Actions

Work Header

if fate is kind

Work Text:

june 15

"Haz, I'm totally swamped, and the babysitter still hasn't called," Lou says, not even bothering to knock on Harry's doorframe as she pushes into his office. "Can you take Lux during your lunch break so I can make some progress on this wedding design?"

Harry pushes away from his computer, rubbing at his temples as he swivels to look at her. She's clearly frazzled, hair pushed back in a messy ponytail instead of done up nicely for the first time in months. "'Course," he says, even though he has a pile of work of his own to finish - bands waiting for him to confirm their dates, news outlets waiting for updated ads, the technical office waiting for the latest budget specs and orchestral requests. The Edwards-Nelson wedding that Lou is working on is in nine days, and Harry doesn't have to have the autumn lineup finalised for another two weeks. "Luxie, do you want to go scare up some lunch somewhere?"

Lux surveys Harry seriously, dark blue eyes wide, and then takes her thumb out of her mouth. "Circle books," she says, insistently.

It takes Harry a moment to place what she means. "You want to go to the library, baby girl?"

"Thank you," Lou says, emphatically, leaning down to press a kiss to Harry's cheek. "You're saving my life here, H, really."

"No problem," Harry says, casting one last look at his own pile of work before standing up. "Is the library cafe good for Lux, or should we go somewhere else on the way?"

"If she'll eat it, it's great," says Lou. "Just remember to ask her if she needs to use the loo every once in awhile, yeah?"

Oh, right. Potty training. "Sounds good," says Harry. "Lux, do you want to walk, or do you want a… piggy back ride?"

A brilliant grin unfolds across Lux's face, and she makes an oink noise.

"Better than Peppa Pig," Harry congratulates her, and kneels down so that she can clamber up onto his back.

He's regretting his offer by the time they get to the library. It's not even a ten-minute walk away, when all is said and done, but Lux has apparently just seen Ratatouille, and she delights in steering him on the walk by tangling her chubby little fingers in his hair and dragging his head from one side to the other whenever she decides he needs to turn, knobby knees digging unpleasantly into his ribs all the while.

Lux's inner GPS must be broken, too: she doesn't stop him when he autopilots to the music wing of the library because that's where he always goes to meet up with Nick when he's trying to sweet-talk him into promoting the Bridgewater's acts at a steep discount on BBC Radio Manchester.

"This isn't where your favourite books are," Harry says, squeezing Lux's ankle gently once he clocks that he's gone too far.

"I know," she says, sounding more exasperated than any three-year-old has any right to be, so Harry chuckles.

"Can you point me in the right direction then, O Great Guide?" he asks, and winces as she tightens her grip on his hair and squeezes her legs around his chest even tighter.

She refuses to be set down when they get to the children's section until he procures The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches and promises to read it to her, at which point she relaxes her hold on his hair and flails out backward from his back. He has to twist, quick enough that he can't avoid wrenching his back, in order to catch her and keep her from plummeting to the floor, and even then, he nearly drops her.

"Gotcha, mate," someone says, behind him, and suddenly some of Lux's weight lifts out of Harry's arms.

When Harry manages to get his heartbeat under control and turns around to see what's going on, a man - shorter, a little scruffy about the chin, with heavy bags under his brilliant blue eyes - is standing behind him, gently lowering Lux to the floor. "Thanks," Harry says, breathless from the adrenaline still coursing through him at the thought of Lux getting hurt on his watch. "You're a lifesaver." He kneels down so that he's closer to being on Lux's level. "And you are slippery as an eel, little Lux."

"No," Lux says, shaking her head rapidly. "I'm slippery as soap."

"That, too," Harry says, hiding a grimace as he straightens up.

"You all good here?" Harry's rescuer is addressing Lux more than he's addressing Harry, leaning over so he can face her head-on. "Find the books you wanted?"

Lux, abruptly shy, shoves her thumb in her mouth and points at the picture book Harry still has in his hand.

"Ah," says the man. "Do you like witches, then?"

Solemnly, Lux nods. Deciding that the nametag pinned to the man's sweater vest means the guy is probably a librarian and not a creep, Harry adds, "She's proper obsessed with them, aren't you, Luxie? Her last birthday was Room on the Broom themed."

"Wicked," the man says. "Is your name Luxie?"

Lux lets her thumb slide out of her mouth. "Lux," she corrects. "Harry's silly."

"Ah," he says, brilliant grin on his face. "I know the type." Dropping his voice to a loud whisper, he adds, "All my sisters have told me I'm silly, too," and pulls a massive face at Lux until she giggles.

Harry's heart pangs a little at the sight. "All your sisters?" he asks.

"I've got five," the man says. "And one brother." He blinks at Lux. "My youngest siblings are about five years old. I bet you're ages older than that, right? Maybe... twelve?"

Lux, shyness effectively defeated, gives a shout of laughter and shakes her head. "I'm this many," she says, holding up three fingers.

"Wow!" says the guy. "You're so old you're almost older than I am!" He straightens up, wincing a little as he stretches his back.

Harry can relate. "She's definitely older than me, mate," he says."Right, Lux?"

Lux rolls her eyes at him with aplomb, but the man laughs. "Always nice to meet another young soul," he says. "Listen, Lux. We've got ever so many books about witches here, yeah? If your, um - brother? Dad?"

"Mum's coworker," Harry supplies. "And semi-regular babysitter."

"If your friend here can't help you find the right ones, you can always come ask me for help. Or another librarian, I suppose, but I'm the very best one here, so you can also ask any of the others for Louis the Librarian and they'll help you find me. Got that?"

"Okay," Lux says, agreeably. She looks up at Harry. "Can we go read now?"

"Absolutely," says Harry. "Thanks for your help, Louis."

"Anytime," Louis says, warmly, and waves as Lux takes Harry's hand and drags him toward the comfy chairs along the wall.

+++

june 18

The room isn't quite swimming, but Harry's definitely feeling a little wobbly as he and Nick queue up at the kebab shop on Canal street.

"I thought that last one was quite cute," Nick says, elbowing Harry.

Harry's sure that Nick means to be gentle, but he's drunk, and so is Harry, so Harry nearly tips over with the force of the nudge. "Wasn't really feeling it," he tells him, grabbing onto the nearest surface to keep from falling down. "You know? A bit too…"

"No, I guess," Nick agrees. "Had that stern look about them, yeah? Could be a bit too demanding in bed."

That wouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker for Harry, but he doesn't mention it. "I was going to say boisterous," he says. "I was afraid I'd end up with a broken nose, dancing with them."

"You'd end up with a broken nose dancing with yourself," Nick laughs.

"Excuse you," Harry says, mock-offended. "I have avoided mortal injury so far."

"So far," Nick echoes, waggling his eyebrows.

Harry huffs and turns around dramatically, to show Nick how much he's not listening to Nick's horrible banter. He wavers a little as his equilibrium shifts, but manages, quite triumphantly, to stay mostly vertical.

The man in front of them in line looks vaguely familiar. Harry squints, peering more closely, but can't place his face. "Hey," he says, tapping the guy on the arm. "Do I know you?"

The guy twists around, catching Harry's eyes. "Maybe?" he says. "I don't--"

"Librarian," Harry says, snapping his fingers as he drags the memory forth, through an ocean of liquor and a haze of work-related stress and distraction. "Lee." He frowns. That doesn't sound quite right. "No."

"Louis," the man supplies, squinting at Harry. "I'm sorry, I don't quite remember --"

"No, that's fine," says Harry. "I brought my coworker's daughter in during the week. I'm Silly Harry."

"Right," says Louis. Harry can't quite tell whether he actually remembers, or whether he's just being polite.

"Who's your friend?" Nick asks, putting a hand heavily on Harry's shoulder and leaning in. It's enough to knock Harry off-balance, and he nearly tips over. "Hey, I know you."

Louis looks surprised, then purses his lips. "Kiki?" he asks. "Last month?"

"Vodka gimlets," Nick says, nodding. "Right?"

Harry glances between the two of them. "You went out without me?" he asks Nick, dismayed.

"You had that thing!" Nick protests. "That concert, or whatever."

Oh. Right. Harry's been trying to repress that night for a month; the tenor with the visiting orchestra was a nightmare to work with. "I guess," he says, petulantly.

Nick laughs and ruffles his hair. "Anyway, I can never pull with you around," he says, pointedly, winking at Louis. "You're always too busy trying to avoid mortal injury."

"Hey," Harry protests. He elbows Nick in the side. "I'll show you mortal injury."

Louis clears his throat, looking very uncertain indeed. "I don't mean to, you know," he says. "Interrupt your night?"

"No, not at all," Harry says, magnanimously. If Nick had got off with Louis in Kiki, and is now being up-front about it, that means there's a good chance that Nick wants a second go. It's his duty as best mate and resident klutz to help Nick along. "Glad to have you with us. You know, here in this kebab shop on Canal Street when we're all massively drunk."

"I want a chip butty," says Nick, glancing over the till to check the menu. "No. Wait. I want two chip butties."

"Push that boat out," Louis says. "I want a proper kebab, me. Loads of sauce."

Harry mostly just wants the shop to stop spinning around him. The longer he stands here, Nick's stinky rum-breath wafting over his face, the drunker he feels. He can't quite make out how many people are in line in front of them, but it doesn't feel any shorter than when they got inside. "Falafel, maybe?" he suggests. That sounds like it'd soak up the liquor sloshing around in his belly.

"Healthy," Louis says, making a face. His eyes are bright, though, and something warm twists in Harry's stomach at the sight.

"They're fried, mate," Harry points out, and Nick laughs, and Louis smiles, and Harry feels even more unsteady on his feet. Nick's interested, he reminds himself, and glances away.

+++

june 24

Even though wedding planning's not Harry's particular area at work, when there's an event as big as the Nelson-Edwards affair, everyone kind of gets roped in in the end.

For Harry, this means flashing Lou a thumbs up every time she flies into his office, hair wild, asking for him to, in turn, (1) triple-check that the band will be set up by the time the reception begins, (2) call the caterer to update the menus to reflect the five guests who have gone gluten-free or zero-carb since they initially confirmed their orders, and (3) call up Niall in the tech department to fix an overloaded circuit underneath the nuptial arch. This also means that he's dressed to the nines in an extremely lovely shiny floral suit (but, of course, not flashy enough to distract from the brides!) when the wedding begins. It is, he privately thinks, a bit wasted on everyone; he's in the giant hall where the caterers and band are setting up, directing traffic whilst Lou is in the ceremony, micromanaging the photographer.

Harry does suppose that it's not every weekend that two members of an internationally famous girl band get married in a smallish concert hall in Manchester, though he'd always half-expected that Jade would end up being the queer one of the four. She might still be, he reminds himself, and takes a moment to be pray that Little Mix is a heterosexuality-free band.

It's always been Harry's stance that weddings are exciting, and he's always loved the atmosphere surrounding them. It's just slightly different when you're part of the machinery behind a wedding, instead of watching the magic unfold in real-time.

He's just sat on a toilet in the nearest restroom, catching his breath after sending Niall to get one of the Bridgewater Hall's back-up amps for the band, when he hears a vaguely familiar voice.

"She invited you, mate, it's not weird that you showed up!"

"Yeah, but like, we did date. For like, four years." This second voice is aggressively Northern, and it's not one Harry's heard before; he's fairly certain of it.

"And then you dumped her because you hated the attention from her fame and now she's marrying a girl. I know. I'm friends with her, too, Zayn. This is a pretty small wedding for famous celebrities who know a zillion people apiece, bro, they wouldn't have invited you if they didn't mean it."

A deep, heavy sigh. "I guess."

"I know so," says the familiar-sounding guy.

Harry decides he'd best make his presence known. He pushes out of his stall and walks toward the sinks, grinning at the men as he approaches -- and then doing a double-take. "Louis the librarian?"

"Silly Harry!" says Louis. "Nick's friend! What are you doing here?"

"This is where I work," says Harry. He hesitates for a second, then starts to wash his hands. "You know the brides?"

"Intimately," Louis nods. With a wicked grin, he adds, "But not nearly as intimately as my good friend here does."

The guy, who is extremely beautiful, in an intimidating sort of way, shoves at Louis. "I'm Zayn," he says. "Also a librarian. Sick suit, bro."

Harry looks between the two of them. He's very tempted to make a joke about Manchester Central Library having an attractiveness requirement for their hires, but now is probably not the time or place. "Harry," he says, simply. "Not a librarian. I work here."

"Are you Pez and Jes's wedding planner, then?" Zayn asks.

"Nah, I just helped out a bit here and there," says Harry. "I do more stuff on the music event side, so I lent a hand with band stuff." He glances at his watch. "Speaking of, I better make sure that they've got all their equipment set up."

"Well, it was nice to meet you," Zayn says. He nudges Louis again. It seems a bit less aggressive this time.

"Yeah," Louis echoes, meeting Harry's gaze straight-on. "Nice to run into you again."

+

Four hours later, Louis finds Harry again. He's clearly tipsy, cheeks flush and eyes bright, smile stretching his face wide as he bounces from foot to foot. For one brief, overwhelming moment, Harry finds Louis to be impossibly lovely.

The moment passes, but Harry still feels a pang in his chest. "Hi," he says.

"Hey, so, I was thinking," says Louis. He is talking very fast for someone in his state of inebriation. "Like, I don't know if you're gay or not -- you were out on Canal Street, so maybe, but you could just be Nick's straight wingman. I dunno. But we keep running into each other, and you're cute, so that's gotta be a sign, right?" He takes a breath.

Harry is tempted to interject and save Louis from his rambling by clarifying that he's absolutely not straight, but Louis is so animated and it's terribly cute, so Harry just. Doesn't. He just smiles encouragingly instead.

"Like, the universe is being like, 'Grindr fucking sucks these days, mate, and here's a cute guy that works a few blocks away from you, how many more times do I have to make you stumble across him to get the point here?' Right?"

Harry should have interjected. He's lost the plot, a bit. It probably doesn't help that, given that he's on the job, he's stone-cold sober. "I'm afraid I don't follow. But I am, you know. Bi. So. You're not terribly off-base there."

"Oh, excellent," says Louis, grinning. "So it's a yes, then?"

"Yes to--"

"Going out with me," Louis says, like that should be painfully obvious. "It'd be terribly convenient; we both work so close to each other. Surely there's a pub in central Manchester that we might both find ourselves at, some evening at the same time."

