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Allies in Heaven, Comrades in Hell

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Allies in Heaven, Comrades in Hell


‘Cause I’m a Catholic boy.
Redeemed through pain,
not through joy.

“Catholic Boy” Jim Carroll (1980)

 

TRAILER by Lani

 

[credit]

 

~

It’s four in the afternoon, and Louis Tomlinson is eating half a quart of strawberry ice cream in the bath.

He isn’t sure how he managed to think this one up, but regardless, it’s possibly one of the best ideas his brain has ever had. The cool feeling that slides down his throat contrasts beautifully with what should be the uncomfortably hot water and steam he’s sitting in. It’s made his skin itch with sweat and plastered his fringe to his forehead, and he’s gradually becoming more pink with every second he stays there. Nonetheless, he continues to stew and spoons another chunk of frozen berry into his mouth to break it into pieces. The crystalized water inside of it melts almost instantly across his tongue. His teeth ache.

Tomorrow is his first day back to school – the first day of his last year of school. Louis smiles and bites down on the cool metal of the spoon with his front teeth. He’s spent a third of his life in that bloody, bloody establishment, and he only has one more year to go before he can leave his family and tiny village to head off to uni and start an adventure of his own. And university… Good God is he ready to go to the same school alongside a female population. This is something both he and Niall have been looking forward to since they were kids, attached at the hip ever since Niall had moved from the Irish Midlands when he was nine. Even this morning across the pews at church, they’d been whispering in each other’s ears about the new kids that were supposedly coming in and whether or not there’d actually be any fit nuns teaching this year ( there never are ).

Louis holds the carton as far above his head as possible before ducking under the layer of water surrounding him, then back up again. He blinks hard until his eyes don’t sting from the liquid intrusion any more.

He’ll have to start applying to schools soon… and for scholarships. He’ll also have to start saving up again, maybe even get a job to replenish the impressive dent he’s made in his bank account over the past two months. All in all, Louis is looking forward to this year, even if it already sounds like too much work to handle, because he actually has something to look forward to – the end. He scrapes the sides of the cardboard container with his spoon and dips it into his mouth, letting the cold soup run across his taste buds.

Christ, this is the best ice cream he’s ever had. The last ice cream of summer.

~

It’s four in the afternoon, and Harry Styles is sitting across the dinner table from his stepdad with his head in his hands, lamenting over the end of the summer break up that is now staring him directly in the face.

God, hadn’t it just begun yesterday? That’s what it feels like. He has three whole years to go now, including this one, but the countdown never gets any easier with every one that passes. Is it so wrong that he wants to get out of this place that isn’t even significant enough to be noted on a map for something bigger? Maybe even someone? Then again, Harry supposes as he watches his mother get to her feet and totter off into the kitchen, it’s difficult to find the person that’s supposedly sent to be your soul mate when you go to an all-boys Catholic school.

Besides, there’s no fun in going back this year, not when literally all of his friends had graduated last year. Raymond, Finn, Nick, Jeni, Raj, Ed, and Dylan – all are either gone off to university or out into the world and as far away from here as possible. No matter their circumstance, all of them have barely enough time in their schedules to spare a mere moment on “poor Styles, left all alone to fend for himself,” as Jeni had put it with a grin, not realizing how much it had actually stung. Harry knew he’d made a mistake only making friends with older boys from the start, not bothering to create relationships beyond mild acquaintances with people in his own year. And he has three years of it to go.

When Robin brings it up again, Harry nearly drops his face into his plate, not caring if salad cream winds up in his ridiculously thick and untamable, despite being recently cut, hair.

“You better pack your lunch for the big day back tomorrow, Harry,” he says while spearing a particularly thick piece of purple radish out of his bowl from among the sea of green. “Wouldn’t want you going hungry on your first day back at school.”

“Jesus survived forty days and forty nights without food,” Harry replies as snarkily as he can manage, glancing down to his own plate of nearly untouched veg. He curls his lips at them, and he hopes that the cucumbers are picking up his disdainful look. “I’m at least five percent sure I could last a lunch period.”

His mother laughs from the kitchen where she’s taking a baked chicken out of the oven, the same one that Harry helped prepare a couple hours earlier. “Unless you’re the risen son of God and you haven’t told us, you should probably plan on eating regularly.”

“Starting with that salad of yours,” his stepfather says pointedly, and he brings a piece of carrot in between his teeth and smiles. Harry looks back down in disgust and pokes at his own radishes, cursing them profusely as he reluctantly places one into his mouth. The vegetable burns against his tongue and he nearly chokes on the tough, grainy texture of it as it slides down his throat.

The end of this year cannot come soon enough.

~

It’s a bright morning with not a cloud in the sky when Louis walks out his door, giving a quick kiss and quiet goodbye to his mum so as not to wake up his younger sisters. The weather is perfect to match the happy feeling swimming around in his stomach, and the half-mile trek to school isn’t nearly as long as it’s been for the past six years.

Gray and burgundy uniforms all blur together with the movement of every person on the grounds. The campus is absolutely bustling with energy by the time he gets there, and Louis is able to pick out familiar faces in every scattered and fluid crowd. Not even four hundred students attend the school, so it isn’t surprising that he spots his best friend’s shock of bleach-blond hair in the crowd of people standing by the small fountain in front of the campus chapel only a moment after he walks under the clock at the entrance of the courtyard.

“Horan!” Louis yells a bit too loudly over the courtyard green, invoking a chastising glare from the cluster of nuns by the wall. He ignores them and instead quickly skips his way over with his book bag slung over just one of his shoulders. There are probably several brand-new pens that have fallen to the grass by the time Louis makes his way to his friend’s side. “Today’s the day!”

“The day, Tommo?” Niall shouts back with a huge grin cracking across his face.

“The day, Ni.” Louis slings an arm around Niall, and a sharp marble corner of the fountain pool hits his knee as he leans theatrically into his friend’s body. “It’s our last year in this place and it officially begins in,” he looks behind him and back up at the massive clock above the entryway that chimes for class changes, “eleven minutes.”

Niall whistles through his teeth and nods in awe. “This is what we’ve been working for. This is our time.”

“This is what dreams are made of, my friend,” Louis begins walking towards the church where morning mass will be held and pulls his companion along, “and allow me a moment of pure unmanliness when I say that I am so glad I get to experience this year with you.” It doesn’t take long for Louis to regret opening his mouth.

“You girl.” Niall rubs his knuckles into Louis’s perfectly smoothed and styled hair with little warning, and Louis cries out in surprise, struggling against his friend’s abrupt chokehold. “You’re not allowed to say anything nearly so sentimental ever again until my wedding day, at the very least.” Louis whines, slapping at Niall’s hands. People are beginning to stare, and Sister Renalas is looking particularly murderous this morning as she watches on with displeasure.

“Okay, okay! Let me go, for God’s sake, I spent half an hour making my hair look so tasteful!” Niall shoves Louis ahead of him, making a point to catch the heel of his friend’s shiny dress shoe with his own incredibly and permanently scuffed one.

“Lemme get a look at your schedule when we get back outside, yeah?”

“Sure.” Louis looks up as he steps through the heavy doors into the church. The grey stone walls don’t seem as cold today as they usually do, and they buzz with a promise. He smiles as he dips into the stoup and makes the cross on his forehead with the water. “This is going to be a fantastic year, Niall. I can feel it.”

~

This is going to be the worst year in Harry’s entire schooling career. He can feel it.

As he walks onto the school grounds, Harry quietly remarks to himself how nearly every single face in the entire area belongs to a complete stranger. His footsteps fall heavy against the cobblestones that make up the pathway, but he doesn’t bother trying to lighten them at all. Everyone seems pleased to be here while Harry can’t help but be overpowered by a desire to run back home and hide under his bed. Maybe he could call Nick and Finn, who are rooming at ULeeds together, and beg them to let him stay with them until Christmas hols. He’ll sleep in the closet. He’ll buy his own meals. He’ll even do their laundry for them.

A short shriek makes him nearly jump out of his freshly shined shoes, and Harry jerks his head towards the source of the noise. As it turns out, the sound is sourced by two boys who are wrestling each other – well, it looks to be that way – as they walk over to the large arch of the chapel doors. One, a blond that Harry vaguely recognises, is holding a captive under his arm and rubbing his fist into the other’s scalp. The apparent victim, not familiar to Harry at all, is trying in vain to get his friend off of his hair, kicking up grass and dirt as he drags his heels. With the kind of fight he’s putting up, Harry can tell he put a lot of time into it, trying to make the somewhat long hair particularly shiny and smooth, not a strand out of place from where it’s supposed to be. Harry runs his fingers through his own hair self-consciously, wondering if maybe he should have bothered to put something in it today.

He feels lost. That’s it in the end, isn’t it? He just feels lost. It’s a school that he’s spent three years at, but without his familiar pack of best friends surrounding him and a constant protective hand on his shoulder, he feels like an outsider. Harry’s heart sinks even further in his chest with what he quickly realises is loneliness, and that certainly won’t do. He tries to imagine what Raj, the most sociable and outgoing of all his friends, would tell him to do in this situation when he feels so completely alone.

Raj would probably punch him and tell him to go look for someone who looked as alone as he was.

As it turns out, Harry doesn’t have to look too far.

His eyes almost immediately fall upon a boy who is leaning against the wall of the East Wing, an intrigued, self-assured, and almost amused look on his face. His hair is done even nicer than the kid who’d been messing about earlier, and he has a darker set of features, too. His arms and ankles are crossed as he leans, and his eyes scan across the courtyard, clearly not looking for anything in particular at all but taking great pleasure in what he’s seeing nevertheless. He’s also brown, something you definitely don’t see in this very small and very white area quite often, much less at a Catholic establishment like this one. Harry knows this and feels a pull of interest in his chest towards him, desiring to know exactly what’s so fascinating about these people that the boy feels the need to watch so closely.

“Chapel in ten, Mr. Styles.”

Harry looks behind him before he can take a single step, and he’s ecstatic to see his first familiar face of the day. “Sister Janes! It’s good to see you again.”

The sister clasps her hands behind her back and smiles up at Harry with sparkly eyes. A short and very petite woman, she’s been Harry’s English teacher for the past two years and his favourite educator of all time. Instead of making the bible the centre of literary studies as many students often expect, the sister has a tendency to push boundaries, and in more ways than one. She’s notorious for roaming the corridors singing Billie Holiday songs and stamping smiley faces on attendance rosters in purple ink rather than checking the names off in pen.

But as much fun as she can be, Sister Janes is also known as a woman to be reckoned with, because in her tiny body is a fire that demands respect from everyone, be them her pupils, her coworkers, or even her authority figures. They give it to her without question, and Harry is definitely no exception. Everyone’s a little afraid of her. She’s defensive and protective of her students, motherly to those who don’t have one or just need one away from home, and if you can say absolutely nothing else about her, Sister Janes is a phenomenal teacher. She’s unusual to say the least, and Harry had always wondered how a woman as spirited and unorthodox as herself had managed to become a nun.

She apparently looks quite like him, too. Sister Janes is too old to be Harry’s sister and too young to be his mother, but the resemblance is, according to some, strange. She has the same bright and curious eyes in an often sought after shade of green, and her lips look just a bit too pink and frame a too-wide mouth to be normal if you’re looking hard. Harry used to get teased by his friends for his uncanny likeness to his English teacher, but he stopped minding the comparison so much the day she came into her morning class half an hour late with neon paint splattered across her robes and told the class she had accidentally gotten into a paintball fight and, “kicked their sorry butts to kingdom come.”

“How was your summer, Harry?” she asks earnestly, and Harry has to actually restrain himself from hugging her. He supposes it’s because she’s the only one he technically has left.

“Too short for my taste,” Harry replies honestly. The sister beams up at him and chuckles.

“They always are,” Sister Janes stage whispers with a wink, and Harry’s heart flutters with affection for the woman. How had he managed to go so long without her? “You know, I came over here because you looked a bit out of place. You’re usually surrounded by all the other boys.”

“Gone,” Harry shrugs, kicking at the freshly cut grass with his toes. “It was kind of rough saying goodbye to everyone within a week of the others.”

Sister Janes’s brow creases. “Even Jenison’s gone?”

“Yes, sister. Jeni’s gone. He’s off in France now. Study abroad program; very big deal.”

“I thought he had one more year. Lord, am I getting old,” she chuckles again, and Harry finds himself smiling back without even having to put in effort. “But yes, it certainly sounds like it. Who’ve we got left, then?”

Harry runs his fingers against the strap of his backpack, the same one that Nick had drawn a tiny dragon breathing rainbow smoke on. His fingertips tingle with the memory. “Erm… well, actually, it’s just me now.” Sister Janes nods and then inspects and smooths Harry’s creased necktie with a delicate touch.

“You know, Harry,” she begins before moving her hand again and wrapping it around her hot-pink rosary beads, “it probably doesn’t feel this way now, but there is likely a reason why you’ve been put in this position. I don’t believe that God separates you from people you love for no reason, and you may want to take the time in chapel today to reflect on that.

“I wouldn’t think of it as getting left behind,” she continues, glancing up at the bright blue sky and giving it a small smile, “and while I don’t claim to know the Lord’s thoughts, I would think of it as God’s way of giving you a chance to befriend someone who needs it as much as you do. He mostly works through other people rather than directly through miracles, you know.” Harry nods. “Perhaps he’s working through you for another person. There’s quite possibly someone on this very campus that needs you more than either of us are aware.”

Harry looks back to where he had seen the people-watching boy against the wall, but isn’t all that surprised to find him gone.

“Why don’t we go in now?” Sister Janes moves past Harry towards the chapel. “I’d rather not have a seat so far in the back, if you don’t mind.” Harry takes this as an invitation to sit with her in the morning service and shuffles alongside her as she walks in through the ginormous – and quite frankly, intimidating – double wooden doors and dips his fingers into the provided holy water by the door. He’s glad to have such a forceful personality to fight off the cold feeling that he gets when he walks into liturgy.

~

Louis had forgotten how comfortable the ancient wooden pews in the school’s chapel are; which is to say, not at all. Niall has the theory that they had done it purposefully when the school was first built so that it was nearly impossible for students to fall asleep in them during service. He had always considered it quite cruel, but Louis’s reasoned with him that the kneelers are far easier on the knees than the ones that they use at church on Sundays.

The modest roar from outside has died down to a respectful buzz that still somehow manages to echo in the cavernous room. Louis runs his eyes all over it, the candles flickering over the blocks of stone, the altar, and the various tables set up around the room. It seems far longer than just under two months since Louis has been in here.

“Look who’s up front again,” Niall whispers unexpectedly in Louis’s ear, and it sends shockwaves down his neck and into the pits of his eardrum. Louis takes the heel of his hand and rubs it against the left side of his neck to hopefully calm the vibrations down, and he glances towards where Niall has pointed out.

He groans when his eyes fall upon them, because honestly, who else could it have possibly been?

There are six of them, taking up the first and second rows to the far right, and all are spreading out their limbs to claim as much space as manageable for their own. There’s more than enough room for at least a dozen or more people there, but no one will dare say anything to make them move, even the administrators. This means that, somewhere, at least five of the pews in the chapel will be crammed with more bodies than it was meant to hold.

There’s Andy Samuels, a hulking lad whose father is one of the biggest sponsors of all the school’s events and projects; Luke and Ron Ducker, the two identical blond twin brothers who share everything but their toothbrushes; Michael Simmons, a greasy lad with the patience and body mass of a Spanish bull; Nat Chesney, a lanky ginger with constellations of freckles on his nose; and last but certainly not least, Liam Payne. Louis shudders at the last one, rolling his shoulders to try to cover the shakes up. He shrinks into the wood of the pew and his shoulder brushes against Niall’s. He hasn’t personally had any confrontations with Liam himself, has even been cordial with him in the past at church functions and such things, but anyone with working ears has heard all about him.

Liam’s the kind of person who has what Louis likes to call a Jekyll and Hyde Complex, because to authority figures and people who have his good graces, Liam might as well be the live version of one of the various stone angels carved into the marble above their heads. Liam is the ideal boy to bring home to your family – cute, well-mannered, has never touched even a cigarette, and attends church twice a week – but rumour has it that he’s the one directly responsible for Ryan Ramos’s broken face and immediate removal from the school after word of Ryan’s sister’s secret lesbian engagement hit the hallways.

And that’s only the most recent occurrence. It’s well known that the second that you get on his bad side or have views or practises that differ from his own… well, you’re essentially blacklisted. He’s chocolate-coated obsidian – sweet on the outside, black and cold on the inside. Liam came in as a new student four years before, moving into the small village from a few counties over, and has effectively treated the school as his castle, the teachers as his staff, and his fellow students as his subjects ever since. It’s best to stay as far away from him and his group as possible.

Apparently, not everyone is as well-informed of this as he’d thought, because much to his horror, Louis sees a boy walking straight up to their pews with the most painfully unaware and innocent look on his face. Louis can hear him ask, “May I sit here?” and his heart stutters in his chest when all six boys look up at the kid with nothing short of uniform and well-practised sneers on their faces.

“Can we help you?” Michael asks the boy, and Niall whispers, “Poor lad.” Louis silently agrees.

“Everywhere else is full up, and you all look to have plenty of room up here,” the boy says, still standing with a textbook in one of the hands that he had almost relaxed by his side. He clearly has no idea what he’s gotten himself into and what he’s currently standing up against.

“Are you even a Christian?” Liam asks, piping up for the first time. Nat Chesney snorts and Louis could swear that he then spits on the floor. Louis, admittedly, had sort of wondered the same thing as Liam. He’s always been told not to judge ( love thy neighbor and all that ) but it’s a rarity to see someone of the boy’s skin colour in a place like this. There’s room for confusion or, at the very least, genuine interest in Louis’s case. The boy has a challenging look on his face.

“Is that relevant?”

“It is if you’re in a Catholic school.” Liam replies back curtly, and Louis’s heart stops when he sees the young man get to his feet and push past Luke’s legs to get closer to the aisle. He towers menacingly over the boy. “Why don’t you go home and pray there, Paki?” he spits with an almost unheard of amount of malice laced heavily in every syllable that slips through his teeth. “We don’t need you defiling a place like this.”

He doesn’t know why he does it, doesn’t even know how it’s possible, but Louis finds himself slipping out of the pews, sloppily crossing the Trinity over his chest on a barely bent knee, and standing at the boy’s side in a split second with a protective arm around his neck, even before the strange and seemingly fearless lad can finish replying, “Well, that doesn’t seem very Christian of you.”

“Gentlemen,” Louis says with as large of a grin as he can possibly muster, “you all seem a little tense. What seems to be the trouble?”

There’s a moment of terse silence as Liam and the five boys behind him try to piece together exactly what is happening. Louis’s not exactly what one might call popular, but nearly everyone at the small school knows who he is in some way or another. These six are no exception. Eventually, just when Louis’s cheeks are beginning to ache from holding their stretched and now somewhat awkward smile, one of the twins breaks through the quiet in a very thick Welsh accent.

“You know him, Tomlinson?”

“Not at all, dear chap, but I’m sure that –” Louis stops and whispers in the boy’s ear. “What’s your name?”

“Zayn Malik,” the boy replies just as quietly, and Louis thinks that the name suits him.

“Yes! I’m sure Zayn Malik here,” Louis jabs a hard finger into Zayn’s gut, trying to transfer the message of shut up and let me handle this through his fingertip, “was just a bit confused. He’s the new kid, you know? Nothing to get hostile about.”

“You might want to tell him to learn quickly.” Liam crosses his arms and swipes his tongue across his bottom teeth. He looks like he wants to rip Zayn apart. Maybe ritually sacrifice him. Louis wouldn’t put it past.

“You can tell me yourself. I am standing right here.” Zayn shoots a harsh glare at the boy in front of him. Obviously, Louis’s earlier message had not been received. Zayn is a good few inches shorter than Liam, but he’s still looking up at the boy with raised eyebrows like the grown person in front of him is nothing more than a child throwing a tantrum. God, the things Louis would give up to have Zayn Malik’s guts of steel.

“Okay, I think we best remove ourselves from the situation here, Zayn.” Louis puts his hands on Zayn’s shoulders. “You can sit with me and Niall.”

“Hang on a minute, Louis,” Liam speaks again before Louis can fully direct Zayn’s body towards where Niall’s still sitting with an alarmed look on his face. “If the man wants to talk, you should let him talk.”

Louis throws a glance over his shoulder after pushing Zayn in front of him. Gutsy ( and possibly inspired by Zayn’s own boldness ), he replies with a smile, “What, so you can threaten his mum or use brute force to push him to the ground? That wouldn’t be much of a fair fight, now would it, Li?”

“What’s this about a fight, Mr. Tomlinson?”

Louis stops dead in his tracks and looks to where the familiar voice has come from, and as he suspected and feared, Sister Janes, his old English teacher and choir instructor for the year, is standing in the aisle with her hands clasped behind her.

“Uh,” Louis and Liam both chorus dumbly, looking at each other and trying to find the answer for the sister’s double-edged question.

“Mr. Payne,” Sister Janes begins with an outstandingly unimpressed look that’s likely taken years of practise to master, “would I be incorrect to assume that there is a problem here?” Beside her stands a boy, looking halfway as deer-in the-headlights as Louis probably does now, and Louis thinks for a second that he’s seen him a few times at church and around the school. He knows about Liam and what kind of position the sister has just put Louis in. There’s no way he doesn’t know.

“Problem, sister?” Liam breaks the mutual stare and cocks his head to the side. “No, no problem at all.”

“That’s not what it sounded like to me,” she says, and looks to the boy on her left. “What did it sound like to you, Harry?” Louis can see the whole whites of his eyes from how wide the boy Harry has them now. He’s afraid and doesn’t want to be here, Louis can see that now. Oh yeah, he definitely knows about Liam.

“I… I…” he begins, looking at Louis, then Liam, then the sister, and back to Louis. “I don’t know, sister. I wasn’t here, I – I don’t want to make assumptions.” Louis can clearly see the words I’m sorry written in his eyes even from where he stands as he looks at Louis in a clearly pained way. Sorry I can’t be brave. Louis forgives him as best as he can with his own understanding look.

“And you, my boy,” the sister speaks softer now, turning to Zayn, “is everything alright here?”

Zayn flicks his eyes to Louis, unsure of how to proceed. Louis shakes his head as subtly as he can manage, but then he wonders if Zayn is aware of the kind of power he holds in his hands right now. Technically, he could begin the long process of bringing down the figurative kingdom that Liam has built around him with one fell swoop. It would be total social and physical martyrdom, of course, but Louis almost wishes the new one would be daring enough to do it.

“No trouble, sister.”

Sister Janes looks at the eight young men in front of her with a hard face, giving a particularly stern look at Louis. His stomach churns.

“I’m not sure what you all take me for - a fool, or a pushover.” She crosses her arms and stares directly at Liam now, her glare as hard as the worn stone that makes up the walls. “Word travels in this school, Mr. Payne, you know this well. If I hear so much as a sigh regarding you giving someone else trouble, I won’t be nearly so kind as to give you the benefit of the doubt.” Zayn obviously hasn’t totally pacified the sister, but she takes the one named Harry with her with nothing more than a nod and a, “You may want to take your seats, boys.” They all breathe a collective sigh of relief – Louis, Zayn, and Liam’s whole group together.

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Louis whispers in Zayn’s ear, and pushes him again towards where Niall is sitting. Zayn only looks back at Liam once, an intrigued expression dancing across his face.

“What the bloody hell was that all about, then?” Niall whisper-yells when the two make it back to the pew. Louis crosses himself for the third time that morning before he squeezes in between Zayn and the hard edge on his right to force his large legs into the tiny space. “Are you okay?”

“We’re fine.” Louis wiggles his hips to adjust. “Niall, the one halfway in your lap is Zayn. Zayn, this is my live-in leprechaun. He grants me wishes and gives me gold if I feed him properly.”

“Someday,” Niall sighs, “he’ll get tired of the leprechaun jokes.”

“Nice to meet you.” Zayn twists his body to shake Niall’s hand with a smile. Louis groans at the increasing tightness and elbows Zayn in the side.

“Do you mind, mate? It’s snug enough as it is.”

“Sorry.” Zayn makes himself as small as possible and holds his hands in his lap. “Louis, was it?”

“Louis Tomlinson.” He nods his head rather than contorting his body again in order to formally shake. He and Zayn are probably past that point in their relationship anyway. How strange to consider what they already have a relationship. Then again, Zayn sort of owes Louis his life in a way, and that has to be a foundation for something. “I’m sorry we had to meet that way.”

Zayn gestures towards Liam after a beat of momentary quiet. “Is he always like that?” Louis glances to the pews where the six boys are sat, looking back down to the stone floors when he meets Liam’s harsh stare. Really, harsh doesn’t begin to cover it. Louis wonders what kinds of hideous medieval methods of torture are going through his mind to practise on Zayn and Louis, and his gut flips uncomfortably.

“Yeah, he is.” Louis can feel Liam’s eyes on them every second of the lengthy welcome-back service, but Zayn doesn’t seem to notice a thing. Either that, or he just doesn’t care.

~

Harry’s hands shake for all of the fifteen-minute morning service, the adrenaline comedown practically making him vibrate next to Sister Janes. Twice she asks if he’s cold, twice he has to tell her he isn’t.

He feels horrible for not being able to defend those two from Liam and his crew earlier, one of the two being the same boy he saw against the wall before he’d disappeared to presumably find a seat inside. Had it been a year earlier, Harry wouldn’t have hesitated to say something to Sister Janes about what he had seen and what he knew, because he would have had his friends to defend him had Liam tried anything afterwards. Liam’s a proper dick, sure, but he knew to leave and let be if he was dealing with an upperclassman. This year, Liam’s last and final year at the school, there’s nothing stopping him and his goon squad from terrorizing every student at the school.

Harry has to force himself to stop feeling bad about it and focuses more on Sister Janes’s words from earlier; finding that person who needs him. Judging from today, that kid needs more than the one called Tomlinson. If he’s getting into confrontations with Liam Payne without so much as a hint of fear in his eyes, then he most certainly is new to the school. Harry makes a pact with himself to find out his name by the end of the day.

The sun nearly blinds him as he walks out with Sister Janes and says his quick goodbyes while he looks over his schedule again.

“Maths first,” he says to her as he rearranges his book bag on his shoulders. “Mostly upper sixths in the class… I don’t know why I do it to myself.”

“You’ve always been in the higher level classes, haven’t you?”

“Only maths and sciences. That’s how I met all the lads years ago,” Harry recalls with a smile. “I just annoyed them until they let me hang out with them.”

“Then go annoy someone else. Go out and make some friends, Mr. Styles.”

Harry’s first class of the year is with Sister Pflumm in room 130 in the East wing of the school, the maths and science halls. The room is only a quarter of the way filled-up by the time he gets there, probably something to do with the fact that everyone else has someone to talk to in the halls, unlike Harry, of course. He chooses a seat in the far back corner, the cream-painted brick wall to his right. Small graphite and pen graffiti still peeks through the fresh coat of summer paint that had attempted to stifle the words underneath and ultimately failed, the most prominent one being a bible verse. ROMANS 13:8 it reads, all bold, capital letters. Harry will have to look it up later. He traces over the faded scrawl with the tips of his fingers just as the bell gives its short, final twenty-second warning for other students to make their way to class.

Harry rolls his shoulders back a few times and takes a notebook out of his bag, opening it to the first crisp white page. Though Sister Janes had advised him to actively search out someone to talk to and make a friend, he’s hoping that if he looks busy by scribbling nonsense words and drawings, he’ll be left alone for now. He still needs to think about things, particularly what the hell he’s going to say to that new kid if he ever finds him and plucks up the courage to say hello.

And it’s not that Harry doesn’t want to make friends or that he doesn’t know how, it’s just that… God, it’s been so long since he’s needed to. Two years of being around the same seven boys has made his people skills a little rusty, and he doesn’t want to find out too late amidst an awkward introduction or a misplaced smile that he’s completely forgotten how to be social with strangers. Mental preparation is essential. That is what this block will be dedicated to. It is decided.

No plan is fool-proof, though, and with the last few seconds before the bells chime comes the rushed and bustling downfall of his entire plan of staying quiet and alone in maths – red cheeks, bleached blond hair and all.

“Mr. Horan,” Sister Pflumm drawls with a conspicuous eye-roll towards the boy panting in the doorway. “Nice to be seeing you this morning.”

“Always a pleasure, sister,” he replies breathily with a wink, and he begins to shuffle through the lines of desks to make his way towards the back… right where Harry is sitting.

Harry recognises him as one of the same boys from earlier that morning before mass, then shoots his eyes back down to the paper on his desk and quickly begins to will the somewhat-stranger away with his mind. It seems that his brain waves could not or would not be received, because the boy sits down directly to Harry’s left. It appears that he isn’t even aware of Harry, who’s curling in on himself and trying to make his body as small as possible, until almost a minute into class.

“Hey, I know you,” he turns to Harry when he finally realises that he is not actually alone in the back. “You’re Grimshaw’s boy, aren’t you?”

Harry looks up from his rough drawing of the bookshelf in the front of the classroom to the source of the out-of-place Irish accent. Well, damn. Just about everyone knows Nick, don’t they? Harry smiles shyly at the boy and shakes his hair out, shoving the short curls to the side. “Yeah, yeah.”

“I’m Niall,” the blond nods a hello and gives a salute with the ballpoint pen he holds between his fingers.

“I’m Harry.”

In the next hour and twelve minutes, Harry learns more about Niall in a single class than he expects to learn maths for the entire year. It’s Niall’s last year here, he technically doesn’t even need this class because he’d had double maths in his eleventh year, had moved from Ireland when he was young and still misses it, has one best friend and one older brother (Greg, who graduated from the school two years before and is now studying history with a minor in film studies at Lincoln U), plays guitar, and had once gotten so trashed at a friend’s New Year’s party that he had crawled up onto the roof and fallen asleep under a blanket of snow. He still isn’t sure how he even managed to get up there without anyone seeing him.

Harry supposes he likes Niall enough, but it’s the casual mention of, “I think I’d like to go to London to play music, get famous and all that. It’s a bit of a dream of mine,” that has him emotionally clinging to him in a split second, because damn, if that doesn’t remind him of Ed so much.

“Sheeran? That bastard?” Niall grins when Harry brings his name up. “Yeah, I know him. Jammed with him on more than one occasion. Actually, the last day of school last year, we both played Sweet Child of Mine in the courtyard on the fountain … rather badly I might add, sort of a last stand type deal.” Oh, so that’s where Harry has seen him before.  Niall cackles loudly when Harry tells him that, like his body can’t possibly contain the noise. Harry’s heart flutters from the sound even after Sister Pflumm shoots a look that could kill right in their direction.

“So Harry,” Niall continues a bit more quietly after the sister no longer has her evil eye directed at the two of them, “what’s your break-hour look like?”

Harry thinks back to his schedule. “I’ve got study break and then lunch both days.”

Niall breaks into another smile and places a ginger hand on Harry’s shoulder, giving it a short squeeze from across the aisle. “Mate, you’re hanging with me and the lads today at studies, you have no say in the matter.” He retracts his hand and loosens his tie a bit, languidly leaning back in his chair as he does. It’s the same charcoal gray as Harry’s, but a far bit fuzzier with wear. It actually looks borderline threadbare in some places. Harry doesn’t comment on it, and instead slides his eyes back up to Niall’s kind and smiling blue ones. “We said we'd meet down at the West Wing stairs after third. You can tell all your mates to come along, too.”

“Well… uh…” Harry gulps and flicks his gaze to the ground. “I don’t really have… any.”

“Any what?”

“Friends.” Even out of the corner of his lowered eyes, Harry sees Niall’s almost pained expression, pity laced in the lines of his lips.

“What are you talking about? You have loads of…” Niall begins and breaks off tentatively. “What happened?” Harry shrugs and flicks his pen around his desk, letting it roll up on the slight incline and back down to his waiting hand.

“They’re all at uni now. All of them.”

All of them?”

“Mhm.”

Niall clicks his tongue. “That’s nothing short of proper shite, mate.” He pauses for a moment and looks up at the clock before grabbing his bag off the floor and stuffing his unused pen back in a random pocket. “It’s a good thing you have me, then. You’d be right outta luck.”

Harry grins at Niall, who’s trying his very best to keep his mouth in a line. His pinking cheeks betray him. “That’s true.”

When the bell rings a minute later and the two part ways – Harry for physics, Niall for the Arts Wing – Harry feels like he’s walking on clouds. He’s made a friend, found a group of people to eat lunch with, and most importantly, is not going to be alone for the rest of the year. A successful day so far, and it’s only a little over a fifth of the way done.

~

Louis hadn’t meant to be late on his first day to theatre studies, he honestly hadn’t. It isn’t his fault that Zayn’s new and didn’t know where his English class was and had needed Louis and Niall to walk him there. It isn’t his fault that Niall’s first class had been a whole building and a courtyard away from there. It certainly isn’t his fault that he’s the resident favourite of Brother Winston and Louis knows from experience that he won’t mind if his student is five minutes late or fifty. Brother Winston is one of the younger and more even-tempered of all the staff at the school, easy to get along with and even easier to get away with stuff from. After spending two years on a first-name basis with the man, he can’t say he’s worried.

“Ah, Tomlinson! Thought I’d seen you on the roster somewhere,” his teacher teases from the stage as Louis enters through the front doors of the theatre, allowing a thick column of sunlight to stream across the velvet maroon seating. A few of the more settled students visibly wince at the change in lighting. He closes the door with a click behind him and leans back against it.

“Sorry, Ben. New kid needed my help navigating the West Wing.”

Brother Winston tilts his head to the side and smiles cheekily. “Scout’s honour?” Louis raises two fingers up in reply. “Alright then, Mr. Helpful. Take a seat wherever you like, presumably by Mr. Lucas. Row two, stage left.”

“Aye, aye, sir!” Louis bounds down the small flight of steps to where he now knows Stan, who’s been his friend for donkey’s years, is sitting. He moves as quickly as he can without tripping. “Sorry mate, you wouldn’t believe the day I’m having already,” he says when he gets there, dropping his bag heavily into one of the seats in the row in front of him.

“You took your sweet time,” Stan whispers in his ear when Louis takes the seat to his right. “Josh isn’t even back from Spain yet, the lucky bastard, so I had no one to sit with this morning. I’ve been all alone, on my own in the cold, dark world, and when you didn’t show, I thought I’d been ditched altogether.”

“That’s simply terrible. I can scarcely imagine what scarring trials and tribulations you’ve faced.”

“I only took this class so I could hang out with you for three hours out of the day.”

“Oh baby, you shouldn’t have,” Louis smirks.

Stan punches Louis’s shoulder lightly and stretches his legs under the first row seats as far as he can. “Well, I did, so don’t be late again, damn it. I had to actually talk to Chesney because you weren’t here.” Louis nearly swallows his tongue at the name.

“Chesney? As in Nat Chesney?”

“The very same,” Stan replies with a bored expression. He crosses his arms and sinks further into his chair. “He was very interested as to whether you’d be here after he saw me sitting. Seemed a bit too eager, really, now that I think about it – ”

“Stan,” Louis slumps against the back of his chair and hunches his shoulders over, trying to somehow ( quite uselessly, after that kind of entrance ) protect his face from recognition by one of the members of Liam’s stupid gang of friends, “where in the room is he right now?”

“Why, what’s wrong?”

Stan,” he hisses impatiently, cupping a hand around his eyes. “Where. Is. He?”

Stan instinctually leans closer to Louis, mimicking his friend’s panicked body expressions. He speaks quietly. “Well, he’s two rows behind us, innit?” His eyes flicker over Louis’s shoulder and back. “What’s going on? What’s happened?

Louis, of course, ignores his question, and instead rearranges himself into a more normal position, sitting up straighter and readjusting his fringe. He carefully makes the attempt to look nonchalant and survey the room, putting an arm on the empty seat back beside him to slowly turn his head and look around at his classmates, until he’s looking behind him.

Nat Chesney’s staring directly back at him, and if Louis hadn’t known with a good eighty-five percent certainty that Nat has never once brought a slice of human meat in his lunch bag to school, he would say he looks predator-like. His grin only becomes more intimidating when he realises Louis’s finally looking in his direction, and Louis reassumes his earlier position of being as small in his chair as he possibly can with his eyes set rigidly to the front almost militaristically. When the hell had freckled gingers become the most frightening creature in all of Europe?

“Louis?”

Louis glances to Stan, shakes his head, and mouths, “Later.” He tries to pay attention to Brother Winston giving the class expectations onstage above them and think of anything other than the fact that he has another two and a half hours of feeling Nat’s eyes on his neck to look forward to today, and three hours every other day until the end of the school year.

God help him.

~

Harry isn’t going to lie – physics was his favourite class from the word ‘go’.

He loves his religion and he loves his school, but there’s something so nice about unaltered, untainted, no-bullshit science that makes his skin tingle, especially when it’s taught by a competent teacher who believes in what he speaks of. He’s rather glad for this. Since the major reform at the school several years ago, that along with the ability to drop religious education a year early if so desired, there’s been an allowance of teachers to enter the school who aren’t strictly Catholic, and they have since been gifted with such minds and subjects as the one Harry’s able to experience this year. He’s an American professor who’s taught at universities before coming to the school, a brilliant man with a big body and a bigger mind, with a voice that booms around the classroom and reminds the year eleven of a rocky seashore. Harry loves him, too. Dr. Flynn is a man who declares that “while teaching in the classroom, my only god is science,” and though the class size is small for this reason, as not many people agree with his teaching at the school, it only makes it more intimate and easier to pay attention.

It’s amazing and mind-blowing; the universe and everything in it can be explained with math equations and scientific theory. People are working on defying gravity, exploring what other galaxies look like through cameras the size of a lorry, and discovering new methods of medicine. If that isn’t incredible, Harry doesn’t know what is.

He’s rather sorry to leave his second block class to head across campus to the gymnasium for Phys Ed, as he knows that there’s no way he’s going to have a scrap of luck in finding anyone willing to give him a second’s glance there, much less any new friends. He hates sport, has been picked last for everything since the beginning of time, and his gangly legs and arms make him look like a struggling newborn giraffe in everything he tries to do. No one in their right mind will try to befriend the science and maths nerd, anyhow. Harry has had this fact molded into his psyche since he was a child.

Harry follows the general crowd in through the side door to head to the tiny locker room, suspending his bag off his shoulder onto his forearm to dig into the pocket for his kit. The room smells strongly of antiseptic from another heavy summer cleaning, but the stench of sweat that is so undefeatable to chemical agents still pervades through. Thank God above he only has one more year of this to go, and then he can spend his last two in peace as far away from those allergy-inducing athletic fields as possible.

“Lads,” a sharp voice calls out above the metallic clanging of doored but unlockable cubicles and the dull white noise of teenage boy. Harry recognises it as Brother Radcliffe, a stout and stern middle-aged man who has been the athletic director for the school for almost ten years. “Get dressed and come out. We’ll be giving intros to your instructors this year.”

After a communal groan and post-everyone stripping their identical school uniforms, they all walk out together in a small crowd of forty or so boys and gather in various clumps all over the uncomfortable wooden lines of seating. Harry chooses, again, to stick as far to the back as he can manage. No one ever bothers him there.

He looks around the small, one-court gymnasium to find the afore-mentioned instructors that he’ll have the pleasure of being yelled at by this year, and gulps when his eyes unexpectedly fall upon no other than one Liam Payne. He’s standing proudly next to two other men and is now dressed in track pants and a long sleeved, tight fitting t-shirt, giving a perfect outline to his body shape and how terrifically intimidating it is. His arms are massive, probably capable of crushing skulls with minimal effort, and his chest is sculpted like marble. He also has a shiny whistle strung around his neck, which Harry realises with horror can only mean one thing – Liam is a teacher.

Harry has never felt so small.

“Okay lads, you all know me and Brother Leo here,” Brother Radcliffe shouts across the lines. His voice echoes through the wooden room. “This year isn’t going to be any different with the exception of one thing.” He then turns to Liam. “Many of you already know him, but for those of you who don’t, this is Liam Payne. He’s an upper sixth former, and you should all be giving him the utmost respect, just as you would one of us that you’ve had since your first year at the school.”

Liam smiles up at the students, most of which do in fact know him, others oblivious as to whom and what they’ll be dealing with this year.

“He is one of our most outstanding students at the school,” Radcliffe continues, “and has given up one of his class-blocks to work with you lot. Please give him a warm welcome.”

Harry isn’t sure who starts it, but someone begins clapping for Liam, and the rest of the boys in the room soon follow suit. Liam is absolutely beaming with pride, as trivial as the notion might have been, and Harry can swear he sees a blush spread across the young man’s cheeks. It’s so different from the Liam he had seen this morning, staring down two meek boys with terror in their eyes for nothing more than a bit of fun and a laugh with his friends. Harry isn’t sure if that makes him more comfortable with Liam being his teacher this year or all the more horrified with the idea. He watches as Liam takes a step forward and clears his throat.

“Thanks, everyone. I’m really looking forward to working with you lot.” Liam runs his fingers through his wavy hair and looks up and across all of the rows of lower-level boys. “Feel free to come to me if you need anything, if you need help with something that you’re not sure about, or if one of these two,” he gestures behind him to the other two men with gentle smirks on their faces, “is giving you a hard time.”

Well, that’s… weird.

Very weird, in fact. Liam’s voice and overall tone have completely shifted from that of a scary boy on the playground that wouldn’t even have to verbalize his desire for your lunch money for you to dump the contents of your wallet into his hands, to that of your friendly neighborhood paperboy. Jesus, Liam is either an absolute mastermind or the biggest faker that Harry has ever seen. Maybe both. Yeah, probably both.

“Thanks for that, Li,” the other PE instructor, Brother Leo, says sarcastically. “If you want to take over for now, that’s fine with us.”

“Right then. If you all want to head out to the track, I’ll meet you down there,” Liam points to the exit on the other side of the building. “Make sure you warm up and stretch out; I’ll be taking you around the field a few times.” He gives a strategic pause to allow the group to groan. “Yeah, yeah, first day, I know. I’m not going to let you lot off easy, even if half your heads are still filled with summer, so I’ll make it easy for you. Whoever isn’t down by the time I get there has the honour of running an extra lap with me. Let’s go, two minutes!”

The boys begin clambering to their feet and legging it towards the door in a herd, but Harry holds back a little while so as to make sure he isn’t trampled by the competitive and testosterone-filled cloud of human beings that stream out of the double doorway. He slowly makes his way down the steps with his eyes lowered to them so that he doesn’t fall down the full flight, as he had his second year at the school. He doesn’t need that kind of humiliation in front of his classmates again.

It’s only when he’s reached solid ground that he looks up to find Liam staring at him. Harry freezes in his slowly paced tracks to look back at him.

It isn’t so much of an intense gaze as it is a vacillating one. Liam looks caught off-guard and totally irresolute, a transformation from the proud and teacher-like stance he had held less than a half-minute before. Harry isn’t quite sure what this means, but after he again remembers with a start what had happened earlier on that morning, he doesn’t plan on finding out. He turns towards the door, making sure to hurry once he’s out of sight so that he doesn’t have to do the extra lap that Liam promised the slackers.

As it goes, Liam takes running very seriously.

He’s had the boys run four laps – a whole kilometer and a half – around the football field, the hot black track under their feet only adding to every boy’s post-summer agony with its supplementary heat. Liam chooses to run behind the group, pushing them and then pushing them harder, threatening to, “fail every last one of you,” if someone falls more than two feet behind him.

Harry’s absolutely gasping by the end of it. He couldn’t say running is his greatest ability, but he’s at least a little proud that he essentially led the group from the front. Whether or not it was a testament to his physical strength or just a desire to stay as far away from Liam as possible, he won’t say.

“Good job, boys,” Liam says cheerfully when the run comes to a close. “That was good for a first day back. We’ll be doing something like that every day that the weather’s nice.” Several of the boys are, quite laughably, lying on the ground in pain and moan at the news. Harry, who has his hands on his wobbling knees himself, has to give kudos to Liam for not even breaking a sweat and being able to maintain a steady voice. “Everyone can get back inside at whatever pace you like, you lot deserve it… everyone except,” Harry looks up to find Liam, again, staring at him, “you, Styles. Stay out here for a few more minutes. I think we need to go around for another lap or two.”

“I was up at the front the whole time,” Harry wheezes, “why – ”

“Don’t argue with me, Styles.” Harry’s heart sinks. Damn. Damn, damn, damn it all to hell. So this is what the year holds for him. “Good. Inside, all of you!”

After everyone else rushes – using that term as loosely as possible – up the small hill and inside the gym, Liam and Harry are left to their own devices, Liam never leaving his frozen stance and Harry not moving either. It’s only when all the students have disappeared that Liam speaks again.

“Walk with me,” he says, and moves past Harry to very slowly start around the track. Harry follows him, of course.

“Thank you for earlier today,” Liam says after a minute of uncomfortable silence. They’re a quarter of the way around now. “I know it must have been a bit weird with… with Janes right there. And all.” He coughs and keeps his gaze forward, placing his large hands into his pockets. “But thanks for not… I don’t know, like, throwing me under the bus there.” Harry has never felt so awkward in his whole life, which is certainly saying something.

“Uhh, you’re welcome?” he replies, twisting his mouth so as to make sure nothing else comes out. He nibbles on the inside of his lip and looks to Liam with a questioning expression in his eyes.

“It was just… it’s unusual to have people come up to us, especially someone like him,” Liam says with a tone that Harry quickly recognises as dramatic disgust. He’s talking about the new kid, of course; the one Harry knows to have been simply ignorant to Liam’s ways. “You get what I’m saying, right?”

Harry does understand, certainly, but the question is awful. The idea of searching for validation for hatred of a perfect stranger by yet another perfect stranger is so far from being okay, light-years far, that Harry’s having a difficult time with maintaining the ability to keep walking and simultaneously think about how mind-blowingly idiotic the notion is. How can Liam possibly ask Harry to side with him? He briefly imagines his group of friends behind him, one of them Indian and one of them black, both with a hand on his shoulder and pushing him to say the right thing, damn it. Say the right thing.

Harry sighs. Liam and his friends will be leaving next year. Harry can put up with ten months of whatever Liam can throw at him.

“Can’t… No, I can’t say that I do.” The slight hope that Liam has held in his eyes burns out in a flash as Harry gives him a hard look. “Like, I get you’re sheltered or whatever, but the fact that you feel the need to demonize someone for the colour of their skin or their religion or whatever and then try to justify it is just –”

“No, nonono, you’ve got me all wrong!” Liam stops walking and brings his hands to his chest. “I’m not… That’s not…” He looks lost for words under Harry’s gaze.

“Not you?” Harry snorts and begins walking across the grassy pitch inside of the track back towards the school. “Honestly, I don’t care to hear it. If this is all you’ve kept me outside for, I think we should probably go in.”

The rest of the block passes without incidence. Harry goes through the football drills that Brother Leo gives the boys surprisingly efficiently, and Liam remains unusually reserved in the corner of the room, only snapping orders or giving help when someone looks as helpless as a fish out of water.

~

Louis wishes he could say that he’s one of those people who enjoys maths, or is at least kind of good at them, but who would he be kidding? He’s an arts kind of person, the one who gets maximums of 75 on tests on a good day with at least two hours of studying, but excels when asked to recite a scene out of a play. His GCSEs from year eleven had only proven this point. Louis knows his limits. Statistics and probability ( why, oh why? ) is only going to be made all the more horrifying with the fact that it’s after three hours of being around Nat Chesney, someone who probably has his name inked onto a figurative hit list.

He hadn’t taken his eyes off of Louis until the class of fifteen was forced to come up on stage and tell their entire life story in two minutes or less in an accent of their choosing. Stan had done a god-awful Australian one with 44 seconds because he was, “just not that interesting, you know? I’m just kind of here right now, waiting for something to happen.” Louis had chosen a Canadian one that he’d picked up from Degrassi reruns ( he’d deny ever even knowing the name of the show if you asked him about it ) and gotten it down to 1:43. It was good fun and Louis had regained his ever-present smile up until Chesney had not so discretely muttered, “poof,” under his breath with a cough as Louis sat down again. His blood had gone cold and he leaned into Stan for comfort, which his friend gladly gave.

Maths had gone no better.

As his luck would have it, he’s ended up with both of the Ducker twins, Ron and Luke, in his class. Though they don’t sit anywhere near Louis, who has elected to sit in the very front row to prevent such things from happening, it doesn’t stop them from trying to throw tiny bits of paper down his shirt when Brother Thomson isn’t looking. Louis counts thirty-four tiny scraps sitting around his desk after the bell rings, with only seven that actually make it down his back.

When he gets up to shake them out, Luke somehow beats him to the exit with a loud, “Wow, Tomlinson. You’ve made a right mess of that desk, haven’t you?” before he exits with his brother. Brother Thomson looks up and sees the many balled up pieces of paper littering the ground before Louis can run out the door.

“Tomlinson!” Louis stills. “My classroom floor is not your rubbish bin! Pick it up and dispose of them properly.”

So thank God that’s over for the day.

Louis searches through his tiny locker that had been assigned to him his first year there, shuffling around through it ( how had it become messy again already? ) and trying to make room for the textbook that had been handed to him as he’d come into the classroom. It’s time for break-hour now, and he’s promised he’ll meet Zayn and Niall in the West Wing stairwell so that Zayn won’t get lost again. He won’t be in need of his bag for fourth block theatre tech, so he stuffs it inside as well. Louis wonders if Zayn made it to his biology class alright over on the East without anyone helping him and closes his locker, only to find someone behind it in wait for his attention.

Christ, Payne.” Louis holds a hand to his stuttering heart.

“Thought so.” Liam grins. He’s obviously quite pleased with himself that he had given Louis a start, most likely believing that it was born out of fear of him… and if Louis’s being fair, he isn’t far off. No matter. Louis still wants to spit in his face.

“You snuck up on me,” he begins to defend himself, but he quickly seals his lips when he sees Liam’s fist by his side. It’s balled up tightly, the knuckles an unsettling snowy white.

“Keep telling yourself that.” Liam leans onto Louis’s locker and casually crosses his arms, and Louis wonders if he should be offering him tea with the way he’s apparently made himself at home standing next to him. For the first time, Louis notices that his hair’s wet, like he’s just gotten out of a shower. He also hears Liam’s fingers crackle as he pops every joint individually, and the veins in his neck push against their pale confines. Louis has never seen a human being as tense as Liam looks. “You know why I’m here.”

Louis sighs and shoves his hands in his back pockets. “It was a heat of the moment thing, Liam. Honestly, I –”

“I’m not sure who you think you are, Tomlinson,” he says quietly, and there’s something about his words that sounds awfully aggressive. “That was very… unexpected of you in mass this morning.” His eyes flick over Louis’s shoulder, and then he smiles. “I didn’t appreciate it.”

Louis fights the urge to look behind him when Liam appears to nod at whoever’s there and requiring his attention. He swallows hard and puffs his chest up as much as he can manage to match up with the boy who’s practically towering over him. “Well, I personally think it’s wise to be tolerant of other people’s differences. Obviously, that’s something you have yet to learn.”

Liam’s attention snaps back to Louis like a rubber band, and his eyes go hard. “Obviously, you have to learn about something called ‘respect.’ You know, towards the clear superiors.” Louis readjusts his mask of confidence that has been slightly displaced from Liam’s look and smirks. He isn’t sure where all of this self-assurance is coming from, but he likes it.

“And that would be you, would it?”

“Of course not. I was talking about God.”

“…God?

“Yes. I have high doubts He would be too pleased about you fraternizing yourself with someone like Malik.” Louis actually laughs – he just can’t help it. How is it possible that someone like Liam even exists?

“First off Liam, he’s enrolled in a Catholic school, so I seriously doubt Zayn’s that much of a danger. Secondly, I have my own doubts as to whether or not God would be all too pleased with you using hate speech in a place of worship and whatnot.”

Liam leans his head against the cool metal of Louis’s locker and sighs wearily. “Look Louis, I like you enough. Our dads are friends, and I think we should be, too, so do us a big favour and don’t mess this up for yourself. We’re going to let you off this time; I’ve got nothing for you but a figurative handshake.”

We? It’s then that Louis makes the mistake of choosing to look around at his surroundings, finding something that he’d only expect if his life were a teenage drama-comedy. The way that his day is going, he’s starting to think it’s a possibility.

All of Liam’s friends are basically surrounding them, Nat and Andy on the opposite wall, the twins further down the hallway and looking at him like he’s a meal. Louis can only assume that Michael Simmons is behind him, the one that Liam has been periodically glancing up at. Louis thinks of sharks. The fight or flight response is in full swing, breathing down his neck and pushing him down to make him feel absolutely tiny, like he’d rather just be stuffed into his locker and kept there until the sun rose the next day rather than deal with Liam right now. But where could he go? Shit, shit. Louis’s panicking, he can feel it. This is bad, very bad, because Louis hasn’t had a panic attack in months, and for very good reason.

“But if you ever try to pull something similar to what you did today again,” Liam continues a far bit more quietly, “we won’t hesitate to make yours and your new little mate’s lives a living hell. You and I are both fully aware that we have the ability to do so. Deal?”

What’s he supposed to do? He nods and casts his eyes down, every ounce of confidence from earlier drained like the colour from his face.

Liam claps a hand across his back and Louis flinches. “Good. We’ll be seeing you around, yeah?” He then rejoins his friends in a clump where the twins had been settled and begins walking down the hall towards the stairwell. Liam then stops short and turns back to Louis.

“Oh, and Louis? You may want to wash your hands of that Malik kid. I can still smell him on you.” Liam and his pack disappear around the corner. Louis isn’t aware he’s even shrinking to the laminated floor until he’s there, hugging his knees to his chest while he catches the breaths that had escaped him.

It’s only day one of his last year back at school, and already Louis knows that he is so, so screwed.

~

Harry just about runs head-on into Niall in his rushed attempt to get the hell out of the gym as fast as possible. Even with Liam being quiet and never looking at Harry after their uncomfortable exchange on the pitch, the whole block had been one big awkward-fest. He’d watched Liam excuse himself a few minutes early before anyone else, and Harry doesn’t know the reason for this, but he isn’t planning on accidentally bumping into him again and finding out.

“Harry! I was just thinking about you,” Niall grins and throws his arm around Harry’s neck. “Lou and Zayn have both got studies with us, so we’re gonna meet them up; Zayn’s just got outta bio, I think. I’m pretty sure we’re just going to hang out on the lawns or something.” Thoughts of Liam practically vanish from Harry’s head, replaced by a sudden alarm bell.

“You sure they’ll be alright with me? I mean, I don’t want to… intrude or something.”

“You, my friend, have nothing to worry about,” Niall reassures him, giving his shoulder a good squeeze. “Zayn just joined the family this morning.”

Harry hasn’t heard either of the names of Niall’s friends before ( but what else is new? ) and the encouragement doesn’t suppress the worried feeling in his stomach. “What exactly are your friends like?” He clears his throat. “Like, ‘how can I make a good first impression,’ is what I’m asking.”

