It feels a bit forced, but Louis appreciates the effort to change the mood.

“I got you a birthday gift,” he reveals. “I hid it in your bedroom and you can’t open it before it’s actually your birthday though.”

Louis smiles, hiding it in Harry’s body. “Is it a handmade jumper?” he asks, voice raspy and teasing, and his smile widens when he feels Harry’s laughter against his cheek.

“You’re such a brat,” Harry says fondly, kissing his forehead.

“If it’s not a handmade sweater, how am I supposed to know if you love me? It’s a true sign of affection after all.”

“Will you shut up!” Harry scolds with a laugh. “I broke her heart, it’s not funny.”

“It wasn’t funny when it felt like you were breaking mine too,” Louis admits without taking a breath like it’s just one long word he wants to get rid of as quickly as possible. “Now that I’m no longer pining though, I can’t help feeling a tad amused.”

“You were pining,” Harry says smugly and Louis doesn’t need to look up to know the exact way his mouth is twisting in a smirk right now.

“Desperately so,” he deadpans.

Harry hums. “I thought I was making my intentions quite clear, to be honest. I mean… I kept inviting myself to your house and bringing you gifts.”

“Wait!” Louis says, untangling himself from Harry’s arms and pushing against his chest. “Were you trying to woo me?”

Harry blushes a deep scarlet before laughing awkwardly. “Not very successfully apparently.”

Louis just… melts, looking at this boy he met under the worst of circumstances and who he can’t believe he gets to have. “I love you,” he says softly, “so much.”

“I love you too.”

“I can’t believe I don’t get to see you for over a week, that’s terrible.”

Harry huffs dramatically. “That’s what I’ve been saying!”

*

Louis’ older sister wraps him in a tight hug at midnight, yelling Happy New Year!!!! in his ears, and while it’s not quite the arms he wants to be curled into right now, he laughs, kissing her cheeks loudly to make her laugh.

He watches as all of his siblings embrace each other, as his mother kisses her husband chastely in one corner of the room, as Charlotte picks up her daughter and makes her twirl.

He usually feels so alone in those moments, heavy with the impending doom of his eternal solitude, but this year, Louis smiles to himself without bitterness, confident in the knowledge that this is going to be his best year to date.

June ‘44

“Tomlinson!” One of his superior calls out to him through the chaos and Louis narrows his eyes when he looks back, finding the officer standing sternly a little further away next to a younger soldier.

Louis quickly jogs to them, leaving his unit behind. “Yes Sir,” Louis he says once he’s joined them.

“This is Private Styles, he’s going to be with you from now on,” he declares, gesturing towards the other soldier. He waits a second for Louis to nod before leaving them both to deal with what Louis assumes is something far more important.

Half of his unit fell on Sword Beach, dead before they hit the sand, struck in the relentless violence of the enemy's fire, and Louis feels stretched thin already, exhausted by only one day in France. He looks at the young lad in front of him, his green eyes wide as he accepts Louis’ scrutiny, and he almost looks innocent and out of place. Except every single one of the men who crossed the channel yesterday left whatever innocence they still had back on English soil.

“Styles? Was it?” Louis asks, already irritated when his eyes fall on the red cross on the man’s bicep.

The man nods. “Nurse Styles,” he adds, holding his hand out for Louis to shake. “First name’s Harry,” he adds, engulfing Louis’ smaller palm into his, surprisingly warm and steady in the midst of the turmoil surrounding them.

“Alright,” Louis replies strained and a bit angry. This is just another soul for him to lose, someone he won’t have time to mourn once he falls. “First rule of my unit,” he adds, voice louder than he means it to be, “is you take that shit off.” He reaches for Harry’s arm, ripping the red cross armband off in one swift motion, making Harry jump a little. “If you want to wear a target on your back, you do it in someone else’s unit.” Then, he bends down and grabs one of the helmet lodged in the sand and pushes it against the recruit’s chest. “This too,” he says, pointing to the red cross helmet. “You want to save lives and they really don’t want you to do it, so be fucking careful and take care of my guys, okay?”