Harry likes that idea very much. "Possibly even at the same table?" he suggests. "Really go wild."

"Oh, I was thinking you could sit at one table and I could sit at another one across the room and we could exchange one glance in the middle of our meals and go our separate ways," says Louis. His smile is blinding, crow's feet wrinkling at the corner of his eyes. "Keep me from putting me foot in me mouth in the middle of our small-talk."

"You make a good point," Harry says. Louis had hung around with him and Nick after the kebab shop for about fifteen minutes as they walked along the water, until his friends called and he had to go catch up with them, but Harry is fairly certain he'd been just as drunk as Harry that night, so there's a good chance he doesn't remember poking fun at Harry for eating his wrap tongue-first. Sitting at separate tables would certainly prevent that from coming up again. "Why not just go to separate pubs too, then?"

"Well, that would just be silly, wouldn't it?" Louis asks. "Really defeat the purpose."

"Either we're in separate pubs or we're at the same table," Harry says. He can't hold back his smile. "Otherwise no deal."

"You drive a hard bargain," says Louis. He sounds appreciative, though. "I guess that's okay, though. I can probably find it within me to deal with sitting that close to you."

"Good," says Harry. "Do you want my number, so we can plan this better? Or do you prefer smoke signals?"

"Definitely the smoke signals," Louis says, immediately. "But I'll take your number, too. Just in case it's foggy out."

"Smart," Harry says. God, he loves when someone can banter with him like they've been friends for years. He's half-tempted to try for a kiss right here and now, even though he's sober and at work and Louis is celebrating the marriage of two incredibly famous friends.

"I know," says Louis, taking his phone out before Harry can step forward. "That's why they made me a librarian."

Harry can just picture kissing Louis's smile, the place where his lips curve up and tuck into his cheek. It's been a while since he's kissed someone new, and even though he wants to do it right now, he also likes the idea of doing it after their first date. Just like a rom-com, that. Much less inappropriate than doing it at his place of work, even with the wedding dying down around them.

Instead of the kiss, he gives Louis his number.

+++

june 30

It's a rare sunny summer day, and normally, Harry would be distracted by the light sluicing through the window of his cramped little office.

Instead, he's thoroughly distracted by the text message Louis had sent him last night. Tomorrow then ? it reads. Right after work ?

Harry had responded in the affirmative. Of course Harry had responded in the affirmative. He's just... a little more anticipatory of the prospect than he'd expected to be.

He knows, realistically, that since they're both leaving right after work, neither will have time to change or dress up for the date. He knows, also, that this is fairly low-investment. Yes, Louis is incredibly fit, and yes, he works close enough to Harry that it's likely that they'll run into each other again. But it's not… it's not like it was with Taylor, the American exchange student who impressed and intimidated Harry in turn back at all the slam poetry sessions he attended in uni, who Harry wanted desperately to get along with, who Harry went on three increasingly terrible dates with before they both decided to quit while they were ahead and just be friends. It's not like it was with Fionn, either, the bloke Harry had met back when he decided to give community theatre a try; they'd engaged in so much banter for the duration of rehearsals for Brigadoon that an attempt at dating seemed to be a natural extension of their friendship.

It's more like it was with Cara, back at the start: a beautiful person who's crossed Harry's orbit a few times, enough that he decided to go out on a limb and take a chance. He hasn't sunk a great deal of effort into potentially starting anything with Louis; he hardly knows anything about the guy besides the fact that he's a children's librarian and, presumably, likes men to some extent.

So the butterflies setting up lodging in his stomach don't make the most sense. And yet the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and Harry is feeling practically nauseous at the prospect of his date.

Work ends and he emails budget revisions to various departments for the summer Philharmonic performance and pats his pockets to make sure he's got his wallet and phone handy. He vacillates on keeping his blazer - it is unnaturally warm outside -- but it's a striking red-and-black number, so he decides to keep it. Then it's just unearthing a piece of mint gum from the filing cabinet under his desk to freshen his breath, and he's ready to go.

Louis is waiting just outside the main entrance to the Hall, leaning against a column. He's also overdressed for the weather in an argyle jumper that looks incredibly cozy. One hand is shoved into the pocket of his jeans; he's scrolling through something on his phone with the other.

"Another totally random encounter," Harry calls, letting a smile stretch across his face as he approaches.

Louis looks up, then grins, shoving his phone into his back pocket. "We've got to stop meeting like this, Silly Harry."

"Librarian," says Harry, with a nod. "Lead the way?"

As they walk down the street toward the Greek restaurant they'd agreed on, Louis knocks his elbow into Harry's. "Good day at work?" he asks, when Harry looks across at him. "Doing… whatever it is that you actually do?"

"Budgets today, mostly," Harry sighs. "We're in between shows at the moment, so everything's all about the transition."

"To be honest with you, that doesn't illuminate a lot for me," Louis laughs. His laugh is as lovely as his face, quick and a bit breathy. "But it sounds dreadful."

"It's not as fun as actually working with the acts," Harry allows. "But it's necessary, I guess. A necessary evil. What about you? Shelve any good books today?"

"Oh man, I was in charge of storytime with the under-fives today," Louis says. "Let me tell you, there are some four year olds who go hard as fuck for the Gruffalo. It's like he's Justin Bieber or something."

"I'd believe it," says Harry, who is having a very vivid flashback to Lux dragging a well-loved Peppa Pig around the offices at the hall by her foot a few months ago. "Me, I was always a Paddington lad, myself. Made me mum read me the book about eighty times as a kid."

"I hated Mary Poppins," Louis confesses. "Loved the movie, hated the books. She seemed so much meaner."

"I did always want to be able to climb them ladders and put the stars in the sky, though," Harry admits. It is, in truth, the only Mary Poppins story he can remember hearing from the books.

"Yeah, that'd be wicked," Louis says. He smiles a bit, faintly. Harry can't read precisely what the smile is, but he looks forward to learning it.

Dinner is nice. Louis, with a very sheepish look on his face indeed, orders a plate with four different kinds of meat kebab plus sausages, and a side of Greek fries for afters. Harry, conversely, orders moussaka and a side salad, plus a halloumi starter for good measure.

"I have to admit," Louis says, when the food arrives. "This is the first meal I've had all week that didn't incorporate either a Gregg's sausage roll, pot noodle, or both."

Harry stares at Louis for a long moment. "Even breakfast?"

"Or cold pizza," Louis amends. "I'm not, uh. A terribly healthy eater, I guess."

"Sounds like it," Harry says. He tries to maintain a serious face, but a smile breaks out despite himself.

"You've got a dimple," Louis says. He sounds delighted by it. "I didn't know that you had a dimple."

"I've got two," Harry tells him. He lets his smile widen, to show them both off.

"So you have," Louis says. He presses his hands together like he's praying, and looks heavenward. "Thank you, fateful encounters."

"Are you saying that you find my smile sexy?" Harry asks. They haven't even finished their first drinks yet. He's only had two bites of his moussaka.

"I would never be so forward," says Louis, feigning shock. "Your dimples are adequate."

"Thanks," Harry says, dryly, trying his best to maintain a straight face. "So's your face. I suppose."

"Cheers," says Louis. He taps his half-empty pint glass against Harry's. "Glad we've got that established, then."

"I imagine all your first dates ask you what brought you to librarian-ism," Harry says, cutting another bite off his food. "And I'll sound terribly unoriginal if I ask you the same."

"Oh, terribly," Louis assures him. His face looks a bit pink, though. "Try a better question."

"I imagine it's to do with your, what was it. Six siblings?"

"Yes, exactly." Louis looks impressed, now. "I told you about them?"

"When I brought Luxie to the library a few weeks ago," Harry reminds him. He takes a bite, chews, swallows. "So my question to you is this: Which of your siblings is your favourite?"

"Fuck you very much," Louis says, laughing. "I could never have a favourite sibling. Not even Lottie, who's closest in age to me so we've spent most of our lives being good friends. Not even Doris, who is the cutest little girl you've ever set your eyes on. Not even my brother."

"Gemma's my favourite," Harry says, and waits a beat before adding, "I mean, she's my only sister and I haven't got any brothers, so like…" he breaks off as Louis pelts him with half of a fry. "Hey!"

"You're awful," Louis says, approvingly. "More importantly, though, what's your most traumatic memory from uni?"

Harry launches into the story about the time he went to get the leftovers he'd been waiting excitedly to eat after a solid eight hours in the library on a Saturday evening, only to find that one of his flatmates - who'd been preparing to go out after dinner - had eaten every bite of that pasta, and then promptly vommed it back up into his tupperware and left it on the counter. Louis cringes in all the right places, and matches him with a tale of sobering up and realising he'd inadvertently broken into the backyard of an incredibly posh house in a very rich part of the city, and that he'd had to knock sheepishly on the back door and ask to use their loo and for directions home.

And it's nice. It's lighthearted, and funny, and Harry's food gets cold before he can finish it because he's so distracted by the conversation. They get separate checks, but after Louis puts his card down, Harry reaches out and grabs his hand. "Do you know what's funny?" he asks, once he catches Louis's gaze.

"I assume you're not circling back around to our conversation about Gogglebox?" Louis asks, quirking an eyebrow.

"No, but that's a great idea and I've got about ten more thoughts on that front to share with you," Harry says. "But no, I was just thinking about how I decided just a few months ago to focus on work and not make a point of trying dating again, but then you showed up and I've had such a nice time tonight."

Louis peers at him, suspiciously. "Just to be clear, you're not giving me a 'this has been lovely, see you never' speech, right?"

"Yes, I've seen your card number and now I will abscond with all your librarian riches," Harry says.

"They're vast and plentiful," Louis says, nodding sagely. "Much like a dragon's horde, collected in bulk and curated for over three thousand years. So whilst I don't like it, I do understand your reasoning."

"I would love to see you again," Harry tells him. "I wasn't looking for anything, but I'm not opposed to it now that - I mean, we've got along really well, haven't we?"

"I'm willing to look past your unconscionable claim that Vans aren't the most comfortable shoes you've ever encountered, I suppose."

"So big of you," Harry murmurs, with a grin. "But you agree, right?"

"If your goodnight kiss is good enough, I'll go on a second date with you," says Louis, with a quirk of his eyebrows.

"Oh, this is a date? I thought we were meant to discuss putting on a children's library show at the Bridgewater," Harry says, mournfully. "I'll have to explain to Finance why I put an unrelated dinner on my business card."

"Sounds difficult," Louis says, unsympathetically. "But like, I guess I agree; I wasn't particularly looking for anything but I kept finding you anyway, so. How's Tuesday for you?"

"I have a long-standing date on Tuesday nights with a nice tuna and my Scottish fold, Nigel," Harry says. "But I suppose I could shift some things around."

"You do not have a Scottish fold called Nigel," Louis says, immediately. "I don't believe you."

"And what if I did?" Harry asks. His cat is actually called Dusty, and she's just a domestic shorthair, so it's not like Louis is wrong. "Would you feel bad?"

"Yeah, for the cat you named Nigel like he's a bloody Thornberry," Louis says. He pauses, alarm dawning on his face. "You didn't, did you?"

"Nah," Harry says, flashing a grin at him. "I do have a cat, but she's not that posh."

"Thank God," Louis says. "I can stomach going on a second date with you, then."

"I appreciate your great sacrifice," Harry tells him. "So I'll sacrifice my Tuesday evening with Dusty."

"A good name for a cat," Louis says, so Harry squeezes his hand.

They part ways at the restaurant door; Harry's got to catch the bus going north, and Louis is walking south to catch a late train back to his hometown for the weekend. Harry lingers for a moment, though, studying Louis's face.

Louis isn't moving, either.

"So about that kiss, then," Harry says, finally, and Louis leans up, cupping one hand around the side of Harry's face, letting the fingers of his other hand tangle with Harry's.

"It all rides on this," Louis says, adapting a truly dramatic tone. He captures Harry's lips in a kiss when Harry's mid-snort of laughter.

It works out, somehow. Louis's lips are dry, chapped even though it's summer, a little rough against Harry's own. Their mouths fit together nicely, though; it's like they're both a little crooked in complementary ways.

It's not a particularly steamy kiss, but Harry's stomach is doing flip-flops again as they pull apart. "Good enough?" he asks. He can't look away from Louis's mouth. Now that he knows how it feels on his own, he wants to explore it in any number of contexts. He wants to bite it, and lick it, and feel it on his body. For starters.

"It'll do," Louis says. He sounds as distracted as Harry feels, and he sways up for another quick kiss - this one a little deeper - before taking a full physical step back. "Tuesday?"

"Tuesday," Harry agrees, and gives Louis a stupid little half-wave as he turns to go.

+++

july 20

"Louis is in Doncaster again," Harry grumbles. He winces as his phone falls into his face, from the lax hold he had on it. Whatever. Instagram wasn't being particularly interesting, anyway. He could sit up and take his legs off his wall and talk to Nick like a normal person, but that sounds like a lot of physical effort, and Harry is still sore from the hot yoga he did after work yesterday.

"This is, like, the third time, right?" Nick asks. At least he's just as sprawled out as Harry is; Harry feels less bad about lying down the way that he is because of it. "Why's he there so much?"

"Haven't actually asked him straight out," Harry says, attempting a shrug. Louis seems to go whenever there's a stretch of two or three days that he doesn't have to work. "I do know that it's important, whatever it is."

"You should ask," Nick says. "You've been on like a million dates with him already."

"Five," Harry corrects. Five, and they haven't even had sex yet. This is like Kendall all over again.

"As I said," says Nick. "Same difference."

"Are you jealous?" Harry asks. He means it seriously; he knows that Nick got off with Louis in a club well before Harry even knew that Louis existed.

"That you're boyfriends with a guy I saw first?" Nick asks. "No. Maybe if it were that Chris Pine; he's well fit and also has a habit of dressing like a lesbian."

"Not my boyfriend," Harry says, automatically, even though he suspects that they're not far off from making it official. "And he doesn't dress like a lesbian!"

"Does so," says Nick. "Them sweaters and button-downs he wears done up to the very top? Very lesbian. And that flannel!"

"Cara doesn't wear a single one of those things," Harry points out.

"Cara is bisexual, which you are intimately familiar with, love," says Nick. "Anyway, it's fine. He's not my type, really. After six drinks, maybe, but after six drinks, even you'd be my type." He pauses, then gives Harry a sideways sort of look. "I'm just happy that you seem so happy."