Niall separates himself as the two cross the courtyard, and he adjusts his grip on the paper lunch bag he holds in his hand. He glances over intensely to the canteen doors, already swinging open for the boys who have the privilege of eating first this year. “Well,” Niall begins with a thoughtful crease in his brow, “I can’t speak for Zayn, seeing as he’s a bit of a mystery to me right now, but Louis, he’s…” He hums.

“Louis’s my best friend, you know?” Niall kicks at the paving stones that make up the perimeter of the area before it turns to grass. “I’ve known him for years since I was little, and I’ve always just kind of admired him, like a big brother, you know? From what I remember, we just kind of clicked when we first met, so I can’t really tell you how to act.” He glances at Harry before looking around the familiar buzzing courtyard. “I can tell you, though, that I can’t remember a time when I ever felt awkward around him. He’s one of the friendliest, most chatty people you’ve ever met, so if you leave any holes in conversation, you can bet that he’ll fill them.”

“So… talk to him, is what you’re saying?” Over by the West Wing where he and Niall are headed, Harry sees Liam and his friends leave the entrance hallway, all talking loudly over something and punching each other’s shoulders as they head in the direction of the East Wing corridor.

“Or don’t,” Niall shrugs at Harry’s question. “Point is that if you want to be his friend and you show it, he’ll make it happen. Louis’s the kind of person who likes being friends with people, you know?”

“Sounds outgoing.” Harry lifts his eyes when Niall laughs. He quickly notes, now that the sunshine is glinting off of them, that Niall has braces. They’re clear ones, but they’re still there. He's not sure how had he missed them.

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But believe it or not, when I first met him, he was pretty much cripplingly shy.” Niall shakes his head at the memory. “Like a church mouse, he was. His mum actually cried a bit when I came over the first time, she kept saying, “thank God, thank God, my son won’t be alone anymore.’”

Harry isn’t sure if it’s a joke, or if he’s meant to giggle at such a thing like Niall is or not, so he elects the safe route and just smiles.

“He’s still like that occasionally, it peaks through at times. And he’s really quite nervous; ‘anxiety’ is what he says. Neurotic, is what I say. You’ve gotta be gentle with him when he gets like that. You’ll know when he does if you stick around; it’s the strangest regression, especially when you take into consideration how many friends he has now. I think he puts so much effort into making people like him and likes making so many friends because he never really used to have any at one time.” Niall tongues over his braces. “His big thing is theatre now, which is absolutely mad when I remember how he used to be. Bloody good, too, and I’m not just saying it because I’m biased,” he continues. They’re now just passing under the West Wings arch, and shadows throw themselves over the two boys.  “Sometimes though, I’m pretty sure that inside, he’s the same lonely kid who cried if you looked at him too long that I met when I wasn’t even gone ten.”

The pair stop short when they reach the wide, concrete staircase that leads to the second floor of the West Wing.  Niall leans against the whitewashed wall with his arms crossed while Harry idly looks around the hallway, a scattered few of his fellow students moving through it fluidly and casting their voices’ echoes along the ceiling. Harry wonders if he’ll be seeing any of them in his classes, or if he’ll ever see them again at all.

“Hey, Harry?”

Harry looks from the stairs to where Niall stands. “Yeah?”

“I know I told you some stuff about Louis,” he says softly, barely loud enough to hear over the commotion going on upstairs and around them, “but don’t hold any of that against him, yeah?” Harry shakes his head. Niall gives a small smile and looks to the ground. “Okay, good, because… He’s my best friend, you know? He’s loyal, he’s funny, he’s always there when you need him, and… I don’t want you to judge him based around something that he’s not anymore.”

“I wouldn’t, – ” Harry shakes his head again, this time a bit harder. “No, I wouldn’t do that.”

“I figured as much. You honestly don’t seem the type.” Niall kicks his heel back against the wall and looks up to replace Harry’s watch of the stairway. “I think you and Lou are going to get along just – Lou?” Harry looks back to the stairs to see none other than the Tomlinson boy from mass this morning, the one he had failed to stand up for against Liam. He looks positively drained of blood, cheeks as pale as death. His steps are heavy with every stair he slowly comes down, his hands shake, and Harry wonders with dread if he’s about to pass out.

Niall beats him to any movement before Harry can even consider helping, racing to Louis’s side and holding him to his chest. Harry can hear him ask, “What’s happened? What’s he done?” as Louis stands limply in his tight embrace.

“Ni,” Louis whines, his eyes unfocused and glazed over with something that quite looks like fright to Harry, “Niall, I need… It – Liam, he…” Louis trails off after Niall begins shushing him, pulling him by his wrists down the remaining six or so stairs closer to the wall where Niall had dropped his lunch.

“I’ll kill him. Has he hurt you?” Niall asks, his back visibly shaking through his uniform. “I swear to God, I’ll murder him if he’s hurt you.” Louis doesn’t respond, just keeps his eyes low to the ground, puts a fingernail in his mouth to chew on, and shakes his head.

“Breathe, Louis, breathe. You can’t have one out here, okay?” Niall continues, running his hands over Louis’s back and shoulders. “Stay with me, you’re okay. Everything’s okay now.”

Harry feels dazed. This is his fault. It’s his fault that this boy, the one whose best friend had confided sensitive information about just two minutes ago, is standing in front of him shaking like a tree in a hailstorm.

“Do you make a habit of eavesdropping, then?”

Harry turns with a start behind him and finds the people-watching boy he's been looking out for all day descending down and stepping off of the same stairs Louis just has, an electric blue thermos in one hand and a decent-sized sketchpad in the other. He looks icy and angry, a thin line for his lips and a dark eyebrow raised at whom he probably supposes is an auditory intruder.

“You’re Zayn?” Harry takes a guess, and just as the irritated look melts off of the boy’s face, another distinguished and squeaky voice pipes in.

Zayn! Hi, sorry.” Harry glances behind him to see Louis with a brand new posture and countenance dancing across his cheeks. If he were being honest, Harry would say that it looks fake, almost a bit manic with how hard he’s trying to make everything seem okay. His cheeks still haven’t regained their colour. “I was just… yeah, sorry.” Louis walks up behind Harry and places a hand on his shoulder. Zayn looks at Louis and actually sighs. He’s clearly buying into it as much as Harry was.

“You want to talk about it now or later?” Zayn asks Louis, a calm and neutral expression on his face. Louis must somehow signal for something behind Harry’s back, because Zayn nods understandingly and gives a minuscule smile that Harry nearly misses before letting it fade. “Shall we go sit somewhere, then?”

“Yeah,” Louis says cheerfully ( Okay, that one seems legit. Niall had mentioned something about him being an actor, right? ) and gives a short squeeze to Harry’s shoulder. “I know Casper and Jack mentioned something to me over text a few days ago about meeting on the library’s outside wall, so it’s you, me, Niall and… oh, hello again.”

Harry glances to his left into a pair of very bright, blue, and amused eyes, only a hint of whatever kind of panic he had been drowning in moments earlier left in them. They’re the colour of a swimming pool, of a sapphire in his sister’s ring, of a… holy hell, his eyes are the colour of the sky itself. They have tiny lines in the corners of them as the boy grins widely, suggesting nearly perpetual laughter.

“Harry Styles,” he introduces himself, suddenly a bit too lost to think of anything else to say.

“I remember you,” Louis says, giving another short squeeze to his shoulder.

“You do?” Of bloody course he does, he chastises himself after the words leave his mouth. Apparently, Harry has lost the ability to think before he speaks.

Louis giggles. “I do indeed. Then again, how does one forget these curls?” He runs his fingers through Harry’s mass of hair, and the younger boy has to physically bite down on the inside of his cheek from the sweeping tingles that it leaves in the nails’ tracks. Holy hell. “Will you be joining us today as well, Harry?”

“I invited him, Lou,” Niall interjects from even further behind Harry. “He’s in my first block class, and I found out that he’s been left orphaned.”

“Orphaned?” Louis questions loudly. Harry’s ear rings from the boy’s sheer volume. “Well, we can’t have that, can we, dear boy?” Harry shakes his head. “Then it’s decided; you’re one of us now.” Louis takes his hand off of Harry and moves towards the building’s arched entrance, leaving a cooling patch of skin under the younger boy’s dress shirt where he had once been. Harry subconsciously rubs at the loss with light fingers.

“Off to the library, then. I hope Jack’s not picked that spot because he knows he won’t get caught smoking there. I swear to God, Mum used to question me every day that I came home about the smell.” Louis kicks at some of the loose stones around the building’s perimeter as he moves along. “She stopped believing it wasn’t me at one point.”

“Do you think I could get one offa him?” Zayn inquires, sliding his sketchbook under his arm and jogging to keep up with Louis’s pace as the now energetic sixth-former bounded down through the crowding courtyard. “I need something to distract me. I’m fasting.”

“Fasting?”

“Ramadan, mate. Nearly a whole month to go.” Harry and Niall walk slowly behind them, following the two boys that are quickly making their way to the other side of the library hall, one of the rare areas that is safe from any nun’s peeled eyes.

~

Louis isn’t quite sure what to make of Harry Styles. Here’s what he knows so far in the 48 minutes he’s properly known him:

  1.                Harry’s a year 11 who had previously been friends with all upper-sixth formers before they all left.
  2.                He’s big on the maths and sciences, and he’s probably twice as smart as Louis.
  3.                He was born February 1st, exactly two weeks before Valentine’s Day.
  4.                He really hates most vegetables.
  5.                That’s it.

The thing about trying to talk to Harry is that… well, it just doesn’t happen. Louis’s questionable as to what Niall had been so sure about with this one, so certain that he would make an interesting addition at lunch, because he’s actually the human equivalent of a cinderblock with the amount of conversation he’s adding. Harry’s quiet, yet he sits there against the wall and keeps staring at Louis as if he has something to say. It’s a bit unnerving to say the least, and it finally gets to the point where Louis can’t keep waiting for the boy to say what he needs to, otherwise they’ll be there all year.

“Hey, Styles. Can I ask you a question?” Louis walks over to him and plops down to Harry’s left on his knees, pushing away the cloud of smoke that Zayn and Jack are letting up into the air with a short wave of his hand. Harry scoots over to make a bit more room for Louis, tangles his fingers in his lap, and looks down at them. Louis settles and bites his lip. “So, you keep staring at me.” Okay… less of a question, more of an interrogation.

“Sorry.” Harry’s blushing… Christ, he’s actually blushing. Louis wants to cup the boy’s cheeks and cool them down with his palms, damp from the morning dew that hasn’t yet dried in the shadow of the library. He doesn’t, though, just knocks Harry’s shoulder with his own.

“No, no, it’s okay I guess, but, like… why do you keep staring at me?”

Harry chews on the inside of his cheek, still trying to get the words out. His curly hair and rounded, flushed cheeks that really should belong to someone ten years his younger makes him look a bit like a cherub. “I… I feel pretty horrible about this morning, and I honestly haven’t figured out how to apologise for it.”

“You don’t need to apologise. There’s nothing for you to be sorry about.”

“There is though,” Harry raises his eyes. They look sad and guilty and are the colour of blue-green bottleglass. Louis likes them. “You came down those stairs today like you’d seen a ghost. And Liam – ”

Louis sighs loudly to cut him off and rests the back of his head against the rough brick wall. “Liam’s a prick. Born a prick, raised a prick, is now a one hundred percent certifiable prick. That’s not your fault.”

“I know it’s not, but…” Harry trails off and stares at the grass. “I feel like I could have done more than what I did.”

“Like what?”

Harry bites his lip and hums before replying, “Punched him in his big, ugly nose.” Oh god, it isn’t funny, it really, really isn’t, but Louis can’t stop the laughter that’s bubbling out of him. Harry is smiling proudly like he’s just saved the world from a perilous doom, and that only makes Louis laugh harder. It doesn’t help that the boy has dimples that get deeper the harder he smiles. Louis really fucking loves dimples.

“Care to share what’s so funny with the group?” Niall asks with a mouthful of sandwich after Louis has collapsed and curled into Harry’s lap. Louis can’t find enough air in his chest to answer, so Harry takes care of it for him.

“We’re just talking about how particularly odd-shapen Liam Payne’s nose is.” Louis falls into another series of hysteric giggles.

“He does have an odd-shaped nose,” Louis hiccups when two of the other four boys begin to laugh as well, “when you think about it.”

“Large nostrils,” Casper adds, flicking his sandy blond hair to the side. Another flood of laughter spreads among the boys, and even Jack, usually even-faced and cool, cracks into short chuckles. Surprisingly enough, a defence of Liam comes from the last person any of them would have expected.

“Leave him alone.”

Louis sits up, all laughter evaporated from his chest. “Zayn, you’re not being serious are you?” Zayn, even faced and cool this whole time, just snubs his cigarette out in the moist grass in response. “Are you actually going to disagree that Liam is one of the most horrible people to ever walk the campus ground?”

“Not quite. I do think there’s a reason why he is the way he is.”

Niall swallows loudly and crunches his aluminum foil into a tight ball. “And you, the wise and powerful Zayn, are going to break through his barriers and uncover the beautiful and misunderstood soul underneath?”

“Maybe.”

“Good luck with that.”

The warning bell to signal the end of lunch in five minutes rings loudly from the courtyard clock, and all six boys begin to gather their things and get to their feet. Harry, who’s up first, offers his hands to Louis, popping the older boy slightly in the air when Harry misjudges how much effort is needed to get him up. Louis isn’t that offended.

“Right,” Jack coughs into the back of his hand while adjusting the straps of his hideous neon-orange book bag that reminds Louis of the wonky-eyed cross-walk guard from primary school. “Where’s everyone off to, then? Me and Cas are both headed to English.”

“Library,” Zayn says first.

“Tech theatre.” Louis brushes his trousers off and glances over at Niall, who is still struggling to remove every crumb he has on his tie.

“Guitar,” the blond says after a moment’s pause to pick a particularly sticky morsel off. “Was there before, right after first block. Teaching three blocks of it in a row, a right dream.”

The others probably interpret this as sarcasm, but Louis smiles at Niall with a wink. He knows as well as Niall does that his friend has been wishing for this kind of thing since his first year of secondary school. Not only does it prevent Niall from taking classes that he doesn’t even need, but it also gives him credit towards university and a teaching degree through some kind of witchcraft that the school has pulled off.

“Hey, you said you’re teaching guitar?” Harry asks after a few seconds. Louis turns to him, prepared to tell his new friend all about Niall’s big gig, but he’s interrupted by the younger boy before he can do so. “I have that class next block!”

“Wah-hey, how about that?” Niall grins and scrubs a hard hand through Harry’s hair, tugging at several of the thick brown twists. Louis nearly snaps at his best friend’s hand with his teeth when he sees Harry visibly wince away from the harsh pressure. Gentle’s apparently the way to go with this one. Duly noted.

“Will I have to call you Mr. Horan, sir?” Harry questions with a cheeky smile when he recovers, and he leans into Louis. Without even thinking, Louis wraps a hand around Harry’s waist and presses his fingers into the boy’s hip.

Niall raises his arms above his head to stretch them. “I won’t force you, but if you’re in the mood to boost my ego…”

“Don’t do it, H,” Louis squeezes his side. “His head’s big enough as it is.” Louis and Harry both have to duck as a combined unit away from the ball of foil that Niall hurls at them.

~

Guitar’s twice as fun as Harry had assumed it would be, but that probably has something to do with the fact that Niall makes sure that it is.

The small class, a grand total of thirteen boys from various years, is separated into those who know their scales and those who don’t. The former are given to Niall, an even more proficient player than the actual teacher ( these words had come from Brother Mades himself ), and those who require more patience stay with the teacher. Seeing as he had spent years around Ed and had been forced to pick up a guitar on more than one occasion by the same boy, Harry falls into Niall’s group. This is quite possibly the best situation Harry could have asked for, because according to the assistant teacher, Harry can nap the block away and Niall will catch him up on weekends if he’s in need of it.

It’s at this time that Harry realises that with the unspoken promise of after-school hang outs, there’s no getting rid of his new friend. He hopes it means the same for the rest of the boys he’s met. He hasn’t really gotten the chance to talk and apologise to Zayn for this morning like he’d wanted to, nor had he really been social or talkative with the rest of them during break hour out of pure discomfort from the West Wing scene before, but Louis’s definitely something else. Harry feels bad for saying it, especially seeing as Niall has been so nice to him since the start, but there’s something about Louis that draws him in like a current.

And the thing is – though he can’t help but feel a bit pretentious for thinking it – maybe Zayn isn’t the only one that needs somebody on their side. Seeing Louis in such a delicate state this afternoon and thinking about everything that Niall had told him about the sixth former earlier that day has really got Harry wondering. Maybe there’s more to him than even Niall had revealed… maybe he needs someone new. Harry had felt an odd and nearly instant need to stick by Louis’s side at the conclusion of break hour today, even stronger than that which he had felt with Niall this morning. Not to mention that being pressed together at the hip and getting walked to class after lunch had felt more familiar than it maybe should have.

It is, in a word, weird.

“Yeah,” Niall replies softly when Harry asks about it, “he definitely likes you.”

Harry runs his fingers over the class-set guitar’s strings as the two sit in the back and watch in amusement as the teacher struggles with trying to teach his students on how to continue on their scales past a D. The metal sighs in squeaks, and Harry presses his fingers against the wooden neck underneath a bit harder. “How can you be so sure?”

“I know him, and he wouldn’t have been touchy-feely with you to the maximum that he was today if he didn’t feel comfortable around you. I’d say you’ve sufficiently and successfully broken the ice.” Niall scoffs at one of his students as they barely recover their instrument from falling onto the tile flooring. Brother Mades will choke the kid if any damage is sustained, but that’s what he’ll get for being too cool to put the bloody strap around his neck.

“So you’re sure that he’s alright with me sitting with you lads?”

“Yeah.”

“And you think he likes me?”

“You seem more than a little uncertain.”

Harry begins picking at his own scales almost inaudibly, crossing his ankles and licking his lips. “The whole prospect of going through the year with absolutely no one was rough, and it’s sort of the attitude that I took coming in this morning, but I don’t want that for me now that I’ve found you guys, you know? I don’t want to mess this up is all, especially not with him.”

Niall raises an eyebrow and smirks. “Ooh, why ‘especially not’ Louis?”

“I don’t know,” Harry shrugs. It’s the truth.

“If you say so, but if I didn’t know better, Styles, I would say that it sounds like you’ve got a crush.”

Harry knocks his shoulder with Niall’s. “You caught me, Horan. I’ve got a big, gay crush on Louis Tomlinson, and how could I not?”

“He does have a fantastic arse. He takes great pride in it – claims it’s the nicest one in all of England.” Harry receives the harshest glare in history from Brother Mades when he barks out a laugh that can’t be silenced even under the light-hearted threat of detention for disturbing the class or by the two hands, one of which isn’t even his, pressing against his lips.

~

So far, technical theatre’s a bore, but Louis hadn’t been expecting much on his first day when he walked back into the auditorium for his last block of the day to see Brother Winston mucking about and tangled up with the many ropes and curtains on stage. He had resembled a panicked and wide-eyed fly caught in the sticky threads of a spider’s web when he’d looked to a cluster of his students to untie him from his rope prison. The poor bastard.

After the teacher had become disentangled with a bit of assistance, the rest of the class time had been spent going over responsibilities in the class and a pretty uninteresting syllabus review. The only thing that caught his immediate attention was the promise of school plays, at least one by the end of the year, two if Brother Winston had his way, but the spark there had quickly faded when he’d moved onto literally learning the ropes. Louis isn’t quite sure it was the best way to begin such a class that had only just been given a chance to get on its feet, but it was thankfully over before he knew it and they were freed to go back out into the world that they came from.

Tech theatre’s one of the experimental electives that the school agreed to put in place, as is commonplace every new term. The school always has new ones every year, a bit of trial and error to see which ones stick, and along with astronomy and philosophy ( the second of which Zayn is taking for whatever reason ), tech theatre is one of them. Brother Winston had been advocating for such a class for two years, and when Louis heard that it was officially on the list, he was among the first to sign up. This is what he wants to do with his life after he leaves school, after all – what he successfully made it into sixth form to focus on and what he wants to go to university to study.

When the clock finally strikes to signal the end of the day, Louis nearly runs back to the library and arts wing where he’d left Zayn, Niall, and Harry an hour and a half before. He pushes through the small crowd pouring out of the side door and enters the cool and quiet building, and although his eyes immediately fall upon a familiar person the moment he’s stepped in through the door fully, it’s not the one he had been looking for, nor is it one that he wished to see barreling straight towards him.

Liam shoves past Louis without so much as a flick of his eyes towards him, not even taking the time to absentmindedly apologise to the body that he’s just thrown flat against the brick wall from the contact. Louis watches him forcefully push against two year nines before making a hasty escape out of the same door Louis has just walked in through. He had looked flushed, Louis notes – flushed and frustrated.

“So… that was about a hundred times more interesting than I thought it would be.”

Louis turns to the voice. “How’s that?”

Zayn presses his bag into his chest and buries his chin into the rough fabric. Even with his bashful body positioning, slightly curled as he leans against one of the library’s many tables, Zayn maintains the cool and collected front that’s apparently ever present on his lips. “You know how I’m signed up for library aid this year?” Louis nods. “Guess who’s signed up for it with me?”

“You are joking,” Louis groans after giving himself a moment to connect the pieces. “Zayn, what are you going to do?”

The other just shakes his head and sighs. “I haven’t the faintest.” He then squints and flicks his eyes to his friend. “Is it weird that I’m kind of looking forward to it, though?” Once more, Louis has to give himself a moment to comprehend what Zayn is saying. He sits next to Zayn, grabs his hand, and begins tracing along the lines in his palm with a deadpan expression.

“I see you have a long life ahead of you, couple of kids, some health troubles somehow involving a rare breed of lizard, and – Oh.” Louis frowns. “I see you are being shoved to the ground and spat on every day,” he says, choosing to ignore Zayn’s conspicuous eye roll, “because that’s what your future holds if Liam’s in it.”

“First off, that’s not how palms are read. Second off, I’m not convinced.”

“You should be!” Louis tugs Zayn by his wrist closer to his own body. “You haven’t been here as long as I have, and I know – I have seen – that Liam has pulled some real shit before – ”

“Like what happened before break today?” The glare Louis shoots at Zayn instantly isn’t enough to put him off at all. “You said we’d talk about it later. It’s later.” Louis fights off the urge to tug on one of Zayn’s black stud earrings until the whole appendage comes with it.

“If I recall correctly, I gestured with my head, which is a non-verbal, non-binding contract.”

Louis.”

“What?” Louis pushes himself off of the chair and begins walking across the now bustling library ( as bustling as a library can get ) towards the main doors where he knows Niall will probably be waiting. Zayn throws his bag over his shoulder and trails behind. “It’s fine, Zayn. He didn’t do anything to me except be his usual dickish self, and I really hate conflict with people like him is all.” Louis throws up a fisticuffs pose as he blindly walks backwards and looks as mean as he can. “I could take ‘im any day.”

“Uh huh.”

Louis stands up straight at the unmoved look Zayn’s given him and continues walking. “I can take care of myself. And I’m not even the topic of discussion at hand!”

“I shouldn’t be, either,” Zayn protests as they step through the double doors to the outside hallway. About twenty separate shouts of various boys reverberate hollowly against the walls that the two friends settle against. “I think this could be a good thing. You’re the one freaking out about it.”

“I’m not sure what kind of drink you’re currently on, but I can’t imagine that there’s going to be anything good coming out of having Liam Payne in one of your classes.”

Inshaa Allah kheyr.” Louis’s neck nearly snaps when he turns his head at the unfamiliar and out of place language. Zayn smirks.

“It’s an Arabic phrase,” he explains. “My dad taught it to me when I was little. We mostly use it in mosque and at home and stuff when bad things, or things that look like they’re going to be bad, happen. In English, it basically means, ‘God willing, good will come out of it,’ and I believe that wholeheartedly.” He smiles up the stairs and finishes quietly, “Sometimes, you just need a little faith.”

Louis doesn’t know what to say to that.

“So, I’d say that the first day was quite the success.” Louis looks to where Zayn is smiling to see Niall coming down the stairs with a familiar year eleven bouncing along happily behind him, curls and all. Louis can’t help but grin at the sight as well. “I have a very good feeling about this year,” Niall finishes and wraps an arm around Zayn’s neck. Louis nearly bursts into laughter when Zayn’s face goes sour at the contact. Clearly, Niall and his tendency for physical affection is something Zayn will have to learn to love.

“If you don’t count this morning, I’d also say that today was a success,” Harry agrees as he runs his fingers through his hair and sweeps it to the side out of his eyes, and for some reason, Louis wants to mess it up again. He then giggles at how much Harry looks like a sulky kitten after self-control fails him and he re-messes Harry’s wavy locks.

“Well, I’m out of here.” Louis fixes his own fringe and steps away from his younger friend before the younger one can even think of returning the favour. “As enjoyable as today was, I’m looking forward to going home and sleeping until tea.”

“You need to go to your locker?” Harry offers himself up, apparently forgetting his mussed hair in an instant, and Louis can see a faint and familiar glimmer of hope in his eyes. How can Louis possibly refuse him the company – or really anything in the world – when his eyes go all sparkly like that? Louis is surely a goner.

“I do indeed. Would you care to accompany me?” Louis offers his arm out, and Harry clings onto it to pull it into his side.

“West Wing, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Without even thinking, Louis presses his nose into the curly locks on the head just a mere inch below his line of sight and smacks his lips in a massive kiss, and that’s… well, not quite normal. It isn’t so far out of the reign of normalcy that it nearly throws Louis off his feet, but woah. This kid, this brand new face that he has only just come to put a name to today, is making Louis an anomaly to even himself. He feels the year eleven press his warm head into Louis’s nose to create a mutual nuzzle, though, so he can only venture a guess that Harry doesn’t mind so much.

~

“How was your first day back, love?”

They’re the first words Harry hears upon reentering his house since this morning. He’s amazed at how different he feels, contrasting then and now, how heavy he’d been upon walking out and down the stairs on his front stoop. The door pops closed behind him.

“Surprisingly alright,” he answers back, his voice ringing through the hallway. He hangs his mostly empty bag – spare a new physics textbook, some pens, and a couple of notebooks – up beside the coats and colourful hoodies that his mother frequently wears. “I made a few friends, I think.”

“You think?” His mum, Anne, darts her head around the corner of the kitchen. “So you’re not sure if you made friends?”

“I just met them today, mum, I don’t want to assume. They might not want anything to do with me tomorrow.” Harry walks into the kitchen and leans against the smooth, blue tile countertop. His mother pushes a steaming mug of tea across to him.

“Try to be optimistic, sweets. I’m sure they love you already.”

“One of them’s a teacher,” Harry offers as he blows his tea cooler and slides into one of the three tall stools they have there. “He’s an upper sixth, teaches guitar.”

“Does he?” Anne tucks a strand of her thick, dark hair behind her ear and runs a fingertip along the mug rim of her own milky drink. She puts more milk in it than tea, Harry sometimes thinks. “That’s your last class of the day, right? How’d he manage that?”

“Said he’s been harassing the teacher for the past few years about it, and then he was offered the position two weeks before the year started off again.”

“What’s his name, then?”

“Niall Horan.”

“Very Irish name.”

“He is Irish.”

“Then the name’s quite appropriate.”

“Innit.” Harry sips at his tea, finally cool enough to even be considered a good place to put his lips near. “He’s really nice. Offered to give me afterschool help if I’m not doing well with it.”

“I’m sure Ed would help you out over Skype as well if you asked.” His mum smiles and leans over the counter to run her fingers through her son’s hair. “But that is nice. You should have him over some time, I’d like to put a face to the name.”

Harry shrugs away from her and bats her hand halfheartedly. “Muuuuuum. Don’t be weird about it.”

“I’m not being weird about it!” Anne protests and flicks Harry’s ear playfully. Harry puts his tea down to the side and tries to flick her back, but she’s a bit too quick for him and ducks away before he gets the chance. A hearty laugh comes from the lounge.

“What’s your mother being weird about, now?” Harry, who’s currently halfway sprawled across the countertop, looks behind him to see his stepfather approaching.

Anne pushes Harry’s forehead back and he swats at her with a half roll of paper towels he’s found by his hand. She wrestles it out of his grasp and hits him back on the nose before answering her husband. “Harry thinks it’s weird that I want to meet his new friends. Do you think I’m weird for it?”

“Tell her she’s being weird, Robin,” Harry giggles as he again reaches across for the paper towels. “She’s being weird.”

Robin clicks his tongue and pats his stepson’s back. “Harry, be nice to your mum,” he chides, then turns to his wife. “Anne, stop being weird.”

“Oi!” she cries, scandalized, and puts her hands on her hips. “You can make your own bloody tea if you’re not going to be on my side.”

Robin laughs again, genuine and deep from inside of his chest as it always is when he’s with his family, and moves across to Anne’s side. “I’m always on your side, love.” He smacks a loud kiss into her hair and Harry’s insides squirm at her blush that results. They’ve been together for years and yet they still resemble teenagers when they’re around each other. Harry can only dream of finding someone to share that feeling with someday.

“Do you two need a minute, or…?” Harry nudges at Robin’s forearm with his tea mug, and in turn, Robin takes the roll of paper towels out of his wife’s hand and whacks at Harry’s head with it.

“Out with ya, you little imp!” Robin grins as Harry dramatically scrambles out of his seat towards the stairs, arm flailing and tea in hand. “Go on, out with ya!”

Harry tosses a loud, “Get a room, you kids,” over his shoulder and hastily makes his way up the stairs to his room, the first on the right and opposite the nearly perpetually empty one of his sister. He pushes the door open with the heel of his hand and takes another sip of his tea, kicking a small pile of clean laundry to the side when he closes it. The tea’s then sat on the bedside table where Harry’s mobile was left to charge before he left for school, the hand that once held it unplugging the device. Harry hits the lock button twice and glances over his messages in the inbox. Four of them.

Nick Grimshaw : How’d the 1st day go then, babes??? – Nick and Finn xxxxxxxxxx

Raj Mehta : alright there styles howd first day back in hell go??? ;)

Dylan O’Callaghan : Hiiiiiiiiii peanut. Heard it was someones first day back. Did u miss me?

Ed Sheeran : Missed you today, writing new song. May need your input relatively soonish. How was your first day?

Harry’s face nearly cracks with a grin as bright as the sun itself as he locks his phone up again, pockets it, and falls face down across the bed that his mother had probably made for him while he was at school. He grabs blindly for his pillow at the head of the bed and brings it down to his side. The fondness and genuine love he feels for his friends, even while they’re so far away, is positively infinite, stretching the very deepest and darkest corners of his soul out and lighting them up. God, Harry misses them. God, he loves them.

It’s interesting how this feeling reminds him of Louis, the blue-eyed and excitable mystery. Harry rolls onto his back and tucks the pillow under his head as he stares at his ceiling and thinks back on his first day.

The infinite feeling had started on the way back to the sixth former’s locker. Louis had told Harry on their walk to the West Wing that Zayn has the misfortune of having a class with “the beast,” as he’d put it, and had cried out loudly and thrown a hand across his eyes when he’d heard that Harry had a class with Liam as well. Louis had then run a careful and sympathetic hand through his hair, much softer and gentler than Niall had done before. It had, quite embarrassingly, made Harry sigh out loud, but this only made Louis smile. They’d then compared schedules at the locker and found that they had both third block and free period together the next day, and Harry had crossed his fingers that the chemistry partners weren’t chosen by the teacher. The thought of getting a full two and a half hours with Louis and essentially only Louis made his tummy flip happily.

Is that weird given that it’s only the first day back? Probably. Harry doesn’t care too much about that. He rolls onto his stomach and reaches back into his pocket to begin replying to his friends and tell them about the new boys he’s met today.

After he’s shot off a quick response to his friends, Harry glances over to the large cork pinboard on the opposite wall and runs his eyes over the dozens of photographs he has tacked up. Among them is a bird’s-eye view one of him and Gemma, his older sister, lying in the backyard grass, way back when she’d pierced her own lip with a sewing needle and Harry’s assistance in the bathroom during her long, drawn-out rebellious phase after they’d moved. It still looks slightly swollen and red in the picture. She’d only kept it for a month in the end.

On the side, there’s a photograph of Harry on his stepbrother’s back as they walk along a dirt trail. It’s one of the few Harry has of Mike, as he’s much older than Harry and works in Italy, so it’s not often that they see each other as it is. There’s one of Raj and himself at a graduation party, the older boy wearing some ungodly orange and green frock and flipping the bird to someone offside, and another of Dylan pretending to swallow a dark orange sunset on the beach. In the centre, there’s one of Harry and his dad in London with the Houses of Parliament in the background. He’s smiling at the camera with his arms wrapped around the tiny boy enveloped in his embrace and looking just as happy and healthy as Harry remembers him to have been before the end.

Harry wonders what his dad would think of Louis if he were still there. His father was never one to often dislike someone, so Harry figures it’s likely that he would have taken a partiality to the one that Harry is already feeling so oddly connected to. He takes a strange comfort in this, and spends the next half hour wondering when he’ll be able to make an addition to the board, this time with Louis Tomlinson smack in the middle in one of the glossy, 4 by 6 inch sheets that hang facing his bed.

He and Louis are going to be something special. This, Harry can already tell.

~

“How was your first day back, then?” Louis’s father asks from his desk chair when his son enters the tiny room and collapses across one of the two fluffy, worn armchairs. Really, the room should be a walk-in pantry or something. Louis’s practically suffocating in here.

“Remind me again why I elected to have literally half of my year dedicated to the dramatic arts, father?” Louis sighs as he stretches himself out as best he can given the tight space. He rests his head on one of the arms and tries to look behind him at his dad. “It was so boring in there today that I think it’ll be the actual eventual death of me.”

“You probably chose it because it suits your personality so well,” his dad subtly jabs, and Louis chucks a small throw pillow at his chair. He misses by miles. “I still say you should have done that Strength and Resistance course that they brought in last year. Build some muscle on you.”

Louis scoffs and flicks his fringe out of his eyes. “My IQ is far too high for such a class.” He sits up to look at his father, whose gaze is still glued to the email on his screen. A bolded ‘To Mr. Mark Tomlinson’ is written in a large and centered font across the top. “And Ben even sent you a handwritten letter asking for me, you remember that?”

“Who now?”

“Brother Winston, dad,” Louis clarifies.

“Then you should call him ‘Brother,’ Louis. It’s disrespectful.”

“Nah, we’re too good of mates for that.” Mark laughs and finally turns away from his work, swiveling around in his chair and leaning back as far as it will allow his weight to go. He crosses his hands in his lap.

“Speaking of mates, meet anyone new today?”

Louis matches his dad’s posture and crosses his own hands. “Indeed I did, father, indeed I did. One’s named Harry – he’s a year eleven, really, really smart kid – and then Zayn, lower sixth former.” His father’s brow creases.

Zayn?”

“Yeah, Zayn Malik.” Louis smiles, remembering the quick wit and eloquence of the boy that morning. Guts of steel. “Brilliant, he is. Good lad.”

“He sounds Muslim, is he?”

Louis’s smile falls at the brooding look on his father’s face. “Well… well, yeah. He is, but he’s a Catholic too, I think? I don’t know really, he hasn’t explained it all to me yet. It doesn’t really matter though, does it?”

His father taps his chin with narrow eyes, looking both inquisitive and concerned. “I suppose not, but… Think that’s wise, Lou? Being friends with someone like that?”

Louis rolls his eyes and groans, exchanging the casual pose for a pained one. “Oh God, not you too.”

“I’m just saying,” his father says with a sigh, losing his own posture for one of slight defence and raised shoulders. “I’m not racist, but they’re really quite different from us, you know? It’s just a fact. Different culture, different morals and all.”

“I’m sure his morals are perfectly fine. Christ, you sound like Liam Payne.”

“What’s wrong with that?” his father asks. “If I had it my way, I’d have you be a bit more like him!”

Louis scoffs, flicks his hair to the side with a quick finger, and deliberately disregards the hurt that races through him. “He’s a complete and utter twat, dad.”

“Language,” Mark chides his son with a stern look. “Now, look. I know you love the theatre and all, and we ended that little feud years ago. I said I was okay with it and I am, but that Liam, that lad is a man. Does sport, gets good grades. His father’s been bragging at the pub every weekend about him being eligible for scholarships for club rugby, you heard that?” Louis tries to ignore the sting of his dad’s words again and brings a fingernail up to his lips to chew on.

“They have scholarships for the arts too, dad,” he mutters around the finger in his mouth. “They have scouts that come to plays and stuff, and Ben said that we’re having two of them this year. It’s not just sport and academics that you can go to school for, you know.”

Louis’s dad nods. “I know that, and… yeah. I suppose you’re right. But how are you going to make a career out of that sort of thing? I’m just concerned for you is all.” His dad leans back in his chair and sighs deeply. “But you know what? We got off topic. You can do what you want with your life, whatever makes you happy, and you can be friends with whoever you want to, Lou. It’s up to you; you’re a grown lad now. Just be careful about the company you keep, alright?”

“Thanks for your overwhelming support,” Louis replies sardonically and prepares to get up. A soft gaze takes over his father’s face, evening out the lines in his forehead that had been there just a moment before.

“Hey now.” He reaches out a hand to brush across his son’s thigh, and Louis stills. “Lou, you’re my son, I want you to succeed, that’s all. I don’t want you struggling in the world like I had to for so many years, like when your mum and I first had you. I want you to meet a nice girl and have a nice house, you know?” His father purses his lips and leans across his knees. Louis relaxes back down.

“To settle down, have me a couple little ones to run around in the garden back there. I want you to be happy and comfortable, to never have to worry about money like I had to. I don’t want you to have to work holidays and birthdays and double shifts to keep your lights on. You’re growing up faster than I can keep track of you, and… I hate to say it, but it’s a little overwhelming to see how fast you’ve become a young man. I just want to make sure that you can find your way in the world when it’s time.” The man cracks a smile, and Louis ignores the slight glistening of his dad’s eyes. God forbid this turn into a crying session. They haven’t had one of those in years.

“I swear, just yesterday I was getting a call from your teacher because you’d let the class pet loose and wouldn’t stop crying, and this year, you’re leaving home,” Mark continues. “And I know I come across as strong with a lot of the things I say sometimes, but I’m just… I’m looking out for you. I just want the best for you; I just want to see you happy. That’s my dream for you.”

Louis smiles, his dad smiles back, and peace between the two once again fills the room. “I know you do.”

His father isn’t perfect, but who is, really? Louis loves him like one should love a father, and they have a brilliant relationship for the most part. It had taken some time to get there and they’ve always been very different in terms of personalities, granted, but they care for each other through it all. That’s something that Louis holds onto when things get really tough between them; his dad only ever has the best in mind for his boy, and Louis only ever wants to do him proud. He does care about his son, no matter how much of a front he puts up about it some days.

His father pats his thighs twice and gets to his feet, a tiny groan escaping his throat. “I was going to make a cuppa, you coming with?”

“Sure.” Louis hops to his feet and follows his father through the plush and homey living area after the man has squeezed out of the small doorway. Louis trails his hands along the woven blanket that’s draped over the couch’s back. “So you never got to tell me how your day was.”

“Ah,” his father begins, moving along the counter to grab two mugs out of the dishwasher. “It ended quite interestingly. You know how I had to go down to London and get the train so early today, before you woke up?” Louis nods. “So I got there around 7 this morning, completely calm outside the building, lovely day. Walk into the meeting, lo and behold, we’ve got four members of the House of Parliament sitting there!”

“Really? Any from around here?”

“Nah, they were all from, like, Essex area.” His father grabs the kettle off the hob and fills it with water from the tap. “Anyways, they’re there as guests to listen to the company’s presentation, I do my bit, and the meeting’s over in less than three hours. I only chat with them a little on the elevator down, nice blokes, but we walk outside and it’s practically an explosion.”

“What?” Louis leans forward on a fist. “What do you mean?”

The gas clicks alight and the thick clunk of metal meeting metal sounds as the kettle is sat down. “Signs and people everywhere, just an explosion of noise! It was hard to tell exactly what was going on at first, but then I saw what the signs said; all this rubbish about gay marriage and the like.” His father leans against the counter towards Louis. “They were all rainbow and feathered and glittery, like something your sisters would be responsible for… Christ, I’m getting a headache thinking about it.”

Louis nods. “They’d heard about the members of Parliament being there, then?”

“Right you are. The amusing thing about it was that those men weren’t having any of it. In fact, one of them turned to me and said, ‘I think I’ll eat my hat before I let these freaks go anywhere near a license.’ About the damn funniest thing I’d heard all day, a lord of the government saying something like that.”

Louis’s stomach swoops uncomfortably for the umpteenth time that day, almost making him feel ill with the impact it carries. He hates when his dad talks like this. “Don’t be cruel, dad. They’re only fighting for what they believe in.”

“Wey, look at you; defending the poofs and hanging out with the Pakistanis,” his father teases with a grin as he rummages through the cupboard for two tea bags. “You’re turning into a right baby liberal, aren’t you?”

“Some people would argue that it’s a good thing,” Louis mutters, keeping his eyes cast down to the paper napkin his fingers have found and are now tearing apart. “Broadening the perspective and all that.”

Mark scoffs and drops the two small bags into the empty mugs. “Some people would also marry their kin if they were given the chance with these new marriage laws that they’re asking for. It’s not right, and I agree with that member. Not in my bloody country.”

There’s really no point in fighting this, and his stomach is twisting a bit too much to think of anything to respond, so Louis just hums and goes back to tearing the tiny pieces of tissue that are already scattered across the surface of the countertop into even smaller shreds. To combat the awful and heavy feeling that tends to come around whenever his father begins to talk politics, he thinks of his friends and what the upcoming year has in store for him. The first thing he thinks of, of course, is Zayn.

Poor Zayn. God, Louis feels awful for him, being tormented for an entire hour and a half with a walking nightmare, someone who holds such power over people’s heads. He probably gets enough in a day from people like Louis’s father, but to go to school with one and face Liam every day in a place where you’re supposed to feel safe? Louis feels a twinge of anger remembering the helplessness that he himself had felt in the hallway, pressed up against his locker and feeling like he was halfway in shutdown mode. That won’t do, though, seeing as the whole purpose of the readjustment of mental focus is to make Louis feel less bad than he already did. Happy things, Lou. Happy things.

Louis thinks of Harry instead.

Harry Styles – what an odd specimen of human. He’s cuddly and full of affection like Louis is, but even Louis doesn’t look at people the way that Harry does, like the lad’s made of sunlight or something and just has to shine it upon other people. He’d fully noticed it while walking home with the year eleven today, the younger boy almost instinctually grabbing onto Louis’s right arm and pulling it into his side as they strode along the pathway. When Louis had looked at him, Harry was staring up at with such a genuine happiness in his eyes that Louis had lost his words.

And he has chemistry with him tomorrow, too. He supposes he could look forward to that class, even more than he would drama, and that’s something Louis never thought would ever flicker across his mind. Plus, he has English with Niall and choir with Zayn. He’s looking forward to tomorrow, definitely looking forward to that fond look of Harry’s being thrown his way for an entire hour and a half.

He’s only drawn out of his thoughts of the younger boy when the kettle begins to shriek.

Chapter Text

Late September is unusually cold this year; Harry decides this while running to Louis’s house with burning lungs before school starts, as has become the norm over the past few weeks.

It’s like this: every morning, Jay Tomlinson invites her son’s friend in for tea when she hears a soft and timid knock at the door. Upon entering, Harry waits downstairs, leans against the kitchen counter that’s perpetually littered with opened bills and teen girl magazines, and listens to the endearing sounds of Louis scrambling around upstairs to either find his “bloody, bloody tie,” or the missing match to an odd sock. Harry sips at his hot drink (two sugars, no milk) and waits for Louis to stumble down the painted flight of stairs with his eyes only half-open. The barely aware sixth former then drags his feet against the hardwood and falls into Harry’s open arms, makes grabby motions at the remainder of the tea in his hand, tastes it, scowls at the fact that Harry insists on putting sugar in it, and then swipes it for his own after adding a splash of milk. They’re pushed out the door the second Louis finishes downing the liquid by Jay ( or one of Louis’s four younger sisters that just so happens to be awake ) into the cool morning air, and they walk with their arms looped together down the pavement to school.

It’s a comfortable routine that the two just happened to fall into six weeks into the term. Harry isn’t quite sure how it had been nonverbally agreed upon by the two, but even if it takes fifteen extra minutes of his sleep away to provide enough time to make his way over to his friend’s house, Harry’s glad they had.

Today, he’s running a bit late… well, very late, and it’s to be blamed on a number of things. The alarm wasn’t set right, his uniform wasn’t where he was absolutely sure he’d left it the Friday before, Nick had decided to drunk-dial him at two in the morning and inform him of the shenanigans that Harry is missing out on at ULeeds ( Who goes to parties on a Sunday night? Harry had asked him, to which Nick had replied in a slur, Anyone who’s willing, ay-kay-ay, me ), and the sun wasn’t out at all to pour much needed sunlight in between the cracks of his eyelids when it was time to rise. The sky’s an overcast gray, any hint of the sun hidden behind a dreary curtain that threatens rain, and that’s what Harry’s running through today in the hopes that his cuppa will still be warm to the touch when he gets there.

Louis is sitting on the front step by the time Harry neatly trips over the kerb onto the Tomlinson’s drive, his head perched atop both of his fisted hands. Beside him on the top step sit two paper cups, both with rising steam that can be seen even from where Harry stands.

“Trouble rising?” Louis smirks, bringing one hand away from his chin to pat the stair to the right of him. His voice crackles like the dry leaves that Harry had trodden on top of on his way. Harry sighs in reply before licking his chapping lips and moving towards the place where he’s beckoned.

Harry slowly sits down next to Louis, careful not to accidentally spill any of the hot tea that still sits behind him. “I would have texted you, I’m sorry. My mobile’s halfway to the grave, though.” Louis picks a cup up with a pink, cold-kissed hand and offers it out. Tea has never really sounded much better than it does now with the dry and brittle feeling of the approaching autumn making home in the back of Harry's throat. Surprisingly though, he's less out of breath than he’d expected to be – he’ll have to remember to thank Liam and his constant insane running tendencies for that. Liam hadn’t been lying when he said that his class would be running every day that the sun was out. Hopefully, the sun will stay a stranger for just one more day so that running won’t be an option when Harry has the class tomorrow. “I need new friends, ones that won’t call me at two in the morning drunk as a skunk to tell me how much they’re not missing me.”

“Let me guess who that was then.” Louis bites the inside of his cheek knowingly. He’s the only one of all Harry’s new friends at school that don’t bother with sympathetic looks anymore whenever Harry mentions one of his university schoolmates or their happenings. Harry’s slightly grateful for it.

“I can’t wait to go to university,” Harry says across the edge of the cup after a moment, blowing a slight stream of air across the surface. “I can’t wait to get out of here and be with my friends again.”

Louis ducks his head and lowers his lips to his own cup in that way that he does, his shoulders slightly raised. “Glad to see I’m being taken into consideration then.”

Noooooo,” Harry drawls and quickly buries his nose into Louis’s wine-red school-issued scarf, a place that has become familiar and homey so quickly, “that’s not what I meant. That’s not what I meant and you know it.” He places his tea beside him to free the hands that quickly wind their way around his friend’s thin waist. Louis pushes him away playfully.

“Nope, I’m clearly unloved.”

“But I do love you,” Harry insists and clings tighter. He presses his cheek harder into Louis’s shoulder, biting the smile off of his lips out of view of two happy and crinkly blue eyes. “I do.”

“I’m not so sure. You were ten minutes late for our morning date, you haven’t drunk your tea that I made for you just the way you like it, and now you’re admitting that you like your other friends more than me.” Louis wriggles one of his hands out from Harry’s constricting grasp and pushes his golden-brown fringe out of his eyes. “If I’m being honest, I don’t know why I bother with you at all.”

“Because you love me, too?” Harry guesses, and if Louis going totally slack in his arms is something to go by, it’s apparently what does it. He sighs into Harry’s hair, still uncovered despite the air cooling further every day, and buries his words in it.

“Yeah, I love you too, idiot.” Harry hums happily, and he feels Louis smile above him. “But as nice as this moment is, we should probably get going if we want to make it to mass on time.”

“Mm, true.” The year eleven pulls away and gets to his feet, and the cold seeps back into his jacket where it had been squeezed out by his friend’s warmth. He misses the heat already. “Did your mum miss me this morning?”

Louis, now on his feet himself with both cups in his hands and his bag slung over one shoulder, shoves him to the side with a playful elbow and walks backwards down the drive towards the pavement to begin the trek towards campus. “Not so nearly as much as I did.”

“Aw, baby.” Harry skips to his friend’s side and attaches himself onto Louis’s right arm, pulling it closer to him and taking one of the two cups of cooling tea from the tight grasp.

“I’m horrifically dependent on you, did you know that?”

Harry grins and runs his tongue across his teeth that have suddenly gone cold from a short gust of wind. “Mutual. I nearly had a heart attack when I looked at the clock and saw what time it was. I thought I’d have to go a morning without seeing you – worst ten minutes of my life.”

“And I’m glad for it. Hopefully, you’ve learned your lesson.”

Harry growls and bites at the fabric that’s stretched across Louis’s bicep. “I didn’t dooooo anything,” he objects, and Louis shoves him off with his free hand.

“Mobile goes on silent at night, double check all alarms before going to bed. Easy.”

“Because you’re the king of being ready and prepared in the morning,” Harry snorts. Louis huffs and flicks his hair to the side.

“Of course not.” He pauses. “I’m the queen.” Harry laughs into Louis’s neck, trying to stifle the overwhelming volume of the noise, and hugs Louis’s arm closer into his side. His tea has surely gone cold by now, but he doesn’t really care. He’s got another boy to keep him warm.

~

They aren’t as late as they had assumed they would be, and the two make it to liturgy with pink cheeks and pinching sides only a moment before the doors to the campus church close to the outside. They make their way to where Niall and Zayn are sitting, cross themselves as they squeeze in, and Louis plays with Harry’s hair while their two friends beside them and the sisters up front chatter amongst themselves quietly.

B days are probably Louis’s favourite, not only because he has English with Niall second block, but because he also has chemistry with Harry right afterward. Being friends and lab partners with the school’s resident baby genius certainly has major perks when it comes to the sciences, especially seeing as Louis is so awful with them. Harry knows what he’s doing all the time, almost like he could do it in his sleep, and bless him, he’s always so patient with Louis’s inability to do practically anything other than fill in lab reports. Louis gives him a careful love bite of thanks for it on his shoulder every day as the bell rings.

The two then typically head out to the library for studies ( which usually consists of Harry quietly explaining everything that had just happened in chemistry with a finger in the textbook, never losing that fond and happy look of his even when Louis screws an equation up for the third time in a row ), and then move across the campus out to the stands by the track that surrounds the football pitch on the far side of the school half an hour later, since it’s still warm enough to do so. It’s just the two of them, Niall being in planning with his fellow teachers and Zayn and the others stuck in the flipped hour. From there, Harry goes to history and Louis is reunited with Zayn to go to choir.

Unfortunately, Zayn and Harry aren’t the only ones blessed ( cursed ) with Liam’s presence in one of their classes. Back in the auditorium ( Louis actually spends half of his time in school there, he had realized one day with a start ), Zayn and Louis are joined in their last block of the day, one that was supposed to be one of Louis’s favourites, by Liam, and as much as it physically pains Louis to admit it, Liam’s good… really good. He has a strong and confident voice, something Louis quietly envies rather desperately, and he seems to excel when it comes to everything that’s thrown at him. It’s very clear that Liam wants to be here, even if two of his least favourite people are also. Sister Janes, who Louis had found out some time ago is also Harry’s first block English teacher, is thankfully never one to let anyone off on anything, unlike all the other teachers in the school, and has always kept a strict separation between the three with assigned places since day one. Louis’s grateful for it, but even from across the room, Liam’s eyes are never far off from where he and Zayn stand.

Today’s no different. Every time Louis raises his eyes and allows them to travel over to where Liam is sitting with his fellow basses, Liam meets his stare. Somewhat used to the odd and uncomfortable sensation that ghosts across his neck because of it nowadays, Louis simply sighs and turns to his friend sitting at his left.

“Are things getting better between you two yet? You did say you were working on it last month.”

Zayn looks up from his page of sight-reading that everyone is supposed to be attempting to memorize – eight lines of music in three minutes – and bites his lip. “With Liam?” Louis hums in verification, and Zayn clicks his tongue before looking back down. “Well, yesterday he managed to go the entire block in the library without calling me ‘Paki’ instead of using my name, so I’d say it’s a gradual success.”

“Wow! Maybe by the end of the year, you’ll even get a smile out of him.”

“Woah now," Zayn smirks. "Optimism is a good thing, but don’t go crazy with it.”

Louis pushes him to the side with his shoulder and looks back down at his own sheet music. “Weren’t you the one so convinced that there was some sort of hidden and misunderstood element to him?” he asks as he chews on his pen cap.

“I still am, but I’m next to giving up on trying.” Zayn leans back onto the riser behind them with his elbows and squints thoughtfully at the ceiling. “There’s something off about him that I can’t really put my finger on, but it’s like… it’s impossible to dig in deeper, ‘cause I’m not too certain about how he’d react, and I don’t want to scare him off at the same time. He’s built up so many walls, and I don’t even know what they’re for, you know what I mean?”

Louis clicks the plastic tube against his teeth. “Not at all, but I think that if anyone could break down those so-called walls, the hyper-optimistic, bi-religious, mixed-race lad who called him out on his bullshit the first day is a very likely candidate.” Zayn immediately tries to shut him up with a quick punch to the stomach and a hushed string of swears, but he’s interrupted by Sister Janes at the front of the classroom.

“Alright, I want tenors to pair up with a bass,” she calls out, standing at the piano. “Try to keep your pitch while listening to the other, see if you can do it. I’ll give you your starting notes when you’re all ready.” Both boys groan in unison along with the dozen or so others on the risers, knowing full well that this familiar exercise means separation, probably to the point where they can’t even stand remotely close to each other. None protest, though ( or rather, none dare ), and sooner than one would expect, seemingly all available bass members are snapped up.

“Well, shit,” Zayn speaks for the both of them when they see who is quickly approaching them from the other side of the room, “I’m starting to think God hates me.”

“I think He hates us, mate,” Louis gulps and quickly moves his eyes to the floor.

“Believe me, I like this as much as you do.” Liam huffs a large sigh when he comes to a tense stop in front of his two classmates. “Unfortunately for me, everyone else has been taken.” Louis and Zayn look at each other before glancing back up to Liam.

“And you want me as a partner, I assume?” Zayn asks with crossed arms and a challenging raised eyebrow. Liam huffs again and crosses his own arms to match.

“Technically speaking, no, I don’t want you as a partner, but I’ll put up with you for two minutes for a grade…” Liam’s narrow eyes dart to Louis, who is still standing at Zayn’s side with an arm wrapped around his middle. “Unless, of course, Tomlinson’s up for it.” Louis quickly returns his gaze to the ground, and Zayn pushes his friend protectively to the side.

“No need to be a dick about it. I told you this was between you and me a while ago.”