“Yes, Sarge,” Styles replies, pushing his helmet off, his short brown hair messy underneath. He holds his new helmet tightly against his chest, eyes still wide, but not scared, disarming in the way they look at Louis, through Louis, so easily.

“Alright, I think most of the men are fine, but why don’t you do a walk around before we leave,” Louis says, pointing to what his left of his already exhausted unit. “Make sure everyone is in good shape for the night we’re gonna spend walking.”

“Yes, Sarge,” Styles agrees with an easy nod. He puts his new helmet on and turns around, jogging back to the rest of the unit.

Louis’ eyes distractedly stray to the broadness of his shoulders and he shakes his head, shakes the thought off. There’s no space for that. There never will be.

January ‘50

“Did the Doctor give you exercises to do?” Harry asks candidly one night, both of them sprawled over Louis’ sheet, bare and sated. He lets his hand fall from Louis’ waist to his knee, fingers soft against the old injury.

Louis shrugs, shivering a little at the way Harry’s eyes are soft and never pitying. There’s a part of him that feels like he should feel self-conscious, naked and exposed to Harry’s eyes and Harry’s hands, this intimacy between them new and fragile. Surprisingly, he doesn’t. Harry, after all, has seen all the ugly parts of Louis and he’s still here. And Louis knows all the ugly parts of Harry right back.

“Some,” he admits in a whisper. “They didn’t really work.”

Harry hums, fingers dancing from Louis’ knee to his thigh, the touch slow and careful.

“It’s okay,” Louis adds, his thumb rubbing insistently against Harry’s brow, trying to caress the frown away. “I’m okay.”

“Don’t like you in pain,” Harry says, voice rough in the night. He turns his head slightly, letting his lips drag against the thin skin of Louis’ wrist, kissing his pulse point.

Louis gulps. “I’m not in pain. Not right now.”

“I wish I’d been there,” Harry admits and for a second he looks so distraught Louis thinks he’s going to cry.

“You were,” Louis replies forcefully, tangling his fingers into Harry’s hair to try to soothe him. “You saved my life, remember?”

Harry sighs, taking his hand away from Louis’ thigh and pressing it against his abdomen, hiding the ugly scar Louis brought back from the war with his palm. “I wish I could have gone with you. I wish I could have left our unit behind and be evacuated with you. I would have made sure you were transported carefully. I wouldn’t have let them break your leg.” He sighs. “Incompetent fools,” he adds in an angry whisper.

“It was an accident,” Louis says for what feels like the hundredth time, feeling obligated to defend the men who did their best in the worst of circumstances, even if they crippled him for life. “It’s not their fault the bones never set properly.”

Harry huffs.

“And you were with me Harry,” Louis admits. “I thought of nothing but you and prayed for nothing but your safety. It’s alright,” he insists when Harry’s eyes fill with tears. “I’m really lucky, considering. I know some who weren’t as much.”

“I know. I know,” Harry replies, but he still doesn’t look fully convinced, his pretty pink mouth turned down in an uncomfortable frown.

“Hey,” Louis whispers, a smile in the corner of his mouth, still hoping he can manage to distract Harry away from his dark thoughts. “I’m so happy you’re here. I never thought…” he trails off, closing his eyes, heart clenching painfully when he remembers only a few months ago he thought he’d be alone forever, that he had accepted his fate.

He has no idea what Harry is going to do once this year with Dr. Ainsworth is over. He has no idea if he’ll go off to make his life somewhere else and delight the entire population of another village, if the weight of loneliness is going to be heavier after feeling the sunlight of Harry’s touch, but he doesn’t care. He never thought he’d be loved so brightly as he now has and it feels like he could overcome anything with the memory of Harry’s lips against his temple, of Harry’s fingers brushing against the nape of his neck.