Harry gives Nick an exaggerated "Awwwwwwwww," laughing as Nick shoves at him.

Later that night, when Nick's dozed off in Harry's bed and Harry's poking about the kitchen, trying to find the perfect sweet, but light, bite before he goes to sleep, too, his phone lights up with a call.

"Hey, Lou," Harry says, scrambling to pick up before the sound can ring out through his flat and wake Nick or his cat. Maybe a banana would be good. Possibly with some nutella smeared on it?

"Hey, Haz," says Louis. His voice is warm on the other end of the line, and Harry finds himself smiling, just hearing him speak. "Getting into any trouble whilst I'm away?"

"I've already got another man in my bed," Harry says, gravely, and then, suddenly concerned that Louis might misinterpret what he means, he hastens to add, "Just Nick, though. I was hoping I'd be able to pin down a footballer, but alas. There were none to be found at Tescos today."

"I'd say I'm jealous, but…" Louis says, trailing off for a minute before adding, "I did just have to chase Lottie's boyfriend out of my room. Seems Fizzy laid down the law about him kipping in their room."

"Send him to the couch where he belongs?" Harry asks.

Louis laughs. His laugh is even more airy over the phone; Harry adores it. "Sent him right on home. It's just a block away; they'll survive."

"Until the next time you visit," Harry says. He doesn't mean to let the questioning tone enter his voice, but Nick's questions did leave him curious, so he decides not to apologise for it, either.

"He'll get used to it," Louis agrees, which… doesn't exactly give anything away. "But really, you good? Manchester still standing?"

"Last I checked, it was," says Harry. He pauses, then goes for the chocolate-covered banana slices he knows he threw together and froze the last time he overestimated his ability to eat a giant bunch in a timely manner. Two slices: the perfect tiny snack before bed.

"Donny, too," Louis says. He pauses, too, then says, "I was thinking. Do you want to come over this Saturday? We could, you know." He lowers his voice. "Netflix and chill."

They haven't gone over to each other's places, yet. It's all been dinners or the cinema after work, plus one pub night with Louis's mate Zayn and Harry's work friend, Niall, for trivia. "Dunno," says Harry. "Netflix and chill? I think I can commit to one or the other, but both sounds like a bit too much effort."

"Fair point," says Louis. "How's this: My flatmate's been trying his hand at brewing his own beer, and it's well rank, so you can bring literally anything else to drink, and I'll do up the fanciest cheese plate Aldi's can provide, and we can make a drinking game of a really shite American reality tv programme."

That sounds one hundred percent perfect. "I guess," Harry concedes. "But only if it's something truly vile."

"Tell you what," Louis says. "I'll make a list, and we'll work through it till we find the perfect show."

Harry isn't in love with Louis, romantically, not yet. But now, in this moment, he loves Louis dearly. Even if they weren't going out, he thinks they could quite easily become the best of friends. He debates the merit of saying this - that he needs to tell Louis that he loves him, but not that way, yet - but instead, he just says, "Nick called you my boyfriend tonight."

Louis doesn't miss a beat. "I think I can say with certainty that I'd also like to call me your boyfriend," he says. "If that's alright with you."

"I'll allow it," says Harry. He's smiling into the phone like an idiot again. It doesn't phase him, though. Even if Nick woke up in that moment and mocked Harry's expression for the next three months, he wouldn't mind. "But only if I can call myself yours, too."

"You drive a hard bargain, Styles," says Louis. "But I guess I can agree to your terms."

"Well, then," says Harry. "That's sorted."

"I guess it is," says Louis. "Till Saturday, then?"

"I'll be round at four," Harry promises.

"Can't wait," Louis says. He pauses a moment, and Harry is nearly convinced that Louis is going to call him boyfriend into the phone, but he says, "I've got to sleep for now, I'm afraid," instead.

"I'd best get back to my bed full of Nick Grimshaw," Harry agrees.

"Pinch him if he snores," Louis tells him, and rings off.

Harry opens the freezer again, and eats one more banana slice before wandering off to bed.

+++

july 22

They're three hours deep into a horrible show about horrible people called Tiny House Hunters when Harry turns to Louis. "You do go to Donny an awful lot," he says. "Which, like, not that I'm blaming you for visiting family! But I was wondering why."

Louis blinks at the tv, then pauses the show. "Have I really never said?" he asks. "I'm sorry. It's not like it's some great secret or anything. Just, mum's quite sick, so I try to make it out whenever I can."

Harry's heart immediately aches at Louis's tone. "Oh, no," he says. "What's wrong? Is it, you know…"

"Treatable?" Louis asks, and shrugs. "They're trying. It's cancer, though, so you know. Not positive that it'll all work out in the end."

Harry reaches out and covers Louis's hand with his own, squeezing gently. "My stepdad's got that, too," he says. "Not, like, to make your personal problems about me, but."

"But you sort of get it," Louis nods, glancing sideways at Harry. He pauses, and takes a deep breath. "Anyway, uh. You know how I'm very gay?"

"I've got that impression, yes," Harry says, He affects a droll tone, not sure where exactly Louis is going with this line of conversation. "You have kissed me a few times, and as far as I'm aware, we do both identify as male."

"Most people around here know," Louis says, nodding. "It's not like I keep it much of a secret. Like, I don't advertise at work that the best children's librarian that Manchester Central Library has ever seen is queer, but all me friends know."

A seed of doubt starts to set down roots in Harry's stomach, and he feels queasy with it. He's not out to his family, besides Gemma, and he's still not sure how to navigate that conversation with boyfriends. Historically, he's been more serious with girlfriends, and flings with boys have been more short-term. He's pretty sure that coming out to his mum and stepdad wouldn't be a problem, per se, but it just hasn't come up yet -- hasn't seemed urgent, since he's never dated a man he's got serious enough with that introducing him to his parents would make sense. Plus, Robin has said enough stuff about bisexuality being a phase that Harry's never really felt up to the challenge of explaining everything. Sometimes, guys have a problem with the fact that he hasn't got around to it yet. "I've got that impression, yeah," he says, carefully.

Louis twists around so that he's facing Harry more head-on. "I probably should have mentioned this before we became official boyfriends," he says. "In case it changes anything. But. I just -- every time I've got ready to come out to me family, something's come up and I just, you know. Haven't."

The seed of doubt in Harry's stomach unfurls. It feels a lot like hope now. "Haven't come out to your family yet?"

"I know it sounds like a convenient excuse," says Louis. He's focusing on his knee, picking at a loose thread on his jeans. "But like, mum divorced Mark when I was just figuring out that going out with girls wasn't working for me and the way my girlfriend's best friend Max looked in the showers after footie practise was probably the reason why, and then in uni when I got my first boyfriend, she married Dan, and there was a lot of stuff surrounding the wedding, and then there were the new babies, and then she got sick." He shrugs. "Never seemed like a particularly good time."

"Do you think they'd, like…" Harry trails off for a moment. Everyone has their own path in life. "React badly?"

"Not really," says Louis, after a moment's reflection. "I mean, mum's my best friend and I know she'd love me no matter what, even if it took her some time to wrap her head around it. But after her and Mark started fighting all the time, I didn't want to -- you know, if Dan didn't like it, I didn't want to make things hard on her again. And now that she's sick…"

"I get it," says Harry, He spreads the fingers of the hand he's got on Louis's wide, tangling them with Louis's. "I'm not, either. Out. To my parents."

Louis looks up, eyes flying to meet Harry's. "Really?"

"Never seemed urgent," Harry shrugs. "I mean, Gemma knows, but with my parents... Particularly as I'm bisexual, and I was dating this girl Cara off and on for a few years up until… I dunno. Last autumn? Seemed simpler to not do it." He pauses. "Also, I kind of feel like even if you're pretty sure they'll take it okay, the chance that they won't… it's pretty debilitating, you know?"

"I do," Louis says. He's still looking directly at Harry. "So this means you really don't mind? It was a dealbreaker for one of my ex-boyfriends; he split with me because I wouldn't come right out and tell mum. Thought her being pregnant with the second set of twins and having some complications there wasn't a good excuse."

"I mean, I've always kind of thought that I'd do it if I started going out with a guy that I liked a lot and it was clear he would be in my life in a meaningful way for a while, I'd introduce him as such," Harry says. "But I certainly wouldn't force anyone else to do the same."

"Like, don't get me wrong, I can see how it's hard to go out with someone who hasn't told their mum-slash-best friend about a really important piece of their life," Louis says, glancing back down to his knee and going to pick at the fraying bit of his jeans. Harry reaches out with his other hand and catches Louis's, holding it free. "But I just really don't do well with ultimatums, either."

Harry gets it. Harry also doesn't particularly do well with long, intense conversations held over an extended period of time. It's a personal failing, but he's enjoyed the way that his and Louis's relationship thus far has included a good bit of banter. It makes him think that Louis might, possibly, be the same way. "Damn it, Louis," he says. "I was really hoping that I could hold you to a standard I, myself, haven't met yet."

Louis's eyes light up. Good, so Harry wasn't off-base with his assumption. "I'm really sorry to inconvenience you in this way," he says. "Enabling your hypocrisy is my absolute favourite activity."

"Then I guess we're at an impasse," Harry says. He squeezes Louis's hands, though, and leans in for a kiss.

Louis gives it to him readily, really leaning into it, parting his lips against Harry's and tugging Harry's lower lip in between his teeth. He nibbles at it, gently, but sharp enough that a tendril of heat flares down Harry's spine.

"Is this the chill part of our evening of Netflix?" Harry mumbles into the kiss. Louis's knee is hot under his hand; he wants to be closer.

"I know you were uncertain about committing to both," Louis says. "So we can continue with the Netflix alone if you want."

"I could be convinced," Harry murmurs, and Louis kisses him again, tugging his hands free of Harry's grip so that he can frame Harry's face and drag it closer to his own, tangling his fingers in Harry's hair as he goes.

Louis kisses like he's running out of time, and Harry loves it. He's always moving, running his tongue against the edge of Harry's upper lip, letting the skin drag, slick and tantalising, then sucking Harry's lips into his mouth and nibbling at it, running his hands up and down Harry's sides. Harry's always been a bit more languid in his kissing, moving slow and steady and sure, until the little switch inside of him flips and he's got to move things along right now, but Louis always seems to start at that point and get more intense from there.

Harry can't get enough of it. Today, Louis tucks his hand under Harry's t-shirt, scratching his nails over the skin above Harry's hip as he cradles Harry's head in his other hand, driving the kiss deeper and wetter and sloppier in a series of quick, demanding licks.

They end up sprawled on the couch, Harry's thigh tucked between Louis's legs, Harry stretched over Louis, pinning him down with his body, forcefully slowing the kiss by biting at Louis every time he tries to speed things along by pushing Harry's t-shirt further and further up his body.

Louis breaks the kiss after ten or fifteen minutes, panting. "Liam could be back anytime," he says. His eyes are heavily lidded, like he's drunk off the kisses and the way Harry's running his thumb back and forth along Louis's collarbone, pressing hard enough that Louis's skin drags with each touch. Harry's half-hard, and he's pretty sure he can feel Louis's cock chubbing up, too, pressing against him through both sets of jeans. "Do you want to - I mean, we can just make out; that's fine, I love kissing you. But if you want to do more, maybe we should move to my room."

"Definitely your room," says Harry, but he doesn't move to get off Louis, instead sliding his mouth over Louis's, slick and slow, and then peppering kisses along Louis's jawbone till he can tug Louis's earlobe between his teeth and give it a good little nibble.

Louis squirms underneath him, and - yes, that's Louis's cock straining against his jeans, tucked against Harry's hipbone. "Harry," Louis whines, shoving at his shoulders, so Harry laughs, kisses him one more time, and sits up.

"You seem to be in a bit of a situation," Harry says, like he's not also mostly hard and gagging for it.

"I'll put you in a situation if you don't fuck me in the next twenty minutes," Louis says, and then flushes. "I mean, um. Unless that's something you're not into; we never actually talked about --"

"I would love to stick it in you," Harry says, pressing the heel of his hand against his dick to relieve some of the pressure. "Just lead me to the lube and condoms."

"You've got such a way with words," Louis says, rolling his eyes. His lips are so, so red, swollen from their kissing. Harry wants to drag his dick across them and watch his precome smear over them like chapstick. "How did I ever survive twenty-nine years without you in my life."

"It's a mystery to me," Harry says, climbing off Louis and helping him up.

Louis leads the way to his bedroom, shucking his shirt as soon as he kicks the door closed behind him.

"We could do that thing," he tells Harry, as he unbuttons his jeans. "Where we start to take off each other's clothes in about ten minutes, and we try to make it sexy but it's actually just incredibly awkward, or we could throw propriety to the wind and strip down now."

"I love spitting in the face of society," Harry says, undoing his jeans and shoving them and his boxers down in one fell swoop.

"Right," says Louis, blinking several times in quick succession before struggling out of his clothes as well, leaving them in a puddle on the floor. Harry tugs his shirt off whilst Louis pokes around in the top drawer on his dresser, and is lying back on Louis's bed, super casual, pretending like his dick isn't jutting up, hard, between his legs, by the time Louis turns around with a condom and a little bottle of lube.

"I like what I see," says Harry, brazenly, watching Louis walk toward him, cock dipping and swaying with each step. It's flushed an angry red, a shiny smear of precome at the tip. Scratch wanting to drag his dick over Louis's lips like a particularly unwieldy chapstick; Harry wants to taste Louis and he wants to do it now.

"You're not half-bad yourself," Louis agrees, eyes running feverishly over and over Harry. "Like, I can definitely work with this."

"Good," says Harry. The error in their decision to strip first, he thinks, is that now he kind of wants to skip straight to the main event. "I want to be romantic and kiss you for a while, but I also want to get my dick in you five minutes ago."

"Sometimes, a finger in me bum is pure romance," Louis says, straddling Harry's lap and leaning in for a kiss. He reaches down as he works Harry's mouth open with his tongue and pinches one of Harry's nipples, rolling it between his fingers.

"I've got three more of those that will get jealous if you don't give them attention, too," Harry murmurs, when they come up for air.

"You what," Louis demands, incredulous, and sits back to examine Harry's chest. His fingers dance over each of Harry's nipples as he finds them. "Are they all sensitive?"

"The smaller ones are only a little bit," Harry tells him. He takes advantage of Louis's position to grab Louis's thighs and tumble the two of them over. He ends up elbowing Louis in the process, but Louis just laughs it off as Harry kisses his side better.