Louis wonders to himself when that conversation happened, but he moves aside without verbally questioning. That can always come later. Zayn shoves past the larger sixth former to move back towards the other side of the room, and Liam looks as though his uniform’s blazer has been brushed with something hot the way that he jumps back at the slight touch. Louis has to push the disgust he holds for the other boy out of his mind when someone clears their throat to his left. It’s Tracey-something, a white-blond-haired year ten with a superb voice that’s strangely deep for his rather tiny body, and is the equivalent of a wild squirrel in terms of shyness. Louis has only spoken to him maybe twice in his lifetime, but he still gives him as warm of a smile as he thinks is necessary.

“Uhm, Louis? You have a partner, or…” Tracey nearly whispers in the sound of the rush of boy behind him, and Louis shakes his head and slides the pen he's still holding into his back pocket.

“Need one?” Tracey nods and bites his lip. “Alright, partners then. I’m warning you now, though, I can’t hit a low G to save my life.” It seems to sufficiently break the ice, and the younger boy finally returns a bashful smile, his ankle crossed behind the other as he stands, fingers twitching against the paper he holds.

“Alright, boys. Has everyone found someone?” A small chorus of ‘yeah’s meet the air, and Sister Janes hits two keys on the piano for the boys, what Louis recognises to be a C for the tenors and G for the basses. He hums the note under his breath in preparation for the word ‘go’, and he bites back the smile when he hears Tracey copy him and do the same. Louis glances over to look at his friend on the basses’ side of the risers, not surprised to see Liam glaring at a seemingly unaware Zayn, before again concentrating on his partner’s voice.

All in all, the piece is easy and ends quickly in less than a minute. Louis had slightly wavered in the middle, but Tracey smashed it as Louis knew he would. The boy tries to hide his blush from the compliment when Louis tells him so, but it’s too difficult when it begin to spread across the kid’s neck.

“That was good, boys,” Sister Janes smiles from the front and leans against the piano. A hum of satisfaction buzzes all around the room. “Do it again now, this time a bit louder. You were all a bit mumble-y, not nearly as comfortable with it as I want you to be. Here’s your pitch.”

She never does get to the second note for the basses, though, because the sudden and very distinct thud of human against wood followed by a startled and defensive cry of ‘Hey!’ echoes through the room. Call it intuition, a gut-sense, or a general lack of trust when it comes to anything regarding Liam Payne, but Louis doesn’t have to think twice about it to know that Zayn’s in trouble. He tears himself away from the side of his partner and rushes over to where a small crowd is clumping like a blood clot in a circle, where Louis knows Zayn and Liam to have been standing just a moment before.

Zayn’s on his back on the risers with a defensive hand in front of his eyes and his teeth gritted, as if he’s halfway expecting Liam to have already begun ripping him apart or kicking his ribs in. Liam on the other hand, who is standing above the boy below him, looks more shocked at the series of unfolding events than Zayn does. His eyes are filled with something that looks a lot like terror, and they refuse to break for even a moment to look away from the boy he’s thrown onto the hard wood. He can see Liam’s hands shaking at his side as Louis pushes through and bends down to drag his friend up to a stand by his forearm, because it’s only a matter of time before –

“What in God’s name do you two think you are doing!?” Sister Janes shouts through the noise as she approaches, parting the surrounding group of boys like the Red Sea with a firm and impatient hand. In a split second, faster than anyone could realize in real time, she grabs onto Liam’s shoulder and pushes him away against the painted brick. “This is not a football pitch,” she roars at Liam, who is going whiter by the second to match the wall that he is being pressed against, “and I won’t have this sort of behavior in my classroom!”

“It was my fault, Sister.”

The room goes dead silent as all, including Sister Janes, look away from Liam and towards the one that has just spoken.

“Explain yourself, Mr. Malik,” the Sister says after a moment of perplexed quiet, and Zayn pushes himself out of the tight grip of a very confused Louis with a shrug and a light hand.

“I antagonized him. I said something that I knew would set him off, and I pushed him first.” Zayn wraps an arm around his middle and lowers his gaze to the sister’s feet, perhaps unable to look into her fierce eyes. “He was just defending himself and it got out of hand. It’s my fault. I’m sorry.”

Louis flicks his gaze between the two boys, noticing almost immediately how Liam has regained colour, yet looks even more shocked with what’s happening than before, and how Zayn refuses to look up or soften his hardened face. There’s no way in hell what Zayn is saying is true, Louis would put his soul on it, and from the look on Sister Janes’s face, she doesn’t believe it either.

“Is that the truth?” she begins tentatively, only relaxing the vice-like grip that she still holds on Liam’s shoulder when Zayn nods slowly and gives a quiet ‘yes ma’am.’ She then turns back to Liam, who has managed to since control his shaking, and raises an eyebrow. “Is that what happened, Mr. Payne?” Not so surprisingly, Liam looks back and stares at Zayn, doing so until, just out of the corner of his eye, Louis sees Zayn give the tiniest hint of a nod.

“Yes, sister,” Liam replies quietly, finally dragging his eyes back to Sister Janes, “but it’s as much my fault as his. I should have been able to control myself.”

“Right you are.” The sister clasps her hands behind her back and sighs, finally freeing Liam. “Both of you to the headmaster’s office. I’ll be calling ahead to tell them what you’ve done and let them know you’re on your way.” Louis’s heart jumps into his throat as he hears the words.

“S-Sister, I know you mean… But,” Louis says as he approaches Sister Janes, his voice going quieter with every word that sputters past his lips, “that isn’t a good idea… For them to go by themselves, I mean.” Louis looks over his shoulder to the two boys that are currently standing side by side and giving each other anxious glances. “Liam could rip Zayn apart,” he whispers, “you know what he’s like. You’ve heard what people have said, you don’t ignore it like all the others. You know this isn’t a good idea.”

Sister Janes sighs again, almost tired sounding now, and replies just as quietly. “And you’re under the impression that you could stop him if something did happen?”

“I was thinking more of a ‘witness to the crime’ type deal.” The sister cracks a small smile before shaking her head.

“You are right; I have heard them talk, and I believe you, for the record. I like the idea of having someone like Liam in my school as much as you do, but Zayn has to learn how to handle this by himself.” Louis begins his dissent, but the words die in his mouth when the sister raises her hand to silence him. “There are far too many people like Liam to deal with in this world, and it would be a disadvantage to Zayn in the long run to do anything but let him find out the way to confront the problem.” She puts a delicate hand on his shoulder and gives a short squeeze. “If Liam tries anything on the way, we’ll know about it. I promise.” She then turns back to the two boys and gives a passive wave of her hand.

“Go,” she says, “and if it takes more than five minutes to get there, I will know about it, and there will be even more serious consequences for you both.” Zayn and Liam both jump off the stage and move quickly up the stairs towards the double entryway doors on her last word, Zayn only glancing behind once at Louis before closing it behind him. Sister Janes turns back to her students as the sharp sound of the heavy metal doors clinks closed, the hem of her black habit swirling around her white ankles.

“There will not be any sort of similar bout in here while I make that call, do we understand?” Really, she never even has to ask, but the room gives their unanimous agreement to the terms. Sister Janes then turns on her shiny pointed kitten heel towards the backstage, disappearing behind the velvety curtain a moment later. Almost immediately and quite expectantly, the huge room begins to buzz with the combined voices of all the boys on stage, and Louis, still standing next to where Zayn had been pushed down, takes the opportunity to turn to whom he supposes could act as a testifying witness.

“Ollie?” A red-haired and black-eyed upper-sixth, the one that had emitted the loud exclamation as Zayn had fallen a few minutes earlier, turns his attention to the boy who has just spoken. Louis clears his throat. “Uhm, you… like, you saw what happened with Zayn, right?” Ollie swings his body away from who Louis supposes had been his partner at the time.

“Yeah, I did. He actually fell into me, nearly brought me down with ‘im. Bloody weird that whole thing was, bruv.”

“Was what Zayn was saying true, though?” Louis shoves his hands into his pockets and shifts his weight between his feet. “He didn’t start it, right?” At this, Ollie smacks his lips and then smushes them together until they turn a pasty white.

“Depends on how you look at it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” Ollie smacks his lips again, “technically speaking, yeah, Zayn, like, he did start it, but I think it was an accident.” The lad turns to his partner and nods, to which his tenor nods back, as though confirming what Ollie has said. “Yeah, yeah. But what he said about pushing first? Bullshit. Zayn didn’t even see it coming, I don’t think.” Ollie’s partner nods to Louis at this too.

“Why would he say that then?”

“We didn’t hear what they were sayin’ for the most part in the start, so it beats us, mate.”

Though Louis does appreciate the attempt at assistance in the case, this kid is rather unhelpful. His stomach is still flipping inside of him, flopping around wildly like a baited and hooked fish, and to say the very least, it sucks. Louis just wants – needs – evidence to prove to himself that this isn’t as bad as he had split-second pictured it to be in his mind as he had watched Zayn walk away.

“Okay,” he crosses his arms and sighs loudly. “How did Zayn start it, then?”

“Now that there, I heard quite well.” Ollie looks back at his tenor partner and smirks. Louis wants to kick them both. “It was actually pretty stupid of him to say, now that I think about it. He was kind of asking for it, wan’ee?” The tenor nods in silent agreement. It’s a wonder his neck hasn’t started to hurt with the amount of nodding he’s been doing in the last few minutes, Louis thinks.

“What did he say?” Louis now growls impatiently, because it won’t be too long before Sister Janes walks back in from her call to the headmaster’s office and Louis will be forced to again join his bass on the other side of the room, far away from any chance of an investigation. The two boys in front of him apparently catch onto this fairly quickly.

“Oh, erm… Paraphrasing here, it was like…” Ollie clicks his tongue and creases his brow as he recalls the memory. “I don’t know. Keep in mind that we didn’t hear what they were saying before, but it was something like… ‘I bet you have,’ like, ‘I bet you secretly fancy me, and that’s why you’re so obsessed with me,’ or something. It was kind of loud, too. They were probably having words before then, you know how Liam is.”

Louis’s stomach has never sunk so low in his stomach before, because… well, shit. Louis knows exactly how Liam is, and he also knows that Zayn has hit Liam right where it hurts most, like purposefully poking at an uncaged lion with a stick. It just so happens that Zayn is a walking meat suit. Louis thanks Ollie with a quick dip of his head and threads his fingers through his hair as he walks back to his and Zayn’s usual spot, uncaring whether it’s completely ruined by the frantic tugging. How could Zayn have actually been so stupid?

~

Harry was greeted in the courtyard after a particularly uneventful and boring governmental studies class and a quick locker trip with a wordless pull by his arm in the direction of the off-campus buildings by Louis. The boy had practically collided into Harry’s side less than a minute after the bell had chimed to sound for the end of the day, and this had only worried Harry after he saw the cold and distant look on Louis’s face. He had asked, “What’s happened?” as he tried in vain to fight against the strong pull that Louis had going, but his friend hadn’t answered, only tugging on his wrist harder. He gave up on trying to find out rather quickly after that.

So now, here they sit beside each other, only Harry’s bag of books and silence between them, outside of the headmaster’s office on the grass and staring in through the large glass windows to an empty reception area, apparently waiting for something or someone. Harry still isn’t sure. Louis’s biting one of his nails and bouncing his foot across his knee nervously as they watch. He’s never once looked to the side to give a reassuring smile or anything, and this makes Harry squirm. This isn’t like Louis at all. He pulls his thin school jacket tighter to his body against the cool September air and breathes it in deep, ignoring the significant sting that it leaves in its wake. The rain has starved itself off so far since that morning, but it probably won’t for much longer, and Harry isn’t in the mood for hypothermia today.

“Hey, Lou?” It takes a good moment and a half, but Louis eventually hums an answer. Though his friend still hasn’t moved his eyes away from their careful watch of the glass, Harry feels slight relief. “What’s happened?” he tries again, and he watches Louis’s back rise with a quick inhale.

“Liam pushed him to the ground in choir today.”

“Zayn?”

“Yeah.”

Harry pinches his eyebrows together. So that’s why Louis seems so off. “Oh. He’s okay, though, right?”

Another rise in his back. “I don’t know… he was fine when he left, but, like, it’s Liam, you know? Who knows what co – ” Harry sees Louis’s eyes go wide and his back go straighter, and Harry turns his own back to where he had previously been staring for the last ten minutes or so. They can see the two through the glass; Zayn and Liam are just emerging from the office now, but the way that they interact is not how either of the outsiders expect.

Zayn has a hand on Liam’s lower back, gently guiding him out of the dark room that they’re coming out of, and the two stop short before emerging outside. They turn towards each other, and Zayn removes his hand from Liam’s back only to cover the boy’s wrist with the same one to give a clear reassuring squeeze. They begin to speak, Liam nodding occasionally and giving short responses, and then, out of nowhere, he smiles. The sound of Louis’s jaw dropping to the ground can probably be heard from a kilometre away. It’s a complete 180 from what Harry and Louis had been anticipating.

It’s then that Zayn glances to the side and sees his friends sitting there, and as fast as the spell between the two boys in the building had been cast, it’s broken. Zayn relinquishes hold of Liam, shoves his hand into his pocket, and moves towards the doors without another word. Before he can get even a step out of the now open door, Liam grabs him back by the shoulder.

“Don’t say anything, okay?” they barely hear Liam mutter, and Zayn nods shortly before shrugging the boy’s hand off and moving out the door.

When he actually gets to where the boys are and stops to look at them, Zayn simply blinks, keeping his mouth in his standard cool and collected line, and then swiftly passes the two boys who are still sitting on the grass in shock. “Close your mouths. You’ll catch flies.” They, of course, scramble to their feet as fast as they possibly can and run to Zayn’s side with Harry trailing just a few inches behind Louis, leaving Liam standing in the doorway behind them. Harry doesn’t glance behind to look at Liam like he wants to.

“Explain. Right now,” Louis demands after a moment through clenched teeth as the three walk along the cobblestone path back to the main campus. They’re just passing the small infirmary, and Harry can see the nurse’s assistant cleaning up for the day and watching them through her tiny glass window. “Tell me what in fresh hell we just saw back there.”

Zayn shrugs and adjusts his collar, not looking behind him as he answers. “We’ve agreed to be cordial, that’s all.”

“Liar.” Harry feels the ricochet of the accusatory sting of the words that haven’t even been flung at him, and he winces at the fiery heat of it. The same feeling has stopped Zayn in his tracks, and he turns on the spot. With how his friend is standing, Harry is reminded of an angry cat; teeth bared, glittering eyes in slits, and shoulders raised.

“What did you just call me?”

Louis crosses his arms and juts his hip out as he stands defiantly against his friend. “What doesn’t he want you to tell us?” Harry would have preferred a shouting match or something compared to the icy way his two friends are speaking and gesturing towards each other, like one is daring for a fight and the other preparing for one, but he doesn’t dare make any move at all because he knows that this doesn’t involve him… yet, at least.

“When someone implies that something’s not for your ears,” Zayn begins coolly, “is it commonplace for you to assume that they mean the opposite?”

“An hour ago, he pushed you into the damn risers, so if he’s threatened you since then and told you to keep your mouth shut or something, then we need to kn – ”

“Woah, Louis, no.” And just like that, the battle armor that Zayn had assembled in a split second dissipates into the air, now traded in in favour of reassuring open hands that are held up in an understanding surrender. “I would tell you that sort of thing, but… that’s not the case right now.”

Louis’s body eases with Zayn’s and he lowers his eyes, choosing to stare at his shoe that is currently toeing at a loose pebble in the pavement. Harry has only seen this highly recognizable look once since he’s known Louis – when he and Niall had gotten into an argument over something small in English class and were forced by the others to make up with a handshake and a hug during their lunch break the next day. It’s quite obviously Louis’s guilt look.

“Do you promise?” he mutters.

“Absolutely,” Zayn says. “Thank you for looking out for me.”

“Always will.”

And like that, they’re all friends again. Zayn holds a fist out for Louis to bump with his own, wraps an arm around the boy’s right shoulder, and the three begin making their way back down to the mostly cleared main campus to retrieve books and jackets from their various wings again. The wind is starting to pick up. Harry trails on Louis’s ankles, anxious to get home before it begins raining.

“I’ll see you lads tomorrow, yeah?” Zayn says to the two of his friends when they’ve reached the bottom of the hill to separate.

“Not if we see you first,” Harry returns with a smile, knowing that the cliché phrase will make Zayn’s eyes roll and Louis’s crinkle with amused laughter.

“Yeah, that would happen if you two could manage to be on time,” Zayn trails over his shoulder as he walks towards the East Wing. Louis and Harry walk in the opposite direction towards the West, and the three fling their final goodbyes at each other. Harry takes a quick look at the gray coloured clouds before they duck under the cover of the West Wing hall, and he decides then and there that, yeah, unless this is the quickest locker trip in history, they’re probably going to be catching rain on their way home.

“Make it quick, can we? I have to walk home from your house.”

“Yes, Harry. I’m aware,” Louis says with a smirk. Their heavy footsteps echo through the stairwell as they make their way up to Louis’s locker.

“And remember your chem book, yeah? Quiz on the periodic table on Wednesday.”

“Sure, sure. Don’t know why I go through the effort of carrying it around, though,” the sixth former replies as the two round the corner together. “I’m going to get a maximum of maybe twenty points on it.” It’s quiet from when they arrive at their destination up until Louis has just about finished shuffling and adjusting everything in his small book bag, preparing to hastily throw the heavy object over one shoulder by its stretching strap.

“I could help you, you know,” Harry offers just as Louis begins zipping it up. “Like, make notecards or something.”

Louis shuts the door with a clang with his elbow and adjusts his collar to accommodate room for the return of his scarf. “How would notecards help?”

“You need to know the atomic number and mass of every element in the main chart, so we could do numbers on the front, names on the back.”

Louis groans. “That sounds like work.”

Harry rests his temple on the cool metal of the locker two down from Louis’s. “It sounds like an easy grade if you’re willing to put up with me for a few hours after school tomorrow.” He watches as Louis wraps the deep red scarf around his throat, stuffs it into his now buttoned-up jacket, and shakes the fringe out of his eyes. “Plus, it’s kind of high time that we actually hung out outside of class, don’t you think?”

The sixth former moves to Harry’s side to re-link their arms together so that they can begin walking back down the stairs and towards the entrance of the school where the path home begins. “That, I will have to agree with. And would you be willing to help me with lines? We just got given our script for That Championship Season on Friday, and I got the role of one of the Daley brothers. It’s really edited up because of all the swearing in it and stuff, and we have to do American accents, but still I really like it so far. Seeing as there’s only, like, five of us in the play, I have to start memorizing really early so I don’t fuck up for the show in January. Would you help me?”

Harry smiles. “Anything for you.”

~

The sky chooses to break open and dump its contents onto the earth the exact moment that Louis and Harry step onto the pathway to begin the walk back to the sixth former’s house. Louis feels the first ice-cold drop fall across the bridge of his nose, but before he can even comment to the younger boy to whom he’s still linked with by arm, the leaves begin rustling in a symphony of wind and heavy raindrops, stealing the words right out of his mouth.

“Shit,” they both mutter simultaneously as the thick beads of water begin to fall even harder against their skin, hard enough to kick up the thin dust of the ground as it drips out of the sky. Though there’s probably room for a ‘jinx’ in there somewhere, a very large crack of thunder interrupts any such chance for one. The enormous sound shakes the earth below the two boys’ feet, and Harry jumps a fair few inches off the ground and halfway into Louis’s arms at the sounding vibration. Louis can’t help but feel envious of Zayn who’s probably in his mother’s warm car at this very moment as they run for any kind of cover, their hands inexplicably coming together in a tight grip without either of them realizing.

Harry sees the tree first, and it’s what Louis supposes is the largest and most expansive tree on the path. He only needs to give Harry a look, one that conveys ‘let’s go there now,’ along with a squeeze to the hand, and they’re on their way to shelter. It’s a little ways off the path and through the thick brush and a few stinging nettles, but it looks far too inviting and dry to let that deter the two half-soaked boys.

The tree looms high up into the sky, and Louis wonders in quiet awe if it would take days to climb to the top like his brain excitedly tells him it would. Its many fingers reach high up towards the blackened and leaking clouds, each branch fully coated and protected by a thick mess of green foliage. Only some of the leaves are tainted with hints of the autumn orange that’s already beginning to spread to most of the other greenery. The roots don’t spread out to match the top branches, though, and they instead dive straight into the ground, leaving soft earth and crumbling bits of dry leaf to sit on rather than the uncomfortable bumps that would have been around the base of the tree otherwise.

“Nice tree,” Harry muses as the two boys settle down next to each other, pushing their drenched bags and shed jackets to the side, and huddle together. “Good tree.” Their knees bump, making a hollow little thunk sound that’s barely audible against the sound of the distant thunder. Louis smiles.

“Nice choice, H.” Louis digs a finger into the knot of his tie to loosen it, pulling down gently on the old, damp fabric, and gives a sly glance to his right, just in time to see the pinked cheeks of his year eleven friend. He loves making Harry blush, and it’s just so easy to do. Harry blushing is quite possibly one of his favourite things in the world, along with his family and, of course, ice cream baths. He needs to have another one of those relatively soonish, Louis decides as he watches a drop of water fall from one of Harry’s drenched locks of hair to his cheek. He taps his short, bitten fingernails against the boy’s knee.

“Have you ever had ice cream in the bath? It’s quite good.” Harry looks at him, his facial colouring somewhat back under control, and doesn’t miss a beat.

“No, but I’ve had one of Robin’s beers in a shower once, though, just to see what it’d be like.”

Louis bites his almost instinctual smile down ( since when has it become instinct to smile at everything Harry says and does? He’ll have to remember to plot a colourful and crayon-drawn timeline of their relationship and show it off tomorrow… if they ever make the treacherous journey back home ) and pokes a finger between Harry’s eyebrows, tutting like a scolding mother. “Underage drinking, Harold! Highly illegal stuff.” Louis begins to trace patterns all around Harry’s soaked forehead and cheeks, little dots and circles and wavy lines everywhere the boy had available skin. “You’d get in big trouble if you got caught.”

“You know me,” Harry bites at the air, trying to get to the fingernail that is now currently tapping at his teeth, “the baddest of the boys, ‘can’t be tamed’ and all that.”

Louis removes his hand faster than he put it there. “Oh, Jesus, Mary, and all the saints. If you just referenced what I think you referenced…” Harry barks a laugh that he quickly covers with the back of his hand, the kind of laugh Louis’s come to find familiar in the time that they’ve known each other. He always seems to laugh like it catches him off guard. Louis finds it incredibly endearing.

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t…” Harry finally trails off with a smile and allows his eyes to slowly close, eyelids flickering in a fashion much like a moth’s wings as it flutters around a lantern. Louis supposes he might be trying to listen to the rain or something, as it does sound like a very Harry thing to do. Louis decides that maybe he should do that too.

The sixth former leans his head back and rests it against the bark of the thick tree trunk, blinking away the few stray drops of water that manage to get through the canopy above and fall into his eyes when he looks upwards towards the source of the noise. He cups his hands together and blows warm air in through them, trying to push the cold away that currently seems engrained in his fingerprints. Though he hadn’t thought it possible, the rain is coming down even harder and louder now. A streak of lightning casts the trees and looming clouds above in a silvery white haze through the tiny spaces in the branches, but only for a moment, and then the light vanishes as quickly as it came. Louis wishes he could consciously choose to shut off his ability to blink so that he’d never miss a single strike, just in case. It’s kind of breathtakingly beautiful.

“You’re missing the lighting, Harry. It’s pretty.”

Harry sighs beside him contently. “I can hear it.”

Louis clicks his tongue and smacks at his friend’s thigh with a limp hand, keeping his eyes to the sky so as not to miss a thing. “You can’t hear lightning, babe. I’m pretty sure that’s a condition if you can.”

“Synesthesia,” the boy mumbles casually with the faint sound of recognition hidden somewhere in his voice, as though the word is something that everyone just knows off hand. He whispers now. “And I can see it behind my eyelids, hear the thunder.” Louis breaks his watch of the clouds to look at Harry and stick his tongue out at him, just because, but…

Harry looks strangely at peace in what most would agree to be an utterly chaotic and exciting environment, the remnants of his content smile ghosting the creases in his lips. He too has tiny drops of water fallen on his face as he holds it towards the sky, but Harry had apparently felt no need to blink or wipe them away, so they inhabit his cheeks, resting in the tiny dips under his eyes that are still slightly purple from his interrupted sleep the night before, and perch in tiny droplets all along and throughout his dark eyelashes, making it look like miniscule diamonds are woven through his skin and across his eyes.

Given the situation, Louis supposes that this isn’t as unusual of a circumstance as he might have originally taken it to be when they had first sat down, but right now, the boy looks nothing short of serene, and if he’s being honest, watching Harry do nothing at all but sit there and be made of watery diamonds is kind of enthralling. Combined with the sound of the storm and the inconsistent flashes of light above them, Louis feels himself lose any kind of feeling of chill in his fingers that had been driven in by the rain in favour of something close to nothingness. He likes it. Yeah, this moment is kind of perfect.

In fact, Louis’s so caught up in how particularly perfect the combined moment and scenery is that he fails to realise that Harry has opened his eyes to look back at his friend until the younger boy begins to giggle.

“What’re you looking at me like that for?” he asks, and Louis’s face begins burning against the chill of the air.

Another delicate flash of lightning flies across the dark sky, and Louis presses his shoulder back to the tree bark where he has apparently subconsciously moved it from to get closer to Harry. “Like what?” the older boy questions, trying to sound earnest. Harry looks at him for a moment with squinted eyes and then simply shrugs, the signal that the metaphorical coast – whatever coast Louis had mysteriously come across – is clear. He clears his throat for a change in subject.

“So how was that beer, Harry?” The boy next to him snorts at the question and nestles his nose warmly into Louis’s shoulder. Even through the fabric of his still-wet shirt, he can feel Harry smile against his skin, and Louis somehow knows that he’s probably going to be trying to forget how his heart decides to jump at this for quite a while.

“Tasted like piss.”

~

Louis’s house is always so lovely and warm when Harry comes over in the mornings, and as it turns out, regardless of what time of day it is or who’s home, it’s just as perfect. The heat sinks into his cold skin the moment he’s pushed in through the doorway by his equally chilled friend, and the warmth is enough to make him shudder in relief.

It hadn’t exactly stopped raining when the two had mutually decided to just make a break for home base, but it had calmed down enough so that the drops wouldn’t hurt as they collided with the boys’ skin at the time. Seeing little chance for equally as decent of a window of good weather within the next hour, Louis had suggested packing everything up and running home before the storm got any worse again. As Harry would probably jump off a bridge after Louis without question if he were asked to, something Harry is very aware of and also oddly comfortable with, he had gripped Louis’s hand without much thought once more and sprinted.

“You need dry clothes,” Louis states matter-of-factly after Harry shakes his hair out and leaves the beginnings of a puddle around his feet on the dark hardwood. Jay will probably forgive him for it. “You can borrow some of mine.”

Harry wipes the bridge of his nose off with a damp sleeve. “Could I use your dryer, maybe?”

“Sure. Tea?”

“Please.”

After Louis’s put the kettle on and Harry has added a sufficient amount of water to the puddle by the door where he still stands shivering, the sixth former drags his friend up the wooden stairs and down the hall, passing one, two doors until they get to the end. As many times as Harry’s been over, he’s never actually been up the flight of stairs that he’s heard and watched Louis stumble down every morning.

“Erm, it’s a bit small,” Louis mumbles as he pushes the door open, the fuzzy grey remnants of glue from stickers that had been scratched off ages ago stuck in the lines of the white painted wood. “The girls share the other bigger rooms. Needed extra space or whatever.”

He isn’t lying. The room itself isn’t much to speak of, hosting nothing more than a bed, a dresser, and a desk with a few notebooks, scraps of paper, and a desktop computer scattered across the surface. The large bed takes up most of the space available and the closet on the left side of the room looks like it’s practically bursting at the seams. Still, the room is very Louis Tomlinson, and Harry knows that stepping in. The walls are halfway covered in FIFA posters and a couple scattered photographs, the people in them quickly recognizable as family and school friends, and the underneath’s painted a cool, light blue. The bed is messy and unmade with the navy blue duvet bunched up against the wall, and the mixed smell of aftershave, old socks, and the familiar Tomlinson-family smell that greets Harry every morning floods every crevice of the room.

“Thoughts?” Louis asks Harry as he inspects his new surroundings. Harry turns back to the boy, who currently has his nails in his mouth, and nods.

“I like it.”

With the reassurance, Louis begins pushing Harry’s soaked uniform off his shoulders until the boy hastily starts doing it himself and then walks over to his dark wooden dresser, dipping his hands into the already open drawer at the very bottom. A few seconds later, they emerge holding a thin white t-shirt and a pair of gray plaid pajama bottoms.

“These do for you?” Harry’s asked, and he nods. “Okay then. Catch.” Louis throws them over and dips back in for a change of clothes for himself, pulling out red sweatpants and a long sleeved black shirt. After both boys shed the first layer of their uniforms and throw the sopping items onto the floor, Harry abruptly stops.

“Uh… bit awkward, but, uhm…” Louis looks up as Harry coughs. “Don’t really have any pants.”

“Oh… right.” Louis takes pause and considers their options as Harry shuffles his feet and rubs his fingers over the cold and wet lining of his briefs. “Why don’t you just keep those… them… mine, I mean?”

“Would that be okay with you?”

“A little more okay than having a second-hand dick-rub with you, I think.”

“True.”

Both boys keep their eyes low to the ground while they remove everything else and redressed as quickly as possible, Harry only tripping once ( or twice ) over the length of the sleepwear he’s given. They’re a bit too long for his spindly legs, going an inch or two over what he really needs. Still, they’re warm and well-loved and soft, a nice change from the cold and clingy material of the wet underwear he’d been wearing before. After a quick towel-dry of their hair in the bathroom directly beside Louis’s room, the two collect their wet clothes and make their way back downstairs to the kitchen where the kettle’s beginning to whistle.

As they step onto the cool tile of the kitchen, Louis taps Harry’s ankle with his foot. “You make the tea, I’ll take these,” he grabs Harry’s collection of wet things to add to his own, “to the dryer.”

“Aye, aye, sir!” Harry gives a quick salute and swiftly moves to where he knows the tea mugs and bags are stored, letting his smiling friend skip to the laundry in one of the back rooms closer to the garden to take care of everything, knowing that the tea would be ready when he returns. He sets aside the bigger mug of the two for Louis.

They sit in the attached conservatory after all’s been taken care of, sharing the small loveseat and several fluffy blankets between them as the rain patters against the glass ceiling above and the willow tree taps its long branches on the windows. Louis nurses his tea between his hands and Harry sips at his quietly with closed eyes, relishing in the warmth that he was halfway certain at one point that he’d never be able to fully feel again.

“What do you think Liam doesn’t want Zayn telling us?” Harry opens his eyes and looks to his friend at his left that is currently staring straight ahead in quiet thought. The Coronation Street theme tune buzzes along on the half-muted telly.

“I think it’s none of our business, like Zayn said,” Harry replies honestly, lowering his eyes to his drink. “If he needs us in on it, he’ll tell us.”

“Yeah, but you weren’t in there today. You didn’t see what happened.”

Harry sighs and runs his tongue across the backs of his teeth. “Okay, you’re right. But you wouldn’t tell me when I asked, so…”

“Zayn basically called him gay.”

“Oh… Wow. Okay, I’m thoroughly confused at how Zayn’s still walking around on two feet, then.”

“Exactly, it’s like, miraculous, right?” Louis drops his head to the pillowed back of the chair and tilts his head to look at his friend. “It’s why I can’t force myself to believe that Liam would be friendly, or really, like, anything short of murderous, and I can’t force myself to believe that Zayn’s just handling it either, you know?”

“You don’t trust him?”

Louis scoffs loudly and curls his lip. “Don’t be daft. Of bloody course I don’t trust him, Harry. He’s threatened me and my friends, nearly killed one today – ”

“Er, no. I meant Zayn,” Harry interjects quietly, rolling his mug awkwardly between his hands.

“Oh.” Louis pauses and purses his lips. “Well, like, Zayn’s my friend and everything, but just because you’re friends with someone doesn’t mean that you trust them. I mean, I do sort of, but not where I can believe every word that comes out of his mouth. I’ve only ever known him for a month or so.”

Harry represses the sting he feels between his lungs at the words and licks the corner of his lips of any stray drops of tea. “You’ve only known me for a month, too, though. Don’t you trust me?” This sort of stops Louis for a moment, and the older of the two drags his eyes along Harry’s face and folded body. Harry feels his cheeks heat up at the scrutiny.

“Yeah,” Louis wrinkles his nose as he sighs, “but… you’re different somehow.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know. We just kind of gelled in a different way, you know?” Louis slides his hand around the back of Harry’s head to reach around to his younger friend’s shoulder.

“So you trust me?”

Louis hums behind a soft smile. “I think so. Pretty implicitly, actually, now that I say it out loud. You’ve got a very trustworthy face.” To drive his point home, he pinches at one of Harry’s pinked cheeks, just above where the dimple is. It only hurts a little bit, and Harry beams.

“Good, because it would have sucked to hear that you didn’t love me back.”

“Absolute nonsense,” Louis says, perching his now mostly-empty mug on the flattened arm of the chair beside him, and snuggles even closer to the body of his friend, removing almost every ounce of extra space available. “Personally, I think our love is one for the ages.” Harry probably would have replied with something along the lines of “Agreed,” or maybe he would have just settled himself into his friend’s neck and dozed off for the remainder of the rainy afternoon, but he’s caught off guard by a look that Louis is again sporting for the second time in the day.

It’s the same one that had crossed his face earlier under the shelter-tree, a smooth and very far away look that makes him appear to be nothing short of a bit dazed. His bright blue eyes take on this strange air that makes Harry’s insides squirm as he looks on. He can’t really pull his own gaze away, though, nor does he really want to. This is nice. It’s nice to have his friend so close with his arm pulling him evermore in, to have Louis look at him like that, to feel such a pull, pull, pull towards him from right under his ribcage, like a string tying them together that grows shorter every second, to feel Louis’s warm and steady breaths on his lips…

“Louis!”

With the same speed as the lightning that they had sat under an hour before, Louis throws the blankets off of himself and bolts towards the door, leaving Harry cold and a bit stunned, his forgotten tea still held between his hands.

“Pheebes, my darling!” he loudly greets one of his younger sisters ( a twin, if Harry remembers correctly ) as she runs towards him with open arms, and she’s young enough that he can still pick her up and swirl her around without breaking anything, be it bones or expensive-looking lamps.

“Hiyah, Harry,” the little girl greets quietly when she’s been put down and ceased her giggling. She’s hid halfway behind her brother’s legs and has a fingernail in her mouth.

“Hi, Phoebe,” Harry waves back, equally as shy. He’s only met her a few times, school beginning so much earlier than what she’s used to waking up for. She buries her eyes in her older brother’s leg and probably blushes.

“You want tea, Pheebes? Hot chocolate?” Louis asks his sister with a notably shaky voice. Both his hands are clamped down on her shoulders. “You and Daisy, you two want something to drink?”

“Hot chocolate, please!” she squeaks, jumping up and down excitedly. Harry wonders with a tug at his lips whether those drinks are for special occasions, or if Phoebe is as generally bubbly about everything as Louis typically is. “Dee’s upstairs, getting her hair brushed. Can I have a biscuit too, please?”

“Course you can, darling,” Louis says with a tight-lipped smile, pushing his little sister out towards the kitchen and making an obvious point not to look in his friend’s direction. Harry feels cold. “Course you can.”

~

November is soon to be fast approaching in a drizzly flash without a single warning or invitation, and the only reason Louis is willing to put up with it is the promise of the week-long break off of school that comes at the beginning of it. His large family is usually spread thin when it comes to time together, with his parents both working and his siblings all in some form of education or daycare, so breaks are a blessing. They mean time to play with his sisters and take them for walks to the park, to go with his mother to Aldi and decide what will be made for dinner that night, to kick a football around the back garden with his father and talk about nothing at all. It seems like something small, but to Louis, his family is everything to him. These breaks mean reconnection and release from the hellish world of school. After this past month, he’s needed it.

This year, the end of October is also clipped off for break and given to the students of the small school and the other academies in the area immediately surrounding it, which only means one thing, the promising whipped cream on the milkshake that is his life – Halloween parties.

“I’m thinking something with a little blood, but not too much, you know?” Louis sits in the shade of the library with his friends as he ponders his costume aloud and pulls his thick coat towards his body. Why they still sit on the wall instead in of the cafeteria, he may never know. “Nothing on my mouth, though. If there’re girls there, and there probably will be, I don’t want to be looking like I’m wearing lipstick.”

“Yeah, you look enough like a girl as it is, innit?”

Louis throws a sharp glare towards Casper, who’s lying on the grass and chuckling to himself at his joke. “Like you’re one to talk, ‘Miss Evans.’” At that, Casper pushes his back off of the grass and glares back.

“You said you’d never bring that up again, arsehole.”

Niall, pressed into Louis’s side for warmth after forgetting his own coat at home that morning, begins cackling with laughter. “I’d forgotten about that!” He bumps his shoulder to his friend’s and grins widely, glancing over to where a still-scowling Casper sits. “In Lou’s defence, Cas, that isn’t exactly something you just drop and forget.”

Zayn, sitting as much in the sunlight as he possibly can, clears his throat around his cigarette. “I’m sorry, what are we talking about?” he asks on his exhale, and that leads to another chorus of laughter.

“Cas here was mistaken for a girl for an entire year of primary school by our teacher, Miss Leek.” Louis laughs at the memory. “It was the hair, wasn’t it?” Another short bout of laughter. “His hair was down to his shoulders, Jesus Christ.”

“You can talk, Tomlinson,” Casper snarls. The boy’s curled into himself, bringing his knees into his chest just as a gust of heavy wind blows across the browning grass. “Look up the word ‘androgen’ in the dictionary and there’s a picture of your stupid gob smiling in it.”

Jack clicks his lighter to rekindle the cigarette that had been unceremoniously blown out and glances between his two friends that are throwing daggers at each other. “Alright, break it up and stop being a pair of fucking girls,” he scolds the two warningly. “We don’t need that shit here.” Zayn had apparently protected his own light with cupped hands, because he puts up a thumbs-up when Jack offers the lighter over.

“Whatever,” Louis huffs after a moment and leans back on his hands. “I’ll come as myself, no shit costume or anything. All I need is to get stupendously drunk and I’ll be set.”

“I’m pretty sure the sixth-form girls at Addison are throwing one that’s just black trousers and white shirts,” Niall offers up, and Zayn scoffs.

“If you don’t mind, mate, I think I’d rather not wear another uniform on what’s supposed to be a break,” Zayn says, “even if there are going to be girls there.” At this, the other boys off the circle shake their heads in sympathy.

“Zayn, you poor, ignorant soul,” Niall smiles, and there are tiny little flecks of chocolate-something stuck in the clear brackets of his braces. “They aren’t just girls, they’re Addison girls. Like, the school is a magnet for the fittest girls this side of the hemisphere.” The Irish boy explains this with a wave of his hands and an air of awe in his voice, like the very words he speaks are opening doors to new worlds for even him.

In all fairness, Niall isn’t lying about the girls, and Louis knows this to be true from first-hand experience. It’s a generally accepted fact that there’s a physical inspection of overall promising hotness before any girl is accepted into the prestigious, all-girl’s school that’s just a few miles down the road from theirs. On more than one occasion, mostly at parties and such, Louis has been there in person to see the pickiness at work… and in action. As if he were reading his thoughts, Josh Devine, Niall’s other friend who had joined the A day lunch group a week into school, brings up one of these occasions.

“Whatever happened to that one girl of yours, Lou?” he asks, absentmindedly flicking the ashes of Jack’s cigarette into the grass and ignoring the glower on the boy’s face that results from it. “That one from New Year’s last, gorgeous brunette Addie with the legs, what was her name?” Laughter to Louis’s left answers him back.

Eleanor Jane Calder,” Niall taunts with a mock-dreamy tone and nudges Louis’s side before the boy can answer for himself. “Pined after her for weeks after that, you remember? Properly stalked her Facebook for hours a day.”

That also is not a lie ( unfortunately ).

Eleanor Calder – cute, intelligent, gorgeous, and one of the many goddesses that blessed the Addison hallways – had been Louis’s muse, idyllic woman, and every thought for an extremely uncomfortable amount of time. At one point ( a very, very low point if you asked Louis ), he’d been totally convinced they were soul mates, brought together in an alcohol-hazed blessing from God himself. He’d never gotten her number, even though that New Year’s kiss had been the plague of his brain for months afterwards. Looking back now, it’s incredible that his friends hadn’t all dumped his sorry arse over the whole ordeal, because holy shit had he ever been the most pathetic living thing to have ever existed. He’d withdrawn in on himself and away from all of them, barely allowing any room in his head for anyone but Eleanor. It had been really bad.

That still doesn’t mean that Niall gets to take the piss out of him for it, even if he’d been the one who had to listen to most of the half-hour monologues on unrequited love being the biggest bitch in history.

“Ha bloody ha. Yes, very amusing,” Louis replies dryly at the reminder, “but do you want to talk about something even more amusing?” He smirks, tapping his fingers against the brick behind him and shoving the thoughts of leggy brunettes that still rip at his heartstrings away from him. “Why don’t we talk about that Barbara girl of yours?” That shuts Niall right up.

“Do you think you’ll see Eleanor there?”

Louis begrudgingly turns his eyes towards Harry, who is speaking for the first time since studies ended twenty minutes ago, and sighs. Harry has that ever-present look on his face, the one that drives Louis up the fucking wall but simultaneously forces him to keep his mouth shut, the one that the boy has been wearing for over a month. It’s his waiting face. The problem isn’t that Louis’s unaware of what Harry wants, because he knows exactly what he’s waiting for, but there is no way, no way he’ll ever give it up. And it isn’t like Louis’s avoiding Harry or anything of the sort, either, so can the younger boy really complain?

He and Harry are still lab partners in chemistry, he still attempts to teach Louis through the textbook afterwards, they still eat lunch together every day, and Harry still takes his tea with two sugars and no milk in the mornings. After Niall had come to his house that one day and threatened to beat the literal shit out of him for making Harry sick over… what had happened, there was really no room for him to exclude the younger boy in anything, lest he wish for the wrath of his best friend. Sure, the rate of physical touches and general closeness has plummeted, and maybe Louis has his own tea in the mornings now, but some things have to be sacrificed in the name of making sure that the awkward and positively heart-stopping position that had accidentally been taken up in the conservatory with the rain coming down above them would never be taken up again.

It isn’t normal what he had felt with Harry, what he still sometimes feels when he looks at him. Flat out, it isn’t normal, and Louis doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like to think about it. He doesn’t like being alone with Harry anymore.

In Louis’s opinion, he’s dealt with the weeks following what he’s carefully christened as ‘That Day’ better than most would, but Louis can’t even consider the prospect of That Day being discussed, the very idea of it turning his insides to a hot and confused mush. With this in mind, though, he refuses to lie to himself; Louis definitely misses the closeness. He misses linking his arm with Harry’s as they walk down the pavement to school, he misses giving bites of thanks when he screws something else up in chemistry and Harry fixes it, and he misses the warmth of Harry’s thigh next to his when they used to sit so close to each other at lunch. The thing is, the second that Louis gives Harry an inch, he takes a mile, assuming that it’s fine to talk about That Day. It isn’t. Harry has tried a few times, once on the stands by the pitch at lunch, once on the walk back home, once right in chemistry. All times have ended up with Louis nearly in tears and having a panic attack, so yeah, Louis knows. It really isn’t okay.

Discussion, which is what his friend obviously practically aches for, will lead to insight into the self and, as a result, a place where Louis has recently been avoiding. That place, that horrifically familiar place in his head that he’s put under lock and key, is a far bit too terrifying for him to think about, but God, does he have questions about that day, too. That’s something Harry doesn’t know; Louis aches to ask the questions of himself as well. But questions lead to answers, and Louis isn’t quite sure if he’s honestly prepared to face the answers that are given, and that’s why he has to keep up a constant game of keep-away. It’s only safe.

Harry seems to be playing it safe, too. He never signs his now infrequent texts with an ‘x’. He never gives that fond look that had once been synonymous with his very name in Louis’s mind, just a pleading one.

Louis tries not to miss those things, too.

The sixth former sniffs at the cold air and shrugs his shoulders at Harry’s question, casting his eyes in the opposite direction of the younger boy’s stare that’s trying to dissect the deepest parts of him. “I don’t know if she’ll be there, no. We haven’t even said we’re going yet.”

“I think the fact that it’s being hosted by Addisons kind of decided it for us,” Harry replies equally as coolly.

A week later after an afternoon church service and a short pregame preparation, this is where they all end up and disperse for the night. It’s a dark house that’s clearly Addison family-owned judging by the many equestrian trophies on the shelves and the portraits of three young, blonde teenage girls ( obviously sisters ) that look like they belonged in magazines lining the hallways.

As Louis walks in through the vast double doorway, he’s immediately struck hard by the lights, the smells, and the taste of the air. The house is sweet-smelling and the air is hazy, weed or incense or both probably burning in every room in the house, and everything is carefully decorated in oranges, yellows, and dark greens. Empty or half-empty drink cups are lined up along the bottom of the walls and misplaced on and around the staircase. Paper streamers and fake cobwebs are tangled in the many sparkly chandeliers that hang dangerously low from the ceiling.

“Mate, there are clearly plenty of drinks here,” Niall says in his ear, quite loudly to make up for the music that the house is playing at max volume. “I think we may’ve hit the jackpot.”

As the night progresses, it becomes clear that Niall’s predictions were correct. Every kind of alcohol a man could dream of is available for the taking, and the host had even had the money to pay for a bartender that mixes drinks for any young woman who stumbles up and asks for one. Dozens of Addison girls, maybe even a hundred of them, are leaning along every wall in the house, drinks in one hand and a willingness to shove the other down someone’s pants. They’re all so pretty with barely painted mouths, eyelashes too long and thick to be real, and their tight white shirts pressed sinfully against the many bold and bright patterns of their bras and tanks underneath.

Vodka ends up being Louis’s best friend for the night, eight large bottles of various flavours lined up in the dining room on an expensive-looking shelving unit. He personally likes the peach one best tonight, and he takes full and prideful responsibility for at least a quarter of it being gone two hours in. Though he’s currently just standing there on the living room wall, looking on at his school friends dancing with fit girls and fit girls dancing with their fit friends who are also girls, he’s content feeling like he has a bee’s nest inside of his head and a constant heat in his throat. The feeling keeps him and his mind preoccupied, far from curly-haired eleventh years and malicious and scorching memories.

“Hey there, stranger.” Oh god, he knows that voice. “Long time, no see.” Louis turns his buzzing head to face the familiar, creamy brown eyes. Where had she even come from? Then again, he probably should have expected to see her at some point. Addie girls stick together, and all that.

“Hi, Eleanor. How’re you?” She smiles that dazzling smile, and flips that long, perfectly curled hair over her shoulder with a flick of her wrist and a bite of her lip and holy shit, now he remembers why he’d been so obsessed.

“Alright, I suppose,” she shrugs. Louis’s heart flutters. “I kind of got dragged here by Mikayla, you remember her?”

Does he remember her? Uh… no, not at all. He nods anyway.

Eleanor nods back. “Well, she kept saying what fun this would be and how everyone would be here, so I guess I kind of went,” she raises her hands, and Louis notices that she holds her own red cup in her hand, “‘what the hell,’ and came.” She lowers her hands back down to her side and leans onto Louis’s wall. “It’s been kind of boring so far, but I’m glad I saw you here!”

“Same, I wasn’t expecting to see you,” he replies, not bothering to conceal his up-down glances of her thin yet curvy body. He can see the outline and colour of a tight, hot-pink tanktop under her even tighter white v-neck, and even through that, the tiny bumps of her nipples press through. Jesus take the fucking wheel.

“Who are you here with, Tomlinson? I think I might have run into one of them by the stairs, he told me you’d been looking for me.” She says this with great amusement, but Louis is either too tipsy or too visually preoccupied to notice at the time.

“A few mates. Niall, Josh, you know from last time. No one special.” He trails his gaze over her body once more before collecting every ounce of courage that the alcohol has provided him and wraps a careful arm around her middle. He licks his lips. “You want to dance, maybe?”

Eleanor smiles again, and Louis’s insides melt. “Think you can handle me, can you?’

“I’m more than capable.”

“And a little drunk,” she teases, wrapping her own hand around Louis’s waist as he leads her away from the wall where they’d previously stood towards a large crowd of people. Easy to get lost in.

“I think that’s not very important at this point in time to be honest.” His body feels warm and sloshy with the drink in his blood as he presses himself closer into her. “I also think that we need to focus on this right now.” She’d giggles into his ear at that as she begins to move along to the heavy beat of the music that practically thumps along with Louis’s quickening heartbeat, her hips pressing deliciously into his. He can hear the walls vibrating from where they are.

“Alright, Tomlinson,” she breathes onto the already prickling and hot skin of his neck. “You have my full and undivided attention.”

Louis takes the opportunity he’s given and presses his lips to Eleanor’s thin shoulder, the collarbones pushing through her shirt as she leans into the delicate touch and slides a hand across his chest ( Christ, he’d love to go back in time and pat the younger, pining version of him on the back to promise him great things ). The contact sends ripples up and down his spine like a shockwave and damn it, he has to do something about it, so he trails his open mouth further up to her neck, further, her cheek, further, her lips that taste like lipstick and rum and coke. He likes it, and he likes it a lot.

“Honesty hour?” he feels her say, and he hums against her lips. “I was hoping to see you here tonight.” He can’t help but smile.

“I’ve been thinking about you since New Year’s,” he says quietly, pushing the words into her neck as he nibbles on the tan skin under her ear, pressing his hips into her stuttering ones. He takes a skillful moment and moves one of his legs between hers, and he can feel her jolt like a wire in his hands. “I always regretted not getting your number.”

“Do a g-good enough job tonight,” she gasps as Louis’s free hand makes its way further and further up her shirt, further up her thin and smooth and perfect body, “and I’ll personally put it in your phone.” For a lack of a better word, she’s pliant, so goddamn pliant. And soft. Louis thinks for a moment in a haze that she’s his soul mate. Goddamn. He pulls back to look into her eyes as he moves his hands back down her body, catching his fingertips on the waistband of her tiny black shorts, and he’s surprised and caught off guard to find black-brown irises staring at him in lust. Huh. He’d been expecting green.

“Louis, you okay?” Eleanor asks, maybe concerned, maybe impatient, but Louis is too far away to hear. Green eyes, the only shade of green he can think of, saturate every corner of his conscious. Shit. Shit.

“S-Sorry,” he stutters and, without another second’s hesitation, removes his grasp from Eleanor’s waist and pushes himself towards the direction of the kitchen. “I’m so, so sorry.” He backs away quickly, hands out in front of his body to defend himself from even he doesn’t know what. “I can’t, I can’t – ”

“Louis?” she asks again, this time concerned, but he’s gone by the time she calls for him for the last time. There are just too many people everywhere, too many people everywhere in every room and corner and couch and, and… The cliché of walls that close in has never been more applicable. He feels like a giant in a crowd full of insects, so obvious with his emotions painted across his face like words, so it’s only a matter of time before –

“Louis.”

Shit. So it isn’t a wall that Louis has fallen into after all.

“Harry,” Louis shouts a bit too loudly and hysteric to be genuine. “I was just thinking about you.”

His eyes are darker than Louis remembers them to be from earlier on in the evening when they’d first gone off on their own. “Were you now?” Sterner, too.

“Yeah, honestly,” Louis replies, nodding for extra emphasis. He looks down at Harry’s fisted hands, unnerved to see that they’re white-knuckled and practically vibrating. Harry nods back and wraps his long, long fingers that are still shaking around both of Louis’s wrists. Louis is almost certain he can smell weed on his clothes. Then again, the air isn’t any clearer in here.

“Okay, well… I think we should go somewhere and… we have things to talk about.”

He’s talking slower and more deeply than usual but clearly isn’t drunk, or at least not nearly so much as Louis is, and that won’t do. That certainly won’t do, not with what had just happened a minute ago, it won’t. Louis pushes his own cup in Harry’s chest and tells him so.

Harry isn’t amused.

“You can never just talk to me anymore, can you?” he asks with one hand on top of Louis’s and the other steadying the older boy’s shoulder. “Not with me. There always has to be something protecting you, whether it’s other people or silence or… alcohol.”

He isn’t wrong, but hell, Louis doesn’t want to think about it. He doesn’t want to think about pushing Harry away, his friend, his confusion, pushing him away every day because the boy is just too damn terrifying to keep close. He doesn’t want to notice the way Harry’s eyes are dark, pupils abnormally blown wide fucking open, and he doesn’t want to remember pushing Eleanor, beautiful-muse-idyllic-goddess Eleanor Jane Calder, away from him like a leper in favour of someone with greener eyes and broader shoulders. Oh God, oh God, anything but that. He needs to get Harry drunk and make him forget.

“You need to get drunk,” Louis declares, pressing his cup into Harry’s chest a bit harder. “You need to get as drunk as I am right now, because I don’t like the way you’re looking at me.”

Harry’s expression darkens further against any kind of wish Louis might have held to his heart, and he wraps a hand around Louis’s waist, right over where Eleanor had held him just a minute ago, to replace the fading warmth with his own. He’s still shaking. “We need to talk, Lou.” Oh, the nickname. Louis wants to cry.

“No, no we don’t,” Louis insists. “If we never talk, we never get answers. It’s better that way.” It’s clear that he’s not getting anywhere, so Louis pushes off Harry’s loose grip and moves past his friend towards the back porch where a fair few people appear to be passed out, two lying on the floor and the others sitting in the minimal seating provided. Stan Lucas has apparently ended up there as well for the night, lightly snoring with an unconscious blue-black-haired Addison in his lap.

“I can’t live that way.” Louis glances over his shoulder as he drags his feet along the wood of the deck below him, and of course Harry’s followed him. Why can’t Harry just go? Why can’t he take those eyes and those hands and those lips that are perpetually stained the most ungodly shade of pink elsewhere? “I can’t do that.” Harry’s slowly pushing Louis up against the railing behind him and entrapping him with his hands planted firmly on either side. Louis isn’t sure he can take much more of this without saying or doing something he’ll regret with a clear mind.

“Harryyy,” Louis drawls and presses his nose into Harry’s hair when the boy has sufficiently removed any space between them. He’s going to cry. Harry has Louis pressed between the railing and his own body now, nowhere to run this time. Louis knows where this is going even in his drunken haze. “Why are you mad at me? What have I done? Like, I’m trying to make it good between us again. I’m doing what needs to be done. Why can’t you just forget about it, Harry?”

Harry presses his forehead against Louis’s and sighs shakily. “Because I know there’s something, there’s something between us that we’re both afraid to take a closer look at.” His breath ghosts across Louis’s mouth, and it’s eerily familiar to the last time that they were truly together. When did Harry get so close? Is Louis supposed to hate him, to push him away like he’d done with Eleanor? How can he, with his eyes blown, mouth parted, lips wet with alcohol, and want for Harry, only Harry.