He can feel it now, Harry’s fingers slipping through his hair.

“I’ve been thinking about this for so long,” Harry says in a whisper, his breath warm on Louis’ face, his nose against his cheek.

He opens his eyes, surprised to see Harry managed to get much closer without jostling Louis’ knee. Then again, Harry was always very careful.

“Since you saw me again?” Louis asks in a teasing voice, even though he knows the answer. “Or even when we were apart?”

“Since the first time I saw you,” Harry admits and that actually takes him by surprise.

“I looked terrible,” he chuckles, a bit embarrassed. “And I yelled at you. You didn’t want to kiss me then.”

“You looked tired and you looked scared,” Harry replies, once again proving he’s always been able to see right through him. “You looked brave,” he adds, pressing a small kiss on Louis’ lips, lingering there before he speaks again. “And your advice saved my life, even if you yelled it.”

Louis tries to stop the smile from spreading on his face, this is not a happy memory after all, but he can’t. “I’m sorry I yelled.”

“It’s okay.”

February ‘50

Louis wakes up on February first with his arm around Harry’s waist, palm pressed against his belly and Harry’s back against his chest. He exhales softly against Harry’s neck before smiling to himself, content that he managed to convince him to stay the night before even though it wasn’t the most reasonable of ideas. It’s a weekday and they won’t have much time together, but Louis can’t help but feel blissful at the fact that they spent a whole night together.

Finally.

He presses a small kiss on Harry’s neck before getting up, careful not to wake him. He puts on Harry’s jumper silently, smiling to himself when Harry squirms a little without Louis to hold him, before he stops moving entirely, peacefully asleep again.

Louis chuckles before slipping out of the bedroom and making his way to the kitchen. He puts the kettle on first, then starts preparing a simple breakfast for the both of them.

It’s twenty minutes later when Louis finally makes his way back to the bedroom, holding a tray full of their breakfast with careful and steady hands.

Once inside, he puts the tray on his side of the bed, then walks around to Harry’s, bending next to him and caressing his nose with his index in an attempt to wake him.

Harry’s eyelids flutter in response and he hums when Louis kisses his forehead. Louis chuckles, then kisses his nose next, his smile widening when Harry wrinkles it in response. Next, Louis kisses his lips, a small peck as he passes a hand through Harry’s hair.  

“Happy birthday love,” he whispers.

That seems to do the trick.

“Hey,” Harry replies with his eyes closed, voice raspy.

“Hey,” Louis mimics, letting his voice go as low as possible.

Harry smiles.

“I made breakfast whenever you’re ready,” Louis adds, still petting Harry’s hair. “I mean, I hope it’s soon because I worked hard on it and also we both have to get ready for work and you have to leave early if we don’t want people to see you leaving the house.”

Harry’s smile falls a little and he opens his eyes. “Right.”

“None of that,” Louis scolds, before kissing Harry. “This is our first morning together and it’s your birthday. You’re not allowed to be sad.”

“We’ve had plenty of mornings together in France,” Harry replies, just to be difficult.

“Our first real morning together.”

Harry hums, then starts reaching for Louis’ body. “Come here,” he says, hiding his face in Louis’ neck.

“Careful,” Louis whispers as he wraps his arms around Harry’s naked shoulders, “you’re going to ruin breakfast.”

Harry lets him go, choosing to sit up on the bed instead, eyes lighting up when he notices the tray.

It’s not much, just two cuppas and some bread and jam, but Harry is clearly delighted, questioning Louis about every item once he’s joined Harry on the bed.

“What about this?” Harry asks pointing to the vase, amused, the tray precariously balanced on his knees.

Louis blushes a little at his art project. “I figured, since we won’t be able to work on the garden for a bit, you could have this in the meantime,” he replies, taking the paper flower he carefully folded with newspapers from the vase and handing it to Harry. “I know it’s not much, but -”

Harry interrupts him with a kiss, leaning over Louis. “I love it,” he replies with tears in his eyes. “I love you.”