"Is it romance time?" Louis asks, staring up at Harry once they're situated again. "Do I lie back and think of England for the next five to seven minutes?"

"Shut up," Harry says, laughing. He presses his forehead to Louis's for a moment, then kisses Louis, slow and deep, before working his way down Louis's body, sucking a truly impressive love-bite onto Louis's collarbone, and following it by licking one of his nipples, pinching and rubbing the other one.

By the time he makes it to Louis's cock, Louis is panting and squirming, sweat starting to bead on his chest. "Shift your hips up," Harry murmurs, uncapping the lube and pouring some into his hand. He closes his fist around it to warm it up for a moment, then gets his fingers good and wet, circling Louis's hole with one.

Louis rolls his hips up into the air. Since Harry is hunched between his legs, focusing on Louis's arse, Louis's cock bumps into his forehead. "Sorry," Louis pants, but Harry is having none of that.

He huffs out a quick laugh, and pushes the tip of his finger inside Louis, slowly working it deeper in. As he does, he leans up and takes the head of Louis's cock into his mouth for a friendly, apologetic sort of suck, swiping his tongue over the slit. Louis's precome is sour and thick, and is solidly in the middle, taste-wise, of the come Harry's encountered in his life.

"Won't last," Louis slurs, as Harry licks over the head of his cock again, finger fully pressed in by now. "If you keep doin' that."

Harry pulls off Louis's cock, crooking his finger to help spread Louis wider. "Just wanted to get acquainted," he says, pressing a reassuring, open-mouthed kiss to Louis's inner thigh.

"So weird," Louis says, with a breathless laugh. He's so responsive to Harry's touch, stomach quaking as Harry works his index finger around in Louis's hole until it's loose enough for him to work another finger in.

Louis is hot around Harry's fingers, and tight. Harry's cock twitches at the feeling, like it's impatient to get inside. "Okay?" he asks, spreading his fingers as far apart as he can manage, stretching Louis around him.

"Yeah, just - up a little?" Louis asks, shifting his hips a little. Harry's fingers slip deeper, more easily now, and he crooks them. Louis gasps at that, upper body jerking at the touch. "Another."

So Harry works a third finger in, bunching it together with the others until Louis has adjusted enough for him to hold them flat out, working them in and out.

More precome is blurting at the tip of Louis's cock, and when Harry looks up, Louis has got his head turned to one side, forearm flung across his forehead. He's making tiny, mewling little noises, mouth parted, the corner of his lower lip drawn up between his teeth.

Harry wants to kiss him. He wants to push inside Louis and kiss him. "Are you ready?" he asks, pushing his fingers in, deep and hard, in one emphatic thrust.

"Yeah," Louis says, trying and failing to crane his neck up to look at Harry. "Yeah, put it in me."

"Romance," Harry whispers, dramatically. He sits back on his heels and rips the condom packet open with his teeth, holding onto the base of his cock as he rolls it on and slicks it up with lube.

"I'll show you romance," Louis says, reaching out for Harry with one arm and making grabby hands. "C'mere."

"Coming," Harry says, gripping Louis's hips in his hands so he can re-situate him slightly, and lining his dick up.

"Better not come yet," Louis says, managing to sound both exasperated and turned on at the same time. He stops talking as Harry starts to push in, instead clapping a hand across his mouth and biting into the meat of it, a muffled groan sounding through despite his best efforts.

Harry bottoms out and waits for a moment to let them both adjust to the feeling of his cock in Louis's arse, thick and hard with Louis tight around him. He takes advantage of that time to spread himself over Louis's body, getting close enough and low enough that he can push Louis's hand aside and kiss him, sloppy and loose until Louis groans again, wrapping his legs around Harry's back and biting down hard on Harry's lower lip.

Harry curses, rolling his hips back and then driving down again. Louis uses his legs to pull himself up and closer to Harry at the same time, and they slam together, panting with exertion and the feeling of it. "Fuck," Harry breathes, as he sets up a steady rhythm. Louis feels so good around him, and it's been so long since Harry's had a proper fuck that he's close to coming just two minutes in.

He tries to think of things to keep from shooting off prematurely, but his thoughts keep cycling back around to the way Louis's face is flushed red, lips shiny with spit, eyes screwed tightly shut, a litany of noises falling from his lips as he pulls Harry into him with the strength of his legs again and again.

"Not gonna last," Harry warns, even as he shifts his body slightly lower to try and find a new angle.

Louis positively screams at that, hoarse and ecstatic, legs loosening around Harry's waist as Harry drives in again and again. Heat is coiling at the base of his spine, and he forces himself to push higher up on one hand so he can get his other hand around Louis's cock, using precome to slick his grip and tugging Louis off roughly. "Harry," Louis gasps. "Baby. Yes. Fuck. God."

The words come fast and thick, slurring together as Harry bites his own lip hard enough to draw blood to try and keep from shooting off immediately. He manages three, maybe four more thrusts before his orgasm overcomes him and he's spilling into the condom and collapsing onto Louis.

Louis keeps rocking his hips up, enough that Harry's cock slips out of him. Harry's still go this hand wrapped around Louis's dick, though, and Louis seems to be getting enough friction as he fucks into Harry's fist that when Harry comes back to himself, it only takes rolling to the side and swiping his thumb over the head of Louis's cock once for Louis to come, strings of it spurting onto his stomach and Harry's fist.

Harry leans in for one more kiss, gentling Louis down from his orgasm as Louis catches his breath. "Romantic enough?" he asks, once Louis blinks his eyes open and regards Harry silently for a few moments.

"That was good," Louis says. He still sounds a little breathless. "I'll give it a solid seven out of ten."

"Seven?" Harry asks. He's not sure whether to be proud or offended.

"Really fucking good, with room to grow," Louis says. "The last few guys started out at fours and fives."

Harry feels inordinately pleased with that information. "Oh," he says, smiling.

"You don't have to sound so smug about it," Louis says, smiling back. He rubs a hand over his stomach, regarding Harry quietly. "Next time I want to come on your face," he says.

Even though Harry is utterly spent, he feels a flare of heat at the thought. "'S that right?"

"Yeah," Louis says, grin growing on his face. "I want to get my jizz in that dimple of yours." He brings his hand up to press his thumb into the dimple in question.

His hand, which is covered in his own come. Come that is now all over Harry's face anyway, but not in a particularly sexy way. "Louis," Harry groans, as Louis laughs.

There's nothing else for it. Harry has to swallow Louis's laugh with another, exhausted kiss.

+++

september 2

Harry loves Cara Delevingne. He's not in love with her, not anymore. Sex with her had been fun, and they'd got along famously, but no matter how many times they tried dating, she always felt more like a best friend than a girlfriend, and they had split amicably for the last time when she fell head-over-heels in love with a girl named Selena that she met on some boat in the Mediterranean.

She's still one of his favourite people in the world to hang out with, though he is a little nervous - appropriately, he thinks - for her to meet Louis. Louis hasn't shown himself to be a jealous one, really; Harry's fairly certain that of the two of them, he'd be the one to get that label, and he's fairly low-key about it as is. That said, however, Louis being totally indifferent to Harry crashing in bed with his best mate Nick after a night out is far different from Louis, his boyfriend, meeting Cara, his ex-girlfriend, for drinks on a night that she's passing through Manchester.

He really, really shouldn't have worried, though. There's a reason he got on so well with Louis and Cara both, and he's quickly learning that they've got eerily similar senses of humour.

"Darling, I really think public school is the way to go with the children," says Louis, apropos of nothing, in the middle of a lull of a bit of a catch-up about how Cara's new job is going. "Eton or bust, if you ask me."

Harry blinks at him for half a second before shaking his head. "Sweetheart, you know I prefer Charterhouse," he says. "Eton has gone extremely down-hill of late."

"I will not stand for this outrageous claim," Louis tells him. "You know I would not be the lad I am today had it not been for the strict curriculum at Eton." He turns to Cara. "You agree, of course."

"Sorry, babe, but Eton would never have let me in," Cara says. "No matter how posh I am. Clearly you should send them to that school in the States, you know? Cranbrook?"

Louis squints at Cara for a long, long moment. "The one that they mention in 8 Mile?" he says, finally, and she laughs delightedly.

"Yeah, or anything else where they haven't shut girls out for literally like a thousand years," she says. "But I agree. Public school all the way. The more corporal punishment, the better."

"Spare the rod and spoil the child," Louis says, sagely.

"Is that how you've been running your library, then?" Harry asks. He waits a beat, then adds, "Why have you spared your rod with me?"

Cara lets out a snort of laughter, then claps a hand to her mouth, glancing around the coffeeshop to make sure no one was truly disturbed. "Bro," she says. "Not to like, make you uncomfortable or anything, but Harry was really into wearing a collar when I pegged him, so like, you should definitely break the rod out. So to speak."

"I am right here," says Harry, affecting indignation to hide the fact that he's secretly delighted that two of his favourite people are getting along.

Louis looks between them, mouth open, then leans in to kiss Harry's cheek. "We have not talked enough about your kinks," he murmurs, quiet enough that Cara can't hear.

"Has he put on a dress for you yet?" Cara asks. "I honestly think he was more into lingerie than Selena is."

"I'd say you've really downgraded in your new relationship, but I've met Selena," Harry says, affecting a mournful tone.

Cara regards Louis for a very long moment. "You've made a lateral move, I think," she says, finally, with a decisive nod, then frowns. "Except you two seem proper smitten, so maybe Louis is slightly more suited to you than I was."

"Thanks," Louis says, laughing, and Harry lets the warmth of the exchange settle through him even as Cara switches the topic to the new girl at the office who's doing her head in.

+++

october 17

"Wait, your birthday is really Christmas Eve?" Harry asks. Louis has mentioned it before, but Harry just assumed he'd been joking.

"Yeah?" Louis sounds annoyed, almost. "Why would you think I was kidding about that?"

"It sounds like the kind of thing that maybe you would joke about?" Harry replies. He squints at Louis. Louis has Dusty in his lap, and he's stroking her with a look of fierce determination on his face. "Babe, are you alright?"

"Course I am," says Louis. His tone is definitely shorter than Harry's used to. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"I don't know," Harry says, tone as even as he can make it. "But you got here half an hour ago and have been very noncommunicative the entire time, and now you're being condescending, I think."

"Oh, so now I have to talk to you all the time to the extent and degree that you want me to?" Louis demands.

Harry is so, so confused. "No," he says, and then: "And not to sound like I just lied, but you are being really weird and I don't like it so if you're not going to tell me what's up, I'm just going to go - you know, over there." He waves vaguely in the direction of his bookshelf, which is really the only thing of interest in the entire room. "Until you're ready to talk like a normal person."

"Wow," Louis says, tone incredibly dry and sarcastic. Discomfort races down Harry's spine; his stomach twists uneasily. "Big of you."

"Right," Harry says, uncertainly. He slaps his hands down on his lap and pushes himself to his feet, then walks over to his bookshelf to study it carefully. There are no surprises in his bookshelf. It, at least, doesn't act in a way he's totally unaccustomed to after three and a half months of dating.

He's there for at least fifteen minutes, staring at the spine of the same Pablo Neruda book, debating about whether or not he should take it off the shelf, when he feels arms wrap around him from behind. "I'm sorry," Louis says. It's largely unintelligible; his face is smushed against Harry's back. "I've had a weird day."

I'll say, Harry nearly says. He stops himself, though, not convinced that saying as much would go over terribly well. Instead, he turns around so that he's facing Louis head-on. "Something happen at work?"

"Mum asked me if I'd be getting a girlfriend anytime soon," Louis says, shrugging. "Which isn't new, but it bothered me more today than it usually does."

"I'm sorry," Harry says. He strokes a finger down Louis's cheek, and catches it under Louis's chin, tilting his head up for a quick, soft kiss. "That's always hard."

"Yeah," Louis says, shrugging. "It's like, she was talking about Lottie bringing her boyfriend to Christmas this year, and how Fiz has a first date coming up, and why do I never talk about my dates and she just wants to see me happy and settled, and like, this whole time I wanted to be like I've been dating this great guy for nearly four months, and I want you to meet him because I think you'll love him as much as I do, but I've built up coming out being this huge big thing so much in me head that saying anything now just feels really…"

"Daunting?" Harry supplies, before the rest of what Louis has said catches up to him. "You love me?"

Louis blinks up at Harry for a moment. "You mean I haven't said it before?"

"No." Harry laughs, disbelieving. "I'm sure I'd remember if you had!"

"Let's be honest here, I've loved you for ages now," Louis says, rolling his eyes. "But it's weird to say that to someone you're going out with before you're in love with them, you know?"

"I had that very thought on, like, our first date," Harry agrees. He lets his hand fall from Louis's chin to his shoulder, and then strokes it down Louis's side until it's resting just above his hip. "So are you in love with me now?"

"Don't think I'd be this conflicted about what Mum said if I wasn't," Louis says with a shrug, like he hasn't just dropped a bomb on Harry's entire world. A glitter bomb, full of happiness and sunshine, not one of them horrible devastating ones.

"I'm in love with you, too," Harry says. He's known that he loves Louis for a while, now, but it's hitting him again, how deeply he feels for his boyfriend. "Like, in case you wanted to know."

"I guess it's okay knowledge to have," Louis tells him. His giant grin belies his nonchalant words. He pauses for a moment, then adds, "I do think Mum would love you, too."

"Jay sounds great; I'm sure I'd love her too," Harry says, noncommittally. "You remember what I said when we talked about how we weren't out?"

"I remember a lot of different things that you said," Louis says, carefully, arching his eyebrows at Harry.

"I'd tell my mum about you," Harry clarifies. "You're important to me and I feel like you'll be around for a while."

"Actually, I'm leaving you for your work friend Niall today," Louis tells him. "I'm so sorry, I hate to bring it up like this."

Harry rolls his eyes at Louis. "You love me," he says, in his best Sandra Bullock impression. "You wanna touch me, you wanna kiss me, you wanna hug me."

"Not anymore, I don't," Louis says, pretending to try and pull himself out of Harry's arms. Before he can move even a step away, though, he's darting in and giving Harry another kiss. "What if we made, like, a timeline?"

"For telling our parents?" Harry asks, not certain that he's catching Louis's drift.

"Yeah," Louis says, shrugging. "Like maybe by my birthday, I introduce you to mum and Dan as my boyfriend."