There it is, bursting through the doors of that place in his head that Louis has been avoiding for so long; a want he doesn’t want. How bitterly ironic.

Louis thinks of Liam, of being shoved into lockers and down stairs and bruises the same shape as fists blooming across his jaw and cheekbones. He thinks of coming home to his mother and father, explaining to them what they’d done, why they’d done it, what they’d heard in the hallways.

“Harry, please don’t.” Louis’s pleading quietly now, really and truly looking down into Harry’s eyes for the first time since That Day. That goddamn Day. They’re such a nice green, so pretty even in darkness. He hates those eyes. “Please don’t say anything else. Just drink with me, okay? Just drink and try to forget.”

Harry shakes his head. “I’ve tried to forget. I’ve tried so… God, I’ve tried so hard to forget.” Harry plucks Louis’s cup out of his grasp and drops it onto the wood, letting any liquid that had been inside of it seep through the cracks. The plastic spins against the wood and Harry grabs onto the older boy’s wrists tightly, pressing them into his chest. “You think I don’t know, but I do. I know what would happen, I’ve thought about it too, and I know you wanted me to, that’s why I tried, but… Louis. There’s… there’s just no way.” Louis can’t breathe.

He thinks of his upbringing, of his father giving dirty glances at the girl who used to live down the street because she’d been discovered to have a girlfriend, of his church, of that gay couple up the way who had received a formal petition asking them to move out of the neighbourhood two years ago, of that protest outside of the meeting in London that his dad had so proudly sneered at. Too many dams are breaking right now. Louis feels ill.

“Don’t ask me,” he whispers as loudly as his crackling voice allows. “Don’t do it, Harry. Please.”

“That day in the conservatory, when the rain was falling,” Harry begins again, and Louis can feel the air escaping his lungs faster than he can take it in, “you were going to do it, weren’t you?” A slosh of Louis’s fallen drink is soaking into his shoe as he watches Harry’s mouth move. “You were going to kiss me.”

What else can he do? Louis nods.

Harry practically falls apart in front of him, but only in the eyes. Only in the eyes can Louis see what he’s done, never on the surface, because that’s not what they do, do they? They hide away behind silent words and unshared touches. Damn it. Fucking damn it all to the deepest, hottest pits of hell.

“We’re both cowards, aren’t we?” Harry asks with a trembling voice. And what else can he do? Louis nods again, and for a moment, Harry just stands there looking numb and distant, but then…

“Great.” Harry turns on the spot and walks away, away, and… out the door. Away from Louis, out of the party, probably home where he’ll cry in frustration and hurt because Louis can’t face it sober, can barely face it drunk. And Louis watches him as he goes, forces himself to do it until Harry’s mop of hair can no longer be seen through the mess of people in the hall, because he wants to feel something, anything but this unspoken thing that they share. Mostly now, he just feels guilt. Maybe he deserves it. Probably, he deserves it.

It’s decided, then. Louis won’t be leaving this place in anything short of a drunken blackout. With the back of his hand, already slightly damp from sweat, he wipes the tracks of water away from under his eyes that he hadn’t even known were there and begins to make his way back inside towards the dining room, where he knows a half-full bottle of peach vodka will be lying in wait for him and where a curly-haired, green-eyed boy will not.

~

Harry likes girls. Like, really likes girls.

Girls are soft and curvy. Girls have long fingernails that can scratch at your skin and lips that are glossy and taste of strawberry or bubblegum or the unique chalkiness of lipstick. Girls have smiles that can make your heart flutter up to your throat and fly right out of your mouth where you’ll uselessly snatch at the wind to get it back. He’s been lucky to have his fair share of kisses from girls, mostly from the daughters of family friends and once from a university girl in a bathroom that had turned into a bit more than a kiss, and he’d enjoyed all those plenty. Any celebrity crush that Harry has ever had in his life has been nothing short of glaringly female, with long hair and long eyelashes and long, smooth legs that go on for days. Harry would have thought that by age fifteen – sixteen in just a few months – he’d be able to determine whether he liked vagina or cock most, especially with the scale tipping so overwhelmingly far to one side.

And then Louis Tomlinson had to go and happen. Louis Tomlinson fucked it all up, with his swimming pool eyes and milk in his bloody tea.

It was disconcerting, really, how quickly it had all went to shit after that day in the conservatory for Harry, how quickly he’d lost something beautiful. After his sister had been shoved out of the room and he’d left Harry to sit alone and wonder what the hell had just happened, Louis had proceeded to push the younger boy out the door the moment he had been given his dry school clothes, into the sprinkling rain with nothing more than a hasty “see you tomorrow.” Harry had walked home alone on that soggy September day with Louis’s clothes still on and his book bag thrown over one shoulder feeling cold, confused, and a little angry, both at himself and the way that he’d been pushed out, not given a moment’s explanation.

As he’d walked along the pavement back home, he put himself back into that room, back into the warmth of blankets and tea and the presence of a friend’s arm around his neck. His footsteps turned into the pattering of raindrops against the glass above them, and then he was there, feeling that tugging in his chest towards him, towards Louis. The heat that was spreading all through his body wasn’t just from the tea or the blanket or the warm body next to him now; it was spreading across his cheeks and his lips. The invisible string was suddenly very visible, a bright, bright red. Harry only realized that he’d stopped walking when his eyes snapped open to escape the revisited memory. He knew what it was now.

Louis had tried to kiss him. Shit.

When he had finally made the journey home, Harry elected to ignore his stepfather in the kitchen, went upstairs, and fell face first onto the bed to collapse into an early and uneasy sleep, fighting back the hot tears that were quickly forming behind his eyelids. How had he not realized it the moment it was happening and fucking done something about it? Said something about it, reassured Louis that it was okay, an easily forgivable accident? If only it hadn’t seemed so normal to him in that moment, because it wasn’t as though personal space was something he was used to when it came to the sixth former. Harry could have kicked himself.

Louis had known what was happening just as much as Harry now did, he had to have known judging by his reaction, and the thought of what was inevitably about to come – a termination of a friendship that Harry had put so little effort into to come out with so much reward, something that had felt so natural and pure – ripped holes in his stomach. The brief terror in Louis’s eyes that Harry had been able to see was enough to tell him what the future held.

A quick tapping of fingernails at his bedroom door had broken him away from his heavy pre-sleep thoughts.

“Harry, sweets,” his mum cooed from the doorway into the dark room, “dinner’s on.”

“M’not hungry, mum.” He’d heard her footsteps approach the bedside and quickly added, “I’m just really tired.” It didn’t seem to appease her, and the bed dipped at his side from a new addition of weight. A smooth hand ran soothingly through his hair as he sighed into the pillowcase.

“I don’t want you getting sick in the middle of the night or in the morning because you’re hungry, babe.” Harry had hummed at his mother’s concern. God love her. “Just come down and have a bit of a pick, yeah?”

Harry had joined them for dinner that night at his mother’s request, skipping out on the salad that Robin insisted on him eating ( as he always did ). It didn’t mean he had to act happy about it, and Harry knew that he was always one to wear his heart on his sleeve anyways. There was no point in trying to hide. His fork ended up scraping the plate more often than it made its way to his mouth, and his mother had quickly noticed.

“You weren’t kidding about not being hungry, were you?” she’d asked with concern laced in the lines on her forehead and wine glass untouched on the table. She had probably been watching her son too closely to drink any of it.

“Yeah, sorry mum.” Harry poked at the long, bitter stalks of broccoli his mother had put on his plate. They had gone a bit cold.

“He’s been a bit glum since he got home, Anne,” Robin said as he looked across the table at Harry with equal worry in his voice. “He seemed down when he came home. Didn’t even say hello.”

Anne turned back to her son and brushed her fingertips across his upturned wrist. “What’s wrong, babe?”

If he was being honest, Harry hadn’t been quite sure if he’d be able to have this conversation with his mum and stepdad. They had a brilliant relationship and all, and Harry felt comfortable with sharing almost everything because he knew that they’d always be there to make it better, but… this? Even Harry wasn’t so stupid and optimistic so as to automatically presume that his family would be perfectly alright with the news of a boy trying to kiss him.

Then again, they had never failed him before. Maybe he’d just leave that whole kissing part out. He set his fork down on the table next to his plate.

“Uhm… well, you know Louis?”

“The boy you walk to school and from, yeah?” his mum had asked, tilting her head to the side. His stepdad hummed and sipped at his glass.

“Ah, the Tomlinson boy?” Robin asked with a cheeky smile once he swallowed down that small gulp of water. “Isn’t that the one you never entirely shut up about?”

“Oh, Rob, leave him,” Anne chided him with a backhand tap on his shoulder across the small table and a smirk. It made Harry temporarily forget the moment’s heaviness and his insides go warm to look at.

“Well, I’m just saying,” Robin had continued with the same sly grin on his face, this one directed at his wife. “If Tomlinson were a girl, I’d be suspecting that Harry had a bit of a crush with how much he talks about him.”

And that… that, interestingly, was what did it.

Robin’s joke should have meant nothing, had every right to carry zero weight with them like Niall’s had when Harry had first met Louis, but for some reason, they chose to stick to Harry’s skin and crawl right under it that night at the dinner table like parasites. The words got him thinking about the past, about his former short-term girlfriends, about that one girl who he’d once set candles out across a bridge for, how he’d felt with them. They made him curious. Those were certifiable crushes, right? Well, as certifiable as they came, he’d supposed, and they were different from how he felt around Louis… right? He thought about it some more.

If he was being honest, it really wasn’t all that different. If anything, whatever Harry felt for Louis was more intense than anything else he’d felt for any other person in his life. Louis made his heart flutter and his insides squeeze whenever the boy smiled or laughed at him. Anything and everything that he did was endearing. Harry liked every part of Louis, and if he was being totally sincere, he was one of the most gloriously beautiful people Harry had ever met, inside and out, and… Okay, so maybe he had a slight crush on Louis.

Harry froze.

And then it was like every ounce of warmth in his body was suddenly draining into an internal black hole, as though it was being forcefully sucked out of Harry’s skin. He was stuck in a vacuum, a very dark, very cold, and very frightening infinite. Harry fancied his friend, whom, though they’d only known each other for such a short time, he considered a best friend. A very, very straight and male best friend. Shit.

“Harry?”

His mother’s words had snapped him back to the table like a rubber band against his skin. Harry blinked hard and tried to hear her voice over the sound of his own heartbeat and squelching gut. “Pardon?”

“I asked you, doesn’t Louis have siblings as well?” she repeated with a pinched brow. “Sisters?”

His hands shook in his lap as he tried to form a good, clear sentence. It soon proved to be impossible. “I… Y-Yeah.” It felt like Harry’s tongue had swollen his throat nearly closed and his stomach was about to give way.

“Are you alright, sweets?” Anne asked him, the familiar look of concern on her face. “You’ve gone a bit green.”

“I – I…” His mind was absolutely swirling. What would his mum think when she found out? His stepdad? His friends? His father, gone suddenly and too soon, would he have been ashamed to call him his son? Harry stumbled around the syllable for a few more seconds before the heavy burden of reality came crashing down onto his thin shoulders. Game over.

IthinkI’mgonnabesick,” he’d spat onto his plate and bolted to the bathroom down the hallway, accidentally tearing the tablecloth away with him. The shattering and smashing of glass and china plates followed after his footsteps as he raced down the hall and in through the door that he locked behind him. He heard his mother swear loudly and chase after him just as his knees hit the cold tile and the acid hit his throat.

Another wave of pure nausea came with every name that crashed over him. His parents, would they kick him out of the house if they somehow found out? What would they do to him? Would his mum dare to touch him again? He threw the thought up into the toilet and coughed through his tears that were forming rapidly.

Would Robin tell Louis’s family? Then Louis would hate him for all of eternity, and Niall and Zayn and the others probably would too. Word would eventually get out to the school, and Liam and his friends would destroy him. He’d be a dead man with nowhere to go. Even the church might not offer him sanctuary or help if word got around as to why he was there. Harry’s stomach emptied itself again, and he wiped his mouth with his wrist. Teardrops fell onto the tile below him. Anne was knocking frantically on the door behind him, shouting at Robin for water.

And what about all his friends from school, all at uni now? What if they somehow heard about it? He wasn’t sure their feelings on gays, but they had all gone to the same school as he did, and Harry knew the general attitude around there. They’d probably all be gone from him, too. He’d have absolutely no one. At this point, nothing else came up but a splatter of stomach acid.

But oh God, there it was; the G-word. That was him now; the boy with the big, gay crush on Louis Tomlinson. He was going to hell. His mother was knocking on the door.

“Harry, Harry! Open up, sweetheart! Open up!” He coughed a few times, spat once, and did so with a slow and shaking hand. She knelt beside him, her own knees knocking twice as hard against the floor. She whispered soft nothings into his hair, stroking her fingers through it and holding him to her chest. He cried and whispered his, “I’m sorry, God forgive me, I’m so, so sorry,” into her neck.

Harry hadn’t shown up early the next morning to Louis’s house, feigning sickness to his mother to keep him home that day. He was somewhat proud to say that he’d only collapsed into sobs twice while he laid in bed, wrapped in his covers like a child and consumed by the swirling haze of black-coloured thoughts that hung above his head like a cloud. He didn’t have the energy to eat, pray, or even move by the end of the day. He could only fall into bouts of uneasy sleep.

He didn’t show up the next day, either, too afraid that his emotion would show in chemistry, that he wouldn’t be able to physically hold down the words if he were seated next to Louis. It was safer that way, wasn’t it? And how the hell was he supposed to face him alone like that? What was he supposed to say? So Louis, I may or may not be completely and totally enamored with you. Soz about it, mate. Yeah, that would surely go down well.

It was the same day that Harry had to physically tear himself away from his mother’s medicine cabinet while she and Robin were at work. He hadn’t been there to kill himself, not something nearly as drastic as that, but something to keep him away from that school and as far away from Louis as possible, like a mental ward. In his mind, he probably needed someone to fix him, anyway. A suicide attempt, or at least a staged one, would surely put him away for at least a few weeks, and he’d take it any day over seeing Louis’s face again and his eyes that were the colour of a summer sky.

He didn’t want to be gay. He didn’t want to be tired. Harry had never felt so exhausted in his entire life. His soul had never felt blacker. The worst part was that it wasn’t even basic human principle that was holding him down the most, nor was it the idea of people hating him.

His whole life since before he could remember, Harry had been told time and time again what was expected of him by God, set forth for him in a plan that was to never be strayed from, and Harry had wanted it. He wanted the marriage, he wanted the children, he wanted to live a life that was as close to God as possible. Hell, he wasn’t perfect, no one was, but that’s what God was supposed to have sent his Son down to earth for, and there was always the chance to redeem himself for his sins, the kinds that no one can really help but fall subject to. But being gay? Looking at another boy as he should a girl? No way. He was going to hell for this for sure, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t bring himself to turn apathetic, and that made him want to die. It turned his mind the colour of coal dust.

On the third day, a Thursday, his mother had made him go back to school, though he could hardly hold his head up without collapsing at her feet. He’d purposely walked slowly to school so as to miss mass, electing to go straight to his first block class.

“Where the literal hell have you been?” Niall had yelled across the room when he spotted Harry sitting with his head pressed against the wall, tracing the ever-present and painted over ROMANS 13:8 with a light finger. “I thought you were dead, you haven’t answered any of my texts!” Huh. He never had looked up that verse.

“What’s Romans 13:8, Ni?”

Niall abruptly paused his concern as he sat down. “…What’s what?”

“Nothing,” Harry had sighed and turned his gaze to his friend. “What have I missed?”

Niall raised his eyebrow, but answered the question. “Erm… Well, we’re learning how to do short riffs in guitar, and we’ve started learning the different functions for equations, the six of them. I can come round later and catch you up.” Niall paused for a moment before continuing. “Louis’s been really weird all week, and he won’t tell me why. Does it have something to do with you, by any chance? You know, seeing as you haven’t been here and all.”

“Dunno,” Harry replied, lowering his eyes to the ground. “Haven’t seen him.”

“Jesus, you look exhausted. You look like the walking dead, mate,” Niall had gawked at Harry’s side. It was almost enough to make Harry smile. Almost.

“I feel like the walking dead.”

Maths had been nothing short of a fog for Harry. Similarly, he couldn’t force himself to care about physics, his favourite subject, in the block afterwards. Although Dr. Flynn had kindly given him an extension to study for the quiz that was given out that day, a quick glance over Bradley’s shoulder told Harry that he either had absolutely no fucking clue as to what was going on, or his mind was simply elsewhere. P.E. was about the same, and his apathy for the class had kept him waiting in the locker room, sitting there and wiping stray tears off his cheeks, until Liam came in for his five-minute early release that he gave himself every day. The sixth former had certainly been caught off guard.

“Styles?” Liam had come towards him with a pinched expression, a large, old towel thrown over his shoulder. “Did you skip my class to just sit in here?”

Harry sighed and knocked his head against the set of lockers behind him. “I don’t feel well.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.

“You should be in the infirmary, then.”

“I’ve been home sick for the past two days. It’s not really an option,” Harry had replied flatly. Liam stared back.

“Well… okay.” Liam nodded down at Harry, almost understandingly. Harry could and would never understand how Liam was so compassionate one second and then terrifying the next. “I won’t say anything. You can leave early if you like, just… don’t get caught. And just stay out to give me a minute alone, alright?” Harry hadn’t heard the last part, though. He was already halfway out the door, headed towards the wall of the library where he knew Josh and Casper would be within a few minutes.

Free period had been nothing short of an hour-long session of living hell.

Harry hadn’t been expecting Louis to speak to him at all – that would have been nothing short of luck – but to face complete and utter silence without so much as a side-glance from him cut like a dagger. The air between them was like concrete, and the five other boys they sat with noticed almost immediately. Thankfully, no one said anything, and Niall and Zayn attempted to make quiet conversation across the circle while Jack chain-smoked his way through four cigarettes. Harry couldn’t make himself eat, too busy forcing his tears back into himself to even consider it.

Louis hadn’t walked with his three friends to the Arts Wing, not even offering up an excuse as to why.

Harry didn’t realise he was crying halfway through the block until Niall abandoned his guitar and pushed him towards the door, muttering a quick, “Family trouble, sorry,” over his shoulder.

“Harry, what’s going on? Why have you been so upset all day?” Niall slid down the wall next to his friend and laid a heavy hand on top of his friend’s knee. Harry shook his head furiously and rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. His cheeks itched. How long had he sat there with tears coming down his face without noticing?

“I can’t say, Niall,” he’d sniffled, wiping his eyes and nose with his sleeves. “It’s a lot of things.”

“Is it Louis?”

“It’s a lot of things,” Harry repeated, a bit more harsh than perhaps intended. Niall didn’t seem to notice, or maybe he just didn’t care. Taking Niall’s general demeanor into consideration, the second one was probably more likely.

“But Louis’s a part of the problem, yeah? Don’t lie to me,” Niall had raised a hand up before Harry could interject, “you’re both off. I wasn’t going to say anything, but it was unbearable sitting next to you two today, and you’ve been nothing short of a wet mop with the way you’re walking around. Him, on the other hand, half the time, he can’t seem to hold a conversation with anyone but Zayn or me or Stan without having a miniature nervous breakdown.”

Harry broke his glassy stare to move his eyes down to the laminate tile flooring. “That’s not really my problem, is it?”

Niall wasn’t taken aback by this, but rather took it as a confirmation of his suspicion. “So… you are fighting then. You wouldn’t be saying that sort of thing otherwise.”

“Maybe I don’t care about his feelings. He clearly doesn’t care about mine.” The words had come tumbling out of his mouth faster than Harry could grab them out of the air and shove them back in before Niall heard them, and the pained expression that Niall took on only made the constant ache in his chest hurt all the more.

“Of course he cares about your feelings. He loves you, Haz.”

Niall’s intended comfort was a knife in Harry’s chest, and the desire to bite back was so urgent, too urgent to ignore. At this point, Harry had to consider his options. Either he could continue to leave Niall out of the loop and carry on with what he was doing, or he could tell Niall everything. There was really no in-between at the time, no way that Niall could only be partially involved. And really, was there any kind of punishment that someone could inflict on him that was worse than what he had been doing to himself?

“Not how I love him, though.”

“I’d put money on it that he does.” Niall had leaned into Harry’s side. “Louis likes a lot of people, but he doesn’t love many people, Harry, and you have to understand that. It catches him a bit off guard, always has, always will. You just have to give him a bit of time, is all.”

“Niall…” Harry cleared his throat and made a final attempt to wipe the fresh tears from under his eyelids. “I get what you’re saying and all, but it’s literally been killing me over the past few days. I couldn’t even get out of bed because of him, so don’t try to tell me that he cares more. If he was still walking around, then I’m afraid that I’m going to have to call bullshit.” A thick silence followed. Niall looked nothing short of stunned.

“Wait, are you serious?” Harry nodded at his friend. “Harry, that’s not… That’s a bit mad, mate. Like, that’s really kind of terrifying.”

An unwarranted smile had crept across Harry’s lips. “You’re telling me.”

“No, but… that might need psychological attention. That’s not safe for even married people, H.”

“We’re not married yet, Niall.” Harry hadn’t expected Niall to laugh at that.

“You’re a weird one, aren’t you?” Niall wrapped an arm around the younger boy’s neck and pulled him close. Harry pushed his nose into Niall’s necktie and breathed in the smell of thin cologne and sweat there, and he felt his heavy eyes glue themselves shut. “I’m gonna walk you home today, alright? I’m gonna put something in your stomach and get you to bed.” Harry had sighed and nodded. “Then, I’m gonna go to Lou’s and beat him over the head with a bloody cricket bat.”

It felt good to tell Niall what he was feeling. It had been a good call. “Thanks, Niall,” Harry hummed happily just before the world faded out completely.

He hadn’t come to school the next day either, simply too exhausted to get out of bed that morning, but truth be told, things had gotten a bit better after that. Harry had received a text early Sunday evening, and he’d nearly thrown himself out a window with a mix of intrigue, horror, and joy.

Louis Tomlinson xoxox <3 : So you coming by tomorrow morning or am i making tea for one from now on?

Harry had scrambled to reply, trying to think of something casual enough not to raise suspicion or scare him off, but also something that wouldn’t make Harry sound apathetic either. He elected ( after about four rough drafts ) for Thought we usually shared one anyways (??) and hit sent before he could think twice about it.

A few seconds later came –

Louis Tomlinson xoxox <3 : Can do. See you tomorrow then, and for the first time in nearly a week, Harry’s chest was filled with something other than empty space.

It hadn’t gone back to normal after that, though, not really, and in the month that had proceeded to pass, every time Harry thought that maybe he’d have the chance to explain himself or try to get things back to the way they’d been, Louis had shut down. The fear in the older boy’s eyes was equivalent to a small and cornered animal, and it was usually out of worry over breaking the boy that Harry would slowly back out of the conversation. After the third time of trying to get Louis to just talk candidly to him about that day, Louis had actually packed his books and notes and left without a word. Although it still hurt to look at him every day, Harry stopped trying after that.

It hadn’t gotten any easier to accept the fact that Harry didn’t like Louis as he liked Niall, Ed, Dylan, Zayn, or any of his other friends, either. It still burned holes in his chest to think about it, but Harry couldn’t say he was appalled with himself anymore. Granted that the level of his self-hatred had never been higher in his life, but at this point, the fact that he wasn’t as straight as he’d once assumed was getting lower in his list of important things in his life, a minor footnote on his current life situation. He was a fucking abomination, sure, and it was still his dirty secret that hadn’t been uttered to anyone but in a hint to Niall, but he’d gotten used to the fire by now. If he was already living in his own hell, why not keep going deeper? Why not? Louis was the important one here, and if Harry had to literally torture himself with the boy’s presence to make sure that Louis wasn’t hurting or uncomfortable with the almost-kiss, then he’d do it.

Raj, always the most sensitive to that sort of thing, had been the first to notice something was up with him after only about two weeks into October. It had happened over a Skype call, and, unsurprisingly, it had only taken a matter of minutes for Raj to ask.

“Are you alright, Harry?” he’d asked with hesitation and chin in hand. “You look like life’s getting to be a bit too much for you.” And that was all it took for Harry to dissolve into tears all over again.

What was supposed to be a fifteen-minute update turned into a two-hour sob fest, a shaking Harry on one end and a concerned and cooing friend trying everything in his power to calm the younger boy down. Nick and Finn joined the conversation after Raj had texted them a “SOH – SAVE OUR HARRY”, then Ed was texting him and Jeni was calling from a payphone in Paris that was probably costing him a meal’s worth of cash every five minutes. Dylan texted him a playlist of good songs to listen to to help him fall asleep, and Ray emailed him a website that was nothing but kittens in funny outfits. They’d all known who Louis was, of course, as some of them had had classes with him on top of Harry gushing about him every chance he’d gotten before it had all gone to shit, and all were sympathetic to the situation, even if Harry was being utterly and a bit unfairly vague with what had actually happened.

“You all are brilliant,” he’d told them as he’d wiped away tears with the back of his sleeve, “but I’ll be fine.”

It was only a half-lie, because as much as he loved his friends and was thankful that they refused to let him go even in their busy lives, he’d still be facing Louis in the morning and living with the heavy ache in his heart that came with his presence.

Louis had wanted to forget that day, but how could Harry really? He’s the kind of person who needed answers, a resolution. How could he just move on? Harry had felt hopeless even after his friends had taken care of him from wherever they were in the world, halfway certain that the relationship ( if one could even call it that anymore ) was never to be even slightly mended.

Then comes Halloween night.

He first meets her when she breezes down the stairs and accidentally bumps shoulders with him, spilling a spot of whatever alcohol she has in her cup over his shoe. He doesn’t even know who she is when they begin talking, she’d technically come up to him first, but Harry would be lying if he said he isn’t remotely interested in finding out. She’s sweet, a pretty brunette with a voice like church bells, knows how to hold a conversation, and she’s found her way into the crook of his arm before Harry’s even aware of it happening. Slick.

“I’m not even supposed to be here right now,” she says into his ear with a smile. She’s pressed her hip into his side and Harry feels a jolt go up his spine. He can smell the faint and not entirely unpleasant scent of cigarettes mixed with her perfume on her skin. “I know most people aren’t, but my mum thinks I’m at my friend Mikayla’s house, trick or treating in the village over.”

“I told my mum I’m studying.”

“And she bought that?!” the girl exclaims with a brilliant smile and a slight, playful push of her wrist into Harry’s chest. “That’s unbelievable. Studying on Halloween.” She flips her long, wavy hair over her shoulder and changes her cup over from her right hand to her left. “You must be a proper geek for her to believe something like that.”

“I quite proudly can confirm it,” Harry says, tracing an idle line over the thin line of skin that the rising of her shirt is offering along her hip. She laughs at him, and Harry tries not to blush.

“Aw, you’re absolutely gorgeous, look at you,” she coos, and Harry finds himself unconsciously pulling her a little closer to his side. “I never did ask, what’s your name? I’ve don’t think I’ve ever met you before.”

“I’m Harry Styles.” The positioning is a little awkward, but the girl takes his hand that’s been free of any drink or cigarette all night, and she shakes it softly. Her grip is firm, and her bright blue nail polish is perfect.

“I’m Eleanor,” she says, “Eleanor Calder.”

The memory of the name from just a few days before at break hour, a name that inherently comes hand-in-hand with a generous smattering of jealousy, pings around his mind like the ball of a pinball machine. Looking at her now, he understands the obsession Louis had had with her. The smile that had been slowly spreading across his face practically melts off instantly and Eleanor notices, her own tight smile falling with his.

“Sorry,” she releases her hold and takes a step out of Harry’s suddenly tense arm, “did I say something wrong?”

“I have a friend who’s looking for you, is all,” he replies through gritted teeth.

Eleanor’s face regains some of the cheeky blush that seems to be a natural accessory of hers and leans back into Harry’s now very stiff side. “Oh, yeah? Who’s that, then?”

“Louis Tomlinson.”

Her eyes go wide and happy with something like recognition. “Ah, Louis. I was hoping to see him. You know, I never did get to finish what I started with him.” She purses her lips and winks at him. “He’s lovely, such a laugh. I should say hello before the night’s over. Might just go and find him now.”

Harry goes cold. He wants to scream a massive ‘NO’ in her face, to tell her with a smirk that Louis’s already taken, that the property she’s currently contemplating with a thoughtful expression is not for sale, that she’s stepping in on a work-in-progress. All of these things, of course, are one hundred percent false, but that doesn’t make them any less desirable in Harry’s eyes. Instead of doing any of these things, though, he moves out of her way without a word so that she can step into the blinking living room where most of the attendees are.

Zayn offers something to him when Harry wanders upon his seemingly strictly Addison crowd by the fireplace in the study, and Harry takes it despite him never smoking in his life, not a thought to it. A blonde and kind-eyed young woman, who is curled nicely into Zayn’s side, offers him a light and teaches him how to do it properly, and instead of doing something, anything, to find Louis before Eleanor does, Harry bitterly wonders with every deep inhale and every choke of the smoke what room upstairs Louis will take her to, how he’ll have her, if she’ll even have any lipstick left on her mouth by the time he’s done with her. Another one of the girls, who introduced herself as Jesy when he’d first walked in, rubs his back the whole time. He can’t find it inside of himself to thank her, though, not with the sour dryness that’s now coating the inside of his mouth.

When the roach of the joint that Zayn had given him begins burning his fingers, he leaves the group and drops it into one of the many half-empty cups along the hallway. He feels nothing, but not the malevolent kind of nothing that he’s grown to call a companion over the last month. This is new, a kind and friendly nothingness that paints his insides a bright white. He relishes in this nothingness. His feet lead him towards the kitchen after a minute, he doesn’t know why, but he’s merely going with things at this point and trying to keep any thought of Eleanor and Louis as far away from him as he possibly can.

It seems to Harry that the universe either has other plans in mind or just possesses a very sick sense of humour.

Harry wants to rip his hair out, to scream. He can’t remember ever feeling so angry, so helpless, so horrifically tragic and sorry for himself. His happy nothingness is gone only a minute after gaining it, exchanged for a near-murderous rage that has replaced it in the blink of an eye. He sees and feels bright red.

Right in the centre of the makeshift living room dance floor are the last two people he wanted to see, in each other’s arms and tangled up by their limbs. Harry’s body forces him to watch as Louis snakes a hand around her hip, around to rub her back, under her shirt, up, up, and… Jesus Christ. Jealousy, crimson and burning hot, licks at his heart and leaves him paralyzed where he stands in the doorway that separates the two rooms. He isn’t sure which one of the two he’s more envious of when it comes to Eleanor – getting touched by Louis like that, his roaming hands over her stomach and chest, or that she gets to hold him like that, fist bunched up in his shirt and pulling him ever closer to her body.

But then… what’s this?

Louis’s separated himself from the girl and is stumbling right towards him, a panicked and frightened look painting his features. Eleanor’s calling for him, calling his name. She looks scared. Louis’s eyes look like they’re made of glass, and Harry intercepts the boy with his whole body, afraid that he might shatter should he fall. Louis practically collapses into him, and it only makes Harry more livid when he wraps his hands around Louis’s body and remembers that this is the first time that the two have been so physically close to each other in a month.

“Louis,” his voice rumbles from a place in his chest he wasn’t aware he had. Louis looks like he’s woken from a trance.

“Harry!” he slurs almost manically, the sharp scent of vodka on his breath. “I was just thinking about you.”

Harry bites back the word ‘liar.’ “Were you now?”

“Yeah, honestly,” Louis nods, and then looks down at his feet. His guilty look. Damn. Harry’s anger must be practically seeping out of his pores at this point, because he’s shaking when he grabs at Louis’s waist and stutters over his sentences as he tries to form them. Eventually, his mouth finds a solid enough one to suggest that they go somewhere quieter, and he pushes it into the air with all his might. Louis seems to ignore it entirely.

“You’re not drunk,” Louis states, pushing his cup into Harry’s chest. “You need to be drunk, and I need to be more drunk so that I can stop thinking about you, and you can stop thinking about me. You need to be drunk, darling.” What is Louis even saying to him? Telling him to forget, to stop thinking about him as though Harry has wanted to do anything else since that day under the glass ceiling.

“You can never just talk to me anymore, can you?” Harry finds himself asking, the words coming out faster than he can stop them. He can’t seem to hold his thoughts inside of his head. “There always has to be something protecting you, whether it’s other people or silence or,” Harry glances down to the cup that Louis holds with disdain, “alcohol.”

Louis shakes his head. “You need to get drunk,” he tries again, pressing the cup into Harry once more. “You need to get as drunk as I am right now, because I don’t like the way you’re looking at me.”

“We need to talk, Lou,” Harry sighs, pushing his anger down, down.

“No!” Louis protests, wiggling away from Harry’s hold like a petulant child. “No, we don’t. If we never talk, we never get answers. It’s better that way.” Harry relinquishes his grasp on the older boy and lets him escape outside. Maybe that will be a better place to have this conversation. Maybe the air will sober Louis up just a fraction of an amount, enough that Harry won’t want to shake the boy by his shoulders and scream over what they’ve lost like he’s wanted to for so long. Like he wants to now.

“I can’t live that way.” Harry follows Louis, and the boy shoots a glance over his shoulder as he staggers across the large back deck. He’s trying in vain to make the impossible getaway. “I can’t do that.” Harry quickly backs the drunken boy up against the wooden railing, pinning him there with his own hips. Louis probably hates this, probably hates Harry. Harry doesn’t care.

“Harry,” the boy whines, snuggling up to the year eleven and resting his head on the smaller boy’s shoulder. His breaths come out in stutters. “Why are you mad at – at me? What have I done? Like, I’m trying to make it good between us again. I’m doing what needs to be done. Why can’t you just forget about it, Harry?”

Because I can’t forget you, he wants to say. Because you’ve been the ruin of me, and I should have known you would be the moment I walked into mass and saw you standing there with your eyes the size of the moon. Because you’re the exception to the rule and I don’t know how to pretend you never happened. I don’t want to pretend.

Harry pushes Louis back up and presses his forehead against the older boy’s. “Because…” he begins, breathing in deeply once more. “I know there’s something – there’s something between us that we’re both afraid to take a closer look at.”

“Harry, please don’t,” Louis pleads in a whisper, his heavy alcohol scented breath floating hotly across Harry’s mouth. “Please don’t say anything else. Just drink with me, okay?” His lips tremble as he looks into Harry’s eyes. His own are made of glass. “Just drink and try to forget.”

Harry shakes his head, almost laughing at the notion. Try to forget. Hilarious.

“I’ve tried to forget. I’ve tried so… God, I’ve tried so hard to forget.” Harry glances down to Louis’s hand, and upon seeing it’s still holding onto a plastic cap, flicks the object to watch it fall to the wood. The cup spins on the spot like a top. Harry grabs the older boy’s wrists tightly to press them into his shaking chest. He hopes Louis can feel his racing heartbeat through his shirt.

“You think I don’t know, but I do. I know what would happen, I’ve thought about it too, and I know you wanted me to, that’s why I tried.” He struggles to string words together, like each one is a slick glass bead falling through his open fingers. “But… Louis. There’s… there’s just no way.”

“Don’t ask me,” Louis whispers. “Don’t do it, Harry. Please.”

It’s too late for that now. Harry’s been waiting for this for a month, a whole damn month to finally ask.

“That day in the conservatory, when the rain was falling, you were going to do it, weren’t you?” Harry murmurs, and he watches Louis shatter. “You were going to kiss me.”

Louis nods, nothing behind his eyes.

Harry honestly had so many important questions, so many things to ask, but in the matter of a single second, they’re gone, floating away in the cool October breeze above them like common dust. It’s almost funny, and it might have been had it not instead been so goddamn heartbreaking. Harry feels the beat of his heart in his fingers and hears it echo through his ears like an African drum. He can feel himself falling, like thousands of grains of sand in an hourglass.

“We’re both cowards, aren’t we?” Harry asks, trying but failing to keep his voice steady. Louis nods again, slower, sadder this time, like he too is falling apart inside and out. Harry has never witnessed something as pathetic as Louis this night, nor something as pathetic as his own watery reflection staring expectantly back at him through a fragmented mirror made of crystal blue.

The world goes black, goes dark to protect the young boy of anything else that the universe can throw at him that night.

Harry wakes up under the tree – their tree on the school path – the next morning as the sun rises, a glorious pink-tainted orange and blood red in the sky. He’s never felt so cold in his life. His entire body is completely stiff from the night air, curled up in a tiny ball for what little warmth his small frame can muster and preserve. Harry blinks hard at the glowing sky, sitting up with great difficulty and scratching the lines of salty and caked earth off his cheeks. He thinks of his mother, probably frantic with worry and wondering why her son hasn’t come home. He thinks of his friends, how he’d left them all, probably without a word. He thinks back to the night before, all the questions that have still gone unanswered and problems unresolved. He thinks of Louis’s swimming pool eyes, like stained blue broken glass lining the pupils.

He’s broken Louis. He’s broken himself.

It takes Harry an hour to stop crying and trudge home that cold Monday morning, forcing himself to ignore the freezing autumn air that pushes through the thin hoodie that he’d borrowed off his mum before popping out the night before.

Chapter Text

Louis hates most aspects of himself.

He hates his height and how most of his friends tend to tower over him, he hates his teeth that are just a tad too small for his mouth, he hates his anxiety that has held him back from so many things since he was a child, he hates the fact that even his anxiety is no match for his stubbornness, and he hates his utter intolerance for hard liquor that walks hand-in-hand with his love for it. Today, while he’s wrapped up in two duvets in his dark basement, a recently cleaned plastic bin sits by his side to catch his sick ( should he likely need it again ), Spice World plays on a loop, and Harry Styles smothers out every thought that crosses Louis’s mind, there’s absolutely no aspect of himself that he likes. These past few days have been a bad time to be alive if you’re Louis Tomlinson.

Louis typically likes to have a good start to the months, just a thing he likes to do; to wake up and tell himself that though things are going to get tough, he’ll push through and make it a good one. To have a good day on the first is the promise of a good month to come, or something like that. With Harry, October hadn’t been one of these months with a good start. November is looking to be another exception to his rule.

The thing is, Harry has kind of ruined Louis a little bit, and that’s why he’s been down here for two days with the curtains drawn, watching Spice World about twenty or so times in a row, and sipping from a bottle of vodka that he’s kept hidden under the covers for whenever his mum or dad come to check on him, stolen from their cabinet. He isn’t drunk, just unpleasantly tipsy and somehow simultaneously still horrifically hungover from Halloween night. He’d fully succeeded in getting drunk to the point of oblivion, but had apparently not succeeded in doing it gracefully.

After the fifth text message from his classmates and several of his old friends from other schools came in, all offering their condolences for the lost loved one he was sobbing about at the party, he’d decided to turn his mobile off altogether and stuff it between the couch cushions. There was only one person Louis had lost that night, and Louis would rather cut his own tongue out with a rusty spoon than have to explain that to everyone. No matter how hard he’s tried, Louis can’t erase the image of Harry’s watering eyes staring back at him, pleading for something that Louis simply can’t give. It’s burned into the backs of his eyelids.

What makes the situation all the more awful is that he’s missing out on the time with his family that he’d been so looking forward to: time with his four little sisters to catch up on the latest gossip around their own private schools, braid their hair for them, and watch Pixar movies; time to fail terrifically with a new dinner recipe with his mum and laugh about it as they order a take out; time to just sit down and talk with his dad. He can’t even muster the will or energy to drag himself up the stairs to make an appearance, though, so he isn’t sure how he expects himself to do such things. At this rate, it seems likely that Louis isn’t going to be seeing daylight all break. He’ll probably just wallow here until he dies.

Louis uncovers the bottle of vodka as Posh Spice rummages through her wardrobe looking for something, anything, to wear, and uncaps it as she holds up one of her Gucci dresses. He doesn’t know why he bothers drinking this stuff at this point, seeing as it just tastes like water. His liver’s probably screaming, but no matter. He takes a quick drink, wipes his hand on the back of his sleeve, and thanks Baby along with Posh for helping her decide on a black Gucci dress. He recaps the bottle and stuffs it back under the covers. Why is he watching this film… again?

“Wow, Spice World.” Louis’s heart stills in his chest. “I haven’t seen this in ages.”

Harry makes his way down the few remaining stairs and stops short at the couch to stare and smile at Scary Spice as she snarls at Ginger for stealing her boots. “Gemma used to watch this religiously until the tape just gave up on life. She watched it so many times that the picture wore down.” He glances to Louis, who is sat on the far left of the couch and curled up in his covers with a still unmoving heart and a quarter-full bottle of vodka tucked into his side. He probably reeks of alcohol by now. “Do you mind if I watch?”

Louis resists the urge to throw the bottle directly at Harry’s face for daring to intrude in on his lair ( who had even let him in against strict instruction not to? Probably one of the older girls. Someone will be getting a plastic spider in their bed tonight ) and, in an attempt at indifference, shrugs his shoulders and looks towards the television with a stuttering heartbeat. Harry nods back and moves into the space to Louis’s right, a few inches back from where the tips of their toes, Louis’s bare and Harry’s socked, will touch. Tense silence fills the room before Harry effortlessly dissolves it.

“I always had a bit of a thing for Mel C. Sporty, you know? She’s my favourite,” Harry offers, turning his body to face Louis. His face is clear and unreadable. “Who’s yours?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Everyone’s got a favourite Spice Girl, Lou. That’s just the way it works.”

Louis already knows what game Harry is playing with him; the let’s-act-normal-and-silly-then-have-a-heart-to-heart-discussion game. He’s an experienced pro at this, as Niall plays it with him all the time when things go awry because he knows it won’t scare his anxiety-riddled friend off. Can he play with Harry though, especially given what the topic is going to be when the conversation turns serious? Can he? Well, he’s here now. Not really a way to go any further south.

“You’ll laugh.”

“Is yours Scary Spice?” Harry asks with a cheeky smile. What a bastard. The older boy purses his lips.

“…Maybe.”

Really?!” Harry grins widely and Louis’s heart flutters at how his voice crackles on the first syllable. The younger boy clears his throat and shakes his fringe out of his eyes. “Mel B? Well… I have to say, that was unexpected. I’d have guessed Baby or Ginger.”

Louis scoffs and rolls his eyes. “No one’s favourite is Ginger Spice, Harry, come on.”

Harry’s expression goes sour as he crosses his ankles and settles further into the worn leather. “That’s not fair, Lou. Geri’s lovely and all about girl power. She was brilliant in this movie.”

“She’s got the crazy eyebrows.”

“There are eyebrows that are indicators of craziness?”

“Yeah,” Louis nods, hugging the fluffy covers closer to his body and biting his giggles away, “it’s scientifically proven.”

Harry hums and nods thoughtfully. “I must have missed that section in Psychology 101 last year.” Finally, there it is again, painting Harry’s face like it had never gone away – the fond and happy look that has been absent for a good month. Louis isn’t quite sure how he’s gone so long without its presence.

“You must have. It’s a pretty commonly known fact.”

The two sit there just looking at each other for a good minute, and the whole time, Louis is feeling a pull that’s almost gravitational towards the younger boy. He wants to touch him, to hold him, and it’s not like the sensation is unusual, but there’s always been something or someone stopping him. Now, there’s nothing but the thick duvet doing so, and it doesn’t help that Harry’s eyes are positively raking over the folded lump that is Louis’s body. Harry has words caught on his tongue – Louis can feel it all the way from the other side of the couch as he watches the boy’s chest rise and fall. Louis pulls the quilt even closer to himself.

“Don’t freak out, okay?” Harry finally cracks through the silence just when the weight of it is becoming a bit too much to bear, and Louis feels his heart begin to thump rapidly. Perhaps it’s trying to jump out of his skin and make its escape through the door to the garden. He wouldn’t blame it. A part of him would have much rather been running away than be stuck in the basement with the boy that has made him question so much. He pushes the bridge of his glasses up with the back of his hand ( he couldn’t be bothered to put his contacts in these past few days ) and swallows hard.

Harry gets to his feet and carefully, slowly, shuffles over to where Louis’s sat, holding his gaze the whole time. “Don’t freak out,” he repeats, and he gently sits himself down next to Louis, wrapping a tight arm around the older boy’s middle and resting his head on his shoulder.

Louis is ( surprisingly ) not freaking out. In fact, at that moment, he’s more at ease than he has been for the entirety of the time that Harry’s been there. The warmth of the boy’s side slowly soaks into his body that has had a noticeable tinge of coldness to it for the last two nights. He wiggles to the side to better accommodate him and to silently suggest to Harry to lie on his chest, and he goes along with it perfectly, settling his head below Louis’s sternum and his hand atop where the sixth former’s heart is stuttering furiously. Louis wonders if he’s done that on purpose. Probably. The little shit.

They lay there in delicate quiet until the Spice Girls end their montage to their past, their first performance of Wannabe in the old café.

“I’m sorry for what I did the other night,” Harry says into the thick blanket below him, and the words make Louis jump, catching him off guard. He sighs and continues a little quieter, hiding his blush from the older boy below him. “I shouldn’t have done that. You were drunk and I was high off of God-knows-what and… I’m just really sorry. I know you panic under that kind of pressure, and I’m supposed to be a good friend and keep that sort of stuff away from you.”

To combat the awful feeling of his rapidly sinking stomach, Louis rips his arm from its confines under the covers, lets the mostly empty bottle roll onto the carpet with a soft thump , and runs his fingers through Harry’s silky hair. He’d forgotten how soft it was. His fingers buzz. “Whatever’s wrong with me, it’s no excuse. I’m sorry for being so cruel to you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Harry sighs again, and Louis hears the soft scratching of his eyelashes fluttering against the covers. “And you weren’t being cruel, Lou – ”

“I made you sick, babe,” Louis cuts in, remembering the day that Niall had stormed into his bedroom and slammed the door behind him. He’d yelled at an utterly exhausted and bedridden Louis for a solid ten minutes, occasionally punching him hard in the arm and chest, telling him what he’d done. Louis had felt horrible, of course, and he’d had a full-on anxiety attack that ended in Niall holding him as he shook and gasped for air for a good half-hour, but there wasn’t anything he could have done or said to Harry at the time. He can at least try to apologise and make up for it now.

“Like, I made you physically sick,” he goes on, pushing his back further up the pillows behind him so that he’s looking down at the boy that is making a home on his rising and falling chest. “And then I kept being a distant prick out of… well, fear, I guess.”

Harry wriggles upwards until he’s leaning on his elbows and his waist is pressing unto Louis’s upper thigh. “Your mum said you’ve been down here ever since you came home yesterday morning.”

“Yeah.”

“She’s worried about you. I have been too, but for different reasons probably.” The television flickers coloured lights in Harry’s eyes as he stares back up at his friend. “Why are we afraid, do you think? What are we afraid of?” Louis sighs and throws his head back to stare at the ceiling.

“I think we’re afraid because we both know that our friendship isn’t normal. You feel that too, right?” Louis looks back down to see Harry nod up at him. “Right. Like, we’re just different, you and me, is all.”

“Different in that… you sometimes want to kiss me?” Harry asks with obvious trepidation, and Louis gulps. He himself can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about Harry that had made him feel and do the thing he’d done That Day. How is he supposed to explain it to someone else? He searches his brain for any kind of answer and comes up with –

“I honestly think it’s just because I love you too much to keep it in and I don’t know how else to show it.” That makes sense… that made sense, right? Louis flicks his gaze back to the television.

“Oh… Is that it?”

Louis snorts, trying to pass the series of miniature heart attacks he’s currently having as nothing. “Dunno what else it could be. I’m not gay, H. I’ve liked girls since I was eight years old.” 

“No, no, I know that.” Louis flashes his gaze back to the boy’s face so see that it has faint traces of… oh God, is that disappointment there? Louis shoves off the desire to wrap his arms around the younger boy and rock him until he falls asleep. Harry has had enough disappointment as a direct result of Louis as it is.

“Why do you look upset, then?” he questions carefully, running his fingers along Harry’s jaw, and like a switch has gone on, Harry’s face is flushed bright pink in a single second.

“I was just thinking…” he begins, but then shakes his head and buries his face back into Louis’s chest. “No, never mind.”

“What?” Louis weaves his fingers through the thick curls again, making a point to scratch lightly at the nape of the boy’s neck like he remembers he likes. “Tell me, what?”

Harry lifts his head but keeps his eyes low. “I was gonna say that you… you could if you wanted to.” He coughs and meets Louis’s eyes again, and they’re oddly insistent. “You could, erm, kiss me if you wanted to. Anytime you wanted. Like, I wouldn’t mind or freak out.”

Well that’s just… oh.

“Duly noted,” Louis blinks and Harry leans his head back down to rest and watch the rest of the film. He never moves from his place in Louis’s neck, and Louis never takes his fingers out of Harry’s hair until the credits have finished rolling and they’re faced with the DVD main menu. Even then, both boys are reluctant to move. Louis would give up a limb to just keep listening to and feeling the boy above him breathe so slowly and evenly. It’s such a change of feeling from an hour before.

“I should probably get back home,” Harry mutters into Louis’s skin when the movie begins playing once more by its own accord. “Mum’ll be wondering where I am again. She’s hardly let me out of her sight since I came home from the party.”

“Guess she wasn’t too thrilled about seeing you stoned, huh?”

“Actually, I woke up the next morning under our tree on the school path. I came home with the beginnings of hypothermia and looking like I’d had the shit beat out of me.” Louis’s hand stills in Harry’s hair, and he feels something like cold fingers pressing against the inside of his chest. Harry notices immediately and pushes himself up until he’s kneeling over Louis’s waist. “I didn’t say that to make you feel bad,” Harry says quickly, running his hands over Louis’s chest. Louis smiles weakly back up at him.

“I am really sorry for that, you know.”

“I know you are.”

“I’ll, uh, I’ll walk you out. Then I think I’ll go apologise to my family for being a right wanker to them for the past few days.”

Harry laughs and gets to his feet, stretching his creaking bones out as he does. Louis tries not to notice the shape and violet veins of the boy’s thin, cream-coloured arms as they flex high above his head. Tries. Fails. Details, details, as they say. “It might actually be wise for you to not. You kind of smell like a liquor store. Probably wouldn’t be a good thing for the girls to experience that, even less so your parents.”

Louis bites his lip and sighs as he swivels his legs to the side and stands up alongside Harry. The sudden shift of blood in his body mixed with his slight intoxication makes his head spin and flickering dots of light appear in his line of vision. “Yeah… sorry about that.”

“You’ve been saying ‘sorry’ an awful lot tonight. It’s okay, we all have our ways of dealing with things, I guess,” Harry reaches out to straighten a crease in Louis’s shirt and shrugs with a slight smirk. “Some are just a little less healthy than others.”

Louis lightly kicks at Harry’s heels when the boy turns and begins making his way toward the stairs. “If that was a jab at my ego, Harry Styles – ”

“A friendly jab,” Harry grins widely back at him as he ascends upstairs. Louis follows him, gripping the doorframe to the basement tightly and swinging his weight off of it towards the front door when they come to it.

“A jab nonetheless,” Louis says with an annoyed look, “and I’ll have you know that I am very hurt.”

“Call us even then.”

Louis shakes his head as Harry toes his shoes back on. “I have serious doubts that makes up for the shit I put you through.”

“You struggled because of me as well, so I dare say that we’re already on pretty even ground.” Louis watches in silence as Harry tucks a finger into the backs of his tattered trainers and pulls them over his heels, keeping one hand on the wall for balance. He then straightens himself back up, zips his hoodie up to the neck, and it’s like a wall of glass is suddenly between them. Louis wonders how he can make it break.

“I really am sorry, you know.”

Harry doesn’t answer with words. Instead, he gives a smile that is understanding, almost sympathetic, and reaches a hand out for Louis. The older boy meets him halfway, pulling Harry into his chest and draping his arms around his neck to hold him close. “I know you are. We’re okay now, though?” Harry squeezes Louis’s waist tightly.

“Yeah, we’re more than okay.”

“Good,” Harry mutters into Louis’s shirt, pressing his fingers into the small of the older boy’s back. “Just promise me that we’ll never let that happen to us again.”

“Never.” Louis means it.

Harry pulls himself off and out of Louis’s arms, blindly stepping backwards with an outstretched hand to find the doorknob. “I’ll see you on Sunday, then?”

“A whole three days, how will I be able to live?” Louis teases, pulling his arms over his thin t-shirt when a gust of nighttime wind bursts through the door as Harry opens it.

“I think you’ll survive,” the boy replies with another big smile as he steps into the night. “G’night, Lou.”

“Night, H.”

Louis stares at the closed door, the lines in the dark wood and the shiny brass door handle, for what seems like an eternity to him with the rising feeling of anxiety pumping through his bloodstream. Nothing’s been left unresolved, Harry left with a smile on his face, and they’re best friends again. So why does he feel so itchy, so wrong?

When he finally musters enough mental strength to look away and escape the heaviness of his thoughts, the first thing that his eyes fall upon is his school-issued scarf, the warm, maroon one that he wears almost every day. His fingers find the soft material that’s hanging up by the bright, fluffy coats of his little sisters, and before he’s consciously aware of it, he’s tugging it down. Next thing he knows, the door is flying open, nearly off its hinges, and he’s running down the porch stairs, across the grass, and down the pavement towards the figure walking slowly under the dim streetlamp. His glasses fog with the abrupt change in temperature.

“Hey, Styles!” he calls out through the night and the boy turns, his curls illuminated in the soft light from above and creating somewhat of a halo effect. The alcohol must really be catching up to Louis for him to start creating angel comparisons. “It’s too cold out here for just a hoodie, mate. You’ll catch your bloody death,” he says with only half of his breath available to him when he finally gets to Harry’s side, and he holds the scarf out. Harry’s eyes trail downwards to the ground and crease in the corners with a bright smile. He bites his lip and wraps his arms around his middle when he looks back up.

“Says the one running in bare feet and a t-shirt.”

“I won’t be sassed for caring about you, little boy,” Louis huffs, and he takes the initiative to begin wrapping the long, woolen scarf around Harry’s neck. He has to admit when he pulls away that he quite likes seeing Harry’s long fingers run along the material. “There,” he nods, “now you won’t freeze on your way home.”

Harry puts his other hand on Louis’s shoulder and gives it a short squeeze before retracting it again. “Am I allowed to keep this, too?” and continues with a slight flush to his cheeks, “I still wear the pajamas that you gave me.”

“Yeah,” Louis swallows his heart that has fluttered into his throat for a moment at the brief thought of Harry in his clothes, baggy and loose around his hips and ankles, and smiles with chattering teeth, “it looks better on you anyways.”

The cold is fast soaking in through Louis’s arms and feet, making them painfully numb, and for the third time that night, both boys look at each other in thick silence, unsure of how to proceed. Surely, Louis thinks, they’re both waiting for the other to make the first move. To hell with waiting, though. Harry has done plenty of waiting around for Louis as it is. He breathes in the icy air and reaches a hand out for Harry’s waist, pulling the boy in closer to his side. “Stay still, alright?” he mutters into the space that just barely separates them now. Harry’s bright eyes have gone wide and hopeful, and it makes Louis forget he was ever cold at all.