Louis smiles. “Careful,” he says softly, “ you’re gonna drop the tray.”

“Right,” Harry says, taking a bite of his bread before putting the tray on the floor. “Where was I?” he asks, before kissing Louis again.

March ‘50

“Can I tell you a secret?” Harry asks in the middle of dinner one evening, tapping his feet nervously on the floor.

Louis raises an eyebrow, fork halfway to his mouth. He puts it down, giving Harry a careful look. “Of course, always.”

Harry nods, drumming his fingers against the table.

“Does it have anything to do with why you’ve been so fidgety tonight?” Louis asks knowingly. Ever since he came home from the practice, Harry has been thrumming with this weird energy, unable to stay in one place. He’s cleaned Louis’ bathroom and even started on the fridge before Louis demanded him to sit down while he prepared dinner.

“Maybe a bit,” Harry admits sheepishly. “I’m sorry, I just…” he trails off.

“You’re starting to worry me,” Louis replies jokingly, hoping the real insecurities underneath won’t be too apparent.

“Oh god,” Harry exclaims, letting his hands drop into his face. “I’m messing this up,” he adds with a small laugh. “This is meant to be a good secret, I promise.”

“O… kay,” Louis says, uncertain. “If it's a good secret, why don’t you just tell me?”

Harry takes a deep shuddery breath, still hiding in his hands. “Dr. Ainsworth is retiring once I’m done interning with him.”

“Oh,” Louis replies, a bit confused as to why this is meant to be such spectacular news.

“He wants to give me his practice.”

“What?”

Harry takes his hands off his face, revealing two lethal dimples. “He wants to give me his practice.”

“You… You’re going to stay, then?” Louis asks hesitantly. He’s never said it out loud, this little fear of his that Harry was meant for greater things and was always planning to leave after his year in their community. It feels a bit surreal for him to consider it might have been unfunded all along.

“Well… Yes,” Harry replies like it’s obvious. “Unless you don’t want me to…”

Louis starts laughing, getting up abruptly. He almost falls to the floor, his knee protesting his enthusiastic jumping, but he manages to grab the table at the right moment, avoiding a catastrophe. Harry gets up when he almost falls, his hand soft as he caresses Louis’ forearm. He lets Louis know he’s right there to lean on if he needs it without being overbearing and Louis loves him so much he feels like he could burst with it.   

“I never want you to leave,” he admits softly, shivering when Harry cups his cheek.

“Well that’s a relief,” Harry admits with a laugh, “because I never want to leave either.”

“What a coincidence.”

Harry hums before widening his eyes. “I’m going to have to find a house,” he realises. “There’s no house on sale in the village!”

“Well, I have a spare bedroom,” Louis offers casually, taking a step forward and pushing Harry back into his chair before sitting on him.

“Do you?” Harry says, pretending to think about it.

“I do.”

“Interesting. Hypothetically speaking, if I were to move here, would I have to sleep in said spare bedroom?” he asks, smirking.

“Absolutely not.”

May ‘50

“Do not,” Harry says threateningly, trowel in hand, “throw dirt at me.”

Louis giggles, flicking more dirt at Harry’s face, loving the way he closes his eyes and grimaces against the assault.

“I cannot believe you right now,” Harry continues, inhaling deeply. “I’m trying to help you create a beautiful garden -” Louis throws more dirt at him and he groans. “I’m trying to make a garden for our future home that we’re going to share together and you just -” Louis giggles, then throws more dirt, this time in Harry’s hair, and he widens his eyes when Harry gets up from where he was kneeling on the ground next to the patch of grass they’ve decided to transform into their garden.

“Oops,” Louis laughs as Harry approaches him menacingly.

“Ok,” Harry says firmly, grabbing Louis around the waist and lifting him, “that’s enough from you now!”