"I'd like that," Harry says. "But only if you're really serious about it. Honestly, no pressure."'

Louis's eyes soften, and he tugs Harry down for a kiss that starts chaste but quickly becomes dirty, Louis licking into Harry's mouth and digging his teeth into Harry's lips at the first opportunity. "I love you," he murmurs.

The words, Harry is afraid to admit, go straight to Harry's dick. "Love you too," he says, voice low and raspy.

A smirk grows, slowly, on Louis's lips. "Is that a new kink?" he asks, waggling his eyebrows. "Telling you I love you?"

"Oh baby, baby," says Harry. "Tell me you love me. Do it dirty."

"Shut up," Louis laughs, covering Harry's mouth with his hand.

That doesn't help matters at all, but an important thought occurs to Harry. He reaches up and gently removes Louis's hand. "My sister's going to be in town for a show in early November," he says. "She's staying here. If you want a practise run, she already knows I'm bi? So I could introduce you to her, or whatever."

Louis purses his lips in thought, so Harry presses a soft kiss to them. Things escalate quickly, and somehow, Harry ends up pressed against his bookshelf, Louis's leg wedged between his own, with Louis biting kisses down the column of Harry's neck and fumbling to push Harry's shirt up within what feels like an instant. "I'd like that," Louis is mumbling between kisses. "If that's alright."

"It's definitely alright," says Harry, and then they don't say anything with words at all for a little while.

+++

november 7

Gemma comes into the café on a cloud of perfume and laughter. She envelopes Harry into a giant bear hug, kissing him sloppily on his cheek before queueing up with him for coffees. He texts Louis a Of course I am in response to Louis's earlier question - Are you sure??? - and shoves his phone in his pocket.

They drink them while they walk, both pulling their jumper sleeves over their hands against the chill in the air. It's been unseasonably warm for November thus far, but it's starting to feel like the weather might be changing.

Harry takes ownership of Gemma's overnight bag, slinging it over his shoulder as they make their way to his flat. "So how excited are you for your Little Mix show?" Harry asks, to distract himself from his nerves. Gemma knows that he's bi, of course; he told her when he was twelve and panicking about why he thought Emma Roberts and Daniel Radcliffe were both cute enough to kiss, and she had hugged him and reassured him, and then it had never really come up again outside of a few updates through the years (Fionn, a wannabe guitarist called Mitch, and their mutual crush on Tamal off Bake Off).

He's just never actually introduced her to a guy before. Plus, he's mentioned that there's someone new in his life on the phone, but he's never actually given details beyond telling her she can meet the person sometime during her visit.

"Oh, I can't wait," Gemma says, grinning at him. "Not all of us got to attend half of their wedding. I can't believe you didn't tell me or sneak me in!"

"Didn't want to risk you trying to object and steal both of the brides away," Harry jokes. "What with how much you love that band."

"That's fair, but I'm going to tell Mum that I don't want you as a little brother anymore and can she please give you back to the storks."

"You love me even more than you love Little Mix," Harry says, confidently. "And even if you don't, I know all about your crush on Brent Sanders in year six, so I officially have more usable dirt on you than anyone else in the world." He pauses for a moment, considering. "Well, besides Mum. So I can blackmail you into loving me best."

"Because that's how sibling affection works," Gemma says, rolling her eyes even as she laughs.

"Isn't it?" Harry asks. "Hollywood told me it was, at least."

Gemma slings an arm around Harry's shoulders, careful to mind her bag and their coffees. She rubs her knuckles along his hairline. "Oh, I did miss you, squirt."

"I'm taller than you now, sis," Harry reminds her.

"I suppose," Gemma agrees, with a sigh. She takes a swig of her coffee, then says, "So. Your new friend. The one you've been dreadfully circumspect about. Is it official?"

"It's official," Harry allows. He pauses, takes a deep breath to steel against her range of potential reactions (most of them outrage), and adds, "Has been for, like, months now."

As predicted, Gemma shrieks, loud enough that a person walking on the other side of the street stops for a full ten seconds to stare at them. Harry knows, because he counts. "And you didn't tell me?" she demands.

"I'm sorry," Harry says, seriously. "It wasn't out of any grand designs to keep a secret from you."

"It better not have been," Gemma warns. She pauses, takes a glance at him. "It's not Cara again, is it?"

"Cara is a lovely lovely girl," Harry says. "But no."

"Good," Gemma says, immediately. At Harry's incredulous stare, she adds, "No one should go out with someone six different times with any expectation of it working out in the long term."

"I guess," Harry allows. "But no worries; she's committed to Sel -" He remembers that he's never actually solicited Cara's permission to out her to his sister, and shakes his head. "To someone else now. Also I'm not in love with her or anything."

"So it's a bloke then," Gemma says, with a lot more certainty than Harry would have expected.

"How do you figure?"

"H, you have never been one to be super open about your relationships but you've always told me fairly quickly," she says. "Except with Fionn. You took ages to tell me about that one; you were practically broken up by the time you mentioned it."

"Oh," Harry says. He'd known that he does tend to play that sort of thing close to his chest, but he hadn't realised Gemma noticed it, too. He takes out his keys as they approach his flat, sorting through them by feel to find the correct one, before remembering that he'd left it with Louis that morning and shoving his keys back in his pocket. "Well. Yeah. He's a guy."

"Is it Nick?" Gemma asks immediately. "You've always been so close, and he's gay."

"What? Ew," Harry says. "I mean, not ew, Nick is a lovely man and one of my very best friends, but no. I could never. The magic was gone far too quickly in our friendship. I can't just go out with someone I've seen vom in six different colours after a night out." In fairness, Nick had been legitimately ill at the time, but the drinking did exacerbate the symptoms.

"So someone new, then," Gemma says, as Harry leads her up the steps to his flat. He pushes the door open, and ushers her in.

"You could say that, yeah," Harry agrees. He follows her inside, dropping her overnight bag on his couch and flopping down next to it.

"When do I get to meet him?" Gemma asks, sitting down next to him.

"How's right now?" Harry asks, and raises his voice. "Honey, I'm home!"

"Well I'm sorry, but I don't have a three-course meal waiting for you today," Louis says, coming in from the kitchen, precariously balancing three mugs of tea. He sets them down on the coffee table, only spilling a little bit in the process. He's obviously nervous, and his banter seems to be more of a bluster than anything. "Your children were such nightmares I didn't have time to put anything together."

"Children?" Gemma asks, frowning at Harry. She looks between the two of them. "Is that-- are you--?"

"Not even one of them newfangled TV dinners?" Harry asks, feigning disappointment. "You know I need my meatloaf and mashed potatoes after a hard day at the office. It depend on it! The thought of it is the only thing that gets me through my day!"

"Well, that's just too bad," Louis says. "Tell Clarence and Belinda to stop trying to tell their teacher there's a road that leads outside of Pleasantville and maybe then I'll have time to cook your meals for you."

Harry laughs, fondness swelling inside. He loves going along with Louis's whims, just as much as Louis loves going along with his own flights of fancy, but sometimes when they start, he can't tell where they're going. He hadn't even realised that he mentioned Pleasantville was one of his and Gemma's favourite movies growing up, but it's a lovely touch. "I'll do my best," he promises. "In the meantime, can't you see we have guests?"

Louis drops the act at that. "Hey, I'm Louis," he tells Gemma, extending a hand.

"The boyfriend," she says, pushing Louis's hand aside and standing up and pulling him into a brief hug. "Harry's been keeping you under wraps."

"Actually it's mostly the other way around," Louis confides, and then, to Harry's great delight, he blushes. "I mean--"

"Yeah, let's make a deal," Gemma says. "We all pretend that you never said that, and in exchange, I'll show you pictures of Harry when he was three."

"To be honest, I think he's shown me all of them already," Louis tells her. "No shame, that boy. But you've got yourself a deal."

It's when they're clearing dishes from the shepard's pie Harry'd thrown together for dinner and Louis ducks out to go for a wee that Gemma pulls Harry aside. "I'll wash if you dry," she says, positioning herself at the sink, and then: "You gonna bring him home to meet Mum and Robin anytime soon? I can tell that you really like him."

"I love him, Gems," Harry tells her, scooping the last of the food into two tupperware containers - one for his lunch at work the next day, and one for Louis's. "So, like, probably. But they still don't know that I like guys, too, you know."

"They were both there during college," Gemma reminds him, but Harry's pretty sure that he kept his absolutely massive crush on Zac Efron a secret from everyone but Gemma at the time.

"I've never told them, in any event," Harry says, handing her the casserole dish. "So like, I probably will, but I don't know when."

Gemma nods, frowning slightly, and she's quiet while she scrubs at a patch of baked-on mashed potato at the edge of the dish. "Anyway," she says, eventually, once she's finished up and moved on to another part of the dish. "I like him. He seems like a really good fit for you." She sets the dish under the faucet and turns it on, then turns to pull Harry into a hug, murmuring, "Thank you for introducing me to your boyfriend, little brother."

To his credit, he doesn't flinch away from her very soapy hands. "Yeah, of course," he says. As she pulls away to turn back to the dishes, he adds, "You know he was at Perrie and Jesy's wedding, too?"

Gemma shrieks and splashes him with water, droplets splattering all over the front of his jumper. "And the two of you didn't even think to try and get me backstage passes to their show?" she demands. "I take it back. I hate you both."

"Yeah, yeah," Harry says. He hesitates. "You really think Mum and Robin won't mind?"

"You know they won't," Gemma says. "Come on, Mum's got gay friends. She'll be fine with it."

"Sometimes it's different when it's your kid," Harry says, though he's also pretty sure that it'll be fine in the end.

"I can be there, if you want," Gemma says. "But I honestly think it'll be fine."

It's tempting, her offer. Harry frowns as he considers it. Louis comes back into the kitchen while Harry is thinking. Harry shifts a little as Louis scoots in next to him and wraps his arm around Harry's waist, resting his hand on Louis's shoulder and tugging him in for a quick kiss. "If I end up pre-planning it, I'll definitely let you know," he tells Gemma, in the end. "Just a text like, hey Gems, me and my man are rolling into Holmes Chapel tomorrow to drop a bomb on our parents, be there or be square."

"Exactly like that," Gemma says, rolling her eyes. "But maybe give me more than a day to get there."

"You live closer to Holmes Chapel than I do," Harry argues. "But fine."

"Tell your sister thank you," Louis pipes up, squeezing Harry's waist.

"Yeah, Harry," Gemma says. "Tell me thank you."

"You know that I feel the thank you," Harry says. He can't stop joking - it's a by-product of the nerves - but he really does feel thankful, and he tries to imbue his words with a tone that reflects that. "In my heart. But sure. Gemma, you're the best big sister in the world and I appreciate you and how you raised me to be the man I am today."

"Love you too, nerd," she says. "Even if you didn't get me backstage passes to meet Little Mix."

"We'll do our best next time," Louis promises, in his most reassuring tone.

"See that you do," Gemma sniffs, before pulling them both into a group hug.

+++

november 26

Harry collapses onto Louis's chest, panting with exertion, letting his softening cock slide out of Louis. The sweat beading on Harry's chest intermingles with the come pooling on Louis's torso - the stripe crossing his chest, and the puddle in the dip of his belly - and it squelches with the contact.

Louis laughs, breathlessly. "That sound is so gross," he says.

"You're so gross," Harry says, and kisses Louis languidly. Even his lips feel lazy, loose and wet and warm against Louis's own. He licks into Louis's mouth, but not with intent. The musky taste in Louis's mouth from when he'd sucked Harry to hardness earlier has dissipated over the past hour, and now he just tastes like Louis-neutral.

Harry loves the taste of Louis-neutral. It's much better than the taste of Louis-drunk-and-pretending-like-he-hasn't-drunk-smoked-three-cigarettes-when-Harry-was-talking-Nick-down-from-his-giant-and-growing-crush-on-known-heterosexual-Zayn-Malik.

Louis strokes Harry's hair back from his face. It's sweaty enough that it stays where Louis tucks it, and Louis laughs and ruffles his hand through Harry's hair. "Gross," he says, delightedly, wiping his now-damp hand on Harry's equally damp back. He kisses Harry's cheek. "Love you."

"I love you, too," Harry says. He lays there, fully blanketing Louis with his body, for another moment, before sighing. "I should get a flannel for us, shouldn't I?"

"If you would be so kind," says Louis. He strokes his hand down Harry's side. "Or like, we could shower?"

"Yes," Harry says, immediately. "But like, I need at least two hours of solid napping first. Standing for a long time? Bad. Very bad. I'm very tired."

"You did do a lot of hard work just now," Louis says, approvingly. "I'm going to feel that in my thighs for ages. The way you pushed my legs back..."

"Hard work," Harry says, with a snort.

"Yes, dear, you're very punny," Louis says, leaning up to kiss Harry on the mouth.

Harry returns the kiss for a moment. "Flannel," he says, eventually, and forces himself up and off Louis, Louis patting him on the bum as he goes.

Louis has an ensuite bathroom, which is nice, because Louis also has a roommate called Liam who was very scandalised the first time he caught Harry walking naked through the flat. There are, however, no clean flannels in the bathroom, so Harry just wets the corner of towel and wipes his chest down, then rinses it out and brings it out to Louis. As he does, he hears Louis's phone chime again from across the room.

"Shall I get that for you?" he asks, passing the towel over to Louis.

"Ugh," says Louis, wiping drying come off his abdomen. "That's, what, the sixth time this afternoon? Probably." He puts his hand on Harry's arm, though, to stop him from going. "But can you make us a tea first?"

Ugh. Standing. Harry is thoroughly fucked out right now. But he's also got his priorities. "Sure," he says. "If you promise we can go to the botanical gardens this weekend. I think they've got something on for Christmas, now that it's nearly December."

Louis takes a moment to consider the offer. "Fine," he groans, finally. "I've got a shift doing storytime on Saturday morning, so we can get lunch after and then be nerdy horticulturalists all afternoon, even though you know full well that I am allergic to physical and outdoor exertion and it may kill me, if you're tea bitch the rest of the day."

"It's a deal," Harry says, giving Louis a quick little kiss. He goes to pull his boxers on, out of deference to Liam, and on his way out the door, stops by Louis's dresser, where they left their phones to charge earlier that morning. He presses the home button on Louis's phone. "You've got like six texts from Lottie," he says, frowning.

"Toss that here?" Louis asks, sitting up and pushing the towel aside.