“Stay still,” he repeats, and the boy nods. Slowly, as gingerly as Louis can manage, he leans in and presses his lips to Harry’s cheek, just below his eye, closing his own eyelids to relish in the utter quiet – quiet of the night, quiet of his previously buzzing mind. He tries to push every word he isn’t sure if he’ll ever be able to say into it.

“Text me, okay?” he whispers into Harry’s ear after he’s pulled away, and it’s only when the boy stops nodding that Louis lets go and walks hurriedly back towards his house, the windows glowing welcomingly, making sure not to throw a glance over his shoulder until he’s on the top step of his front porch. Harry’s still standing in the exact same place, probably grinning the night away like Louis is behind the hand that’s clasped tightly over his lips.

It’s all Louis can do not to slide down the door and sink to the ground as soon as the door closes behind him. It’s all he can do to bite back the shouts of pure and almost uncalled for joy that fill every crevice of his soul.

It’s all he can do not to burst into song as he quietly makes his way upstairs, strips his two-day-old clothes and drops them onto the tile of the bathroom, and showers under the hottest water the house can throw onto his chilled skin, and when he falls facedown upon his unmade and messy bed twenty minutes later, he does so with a smile on his lips. That night as he drifts off to sleep, he says a quick prayer and gives thanks for the chance to fix this with Harry, whatever the reason may be that he got it, grinning all the while.

He dreams about thunderstorms and a curly haired boy with diamonds in his skin.

~

“… and excuse my language, but I think I’m gonna go fucking crazy with these deadlines,” Zayn grumbles as he tries to once again light the cigarette that he holds between his lips, his shaking hands bare to the brisk wind. “How the hell can you expect creativity to just rush at me like a wave?”

“You can’t,” Harry replies swiftly, and Zayn hums an agreement, thankful to have someone on his side.

“Exactly. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to do double writing, to be honest. I’m regretting it lately.” A thin stream of smoke dissipates into the cold, late November air as Zayn exhales. He kicks at a cluster of small pebbles along the edge of the path that they all usually walk home together in the afternoons. “That’s what I get for choosing to study English for when I head off to university. Bloody, bloody GCSEs…”

“It might not be too late to change, you know,” Harry offers. “People can change their course in university if they want. You can start that now.”

“Nah,” Zayn dismisses him with a wave of his hand, the same one that holds the thin, smoking item, “in too deep now. And what else would I do? I’m utter shit with everything except reading and writing. Might as well try to make a career out of it.”

“You’re a good singer, I know that.”

“Because Louis told you I was?”

“No. I heard you singing Katy Perry in the kitchen last Saturday while we were all at your place.”

Zayn laughs around his cigarette and kicks more stones aside. “Katy Perry?”

“Yeah, it was, erm…” Harry clears his throat and sings the song back, “‘Shut up, put your money where your mouth is. That’s what you get for waking up in Vegas.’ That one. You weren’t bad.”

Zayn purses his lips and nods, apparently impressed. “Neither are you, to be honest. You’ve got a good voice on you.”

“Thanks, Z.”

Today isn’t the first time that Zayn and Harry have walked home together, but it’s the first time they’ve done it alone. Zayn had given up his daily rides home from his mum or dad at the beginning of the month, trading them in to walk home with his friends. Louis had thought he was crazy to give up a warm car – he’d vocalized his thoughts, too – but Harry could tell he was secretly pleased. Usually, Niall was there also to make it four of them, but today, Niall’s held back after school for second semester planning with Brother Mades, and Louis’s held back for his Friday rehearsal.

“We’re starting them this week,” Louis had quietly explained to him as they’d lain in his bed on Sunday afternoon after mass, legs intertwined like snarled string and Louis’s fingers stroking lines along the back of Harry’s neck. His glasses had been pressed oddly against one side of his face as his cheek was pushed into the pillow. “We’ve got to start prepping for the stage, getting the crew set for their cues and stuff, trying to recite the lines instead of reading them off the script. I’m pretty nervous actually.”

“Why are you nervous?” Harry had asked in the mattress, halfway asleep from the gentle stroking.

“Because I’m only one out of five people on that stage for, like, an hour and a half,” Louis had sighed. “If I screw up, then the whole show just falls apart around me like the walls of Jericho, and everyone’s hard work will have been for nothing.”

“You’ll be fine, Lou.”

“Hopefully. I really do need these practises, though. I’m the one who suggested them.”

“I’m sure your cast and crew appreciate that greatly.”

“They’ll be thankful for it when we have the best production of Championship this side of the hemisphere.”

Harry has great faith in Louis’s abilities, even if the only kind of dramatics that Louis has ever shown him are whenever he loses a match at FIFA, and he’s highly understanding of the sixth former’s need for perfection. Even so, Louis seemed to feel pretty terrible about it before he and Harry had separated a few minutes ago.

“It’s only going to get worse after Christmas hols are over, you know that right?” he’d asked Harry outside the auditorium doors when the younger boy had dropped him off, chapped lip bitten red between his teeth. “Like, until January is over, I’m going to be here after school a lot.”

“It’s okay,” Harry reassured him with a smile, “I’ll just wait at home for you. What time will you be back?”

“Probably around 4 or so.”

“I’ll just make myself a cuppa and do my physics homework, then. I’ll wait for you.”

“Aw, look at you,” Louis had cooed, smushing Harry’s cheeks together with his gloved hands. “You’re like my loyal pet, you are.” Harry had grinned, relishing in the warmth that was spreading through his face from Louis’s touch.

“The queen’s got corgis, you’ve got me.”

Louis had beamed at that, his face and eyes practically glowing with that fond look of his that he always seems to give Harry nowadays, and Harry noticed right away how his gaze flicked all over the campus grounds over Harry’s shoulder. Harry had known what was coming, had braced himself for it, and his breath and heart both went just as still as they had first time.

Harry’s skin tingled in the wake of Louis’s lips, and even though it was normal, if Harry was being honest, it never got less spectacular. It wasn’t a lie that Harry had always been tempted to reciprocate, but he wasn’t quite sure if that was acceptable, especially at school given that no one else was allowed to ever see. That was something Louis had made very clear from the first week even without saying it verbally. It was even more often that he’d find himself daydreaming, thinking about the day that Louis would ‘accidentally’ slip up and kiss him for real. Usually, though, that happens at around the same time that reality comes crashing down around him, leaving him feeling empty in his desk or at the dinner table. Still, Harry takes whatever he can get.

“Are you even listening or am I talking to myself here?”

Harry snaps back to Zayn, who is currently grinding the hot butt of the cigarette he’s finished with his shoe, the gravel crackling under his foot. They have stopped walking. “Sorry, I was thinking about something.”

“Louis?” Zayn asks with a smirk, and Harry feels his stomach jump.

“What?”

“You were thinking about Louis.” Zayn gestures with his fingers, twiddling them across the short distance at Harry’s cheeks. “You always get this look on your face when you’re talking to or about him, and you just got it there.”

“Oh,” Harry blushes into Louis scarf ( he’s worn it every day since Louis gave it to him, much to the sixth former’s slightly obvious pleasure ) and runs his icy fingers through his fringe. “Yeah, sorry about that. What were you saying?”

Zayn nods. “I was thinking aloud to you,” he says, beginning the trek back home again. Harry follows. “That one poem, I think I may know what it’s about now.”

Ah, of course; The Poem.

The bane of his very existence – and somehow simultaneously the highlight – The Poem is a short, eight-lined, Xeroxed copy of a piece of art that Zayn has been carrying around in his back pocket for days now, taking it out at every break and bell to stare at, uncaring whether he runs headfirst into another person in the courtyard or if his study time has dwindled to almost nothing. No one’s quite sure what the big deal is, no one knows what it says besides Zayn, and no one is allowed to touch it. The analysis of it is like an obsession, as Josh had put it, and the worn edges of the paper copy are now curled and soft. Harry guesses that Zayn probably knows every word like the back of his hand by now. Zayn had explained how he came across it as such –

In his writing class every few weeks or so, everyone has to offer up some medium of writing, be it short story, prose, poetry, etc. On Thursday or Friday, whatever the last day is that week, everyone hands in an anonymous and typed piece to the teacher. From there, it’s mixed up among the classes and reviewed by random peers. After being revised and commented on by said peers, Sister Davis pins the forty or so pieces to the back wall for the writers to pick up and read alongside the other anonymous pieces there. The idea is to give an unbiased opinion and critique to pieces with no embarrassment on behalf of the writers and no anger directed at the critics, while still providing a way to showcase the many talents of their classmates.

Five minutes after settling in his desk that morning a week ago, Zayn’s desk had been slapped with a sheet of paper, a short, choppy paragraph of writing printed in 10 point Times New Roman font across the middle. Zayn had looked up into Sister Davis’s smiling eyes, picked the red ink pen up that he always used for revision, glanced back down, and promptly found himself hopelessly lost in the words for the next three hours. He’d begged, pleaded with Sister Davis to let him keep a copy for himself as the bell rang, and he’d come to his third block class panting and thirty seconds late, a fresh piece of paper in hand that was still warm to the touch.

Since the first Monday back, Zayn had been going down the teacher’s class roster to try to find a likely candidate as to the identity of the mysterious ghostwriter. There are only fifteen people in the double block writing class that Zayn is in, and he had been absolutely sure by Tuesday morning that it hadn’t been any of them. The last anyone had heard, Zayn was stuck. Beyond those difficulties, the subject matter of the piece is apparently so vague that Zayn couldn’t figure out what it meant. Harry isn’t sure what the appeal is of a poem that you can’t even understand.

The year eleven tightens his hold around his side with one hand and pulls the lapels of his coat in tighter with the other. “Haven’t you been working on it for, like, a week now?”

Zayn scowls. “Poetry is complex, and I’d like to see you do better.”

“Maybe I could, if you’d let anyone within a two foot radius of the thing when you took it out.”

“It’s private.”

“Privacy between strangers,” Harry remarks with the air of ridicule in his voice, “what a world we live in.”

Zayn rolls his eyes. “Do shut up, Styles. Do you want to hear what I’ve found out or not?”

“Yeah, I do. What have you deduced then, Sherlock?”

“Sherlock Holmes didn’t analyze poe… Whatever.” Zayn waves his words away into the air behind them. “Okay, as you know, it’s the fourth line that’s been bugging me – ”

“I didn’t know that actually,” Harry interjects, rubbing his hands together to warm them.

“He talks in the middle, like, about wanting his blood or body to ‘flow thick with gold,’” Zayn continues, either ignoring Harry or too lost in his thoughts to notice. “Originally, I assumed this might have been drugs or something, because I was getting this really weird vibe the whole time, like his reality was a little bit distorted. But I think it might be something else, now.”

“Like what?”

“Happiness,” Zayn blinks, digging in his back pockets for another cigarette. Poetry apparently stresses him out, enough that Harry almost never sees him without a cigarette between his lips lately. Harry wonders when the last time his friend had a good night’s sleep was. “Just, like, straight-up happiness. I think that’s what he’s looking for, so he must feel either depressed or unfulfilled.”

“Or he could just be writing about sad things.”

“No, no,” Zayn waves him off with a frown. “I know false sadness versus real sadness, I’ve read enough of it within the last month.”

“Why do you read sad things?”

“Because the world is a sad place, Harry, and I read sad things to appropriately reflect said world. You can’t ignore the sad. Sad world,” Zayn halfway snaps, his finger clicking madly at the sparking lighter that refuses to light in the breeze, voice tense, so Harry redirects the attention back to the poem.

“Okay. So is that the end of it, or does it say something else? You mentioned distorted reality?” Zayn takes the bait, and Harry watches his shoulders ease down as he takes the first drag of the cigarette that has finally decided to light.

“He talks about living in a dark world like it’s inescapable. I don’t… It kind of contrasted with the idea of seeing gold, like gold was a euphemism for light… like, living with light inside of him, maybe. He uses a lot of colour and light words.”

“Okay, so he’s depressed and wants light in his life. Does he say how he’s planning on getting it?”

“It wasn’t a sonnet, H. There was no conclusion couplet to tie everything up nice and neat in a bow for presentation… although that would have been considerate,” Zayn says on an afterthought. “A lot less taxing on my soul. But no,” he continues, another exhale of smoke pouring out of his lips hurriedly, “he doesn’t. I think I know what’s making him so depressed, though.”

“What?”

“I think he’s gay.”

Harry stills in his tracks, and this is enough to make Zayn stop short as well. The look on his face is… well, a bit hysterical. He looks excited, but also a bit wildly frightened. Harry doesn’t like it.

“Okay, no, think about it,” Zayn starts again, the tip of the cigarette between his fingers glowing bright orange every time he brandishes it around in the cold air. “He talks about being in a dark box, feeling constricted, and all he wants is gold in his veins. We’ve already said that gold equals light, therefore, he wants to escape the box and get into the light. What if the box is the metaphorical closet?”

“I think that would be a jump to conclusions worthy of the history books,” Harry tells him quietly, easing a careful hand out to Zayn’s shoulder. “Are you sure about it?”

“Can you honestly tell me that you can think of any other reason why he’d call it a box? Why he’d want gold? God, like, we go to a Catholic school where if you even breathe the wrong way, you can be socially cast out. I have enough of a time as it is because of my race, something I have no choice but to show, how do you think he’s feeling? Hiding something inside of himself like that…” Harry shrinks back, because he knows exactly how it feels.

“Scared. Really scared,” he begins quietly. “Like, he’s worried what would happen if he told anyone, but that’s all he wants to do… because hiding something that big almost hurts.” Harry draws his arms back around his sides, curling into himself, and looks around. They’re currently stopped in front of the large tree that Harry still considers theirs, looming over the path with its great bare branches. Appropriate.

“It builds, doesn’t it?” Zayn nods. “No matter how long you’ve gone on telling yourself that it’s normal and fine being you, it gets to you. You think something’s wrong with you, because everyone’s told you so. No one understands how it feels, but it builds right in your chest, like a pressurized pipe about to burst.”

“And then you have to be reminded of it every day that it’s there, even if you don’t want it to be.”

“But try as you might, you can’t make it go away.”

“Exactly,” Harry agrees, nodding as his eyes trail over the bark of the tree. “It’s… It’s hard.” Quite suddenly and with a bit of a start, Harry realises what has accidentally just happened, and his cheeks go pink. “F-For that kid. Must be… It must be hard.”

Zayn’s head tilts to the side in thought as he watches Harry shuffle uncomfortably. “Yeah, tough…” He lifts the small remnants of his cigarette to his lips with a new softness that Harry has never seen before in his eyes. “Can I ask you something?” Harry honestly would rather jump off of his roof than have Zayn ask him any sort of question.

“I guess.”

“How are you and Louis now?” Zayn kicks the stones under his feet away as he breathes out, clearing them to make a small spot of dirt. “I mean, you guys seem good again, but you never did tell us what happened. It’s like you both went off on break as barely tolerating each other and came back best mates again.”

“That was ages ago. Would you have preferred it if we’d stayed barely tolerating each other?”

“Don’t get pissy, princess,” Zayn narrows his eyes and throws the butt to the ground, his heel sending small sparks up with the dust, “I was just asking. How are you two?”

“Good, we’re fine,” Harry shakes his head. “We’re best mates, like you said.”

“Is that all, though?”

“What do you mean?”

“Just mates?” Zayn questions, eyes growing even more narrow and inquisitive and mouth more curled in the corners with every word.

“Y-Yes.”

“You sure?” Zayn asks with what is definitely and one hundred percent certainly now a fully formed smirk, and Harry swallows. Zayn’s looking a touch too self-satisfied with himself and his conclusions for comfort. At the very least, he probably has some grounds for his suspicions ( oh God, is that what’s happening here? ), but Harry isn’t quite sure he wants to know them. He could walk away, pretend he’s no longer able to hear Zayn or any teasing word that he speaks, but it’s hard to do with the lower sixth former staring at him so intensely. “Because if it makes it easier to say it, I am, too.”

“You’re what, too?” Harry asks, suddenly rather uneasy on his feet.

Zayn shrugs and rubs his fingers over his lips. “I mean… I like guys, too. I like both, you know?” Harry mind is going a mile a minute. “And honestly, I’m not blind. I see the way you look at each other.”

“I like girls, Zayn,” Harry scrambles after a moment has passed, just a little too late to not be suspicious. He curses himself for his utter lacking of ability to lie and get away with it.

“And guys, too.”

“No, just….” Harry shakes his hair out because there’s nothing else to do, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He’s barely figured out what and who he is yet, so how can Zayn expect so much of him? “Just Louis, I think.”

A shadow of doubt crosses Zayn’s face. “You sure about that?”

“Yes! I mean… so far,” Harry replies, annoyance worming its way into his voice. He honestly feels like he’s being backed into a figurative corner, and… God, just, no, Harry won’t be able to handle that. He knows himself well enough to know that with the subject matter being discussed, he’ll be walking away in tears if this conversation is going where he thinks it might be. He’s already in too deep. Harry shakes his hair out again and looks anywhere but Zayn’s face.

Zayn takes pause for a moment and bites his lip. “You ever kissed another boy before?” His friend clearly hasn’t picked up on his irritation, and Harry wonders for a moment if Zayn just enjoys seeing other people squirm.

“I haven’t even kissed Louis yet, I don’t need physical validation to know how I feel!” the younger boy spits, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring at the ground. Any hint of a smile has dropped from Zayn’s face, now replaced with utter confusion.

“Wait… but I thought you said – ”

“No, you said,” Harry says harshly, his face and eyes beginning to burn. Damn it all. “You put words in my mouth.” He watches as Zayn leans back against one of the smaller trees on the path and runs his fingers across his pale lips again.

“So, you two aren’t together at all, or are you just taking it really slow?”

“We’re not together, Z, we haven’t…” Harry sighs shakily, trying to find some sort of evenness inside of himself again. His fingers run along the soft material of the scarf as he breathes in, out, in, out. “He… he doesn’t know, alright?” He continues more quietly with, “And he can’t know. It would ruin everything.”

“But I thought since he was… on Halloween… But he kept saying…” Zayn has obvious contemplation in his gaze that’s being directed toward the gray skies, but he shakes his head and looks back to Harry. “Okay, you’re not together, so work with me here; Are you under the impression that he wouldn’t feel the same if he did find out? Or that he’d, like, shun you or something?” Harry can’t help but scoff.

“Alright, I’m gonna tell you something that I haven’t told anyone, only because, like…” Harry trails off, sighing and clasping his hands behind his back. “Did you think we were fighting about something that whole month?”

Zayn shrugs. “I guess I assumed, yeah.”

Harry pinches the bridge of his nose and wills the burning in his throat to go away. It’s been there a touch too long. “Well, we weren’t. Louis tried to kiss me, and then… he, like, just wouldn’t even look at me until Niall basically threatened him under the pain of death to do it.”

“If he tried to kiss you, then he obviously fancies you, mate. It’s not science. He feels something, too.”

“He doesn’t though, he can’t. It was an accident. And I’m not sure what part of ‘wouldn’t talk to me until he was threatened with his life’ you didn’t catch.”

“But you made up over the break, right?” Zayn asks with his head tilted to the side. The softness in his eyes and voice from earlier are coming back to replace the confusion. “So it can’t have been as bad as you think.”

“Well, I… yeah, we did, but that doesn’t mean…” Harry frowns at a particularly round pebble that’s lying on the dusty pathway. He kicks it away into the brush as hard as he can. “That doesn’t mean he’d be okay with it. He was horrified with the idea of us kissing, and we all saw how horrified he was, so… so there. It would be nothing short of a disaster if I told him that I wanted… you know.”

“Maybe he’s dealing with the same thing you are, like… Maybe he’s confused about liking you as well, and was just dealing with it the only way he knows how. Have you thought about that?”

Harry hadn’t thought about that, actually. Though the thought had crossed his mind on one singular occasion as Harry had contemplated his life and how far the quality of it had gone down since the year had started, he had pushed it away and given it no consideration whatsoever, simply because it had seemed positively preposterous at the time. No point in getting his hopes up. Now that Zayn’s proposed the idea, though, an outside second opinion… But that’s a little too good to be true.

“Do you need a hug?” Zayn offers suddenly, and Harry isn’t even aware of how far his face has fallen until it’s partially buried in Zayn’s neck.

“Harry, why do I get the feeling that this is more about how uncomfortable you are with the idea of you liking him than anything else?” he mumbles into Harry’s hair as he rubs circles into his friend’s back. “And that you’re also uncomfortable of what could happen after?”

Harry smiles softly. “Believe me, that’s not what’s happening.”

“Talk to me, then,” Zayn pulls himself away, keeping his hands firmly on Harry’s shoulders to hold him steady, “because this guessing game is tiring for both of us.”

“Honestly?” Harry blinks after a moment, and Zayn nods. Harry hasn’t been completely honest with someone in ages, which is unusual for someone who had refused to be anything but for so long, and he wonders if being honest is a talent that can go rusty. He hopes not, because Zayn is looking at him with such genuine concern and that really deserves more than what he’s been giving everyone else, including Louis.

“It’s a combination of two things, I guess,” he begins, “first being Louis. I went through losing him once, and it nearly tore me apart when I realized why I was so hurt over it.” Harry’s thoughts quickly transfer over to the night he’d been sick from his realization and the days following, wondering how the hell he was going to get out of the mess he’d made for himself.

“Second being; am I going to hell for this? I’ve basically been told my entire life that there’s a mould that we all have to fit into, and… being anything but straight isn’t part of it, you know? I don’t want to burn in hell for all eternity, or for Louis to, because I couldn’t get over being in love with my best friend.

“Third being; what would happen if people found out? I mean, you said it yourself – people in this place are horrible and judgmental, and weirdly enough, I think I’m still stuck in the same mindset. Like how I said, I’ve been brought up knowing that straight is, like, the right way to be, you know? And all my friends, my family, they’re the same. I fucking hate myself, I can’t stand to even look at myself sometimes. Like, what would happen to me if everyone found out? I don’t want to be the black sheep of the congregation.”

Zayn drops his school bag onto the path with an unceremonious thump. “Find out what, exactly? Mate, if this is just an isolated case like you say it is, then in theory, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

“That’s the thing. Like, if it’s just Louis, then I can ignore it and be happy after he leaves. That’s why I’m tempted to just overlook it and keep being his friend, and honestly, I think I’m more comfortable with the idea of being friends who are just a little more touchy than normal with each other than being ignored by him for the next six months until he leaves for uni.” Harry makes a noise of frustration and disgust and stretches his shoulders out. “I just want him to be happy. I just want him to be happy and comfortable, which is something I can’t give him if he… you know.”

“Hypothetically speaking, and sort of off-topic, but if it’s not just Louis and it turns out that you’ve been pretty much burying quote-unquote,” Zayn brings up fingers to make air quotes, “‘homosexual romantic feelings’, as a psychologist would say, because of the aforementioned upbringing, then what happens?”

“I… Jesus, I don’t know.” Harry sighs, separating himself from Zayn’s light grip and begins a pace along the path. Zayn never takes his eyes off of him. “I like girls, I always have, and this whole thing has been so much to deal with when it’s just one person. I’ve mostly been focusing on what’s actually happening now, not really any what-ifs. It felt like enough at the time.”

“Well, would you want to know if you were?”

“Were what?”

“I mean,” Zayn tries again, “would you want to know if this was more than a one-time thing, if you liked boys as well. In short; would you want to know if you were like me?”

Now that’s something Harry has thought about, unfortunately.

The thought had first come to him in the courtyard at lunch one day as Louis had run his hand across Harry’s kneecap, gave it a good squeeze, and finally rested his hand on Harry’s thigh. The resulting sensation had made Harry’s throat fill up, any chance of conversation gone for the rest of the hour, and he’d wondered if Louis was fully aware of his power over him, the kind of influence he actually had. At that moment, he had also wondered if it was possible to ever feel this way about anyone else, because so far in his young life, this was unique. He’d lain down in the freezing grass, the back of his neck protected from the frost by the soft scarf Louis had entrusted him to take care of.

From there, his mind took a dangerous turn in wondering if it was because Louis was a boy, and if he would feel differently because of that distinction. More importantly, if that was the case, then was there a possibility that there could be more than one boy Harry could like? He’d crossed his arms and closed his eyes as he quickly ran through his fifteen and a half years of life, and as he avoided the feeling of falling that his stomach was taking up as it did any time his mind went this way, he tried to remember any moment where he might have had some kind of reaction to another man or boy.

Harry had, at the time, come up empty, but thinking about it again, it doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. But just because he’s getting a little better with the idea of liking Louis more than he’s supposed to, that doesn’t make the prospect of the problem widening any less terrifying. So does he want to know?

Harry emerges from his memories and slowly nods his head, coming back to a stop in front of his friend. “I mean, yeah, but I don’t know if I want to right now. I just don’t really know how I’d handle it, or if I’d even be able to. It was… pretty bad the first time around if we’re being honest with each other.”

“We already determined that we are,” Zayn assures him. “Speaking from firsthand experience here, it’s a good idea to find out those sorts of things with someone who cares about you and loves you. Not necessarily in a romantic way, but, like, a friend. You know, someone to help you get through it. It’s scary when it kind of hits you. You probably have some idea of what I’m talking about.”

“What are you suggesting exactly?”

Zayn digs his hands into his tight trouser pockets. “I’m just saying, it’s not that fun to realize ‘hey, I think I like boys, too’ while you’re snogging with a guy twice your age whose name you never caught in someone’s basement. I don’t want that for you.” Zayn looks at his shoes. They’re dusty on the toes from kicking stones around. “It’s embarrassing to have to have a total stranger deal with you when you’re like that, when all you really want is someone who knows you and cares about you.”

“That’s… oddly descriptive for a hypothetical situation,” Harry says as his insides begin to blush.

“More biographical than hypothetical, love,” Zayn shrugs, returning his hands to Harry’s shoulders to give them a squeeze. “So tell me now, because I’m good for it if you are, and no matter what, you should know by now that I’m not going to be judgmental and I’ll help you no matter what happens – do you want to know now, or find out later by yourself?” Harry weighs his given options.

Of course, the idea of knowing now is concurrently appealing and terrifying, but what Zayn said makes sense. Given that Zayn is surely more experienced with this sort of thing, and taking that fact into account, Harry reasons that what he’d said was logical. He really doesn’t want to have to go through that process in the future alone, that sounds awful. He’s done that sort of thing once, and even with his mother there to take care of him, it wouldn’t have been the same if he could have verbalized what was happening in his head at the time, and Harry certainly doesn’t want that kind of meltdown with a total stranger like Zayn’s implied he had. He looks back up into Zayn’s eyes and crosses one ankle behind the other where he stands.

“How would we find out now, exactly?”

A hint of a smile takes to the creases of Zayn’s eyes. “So does that mean you’re good for it?” Harry nods, his stomach flipping around nervously, and Zayn steps back. “Okay, first question – Do you find me attractive?”

Harry nearly chokes on his tongue.

“W-What? Wait, I – ”

“It’s a simple question, Harry,” Zayn says, and the younger boy can tell he’s refraining from an eye roll. “Honestly, it’s okay.”

“I mean… I’ve never r-really bothered to look,” he replies truthfully, wincing at his voice that had decided to crack in nervousness at the end.

“Well, look now.” Zayn takes another step back from the boy who has halfway drawn into himself in a matter of moments, relaxing his arms out to his side. “Don’t be scared, alright? Just tell me yes or no, and we’ll move on from there.” With so much reluctance that it practically aches, Harry looks up from the particularly interesting patch of dirt that had caught his eyes and begins… examining Zayn.

It isn’t like Harry was unaware of Zayn and his certain qualities – they weren’t exactly difficult to catch – and it isn’t like Harry would refuse to acknowledge said qualities were he asked by anyone but Zayn, but taking serious note of it isn’t something he’d have considered to put on his to-do list. Now that he really looks, though, deeper than what a fleeting glance allows, Harry supposes… well, he’s kind of pretty.

But pretty isn’t the right word. ‘Pretty’ is feminine and dainty, and Zayn is anything but. The boy’s all angles and sharp and smoke, not curved or soft in any way, and even under his heavy black coat that is pulled tightly over his shoulders, Harry knows the same could probably be said of his collarbones and hips. It’s the kind of body that Harry knows art students will be scrambling to paint or draw or sculpt in two years’ time when Zayn goes off to uni. His eyes are dark as he stares back at Harry, shining back in the slowly dimming winter light with eyelashes that are a bit too long and thick to not be noticeable. His skin that is normally the colour of milky tea is flushed with the cold where it’s open to the air, cheeks dusted a slight pink.

Pretty definitely isn’t the right word; more like ‘museum worthy’.

“Yeah… I think so. You’re…” Harry takes a deep breath and gives a short nod. “Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Zayn rubs his hands together. “Second question – would you consider ever kissing me?”

“I… hang on,” Harry’s eyes widen, “wait a second, are you serious right now?”

“Yeah,” Zayn says, as if it’s the most straightforward thing he’s ever said in his life, “dead serious question. Would you ever kiss me? If you were walking on the street or in Sainsbury’s or the park with your cousin, if you saw me, would you have some desire to kiss me?”

Well, shit. Harry runs his eyes over Zayn again, this time taking particular note of the boy’s mouth, because if he’s expected to put his own there, he’ll need some sort of idea of how it will feel.

Zayn’s lips look a fair bit more rough and bitten than any girl Harry has ever kissed, a little wind-chapped perhaps, and they’re pale from the cold. They’ll probably feel like ice if Harry does decide to kiss him, and that’s just about to be a deal breaker before Zayn decides to take his lip between his teeth until it turns a shiny and lively pink, and… oh.

The sensation that results sends ripples down through the pit of Harry’s stomach, and he’s suddenly back in the game, running his eyes almost greedily across the colored skin. The next thing he takes notice of is the slight stubble that has accumulated along Zayn’s jaw and upper lip, light in his youth but still quite clearly there. Harry supposes it’ll probably be a bit scratchy against his skin, like whenever Robin hooks his chin over Harry’s shoulder as the boy hugs him. It isn’t exactly a bad sensation, and it would probably be a little softer given that Zayn’s so young. Harry wonders how it would feel against his cheek, his neck, his lips…

“Yeah,” Harry replies, a far bit more quickly than the last answer he’d given, “I would.”

“Third question; would you do it now?”

“I… guess.”

Zayn shakes his head at the hesitancy. “Don’t feel pressured. This is about you, remember? You find me attractive and you would kiss me at some point in time, but if you’re not feeling it right now, then we’re going to get inaccurate results. Science and all that.”

“That’s some rubbish science of yours.”

“English major, remember? And we’ll see how rubbish it is soon,” Zayn smirks, and Harry’s throat goes dry. “Do you need like, warming up or something?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like… okay, to put it bluntly, what turns you on?” Surely Harry is the colour of a beet now, because he can feel the blood roaring about in his ears. “It’s okay,” Zayn insists gently with a smile, “no judgment or awkwardness here.”

Harry’s thoughts, of course, travel straight to Louis and all the times that Harry has had to think of news reports of drowning children or his granddad in a bikini before he gets up off of the bed or couch. Always, always, it’s been after Louis has spent a good five minutes or more doing nothing but playing with Harry’s hair or running his fingers along his neck and spine.

“Uhm, h-hair, I guess,” Harry manages to get out. Zayn nods like he’s taking note, but other than that, his face doesn’t change. It’s encouraging to say the least. “Just, playing with my hair, and… neck,” he finishes with a small smile and a blush. “Weak spot.”

“Okay, I can work with that.” Zayn rubs his hands together for warmth one last time, and begins to take his steps back to Harry. “We can work with that.”

Cautiously, Zayn closes the gap between them and reaches his hands out to grab onto the fabric of the younger boy’s coat, running his hands over Harry’s chest. After a moment’s pause and a quick glance back up to Harry’s eyes to check for any uncertainty there, Zayn slowly unwraps the scarf from around Harry’s neck with light fingers, and the cold air seeps into the boy’s hot skin. The older one runs his fingertips along the red, woolen cloth as it hangs loosely over Harry’s shoulders, a delicate smile on his lips.

“I like this on you,” he says quietly, and draws further into Harry’s body. His knees knock lightly against his friend’s. “I meant to tell you earlier.”

“It’s Louis’s,” Harry says nearly soundlessly, shivering with what must be either anticipation or cold. Probably a little of both. Zayn hums, the tip of his nose now brushing against Harry’s jaw. A shot of nervous energy runs through his body when his friend’s cold hand finds the back of his head, right at the nape of his neck, and with nothing else to hold onto, Harry begins scratching at the material of his trousers at his side with his blunt fingernails. He turns the reddest shade visible to the human eye when his throat relinquishes a breathy punch as Zayn twists gently at his curls.

“Thought so, thought I knew it,” Zayn murmurs, the vibrations of his voice thrumming across the thin, winter-pale skin of Harry’s neck, and the younger boy’s knees nearly give when lips finally graze across it. The touch is as light as the breeze around them, and Zayn nudges the scarf further away from the expanse to plant them more firmly in the same spot, more determination present in the pressure. The touch is warmer than Harry had expected, but it also feels like ice being pressed into his vein. He feels slightly mad and woozy, not even aware of his hands moving to Zayn’s hips as the older drags his parted mouth along Harry’s collar. The mixed sensation of Zayn’s hand and mouth and soft grazes of the boy’s stubble is nearly too much, and Harry dizzily wonders what the actual kissing part will feel like compared to this. As if on cue, Zayn pulls himself away and looks back at Harry with his eyes wide, just as dark as before. Harry could count his eyelashes with how close they are right now.

“Okay?” Zayn whispers with curiosity and a question much bigger than the one he’s asked behind his eyes, and Harry nods, accidentally bumping their icy noses together. With certainty now engrained in his action, Zayn closes the minimal gap between them.

And yeah, fuck yeah – this is good.

Zayn’s smooth and fluid like water, like Harry had a sneaking suspicion he would be, and if Zayn is water, Harry contemplates briefly what he is. Probably fire, and a dying one at that, because he currently feels like his insides are smoldering. The older boy’s lips are like guides for Harry’s – careful and not pushy, like Zayn’s holding his hand the whole time without ever actually doing so. They pull softly at him with small and barely audible pops as they part again and again, going as slow as Harry needs so that the younger boy can set the pace, but it still feels like it’s over just as it’s begun.

“Jesus Christ,” Harry manages as he rests his forehead against Zayn’s. His head’s spinning again. He has to keep his eyes sealed, else he will surely pass out.

“Is that a good ‘Jesus Christ’ or a bad one?” Zayn says after a moment, and Harry can tell just by his voice that he has his concerned face on. Harry may just kiss him again for it.

“A bit of both. Okay, okay…” Harry nods with his eyes still closed, and then – a bit unprecedented – he begins to laugh, shaking his head. He doesn’t really know what he’s laughing at. That’s something to be looked at later, he decides. “J-Jesus Christ.” Harry feels Zayn’s cold fingers trail across his cheeks, wiping away a small tear that has managed to escape. Shit, he’s crying. At least he isn’t throwing up again.

“I need a little more than that from you right now,” Zayn says, and Harry was right to expect a concerned look from him; he looks positively stricken. “Are you all right? You look a bit faint.”

“I think it’s safe to say I like both.” Harry wipes the salty drops from his eyes with his jacket sleeve and swallows at the knot in his throat.

“And how are we feeling about that?”

“Terrified, but I think I’ll be okay.” Harry breathes in for a moment, and he can’t find anything but a bitter note in his voice. “I’m definitely going to hell, aren’t I?”

“You’re not going to hell, Haz,” Zayn promises him, a soft, calming hand running down his side. “There are things in the bible written about body modification, the kind of clothing you wear, what you eat… People ignore those, but we don’t insist they’re going to hell for having a prawn cocktail. Besides that, I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that any God who literally sent down his son to die an excruciating death for the sins of humanity would favour people who explicitly hate others for something that they have no control over above those who love with everything in their hearts. The bible’s word is love, mate, end all be all. Nothing wrong with loving someone. Love is a bloody miracle, I think.” The older boy pauses for a moment to wipe away another stray tear that’s fallen down Harry’s cheek before speaking again.

“Look at it this way, alright? If you can’t think of anything else that may be a positive that’ll come of this situation, your chances of pulling have literally just doubled.”

Somehow, that makes Harry laugh even harder than before, and this time, he means it. His love for Zayn is practically cracking his ribs with every laugh that rips through his chest, so he clutches at Zayn’s shoulder and presses a quick kiss to his cheek. Zayn just pulls the younger boy into his chest, his fingers once again finding Harry’s hair to card through it in an almost motherly way this time. Harry wonders what this means for them now.

“Uhm, Z?” Harry sighs into Zayn’s shoulder after a minute once he’s calmed himself down, bunching up the thick material in a fist before pushing himself off. “I don’t mean to be one of those people, but, like… This doesn’t mean we’re a thing, right?”

“It doesn’t? Oh, woe is me!” Zayn’s face twists into a dramatic grimace, and he brings the back of his wrist up to his mouth to hide his teeth as he conceals his grin. “There goes my dreams of a house on the coast and twenty adopted children.” Harry feels relief washing through his body.

“Only twenty? We’d have at least thirty.”

“A Styles-Malik clan.”

“Styliks. Exactly.” Harry licks his lips. They taste a bit like cigarettes. “Sorry to dash your hopes, but there’s… you know.”

“Louis is a thing. I get it, mate. This wasn’t me trying to get into your pants, I double promise.” Zayn leans down and picks Harry’s bag off of the ground, giving it a short pat to get some of the dirt and small rocks off. “I mean, I’ve got someone, too, so…”

“Woah, what?” Harry asks with raised eyebrows and a smile, accepting the bag as it’s handed back to him. “Who?”

Zayn shakes his head. “You’ll think me mad.”

“Maybe, but you kind of just helped me make a life discovery, so I could maybe help you out.” Harry pauses for a moment as he adjusts his much-doodled upon bag strap along his collarbone. “As long as it’s not Louis.” Zayn laughs.

“No, he’s quite obviously been taken since day one. I wouldn’t dare.”

“Okay.” Harry watches silently for a moment as his friend moves back towards his former side of the path where his stuff still lies, and as he does, his hands find the scarf that’s still lying loosely across his shoulders. He rewinds the fabric around his neck and breathes in the cold air sharply. “This may sound completely ridiculous to you, but is it weird that I kind of feel like I’m betraying him? Like, kissing you and all?”

Zayn picks his own bag off of the pathway and dusts it off, slinging it over one thin shoulder when it seems sufficiently clean enough. “I don’t believe it’s an irrational feeling, no, but it’s a groundless one. You’re not dating him yet, and you’re free to kiss whoever you bloody well please, especially since Tomlinson doesn’t have the guts to kiss an utter catch such as yourself.”

“Thanks, Zayn.”

“No problem, mate.” Zayn throws his arm over Harry’s shoulder and pulls him into his side, planting a quick kiss into the younger boy’s hair. The boy’s warmth seeps into Harry’s side, and he feels an overwhelming sense of okay around him. It’s been a while since he’s felt it, and he’s actually forgotten how nice it is. After a while, he glances back over to Zayn and smiles, deciding to crack the fairly new silence as they walk.

“So who is it?”

“Hm?” Zayn asks as he blinks himself back into the conversation.

“Who’s this mystery person?” Zayn sighs and dives his hands back into his pockets, still keeping his closeness to Harry.

“You won’t be weird about it, right?”

“Of course not.” Harry watches as Zayn bites his lip, turning his thoughts over in his head like heavy stones. Harry nudges his side with an elbow and Zayn licks his lips before muttering –

“Liam Payne.” It’s said like less of a statement than it is a question, and after a moment of slightly confused silence, Harry laughs, knocking his friend’s shoulder with his own. He stops immediately when he sees the scowl that has overtaken Zayn’s face.

“Wait,” Harry drawls cautiously, “you’re… serious?”

“The heart wants what the heart wants, Styles,” Zayn rolls his eyes. “Isn’t that what they say?”

“Yeah, but… But Zayn – ”

“You said you wouldn’t say anything,” Zayn whines. Harry grabs at Zayn’s arm and pulls the two to a stop once more.

“I remember saying I wouldn’t be weird about it. I didn’t say anything about not trying to convince you that your heart’s gone mental.”

“I know you and Louis and… well, pretty much everyone I guess… You have all these predisposed feelings about Liam, but I get to spend a lot of time with him every week.” Zayn squirms his arm out of Harry’s grasp and grabs at the boy’s hand. He squeezes it tightly and gives an encouraging smile. “I think I’m changing his mind about some things.”

Harry cocks his head to the side, taking Zayn’s hand into both of his. “You’ve told him you’re bi, then?”

“Well… no. Not exactly what I was thinking about, but it doesn’t matter.” Zayn brushes Harry off with a wave of his hand, and he begins moving along the path back home again. Harry jogs back to his side. “Point is, he’s not cruel or, like, a mega-racist anymore.”

“Just a little racist, then?”

Zayn sulks, the cool winter air turning his heavy exhale into a silvery cloud as it escapes his lungs. “It’s a work in progress. People can’t change their values and rid themselves of their vices overnight, but I think he has the potential to surprise us.” Zayn looks at his friend with something that looks a lot like sad eyes, and Harry feels guilt leaching into his blood. “Am I really that crazy, H?”

‘Crazy’ certainly wasn’t the first word Harry had thought of, but it would be a lie if he were to say that it hadn’t crossed his mind at all. It’s just… Liam Payne. The one who had all but threatened Zayn and his now best friend the first day of being at the school, the one who threw racial slurs over his shoulder like it was nothing, the one who two-thirds of the school had a valid and healthy fear of. Zayn is certainly right about not choosing whom to fancy, Harry is a certain testament to that, but still…

Harry then wonders if anyone else on Zayn’s friend list would have been trusted with this kind of information, and if Zayn was currently regretting saying anything at all. His stomach twists. He hooks an arm around his friend’s waist as he pushes them along the pathway back home and looks up to the sky that looks an awful lot like snow, and Harry makes a point to give a comforting smile to Zayn.

“Absolutely bonkers, mate.”

~

It’s apparently a record-breaking December that year in England, and Louis’s father mutters every morning about how it’s the coldest it’s ever been in a hundred years with malice and frustration in his voice. ( “Thirty inches in Scotland, the Forest of Dean,” his dad had all but yelled a few weeks ago as he’d made his way out the door a half hour early because of the slush in the roads. The train was probably delayed anyways, so Louis hadn’t seen the point. “Thirty inches!” ) The BBC validates this claim in an amazed and horrified kind of pitch almost every morning and evening on the telly. Even if he’s been the one designated as driveway and pavement clearer every time it snows, Louis isn’t sure he minds that much, especially seeing as it gives him both mornings off to sleep in and days off to spend with his little sisters and his friends, especially Harry.

Most of the time, snow days involve going over to Zayn’s house and hanging out, sneaking Mrs. Malik’s beers out of the garage to drink them on the roof. Some days, though, it’s just Louis and Harry. The girls have taken an even bigger liking to Harry now that he’s getting real time to spend playing with them. His presence even brings Lottie outside to play, and Louis is usually smug about that. He isn’t blind. He sees the heart eyes she gives the year eleven, the ones that are thankfully unreciprocated. Instead, Harry’s gaze is almost always trained on Louis and Louis only.

Harry loves the snow as much as the girls do, and his eyes are always bright every time Louis comes over and knocks on his door the day after a fresh blanket of it has been laid down. Harry’s a bit of a snowman enthusiast, much to the twins’ pleasure, and has a bit of a knack for getting snow down unsuspecting people’s collars. Louis has not been spared these talents, and it almost always results in some kind of fight where chunks of wet snow are thrown every which way and the four girls retreat into the house with loud screams. Days off like that usually end with the girls around the television in the living room with cups of hot chocolate in their hands and the boys upstairs in bed, hidden under the covers with their legs and hands squeezing together. Louis likes to try to convince himself in these quiet moments that he’s getting better with having Harry on his chest like that, his warm breaths soaking into Louis’s thin t-shirt, but it doesn’t take very long to realize with a fluttering heart that he’s still what he always was, what he has been since day one of having Harry in his life; well and truly fucked.

It’s getting harder with every day that they spend together to control himself around Harry. Louis is quickly finding that touches meant to be fleeting and short become lengthened without his conscious permission, that those cheek kisses that are supposed to be reserved for special occasions become more frequent. It’s like Louis is losing jurisdiction over himself, his body having authority over his mind. By all accounts, this should put him off, but he literally can’t force himself to stop when the younger boy is around. It doesn’t matter how many plans are made or how many restrictions Louis sets for himself, because the moment Harry’s green eyes merely glance his way, they dissolve like sheets of gelatin in hot water.

Life is even harder on the days when they do have school, because it means homework and fiery cramming for half term exams. On top of it, the unanticipated inclement weather affected rehearsal times for That Championship Season, lengthening them out to an almost unbearable four hours after school, which means walking home in the freezing cold dark if his mum or dad can’t come pick him up and he isn’t quick enough to snap up a spot in Brother Winston’s mini-van. Adding onto that, A-levels are coming up sooner than anyone would expect, and try as Louis might, the promise of the daunting tests won’t go away even if he wants them to. Louis is exhausted and overwhelmed, and it feels like the only constant in his life that keeps his head above the waves some days is Harry. Harry’s always there to reassure Louis that he’ll do just fine if he keeps his head and wits about him, and often offers to help study or memorize. Louis loves him eternally for it.

“I don’t even care about A-levels, really. I have zero desire to go to school and study maths or,” he gestures around the room, careful to lower his voice to that the teacher doesn’t hear, “chemistry. I only care about the theatre studies one.” Louis glances over to his side where Harry is pouring over his chemistry textbook, reading the section on alchemy and how their advancements eventually lead to modern day medicine. He actually looks genuinely interested in the passage. Louis swats at him with his ink pen until Harry looks up and puts his chin in his hand.

“I wouldn’t say that’s wrong to feel that way, but you can’t really go to school for theatre if you don’t finish with all the proper requirements.”

“I know that. I thought my last year was supposed to be nothing,” Louis puts his head in his hands as his eyes trail over the equations on the board. “I’m more stressed out than I’ve ever been in my whole life, and it’s doing my head in. I have nightmares about these tests.”

“Well, today’s the last day of the year, so plenty of time to let it go and study for half terms.” At Louis’s groan and thump of his forehead against the hard countertop, Harry rubs a hand along his friend’s back. “Maybe you could try a bit of yoga.”

“Shut up, Harry,” Louis mutters into the cool surface, unsuccessfully keeping the fond smile out of his voice.

“I’m just saying. Gemma’s joined a club for it at uni, she says it helps a lot with stress and anxiety.”

“I’m certain your sister’s right about that, but I doubt it’s my thing.”

The two go into comfortable silence as the teacher up front goes over things to study for break, reminding them that the refresher packet that they had been handed two classes ago is indeed for a grade and expected to be fully completed by the first class back in January. The whole class moans at that, including Louis. Harry stays quiet, and knowing him, it’s probably because it had already been done a few days before. Louis wonders if it would be perfectly acceptable to just copy off of Harry’s work.

“She’s home for break in a few days, you know,” Harry continues, still rubbing his calming fingers along Louis’s backbone. “Are you gonna come meet her?”

Louis hums. “It would be rude not to, I think.” He drops his hands limply to his side and turns his face to squint up at Harry. “Weird to be nervous about it?”

“No need to be,” Harry smiles down at him. “Gem knows who you are, I’ve talked to her about you, and you’ve spoken to her twice on Skype with me, so it’s like you’re practically family now.”

Louis shakes off the thought of Harry talking to his sister about him and smiles back. “I’m not really sure that’s how the whole family thing works, but I’ll take it.” Louis pushes himself back up, settling his cheek into his crossed arms to blink up at his friend. “Maybe she’ll be so kind as to show me the proper way to do the warrior poses.”

“The what poses?”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Come on, Harry. They’re, like, the most basic yoga moves in the book.”

They break off for free hour a few minutes later, the teacher calling after the quickly escaping teenagers to study, please, please study over break, and most of them ignore her. Louis has to drag Harry away from the scene, down the hallway, down the stairs, and halfway across the courtyard to the auditorium to prevent him from going back and wishing her well.

Ever since snow flurries have become a regular afternoon thing, Louis and Harry have begun eating in the auditorium and having studies there. Louis goes through his script and paces in a frustrated manner along the stage while Harry either works on his homework or reads through one of his textbooks. Brother Winston has said he doesn’t mind the boys in there so long as they clean up after themselves, and it kind of makes it easier for Louis, as his next block is choir with Zayn anyways. Harry had once suggested asking the other boys if they wanted to come and join them, but Louis had shut him down rather quickly, using the excuse of needing Harry to help him run lines without distraction ( which was at least partially true ). Harry has never asked again, always eager to please and comply.

“You’re beginning to sag a little, too, Jim. You look tired.”

Louis puts his hand on his hip, the words turning in his head as he answers back to Harry, who’s currently on stage right. The younger boy has a remarkably good American accent. “I haven’t been sleeping well, Coach.” The chipped stage floor under their feet creaks under the weight of Louis’s pacing footsteps.

“Why?”

Louis sighs loudly and mimics the actions of shaking a few dice made of thin air in his closed fist. “My teeth.”

“What’s the matter?”

“They’re gone.”

“They’re gone?!”

“Yeah, I had ‘em out last month.” Louis throws the dice across an imaginary table and pumps his fist excitedly. “There’s three, boys! Could be game.”

“You’ve got plates?” Louis nods. “Let’s see.” Harry steps towards him, glancing up from the folded pages in his hand and reaching for his friend’s shoulder. Louis shakes his head, trying to appear both unwilling and awkward. “Yeah, yeah, open your mouth.” Louis eventually shrugs and opens. Harry looks around somewhat interested, then brings the script back into his eye line as he pulls away. “Well, that’s a good job, they look almost real! You never did have enough Vitamin C in your diet.”

“Actually, they’ve recently completed studies – ” Harry holds a finger out and slaps the script weakly against his thigh. Louis drops the act with him.

“You’re jumping ahead, again.”

“Damn it, it’s always that part, too.” Louis squeezes his eyes together and runs a hand through his fringe. “What is it again?”

“Uhmm…” Harry brings the thick packet up and scans the open page. “You’ve got a line from the other guy, and then you say that whole ‘try feeding five kids’ thing, to which I say – ”

“‘You didn’t feed ‘em your teeth, did you?’ Yeah, I remember that now.” Louis growls behind his teeth and kicks at the open air. “Damn it.”

Louis feels a familiar uncomfortable swirling in the pits of his stomach, and he crosses his arms over his chest. He brings his pinky nail up to his teeth and briefly considers crawling under the stage to stay there for the rest of his life, but before he can announce such plans, Harry embraces him tightly, even so much as to lift him off the ground and send pops along his spine.

“Easy, Lou,” Harry mumbles into his ear and gives a good squeeze. “This is why you have rehearsals and practise.”

“Are you some sort of baby bear or something? How are you lifting me right now?” Louis chuckles and begins wiggling his way out of Harry’s hold. Harry sets him down slowly.

“Liam’s been having us do different exercises this month, since we can’t go outside and run. He makes us lift weights, nearly killed a couple of year nines last week.”

“He’s insane, isn’t he?”

“Mmm…” The younger boy trails off and gives a fond look. His dimples show. Louis’s stomach swirls again, thankfully not from anxiety-born panic this time.

“What are you smiling about?” Louis asks, poking at the boy’s cheek.

“Nothing.” Harry nuzzles his nose into the hair by Louis’s ear and sighs, and that seems to be that. Louis practically melts into his arms. “Do you have rehearsal today?”

“Yeah, same time and everything.”

“It’s your last day, though,” Harry whines, and Louis pulls him a little closer. “Why can’t you have it off?” An echoing voice answers.

“Well, that’s because of all this snow ruining it for us.”

At the sound of Brother Winston’s voice emerging from backstage, Louis turns and pushes himself away from Harry… or at least, he tries to. Harry holds onto him almost fiercely, digging his fingers into Louis’s arms to keep him in place. Louis glances over his shoulder into his friend’s face and finds nothing. Harry’s eyes are friendly and focused on Louis’s teacher.

“They’ve been working so hard, though, sir,” Harry smiles. “They deserve their first day of the holiday off, don’t you think?”

“What they deserve and what the show needs are two different things, Mister Styles.” Brother Winston drags a wooden prop stool behind him as he approaches the standing boys. “I’m afraid that not all members involved with this play are as actively concerned about its success and wellbeing as Louis, including our friend Stan Lucas, who would apparently much prefer to nap than learn which one is stage left and stage right. I only wish that all my students were as enthusiastic about Championship as he is,” the brother gestures towards the sixth former with a flick of his hand before sitting down and lacing his fingers in his lap. Louis feels a blush rise to his cheeks. “If that were the case, then I’d be more than happy to give them all the day off.”

“But Louis’s been doing so much work independently,” Harry hooks his chin over Louis’s shoulder on his tiptoes and gives him another squeeze around the middle, “so surely he’s made up for his personal time that’s been lost.”

“That depends,” Brother Winston gives a cheeky smile. “We’ve lost a collective twenty hours because of snow, so if you can prove to me that he’s made that up, then I might consider letting him have the day off.” Harry nods.

“Well, we’ve been coming every B day here for the full hour for the past month, so we’ll be somewhat generous and say it’s been fourteen days. Louis usually gives up 45 minutes of his lunch and study time every day to either go over the script or having me read it to him. So that itself is… is ten and a half hours.” Harry’s brow creases as he runs through his memories. Louis decides to help his own case, nudging at Harry with his shoulder.

“We watched the film, you remember?”

“I do!” Harry glances back to the teacher sitting amusedly on the stool. “There was that one weekend where I stayed over and we watched the film adaption three times together, just so he could get everything memorized. That adds six hours onto the time. We had a phone call that lasted two hours last Thursday where he read me lines while I was in bed, and I corrected his accent in places where it wasn’t decent enough, so that’s about eighteen and a half, and then – ”

“Okay! Okay! I get it, he’s dedicated,” Brother Winston runs the palm of his hand over his ever present and stubbly beard. “I must say, though, you seem to be as dedicated to the play as he is.”

“I’m just dedicated to Louis, really.”

Louis’s face flushes again as quickly as Brother Winston can raise his thick and dark eyebrows. “That much is incredibly clear to me.” The sixth former’s stomach flops like a fish.

“So he can have the day off?” Harry asks after a quiet pause with his hope in his voice, and Louis gives his own pleading look to his teacher. Brother Winston looks between the two boys with laughing eyes before holding his hands up in mock surrender.

“So long as Louis promises to be fully prepared for script-less rehearsals like everyone else when he gets back, I’ll allow you today off.” The boys cheer, Louis offering up a “You’re the best, Ben,” as Harry gives his, “Thank you, he needed it.”

Choir practically passes in the single blink of an eye, and before Stan can arrive to the auditorium for practise in a few minutes and deduct friend points for skipping, Louis slips out of the doors and makes his way towards the far margin of the courtyard in front of the chapel by the fountain to meet up with Niall and Harry, seeing as Zayn’s ditching them for the afternoon to help out in the library.

“The sisters are in a panic because apparently an entire section of nonfiction was scrambled up by someone while no one was looking,” Zayn had explained while everyone else warmed up their voices around them. “No idea how. Utter and proper twats, whoever they are. Sister Abel was practically in tears about it, I felt horrible, so Liam and I are helping out and straightening them all back out.”