June ‘50

It only takes an afternoon to move the entirety of Harry’s things into Louis’ house. There are only a couple of boxes as well as a trunk full of clothes, the sum of Harry’s life seemingly so little neatly put away like this. Louis knows better though. Louis knows that Harry’s world is big and bright, that those few boxes mean everything they never thought they would get and that they cherish now. It symbolises this new life of theirs, a life together that belongs only to them and no one else.

Harry opens his trunk and starts to put his clothes next to Louis’ in the closet straight away and the visual is so overwhelming Louis has to close his eyes for a second.

It seems surreal is all, like maybe Louis never really made it home, like maybe he died in that field in France and this is his reward for sacrificing his life for the greater good.

Harry chuckles and when Louis opens his eyes again, he’s fighting with two of his shirt who tangled themselves together despite the way everything is neatly packed.

If that’s what his heaven is like, Louis doesn’t mind too much.

“Here,” he says, taking a few steps forward, “let me.” He grabs the shirts, separating them easily.

“Thanks,” Harry says brightly, kissing his cheek.

“Of course.”

Louis leans against the wall, watching as Harry keeps unpacking, humming softly under his breath.

“Hey,” he says after a few minutes and he smiles when Harry turns to look at him, crouched over his trunk.

“Yeah?”

“Welcome home.”

June ‘44

Surprisingly, the men manage to gamble on the boat despite the fact that it’s still dark and the water is rocking them unsteadily. They’re playing with one of the private’s cards, a relic that survived the Great War when his old man didn’t. Louis would find it poetic, the way the deck is finding its way back to France after all these years, if it wasn’t so gruesome. Here they are back again, young men about to fight their way through France, a new generation of scared youths pretending to be fighters.

Louis should probably reprimand them for playing. It’s against army regulations after all, even if it doesn’t technically involve money, but they’re preparing for one of the most complex military operation they’ll ever be a part of. He figures he can probably cut them some slack. It’s a good distraction, if anything else, and even Louis, whose head is resting against the side of the boat as he tries to sleep his way across the Channel, is comforted by the teasing sounds of his men. Malik swears somewhere to his left and Louis grins.

“You’re taking everything he’s got?” he calls across the boat.

“Two packs of fags so far Sarge” Horan replies with a snickering laugh.

“Good man,” Louis says with a nod, eyes still closed and heart surprisingly steady.

He’s as ready for this as he’ll ever be.

*

“We should go to Paris,” Harry whispers in the quiet of the night, his fingers soft in Louis’ hair.

“What?” Louis asks, already half asleep, lulled by the comforting rise and fall of Harry’s chest under his head.

“Paris. We should go to Paris together.”

“Why?” Louis asks with a small chuckle.

“Because you never got to go. We never got to see it together.”

Louis lets his fingers caress down Harry’s torso, circling his belly button softly until he laughs.

“Tickles,” Harry says, burying his head in Louis’ hair.

Louis hums in response, stopping the teasing movement and letting his palm press against Harry’s lower belly instead.

“It’s alright if you don’t want to,” Harry finally says after a few seconds.

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Louis replies pensively. He licks his lower lip, trying to buy himself some time so that he can explain it properly. “I just don’t understand why you’d want to go back there. Aren’t there awful memories associated with that place now?”

Harry stops stroking Louis’ hair for a moment. “I guess,” he admits carefully.

“Then why?”

“Because,” Harry says, voice low and enveloping in the dark, “I want to go everywhere with you.”

Louis smiles privately for a second, tightening his arm around Harry’s waist before he raises his head a little to look at that sincere face, his favourite face.

“I wanna make memories with you everywhere Louis,” Harry whispers with a crooked smile, one dimple out.

He’s so beautiful and Louis is so lucky they’re both still alive.

Louis smiles back easily, almost without noticing, fitting his thumb into Harry’s dimple. “That’s going to take a long time honey,” he replies tenderly.

“Good,” Harry nods, closing his eyes with a blissful expression on his face when Louis presses a small kiss on his forehead. “Good.”