"Do you want me to stay in here while you check them, or do you want me to make tea?" Harry asks, carefully. Louis has his phone set up so you can't see the content of messages without unlocking it, and while Harry thinks Lottie would phone if there were actual bad news about Louis's mum, there's still the chance that Louis might want moral support.

"Nah, go get the tea going and I'll holler if I need you, yeah?"

"Yeah, babe," Harry says. He tosses Louis's phone at him, hesitates for another moment, and heads out of of the room.

The kettle is re-filled and switched on, mugs out on the counter, teabags resting inside - and one with a little puddle of milk already poured in, because Louis, for all his wonderful qualities, has got horrible opinions about the proper way to make a tea - when someone knocks on the door.

"I can get it," Harry calls, because he's not sure whether Liam is even in the flat, and Louis is fully naked in his room.

He's already got the front door unbolted and opened by the time Louis calls "No, wait!"

On the doorstep is a girl who looks remarkably like Louis, but with platinum blonde hair. Harry recognises her from photos Louis has shown him of his many trips home. His heart falls; he's clearly just had sex, and the only other person in the flat is Louis, who isn't out to a single member of his family. He tries to scrounge for an excuse, but comes up with nothing.

"You're not Louis," the girl says, frowning as she casts a glance up and down Harry's body, lingering on his abs. "Or Liam. Are you a friend of theirs?"

"I'm Harry," Harry says. He thinks about extending a hand to shake, but ends up giving the girl an awkward little wave instead. "You're Lottie, right?"

"Yeah," she says, frowning. "How do you know--"

"Haz, did you get the door?" Louis asks, coming into the room. He's got his boxers on, and he's pulled on a t-shirt, too. His expression is inscrutable. "You did. Hey, Lotts."

"Louis," Lottie says. She casts a critical glance over him, too, lingering on his bare legs. "Thanks for answering all of my texts in a timely manner."

"I was… busy," Louis says, defensively."I can't believe you checked with Liam to see if I was home." He holds up his phone and shakes it at her, as if to signify the texts she'd sent earlier.

"I was in the neighbourhood!" Lottie says, just as defensively. "It was now or never."

"So you elected now," Louis says. He shrugs, though, and pulls Lottie in for a giant bear hug. "Good to see you."

"You, too," says Lottie. She glances sideways at Harry. "I think I've surprised your friend."

"You surprised me," says Louis. He glances at Harry, and they have a brief exchange of looks. Harry's, he hopes, says are you okay? Should I leave?; Louis's, in response, clearly says don't be daft, this will be fine in a panicked sort of way.

"I was just making tea," Harry says. "Would you like some, Lottie?"

"Yeah, cheers," she says. "Milk and one sugar, thanks."

"Are you a heathen like this one, or do you prefer I add the milk after the tea?"

Lottie laughs. "He's got you figured out," she tells Louis. "Tea first, thanks."

"I still can't believe Dad got to you before Mum ever could," Louis grouses, as Harry heads back into the kitchen. "There's only one proper way to drink tea."

The kettle is boiling when Harry gets there, so he can fix up their teas quickly. He leaves the bags in, but after carefully arranging the mugs so that he can carry them all in one go, he grabs a little bowl from the cupboard so they can throw the bags away when they want. He gets a little pack of digestives out, too, for good measure. He's pretty sure they're Liam's, as they've got no chocolate to speak of anywhere in their design, but he and Louis ate through all the rest of Louis's after some particularly athletic sex the night before, and they can always buy more to replace them. Holding the packet between his teeth, he balances the mugs in one hand, holding the bowl underneath them with his other to support them.

Lottie and Louis fall quiet when Harry walks in, and Harry can't quite read the room. He holds out the mugs, knowing Louis will know to claim his favourite one, a heat-changing one which has a series of drawings that grow very rude when there's something hot inside of it, and to pass the one that isn't Harry's favourite (a purple number that depicts a cat with a crown on its head) to Lottie.

Harry sets the bowl on the ground, takes the digestives packet out of his mouth and tosses it on the couch between Louis and Lottie, and is all set to take the armchair, or even head off to Louis's room to grab his shirt if Louis gestures for him to do so, but instead, Louis says, "Thanks, dear," and tugs Harry in by the waistband of his boxers, until Harry is perched, gingerly, on the edge of Louis's knees.

As Lottie watches, Louis leans in and presses a kiss to Harry's cheek. Her eyes widen, but she doesn't look overwhelmingly shocked. "So it's like that, then?" she asks, glancing between the two of them.

"Lotts, I'd like for you to meet my boyfriend," Louis says. His hand is still resting on Harry's waist, and his fingers are burning against the bare flesh of it. "Harry Styles."

"Great to meet you," Harry says, reaching out to shake Lottie's hand. "Officially."

"I've kind of wondered," Lottie says to Louis, eyebrows slightly furrowed. "As you've never brought a girlfriend home, and I feel like you've always implied.... But you never said, either, and Felicite is always banging on about how you could also be asexual, or aromantic, or just monumentally bad at pulling girls, and it's rude to jump to conclusions."

"You guys talked about whether I was gay?" Louis asks, and then frowns. "I could still be asexual," he says. He elbows Harry at Harry's poorly-disguised snort of laughter, and hot tea sloshes onto Harry's leg.

Harry yelps. "Think maybe I should go put on more clothes," he says, wiping the wet off with a hand. "If you're okay with me stepping out again for a moment or two?"

Louis hesitates, but not for long. "Go for it," he says. "Wouldn't want you to lose what little is left of your looks in a terrible tea accident. You're clearly struggling as is, babe, wouldn't want to make it even worse."

"I may not have beauty, but at least I have brains," Harry says, primly, pressing a gentle kiss to the tip of Louis's nose. He sets his mug on the end table. "'Scuse me, Lottie. Sorry for parading around half-naked; I'll go fix that now."

"Oh, I don't mind," Lottie says, giving Harry a lascivious wink. "But if you insist."

"Louis has to deal with my homely body enough as is," Harry says, gesturing down at his toned torso. "It's the least I can do."

"So thoughtful," Louis murmurs. He pats the small of Harry's back as Harry hoists himself up, the edge of his hand just brushing against Harry's bum.

Fully adorned in a t-shirt and trackies, Harry heads back to Louis and Lottie. He pauses just outside the door, though, listening.

"...believe you never told me," Lottie is saying. "You know I don't care about that kind of thing."

"Sometimes it's just easier to not, though, you know?" Louis says. He sounds a little nervous, but mostly confident. Harry's heart thuds in his chest, and warmth spreads through him. "Like, things kept coming up."

"I guess," Lottie sighs. She says something else, quiet enough that Harry can't quite make it out, but her voice scales back up in volume when she says, "and I love you always, you know?"

"I know," Louis says. There's a beat, and Harry is about to walk in, when Louis adds, "But don't tell anyone else, okay? I need to be the one to do it. Especially with Mum."

"Of course," Lottie says. She sounds a little exasperated that Louis would even ask. "I may be your annoying little sister, but I'm not a total jerk."

Harry takes that as his cue to go back in. "Hey," he says, walking through the door. "All good?"

"Much better now," Louis says, casting a cursory glance over Harry's body. He gestures at it for good measure. "Thanks for putting all of that away."

"No problem," Harry says, amused. He walks over, hesitates, then gives Louis a quick little kiss.

"Actually there is just one little problem," Louis says, grinning up at Harry. "I seem to be out of tea."

"That sounds really rough," Harry says. His own tea is growing cold on the end table, so he picks it up and takes a quick sip.

"I'm asking for you to make me more," Louis clarifies. His grin widens as it becomes clear that Harry is about to protest this. In a sing-song voice, he adds, "Botanical gardens."

"Ah, fuck," Harry says. Lottie looks confused at the exchange, so Harry clarifies, "He made me promise to be tea bitch in exchange for going to the gardens next weekend."

"He didn't," Lottie says, affecting a scandalised tone. "That's terrible, Louis." She looks earnestly up at Harry. "I'd joke with you to break up with him for it, but I want him to feel supported right now, so I'll refrain."

"Big of you," Louis says, sarcastically, but he looks so thrilled despite his tone that Harry can't even begin to begrudge him his request.

"Another fucking tea," he says, anyway, knowing that Louis will be able to read the affection and relief through his words. "Coming right up."

+++

december 8

"See?" Louis says, slipping his hand into Harry's. "This is so much better than those botanical gardens."

"You loved those botanical gardens," Harry tells him. "I suspect if those botanical gardens were a person, I'd be short a boyfriend as you'd have left me for them within the first five minutes."

"You can't prove anything," Louis sniffs. There's a beat, and then he says, "I love you and your stupid face too much to leave you for another man. Clearly we'd just open our relationship to include him, too."

"You just like that they've got food here," Harry says, nodding at the stand where they're selling giant, glistening sausages. They do, in fact, look very appetising, but they've got Louis's name in particular written all over them.

"And mulled wine, and lots of presents for sisters," Louis says. "Plus if we branch out from this location that's so conveniently close to both of our jobs and go to the Christmas market at Cathedral Gardens, there's a funfair and an ice rink."

Harry immediately shakes his head. "I broke my arm once, ice skating," he says.

"Oh, no," Louis says, frowning. He squeezes Harry's hand, gently. Harry's not certain whether that's on purpose or just an instinctive reaction. "What happened?"

"Well, I was with Cara, see," says Harry. "And she was laughing at how clumsy I can be, so I was like, 'I'll show you! I'll do fancy footwork in these skates!' And then I tumbled, you know, arse over tit and everything. Broke my arm in two places."

When he looks over at Louis, Louis is laughing silently. "I'm sorry," Louis says, when he catches Harry watching. "It sounds terrible and painful. That's just… so classically you, though, I can't help it."

Harry huffs. "I guess," he says, but he can't help but smile begrudgingly, too. He pauses, then adds, "But the funfair does sound great. Isn't that open for a while, though? What if we bring your sisters after Christmas?"

Louis stops stock-still, then pulls Harry in for a kiss that's just on the edge of too deep for their (public, very busy) setting. "This is why I love you," he says, sincere. "You have the best ideas."

"Can you say that again when I have my phone out and the voice recorder on, so I can play it back to you every time you argue otherwise?" Harry asks, and laughs as Louis starts trying to pull his knit hat over his eyes in retaliation.

"But seriously though," Louis says, a few minutes later, after they've calmed down and scouted out the stall with the best-looking mulled wine. They get in the queue, and Harry wraps his arm around Louis's shoulders, tugging him close.

Louis hasn't finished his thought, so Harry makes a questioning noise.

"Oh, right," says Louis. "I was wondering. Want to come home with me for Christmas? I mean, you've probably got plans with your family, but. Could be nice."

Harry thinks it over as the queue moves forward, chewing on his lower lip as he does. When they're just one person away from the wine, he nods. "We said we'd come out by Christmas, right?" he says. "I can just… I dunno, tell my mum that I'll be going to Christmas Eve and Christmas morning at my boyfriend's, but I'll be back in time for Christmas dinner." He pauses. "Do you want to come to Christmas dinner at my parent's, then? Get the whole meet-the-family thing out of the way?"

"I guess that could work," Louis says. The queue moves forward again, so they pause the conversation to order their mulled wine. Once the steaming cups are in hand and they're continuing on their way, he says, "As long as there's an easy way to get the girls out here for the post-Christmas market stuff, I think that would be great."

"All right," Harry says. His nerves are starting to flare up at the prospect of broaching all this with his mum, but they're warring with his excitement about the evening ahead of them, and their broader plans for Christmas travel. It all feels so domestic, which Harry is very much into. "As long as we sell the mums on this plan, I'm all in."

Louis tugs him to a stop and gives him a chaste, wine-warm kiss in response. "By the way," he says. "We passed a booth with truly atrocious glassware, and I am going to need you to look the other way while I buy you at least three things for your Christmas present."

"We can stop on our next circuit of the market," Harry says, indulgently.

"I guess that's okay," Louis says, and then: "Oh my god. Do you see what I see?"

Harry glances in the direction Louis is pointing. "The giant furry reindeer onesies?"

"I think that's our Christmas pajamas," Louis says, quite seriously, and darts a glance at Harry. "Right?"

Harry takes in the excitement on Louis's face, the way his cheeks are red with cold and his eyes are twinkling from the glow of the fairy lights adorning the stalls all around them. His heart clenches, and he brushes the fingers of his free hand across Louis's cheekbone. "I love you," he says. "So fucking much."

Louis's face softens into a smile. "Love you too," he says, reaching up to cover Harry's hand with his own and squeeze.

Harry gives him another wine-warm kiss. It's close-mouthed, but it lingers. "I think giant reindeer onesies are a great Christmas pajama," he tells Louis. "Lead the way. If they're reasonable enough, we can get some for the whole family."

"That," Louis says, "is the best idea anyone has ever had, and yes, I am including the person who invented sausage rolls in this count."

Harry laughs, breath puffing, white and visible on the cold evening air, and follows Louis to the stall.

+++

december 16

"Oh my god," Harry says, staring at Louis. "What?"

"What?" Louis asks, like he's not wearing tiny green briefs that leave nothing to the imagination, red suspenders with white borders, and an elf hat on his head.

"You're a vision," Harry says. "A sugarplum dream."

"Of course I am, sugarplum," Louis says, coming up to pat Harry on the cheek. "Where's yours?"

"You didn't say there would be costumes," Harry says, even though he definitely made a tiny Santa hat out of felt to put on his dick at some point while Louis is distracted with stripping down.

"Harry, you should always assume there will be costumes," Louis says.

"How could I be so silly," Harry says, laughing.

They're interrupted by his phone ringing.

"It's Mum," Harry says, glancing down at the display. She's requesting a Facetime call. "I'll, uh. Take this on the couch?"

"You don't want your mum to see my excellent elf costume?" Louis asks.

Harry raises his eyebrows at him. The phone rings off, from the time he's taken to answer, so Harry thumbs out a quick text: Will call back in 5.

"Oh, right," says Louis. "I'll just sit over here, being beautiful and gorgeous and Christmassy, whilst you work up the nerve to tell your mum you won't be coming home till Christmas afternoon." He pauses, and looks Harry over intently. "You don't have to tell her today, you know. Like, why, or whatever. I know we set a Christmas Eve deadline, but we don't have to stick with it if you don't actually feel ready."

"I know," Harry says, and pulls Louis in by a suspender to give him a deep, prolonged kiss. "Love you."