“Liam is too?”

“Yep.”

“Without expecting anything in return? Well, I dare say that his heart may have grown three sizes this day.”

“He’s not evil, you know. He’s a human being with complex emotion and… things.”

Louis had snorted and watched as Sister Janes passed out sheet music, probably another Christmas carol. “Zayn, the only thing complex about Liam Payne is the knot in his tie.”

“Be nice,” Zayn huffed with a quick elbow to Louis’s side. “You hardly even know him.”

“Neither do you,” Louis had whispered back as he’d taken the stack of music that had been handed to him, took one, and passed the rest down to Zayn. He’d brought the paper up to look at the title. O Holy Night. But of fucking course.

“Niall’s not coming either,” Harry says when Louis finally gets there. The boy is standing with his arms folded to keep in the little heat his body has reserved for him and his chin is buried in Louis’s scarf. Dots of white snow are dusted atop of his sea of dark brown hair. “He texted me saying that he’s got to help out with half term prep or something. I’m honestly under the impression he just doesn’t want to walk home in this.” He waves a quick hand around him in the cold air and quickly buries it back in. It has, right on time it seems, begun to snow again. Thick, wet clumps of it fall from the sky and collide with the trees, the cobblestones, and all the bustling students in the courtyard which has lost its lovely green colour under the layers of cold and turned to nothing more than a large patch of mud.

“Just you and me today, then?” Louis asks as he rubs away the chill of a stray snowflake that’s fallen into his eye. “Been a while since it’s been just us, hasn’t it?”

“Just like old times,” Harry replies, and he holds out his left arm for Louis to grab onto. “Locker?”

“Indeed.”

The snow thickens a few minutes into the walk back home, and Louis doesn’t even hesitate to pull Harry close to his side as they walk. He supposes they’re quite fortunate that the wind hasn’t picked up yet, as it has the tendency to feel like knives when it hits his skin. If they’re lucky, it’ll hold off until they get back to the house.

“God, I love snow,” Harry says after a minute, and Louis glances over to see him staring up at the sky. His footsteps are becoming zigzagged, so Louis puts an arm atop his shoulder to steer him straight.

“Why’d you say that?” Louis nudges him, bumping the year eleven with his forehead. Harry just shrugs and looks back to Louis.

“I just really, really love snow, is all.”

“So I’ve heard,” Louis smiles and tugs lightly at one of the many soft curls his fingers are now practically engulfed in. His heart thumps with pure endearment. “And thank God you’ve been getting plenty of it this year.”

“Gemma hates the snow,” Harry says with a sparkle in his eyes, the same one that Louis had noted a while ago as the one he always gets when talking about his family. “She’s more of a spring person. Not sure how we’re related.”

“You said she’s coming home for the hols, right?” Louis asks. Harry nods. “Will Nick and Finn and all them be coming back as well?”

“I’m not sure, honestly,” Harry kicks lightly at the thin sheet of wet powder at his feet. “I know Nick, Dylan, Ray, and Raj are. Ed’s been talking about going to Greater London for months, so he’s probably doing that. Finn’s parents moved to Sheffield when he was finished with school, so I’m just assuming that he’s going there, and Jeni barely scraped enough money together to go to France in the first place, so unless he’s gotten his shit together and gotten a job he hasn’t told me about, then he’s probably staying in Paris.”

“Well, at least you’ll have half of them.”

“If they even come around.” Harry squeezes at his friend’s side. “I told them all about you, did you know that?”

“Good things, I hope,” Louis teases, and Harry makes a thoughtful sound.

“Mostly.”

Louis stops dead in his tracks and brings Harry to a halt with him. He then steps directly in front of Harry, playfully pokes a sharp finger into the younger boy’s chest, and scrunches his nose up. “What do you mean, ‘mostly’? What else have you said?”

Harry looks down and shuffles uneasily, the toe of his shoe making a muddy spot in the otherwise white. Louis pokes him again.

“Well,” the younger boy begins slowly, “you know how in October we weren’t doing so well? You and I, because of that thing?”

He does indeed remember that quite well, although he often tries not to. Louis doesn’t like to think about causing Harry as much strife and worry as he had. It seems so odd, thinking back, that he could have ever pushed Harry away like that, especially seeing how incredibly normal having the boy in his life is now, how much he feels like he really needs him in his day to day. In his defence, though, the feeling had never actually stopped, even when things got tough. Louis purses his lips and nods.

“Well, I kind of told them that we were having a… a disagreement, I guess? I didn’t tell them why or what it was about, though. I think they knew not to ask for details.” Harry taps at Louis’s ankle with one of his own. “They were all pretty worried though. Apparently they’d all had some sort of seven-way conference where they talked about whether or not they’d all need to come home and take care of me. It was just kind of hard to not have you around, I guess.”

“So they hate my guts now?”

“No, I told them it wasn’t your fault.” Harry pulls at Louis’s arm and the two start their walk home again. Louis pushes his arm through the hole that Harry allows when he has his hands in his pockets. “Besides, I’ve told them more good things about you than bad. Like, I told them you’re a lead in the play this semester, and Raj got really excited about it. He really wants to meet you.”

“He was a drama kid, right?”

“Yeah, doing sociology now, but when he was in lower sixth form, he was the lead of his play as well. Falstaff, from – ”

The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Louis had been on crew for that year, too young and inexperienced at the time to get a big part of any kind, but he still remembers it like yesterday – raunchy humour, blatant hints at adultery, dressing in drag, and all. He laughs, and the freezing cold air stings at his lungs like wasps. “First and last time they ever let Ben do Shakespeare.”

“Raj was bloody thrilled to get the part, though. He did so well with it, too. We all sat front row and threw roses when it ended.” Harry’s giggle crackles through the blanketed trees. “Nick, the bloody idiot, threw his at intermission and had to go on stage to get it back.” The boy sighs as they trudge through the rapidly building snowdrifts. Grey footprints from other people walking through litter the pathway in front of them.

“Raj said he’s upset he won’t be able to come see you,” Harry continues. “Apparently he likes That Championship Season.”

“Tell him he can have the part if he fancies it.” For the second time in the somewhat short trip, both boys are pulled to a stop. This time, it’s Harry’s hand on Louis’s arm.

“Why do you say that?” Harry asks, and Louis almost laughs at the concern in the younger boy’s face.

“I’m just a bit overwhelmed at the mo, to be honest,” Louis replies, tugging on Harry’s ( his ) scarf to get them moving again. Harry doesn’t budge. “I’m just worried about classes and tests and this bloody play. Like, I’m buzzing for it, but it’s just a lot, and I already know that I’m not going to do it justice, you know? It’s hard to juggle everything.”

“Of course you’ll do it justice, what are you talking about? You’re amazing.”

“Contrary to your beliefs,” Louis smiles, “I’m not actually that good.”

“Shut up, you’re going to absolutely smash this play. Why don’t you think you’re good enough?”

Louis gives another short tug on the scarf. “Because I’m not, H, it’s – ”

“Stop,” Harry warns again, this time putting both his hands on Louis’s shoulders and squeezing them tight, “and let me tell you something, okay?” Louis raises an eyebrow and nods. “I’ve been watching you work on this more than anyone else would be willing. You’ve put your heart and soul into this production, and for every toll that it takes, you’re willing to give a piece of yourself up to replace it. You’re exhausting yourself, but you don’t care because this is what you love and what you want to do with your life and that’s bloody beautiful. Like, really, really beautiful that something matters this much to you. You’re passionate and dedicated, and it shows.

“I honestly feel a bit honoured sometimes that you bring me into this world of yours and let me help you out, and it’s really so rewarding to watch you and hear you get better with the part every time we work on it. Like, at this point I can actually imagine you in a few years in the West End, or even Broadway in New York with that bloody American accent that I helped you with.” Harry breathes in for what’s possibly the first time since he began speaking, and gives a final nod and another short squeeze to his friend’s shoulders. “I can see that for you, and it’s all going to start with this play that you are going to blow out of the damn water.”

Louis is actually speechless, completely gobsmacked by Harry’s utter confidence in him, and he feels like a beehive, buzzing and humming from the inside out. He swallows the hard lump in his throat and his soft thank you creaks around it.

“Don’t,” Harry shakes his head, the longer curls falling in front of his smiling eyes. “There’s no need to thank me. All you need to do is remember that I believe in you, even if you don’t.” Louis stares back, lips probably slightly parted in shock, and try as he might, he can’t find a single word to move on with.

Louis remembers it from a few weeks before – Harry had told him that when he loves someone, he loves with every ounce of his being, and it often hurts to feel it. It apparently expands with every passing moment that he didn’t show it in some way, starting right from his heart and moving outwards. He hadn’t really understood what he’d meant until now.

He feels like he’s about to fucking explode with the force of his… well, love for Harry, but can’t find it inside of him as to how to tell him. He needs to, though, and needs it like air. He can kiss Harry as he always does, softly and carefully on the cheek or the forehead, always hoping that it gets the words out that Louis can never really say aloud but wishes he could. That doesn’t seem enough at that moment, somehow, like it would require so much more to get it across how much Louis needs him and is so thankful to have him around. Then, like a godsend, Louis remembers Harry in his basement two months ago, the boy’s long fingers gripping onto his shirt as he’d said that it was okay.

You could kiss me if you wanted to,Harry had said with a kind of dizzy confidence in his voice.Anytime you wanted. You could kiss me.

And Louis wants to.

Before another moment is allowed to pass, Louis brings both of his hands up from his side and cups Harry’s wind-pinked cheeks. Harry just looks at him, eyes shining and breath stilled, implicit trust in his gaze. Fuck, Louis loves him. Fuck. He leans in and presses his lips to the younger boy’s, letting his eyes flutter closed as his mouth moves against Harry’s and his fingers make their way back into his hair to pull him just a little closer.

Harry makes a tiny noise of surprise in his throat, and Louis swallows it, shoving it into the deepest crevices of his chest so that it might never be uncovered. He can feel pressure that he hadn’t even known was there escape his chest to be replaced with a comfortable warmth, and he finds himself practically sighing as he kisses Harry, because fuck if he hasn’t been missing out on so much.

It’s only when Louis realises that Harry isn’t moving with him that he stops, dragging himself away and forcing his eyes to open.

Harry stands as motionless as a wall with his hands stilled by his side and looking halfway thrown into disbelief, his mouth open and eyes wide. Louis has no idea what Harry’s thinking right now, and he feels his blood run as cold as the falling snow around them. Harry’s eyes are as big as they were the first day Louis had met him in the August morning mass, something that looks uncomfortably like shock laced along the dark green irises. The gravity of what he’s just done comes falling heavy like the sky around them.

“I… Harry, I…” His mouth gapes like a goldfish, words and apologies too thick in his throat to have any hope of escaping.

“Lou,” Harry breathes, and Louis pushes himself away with shaking hands.

Shit. “Y-You said,” Louis stutters, tripping over himself as he backs away. Shit. “You said it was okay. That day… you said.” This isn’t how it was supposed to happen.

“Louis,” Harry tries again, this time reaching out a hand for him. Louis steps back further, his own hands up in front of him, and he does the only thing he can think to; he runs.

The wind begins to pick up as he makes his way home, and the icy mix of snow and air hits his cheeks like a thousand needles at once. It whistles loudly through the trees and in his ears, shouting words and abuses after him that he dares not try to decipher as he sprints past. Hot tears blur his vision, and the sky, tree branches, and snowy path bleed together, making it halfway impossible to know where he is. It’s miraculous when he makes it to where pebbles meet pavement, and he runs down the inclined street towards his house that he knows will thankfully be empty, only slipping once on the slush in his rush on the road. Every ounce of heat that had rested on his hands and his lips has since faded into the winter air.

The front door closes louder behind him than he’d meant it to and the lock sounds hollow as it slides shut. He throws his bag towards the stairs in a daze and escapes down to the basement on weak knees, where he then collapses onto the plush couch. As soon as he’s fully curled into himself, his coat and school jacket tossed blindly to the side, Louis begins scratching the tears out of his eyes, shaking and wondering how it’s possible that he could have misread the situation so severely and how the fuck he’s going to get himself out of this one.

Chapter Text

Harry sits on the Tomlinsons’ front porch, wind whistling something terrible and kicking up flakes of snow around him. He pulls Louis’s scarf closer to his skin as he huddles around himself for warmth and keeps up his look out for the girls. They’ll be home soon.

So it had finally happened, and the feeling had been everything Harry could have hoped for. Every cliché thing in the book – stars, fireworks, explosions – had nothing on the way that he had felt standing there with Louis’s lips pressed to his. It was the thing that Harry had been after for months, and yet he’d been frozen to the spot, unable to move or speak or reciprocate. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t wanted to kiss him back, but… he hadn’t been expecting it. Harry had assumed the usual, nothing more than a friendly peck on the cheek, and then… well, so much more than what he’d been anticipating happened, and it had left him paralyzed. He’d fucked it up for both of them.

He grits his teeth as he sits.

The more he thinks about it, the more Harry becomes angry with himself, because Louis’s probably assumed he’s done something wrong again, just like the last time, and that’s why he’s run off with hurt in his eyes. Harry can imagine how panicked and alone he’s feeling right now, and he’s itching to get inside. It’s finally time for all the walls to come down. It’s probably overdue as it is.

“It’s Harry!” cries a familiar voice. Harry looks up and sees the two older Tomlinson girls coming towards him, walking with their own book bags in tow. Felicite, the one who had called out, is pointing to her sister at the boy on the stairs with one hand and waving excitedly with the other. “Hiyah, Harry!” Harry waves back and watches the two girls approach up the short drive.

“Hiyah, Harry,” Charlotte choruses after her sister with a big smile and a twirl of her long brown hair around a gloved finger. “Happy hols. What’s up?” Harry gets to his feet to make way for the girls, offering his hand out to help them up the potentially icy stairs, and musters up as large of a smile as his stiff and frozen cheeks can offer.

“Nothing. I just need to speak with your brother is all.”

“Why? Is he alright?” Lottie asks as she turns her key in the lock and pushes the door open.

“Yeah,” the boy lies, running his hands over his chest to warm them, “of course he is.”

Neither girl looks convinced, but they thankfully still let him in. Harry kicks his shoes off by the door the moment he’s inside and drops his coat and bag by them, and with Felicite’s suggestion, he makes his way towards the closed basement door. On a whim, he stops with his hand on the doorknob and turns back to the girls, who are still standing motionless and watching him by the open front door.

“Where’s your loo down here, again?” he asks, and follows the younger girl’s finger to a closed door a few feet away.

The basement is dark when he comes down, the only light coming from the near-muted television with a high frequency buzz coming off of it. It takes a moment, but Harry’s eyes eventually adjust enough to see him; Louis, sitting on the corner of the couch with his knees to his chest and face buried in his crossed arms. His heavy coat and school jacket lay in a rumpled pile on the floor beside him. Harry comes down the steps one by one, and when he’s finally descended all the way down and sees what was playing on the telly, he laughs. He can’t really help it. Louis’s head jerks up at the unexpected noise.

“So is watching Spice World your equivalent to eating a carton of ice cream and watching rom-coms or something?” Harry asks with a hand halfway over his mouth. Even in the little light provided by the flickering colours onscreen, Harry can see how swollen his friend’s eyes have become in the half hour they’ve been apart.

“Nah, I do that, too,” Louis pushes out after a lengthy moment, his breath catching on every other word. He sniffles and moves his feet to settle flat on the floor. “Are you here to punch me or so-something?” he asks, and Harry’s heart breaks as he walks over and kneels at Louis’s feet. He shakes his head, swallows thickly, and holds up the wad of tissues he’d acquired before coming down and gives a small smile. Louis returns an even smaller one, almost breathless giggles coming up as he takes them. He blows his nose gently and winces at the sound.

“No, I’m not here to do any of that,” Harry explains quietly when Louis’s cleaned himself up a bit. “I’m here to make sure you’re okay.”

“Do I look okay to you?” Louis smiles tightly at his friend, and he wipes his pink and blotchy cheeks with the back of his wrist.

“You look fine.”

“You’re sweet,” Louis runs a hand through Harry’s hair, retracting it quickly when he realises that maybe he isn’t supposed to do that. Harry shrinks back at his friend’s expression. Scary Spice growls at goldfish in the background. “I’m sorry.”

“No, I am.” Harry places a ginger hand on Louis’s knee. “I should be.”

“What do you have to be sorry for?”

“Not running after you.”

“Knowing me,” Louis punches the words between brief and somewhat forced-sounding laughs, “do you honestly think I would have stopped?”

Harry shrugs. “Maybe you would have for me.”

Both boys go quiet for a moment after that, unsure of either how to answer or how to continue. Harry stares up at Louis, and Louis stares back at him, eyes still watery and shining. Harry rubs circles into Louis’s leg with his thumb, and he bites his lip as he prepares to break the silence that has become somewhat of a safety blanket for them in the past few months.

“Can I ask you something?”

Louis sighs with a mild shudder in his breath. “Yeah, course you can.” Harry wonders if he knows what’s coming.

“Do you… like me?” Harry begins, softening his voice when he sees how Louis visibly flinches at the question. “Like, more than you’re supposed to?” He watches as thousands upon thousands of responses form and fall apart in his friend’s head in a single second. Harry can practically hear the white noise of it all from where he sits on his ankles, and he begins rubbing up and down on the older boy’s calves, urging the words out with his touch.

“I tried not to, honestly,” Louis begins, his fingers beginning to twist and rip at the soft corners of the used tissue. His eyes flick down to his feet, something that Harry picks up on immediately. Guilty look. “I didn’t want to lose you, H, and I thought maybe if… maybe if I just limited myself on how and when I… then I could stop or, at the very least, control it.” Harry nods, giving a small smile that Louis never sees.

“But you couldn’t?” Louis shakes his head slowly. Harry nods again, and he moves his hands up to Louis’s fidgeting ones to hold them still. “Yeah…” he mutters with a heavy sigh, and he feels stinging heat building in his throat. “Neither could I.”

Louis raises his eyes up to meet Harry’s, and for the younger boy, it’s like everything just kind of clicks into place. There’s nothing to hide from anymore – it’s finally been done. Harry feels relief wash over him, because even though life has probably just become infinitely more difficult for the both of them, everything feels simpler and cleaner in that moment. He wouldn’t have been able to pull away from the beautiful, glistening pair of blue eyes that are looking at him so intensely if he tried with all of his being.

“So what do we do?” Louis asks.

“We figure it out,” Harry replies softly, and he gives only a moment’s pause before he’s getting to his feet and slowly moving his knees, one and then the other, to Louis’s sides, so that by the time he has wrapped his hands behind the older boy’s neck, they’re chest-to-chest with Harry sitting in Louis’s lap. He’s made sure to keep the movement fluid, because he wants to be like water today. He can’t afford to smolder. Harry feels Louis shiver underneath him.

“You terrify me,” Louis murmurs, hands settling on Harry’s hips to pull him just a little bit closer. He touches like he can’t believe he’s allowed to.

“Don’t be,” Harry whispers, bringing himself close enough to feel Louis’s breath on his lips, and runs his thumbs over the older boy’s cheeks to rid them of every trace of saltwater that’s left. “Don’t be scared of me.”

Harry takes a breath and leans in, pressing his lips to Louis’s and relishing in the way that Louis just takes it, practically devours it without really even moving. Harry has never needed something as much as he needs this, and if he were to go by the way Louis is touching him like he’s afraid to break them both, he supposes the older boy could say the same. The rush of blood and heat and pure adrenaline is overwhelming. Harry dares not breathe.

Within moments, Harry feels Louis’s cold, careful hands on his back, going under the jacket and shirt to touch skin, and it sends shockwaves up his spine. The sensation encourages him to go just a little harder, a little faster against Louis’s lips, and he finally allows himself to exhale in shuddery breaths. He feels like fire in the wintertime as their lips catch each other’s again and again, like every nerve in his body has turned to live wires, sending out magnified electrical pulses through his blood with every beat of his stuttering heart and every scratch of Louis’s fingernails across his skin. Harry practically gasps against Louis’s lips. Finally, finally, he’s gotten what he’s wanted for so long.

Louis kisses him like it’s a secret. Their secret.

“Don’t you cry now,” Louis smirks against his mouth before pulling himself away and resting his forehead against Harry’s. Harry holds his whines of protest back. “You’ll start me up, and it’ll just be a giant mess.” Harry hadn’t even realized he was crying. He lets Louis wipe the tear away, and he’s just about to kiss him again when he realises that Say You’ll Be There is playing quietly in the background.

“Lou,” Harry buries his watering eyes into the older boy’s shoulder as he laughs, “we’ve just had our first real kiss to the Spice Girls.”

“We are the epitome of the 90’s kid,” Louis says, and Harry runs his fingers over Louis’s chest as he moves to kiss him, but his plans are disrupted by the sound of the basement door opening. The two boys lock eyes for only a split second before Harry is scrambling out of Louis’s lap like it’s on reflex and freezes where he falls. He could swear that he hears Louis’s heartbeat from where he lays.

“Hey, Louis?” a voice calls down, one that both boys recognise.

“Yes, Charlotte?” Louis calls up, glancing over at Harry nervously. Harry keeps absolutely still.

“Uhm… okay? I was just putting the kettle on,” Louis’s sister yells down, her voice giving off a slight echo as it bounces off of the empty walls. “I was wondering if you wanted tea.”

“Yes, love,” Louis clears his throat and calls up. “Thank you. Put one on for Harry as well, yeah? Sugar, no milk.”

“M’kay,” Lottie replies, and the door clicks closed behind her.

After a moment, Louis looks back to Harry, who is somewhat ridiculously and awkwardly sprawled out on the couch beside him. Harry feels a blush creeping up along his neck and he scrubs a hand over his cheeks, but Louis just looks at him dotingly and reaches a hand out to pull the younger boy back towards his side. Harry takes it and sits back up, one of his legs finding its way into Louis’s lap as he leans into his shoulder. He can feel a talk coming on as he listens to Louis’s breathing become shallower.

“We can’t tell anyone, H,” Louis says carefully after a minute, like he’s afraid that he might scare the younger boy off if he speaks too harshly. Harry knows the feeling. He wraps an arm around Louis’s middle and pulls him closer. “You know that, right? It’ll be the end of us, like it’s open season.”

“I know, I was going to say the same thing.” Harry rubs the palm of his hand along his trousers and sucks on the inside of his lip. He smiles when he looks back to Louis, who is still watching the younger boy with a content and quiet look. “But it’ll be hard not to just kiss you every chance I get now, though.” Like it was a cue, Louis leans in and gives him a sweet, quick kiss, only pulling away when he hears his sisters moving about upstairs and creaking the floorboards. Yeah, Harry could definitely get used to that.

“I think we need some kind of…” Louis motions with his hand, wringing it in the air as he tries to place his words. “Like, a gesture or something for school or in front of family or whatever. Something that’s like a kiss, but it’s not.”

“Like a hand-sign or something?” Harry proposes, and Louis agrees.

“Yeah, but nothing obvious.”

Harry scours his brain for something, and he can see Louis doing the same, staring off at the far wall with concentration etched into his brow. He glances down at his hand, curled loosely in Louis’s school shirt, and he brings it up to his face, moving his fingers every which way. Two fingers? Boy scouts. Three fingers? This isn’t the Hunger Games. Four fingers doesn’t make sense, and the idea of high fiving for kisses is so awkward that Harry actually cringes at himself for thinking it up. It’ll have to be one. The pinky maybe?... or the thumb. Slowly, Harry raises his thumbs-up to Louis and presses it into his chest. The older boy glances down at it, and a smile begins spreading across his lips.

“Thumbs-up?” Louis looks up and raises his own, and without even thinking, Harry pushes his into Louis’s, so the pads of their thumbs are touching.

“Got it,” he mutters. “I think we’ve got it.”

“Me too,” Louis agrees, and presses his thumb into Harry’s even harder. The younger boy bites down on his lip as he smiles, and he feels Louis bring both of his hands back to his middle, pulling Harry down slowly so that they can both lie there together. Harry makes himself comfortable in the crook of Louis’s neck.

“Thank you, Harry,” Louis says as they settle, and Harry hums contently above him.

“Thank you.” The younger boy pushes a kiss into the crease of Louis’s neck where his collar meets skin.

“What for?”

“For not pushing me away again,” Harry sighs, and he feels Louis pull him closer into his chest.

“Never again,” Louis reassures him, rubbing a hand up and down the back of Harry’s jacket. “We’re going to do this right, you and me. I promise you; no more running away ever again.”

Harry fists his hands in Louis’s shirt and smiles. It’s been quite a while since Harry has felt like this. This is better than the okay he’d felt with Zayn, better than the loved he felt when his friends all called him to check and see how he was. Things may be different now, far more complex than anything else Harry’s ever done, and they’re going to have to talk a lot more about this later to figure out where exactly they are, but it’s also brilliant, and dare he say it, a little closer to perfect then he’d thought he’d ever be lucky enough to feel.

~

It’s getting dark out by the time Harry finally packs up his things and leaves, much to Louis’s distress. His misery dissolves, though, when Harry reminds him that they have all break to be together, so it isn’t as though they’ll have to wait ages to see each other. Louis supposes he could live with that, and he kisses Harry goodbye at the door, making a point to lovingly tuck his scarf into Harry’s coat to keep him warm.

After he’s gotten over the initial humming sensation that had taken over his body, Louis moves back into the kitchen to rinse out the mugs they had used and puts them on the drainage basket by the sink to dry. After that, he looks around to find his sisters, hearing one of them before he sees her. Felicite’s in the living room with the television going and a second mug of tea in her hands, but Charlotte’s bent over something on the dining room table. It looks a fair bit more interesting, so he quietly approaches her and watches as she moves.

“What are you doing, Lot?”

“Making bracelets,” she answers, keeping her focused gaze on the table in front of her. “You can buy them in shops and stuff if you look hard enough, but we make them during lunch and in the library in school and stuff. They’re really easy to do, but pretty time-consuming, and you have to be really careful. If the teachers see you making them, they snatch them and toss them in the bin and you have to go get them back when they’re not looking.” From the looks of things and the speed at which she’s working, it looks fairly difficult. She has what looks like nine strings spread out along the wood in three different colours, and her face is tense. Louis isn’t sure if he’s supposed to be bothering her, but his curiosity and intrigue wins over his concern.

“How do you do it?” he asks over her shoulder, and she pauses in her work.

“You just tie a bunch of knots together really tightly in a certain way, going from left to right. Depending on how you do the knots and what kind of coloured string you use, you get different patterns. This one is a pink, yellow, and purple striped one.” She looks up at Louis, a bright and cheery look on her face. “You wanna make one?”

“I think so.”

“You making it for yourself or for someone else? A lot of the girls at our school made them as Christmas presents for their friends.” Lottie leans in and points to the striped work in progress she has taped to the table and says quietly, “I’m making this one for Fliss,” Louis nods, and his thoughts travel straight to a certain someone whose warmth is still stained deep in his skin.

“You know what? I think I’ll make one for someone else.”

“Harry?”

Louis smiles. “Yeah.” Lottie nods at that, a business-like look taking over her face as she returns to her work.

“He’ll definitely like them, I already know it. He seems like the type of person to wear them all over the place.” Louis watches over her shoulder as she plucks a piece of scotch tape off of the edge of the table and sticks it onto the bottom of the beginnings of her sister’s bracelet, then looks up to her big brother. “What colours do you want?”

“What colours do you have?” Louis laughs aloud when she picks a half-gallon bag off of the ground, nearly bursting with dozens of different coloured string. “So where on earth did you get all that from?”

“Mum bought it for me. I had pocket money.” She shakes the bag in front of his eyes impatiently, no time to be messing about. “Pick your colours, silly boy!”

“Alright, alright, calm down, peanut.” Louis scans the bag, and his eyes immediately come across a deep red colour. He points it out to his sister. “How about that one?”

“That one would be good with black, but it’ll be kind of hard to see the red unless you’re up close. This white,” she points to a thicker looking thread, “would be better. It’s kind of waxy and keeps colour better, stops it going grey so soon. It’s harder to work with sometimes if you have a hard pattern, but you’re just starting out, so you’ll probably be doing stripes or chevrons at first anyways.”

“So are you some kind of bracelet-making expert now?” Louis asks with a smirk, to which Lottie replies with a simple, “yes.”

“Does he have big wrists?” she asks him after she’s gotten both colours out of the bag and lays them on the table. “Because if you cut the strings too big or too small, it won’t fit him when it’s done and you’ll look like a bigger idiot than usual when you give it to him.”

“I think he has about the same as mine, maybe a bit bigger.”

“Okay, give me yours as a reference.” Louis sticks his wrist out for her, and she loops it around several times before deeming it good enough to use. Louis is sent to retrieve scissors from the kitchen drawer, and Lottie cuts the strings.

It takes a while for Louis to actually get the hang of making the bracelet, but by the time that his mum arrives home with the twins and dinner in tow, he already has a pretty decent one going, almost a quarter of the way done. It isn’t big, barely as wide as one of his fingernails, but it’s coming along nicely, tight knots forming an alternating pattern of maroon and bright white chevrons. Louis’s already imagining giving it to Harry, tying it around the boy’s wrist and knotting it one last time, making sure it’s just loose enough so that he can get it off for when school picks up again next month.

“He’s really gonna like that one, Lou,” Lottie says as they lay in his bed later that night, observing her brother’s work that’s taped to his knee as she snuggles into his blankets. She yawns as she settles back. “I bet he’ll give you a big, wet kiss for it.”

Louis laughs at his sister as his stomach squirms around at the thought. “One can only dream.”

~

Harry’s still buzzing when he steps in through the front door, the smile on his face feeling so deep and permanent that he’s under the impression that it will never fully go away. He closes it behind him, shutting out the freezing cold and approaching darkness, and calls out to his mother to tell her that he’s finally home. A rush of warmth and something that smells a lot like baked chicken comes over him in a wave.

“You have a good time at Lou’s?” Anne asks from the couch in the living room when he’s hung his bag and coat up in the closet under the stairs. Her long, dark hair is wrapped up in a messy bun atop her head, and she’s practically swimming in an oversized woolen jumper Harry knows to be Robin’s. “You certainly go over there an awful lot compared to here, don’t you?”

“He’s coming over on break. He’s going to officially meet Gemma and Robin, seeing as I’ve met all of his family,” Harry tells her, and he leans in over the couch to kiss her on the forehead.

“Oh my god, you are absolutely freezing!” his mother cries when she lays a hand upon his cheek, and she grabs onto his shirt collar and pulls him over the back of the leather couch. Harry squawks a loud protest as he falls halfway into her lap, but his mum only brings him closer into her chest. “Come here, let’s have a cuddle and warm you up before you catch cold.”

“Mum, I’m far too old for cuddles with my mother. I’m practically an adult,” he says as seriously as he can, impishly batting her hands away as she attempts to run her hands through his hair. The crucifix that’s inlaid with dozens of tiny diamonds that Anne wears every day around her neck keeps hitting him in the ear as they struggle. “I’ll be drinking coffee and paying rent sooner than you can say ‘income taxes.’”

Anne wraps her arms and legs around her son’s front until he can no longer move. “You’re never too old for cuddles with your mum. I still have cuddles with mine when we go over to Nan’s house.”

“Yeah,” he finally gives up his fight to get away and relaxes, “but you’re like a child in an adult’s body.”

“It must run in the family,” Anne muses quietly in his ear. From there, Harry and his mum lay on the couch, legs and arms tangled up, watching the early evening news together. Everything is boring for the most part to Harry, so in the warmth of his home and his mother’s arms, he finds himself slowly and peacefully drifting off, his thoughts going back to a certain someone’s dark basement with the Spice Girls playing in the background.

That is, at least, until a news report comes up that immediately catches Harry’s attention and makes his eyes fly open. The headline being discussed reads in bold and all capital letters at the bottom of the television screen, GAY MARRIAGE ANTICIPATED IN U.K. BY 2013.

“Mum, you see this?” Harry shakes her back to full attention, and she mumbles under him. She’s almost as far-gone as he was a moment ago. He tries again. “Mum, look.” This time, Anne actually opens her eyes and sits up with her son, and she wraps her arm around his middle to hold herself up. Harry watches as her eyes skim over the type at the bottom and narrow slightly.

“Huh,” she says after a moment. “That’s… interesting.”

The two listen to the report, still partially intertwined, on how it’s been rumoured that there’s been a proposal in Parliament to begin an official request for a law to come into effect regarding legalizing gay marriage. It’s said that they would begin writing it as soon as possible, but there’s just too many things on the government’s plate right now to begin that soon. Apparently, work’s expected to commence in late 2011, early 2012.

“Wow, that’s kind of far away,” Harry ponders aloud to his mother. “Long wait.”

“Well, not really,” his mum sighs as she lies back down, pulling her son with her. “Considering that the government has a history of taking decades just to pass one law, two or three years isn’t that long of a time at all. And,” she motions with a pointed finger towards the ceiling, “when you think about it, they’ve technically been waiting for a thousand years for this law, so three is literally nothing.”

Harry lies there in his mum’s arms, thinking quietly to himself about his mother’s thoughts and feelings on the proposed law. From what Harry can tell, there’s no negativity and no malice in her voice, and this makes him wonder. He’s been so worried about what his mum will think if she ever finds out about his newly realized self, but with this new information and observation, perhaps there’s a chance for him. So much has happened to him today, so many good things have happened. Maybe there’s room for just one more good thing today. Harry ignores the sickly feeling in his stomach, pushing it down to the deepest pits of his conscious self, and clears his throat.

“Mum, can I ask you something?”

“No, you can’t have a pony for Christmas, H,” Anne sighs, and Harry can practically hear her rolling her eyes. “We’ve had this discussion a thousand times; you’ll lose interest within the first week and I’ll be the one to take care of it.”

Muuuum,” Harry huffs, “honestly, how hard can taking care of one be?” His mum laughs under him, and he smiles. After allowing a moment of brief quiet, Harry clarifies. “But, uhm, no, that’s not what I was going to ask.”

“Alright, what do you want to know, sweets?”

“What’s your opinion on gay people?” Anne’s chest rises and falls under him, and he carefully turns over in her arms onto his stomach to bury his face in her sweet-smelling neck.

“Well,” she begins as Harry runs the pads of his fingers over the silver cross hanging on her neck. His dad gave her this necklace, he remembers, so very long ago. He’s really glad she still wears it. “My religion tells me that it’s wrong to be gay and to accept gay people into normal society. There are a lot of people who are inclined to believe that it’s a choice that you make, that you choose to be gay.”

“And what do you say?”

“I say that’s a load of shite, really. Who in their right mind would choose to live a life where they’re shunned by people they love? Who in their right mind would choose to live that kind of life, a life of fear?” His mother shakes her head and tuts at the ceiling. “And even if it was a choice, which, you know, it very well might be, who cares? They’re not hurting anyone. My religion and those higher up may tell me one thing, but my heart and mind tell me another, and I have to believe that if God was good enough to give me an independent mind, I was meant to use it.

“A great thing about the bible,” she goes on as she begins running her fingers through her son’s hair again, “is that it can be interpreted so many different ways. When I read the bible, I’m inclined to believe that no matter what kind of lifestyle someone leads, as long as they’re a good person, then God will accept them into heaven. A lot of people won’t agree with me, and that’s okay. It’s awful sometimes, but you kind of learn as you grow that some people’s opinions and feelings towards certain groups of people are just too deeply engrained into their souls, and there’s nothing you can do except show those that are affected that not all members of that person’s community or religion or race is like that. Words are meaningless in those situations, while actions are everything. That’s important to remember.”

“So,” Harry starts slowly just as the ads begin running on the still-going television, “you’re okay with it? You’d be okay with it if someone close to you were… you know.”

Anne darts her tongue over her lips and sighs. “I mean, it would certainly be hard to swallow at first, but I’d just have to remember that I love them. I’d want that person to know that they can come to me about anything that they feel they need to, that I’ll be there for them when they feel like maybe no one else will be. That I love them, and nothing will ever change that. And,” she continues softly, “that if their dad were here, he’d tell them the exact same thing.”

A minute passes in tense silence, and Harry listens to his mother breathe under him as his eyes began filling up to the brim for the second time that day. Anne then breaks it, her voice gone quieter and gentler than Harry’s heard it go in years.

“You haven’t been going over to Louis’s house just for studies, have you?”

Hot tears spill over onto Anne’s skin, soaking into her jumper as Harry shakes his head. She only pulls him closer, fisting her boy’s hair in her hand and burying him in her embrace. Harry has never felt so safe and lucky in his whole life.

“I really like him, mum,” he mutters through his tears that are now falling like the snowflakes outside. “I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.”

His mum nods. “I know, I could tell. I wasn’t sure, but I definitely had a feeling,” Anne chuckles as she holds him, running a soothing hand across his back. “And that is perfectly fine. It doesn’t matter who you love, it doesn’t matter who loves you, and it doesn’t matter where you go in the world or how old you get. You’ll always be my baby, and I’ll always be here for you. Don’t you forget it.”

“I love you.”

“Love you, too. But Harry, I have just one question for you.”

“Yeah, mum?” Harry sniffles and sits up on his elbows. Anne wipes his tears away with her long and baggy sleeve, and then looks at him with a serious expression.

“When are you bringing him for dinner?”

~

On the morning of December 24th, Louis wakes to the feeling of falling… repeatedly.

His sisters, all four of them, are jumping up and down on his bed, and no matter how much he swats them away with wild octopus arms, they always come back, shouting all the while. “Eighteen!” they screech as Louis whacks at them with his sleep-heavy limbs, “Louis’s eighteen now!” His stomach flops all over the place. This certainly is not the way he’d wanted to wake up this morning.

“You couldn’t wait until the clock had two numbers in the hour to come get me?” he grumbles, pulling the pillow over his ears as a last resort. Phoebe apparently takes this as an invitation to sit on his head.

“It’s almost ten now, we waited as long as we could!” she shouts as she bounces up and down on Louis’s pillow, pushing his nose into the mattress and suffocating him further with every bob. “It’s ten, lazybones! Mummy’s got breakfast!” Louis only swats at her as well, pushing her back towards where her sisters are still jumping up and down. She hits the wall with a bit of a thump, but before Louis can spring up and check to see if she’s alright, she’s back on top of him.

“Up, birthday boy!” she tries again, this time crawling up along his back and snuggling her face into the ticklish part of his neck. “Mummy wants you up! Mass tonight! Christmas tomorrow!”

“Joy to the bloody world,” Louis mumbles, sighing as deeply as he can before pushing himself up and out of his warm cocoon of blankets, much to the excitement of his sisters.

Without warning and with speed that’s apparently unprecedented by his siblings, he grabs the two girls closest to him, Felicite and Phoebe, and traps them under his arms, tickling them within an inch of their life. Their screams combine with their other sisters’, who are both shouting and pulling at their brother to make him let go. After an exhausting and loud half-minute, Louis lets go, grabbing his glasses off of his nightstand, and turns to Phoebe, who is still giggling away.

“I heard something about breakfast.”

All five of the Tomlinsons run down the stairs together, careful not to slip on the hardwood in their fuzziest socks, and into the kitchen, where Louis almost falls face-first into the plate of eggs that his mother has laid on the table. There he is sung ‘Happy Birthday’ to, and treated to one of the better fry-ups that his mum has ever prepared. Louis has never felt different on his birthdays in the past, but as he sits there, surrounded by his family, he knows that there’s something very different about how he feels today. Eighteen is more of a permanency than a meaningless number, and if Louis has to bet, he’ll do so on the fact that he now has something very dangerous but simultaneously very beautiful on his hands. It’s somehow managed to mature him within the matter of a week.

It’s half past eleven the doorbell rings. Lottie’s the one to answer it, but Louis knows who it is even without a call upstairs to him. He’s gotten back in bed by that time, of course, and he doesn’t plan on leaving it, even for cute boys who bring him birthday presents. He instead listens to the heavy footsteps coming up the stairs, down the hallway, and eventually stopping in his open doorway.

“Morning, birthday boy,” Harry smiles as he leans into the room, a small, neatly wrapped package by his side.

“That’s birthday man to you, now,” Louis replies with a grin, making grabby motions in the air. “Come here.”

Harry catches on, closing and locking the door behind him, and sheds his hoodie, tossing it onto the back of the desk chair. The silvery wrapping paper crinkles in his hand as he pulls it through the armhole, but it’s still small enough to fit through without much of a struggle. Louis allows his eyes to not-so-discreetly rake over the younger boy’s body as he comes forward, a fairly new thing he’s permitting himself to do lately. This morning, he’s wearing a long-sleeved white t-shirt and baggy sweatpants. They almost look to be a size too big for him, and they fall down to just below where Louis can see the emphasized edges of his hipbones. Louis wonders briefly if he’s wearing anything underneath of them. He runs his tongue over the backs of his teeth.

Harry holds the gift out to the boy in bed. “I bought you something,” he says as he sits down on the mattress. Louis swallows his previous interests and nods.

“I can see that. You told me last night, but first thing’s first – It is my birthday, and I demand birthday kisses.”

“Oh, you demand them, do you?”

“My house, my rules, love.”

Harry hums with a smirk as he tosses the present to the side and leans down to get closer to Louis. “I suppose I could live with those rules.” Louis brings both of his hands to the back of Harry’s head, entangling his fingers in the mass of curly hair and pulling him down until their lips finally meet. Harry immediately sighs into the kiss and brings his hands to Louis’s sides, running his cold fingertips over the small expanse of skin that the hem of his t-shirt allows and Louis shivers. He can taste toothpaste on Harry’s icy lips when he slides his tongue across them lightly.

“You taste like winter,” Louis mumbles against Harry’s mouth, and the younger boy smiles.

“You taste like egg on toast.”

Louis makes a noise of disgust in his throat and pulls himself away. “That sounds horrible. I could go brush my teeth if you wanted?” Harry just shakes his head and gives Louis a series of quick Eskimo kisses before sitting up. Louis adjusts himself so that he’s propped up on his elbows, looking up at the boy who’s in his lap.

“No, because it’s time to get down to business.” Harry picks up the discarded gift that’s lying amongst a sea of quilt and hands it to Louis. “I’m not as good at wrapping as she is, so you’ll have to forgive me, but I got Gemma to do it.”

“I don’t mind,” Louis replies honestly as he sits up all the way – God knows that every gift under the tree to his sisters was wrapped by his mother – and he begins the short process of uncovering the gift. He tries not to rip the paper as best he can, as it’s such a pretty colour, and actually ends up unrolling the squishy object until he sees green under the silver. He pushes the final piece of paper open with delicate fingers, discarding it to the side as he holds and unravels the present in loose hands.

“It’s a scarf,” he mutters as he holds it, and Harry beams beside him.

“I figured you needed one, seeing as I have yours and have zero intention of ever giving it back.”

“And it’s green,” Louis grins, poking a finger into Harry’s dimple before holding the fabric up to Harry’s eye line to compare the two shades he sees, “like…”

“Like my favourite colour,” Harry finishes with a satisfied grin. Louis drops the scarf into his lap and tugs lightly on the front of Harry’s t-shirt.

“Yes,” Louis says as he wraps his arms around Harry’s middle, “I’m absolutely sure that’s the reason why you got it.” Louis places a delicate kiss on Harry’s lips before pulling away again, pushing Harry off of his legs, and swinging them over the side to make his way over to his desk drawers. “I have something for you, too.”

“It’s your birthday, though?” Harry questions, and Louis pulls the bracelet that he’s labored over for three days out from between an old pencil case and a stack of CDs. “I’m not sure that’s how birthdays work.”

Louis hushes him, holding his gift behind his back. “It’s Christmas tomorrow, and I wanted you to wear this to mass tonight. Close your eyes and hold out a wrist.” Harry, of course, obeys, sticking his left hand out and covering his eyes with the other. Louis smiles at the sight before finally moving back towards the bed and lacing the thin bracelet around the boy’s wrist, tying the knot at the ends loosely and sealing it with a kiss. It is, fortunately, the perfect length for the boy’s skinny wrist. “I put blood, sweat, and tears into making this for you, so you better at least pretend to like it. You can open now.”

Harry cries a bit when he sees it, actual, real life sniffles that give the older boy heart palpitations to see. Louis can’t really understand why it’s happening, so he just jumps into Harry’s arms and brings him back down to the bed to lie there as he cuddles the younger boy close, peppering kisses along his jaw until he’s totally calm again.

“You wanna go back to your house?” Louis asks as he buries his face in Harry’s neck. “I need an excuse to wear my new scarf.”

“Depends,” Harry traces lines along Louis’s back.

“Depends on what?”

“On if you feel like meeting my friends.”

“Who’s over?”

“Nick’s coming in a few. Would you like to meet him?”

“Sure. Give me ten to get dressed and we’ll be good.”

After a quick holiday greeting, a catch up with the parents and girls, and a refusal of tea, Harry tucks the green scarf into Louis’s jacket and escorts the older boy back to his house. Louis is thankful the snow held off last night, because there’s already almost too much to handle on the pavement, and Louis slips his hand into Harry’s only a minute into the journey should he need to keep himself from falling – that’s what Louis tells him, anyways.

“Gemma!” Harry calls out as they step in through the front door, Louis trailing behind and kicking the snow off of his shoes. “You better have something other than just pants and a tank on by now. We have a guest!” The two boys hear a slight commotion coming from the living room, and by the time Louis has hung his coat and scarf, a familiar, smiling face is peering back around the corner. It’s the same shaped eyes in a darker colour and the same smile he’s come to love, but on a different person’s body.

“We have more than a guest, H,” replies Gemma, her painted fingernails brushing the dark hair out of her eyes, “and none of them seem to mind when I’m just in my pants.” She turns her attention to Louis, blinks once, then looks over her shoulder where she shouts, “Louis Tomlinson’s in the house as well, boys!”

“Tommo!” a deep, unfamiliar voice calls out from past the wall, and Gemma retreats back into the room. “Come in here, it’s high time we met officially.” Louis looks to Harry, not knowing what to expect, but if he’s to go by the bright look in Harry’s eyes, he guesses that this is probably a good thing that’s happening.

“I cannot believe it,” Harry shakes his head as he moves past Louis. “Un-fucking-believable.” A chorus of celebratory shouts ring out when Harry turns the corner, and Louis jumps back at the same time his heart does. He presses his back to the wall.

“Holy shit!” the same deeper voice from before cries out. “I think you got taller.”

“Either that,” Harry replies, and Louis can hear the surprised joy in his voice even if he can’t currently see it, “or you just got even shorter.”

“I resent that to the highest degree,” the same voice digs, and another person laughs loudly.

“The lowest degree, in your case, Jenison.” The words roll out of the stranger’s mouth like each one is a polished marble, an obvious slickness about them as they drop smoothly into his lap.

“Oh yes, how could I have forgotten? Introducing Nick Grimshaw, comedian extraordinaire and University of Leeds radio DJ who also happens to have the biggest head in the entire UK,” the one who Louis now knows is Jeni snaps. “And let us not forget his endless supply of short jokes. Remind me again why I came back here to be with you tossers?”

“Because if you hadn’t,” another voice begins, a unique softness about his volume and sound, “you’d still be in Paris trying to pick up French girls who had no interest in you.”

“Says the broke, chubby ginger that owns three articles of clothing.”

“Alright, ladies,” another one calls out, “calm down now. Where’s your Christmas spirit?”

“It’s up your arse, Mehta,” Nick replies casually, and the distinguishable sound of a pillow hitting a wall answers back. “You missed.”

“Which is quite a feat in itself, if you think about it,” the soft voice from earlier comes back. “Nicholas’s hair’s gotten so big now, it looks like it could declare itself an independent country. Tell me, did you try to miss it there, Raj?”

“Either that or those fake glasses he’s wearing blocked his vision.” That one’s voice is loud, each abrasive word crashing together like waves on the sea. “Hipster shit.”

“Girls like them, mate,” Raj replies. “They make me look intellectual and dignified. You might benefit from taking a page out of my book.”

“What book is that?” Ocean-Voice inquires. “How To Look Like a Wanker?”

How To Ruin Your Chances of Ever Getting Shagged,” says yet another voice, a thicker and almost denser sound with an accent that sounds ridiculously similar to Zayn’s laced in every word.

“Or,” says Nick, and Louis can almost see the raised pointed finger, “How To Get Shagged, But By Girls Who Are Under the Impression That Sylvia Plath’s Suicide is Somehow Romantic.”

“Pipe down, Mount Evershaw,” says Raj. “You lot are just jealous because I’m the only one in the room with a girlfriend.”

“Remind me again what there is to be envied about that?” asks Jeni, and Gemma lets out a scandalized noise.

“Did it mean nothing to you all that time, Jenison?!” she cries, and everyone laughs. Even Louis has to bite his giggles back as he listens.

“Careful, Em-Gem,” the final voice of the seven injects, “you’ll give your poor brother a heart attack.”

Louis hears Harry’s laugh and his insides squirm. “I’ve already had about four over the course of the past two hours, so yeah, thanks for being considerate.” Louis brings a fingernail up to his mouth and bites down on it as he listens to the boys chatter on from the other side of the wall until Ocean-Voice asks where Harry had been for so long before he’d come in.

“I was over at Louis’s house. It’s his birthday today, so I got him a – ” Harry suddenly stops and the room goes silent. “Oh my god.” Louis listens as Harry’s footsteps go around the couch and corner until he’s face-to-face with the younger boy. He has a rather amused sparkle in his eyes.

“What are you doing back here?” he asks, and Louis shrugs.

“Listening.”

“Come on.” Harry pushes a quick thumbs-up into Louis’s cheek, grabs him by the wrist, and brings him into the cozy living room that’s currently housing more people on its couches and pillows than would probably be considered safe by a fire marshal, especially taking the large, blinking Christmas tree, nearly blinding with all of its lights, sitting in the corner into consideration. He pulls Louis to a stop when they get to the centre of the space and Harry presents him with a flourish. “Louis Tomlinson, everyone.”

“You having fun back there, Louis?” asks the one that Louis now knows to be Nick. The soft-voiced one and Raj hadn’t been wrong when they’d implied that his hair was big. It’s wavy and thick, like Harry’s, but darker, closer to black, and pushed up into a quiff that seems messy but put together at the same time. He has long and lanky legs that look even longer with the tight black skinny jeans he wears, more hazardous looking and trip-over worthy than even Harry’s are promising to be some day.

“He’s just a bit shy, aren’t you, Tomlinson?” asks Raj, looking up at him from the arm of the couch he’s lounging across, big, deep brown eyes practically oozing friendliness from behind two thick pieces of glass. He wears a baby blue patterned shirt, one that Louis can see is at least two sizes too big to fit properly on his shoulders, with a crudely sewn yellow pocket at the front breast. “We don’t bite, honestly.”

“Unless you’re into that sort of thing,” Nick says quickly, and when Louis glances over at him, he snaps his teeth with a grin. Louis pulls himself closer into Harry’s side.

“Oi, leave him alone,” says the boy that’s sitting under Nick’s arm, the same one that had spoken the last out of them all earlier. He’s black and skinny, hair shaved down close to his head. He wears large diamond studs in his ears and an oversized Christmas jumper that has a leaping reindeer on it. “You’ll scare him off.” He turns back to Louis and extends a hand out from his place on the settee. Louis steps up and takes it immediately, noting the tight squeeze the older boy gives as they shake.

“Finn Collier,” the boy introduces himself before gesturing to his friend at his side, “and this arsehole here, in case you didn’t hear earlier, is Nick.”

“Nice to meet you,” Louis says, and he turns when he feels a small tap on his shoulder. Behind him stands the ginger one that Jeni had been poking fun at, holding out his own hand to be shaken. He’s dressed as warmly as Finn, a faded and loose hoodie practically hanging off of his body, with shaggy orange hair and the scraggly beginnings of a beard on his chin.

“Ed,” the boy says with a smile as soft as his voice when Louis takes his hand. “It’s good to officially meet the one who’s been taking care of our Harry. And happy birthday, by the way.”

“Thanks, it’s good to meet you, too,” Louis returns. “It’s nice finally putting faces to names.”

Louis then makes his rounds with Harry’s hand on his shoulder, going around the living room and finding out everyone else’s names. Raj Mehta remembers him from years ago in drama, so a reintroduction isn’t needed. Dylan O’Callaghan is the one who has the accent similar to Zayn and looks like he’s barely just rolled out of bed, and he is, according to Harry, the most shy and reserved of them all. Jenison Adler, or Jeni, as he’s referred to any time that he isn’t being made fun of by his friends, beams up at Louis from his five foot stature, but the sixth former quickly finds out that what he lacks in height, he makes up for in personality and volume. Ocean-Voice turns out to be Raymond Day, who’s usually just referred to as Ray, and Louis is absolutely amazed at how much he looks like a young Prince William.

“So Tomlinson, what is it that you’re doing next year?” Ray asks Louis after about an hour of the boys catching up, a mug of hot tea that Harry had refreshed for him a few minutes before in hand. “You’re finished this year, right?”

“Yeah, I am,” Louis answers from his place on the floor, several plush pillows under and behind him. “I’m doing theatre arts and production.” Harry’s arm is around his middle, keeping him as close as they both dare to allow, and he keeps up a constant calming series of circles rubbed into the older boy’s hip. Any hesitancy or reservations Louis had held before have pretty much melted away at this point, and Louis supposes he probably has Harry to thank for that.

“Raj wanted to do theatre, didn’t you?” Dylan says quietly, pushing his long, tangled brown hair behind his ear as he speaks from his place in Robin’s armchair. Raj hums at that, leaning back on the stuffed arm of the couch where he sits.

“I planned on doing it, like, it was my life plan until I stepped foot on campus.” Raj shakes his head at the memory. “I swear to God, it was literally move-in day, and all of a sudden, it was like, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ I thought my life was falling apart before my bloody eyes.”

“That happened to my flatmate,” Gemma says sympathetically from the couch behind Louis and Harry. She’s squeezed in between Ed and Jeni, a fuzzy crocheted blanket in her lap and her folded hands on top. “She’d planned on becoming a doctor, but she hadn’t realized that she couldn’t deal with other people’s blood until it was too late.”

“How does that even happen, though?” Nick asks incredulously, and Gemma just shrugs. “You have to be fairly dim to not realize that sort of thing when you’re going to be dedicating your whole life to it.”

Gemma shrugs again. “She’s apparently doing really well with lab research now.”

“Well, all that’s not going to happen with Louis,” Harry says with a firmness in his voice. “He’s brilliant, and I think he’s gonna be famous one day.”

“Lucky you,” Nick says from the opposite settee with a serene look on his face. “You’re going to have so many famous friends that you won’t have any idea as to what to do with yourself. You’ll never have want of anything.” Everyone else in the room chuckles, but Louis just feels like he’s missing out on some sort of inside joke.

“Sorry,” Louis asks the room slowly, “but what’s he talking about?”

“Nick’s under the impression that he’s going to be a BBC Radio One DJ one day,” Jeni replies, lightly tapping at Louis’s side with his toe.

“It’s the dream,” Nick says with a smile, “and one day, I’ll be living it.”

“He will. He’s a brilliant DJ, good voice for it. I’ve listened to him. And Ed’s going to be famous, too,” Harry says, looking up and over his shoulder to his ginger friend with a glimmer in his eye. “He’s gonna play stadiums someday, have his name up in lights.”