"You're such a nerd," Louis says, patting Harry's crotch gently. "Love you too, I guess."

Harry rolls his eyes at Louis, quite obviously, then pulls out his phone to call his mum back.

She spends the first ten minutes of the call asking about her grandkitty and updating Harry on the status of her own cats - going so far as to pick them up and hold them up to her phone's camera - before the topic switches to Christmas.

"Your grandmother is off to Spain this year for Christmas, if you can believe it," she says, shaking her head. "She and a bunch of her friends have decided that they want to revisit their younger years."

"Sounds like Nana Twist," Harry says, laughing. "Is Robin's son bringing his family?"

"Don't think so," she says. "It'll just be an intimate affair this year, as I don't think Gemma's bringing anyone either." She pauses, taking a sip from a large mug. "When will you make your way to us? After the annual Christmas concert?"

"Yeah, that's on the 22nd this year," Harry says. It's been a mess to organise, as per, but the Philharmonic is all set up for Handel's Messiah, and the rehearsals they've been holding in the hall are beginning to sound amazing.

"So you'll come the 23rd?"

Harry glances across the room to where Louis is curled up in Harry's favourite armchair. He's still in his boxers and suspenders, but he's pulled a jumper over the whole thing so that, as he put it, his nips don't freeze off. He's laughing quietly on something on his phone, and Harry feels such an intense rush of love that he's almost dizzy with it.

When Louis catches Harry looking, he grins and waves, raising an eyebrow to ask if Harry needs him to come over.

Harry smiles back, then re-focuses on the camera. "Actually, I think I'll be showing up Christmas day," he says. "Around lunchtime, if that's okay."

"That's fine, love," his mum says. "But that's awfully late, and you know I love having you home. Can't you come any earlier?"

Over the back of Harry's phone, Louis gestures to indicate that if that's what Harry really wants, that's okay, too. Harry shakes his head at him, ever-so-slightly, then tells his mum, "Actually, my plans are pretty set, mum, I'm so sorry. Also, um. I'll be bringing someone with me when I come, if that's also okay?"

His mum shrieks, and the video feed on Harry's phone goes jolty. It settles after a minute, and his mum's face comes back into focus. "Sorry," she says. "Dropped my phone. Did you say you're bringing someone?"

"If that's alright with you," Harry confirms, biting down on a smile. He's beginning to feel a little queasy, palms sweaty, adrenaline starting to course through him. It feels rather like the time he and Cara had done espresso shots like they were vodka, to see what would happen.

"Is it a girlfriend?" his mum asks. She frowns slightly. "It's not Cara, is it? You know I love her, but you've broken up far too many times to try again. Unless it is Cara, in which case, I'm very happy for you."

Behind Harry's phone, Louis is trying desperately to stifle his laughter. Harry flips him off with the hand holding his phone. "Not a girlfriend," he says, and takes a deep breath. God, he's positively trembling. Glibly, like this is news that his mum has been well-acquainted with for Harry's whole life, he adds, "My boyfriend, Louis."

There's a beat, where his mum blinks and shakes her head slightly, like she's struggling to process the information. Harry's stomach churns, and Louis sits up straight, moving his legs from where they're slung over the arm of the chair, poised to walk over if Harry needs him. Then, Harry's mum says, "How long have you and this Louis been together?"

Harry flushes. "Gemma got mad when I told her last month for putting off the news," he says. "It's been nearly six months."

"Gemma knows about your boyfriend?" his mum asks. Her tone sounds a little strangled. God, Harry hopes that this all ends up okay.

"Yeah, she met him when she came by for that Little Mix concert."

"You could have told me," his mum says. "But I guess it's good that you had someone you could talk to, at least." She frowns suddenly, squinting and leaning in closer to the phone camera. "Baby, were you nervous?"

"I mean," says Harry. "A little?"

"Oh, sweetie, you know I love you," his mum says. "I'm very excited to meet your Louis. I'm sure anyone that you go out with is wonderful."

"Except for Cara a seventh time," Harry says, with a wink. He's still trembling.

"Except that," says Anne. "So, you and this Louis will be by for Christmas lunch?"

"We will," says Harry. "His birthday's the 24th, so we'll be with his family up till then."

"Ah," his mum says. "That makes sense, then. That sounds lovely." She pauses, and the silence is a little awkward. Eventually, she says, "So are you gay, then?"

"Bisexual," he says, awkwardly. "You can tell Robin, if you want."

"I will," she says, smiling. "He'll be so pleased that you've found someone, too."

"Actually," Harry says, catching Louis's eyes and gesturing him over. "Lou's here, if you want to say hi."

"Oh!" his mum says, covering her hand with her mouth briefly. "Yes, sweetheart, I'd love that."

"Hi, Mrs Twist," Louis says, sitting down next to Harry. He frowns at Harry's hand, which is still shaking, and puts his own on top, squeezing reassuringly. "Lovely to meet you; I've heard a lot about you."

"I can't say that Harry's told me much about you, love, but it's great to meet you too," his mum says. "Please, call me Anne."

"I will," says Louis, with a smile.

"I hate to end the call," Harry's mum says. "But some of the ladies are coming over for a biscuit exchange party soon, and I've got to finish setting up."

"That's fine," Harry says. "We've got a few things lined up for tonight, too."

"I'll call you tomorrow, okay?" his mum says. "We can catch up more, and you can tell me all about your Louis."

Harry smiles at her. It feels shaky. "I'd like that," he says. "Love you."

"You too, baby," she says, and rings off.

"Love, you're trembling," Louis says, as soon as Harry puts his phone to the side. He twists around, straddling Harry's lap, and knee-walks on the couch until he's pressed flush against Harry. "Are you okay? How do you feel?"

"I could either run ten miles or pass out," Harry says, laughing nervously. "But I think that went okay? Right?"

"I think so," says Louis. He leans in and kisses Harry gently, sweetly. "I'm so proud of you, Harry. You've done something wonderful."

"I'm twenty-seven years old," Harry points out. "Kind of late, isn't it?"

Louis laughs. "I turn thirty in just over a week, and I still haven't told me parents," he says. "You're so lovely and brave."

"You are too, you know?" Harry says, reaching up to stroke Louis's hair back from his face. It's getting long, and Harry loves it, but it does tend to fall in Louis's eyes of late.

Louis knocks their foreheads together. "Was it worth it?"

"You mean were you worth it?" Harry asks, just to make sure. "One hundred percent. I love you."

Louis brushes another kiss across Harry's mouth. "You are, too," he promises. "Hope telling my mum goes as well as telling yours did."

"I'm sure it will," Harry says. What he means is that he hopes it will, but he knows Louis understands that, and will appreciate that Harry didn't come right out and actually say it.

"What do you need from me right now?" Louis asks. "You've done something huge and scary. The rest of the day is yours to decide."

"Would love to see you back in your little costume," Harry says, honestly. He rests his hands on Louis's hips and digs his fingers into the meat of them. "Would love to fuck you in it. Get my mouth on you and get you wet and fuck you."

Louis stares at him. "Good lord, Styles," he says. "That's not what I expected you to say, but that sounds great to me!"

Harry shoves his hands under Louis's jumper and pushes it up. "Bring back the naughty elf," he says, in his most important tone of voice.

Louis snorts, and lets Harry help him out of the jumper.

"I love this get-up," Harry adds, running his fingers along the edge of the suspenders, trailing them extra-slow when they pass over Louis's nipples. "Very cute."

"I'm the sexiest elf you've ever seen," Louis tells him.

"An incredibly low bar," Harry points out. "But not untrue."

"Oh, shut up," says Louis, laughing. "Should we move to the bedroom, then?"

"Yeah, but you have to go ahead of me," Harry says. "I want to watch that bum of yours in those shorts."

"So demanding," says Louis, but he climbs off Harry's lap and leads the way to Harry's room.

"Honestly, I kind of want to fuck your thighs so you can stay in that outfit," Harry confesses, once Louis has thrown himself dramatically on the bed. He pulls his own shirt over his head, and undoes the button on his jeans, shoving them and his boxers down over his thighs. "I know you like that."

"I fucking do," says Louis. "And normally I would agree, but I believe I was promised your mouth."

"So demanding," Harry echoes, laughing, but he gestures for Louis to roll onto his stomach. He strokes one hand down Louis's back, cupping it over those tight green briefs, before climbing on the bed and situating himself below Louis. He breathes over the fabric of the briefs, mouth open and pressed to the fabric, getting it damp, before wedging his hands through the leg-holes so that he can spread Louis wide open.

He licks at Louis's hole through the fabric of the briefs, smiling to himself at the surprised noise that Louis makes, rolling his hips down against the bed. "S'weird," he says.

"Do you like it, though?" Harry asks. "I want to get you hard so I can see your dick in those pants."

Louis pauses to consider, then shrugs. "That sounds okay," he says, with a forced nonchalance. "Carry on."

Harry chuckles again, low in his throat, and pushes his tongue against Louis's rim. The fabric, though impossibly soft against his hands, is rough on his tongue, the unfamiliar barrier to total access to Louis's ass making Harry want to push hard enough to rip it. He can't quite get at the deep musk he's grown slowly familiar with over the months, and it's driving him crazy.

Louis keeps rolling his hips against the bed, though, and eventually, he shifts up against Harry's mouth. "I'm hard," he says, reaching blindly behind himself for Harry.

Harry sits up. "Roll over," he says. "Let me see."

The line of Louis's cock is stark against the briefs, which cling so much that Harry can even make out the ridge of the vein on the underside of it. Harry curses, low and quiet, and gets his mouth over it, soaking the cloth through and sucking along the side of the shaft until he can taste Louis's precome through it. "You're so weird," Louis murmurs, but his voice sounds wrecked already so Harry suspects he isn't actually complaining.

"You're so fucking hot," Harry retorts, like it's an insult that will really sting. "Do you wanna turn back over so the briefs are wet on your cock when I lick you again, and drag against it, or do you want to take them off?"

"I want your tongue in me," Louis says, almost apologetically.

Harry doesn't actually mind. "Take them off, then," he says, already unclipping the suspenders and tugging on the waistband of the briefs, helping to guide it carefully over the head of Louis's dick. Louis lifts his hips, allowing Harry to pull them down his legs, then kicks them off and across the room entirely.

"Well, get on with it, then," says Louis, after Harry's just sat back and soaked up the sight of Louis's cock, hard and flush and curving against his stomach.

"Love how easy you are for my mouth," Harry says, patting Louis's side until he rolls back over onto his stomach.

He doesn't give Louis a chance to respond before he dives in in earnest, spreading Louis's cheeks apart with his thumbs and licking over his hole with a broad, wet stripe. Louis shivers under Harry's hands, and Harry allows himself a quick, proud smile before pushing his tongue forward, breaching the rim of Louis's arse, slicking him up with his spit.

Rimming doesn't always taste gross, but it doesn't ever taste great. Louis is a happy neutral, and today, he's impeccably clean. Harry can't get enough of how responsive Louis is to this, how much he loves it, squirming under Harry's ministrations like he's can't help himself, high-pitched moans that very nearly sound like whines coming from where he's buried his face in the crook of his arm. Harry keeps digging forward to get Louis wet with his tongue, alternating between wide, slow swipes over his hole and licking into him with determination.

Once Louis is, by Harry's estimation, wet enough, Harry works the tip of his index finger into Louis's hole, using the angle of it to press Louis a little wider open and give himself better access. Louis responds eagerly to this, too, giving a muffled half-shout as Harry works his finger in to the first knuckle.

Getting fucked feels great, and for the longest time, Harry preferred to be on the receiving end. Fucking Louis, and making him feel this good, feels even better.

Louis is a mess by the time Harry pulls back, running his hand over Louis's arse and squeezing. "How close are you?" he asks, after wiping his mouth with the back of his other hand.

"If you keep that up, I could come from it," Louis says. At least, Harry thinks that's what he says. His voice is pretty muffled.

"'m not done with you yet," Harry tells him, taking the lube that's sitting out on his bedside table and slicking up his fingers.

Louis is still pretty loose from the sex they had earlier in the day, so Harry starts by sliding two fingers in. He gets Louis dripping wet, fucking him with his fingers until Louis feels loose and open, and then sits back. "Don't stop," Louis mumbles.

"Want you to ride me," Harry returns.

Louis twists around, looking back at Harry. "Okay," he says. "Yeah. Okay."

Harry rummages through the drawer of his nightstand, finally coming up with a condom and the little hat he made for his cock. He rolls the condom on, perfunctorily, and then sits back on his bed, legs out in front of him, leaning against the wall. Shielding his cock from Louis's view with his hand, he puts the hat on it, then stretches out. "I'm ready for you," he tells Louis.

Louis looks over Harry, then starts laughing. It's a breathless, jagged laugh; it's clear that he's too turned on to really concentrate on the humour of a little Santa hat sitting on his boyfriend's cock.

"You are," says Louis, gripping the base of his dick tight in one hand. "The most ridiculous boy I have ever met."

"And yet you're in love with me," says Harry. He spreads out, gesturing at his cock. "By the way, your seat is ready for you."

"I hate you, actually," says Louis, but he's sweating and his eyes are shining, so Harry doesn't put too much stock into the words. He slings a leg over Harry's lap, then rises up on his knees so that he can position himself over Harry's cock. "Take that hat off."

"You love the hat, my little elf boyfriend," says Harry, confidently, but he does as Louis asks. He then grips his cock, helping Louis to line up.

Louis starts sinking down, supporting himself with one hand on Harry's shoulder and the other on the bed. "Do you want me to call you Santa in bed?" he asks. "Oh, Mr. Claus, is that a bag of gifts in your lap or are you just happy to see me?"

"It's a lump of coal, actually," says Harry, and then Louis bottoms out and he has to fall silent from how good Louis feels, tight and hot around him.

Louis grins, and when he leans forward for a kiss, Harry's dick shifts inside of him in a most delicious way. Harry's so distracted by it he can barely return the kiss, until Louis clenches around him and Harry bites down on Louis's lips in surprise.

It's unfair, really, how out of it Louis can be when Harry's got his mouth on him, and then the second Harry pushes in, he's the one who becomes a creature of impulse and reactions and Louis is suddenly the one calling all the shots.