“If he can ever get out of the pubs, that is,” Jeni teases, a lip between his teeth. “More than likely, he’ll probably be a broke singer-song-writer crawling around dive bars till death.” Gemma elbows him hard in the side.

“Harry has more faith in us than we do ourselves,” Ed explains to Louis, electing to ignore his best friend beside him. “It’s half the reason we keep him around, innit? He’s just a big ego inflator in human form.” Louis listens as Harry just about purrs like a cat while Ed runs a hand through the younger boy’s hair and makes a point to run his thumbnail on the sensitive skin just behind his friend’s ear. It’s clearly something Harry enjoys very much. Louis stores that knowledge away for future use.

“He told me two weeks ago that he thinks that I could do West-End,” Louis says after he’s torn his gaze away from Harry’s blissed-out expression, “so I know what you all are talking about.”

“From what I hear, you’re big in the department as it is,” Raj says with a smile. “That Championship Season is fairly daunting, but it sounds like you’re handling it well.”

“That probably has something to do with Harry making me sound good, and it’s more like trying to handle it,” Louis elucidates, glancing shortly at the boy on his right. “Harry helps me out with a lot… most things, really. I’d probably have quit in a fiery rage by now if it weren’t for him.”

“Are you going to do the spring one as well, or are you leaving it to the lower sixths?”

“Depends on what we do,” Louis replies honestly. “Like, even though theatre’s my bloody passion and calling, I’ve been wondering if it would just be too much with A-levels and revision and all that, but I think that if the play was good enough, then it would probably sway my decision.”

“So you don’t know which one you’re doing yet?”

“No, not yet. Hasn’t been decided.”

“Do you know what you should propose?” Raj asks with a glint in his eyes. Louis doesn’t. “Twelve Angry Men. I tried to convince Winston to let us do it all three years I was in drama, but he’d always picked the play out in the fall before.” Raj leans forward again as he speaks. “If you got him to do Twelve Angry Men, I’d miss classes to come see it. Hell, I might even take the semester off to help out.”

“You’ll certainly get more out of it than you will a degree in sociology,” Finn says, and he dodges the punch that Raj tries to neatly deliver to the back of his neck.

“It’s incredible how you lot think you’re funny,” Raj grumbles as he sinks back into his place next to Nick. “Truly mind-blowing.”

“I don’t mean to change the subject so drastically,” Jeni says abruptly, and Louis looks up and behind him as the boy speaks, “but is anyone else hungry?”

“Well, there’s a shock, everyone,” Nick teases. “Jenison here is hungry.”

“How about you shut your mouth, Grimshaw? I’ve been living in near poverty for the last few months, practically begging for overpriced meals in the streets. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t poke fun at me for wanting decent eats while I’m here.”

“Your fault for doing that exchange program of yours. Who the hell goes to France to study English?”

“It’s different studying English in a foreign country.”

“How so?” Louis asks with a grin on his face, and he feels Harry squeeze his hip.

Vas te faire encule, that’s how,” Jeni snaps halfheartedly, giving Louis’s side a second light kick. “But seriously, I’m really fucking hungry. I don’t think I’ve eaten since yesterday before I came home, so someone better tell me what we’re getting before I decide to walk to McDonalds in the snow.”

“In that case,” Harry says, “it was really good seeing you again, Jeni, and if I don’t see you before you leave, safe travels back to Paris.” Jeni flicks his ear, and Harry jerks halfway into Louis’s lap. Louis puts a protective hand over the younger boy’s head to defend against a secondary assault if Jeni is planning one.

“I could go for a curry if anyone was interested,” Ray offers from his pillow. “I’m getting a bit peckish, too.”

“An Indian sounds good,” Gemma says, stretching out her arms above her head. “I haven’t had one in weeks.”

“I feel like an Indian, too,” Finn muses from his place under Nick’s arm. Louis feels Harry stir at his side and pull his head up from the crouched position Jeni had pushed him into.

“Do you?” Harry giggles from his place beside Louis. “Because you don’t look like one.”

The whole room groans.

“That was good and you all know it,” Harry cries foul, crossing his arms in a huff. Louis takes it upon himself to nuzzle his nose into Harry’s cheek, putting his arms around his shoulder to pull him in tight.

“I thought it was funny, love.”

“Thank you. Nice to know I have someone on my side.”

“I’m always on your side,” Louis smiles, and he holds a thumbs-up to Harry. It is, of course, returned in a split second, and as he presses his own thumb into Louis’s, Harry catches the older boy’s eye and holds it, a familiar look overtaking them. Harry’s kind of like Velcro, if Louis thinks about it, because any time that he traps the younger boy’s gaze, it’s like he then has to rip himself away, almost painfully sometimes. Instances such as this moment are no different. Louis feels himself melting like wax from the inside out, and damn it all, he wants to kiss Harry so badly.

The sound of someone clearing their throat snaps the two of them back into reality.

“Do you lads need a minute alone or summat?” Jeni asks teasingly, and Louis feels his cheeks go up in flames. “Because if you do, we can leave.”

“Either that or we can bring them a bucket of ice water to pour over themselves,” Ed joins in, poking a finger at the back of Harry and Louis’s heads each. “I think this room went up a couple of degrees in a matter of seconds.”

“Nah, but come off it, you lot,” Raj brushes them off and brings the conversation back to food, which Louis is incredibly thankful for. “If I wanted an Indian, I could go home. Tell you what I want – ”

“What you really, really want?” Gemma asks from her place on the couch, not missing a beat. Ed high-fives her.

“Don’t you dare start that, Em-Gem, or we’ll never hear the end of it from Nick over here.” Raj leans forward on his knees and puts his chin in his hand. “No, you know what I propose we have for dinner?” He pauses for a moment, looking around the room with a growing smile on his lips. “I think I’d like the Harry Styles Special.”

The ‘Harry Styles Special’ is, according to half the boys in the room, God’s gift to humanity, and that day, Louis gets to experience it first-hand. It isn’t a single specific dish, but rather whatever Harry can scrape together with what he’s given. He’s supposedly that good.

Harry had been literally pushed from the floor and up the stairs by his friends, all in unanimous agreement that Harry cooking for them was the only course of action appropriate for today, so that he could fetch his “dinner lady outfit.” Louis is quick to find that it’s far from such an ensemble, as he’s come back down three minutes later in tight jeans, a black, short-sleeved V-neck, and a grey woven beanie that pushes his hair off of his forehead and out of his eyes. This sort of thing is apparently the only thing Harry will ever cook in, as it keeps hair out of his face, sleeves out of reach of sauce or flame, and any stains that come from the prepared food from showing on his clothes.

Louis is salivating before the food has even begun being prepared.

“He’s got God-given talent, absolutely brilliant,” Finn says to him as they all sit together at the small kitchen table and observe as Harry chops up various ingredients with unprecedented speed. “You have to watch him.”

“Or you could stand behind the wall and just listen to him,” says Ray. Louis gives him the finger, much to the apparent joy of everyone else in the kitchen.

Harry enlists Dylan’s help, him being the second most experienced of the lot, and as they begin boiling water for the noodles that Harry’s making, it’s explained to Louis that that was how they’d all eventually met and gotten close; cooking classes.

“We all thought he was mad when he told us he was taking cooking, one of those experimental courses that they had at the school that year,” Ed says of Dylan from the counter where he sits as they all watch on from the sidelines. “Took the piss out of him daily for it. He liked it, though. Made new stuff for us every weekend, until this one day. We all come into his house per usual, walk into the kitchen, and we see that he’s got this chubby-cheeked year nine trailing after him everywhere he goes, like a duckling that thought he was his mum.”

“He came up to us,” Nick takes over, smiling affectionately at the boy who is currently flash-sautéing shredded veg on the hob, “and he introduced himself as ‘Harry Edward Styles,’ didn’t he?” He laughs, slowing his voice and pitch down to match Harry’s. “‘Hi, I’m Harry Edward Styles. I’m a year nine, I’m new this year.’” His voice then returns back to normal, a fondness about it. “I’ve never been so completely sold on another human being as quickly as I was with him.”

We’ve never been so sold,” Finn asserts, regaining his place under Nick’s arm as he speaks, and Louis could swear then and there that he sees Nick press a quick kiss to the back of his head. Feeling like he’s almost intruding on something, he glances down as Finn continues. “We were all gone for him, weren’t we?”

“It’s the Harry Styles effect,” Raj says as he nudges Louis in the side. “You meet him on day one, get to know him, and then you’re caught off guard when you realize that it’s like he’s supposed to have been there all along.” Louis certainly has an idea of what that’s like. He goes quiet after that, and even though he feels curious eyes on his back the whole time, he never stops watching Harry work.

Ten minutes later, they’ve all regained their places in the living room sans Gemma, who’s taken hers upstairs to her room so that she can flick between her soaps without being disturbed. In the end, Harry had produced a sort of stir-fry with various vegetables, egg, fried bacon, basil, and to Louis’s surprise, cheese. It shouldn’t work, but much to his utter astonishment, it does… Holy mother of fuck, does it ever work.

“Alright,” Harry announces loudly after everyone has settled and at least gotten a taste of it, “what’s everyone think of this one?”

“Same as fucking always,” Ed begins behind him, giving Harry a light tap on the head with the handle of his fork with every word, “bloody fucking delicious.”

“If I were sexually attracted to food,” Finn declares, “I would have brought this upstairs to your room and started fucking it by now.”

Ray scoffs from his place on the floor, twirling the noodles and staring at them with his head in his hand like they were hand-delivered by the gods themselves. “I’m not even sexually attracted to food and I’m still considering bringing it upstairs and fucking it.”

“What a horrible waste of culinary art,” says Raj, who speaks with a mouth and a half full. One of the golden coloured noodles is hanging halfway out, but Louis can’t blame him, or any of them, for shoveling it in at the rate that they are.

 

“He’s right, Harry,” Louis says, swallowing his own mouthful as quickly as he can manage without choking, “this is bloody orgasmic. I had no idea you could cook.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me yet. For example; did you know,” Harry says pointedly with his fork, “that I’ve met David Beckham.”

Louis’s heart jumps. “Shut up. You did not.”

“I did.” Harry places his fork on the side of the plate and adjusts the beanie he still wears.

“I was driving home with my dad from some place, can’t remember where, but we needed petrol, and I was halfway asleep in the back. I was only eight at the time, but he wakes me up when we pull into the station and hands me a ten pound note. He tells me, ‘H, go inside and get us a drink,’ so I get out of the car, get into the place, pick up a bottle of water, get up to the register, and who else would be standing there but David Beckham.”

“Did you freak out?” Louis asks, putting his plate aside on the floor so he can fully turn to Harry. “I would have gone mental.”

“I didn’t really have a chance. He was arguing with the cashier that probably spoke three words of English because his cards didn’t work for some reason. He was trying to buy a six-pack of beer and crisps, but his cards weren’t working on the machine, and he didn’t have any cash on him, I guess because he’s David bloody-fucking Beckham and doesn’t carry notes on him. I watch for a little while, listening to them go back and forth, but my dad’s waiting outside, so I put the water on the counter, tug on Beckham’s shirt, and hand him the tenner.”

“And what the hell did you tell him, H?” asks Raj, and Louis barely gives enough of a glance to see that everyone in the room’s eyes are on Harry as he speaks animatedly, like they’ve all heard this story a thousand times but would never forgo hearing it again if you paid them.

“I told him, ‘my dad’s waiting outside. I can pay for it,’ and he let me. So I basically bought David Beckham a beer.”

“You are lying out of your teeth,” says Louis with wide eyes, and Harry just grins back at him.

“I’m not. Here’s the thing, though. He asks me where my dad is, and I grab his hand to bring him out to where he’s just kind of leaning against the car. My dad looks up to see me and David Beckham holding hands and walking up to him like it’s something out of a dream, and he nearly has a stroke standing there.”

“I should think so.”

“I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. I then hear him ask my dad for our mailing address, and of course he gives it to him, and then Beckham says, ‘you’ve done well with that one. He was the most polite lad I’ve ever met,’ and then he drives off, never to be seen by me again.”

“And?” Louis prompts after a suspenseful moment that he knows Harry put in there on purpose. “What did he want with your address?”

“Two weeks later, I come home from school with a letter on the kitchen counter, and it’s addressed as ‘I O U.’ My dad had already opened it, of course, but he left it for me to look at, and he watched me open it for myself. Inside, there was a card, like, one of those cards that you’re supposed to collect and trade at school and stuff, signed with Beckham’s autograph in silver pen along with fifty quid.” Harry leans back.

“My dad pulled me aside that day, and kind of gave me a life lesson with it. He told me that doing things for other people, looking after other people before yourself is one of the most important things you can do. Selflessness, he said, is something that should always be in the front of my mind, because you’ll be rewarded in some way for it sooner or later. It’s stuck with me all my life.” He sighs, resting his head on the couch behind him. “He kind of shaped me into the person I am today.”

“That’s incredible, Harry. Like, that’s proper amazing.”

“My dad didn’t shut up about it for weeks… obviously, I still haven’t.” Harry looks back down to his plate and scrapes his fork against it. “It’s one of the last memories I have of him, actually.”

“What do you mean?”

“He died just over a month after that – Cancer took him.”

The statement is astoundingly casual, but the words still pack enough of a punch to knock Louis winded. He has, of course, wondered when and how Robin came into the picture, but has never asked about it. He’s glad he hadn’t now, because there’s something very important about this moment, even if he isn’t sure of what it is yet. Harry looks back up to him with a small smile and Louis feels his tongue tying up in a knot.

“I don’t… I didn’t know that.”

“Well, it’s not exactly something that you tell people when you introduce yourself, is it?” Harry laughs as he twirls his utensil around on his plate, disturbing the noodles resting there. “‘Hi, I’m Harry. Would you like to hear about my childhood trauma caused by a parental death?’ isn’t really the way to make friends, in my experience.”

“That’s why we started talking, though, do you remember?” Dylan interjects from his chair. “That was the year mum died in Afghanistan, and you’d heard about it and come up to me in class to tell me that you knew how I felt.” He shakes his hair out to the side as he plays around with some shredded carrot on his plate, and for the first time that night, he looks right towards Louis as he speaks. “Everyone else had sort of pretended that it hadn’t happened or just gave me sympathy, except him. It’s like he kind of knew I needed to talk about it to someone who really understood what it’s like.”

“So if you think about it,” Ed says softly to Harry, and Louis immediately catches the gentleness he has about his gaze, “your dad brought us all together.” Harry smiles up at him.

“I have thought about that, actually. One of the few good things that came of it.” Harry’s got the family look in his eyes as he looks up at Ed, the happy, glittery ones that makes Louis’s heart swell every time they make an appearance. Then, and only then, does Louis actually realise how important the people in this room are to him. These people are family to him, the most important people in the word, just as thick as blood. Louis wants to hold him and kiss him and never let go.

“I have to say, H,” Louis says, not bothering to cover up the note of admiration that’s glaringly apparent in his voice, “you’re even more incredible than I originally gave you credit for.”

“Here’s to me then,” Harry smiles at him and gave a thumbs-up, which Louis doesn’t hesitate to press his own against.

“So is that a thing you two do, then?” Nick interrupts, and the two boys look over at him as they bring their hands back down to their laps. “I’ve seen you do it, like, two or three times in the past hour.”

“It’s like a little ‘I love you’ thing, isn’t it?” Raj guesses, and Louis feels his stomach lurch. Thankfully, no one really notices except Harry, who only pushes another one into his shoulder to ease him. Nick puts his plate on the arm of the couch and shrugs.

“In that case…” Nick grins slyly and swiftly pushes a big thumbs-up into Finn’s cheek. Finn returns one into Nick’s, and eager to join in, Raj puts his plate aside as well and pushes a thumbs-up into Nick and Finn’s cheeks each. Louis watches the cluster amusedly from the side for a while until he hears Harry clear his throat.

“It’s our thing, if you don’t mind, Nicolas,” Harry stops the three boys as they all repeatedly push their thumbs into each other’s cheeks and foreheads. “You know I love you all dearly, but…” He gestures between he and Louis, and the older boy feels a blush creeping up his neck. “It’s our thing.”

“Hear that, Grimmy?” asks Ray. “You’re not loved enough. You’re not Harry’s first favourite anymore!” Nick grumbles, retracting his thumbs-ups, picking his fork back up, and stabbing at his plate of noodles with a sour expression on his face.

“I’m everyone’s first favourite.”

“You’re not my first favourite,” cracks Jeni with a smirk, and Nick throws daggers.

“I’d rather cut off my own dick than be your first anything, Jenison.”

“First to be saved from a burning building by me?”

“Here’s a bit of French from me to you; brûle en enfer.”

Louis and Harry watch for a while as all the boys in the room insert themselves into the conversation, but eventually, Harry puts his chin on Louis shoulder and begins whispering to him. Louis leans into the younger boy as well, clasping his fingers tightly together with Harry’s and pushing them down between their legs so that they can’t be seen by the others.

“I’ll show that autographed card to you some time,” Harry says quietly, running light fingers over Louis’s thigh. “And he’s buried quite far away, over where we used to live before we moved here, but I think I’ll bring you to meet my dad when it gets a bit warmer… if you want to, that is.” The younger boy shrugs. “I think he’d like you.”

“Sounds good,” Louis nods, keeping his voice strong despite the tight lump that’s forming in his throat. “I’d like that a lot.”

“What on earth are you all doing eating food on my couches?!” a shrill voice cries out from behind them, and all of the boys in the room freeze as Anne hastily approaches them, decked out in a beautiful red dress and high heels.

“How goes it, Ms. T?” Nick asks with a tentative and hopeful smile. “Happy Christmas to you. You look lovely, have you lost weight?”

“Oh Nick,” Harry’s mum says with her head tilted to the side, “flattery will get you everywhere so long as you’re not eating in my living room, but as you can see…” She trails off, and before anyone has the chance to realise what’s happening, she grabs a pillow off of the small couch three of the boys sit on and smacks Nick over the head with it.

“You’ve been gone for a while,” she says as everyone scrambles to pick up their dishes and retreat to the kitchen, “but you all haven’t been gone long enough to forget the rules of this household.”

The boys make their way to their respective places in the dining area and kitchen to eat, and Louis only realises that he hadn’t let go of Harry’s hand until they’re sitting down at the kitchen table and picking their forks back up again. He also realises with a little more than a touch of self-satisfaction that Harry is still wearing the maroon and white bracelet around his wrist that Louis had given to him earlier that day.

~

“Just be mindful that we’ve got to get back to the house on time. Your nan’s going to call at two, and I want you both to be there to wish her a happy Christmas.” Anne clicks her tongue from where she sits in the front passenger’s seat. “Unbelievable she’s still going to mass tonight. She’s ever so poorly with the flu, and I’d hate for you to miss her since she can’t come to ours this year.”

“Yes, mum,” Harry and Gemma chorus from the backseat.

“And Harry, I know all your friends are back, but please don’t linger around. You’ll have time to spend with them on New Year’s. I have no doubt they have some parties they plan on taking you to while they’re here.”

“Okay.”

“And no sneaking out afterwards, alright? We’ve got to go to bed and get up early tomorrow to go visit your dad. It’s supposed to start snowing again around one or so, and I’ve rather not be driving in that.”

Okay, mum. Can I get out, now?”

“Sure.”

Harry nearly falls out of the car in his haste to get inside of the church. The snow has thankfully held itself off since that morning, because although Harry loves snow with all of his heart, there’s just so much of it already. It’s starting to hurt his eyes to look at it all the time, and he’s grateful to have something so lovely to look at instead. Ahead of Harry and the parking lot he’s currently trudging through, the chapel’s tall, stained-glass windows shine brightly through the pitch black night, throwing blood red, deep blue, and warm yellow-orange over everyone who passes by on the way to the front doors. It’s stood there in its humble, wooden splendor since the tiny district they live in had been formally established, and its quiet beauty is almost enough to make one forget the cold in his fingers and toes.

He walks in through the doors and into the small reception area they have, the warmth of the various fires and heating units blasting onto everyone around. All are hanging up coats and scarves and hats on the many provided worn brass hangers up on the wall, and Harry does the same with his own, carefully stuffing his beanie and Louis’s scarf into the armhole on the inside. The suit and tie Harry is wearing is already stifling. He loosens it with two stiff fingers.

A firm hand claps him on the shoulder, and he turns to face none other than Zayn, smiling at him like he’s never been so excited to see another human being in his life. He’s dressed to the nines like he’s preparing to walk a red carpet, fitted suit and his usual plain black studs in his ears traded in for diamonds, and Harry wonders with an amused smile if there’s another person in attendance that’s as pleased to be there as Zayn is.

“Evening, Styles,” he grins. “Happy Christmas to you.” Harry, ever the affectionate one, has to pull him in for a tight hug. He’s thankful Zayn’s getting better with physical touches than he had been earlier that year when they’d first met, but then again, they have sort of snogged. If that doesn’t break down all remaining barriers, Harry doesn’t want to know what will.

“Hello, mate. Good hols, so far?”

Zayn settles under one of Harry’s arms. “So far, yeah, but fairly uneventful for the most part. Niall’s inside with his family and mine. Lou here yet?”

“Not yet, but getting the entire Tomlinson family from one place to another is no small feat.”

“Never has a truer statement been uttered.” Zayn gestures towards the entrance with a tilt of his head. “You want to go in yet?” Harry shakes his head to politely decline.

“My family’s just coming in now, and I have some other friends, older ones of mine that I was hoping to run into before I did.”

“Yeah?” Zayn asks with genuine curiosity. “Like who?”

“Like us, Malik.” Both Harry and Zayn turn and see Dylan approaching with Nick and Raj at his side. He too is dressed well, borderline extravagantly, but that probably has something to do with his dad’s girlfriend having control of the dress code tonight. If it were up to Dylan, Harry knows, he’d never change out of his pajamas. In fact, the choice outfit is the most common for anyone to see him in. Beside him, Nick has gone for more casual with no tie, while Raj looks rather out of place among the sea of black with his bright magenta-coloured button down, khakis, and thickly framed glasses. As per usual, then.

“Oh, mate,” Zayn exclaims as he looks Dylan up and down, another bright smile that resembles recognition taking over his dark features, “I thought I was done seeing your sorry arse around ages ago.”

“Sad to disappoint,” Dylan returns with a smile, and the two boys shake hands while the others look on. It’s like a family reunion before their very eyes. Harry’s utterly confused.

“You two know each other?”

“We lived in Bradford together for years before he moved here, actually,” Zayn is the one to begin the explanation. “He lived up the street from us. Our mums were, like, best friends or whatever.”

Or whatever.” Dylan takes a step back from Zayn’s side, and Harry wonders if it’s because he isn’t on those kinds of physical terms with Zayn. Perhaps physical affection is something the younger of the two only permits from Harry, Niall, and Louis. Harry’s heart swells a little at the thought. “His mum took care of us whenever mine went overseas for deployment and stuff. Second family, innit?”

“Yeah, except he liked to be a complete twat to me every chance he got,” Zayn addresses the small crowd. “He once convinces me to play hide-and-go-seek, against my better judgment, right? And then as soon as I start counting, he just goes home. I looked for three hours and then went to his house crying to his dad in a panic because I thought I’d lost him for good.”

“Proper big brother, then,” Nick offers from the side, and Dylan nods. Harry, remembering that Zayn is still a stranger to some, quickly takes it upon himself to introduce him to Nick and Raj, telling them that Zayn is one of his closest and most important friends he’d made this year. He thinks he sees Zayn blush.

“All right, I better get inside now before my parents have an aneurysm each,” Raj says after it’s felt that everyone has been sufficiently caught up. “They’ve been really weird since I’ve got back.”

“Mine have been too, actually,” Nick muses as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other, “especially my mum. I think she’s just a little too glad to have me back home.”

“I hope Finn’s mum isn’t being weird, too. That would simultaneously be shamefully pathetic and comedic gold if she didn’t let Ed in.”

“I still can’t believe he pulled that,” Harry groans, remembering his downright shock at Ed’s request earlier that day in his living roof to go home with Finn to Sheffield. Finn’s jaw had nearly fallen to the floor when he’d realised Ed wasn’t kidding. “He acts as though he doesn’t have a bloody house and family for himself. Why he assumed that spontaneously spending Christmas at the Collier’s was a good plan, I’ll never truly know.”

“We’re all family, though,” Nick muses, running his fingers across Harry’s jacket before singsonging shortly to a tune that Harry has never heard, “and we are the same blood, all of us, we are, we are. You know that. Uni changes a lot of things, but the force is strong with our lot. We survive.”

“Did you just make an indie-pop-punk song reference and a nerd-culture reference in the same sentence, Grimshaw?” comes another voice from towards the doorway, and Harry turns back with a bright smile of recognition. “Impressive.”

“I’ve been known to have an inventory of such references, Tomlinson,” Nick returns, “but technically, that was two sentences… Or three. I wasn’t really counting.” Harry drags his eyes over and across the body that stands in the arched entryway of the church.

Louis wears a long, black coat that’s been sprinkled with white specks from stray falling flakes outside. His cheeks are dusted pink with cold, and he rubs his gloved hands together in the doorway to warm them. His eyes sparkle like the hundreds of gold and silver ornaments that are currently tacked to the ceiling and hanging by ribbons, and around his neck, Harry sees as his own eyes flicker downwards, he’s wearing the green scarf that Harry had given to him earlier that day, tucked warmly into the lapels of his winter kit. Harry no longer resents the fact that the store had been all out of the colour he’d wanted, because green looks… good. He kind of wants to tear the scarf off and kiss the skin underneath until his lips bruise.

“Alright there, Harry?” Louis asks from across the room, barely loud enough to be heard over the bustle of those around him. Harry isn’t able to answer because the twins come bursting through the door, elbowing their older brother to the side.

“Harry!” they cry in unison, and Harry kneels and opens his arms to receive them.

“Come here, you two,” he says as Phoebe and Daisy run towards him, groaning as he picks them up and pulls them into his chest to give them a squeeze. “My favourite girls in the world!... Don’t tell Gemma.” Phoebe leans up and cups her hand to Harry’s ear.

“You’re my favourite boy, but don’t tell Louis, please!”

“Your secret’s safe with me.” Harry places them gently back on the ground and glances back up to the aforementioned brother, and he’s swiftly taken completely aback by the look on Louis’s face. It’s almost motherly, filled to the brim with an intense kind of admiration and affection that Harry has never seen on the older boy’s face before. If Harry hadn’t wanted to kiss him before, he undoubtedly does now, if only to know with certainty that he’s the reason for that look.

He holds up a thumbs-up. Louis returns it with a smile.

Unlike the previous years, Christmas mass seems to pass in the blink of an eye, the three-and-a-half hour-long service boiling down to nothing. At times, Harry glances around the room to have his eyes fall upon Louis, and they’ll be stuck there until someone or something rouses him from his trance, only for him to realize that ten minutes has passed. This happens so many times that Harry has lost count by the end of the night, and Louis has actually picked up on it. He’ll purposefully hold Harry’s gaze and bite his lips, smile, giggle, or pretend to blush, just to get a rise out of the younger boy. It’s turned into somewhat of a game by the time 1:30 finally rolls around, something others are apparently picking up on as well.

Once when Harry had turned to find Louis’s eyes again, probably around 11:30 or so, he had mistakenly caught someone else’s. Zayn looked sort of intrigued at first, but as his eyes pinged back between he and Louis, Zayn had gained more of an amused expression. Harry understood immediately, even without his friend indicating so, that he knew. His suspicions were confirmed when Zayn, sat with his three sisters and mother, began wiggling his eyebrows, flicking his eyes between he and Louis and smiling with his bottom lip between his teeth.

Have you?” Zayn mouthed from across the aisle, jerking his head back to where Louis sat with his family. Harry only gave a single nod, and Zayn was pumping his fist wildly in his seat like he’d won the national lottery. The younger boy got many angry stares from the elderly around him when he’d accidentally laughed aloud. He dared to steal a glance back at Louis after everyone had settled back down, and he was pleased to see that Louis was looking at him too, biting on his knuckles to contain himself. Harry fiddled around with the bracelet that Louis had given him that morning as he blushed.

The service has barely ended when Louis pops up at Harry’s side amongst a sea of ‘peace be with you’s, and he begins pulling on Harry’s sleeve.

“Come on,” he tugs persistently. “Get your coat and let’s get outside before everyone else starts leaving.”

The vague promise of what the next few minutes are possibly about to hold is enough to send Harry scrambling out into the aisle, barely taking the time to look to see if his mother is watching him or to cross himself as he follows Louis out. It’s only by chance that he runs into Nick again as they’re about to enter the reception area. Mr. and Mrs. Grimshaw are both too busy talking to Ray’s parents to notice Harry, thankfully, or else he may have been stuck there all night playing catch up.

“Happy Christmas, mates, officially now,” Nick drawls before his face scrunches up in confusion as he realises his friends are leaving. Harry tightens the grip on Louis’s hand that he hadn’t even been aware he was holding onto. “Where are you both off to?”

“Short conversation outside before we leave,” Louis lies effortlessly, giving a squeeze back before dropping his hand to shake Nick’s instead, “seeing as it’ll be a little while before we see each other again. But Happy Christmas to you, too. I’m sure we’ll be seeing you around within the next few days.”

The morning air outside is positively frigid, and Harry misses the warmth of the church the moment he steps through the doors and back into the world. The sky is too cloudy and pregnant with the promise of snow to see any stars or the moon tonight, so the only light they receive in the side alley Louis has pulled them into beside the church is that of the light post on the opposite side of the street and what comes through the far-off stained glass windows.

“I thought I was going to go mad in there,” Louis says quietly into the night as the two boys settle against the brick wall, shoulder to shoulder. “Regular mass is fine, but… I always get so bored, you know? Properly shit birthday present.”

“I do know,” Harry replies, and he watches his breath turn into an icy cloud in front of him. “At least they cut it a half hour this year. I think I’d have started eating my own fingers out of boredom by now if they hadn’t.”

“You didn’t seem very bored. In fact, you looked rather enthralled every time I looked at you,” Louis teases, and Harry feels the back of his neck go warm.

“Fine. If it had been the full four hours and you hadn’t been there to keep my eyes interested on something in the room, I’d have eaten my own fingers. Better now?” Harry sticks out his tongue. Louis looks delighted.

“Better. But, uhm…” Louis trails off, glancing out at the sides towards Harry’s peripherals and then back, “we’re not in there now. And you know what that means.”

“No, tell me,” Harry lowers his voice to a whisper, and the older boy grins wickedly as he pushes himself off of the wall at Harry’s left, steps into the space between his legs, and smooths down the lapels of Harry’s coat with both of his hands, all in seemingly one fluid motion. Louis presses his chest into Harry’s and plants a delicate kiss on the corner of his mouth.

“We don’t have to do boring things.” Without another word, Louis finally presses his lips to Harry’s, moving almost unhurriedly like time would stand still for them if only they asked nicely enough. Harry wonders if it can be done, because as far as he’s concerned, he could kiss Louis like this until the end of time itself.

Louis runs his thinly gloved fingers though Harry’s hair and traces light patterns behind his ears with his thumbs. Harry has to consciously push the whine down that almost escapes his lips, but he can’t seem to stop his knees from giving slightly from the touch. Louis seems to catch onto this like he’s expecting it, and he pushes his lips into Harry’s a bit faster, using the sudden weakness as encouragement. Harry holds onto Louis’s hip with one hand and the brick wall behind him with the other to keep himself standing.

Kissing Louis, in fact, is the spectrum opposite of boring for Harry, so he likes it very, very much when Louis begins wordlessly asking for entrance to his mouth with his tongue, permission that’s fervently granted. Harry always feels like he’s learning something every time he kisses Louis, a little shred of the person he likes so very badly being whispered into his mouth, and always feels it appropriate to try to give something back – This is how I feel for you, this is what you do to me. It feels like an electrical connection, an unspoken current that goes back and forth between the two. Not boring at all. Fucking electric.

Louis pulls away laughing, and Harry sees gold sparks behind his eyelids.

“We’ve snogged to the Spice Girls, in a park where children are playing in the snow, while your sister naps in the room across from yours, and now,” he laughs again at the ridiculousness of the list, “against the wall of a church.” Louis pushes a single kiss into the dimple of Harry’s cheek and sighs, settling himself into Harry’s shoulder. “You do terrible things to me, Harry Styles. You’ve made me a terrible person.”

“You’re the best thing I’ve ever known.”

The words come out before Harry even realises their shape or weight. Is that alright for him to say? They’ve only been doing this… this thing for less than a week now, but Harry has known him, adored him for so long. The idea of having to stifle the need to tell Louis exactly how much he means to Harry isn’t fair. It isn’t fair. He bites his lip and glances down at the wet pavement under his feet. Louis doesn’t seem to mind at all, though, and instead brings a hand up to Harry’s cheek to slowly run his thumb across it. It’s ice cold under the thin fabric, but Harry can’t find it inside of himself to care.

“I wish we could just stay like this,” Louis whispers. “It’s so much simpler.”

And it is. The air is cool and sharp, stinging at every inch of exposed skin that Harry has, but it remains warm between the two bodies that are pressed together, only growing warmer with every additional pull Louis gives around Harry’s waist to bring them closer together. The streets are not yet stirring with people and are instead quiet and beautiful, the dark brown cobblestones just barely peeking out from the packed-down layers of snow that fill in the cracks between them. There’s no one to watch them, to make them tense and shove their hands in their pockets for fear of their knuckles accidentally brushing. The night is serene, and having Louis there only completes the tiny puzzle of the night. Simple.

“I know what you mean.”

They stop talking for a while after that, deciding to listen to the sounds of the night and breathe each other in for as long as they can, trying to prolong the moment before it slips through their hands like sand. Harry feels chilled fingers tracing lines through his jacket, and he runs his own over the edges of the soft, green scarf that he is responsible for putting around Louis’s neck. Pride surges through him. Louis looks so perfect tucked into his side, burying his cheeks into Harry’s hair to starve off the cold. He can hear Louis start to softly hum what sounds to be both duet parts of Baby, It’s Cold Outside to himself.

“Thank you for today, by the way,” Louis says once he’s finished. The shrill shriek of a tyre against wet pavement sounds in the distance. “I like your friends.”

“They like you, too.”

“They tell you that?”

“I know them well enough so I don’t have to ask,” he assures, running his hand across Louis’s back. “They like you.” Louis doesn’t bother hiding his smile, bright enough to make up for the stars that aren’t showing tonight. That’s what Louis is, Harry decides as he gets on his toes and presses a quick kiss to the older boy’s lips. He’s a star, maybe even the sun. Fuck, he’s a galaxy all his own.

“Okay, I’d better stop before I can no longer make myself,” Louis mumbles against Harry’s mouth after the quick kiss has turned into something that isn’t so fast. “Mum said we’re leaving a bit early to beat everyone else out of the lot.”

Harry rests his forehead on Louis’s cheek. “Mine said something similar.”

“I’d better go then. I’ll text you.” With much effort, Harry lets go of the boy in his arms. Louis wraps his own around his middle to shut out the cold air that has rapidly replaced the warmth and starts to walk back to where they’d come from, turning on his heel just as he reaches the corner of the brick wall.

“Happy Christmas, love,” Louis whispers quietly, burying his chin in his scarf and looking from around the side of the wall. His eyes glitter – fucking glitter – in the minuscule lighting as he looks back to Harry, and even from far away, Harry knows that there are tiny creases that are forming in the corners of his eyes.

“Happy Birthday, Lou.”

Harry stands in silence for what feels like hours where Louis has left him, doing nothing and trying to do nothing but soak in the feeling that he’s left with in Louis’s wake. Wind whistles calmly across the roofs of the surrounding buildings, whispering across Harry’s cheeks but somehow not chilling them. He trails light fingers over his lips, trying to get a last feel of the boy who has disappeared.

“You know,” a voice comes from around the bend of the brick, and Harry nearly jumps out of his skin when he instantly realises who it is, “the last time I checked, ‘conversations’ don’t involve kissing the person you’re talking to.” Harry quickly rounds the corner and sees Nick standing there, arms crossed to keep out the cold, and Ray beside him. “Then again, what do I know? I’m not really hip to the kids these days.”

“You are getting old, mate,” Ray replies to his friend. “Are those wrinkles I spy?”

Nick rolls his eyes. “Suck my dick, Day.”

“That’s not really my job, is it?”

“What are you two doing out here?” Harry hisses, glancing around to see if anyone else is about. There isn’t, but his friends both have awful smirks on their face that makes something in Harry want to scream.

“Following you, spying on you. Obviously,” Nick says in the cool, suave voice he always speaks in. “We needed to confirm our suspicions.”

“And what suspicions might those have been?”

“That you and Louis are in love,” Ray swoons comically, batting heart eyes while Nick laughs raucously at his side. Harry hears nothing but white noise.

He feels sick because, oh god, this is it, isn’t it? He’s probably about to bite brick. They’re about to kick the living shit out of him, either physically or emotionally, and leave him to lick his wounds. He isn’t sure which of the two options is worse, but he knows that he wasn’t ready to lose them all so quickly, not when he’d just gotten them back. At the same time, this isn’t going to be something he’ll take lying down. He refuses, because even if he loves the two boys standing in front of him more than he loves life itself, he’ll fight if he needs to, if not for him, for Louis.

“Sweetheart, love, what’s wrong?” he hears Nick ask. Harry feels a hand on his shoulder and tears beginning to sting. “Hey, it’s okay, we were just messing abo – ”

“Don’t,” Harry hisses, rubbing the water in his eyes away with chilled fingers and pushing himself as far away from the two older boys in front of him as he can. “Don’t you dare play this game with me. If you’re going to say it, say it and leave me alone. I’ll be fine w-with-without you all.” His stuttering voice has given him away. Harry wants to die. That would at least be merciful.

“H, what are you talking about?” That’s apparently all it takes to push him far enough, because Harry is now seething.

“I’m bi, is that what you wanted to hear?!” Harry all but shrieks, his voice cracking in all the wrong places. He actually can’t help it, and he watches as Ray and Nick both visibly wince and wave their hands, as if trying to quiet him. He ignores them. Fuck them if they thought he’d just take it. “I’m bisexual, yeah. There it is, but you know what? I don’t n-need shit from you, because I’ll be getting-ing enough of it as it is when word gets out, so if you both could just leave me the fuck alo – ”

“For Christ’s sake Harry,” Nick finally spits, “shut up before someone hears you. We’re not here to burn you at the stake. Hell, you’d think that I of all people could be a little sympathetic.”

“What are you on about?” Harry bites ferociously, and Nick shrinks back.

“Oh my God, Harry, I’m gay.” The impact of Nick’s words take ages to sink in through the thick skin Harry had prepared for himself in this moment of emergency, but when they do, his world feels like it has been turned on its head.

“You… you are?”

“Yeah,” Nick nods, putting a hand on Harry’s shoulder to bring him back to his side, “gay as a pride parade.” He laughs like he’s out of breath. Harry can’t blame him, because he currently feels like he’s just run a marathon himself. He needs a minute – maybe a hundred of them – but Nick is giving him such an odd, pleading look. There’s no time for such things. “Why do you think I roomed with Finn? Honestly, dear.”

“You and Finn?”

“I’m pretty fucking shocked no one told you before.”

“Mate, that’s… what? Like,” Harry tears at his hair with icy hands. Now he definitely needs a minute. Two of his best friends, previously thought to be straight, are together, are probably in love, are shagging, and that’s… Wow. “That’s incredible for you both, but… really?”

“Yeah. We aren’t, like, all obvious and out-there about it, but that works for us. We show love on our own time. You, on the other hand,” Nick, confident that Harry’s no longer having a meltdown, relinquishes his hold on the younger boy, crosses his arms again, and leans against the wall of the church behind him, “are as cuddly as a teddy bear and wear your emotions on your sleeve for the world to see. I saw what you felt about Tomlinson ten seconds in that time you Skyped us two weeks into the semester and told us about him. Finn and I have basically been rooting for you two since before you were probably even aware that you liked each other.”

“That’s… kind of a lot to take in. And weird. You’re both really bloody weird for that.”

“We know what we see when we see it.” Nick licks his lips, and then as an afterthought, wipes it away on the back of his hand before the spit can freeze. “For instance, I can see that you absolutely worship that boy. I also see that he’d be willing to throw himself off a cliff if you told him that it would make you smile.”

“I don’t think so,” Harry flushes, and Nick just clicks his tongue.

“Yeah, you might not, but I’m always right and you know it.” Well, he has a point. “Harry, I speak for all of us when I say that you’re like our little brother and one of our best mates. We always want to look after you, make sure that you’re always in a good place. We’re just glad you’ve finally found someone to love you when we’re not here to.”

“We?”

“All of us,” Ray says quietly, putting a hand on Harry’s neck to smooth the longer curls down that fall there. “Everyone. Some of us were harder to break through with, of course, but Nick took the brunt of it last year.”

“You’re welcome for that, by the way,” Nick grins. “Breaking the ice way ahead of time for you.”

“But we’re all here for you, now,” the other continues, “and we’re all in complete support of you and Louis both.”

Harry takes a moment to breathe and think.

Okay, so this certainly isn’t the way he’d wanted the boys to find out about it, but then again, he’d never considered how he might bring it up. If Nick and Ray are telling the truth, this means that someone in their group probably wasn’t as cool with it as, say, Zayn or the two lads in front of him are. Does he want to know? He does.

“Who were the ones you had to break when you told everyone? And don’t tell me I don’t need to know,” he holds a hand up when Nick and Ray both open their mouths to protest, “because I do. Who weren’t the ones to be alright with it at first?” His two friends glance at each other and Nick shrugs.

“Well, when I decided it was a good time to tell, we – me and Ray – brought everyone to my house, and I brought them upstairs to my room. I’d asked them together for a meeting type deal, very serious business, so we all kind of sat together in silence until I just… said it.”

“Ed went silent, kept shaking his head at it,” Ray starts. He steps back from Harry’s side and leans against the wall. “He just wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t look at Nick. He had to take a day to himself to think about it, I guess, but he came back to Nick the next day and said it was cool and that he loved him. Jeni was creeped at shit by it at first, kept saying how it was unnatural, how it was gross and Nick couldn’t…” He shakes his head at the memory, angry lines rising in his clenched jaw, and then sighs. A silver mist escapes his mouth and dissipates into the cold and early morning darkness. “But Raj… do you remember that Monday when Raj came to school with a brace on his hand? He said it was because his brother had accidentally trodden on it and fractured a bone in his hand.”

Harry does remember. Raj was in a lot of pain over it, he recalls, and had been strung out on meds just so that he could be in a good enough place to be able to take notes with his damaged hand. He had received lots of pity A’s on papers those two months. “Yeah, I know.”

“He punched Jeni in the teeth and told him that if he had a problem, then he could go find new friends. He came around less than a week after that. Apologised like crazy.”

“We’re still not one hundred percent,” Nick interjects, “but we’re getting there slowly. I couldn’t really expect everyone to drop what their parents and the church taught them, you know? You never really can.”

Ray clears his throat and rubs his hands together as he glances to the sky. It’s starting to snow again. “Dylan was probably the hardest, though,” Ray goes on, “even though you’d never really know it. That’s how it always is with Dee though, isn’t it? You never know what he’s thinking or feeling until he says it or is forced to show it.” Despite the subject, Nick throws his head back and laughs.

“That one really sucked, probably hurt the most of them all.”

“What happened?” Harry asks.

“Well, he wouldn’t let me touch him, would he?” Nick says lightly, as if the words are being carelessly thrown over his shoulder. “He’d come and hang out with us if we were all together, but he couldn’t stand me even touching him for ages. And he wouldn’t come over if it was just me and him, there always had to be other people around.”

“Why?”

“He was afraid of me coming onto him, I guess. I think I understood fully that he’d realised what he’d done in the second year of sixth form when my first secret-whatever dumped me, and Dee offered to let me sleep over with no one else. So he got over himself for the most part when he realized that the rest of the world wasn’t stuck in the dark ages like he was, even if it took almost a full year for it to happen, but…” Nick shrugs. “It is what it is.”

“And what happened with Finn when it was his turn?” Harry swallows, and Nick nods, not sadly, but not happily, either.

“He never really had a big coming out moment like I did. It was when we started secretly dating that he said something to the others, but it was more along the lines of, ‘I’m with him now, and we’re just gonna see how it goes. Hope that’s fine with you lot. If not, go jump off your roofs.’ I wish mine had been more like that,” Nick sighs, flicking one of the stray hairs that has escaped his quiff off of his forehead, “but we can’t all get what we want, I suppose.”

Harry is blown away by the world he’s stepped into, floored by the idea that his friends could be anything but kind and gentle human beings with a constant smile on their faces when they look at him. Ed, always singing every chance he gets and trying to teach Harry guitar whenever he has one in his hands. Jeni, who had shared a bucket of popcorn with him at Up when everyone else had made other plans. Dylan, who’s been his longest friend ever, always the one to defend and shelter him from the others when they tease him and it gets to be a bit too much. He and Harry shared a bond that none of the others could say that they have, a loss that sits so heavily inside of them every day that it isn’t even remotely ignorable. The thought that there are aspects of his friends that he’d never anticipated makes him throw himself into Nick’s arm with no warning. His heart positively aches for his older friend who had to go through fearing the worst just like Harry had, but bravely faced it, as Harry has not had the misfortune to just yet.

“Oi,” Nick gasps as Harry squeezes him tightly, “it’s alright now, innit? Everything’s fine.”

“I know, but… I feel awful about it.”

Nick pats him on the back. “It’s not your fault, H.”

Of course it isn’t his fault, but it doesn’t feel like it isn’t his fault, is the point. It feels like he should have been there to look after Nick, to make sure that he was okay and happy and to remind him that not everyone was out to get him. Who had been there to look after him? Surely, he hadn’t gone through it alone. Harry would have noticed that, seeing as it’s apparently easy enough for everyone else to have seen with him. He lets go of Nick’s waist and turns to his other friend.

“And what about you?” he asks him, remembering that Ray was one of the two in Nick’s coming-out party. “How did you find out before all the others?” Ray smiles at him, and the streetlamps behind him throw orange light through his short, strawberry-blond hair.

“To make a long story shorter, he just kind of whispered it to me in English one day, probably so I couldn’t freak out about it or something. I was caught off guard, sure, but I didn’t really mind. Kind of saw it coming, but I was the first to know, apparently.”

Well, at least Nick had had him there. Ray, always the most reliable of the group and there any time you need him. Still, Harry wishes with every ounce of his being that Nick and Finn had both trusted him enough to tell him, even if the rest of the boys, for the most part, had been supportive of them. Truth be told, it stings that they thought it necessary to keep Harry out. The younger boy chews on the side of his tongue for a moment before asking –

“Can I ask you one more thing?”

“Sure,” Nick says, and Harry shoves his hands into his coat pockets.

“Why wasn’t I in there when you told everyone?”

“A few reasons,” the older boy shrugs. “First being, you were still so young, you know? Just gone fourteen, and you know… at that point, you don’t really know anything. Harry, you’re unbelievably smart, but you don’t really have your own thoughts at that point, no matter who you are.”

Ray mumbles an agreement from the side. Harry supposes that’s fair.

“Secondly, if you weren’t like the others and had zero issues, you’d force yourself to take the brunt of it all along with me, because that’s kind of the way you are, and that isn’t something you deserve. Thirdly, you had pretty much no other friends than us… sorry, but it’s true. I didn’t think you would be, but if you pulled a Dylan O’Callaghan and really weren’t okay with it, I didn’t want you to have to be alone for the rest of the school year and the next. Better to live in ignorance, I guess.”

“So you were protecting me?”

“Like I said,” Nick smiles, “we’re always looking after you.”

Harry feels quite sick when he quickly comes to the realization that Nick and Ray are completely right. At the time, he might not have been as accepting then as he is now. After all, he’d wallowed in self-pity and considered doing pretty awful things to himself when he realised that he wasn’t as straight as previously assumed, so if it had been Nick… Harry swallows back tears as he contemplates whether he would have been a good enough person at the time to be like Raj, defending his loved ones even at his own expense, to protect those who would have done and would do the same for him at the drop of a hat, or not. He hopes that he would have been, and he gives Nick another hug, gentler and less desperate this time. Even while Nick had been suffering under the weight of such a secret, he had still kept an eye out for Harry.

He bloody loves his friends.

Harry watches the sky for a little while after Nick and Ray have both left him leaning against the wall to join their own families, looking up at the thick flakes of white falling rapidly towards the dimly lit streets and those walking through them with something akin to tranquility going through his blood. The night certainly hasn’t gone as he’d expected it to, but Harry thanks God that it has.

His mobile buzzes in his pocket against his thigh just as Harry has decided to begin heading back to the car. He digs it out from the many layers he wears, flicks his thumb across the screen, and reads the bright message with a smile that almost pains his cheeks.

Louis Tomlinson xoxox <3 : Still on for Monday I hope?? xx

Monday. Monday, they’re going to go see Avatar, their first actual proper date. Louis had insisted upon it, because “Huge blue people, alien planet, hot male lead. What more reason do you need?” Harry quickly takes a picture of a thumbs-up, trying once more when the first shows up a bit blurry because of the snow, and sends it back to him with Looking forward to it, gorgeous. Tell the family I said happy Christmas too xx as the caption. He pockets it the moment he’s pressed send and begins the short walk back to the parking lot where his family will probably be waiting for him.

People are beginning to flow out of the church doors in a stream, their heavy exhales turning to clouds above their heads as they march back to their cars or homes that are closer by. Harry keeps his distance from them. He isn’t ready to join their normalcy just yet, not when he feels like this. Above them, in a way, like he has something in the palm of his hand, hidden away from view of the world, and only he knows about it.

Harry opens a new message that comes buzzing through just as he hears his mother call from the car.

“Harry!” her voice rings clear through the night air, “come on, sweets. We need to get home!”

“‘kay,” he calls back to her, jogging the last few metres to the car, opening the door, and sliding in next to Gemma. He pulls his coat away from his chest with one hand as he sits and settles, leaning his head against the window.

“Have a good time speaking with your friends, H?” Robin asks as he puts the car into first and glances around the somewhat busy lot, but Harry doesn’t hear him, too busy looking at the picture Louis has sent him back.

Charlotte, Louis, and Felicite are sitting in the backseat of their car and are all holding thumbs-ups to the camera. The girls both have their tongues out, but Louis’s mouth is stretched into a wide smile. It’s a smile that Harry thinks he lives for some days, and he presses his heated cheeks to the cool glass of the window, biting the grin off of his lips. As his family gives questioning but amused glances to each other from across their seats, Harry is setting the photo as his wallpaper.

Clandestine, he thinks to himself; that is what they are.

Chapter Text

The room where Louis is sitting is packed. It’s filled with smoke and music and people to the brim, and it’s only ten minutes to midnight. Louis knows this even though he isn’t wearing a watch or sitting near a clock of any kind, because being called out through the noise every few minutes is exactly how long they have to go until it’s officially 2010. His simple gray t-shirt is beginning to stick to his skin from the heat that emanates from everyone in the room.

It had been Nick’s invitation – a real University of Leeds party. This is going to be Louis’s crowd next year when he goes to university himself: a swollen, loud, heated mass of people just there to have fun. He feels oddly at home there. He’ll have to look into ULeeds for school. It’s already on his list that he’s been compiling for the last month or so with Harry’s help, but this makes it all the more serious. These parties are just incentive, and if it means that he’ll be there with people he likes, it makes it all the better. So far tonight, he’s been having a marvelous time with his several plus ones… when he can find them amidst the mob.

He hasn’t been sitting there on the couch in one of the back rooms for long – not alone, at least. Zayn and Dylan had both been sat beside him, one on each side, and Josh was sat at his feet with a beer bottle that had drained too quickly. Harry had also been there at one point as well, halfway in Louis’s lap and halfway in Zayn’s arms, but he had been the first to leave about twenty minutes before to say hello to yet another one of Nick’s interesting university friends. Josh was soon to follow in search of more alcohol, and Zayn and Dylan had barely left a minute after in search of a quieter corner. The couch is still slightly warm to the touch from them.

Louis has taken to quietly sipping at his cup and patiently waiting for Harry to get back. Normally, he’d be smashed by now and probably upstairs with someone, bored by the idea of sitting there and doing nothing, but tonight is different for obvious reasons. He wants to be good for Harry, to not disappoint him like he had the last time he’d gone to a party of any kind, so he’s resigned to people-watching. For a lack of a better word, he wants to be worthy.

In this case, ‘people-watching’ mostly consists of watching Harry from across the room and looking interested with something else every time Harry glances over his way, which happens quite frequently much to Louis’s liking. The thing is, Louis’s genuinely enjoying solely looking at Harry tonight, something he thought he’d never allow himself to say in his life. Harry looks absolutely striking, dressed up against a sea of denim, t-shirts, and skimpy dresses. Since Christmas morning, Harry has had a brand new look about him, one that he and his mother are particularly excited about. Anne had given him jackets and button-ups, insisting that they’d look marvelous on him. She had been completely correct. Louis can’t help but sigh at the sight every time.

Tonight, Harry has dressed himself up in a properly nice navy blazer with a crisp white button-up underneath, clearly having shined his dress shoes before coming. He’s genuinely overdone it in comparison to what everyone else in the house is wearing, but Louis doesn’t care. He wonders if he’ll ever look as nice as Harry does tonight.

Curse that woman for having such a good fashion sense.

“You’ll need to get better at that,” a voice says from his side, and Louis looks up.

“Better at what?”

Raj takes the seat to Louis’s left, their knees knocking from the sides as he does. He has on a loose black t-shirt on, zebra-striped jeans, 2010 painted across his left cheek in silver, and his hair is slowly falling in pieces from the slight quiff that had probably been impeccably styled just a few hours before. He rolls a red Solo cup between his hands, a bright blue liquid filling it halfway to the brim, and he sips at it once, making a slightly pained face at the taste and sucking at his teeth before speaking again. Louis can smell the heavy liquor on Raj’s breath from where he sits beside him.

“Keeping your admiring-eyes in check,” the older of the two finally answers, flicking a finger towards where Harry is now speaking vivaciously to a group of older girls, all straight-haired blondes with long, acrylic nails running through their hair as they flick it out of their smiling lined eyes. “I could see them from across the room, and I’m having a hard enough time just seeing straight for myself.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Louis pastes on a smile and hopes it doesn’t look too much like a grimace. Raj gives him something a lot like knowing eyes back.

“Sure thing, mate.”

Silence ( or what might have been silence in the absence of the music and other people ) falls between the two young men on the couch, and Louis rubs at his cheek with light fingers. From across the room, he once again picks up his watch of the younger boy he so terribly adores – Harry has an arm around a stupendously drunk looking Niall now, clutching him close to his side and laughing as he keeps the blond boy upright. His dimples are surely the eighth natural wonder of the world. This much Louis is sure of.

“You remember how I said a few days ago when we first met…” Raj pauses as Louis brings his attention back to the one sitting beside him. “Do you remember how I said that Harry has a way about him, where he always seems to fit right in?” Louis nods at the recollection, and Raj takes another careful sip of his drink. “Well, it’s pretty easy to take people like that for granted. You get used to having them around, you know? And then you realize too late that you fucked up, and they’re gone as soon as they came. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Louis doesn’t, and he tells Raj so.