And by unfair, Harry means impossibly hot. Putting all of his weight into the hand on Harry's shoulder, Louis rises up until Harry's very nearly slipped out of him, then sinks back down again. He's being punishingly slow about it, too, so that Harry can actively feel the way Louis opens and tightens around Harry's cock, inch by torturous inch. He gets his other hand around his own cock, and Harry rests his forehead against Louis's as Louis rises up and sinks inexorably back down again, watching the way that Louis starts to jerk himself off at what seems to be twice the speed he's fucking himself on Harry. The flushed red head of his cock disappears in his fist, then comes peeking back out again, wet with precome, foreskin pulled all the way back.

Harry's mouth waters. He wishes there was a way to get it on Louis's dick while he's fucking Louis. For now, though, he can take command of Louis's mouth, biting down on Louis's lower lip the way that Louis likes until he gasps and thrusts himself down on Harry's cock, letting Harry slam back up against him and push as deeply inside as he can go.

"Fuck," Harry mumbles against Louis's mouth, and then he's licking inside of it, trying to concentrate on both the kiss and the next thrust of his hips.

He can't split his concentration, so the kiss grows openmouthed and loose, more of them panting into each other's mouths than anything, but at least Louis starts moving faster, rising up and sinking back down at greater and greater speeds, until the bed starts squeaking under them with their efforts.

It's so much. It's too much. Heat is coiling at the base of Harry's spine and his mouth is flooding with saliva, and he's so far gone that it's like he's lost control of everything, hands open and limp at Louis's sides because his palms are too hot and sweaty for anything else.

It's too much, and Harry suspects there isn't a thing on the entire planet that could keep him from shooting off into the tight heat of Louis's ass.

It's Louis changing the rhythm again that does it. He shifts from the now-frantic pace to rolling and twisting his hips in minute little circles, keeping the swell of Harry's cock against what Harry knows by now, from experience, is Louis's prostate. Using Harry as, essentially, a glorified dildo, has Louis tightening around him so much it's very nearly vicelike, and Harry can't hold back anymore. He shouts, thrusting up, hard, one more time, and then he's spilling into his condom.

"Lay down," Louis says, frantically, holding his dick in one hand and pushing himself up on his knees and letting Harry's softening dick slip out of him and fall, wetly, to his thigh. "Lie down, H, I need--"

He breaks off as Harry pushes himself, sliding down the bed, between Louis's legs. Louis leans forward as soon as Harry is flat on his back, supporting himself with one hand on the wall behind Harry's head, kneeling on one knee as he presses his cock against Harry's lips.

Harry opens his mouth, obediently, but Louis doesn't push further in than just the tip. He lets Harry lick over the head of his dick and tease at his fioreskin, the musk of his precome spreading over Harry's tongue, but that's it. He jerks himself off against Harry's mouth at a near-punishing speed, and then he jolts, blunt head of his cock dragging across Harry's lips, and comes, spilling over Harry's mouth and then pulling back so that a stripe of come lands on Harry's face.

He climbs off of Harry then and collapses at Harry's side, rolling over so that his head is cradled on Harry's shoulder and his arm is tucked across Harry's chest.

"Nailed it," Louis says, eventually, once he's caught his breath and found his voice. He digs his thumb into the place where Harry's dimples form and pulls it away to show Harry the come on it.

Harry laughs and, delightedly, Louis sticks his thumb back into Harry's dimple. "I need a wash in the worst way, don't I?"

"Absolutely," Louis says, proudly. He cranes up, and Harry moves his head down, and they only just meet in a kiss.

"Nap first, though." Now that the adrenaline from coming out to his mum has dissipated and he's come into Louis, as well, Harry feels sapped of energy.

"Obviously," Louis says. He squirms, reaching to try and pull the duvet up and over the two of them with his toes. He gives up quickly, though, and sighs and sits up so that he can drag it from the foot of the bed. "Love you. So proud of you. My sexy, out boyfriend."

"Love you too," Harry says, patting Louis's cheek sleepily.

Then he lets sleep overtake him.

+++

december 24

Harry knows that Louis hasn't actually come out to anyone in his family but Lottie by the time that they leave for Doncaster, but that he has let them know that he's bringing Harry with him for Christmas and his birthday.

In the interest of not knowing how things will go over the next twenty-four hours, Harry and Louis exchange presents before they leave Manchester. It's mostly a load of books and DVDs and games (both board games and the newest Fifa) between the two of them, but Harry had made a Christmas tree ornament that symbolises the six months they've been officially boyfriends as of two days earlier, and Louis has bought both of them little teddy bears. "I'll keep the Harry at my flat, and you'll keep the Louis," he explains, showing off their sweaters, laughing when Harry pulls him in for a messy thank-you kiss.

"That's so incredibly gay," Harry says when he pulls away, meaning that it's very sappy and he loves it.

"So's the ornament, love," Louis says, squeezing Harry's knee.

Louis acts more and more nervous the closer they get to Doncaster, enough that they pull over and Harry takes over driving Louis's car.

"Do you know how you're going to do it?" Harry asks. "Keeping in mind the same thing you told me the other day, and that we can call this plan quits the second you decide you don't feel ready to come out."

"Might have to postpone it for a time that you can fuck me as good as you did after you came out," Louis jokes, aiming for a brave sort of tone. He keeps fidgeting with the tiny hole starting to form in the knee of his jeans, so Harry reaches over and puts his hand on Louis's to help settle him. "But like, I haven't planned anything out. Figure I'll do it when the mood is right." He laughs a little, self-consciously. "To be honest, I'm hoping that telling them I'm bringing a man home for my birthday and Christmas is like, a way of unofficially letting them know, and they'll just assume I'm gay and we're together and I won't have to say anything."

Harry doesn't have anything particularly useful to say to that. He squeezes Louis's hand, though, and says, "I love you so much," encouragingly.

"You're adequate," says Louis, turning his hand over under Harry's so that he can thread their fingers together. Squeezing, he tacks on a playful, "I suppose."

Harry pulls over two blocks from Louis's parent's house so that he can pull him into a deep kiss over the console. It's very steamy, but very distracting, and it does the job: Louis seems a lot more settled afterward.

They drive the last two blocks in silence, and when they park out front, Louis passes Harry their overnight bags and starts loading his arms up with the gifts they're bringing his family.

His mum is waiting when they get in, one of Louis's siblings playing with toy cars on the floor behind her.

"Hey, mum," Louis says, trying to lean over to give her a kiss on the cheek without dropping any of the presents.

"Hi, love," she says, skilfully avoiding being hit by the tower of boxes. "Close the door, will you?"

"Sure," says Louis, taking a few careful steps backward, in the direction of the door.

"Now, who's your friend, again?" she asks, as Louis kicks the door closed behind them. "All you've said is that you were bringing someone round for Christmas."

"Hi, I'm Harry," Harry says, extending a hand for her to shake when it becomes clear that despite Louis's intermittent bravado about proceeding with the plan on the drive up and Harry's passionate kiss a few minutes ago, he's still practically trembling with nerves. "I'm Louis's, uh--"

"Boyfriend," Louis interjects, from behind the pile of presents. "Harry is my boyfriend."

Louis's mum blinks twice at Louis, and once at Harry. Her hands flutter up and she pats her chemo head wrap, as if to check that it's still in place. She touches her mouth and her stomach, too, before taking Harry's hand and shaking it, firmly. "So good to meet you, Harry," she murmurs, casting an unreadable glance at Louis. "My son has never brought anyone home for me to meet before, so you must be very special."

"Eh, I got him on offer at Tesco," Louis says, dropping the presents off on a little table and coming to sling an arm around Harry's waist. He's not trembling as much, and when he hip-checks Harry, Harry decides to go with the bit.

"He tells everyone that I was a very reasonable deal," Harry stage-whispers to Louis's mum.

"Such a discount, and not even damaged!" Louis agrees. He releases Harry and takes two steps forward so he can give his mum an unobstructed kiss on the cheek. He then glances back at Harry, and smiles softly. "A miracle, really."

"He must be, to put up with your jokes," Louis's mum says, with certainty.

"Actually, mine are even worse," Harry tells her with a wink. "Really puts things into perspective, eh?"

"It's important that we're aware of our limitations," says Louis. As Harry watches, he visibly steels himself, then reaches to cup Harry's chin in his hand and pull him in for a very quick, very chaste kiss. He then presses his forehead against Harry's for a long moment, like he's putting off looking his mum in the eye as long as possible.

He pulls away eventually, though, and his mum is smiling. She comes forward and tugs Harry away from Louis into a hug. "As I said, it's fantastic to meet you, Harry, love," she says.

She's warm, and smells powdery and floral, like a nice lotion. Comforting, too, partly because Harry is fervently pleased that she seems to be taking this well. "You too, Mrs Deakin."

"Oh, I'll have none of that; call me Jay, darling," she says. "You know, between you and me, I was wondering if the boy Boo Bear was bringing home would be a boyfriend. I'm so glad to be right."

"Boo bear?" Harry asks, darting a glance at Louis.

"Mum, your medication is frying your brain, I've never been called that a day in my life," Louis says, slipping a gentle arm around her shoulders and giving her a squeeze. "It's always been Manly and Beautiful Favourite Child of Mine."

"Of course," Jay says, laughing. "How silly of me."

"Where is everyone?" Louis asks, glancing around. "Besides Doris, of course." He pitches his voice up. "Hey, babe, having fun?"

"I am going to be a train conductor when I grow up, Achoo," Doris says, seriously, still focusing on her toy cars.

"Explains the trucks," Louis says, with a sage nod. "Haz, come on, I'll show you to my room so we can put this stuff down."

The second they're behind closed doors and the bags are dumped, unceremoniously, on the ground, Harry pulls Louis in to a big bear hug. "My wonderful boyfriend," he says, kissing Louis on the cheek. "I'm so, so proud of you."

"We're both quite good at this nonchalant coming out thing, aren't we?" says Louis. "Imagine if I'd done a whole big thing about telling her I'm gay and being very dramatic about it."

"Should've worn a shirt that just says I'm Gay on it and taken your jumper off at the table," Harry says, and then tugs Louis into a hug. "I can't believe you were talking all about how you weren't sure when you'd do it in the car, and then, two seconds into the door, it's like 'hey Mum, here's my boyfriend,' like you've done that before."

"Just think," says Louis. "Once I leave you for a younger man, I can do it again, no problem."

"You plan to leave me for a younger man?"

"Yeah, of course," says Louis. "Is Niall younger than you? I could try him out next."

Harry laughs. "Niall is like, the same age as your flatmate," he says. "Sorry to disappoint."

Louis shrugs against Harry's chest, unconcerned. "There will be others," he says, squeezing Harry closer.

"Just to be clear," says Harry, "I know we're all about joking and the banter, but if you did leave me, I would be devastated."

"Ew," says Louis, not pulling away from the hug. "You make it sound like you love me, or something."

"Or something," Harry agrees, ruffling Louis's hair. "Ready to brave the rest of your family?"

"Ready," Louis says, but as Harry starts to disengage, he says, "Actually wait."

"What's up?"

"I just wanted to say something first," says Louis. He shrugs a little, then takes a deep breath and says, "Which is that I'm really glad that I kept fucking running into you everywhere last summer, and that we started going out, and that you're here with me today." He pauses, eyes searching Harry's face. "I'm glad that it's you I came out with."

"Now who's the nerd?" Harry asks, booping Louis on the nose.

"Ugh, I take it back, why do I put up with you?" Louis asks, giving Harry one more kiss for good measure.

The rest of Louis's siblings are unsurprised enough by Louis's news that Harry suspects Lottie gave them all a little talk before Louis and Harry showed up, but Louis doesn't look like he minds. For the rest of the visit, he's lit up with joy, donning an old, ratty hand-knit Santa hat to pass presents out to everyone in his family -- including one more for Harry; a lovely little necklace he'd snuck in with the rest of the gifts -- and laughing and joking at the top of his voice.

Harry reads the relief in everything Louis does with relief of his own, and when they do their best to squeeze into Louis's childhood twin-size bed that night, he lets Louis ramble happily, re-telling Harry about the day they just shared together without even making fun of him a little bit. Which, in Harry's estimation, is practically evidence of true love.

+++

december 27

In the end, it's not just Louis's sisters who come to Manchester for the fun fair. Gemma drags their parents along, and Jay and Dan come along with the youngest twins, too.

Louis drags Harry onto the ice eventually, after making Harry promise not to try any elaborate moves, and promising in turn to hold Harry's hand the entire time.

By the time they're off, Gemma, Lottie, and Felicite have gone to supervise the younger four on the Ferris wheel, and their parents have gathered at another mulled wine stall.

Harry and Louis go up to join them.

"Ah!" Harry's mum says as they walk up. "The lovebirds!"

"It's been so nice to get to meet everyone," Jay adds, pulling Louis in for a quick cuddle. "I'm glad you've decided to introduce us, Lou Bear."

"Yeah," says Robin, encouragingly. His face is red with the wine he's already had. "It's great to meet your boyfriend now that you're gay, Harry."

Harry and Louis exchange a quick glance, Louis asking should we remind him? with his eyes, and Harry giving a micro-shrug back. "Bisexual, actually," he says, but he does it mildly. He's sure it will get annoying sooner or later, but for now, as it's essentially still Christmas, he's willing to let it go.

"So you've already had the families meet," Dan says, like Harry didn't even speak. "Does this mean wedding bells are in the air?"

"I believe those are sleigh bells, actually," says Louis.

"We have only been dating for six months," Harry adds, with a glance at Louis. It's not that he would be opposed, one day, but they're still very new, insofar as relationships go. "We haven't exactly discussed it."

"Anyway, Harry's dowry is much too small," Louis says. "He's got to build it up before I'll risk my lands and titles on his name."

"I'm working as hard as I can, my lord," Harry protests. He slips a cheeky hand into Louis's back pocket. It's warm there, and Louis's bum feels so nice, even through his jeans. "It will only be a few years yet."

Jay laughs, loud and bright. "Shouldn't have asked, sweetheart," she tells Dan, patting him on the shoulder. She glances between the two of them. "But do keep us in the loop, loves."

"We're leaving," Louis announces, turning to go. "We're going back to our homes and not telling you that we've left. This is a protest."

Harry stops him, dragging him in for a kiss. "Let's go find some toffee apples instead," he says, and grins as Louis nods, approvingly.

They leave their parents to murmur and chatter and laugh some more. And while they don't find any toffee apples, they do find an arch of pine boughs all done up in ribbons and lights. There's a sprig of mistletoe hanging underneath, and Harry tugs Louis under it.

"Merry Christmas, my love," he murmurs.

Louis beats him to the kiss.