“Okay. The thing about Harry is that, yeah, he’s here now and he’s loving it, but it’s really easy to either one, take advantage of him, or two, forget to take care of him because you assume he’ll always be there. Now, when I look at you, I don’t see the possibility of either one of those things happening… but I’ve been wrong about people before.” Raj pauses for a moment as he glances over at Harry, and a protective look crosses his face. “He never complains, the poor thing, refuses to see the bad in people. Won’t be willing to listen for a second when you try to argue that the people he loves are less than perfect. He’ll defend them with his dying breath. You’re not an exception.”

“I don’t really know what you’re trying to say to me,” Louis says quietly, just barely loud enough to hear over the thumping music. His stomach begins to squirm. It cannot possibly be alcohol to blame.

“What I’m trying to say is that you better take care of him for me,” Raj says, a serious glare taking over his normally kind features. Louis gulps loudly enough for probably even Harry to hear across the room. “I have no time for that bullshit you pulled on him a few months ago. I’ve never seen him so torn up in my life as I did then, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all your fault. Harry’s bent himself over backwards to try to tell me it’s not, but I don’t believe it for a second. He is my baby brother and my best friend, but I can’t listen to a word he says sometimes because he’s just such a good and trusting person. I expect you to make sure he’s okay, to protect him, especially from himself sometimes.

“So, here’s what I have to say to you, and then I’m done giving you the dad treatment – Don’t break his heart. Don’t you dare break that lad’s heart, because if you do, you will have, in turn, broken mine. If that happens, Louis Tomlinson, then I will break every bone in your fucking body with a smile on my face. Do you understand?”

Louis has never been so instantly afraid of a human being in his whole life. Harry has always spoken of Raj like he’s made of sugar, entirely sweet with no bitterness or ire about him. Clearly, judging by the glower Raj is shooting his way, this is not the case. What made it all the more terrifying was the fact that Raj knew. How could he know? Harry had sworn up and down he hasn’t told any of the boys in the group, so Louis can only infer that this means that his thoughts are practically written across his forehead and Raj is skimming through them like the pages of a textbook.

“We’re… we’re not together,” Louis manages to squeak, his throat gone dry. Raj shakes his head. A touch of anger is spreading through his inky black irises.

“Don’t lie to me,” he heavily stresses every word in the sentence, “and do not treat me like an idiot. I am fully aware of what’s going on here, and you being scared of a word isn’t a good enough excuse right now. He needs more than that, so either you step up to the plate or you move aside and let someone else do it while we’re still here to pick him off the ground.” Louis watches with a racing heart as Raj takes another sip of the electric blue liquid and settles further back into the couch where they sit.

Louis takes a moment to assess.

Unexpectedly, Raj isn’t angry with him for daring to think or feel such things about Harry. In fact, it sounds more like a threat against Louis if he doesn’t. The speech was less of a hateful one and more of something out of a cliché comedy that involves a father telling a girl’s boyfriend off with a shotgun in hand before he sends them off to the prom. It’s caring, almost instinctually so. Louis isn’t sure what this means. Granted, it’s somewhat encouraging, but it’s still unsettling to think of how Raj may have come to such conclusions. Harry would never lie to him about telling someone… would he?

“Who told you?”

“You just did.” Louis’s head nearly explodes when Raj winks at him. The older of the two quickly notices, reading Louis’s mind before he can speak it. “Harry wouldn’t say anything if I promised him a lifetime supply of kittens to play with. I know you’ve made him promise. I know how all this works. It’s terrifying being so secretive at that damn school, holding something like that inside your head.” Louis regains enough composure to follow Raj’s eyes to where Harry stands again. “It’ll drive you mad if you aren’t careful.”

Louis goes quiet for a moment, glancing to the side to catch Raj’s eye again before speaking. “You?”

“Nah, straight,” Raj says with a dismissive flick of his hand. “Friends of mine.”

That’s what Louis had assumed. His thoughts wander back to Christmas Eve, the day he’d gone over to Harry’s, met all his friends, and noticed two particular boys being perhaps a little more close than what most would deem friendly.

“Nick and Finn?”

“You’re an observant one, Tomlinson. I’ll give you that. Most people don’t know them well enough to catch it at first.” Raj raises his cup to his mouth one last time before he tips the brim up and over, draining every last drop of the liquid previously in it. Louis watches in slight amusement as Raj grits his teeth, sucking at the back of his throat at the hard ache he must be feeling from taking down such a strong smelling drink, and then places the empty cup on the floor. Louis can only venture a guess at what kind of vile liquid he has just poured in his mouth. If he isn’t completely down and out by the end of the night, Louis will consider it a failure on the other boy’s part.

His amusement only lasts for a moment before he remembers; it isn’t just he and Harry any more in this little world that Louis had been so anxious and careful to keep closed off.

“So… you know now?”

“Yeah.”

“And you don’t care?”

“Contrary to your belief, Louis, not everyone is going to want you dead when they find out you like to kiss boys.”

“I don’t though,” Louis defends himself, placing his own drink down next to Raj’s by their feet. “It’s just Harry. Strictly into girls, otherwise.”

Raj hums and nods at his side, like he knows exactly what Louis’s talking about, like he’s seen it all the time. “Ah, so an exception to the rule?” Louis wonders when and how Raj became such an expert in the field of sexuality confusion in the year he’s been separated from his incredibly religious secondary school. He had said he was majoring in sociology. Maybe that has something to do with it.

“I guess so, yeah.”

“That,” Raj says pointedly with a smile, “has got Harry written all over it.” His eyes are beginning to shine from the alcohol. Louis senses a speech coming on by the way that Raj has begun straightening his t-shirt out with a shaky hand and rubbing his fingers across his jaw. “Tommo, I’m going to let you in on a little secret that really isn’t that secret – it is so much easier to hide things from your parents when you get to uni.” Raj sits forward and moves into Louis’s space. Louis decides to let him.

“You don’t have to worry like I know you do now, about your parents and your school finding out about you and Harry and all that. If my dad found out I was dating a white girl instead of some nice, pretty brown one, he’d smother me in my sleep. But they have no idea. Hell, Finn’s parents still don’t know about him and Nick, and it’s been almost a year. Black and gay? Fuck that, they have a hard enough time being treated as people as it is. His dad’d throw him off a bridge.” Raj takes a moment to shake his head and run his fingers through his hair.

“But the thing is,” he continues, “like, I was so thrown off when I realized that not everyone had the same mindset about race and sexual orientation and shit as they do here. It’s fucked up what they did to our heads, mate, how they molded us into this giant mass of hatred. They stamp out so much beauty, and you don’t even realize how toxic it is until you leave. It’s so different – the world outside is so different, mate. Uni provides this nice little safe haven for you to express yourself, show who you love with little to no judgment, and if you find the right crowd and tell people to lie for you, to cover, they will. They understand what it’s like, or they at least have a bit of compassion.”

“I can only imagine what it’ll be like for me with drama,” Louis says half joking, but Raj just bobs his head in agreement.

“Exactly. The drama department is so interesting and diverse, it’s incredible, mate! I’m still fucking pissed some days because I gave up on that part of my life. You’re going to meet so many amazing people that change your entire worldview, maybe even change you a bit. You’re going to have the time of your fucking life in uni, Louis.” Raj smiles brightly at him before he sighs and puts his forehead on Louis’s shoulder. “I guess my point is… you won’t always have to live in fear.”

Louis’s reply is cut off by a loud, “Five minutes to go, people!” from the room over, and Raj clears his throat.

“I better let you get to your boy, Tomlinson,” he says as he picks up his empty drink cup and gets to his feet, and Louis holds out an arm when he sees how he sways like an old wooden bridge in high wind. Raj thanks him with a pat of his hand. Apparently, it had taken standing up for whatever that blue drink was to fully catch up with him.

“You’ve got a New Year’s kiss awaiting. I’ll see you later, mate,” Raj garbles almost incomprehensibly, shuffling along through the clumps of people as best he can before turning back at the doorway and pointing a wavering finger at Louis. “I’ll bring hell to your doorstep, Tomlinson. Don’t you – don’t forget. Don’t fuck this up! We’re all rooting for you!”

“I won’t,” Louis assures the older boy with a smile and a wave. “See you, mate!”

Louis watches him as he disappears into the crowd, Raj’s empty cup tipped to the side high in the air above everyone’s heads as a silent beckoning for someone to refill it, until his eyes make their way back to where he’d last seen Harry standing a few minutes before. Little to his surprise, Harry’s already making his way over to where Louis is, probably having excused himself while Louis wasn’t looking. He takes a guess that Harry must have heard the five-minute call as well.

“Alright there, gorgeous?” Harry asks as he comes to a stop in front of the couch, and he holds out a hand for Louis to grab onto. Louis takes it, making a point to press his chest into Harry’s and wrap his arm around the boy’s middle when he gets pulled to his feet.

“Alright, Posh Spice?” Louis answers back, flicking Harry’s shoulder and kicking the remainder of his drink to the side with a tap of his foot. Harry fakes a pout.

“That would make you Becks. And I’ll have you know, I have the ability to smile. Therefore, not Posh Spice.” Harry’s eyes flick over to the side when he hears the ‘Three minutes!’ warning, and Louis feels him tug on the hem on his shirt. “Come on, we’ll go somewhere a bit more quiet.”

Somewhere a bit more quiet turns out to be outside on the cement back porch, both boys carefully treading so as not to slip over any ice that has formed from the potential small puddles of spilled drink and melted snow. No one else is about, predictably. Louis leans against the iron rail and shivers, rubbing his hands over the bare skin on his arms. It is absolutely freezing out.

“Here, have mine,” Harry offers his jacket the moment he notices, the dark blazer unbuttoning and sliding neatly off his shoulders. “I was dying in there, anyways. Too hot.” He drapes it over Louis’s arms and back, patting the shoulders down as he closes in from the back to keep Louis warm. Louis feels like a teenage girl, but pulls the material close to his skin nonetheless. He can still feel Harry’s warmth on it. “It looks good on you. Bit big in the shoulders, but…”

“Since when do you have broader shoulders than I do?” Louis asks the boy standing behind him, and he can hear the smirk in his voice when he replies.

“Growth spurt.”

They dip into comfortable silence, Harry pressing tight into Louis’s curves and Louis holding him there, the two boys taking their moments to appreciate the quiet scenery. The house that they’re currently at is in an area nowhere near as developed as where the boys live, a full forest behind and around it. Even so, Louis can see the lights of other people’s homes between the cracks in the dense grove of evergreen trees. Harry sighs into the crook of Louis’s neck.

“Get a job,” he mutters quietly. “I think I’d like to get a job. That’s my New Year’s resolution.” A chorus of hushed “two minutes” sounds behind the glass doors that Harry had slid closed behind them when they walked out. “What’s yours?”

Louis wonders if he even has any. Obviously, he wants to go to school, get his degree, and eventually become successful on stage, but all that’s gradual rather than instantaneous. Louis pulls Harry in tighter to his body by his arms.

“I think I just want to get into a good university. Pass my A-levels, get into school, and go. Those are mine.” Louis remembers his conversation with Raj just a few minutes earlier, and his words are stuck to the inside of Louis’s brain like glue. The promise of getting out and away from this tiny place where everyone knows everyone else’s business has never felt so appealing as it does in that moment. He feels want pulsing through his veins. “I just need to get out of here so badly.”

“…Oh.”

Harry’s voice has a sour note to it, blatant and flat disappointment smothered over every word, and Louis can feel his tight grip around Louis’s body go slack. The older boy turns to face him, his lower back pushed uncomfortably into the icy railing. “What? What’s wrong?” Harry stares at his shoes.

“It’s weird, but I don’t think I fully realized that you’re going to be leaving me as well until now. I’ll be alone again.”

“You’ll make friends, H, and you’ll still have Zayn.”

“I don’t feel the same way about him as I do you, though,” Harry mutters with his eyes to the ground, and Louis is taken aback by his honesty. “I don’t want you to leave me. Is that selfish?”

“Incredibly, but it’s understandable. No one likes being alone,” Louis replies and holds Harry’s cheek as he places a kiss on the other. “I know it’s rough, but I’m not leaving you forever. We’ll have breaks together, and if I go to school close enough, weekends.”

“Thirty seconds, lads,” someone calls from inside.

“Yeah, but what if you don’t go to school close by?” Harry asks, his eyes reflecting the many pink and orange paper lanterns that have been strung around the yard and along the rain gutters atop the house. He leans into Louis’s hand that still holds his cheek, sighing as he does. “If you want to take acting seriously, you have to go somewhere in London… or Cardiff.” Harry says this with a bitter look, like the name of the place itself is poisonous. “They’re both so far away. What if you forget about me?”

A countdown from ten has begun from inside, and a popping of firecrackers and balloons have already begun to sound in celebration, but Louis can’t even think to bring himself to count along in his head. His entire focus is, instead, on the way that Harry’s lip is trying so hard not to quiver and how his eyes, usually so happy and full of smiles when they look at Louis, are so terribly sad. Louis brings his other hand up from Harry’s waist to cup the boy’s other cheek, and he whispers millimeters away from the year eleven’s lips.

“Harry Styles, there is no way in hell that I could ever forget about you, even if I tried.”

Louis kisses him hard, searching for and chasing any kind of happy or pleased or even just plain content noise Harry is willing to give up, and clasps his hands behind the boy’s neck. He can feel Harry’s need as their lips slowly move together and the boy’s hands run across his blazer that Louis now wears, a need to keep him there for as long as he possibly can in the drag of his fingers. Louis kisses him harder for it. Sure he’ll miss Harry, you’d have to be absolutely mad not to, but in his heart, he knows there’s no reason for Harry to feel the way he does. He hadn’t promised Raj he’d take care of Harry for nothing. He’d meant it. They finally separate with a light pop of their cold lips, the sound reminiscent of the fireworks that are crackling in the distant hills. Louis presses a firm kiss into Harry’s forehead and tangles his fingers into the boy’s hair.

“Happy New Year, love,” he says above the noise from inside. Harry pulls himself impossibly closer into Louis’s chest in reply.

~

It’s the end of the second week back from the best Christmas break Harry has ever had in his life, and there’s only three weekends to go until half terms begin. The tension in the school could probably be cut by a knife. Harry rinses the small pink bubbles off of the backs of his hands at the sink as he glances around at the others beside him. Almost all of them have somewhat of a purple colour under their eyes, like they’re all sorely in want of a good night’s sleep. Harry knows the feeling. It’s become commonplace for him to stay up late with Louis to try to shove as many theories of chemistry, equations for statistics, and the orders and names of royal families into Louis’s brain as he can handle.

It hasn’t gotten any easier for Louis with the impending opening night of Championship, the last Friday of the month, right on the horizon – next week. Mixed with the prep for half term and the stressful search for different universities and good drama college programs, Harry’s beginning to feel the metaphorical heat as well. Most of their time spent together is either play-prep, half term review, or Wikipedia searches of different university alumni that went on to perform on stage or television. Any other time is taken up by catching up on lost sleep. Harry certainly isn’t going to complain about getting to serve as a human body pillow during said naps, but he’s getting nervous about watching the darkness under Louis’s eyes slowly turn to the colour of bruises with every day’s additional weight to his shoulders.

On top of all that, Harry knows that Louis is probably constantly stressed about keeping whatever it is between them a heavily guarded secret from anyone and everyone, even if the older boy would never admit it for fear of worrying Harry. It’s a wonder he doesn’t just collapse under the weight of it all. Harry just wants this to all be over so he can have him back, full of life and smiling for no reason. Louis has become too exhausted for anything more than delicate smiles and sparse peppered kisses as they fall asleep together, tangled up in bed sheets behind locked doors after rehearsals ( again, Harry’s not complaining ). Some days, though, it’s like he isn’t really there at all, empty windows on legs. It feels as though Harry’s losing him already, even if he has over half a year to go.

Harry can see the exhaustion in his own eyes as he looks up at himself in the streaked mirror, too, but he knows that it’s more of a reflection of Louis’s fatigue than anything else. He flicks the rest of the water off the backs of his hands and runs them through his hair and across his jacket to hastily dry them, eager to get to his locker and make a break for class so that he won’t be late.

“I did it!” Harry hears the excited words a minute later from over his shoulder as he closes his locker with a check of his elbow, stopping him before he can even begin the walk back to his chemistry class. “I finally did it!”

“What are you doing here?” Harry asks a flushed Zayn, who is running at him with a single sheet of paper in his hand. Other boys in the hall give them odd looks as Zayn collides into Harry’s open arms. “Aren’t you supposed to be in philosophy right now?”

“I’ve just got out of double writing,” Zayn says, out of breath as he tugs on Harry’s sleeve, “and I finally did it.”

“Did what?”

Zayn doesn’t answer him. Instead, he pulls the year eleven by his school jacket through the hallway, away from Harry’s chemistry class that has a waiting and textbook-less Louis in it, and back to the steadily clearing bathroom that Harry has only just come out of. There’s no one in there by the time they actually get inside, so Harry thinks it was a bit much for Zayn to pull them both into a stall and lock the door behind them. Not to mention, it’s impractical with the wide spaces under and above the door.

“Oh, shut up, Harry,” Zayn snaps halfheartedly in a low voice when Harry tells him so.

“I’m just saying,” Harry replies equally as tartly. “Look, you’re making us both late for class, so this better be important.”

“It is. You remember that anonymous poem from so long ago? The one where we decided that the kid who wrote it is gay? Gold, metaphorical closets, that one.”

Harry tries hard not to roll his eyes when he realises what Zayn is talking about, ultimately failing. “You decided. Damn it, Z. Couldn’t this have waited?”

“No,” Zayn says shortly, and drops his bag off of his shoulder. “All over break, I’d been thinking, right? I still don’t know who it is that wrote it, but more than anything, I kept thinking about…” He clenches and unclenches his hands in front of his chest as he struggles to place his words. “Like, how he was just waiting at home, waiting for me to find him. He needs someone, you know? He has needed someone for months now, and I felt like I’d sort of failed him. There’s a reason why that particular poem landed on my desk, and I still hadn’t done everything that I possibly can to find him.”

“Okay, so…?” Harry asks, itching to check the time. Surely they’ve missed the bell by now. Louis is probably wondering what the hell has happened to him.

“So,” Zayn huffs, “I kept thinking about that, and I couldn’t help but come up with a surefire, infallible way to make him hear me. It ate at me until I did it, so,” he beams at Harry. “I finally did it. There’s no way that he’ll be able to not hear about this. Look at what I’ve done.” Zayn holds the sheet up to Harry’s face, flicking it back and forth. “Look.”

Harry finally drops his chemistry book to the ground with a sigh and takes the paper in two hands. It’s moment before his eyes adjust to the tiny paragraphs of printed words in the dim lighting, but with Zayn’s insistence, he begins to read.

His heart drops closer to the ground with every word.

“What…” Harry begins, his gut twisting violently in his stomach when he’s finished, and looks up from the paper that currently feels as heavy as a rock in his hands, “what the hell have you done?”

“It’s out in the open now, can’t take it back,” Zayn says with what Harry thinks to be an extremely misplaced smile. “It’s gonna change around here, even if people can’t see it. I’m going to find him.”

“Zayn, tell me you didn’t hand this in today in writing,” the younger boy pleads. Zayn nods happily.

“And,” he adds as the younger boy’s insides give another lurch, “I read it in front of the class and put a copy of it on the back wall, so there’s no way that he can ignore me.” Zayn laughs, and Harry’s heart skips a beat. “You should have seen Sister Davis’s face. Incredible.”

Harry closes his gaping mouth and looks back down to the page he still holds in his tense, shaking hands. It’s well-versed and kind, and gentleness seeps out through every letter. Harry reads it again and again, running his eyes over the nightmare on paper and finally looking up in horror as the realization of what is surely going to ensue as a result of Zayn’s well-intended actions sink in. He holds the paper up to Zayn and shakes the signed open letter – directed to the anonymous writer of The Poem from so, so long ago, that puts Zayn’s sexuality out there as an invitation to talk to him – in front of his friend.

“Zayn, you can’t be gay at this school,” Harry begins slowly. “You cannot be openly gay here; they’ll tear you apart.”

“Not gay,” Zayn corrects him, “bisexual. I made that quite clear in the – ”

“You think that’s going to make a difference to them?” Harry spits like the words are acid, and Zayn visibly shrinks back. His smile is gone. The tense dread rises like a temperature inside of Harry with every second that passes. “You think that they’re going to care? You’ve already got a target on your back, and now you’re adding onto it because of some fucking boy? You’re going to put your schooling here, your physical well-being at risk for someone that you don’t even know?!”

“I do know him, Harry. I know him probably better than most people do.”

“It’s been months, Zayn, months! You’re obsessed!” Harry shouts as loudly as a whisper can allow. The paper is crumpled in his tightened grip. “How are you still on that? And now you’ve put yourself and all of us who risk being your friend in danger. Are you happy about that?”

Only after the words have left his mouth does Harry realize that he isn’t angry with Zayn at all, but rather, he’s scared. Fuck that, he’s terrified. He’s afraid for Zayn, he’s afraid for himself, and he’s afraid for Louis. When word spreads like wildfire ( and it certainly will ), there will be no chance in hell that Louis will ever even consider showing affection of any kind anymore, even less than what he gives up now, in a misguided attempt to protect himself and Harry. It will only add onto the stress that’s already taking such a heavy toll on his soul. He wants to tell Zayn this, but Harry has clearly spoken too soon.

His earlier words have been delivered like a neat slap, and Zayn has lost any hint of pride in his face that he’d had earlier. It has been replaced with a different expression, one filled with guilt and remorse. He resembles a kicked puppy. Harry briefly considers taking Zayn’s hand, leading him to the rooftop, and jumping off with Zayn in tow. “Harry, that’s not what I meant to do. I only wanted… I didn’t think – ”

“I know, Z, I know, but you don’t think! You don’t – You don’t fucking think,” Harry splutters, shaking his head and picking the discarded chemistry book off of the tiled floor. He feels dizzy with panic. “You’re acting on emotion, you don’t – You trust your heart and not your head.”

“I can take care of myself, Harry.”

“Sure thing. Tell me that again when I’m visiting you in the hospital. Or,” Harry bites as he unlocks the thick plastic door behind him with a shaky hand and throws it open, “better yet, tell me that when I’ve got the bed next to you.” In his haste, Harry only makes it to the thick metal doorway to head back to his class when he hears Zayn’s voice cut sharp against the dark red tiled walls. It has a harshness about it that Harry’s heard only once coming from the older boy in all his time knowing him.

“Do you know why my family and I moved here?” Harry turns back on his heel to face Zayn, trying to keep his face as indifferent and listless as possible, and clutches his book to his chest. Zayn has lines in his jaw from how he clenches his teeth, tense from the words Harry knows are coming. “Because I want to show you.”

To the younger boy’s puzzlement, Zayn begins pulling at his tie, loosening it and draping it around his neck once it’s undone, and then starts to unbutton his uniform shirt with both hands from the neck down. It’s only when they’ve all been undone down to the middle of the older boy’s chest and the collar of the shirt is pulled far to the side that Harry realises the severity of the mistake he’s made. The sight takes his breath away. He’s never seen anything quite like it.

“Shattered collarbone,” Zayn begins quietly, tapping with a single finger at the strange, asymmetrical indentations and raised, jutted bone just above his heart. Even from where he stands, Harry can see the darker skin of a thick, healed-over scar running along the underside of it. It looks like something out of a medical textbook.

“I was followed home one day and got it kicked in by these three arseholes with the same mindset as people do here. I’m not new to the concept. See, I dared stand to up for a kid who’d been found out to be gay, told him that it’s okay because I kind of was, too. Apparently, it was the tipping point, because you’re right, I’m a walking target. I’m just some Muslim half-breed who actually believes that he should be treated like a human being. What a fucking idiot.”

“That’s not – ”

“And because I was the only one willing to show everyone that I’m a decent person and that I don’t care who you love,” the older boy continues, cutting Harry off, “I got put to bed for a week in case I had internal bleeding. Mum took me out of school because she was scared that I wouldn’t come home one day, that I’d go missing and be found later in a ditch. My parents uprooted our whole lives, moved me and my sisters across the country, so that I could have a better chance with people who maybe would have a shred of understanding of my thoughts and religion and who I am. So thank you so, so much for your support, Harry,” Zayn bites venomously. “Means a lot, coming from you of all people.”

“Zayn…” Harry begins, but he closes his mouth and bites his bottom lip white when he realises that there is absolutely nothing he can say anymore. Zayn shakes his head at the pained eyes Harry gives him, frustration and hurt radiating off of him like rays of the winter sun.

“I’ve seen the inside of these people’s heads,” he continues, looking down to button up his shirt as he speaks, “and I know how they think and why they do what they do like the back of my bloody hand. I’d even venture a guess and say that I have a better concept of what’s going to happen and what I’m doing than you do. Imagine that. I know it doesn’t matter to you what happens to this kid, but I also know you have an idea of what it feels like to hear that you’re not alone in this. You know what it’s like because I was that for you.” His hands move quickly and expertly to retie his tie around his throat, and then drop to his sides to hide in his pockets. The scars and physical evidence of Zayn’s past are once again hidden. “If I can be that for another person, or even five, ten – who the hell knows how many of them there are that are as scared as you were at one point – then it’ll be worth any injury those cowards can throw at me.

“I’m not afraid of a Michael Simmons, I’m not afraid of an Andy Samuels, and I’ll be damned if those idiots with their heads stuck up their own arses keep me from this. I’m sorry that you’re going to get stared down in the halls for, as you so kindly put it, ‘risking being my friend,’ but whether you’re in full support or you’ve got none at all to spare, I’m going to find and help this kid if it kills me.” Zayn stares Harry down with fire in his eyes, and the younger boy can feel nothing but shame.

“You care this much?”

“I do,” Zayn says with finality, and for Harry, that’s enough. There’s clearly only one way to fix the damage Harry has imposed.

“Okay,” he says, surrender in his voice. “Okay, fine. For what it’s worth, I’m proud of you, Z, you should know that. And I’ll stick by you through it, just take a page out of your book, I guess. I definitely would never have been able to be as brave about everything that’s happened as you have.”

Both boys take pause to just look at each other, and with little warning, Zayn steps forward and tightly wraps his arms around Harry’s body. The younger boy immediately molds himself into Zayn’s shape, burying his nose into the crook of his neck.

“You are brave, Harry,” Zayn says quietly, “but… only on your own time, I suppose.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry mumbles into Zayn’s shoulder, because there’s really nothing left for him to say. He’s nearly lost himself completely in the tight embrace when he realises with a start what his chin is resting just above.

“Does it still hurt?” he asks, and Zayn sighs into his hair.

“Only some days, and also when I get really tired for some reason. It apparently healed really weirdly, but there’s not really much we can do about it now. It’s not too bad, though.”

Harry’s stomach twists uncomfortably as he wonders what it must have been like for Zayn to walk home to his waiting mother that day with dirt in his eyes and blood staining his shirt, clutching his arm to his chest to stop the excruciating damage to his insides and skin from spreading any further. He’s never broken a single bone in his life, so Harry can scarcely imagine what it must have been like to break one that hurt on every inhale and exhale Zayn took for months. The very notion that it could happen all over again, but twice as badly, sends chills through his body.

“Zayn, I know this is important to you, but there are worse things in this world than hiding. This is…” Harry trails off and gives a squeeze around his friend’s middle. “I’m scared for you. If this ends up hurting you again…”

“It probably will. I’m not an idiot. I already know that I’m pretty much screwed.”

“Why would you do this to yourself, then?”

Inshaa Allah kheyr,” Zayn answers. Harry blinks at the somewhat recognizable phrase as Zayn runs his hands over his back after they’ve pulled away from each other. “Pain isn’t the worst thing either. I have to believe that something good can come out of what happened to me, that my parents picking this school isn’t coincidence. There’s a reason that poem was given to me that day, H, there has to be, and whether it’s the doing of God or some kind of intervention by the universe itself, I intend to find out what that reason is.”

Maybe Zayn’s right. Hell, maybe Zayn really does have it all figured out. Harry still thinks he’s an idiot of epic proportions for being so certain about something in such an unpredictable environment, but Zayn’s an idiot with the biggest, most noble heart and a passion for other people greater than anyone Harry’s ever known. Harry knows that he’d never be able to look at himself in the mirror if he ever tried to push away someone who matters so much to him, one of his best friends, out of fear or selfishness. Zayn doesn’t want Harry’s sympathy, he understands that, but he does need support, and Harry owes his friend that much.

His thoughts go to Nick.

“Sometimes,” Zayn says with a hand on Harry’s shoulder and gentleness in his eyes, “trusting your heart is the only thing you really can do.” He then pushes a quick kiss into Harry’s cheek and untangles himself from the boy’s fraught grip to retrieve the book bag he’d left behind in the stall.

Harry walks to chemistry after separating from Zayn at the stairwell of the entrance hall. He’d watched Zayn cross the dirt courtyard through the large glass arched window, a feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach that deepened with every step the boy took below him towards the Arts Wing across campus. The thought that his friend would unquestionably be facing so much adversity over the next year and a half while he was at the school physically hurt him, twisting at his heart and insides like a knife. He’d have liked to lie to himself as he had with Zayn, tell himself that everything was fine and that Zayn could handle whatever was thrown at him, but he’s still troubled. After all, he has another person to be worrying about now as well as himself.

“I hope you have a good excuse for being so late to my class, Mister Styles,” his teacher says over her shoulder as Harry finally steps into the room. “If that happens again, it’s detention.” Harry replies to her affirmatively and quietly and slides into the stool on Louis’s right, dropping his bag onto the floor between them.

“I got worried,” Louis whispers to him when the sister begins talking again up front. “I thought you’d gone home sick.”

“Well,” Harry says with a weak smile and a light head, “the day is still young.”

“Are you alright, babe? What’s happened then?” Harry glances to his left to see Louis staring back at him, concern laced in vivid blue, and guilt washes over him like a wave. Louis truly does deserve to know what’s happening, but so much will have to come out at once.

For one, to explain why Harry’s so concerned also means simultaneously outing Zayn. This wouldn’t be a problem for Zayn, surely, but Louis would then question how Harry came to know before he did, when he’d been told, and why hadn’t he been told about such events sooner. Then the story of the kiss would have to come, along with an explanation that Zayn does in fact know all about the secret relationship that they were supposed to be keeping from their tiny, isolated world, that Zayn had known of his feelings even before Louis had, and that it was the reason why Harry had even done anything about it. The mention of Zayn’s knowing would probably have to come out along with all of his friends knowing, too – Nick, Ray, Ed, all of them – and Harry hadn’t even thought of his mum. She knows as well. Louis would probably be horrified at his utter inability to keep a secret.

Two, Louis already has so much to be worrying about. Even now, his beautiful eyes bright and the light streaming through the windows behind Louis sending gold through his hair, the older boy looks absolutely shattered with weariness. Could Harry add the weight of everything – Zayn and Harry’s friends and family – onto Louis’s already bruising shoulders?

Not in here.

“Excuse me, sister,” Harry raises his hand, and the whole class turns their eyes. “May I be dismissed?”

“And why would you need to be dismissed, seeing as you only just came in?” the sister asks, irritation in her voice from being interrupted once more by the same boy in a matter of minutes. Harry feels Louis stir at his side. He takes a deep breath.

“Because I think I’m going to be sick again.”

“…Again?”

“Mhm.”

“Is that why you were late to my class today?”

“Yes, sister.”

“Oh… Very well,” the sister mutters with a creased brow. “Go to the infirmary, where you really should have been from the start. And take Tomlinson with you. He looked so desolate without you here that it was distracting.” Harry and Louis both begin to collect their things, and the older of the two puts a hand on Harry’s back as they step into the corridor.

“She’s right. You should have gone straight to the infirmary. Or just come and got me,” Louis chides him as the pair begin walking down the stairs of the East Wing towards the arched entranceway, his fingers rubbing circles through Harry’s jacket as the brisk air hits them and they step onto the cobblestone pathway. “It’s freezing out here, maybe we should go get your coat from your lo – ”

“Zayn knows,” Harry blurts, the words tumbling out. Louis freezes where he stands.

“Back in November,” the younger boy begins, his jaw clenched and teeth chattering from the freezing cold around them, “before you and I were even considering being whatever we are, when, like, I wasn’t sure what our future really held for us, and when I would contemplate just… bad things. When I hated myself and we were in limbo, Zayn told me that he was…” Harry swallows. “He told me he was bi. And that it was okay if I was as well. He saw right through us, I guess, but he helped me… And he knows. About us.”

Harry stands with his feet planted firmly into the ground and body taut against the wind, and he watches as Louis’s face contorts into so many expressions that he isn’t able to keep up. Louis finally settles on one that’s in a place between perplexed and incensed. There’s more life in his eyes right now than Harry’s seen in weeks.

“How exactly did he help you?”

“We kissed.” Harry winces at the way Louis’s eyes take on a dark, menacing, and purely jealous look. “It meant nothing, and I know that sounds like the beginning of every bad – ”

“You kissed him?”

Harry pulls his arm into his side and hugs himself tightly. His thin school jacket really is doing next to nothing for him in the mid-January weather. “Yeah. To see if it was just you, or if it was… you know…”

“Other guys,” Louis fills in, his thumbnail coming up to his teeth. Harry nods and Louis’s expression melts into one that’s far more suggesting of calm than the one before. “And this was before you and me, right?” Harry vigorously nods again. “Okay. This would probably be a good time to tell you that Raj knows as well. He gave me the ‘protective parent’ talk on New Years.”

Oh. Harry didn’t know that. “Did he really?”

“Yeah, no lie.”

“The others know, as well,” Harry breathes into the air with something akin to relief spilling over him. He’s never stopped to think about how much of a miracle it was that he’d managed to hold his tongue as long as he had. It’s actually a bit of a marvel, but he supposes he’d sort of learned out of necessity. “Nick and Ray came up to me on Christmas about it. And my mum… well, I kind of just told her that I liked you the day you kissed me for the first time. I don’t know if she knows about us.”

“I swear, I don’t know what to do with you,” Louis mumbles, but there’s a tiny smile curving the sides of his lips. “I mean, it’s okay, Harry. Really. If you trust them, then I trust them.”

Harry can see the lie even as the blue pair of eyes glance to the sky, can see that he’s clearly just putting on a brave face for Harry’s peace of mind, but there are some battles Harry simply refuses to fight for both of their sakes. It’s a wonder that Louis hasn’t punched him by now. He instead knocks his forehead against Louis’s shoulder and snuggles in as best he can at the angle he’s at. “I was kind of scared to tell you to be honest.”

Louis slings an arm around Harry and pulls him into his chest. “I can tell. Out of curiosity, though – why is this all coming up now?”

Harry snorts as he recalls exactly why he’s been held up and why they’re standing there in the cold in the first place. He loops his arm through Louis’s and begins pulling them towards the auditorium, a short walk to the next building over, to hide out for the remainder of the block and free hour. Brother Winston probably won’t mind at all.

“You remember that poem that Zayn was obsessing over a month ago?”

“Yeah?”

“Well,” Harry continues as the two boys pace in time together, disturbing tiny slush puddles that have settled in between the stones that make up the pathway along the courtyard, “you’ll never guess what he’s done.”

~

Today’s the day. Today’s the day. Today’s the day.

Louis keeps saying this to himself over and over as he walks across the snowy courtyard towards the building to the left, and it’s a bloody miracle that he hasn’t exploded by now, because he can’t recall a time in his life that he’s felt so stressed. He knows he’s doing it to himself, and he knows that time isn’t going to stop for him just because he’s getting cold feet, but the facts don’t stop the intense and unavoidable panic he can feel rising inside of himself. He’s been preparing for this day his whole life, it feels like, and the anxiety he feels is comparable to what he thinks he’ll be feeling on his wedding day, or the birth of his first child, or the sending of said first-born child off to university or something. This is huge. Louis can’t believe that the time’s gone by so quickly.

It’s opening day of That Championship Season.

The other lads that he’ll be sharing the stage with had been working themselves up just as badly; Louis knew it and took a weird comfort in it from the start. There was an unspoken horror between the lot of them, all were concerned about how they’ll do, and they’d been giving each other frightened eyes all day. Brother Winston had apparently sensed it. He’d brought the five together a few minutes before class had ended, sat them down backstage, and told them all to hold hands. They’d spent enough time around each other at this point for it to not be weird, so they all did so without question.

“Boys,” he’d begun, “I know you all are nervous, and you have every right to be, but I can tell you now, there’s no way you can mess this up.” Brother Winston had walked around the circle of boys. “So, question. Do you trust your family at home?”

“Of course, sir,” Luke, the Bambi-eyed one playing George, had said rather quickly. The other boys nodded along.

“I know you do, and I have some news for you. The boys you are currently holding onto are your family. You trust your family at home, you can trust your stage one, too.” Louis had looked around the circle to the four others, and saw them do the same. Ashton, who plays Louis’s twin brother and was in the circle to his left, had given his hand a short squeeze. “I’ve been watching you five, and you all have gelled so well together. I have such confidence in you boys, because you’ve learned how to read each other, to help each other out when one of you struggles. You really have worked so hard to become close in our rehearsals and to make this work, and I believe that if you trust this family, and you believe in each other as much as I do, then nothing can go wrong. All will go absolutely smoothly.” Brother Winston finished his speech with an air of pride in his voice, and Louis could feel it go right over his head.

All he could think about as the five boys ducked their heads to pray together was how much he doesn’t want to disappoint. Before, it had just been that he was going to fuck his lines up or trip on stage and make an idiot of himself up there, but with Brother Winston’s words, his anxieties warped and enlarged to max capacity. They’d taken on the name ‘disappointment,’ and Louis couldn’t have hated himself more.

“Alright, you lads can go about now,” Brother Winston had said after the quiet chorus of ‘amen’ had been completed and the group finally broke apart. “Do what you need, get whatever you need to get done done.” All five boys had taken this and run with it, the one playing Coach, Michael, going so far as to jump on Calum’s back and ride him down the stairs, and Luke and Ashton both going backstage to prep a little more for the show. They’d invited Louis to come as well, but Louis had known that he needed to get away for a little while. He’d told them so and promptly walked up the stairs and out one of the backstage doors.

So Louis is headed to the library, because if he doesn’t see one of his best friend’s faces right now, he’s going to scream.

Or cry.

Or both.

The library is incredibly warm when he walks in, nearly tropical in contrast to the English wintertime made up of cold and white just outside the doors, and Louis reasons that it probably has something to do with the elderly sisters who work in there. They’re in the building all day and can’t handle the cold at all. Louis’s heard his Nan complain about it enough times to know, and he unbuttons his jacket as he begins making his way towards the general area where Zayn is usually either going through sections to catalogue books or sitting and reading a particularly interesting one that he’s found while doing said cataloguing. Louis’s just about to round the corner of the bookshelf and make his presence loudly known when he sees something that immediately makes him shrink back and hide.

Liam and Zayn are siting next to each other at one of the main tables on the far end of the library, and they’re close… extremely close. In fact, Liam’s got a hand atop Zayn’s, and he’s… rubbing circles into his knuckles with his thumb? That can’t be right. Louis dodges around the shelf he’s currently at – biographies – and swiftly moves 007-style ( body roll along the floor and all ) to hide behind one of the many fiction shelves, trying to get a closer look and make sure he’s not seeing what he thinks he’s seeing.

But he is. Liam’s hand is still atop Zayn’s, still rubbing circles, and Zayn is actually letting him. The two are whispering together with small, far-off smiles on their faces and looking like they’ve both completely forgotten that there’s a moving and living world around them. What’s even stranger is that Zayn’s body language is hinting at something Louis thought he’d never see; he’s got one hand on his cheek, his pinky is slowly tracing the corner of his mouth, and his eyes are giving a look that Louis can’t help but call ‘seduction,’ all dark and a quarter of the way closed to give him some kind of alluring air. Louis feels like hitting his head against the closest brick wall until he passes out.

Among all the horrors that had come along with the news of the stunt that Zayn had pulled in creative writing, Harry had also told him last week that Zayn is, in fact, bisexual, and explained that he’s currently got his eye on someone, but even under torture of tickles, Harry wouldn’t say who. Louis doesn’t think he’ll need to ask anyone else, because this is proof enough for him. It’s also proof that Zayn’s more mentally deficient than he’d previously thought.

It’s been a rough week for his friend, because as predicted, Zayn is now the school’s official outcast.  He’s been subject to marker graffiti slurs drawn on his locker ( though Louis doesn’t know what they said. They were cleared off before he could see, and Zayn refuses to tell him what they were ), and he’s had a whole matter of school supplies thrown at him, including pens, scraps of paper, and in one case that had Louis absolutely fuming, a textbook. Jack, Casper, and Josh, along with everyone else who Zayn called a friend or acquaintance outside of their concentrated group, have all distanced themselves to the point where Louis is sure they couldn’t get any further away if they tried, and even if Zayn won’t say it, Louis knows it hurts him to see some of his friends go. Niall, thankfully, chose to stick around, even if he did need a minute to assess. He came through after thinking about it, though, and Louis’s thankful that he made such a good choice in best friends.

Hallways clear for Zayn now, but it’s in the worst way possible. Louis, Harry, and Niall still walk alongside him and eat with him, but the three have a tendency to feel awkward from all the glares that are shot their way. They’ve all admitted that they do. Zayn refuses to show his own unease, though, and walks with his head held high. Louis thinks he’s incredible.

He’s still mentally deficient, though, especially seeing his choice in human beings to fawn over in person. Relating to that, Louis is still in need of an explanation as to how it’s even possible that Liam Payne, school bigot, is breathing within a twenty-metre radius of him. Louis considers it slightly amazing that he hasn’t spontaneously combusted from the physical contact yet.

And then the bell rings.

It’s odd to watch, because the moment the bell ceases and the rustle of notes being put away and book bags being zipped up and the scraping of chairs can be heard coming from the floor above, it’s like it’s midnight and Cinderella’s carriage is falling apart before his eyes. The two boys break apart and pack up their things without so much as looking at each other. The spell is broken. Louis presses his front to the shelf in front of him. The last thing he wants is for Liam to see him watching like a complete nutter from around the bend.

“You’ll do it, won’t you?” he hears Liam quietly mumble as he zips up his bag and throws it over one of his shoulders, keeping his eyes down so that to anyone walking by, it might appear that he’s talking to himself. “I remember you saying at one point that you don’t really text.”

That’s true. It’s often a job to get Zayn to text back on any occasion, like pulling teeth or something, and Louis usually resorts to calling him after three or so texts go ignored. Zayn flicks his eyes over to Liam just long enough to give him a short-lived grin.

“You’ve got mine too, lest we forget, but it’s unlikely I won’t. I’ll make an exception to my rule for you.” Liam puts on a smile that outshines the stage lights that Louis will be standing under in a few hours time, and another few seconds pass in silence between them before Liam speaks again.

“Be careful tonight, okay?” he says, and Louis is astonished by the amount of care the words carry. “It might be a little dangerous for you after hours, you know?”

“My knight in shining armor,” Zayn teases. Liam rolls his eyes. “Why can’t you come?”

“Because I have a literal mountain of homework that I can’t do this weekend,” the upper-sixth former says with revulsion. “Mum’s bringing me to the church tomorrow morning and keeping me there all day to help set up for some kind of event on Sunday. They’ve got, like, some of the oldest family members of the church coming together. Incredibly posh and elitist and all that.” Liam picks up a couple of smaller books off of the table, then walks over to one of the nonfiction shelves to put them back. “And anyways, it’s not like we’d be able to sit together if I did come.” Louis sees Zayn’s smile falter.

“Yeah, I s’pose you’re right.”

“But hey, if I can get everything done tonight, I’ll not be busy Sunday evening.”

“You want to come over?”

“Depends,” Liam asks with a crooked eyebrow. “Is your mum cooking again?” Zayn laughs and leans back in his chair.

“I’ll tell her to. You know she hasn’t shut up about having you over again since break.”

“What can I say?” Liam asks with a wink, buttoning up his uniform jacket so that it pulls taut over his shoulders. “I’m unforgettable.” Liam gives one final tug of the strap on his bag, and then he begins walking… towards Louis, as it turns out. “Text me, alright?” Louis hears him ask before he’s making a quiet scramble towards the side door of the library he’d come in through a few minutes before. Zayn must reply or nod or something, because Louis then hears Liam bid goodbye in a way that he’d have never thought possible in his dizziest daydreams.

Khuda hafiz,” Liam says. Louis isn’t sure he can breathe.

It’s so… odd. To hear a tongue that he barely gets to hear at the Malik’s house and occasionally at school from Zayn, it’s just odd when it’s coming out of someone else’s mouth. Louis’s not sure he dislikes it, or if he does like it, or… whatever. He can decide on that later, because Liam’s only a few feet away from him now. Louis’s got this.

“Oh, shoot, I’m sor – Oh,” are the words that come out of Liam’s mouth when he knocks shoulders with Louis. This was planned, of course, but Liam isn’t aware of that. For all he knows, Louis’s only just come into the library now to be accidentally bumped to the side, and he’s looking weirdly apologetic about it.

“No, no, you’re fine,” Louis says, feigning embarrassment at himself as his heart continues to go triple time. “I didn’t see you there.”

“Me neither.” Louis nearly falls over from the unexpected smile and gentle pat on the shoulder that Liam gives him without hesitance. “Hey, good luck tonight. I’m sorry I can’t come. I’ve got a big creative writing assignment that I’ve been putting off for about a week that I need to get done if I want to keep a decent grade.”

“That’s… a shame,” Louis says lamely. Liam nods.

“Nat’d been nattering on about the play for ages, but I think he sort of quit halfway through. He only took that class to make up the credits or whatever. I feel kind of bad for everyone who has to deal with the tosser.” Liam shrugs, and Louis makes as much of an agreeing sound as he can manage. What Liam says is true; Nat Chesney had been assigned to crew, but hasn’t been showing up to rehearsals since the middle of December. Louis almost jokes with Liam about how it’s kind of a prick move on Chesney’s part when they’ve got such a small support system as it is, but he doesn’t really feel up to getting punched today.

“I don’t blame him, it’s a lot of work,” Louis instead affirms when he can’t think of anything else to say. “If I had the option, I wouldn’t show up either.”

“Zayn says you’re amazing, though.”

“Zayn’s only heard me recite random quotes from films for fun,” Louis scoffs, tapping at the toe of Liam’s shoe with his own. “He’ll actually be seeing me for the first time tonight. Like you should be. School pride, support of the arts, and all that.”

“Tell you what,” Liam says after a brief moment of consideration, “I’ll try to finish my piece tonight, and if I have enough time, I’ll come. Sound reasonable enough?”

“Done,” Louis smiles, and before he even knows what he’s doing, he’s shaking hands with Liam Payne to seal the deal. Louis wonders how and when he stepped into an alternate dimension to allow this to happen. There’s no other reasonable explanation for how this reality can possibly exist, because as far as his memory can recall, he’s never exchanged anything more than either curt or flat words with Liam… Or threats against life and limb, and those were only five months before.

“Well look, I have to head out, but good luck, or… break a leg, I think? That’s what you say?” Liam asks hesitantly, and Louis nods as he finally lets go of Liam’s hand. “Okay, good. But yeah, good luck. You’re going to smash it.”

Louis just stands there in a confused daze for a minute after Liam leaves him, going over everything that’s just happened. He’s still not incredibly sure that he hasn’t simply daydreamed about himself being cordial with someone who he has presumed since the beginning of time to be one of the most horrific and least agreeable people to walk the earth. And he’s just wished him luck. What a fucking day.

Louis walks back to where he had been standing close to before, and Zayn is still sitting at the table he’d been left at. He’s got his face buried in his arms now and one loose fist in the air like he's Judd bloody fucking Nelson, which manages to look halfway triumphant, halfway like he’s forgotten it’s there altogether. Louis clears his throat.

Assalam o alaikum,”he says in greeting, just like Zayn had taught him last month, and he watches as Zayn’s face drops whatever hint of mad happiness he was just feeling when he looks up. It might have something to do with the expression Louis’s currently throwing at him. Interesting. He keeps it.

Wa’alaikum,”Zayn replies quietly, giving a tiny wave.“What’s with the look?”

“What was that thing that just wished me good luck tonight on its way out of here?” Zayn looks over Louis’s shoulder and sees nothing, so it takes a moment to realise what his friend is talking about.

“You mean Liam?”

“Mm-mm,” Louis shakes his head. “That wasn’t Liam, mate. Looked like Liam, couldn’t be him, though.”

“What are you on about?”

“Because he was pleasant. Not once did he glare at me or threaten me with God’s wrath.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, he doesn’t glare anymore.” Louis hadn’t noticed that, actually, but judging by the fact that Zayn’s usually the only one out of the two of them still awake in choir and not napping or studying lines for theatre under the risers half the time, it has the potential to be true. Still.

“Are you saying he’s a changed man?”

“I’m not saying shit, Louis. Just leave him alone, yeah?”

Louis could, hypothetically, do just that and drop it, and if he knew what was good for him, he probably would. He knows himself well enough, though, and he really wants to hear this from Zayn. There’s no way he can back down, he’s here now, so he jumps up onto the tabletop and swings his legs under it. “But you can’t…” he starts, but then he rethinks and tries to bite down his laughter at the words that are about to come out of his mouth. He honestly can’t believe himself sometimes. “Z, he’s a crazy bag of dicks, how – ”

“Wha – He’s not a crazy bag of dicks, Lou, what the hell?!” Zayn exclaims, and he’s apparently finding this as funny as Louis is, because he’s got the hint of a smile in the corners of his mouth. Plus, he’s taken the bait, and Louis couldn’t be more pleased about it. “And this isn’t Romeo and Juliet. There’s no Capulets versus Montagues here, there’s no us versus them, so if you could drop that whole conception of yours, it would be much appreciated.” Louis thinks for a moment.

“Romeo and Juliet were forbidden lovers.”

“I have full and complete understanding of the plot of Shakespeare’s most famous play that he ever wrote, Lou,” Zayn says, rolling his eyes halfheartedly. “I’m well aware that they were forbidden lovers – ‘star-crossed’, if we’re quoting him.”

“So does that make you and Liam star-crossed lovers as well?” Zayn goes silent, and Louis can take no responsibility for the smirk that spreads across his face. “I see.”

“You see nothing,” Zayn says, and it’s now that he really begins to pack everything away. He pulls his previously rolled up sleeves back down his wrists, and Louis sees one of them has some light pen marks on it, but Zayn gets to his feet before he can take a good look at what they are. Louis knows when he’s being lied to, and he narrows his eyes as he trails behind his friend that is currently trying to make a hasty escape towards the main entrance of the library.

“You can’t hide it from me forever,” he tells his friend as they walk, and Zayn barely shoots him a glance when he replies.

“I can bloody well try.”

The two boys go silent after that, and they both stand in the corridor just across the wide stairwell where Harry and Niall will be coming down any second now. Zayn’s got his arms crossed over his chest and he’s looking fairly cross, probably seeing as he’s just sort of been outsmarted. Louis knows he doesn’t like being made a fool. He also knows that his suspicions have been proven correct; Zayn’s fallen for Liam. He isn’t quite sure what to do with this information if he’s honest, but he’s racked up quite a supply of sympathy for the lad in the past few days.

Zayn probably doesn’t want or need any more shit from people than he’s already getting, so it’s kind of up to Louis to make things better. He won’t lie and say he completely understands what’s going on with Liam and Zayn or how it’s even possible that Liam may actually have a genuine human soul inside of him that doesn’t grow stronger from other people’s fear of him and the tears of small children, but it’s not up to him to find that out today. Today, his job is to be an understanding best friend.

“You know,” he begins, “if you do actually like Liam, then – ”

“Then what? You’ll be supportive of me? That’s rich.” That actually cuts kind of deep for some reason, and Louis feels a bit taken aback. He doesn’t plan on showing it though, so rather than do that, he just removes all personal space between them and wraps his arms around Zayn’s waist.

“Zayney, baby,” Louis whines, “let’s not fight, not when it’s such a big night for me.” Zayn pushes him off, but when Louis comes back twice as strong, he surrenders with a smile in his voice and puts his own arm around his older friend.

“Stop being a dick, then.”

“I’m your favourite dick, though.”

“Double entendre.”

“What?”

“Nothing. What time’s it at again?”

“Seven.”

“’s late.”

“Sorry that I’m cutting into your beauty sleep on a Friday night, princess.”

“Sacrifices have to be made, Malik,” Louis hears the familiar voice of his other best friend come from just a few metres away. “Support the artists! ¡Viva la arts!” a newly appeared Niall shouts, and he jumps down the last four stairs on the stairway in one giant leap to collide with his two already clumped friends. “¡Viva la theatre!” It’s a miracle that the three don’t crash to the ground.

“Brute! Animal!” Louis cries at him as he and Zayn try to push themselves back up to a normal standing position with Niall’s additional weight on top of them. “Barbarian! There are socially acceptable ways of saying hello, and this is not one of them!”

Niall snuggles into his shoulder. “‘Socially acceptable’ is code for ‘boring as all hell’. You and I were not born to lead a socially acceptable life.”

“There’s a thin line that separates being interesting and deranged,” Louis says with a final push against the broad shoulder of his friend. “You, my darling, are teetering dangerously on that line.”

“Niall, are you bothering people again?” Louis hears from just behind him. “I swear we had a talk about personal space at some point.” Niall huffs, glancing back to the bottom stair to glare at the year-eleven behind him.

“No, mum,” Niall says, relinquishing hold of the two boys in his arms. “They’re just fine.”

“Thank you for saving us, Harry. I thought for sure he’d never leave us alone,” Zayn says. This is a bit of a mistake, because Niall all but tackles him against the wall. Louis feels a warm body press against his side, and he wouldn’t be able to find another ounce of relief inside of him that isn’t already in use to spare at the younger boy’s presence if he searched for the rest of his days.

“How’re you feeling?” he asks Louis, ever the observant one when it comes to Louis’s stress and anxiety levels ( God bless him for it, because Louis sometimes thinks he’d go stark-raving mad without him ). Louis replies with a quick kiss to his forehead while no one’s watching.

“Freaking out, to be honest,” he affirms, recalling the scene from ten minutes before in the auditorium. “I keep thinking about how I’m gonna screw up and disappoint everyone.”

“You’ll be just fine,” Harry says, and Louis can see the utter confidence he has in him sparkling in his eyes like diamonds. “We’ve gone over this thing hundreds of times. You’ll be just fine, and I’ll be sitting with Niall and Zayn right in the first row, cheering you on.”

This only makes Louis nervous again, twice over.

“Mate, your nerves look shot. Are you alright?” Michael inquires with a concerned expression as Louis arrives back at the auditorium, quick, jittery fingers rubbing the cold weather out of his hands as best they can. The younger of the two, a lower sixth like Zayn, has undergone a bit of a transformation in the time that Louis’s been gone, and he’s now in full costume. His hair’s been gelled back and painted to look salt-and-pepper, he’s got a small padded insert in the front of his shirt to give him a more portly look, and there are thick brown lines drawn in the corners of his eyes, his forehead, between his eyebrows, and all around his mouth. It’s like Louis’s looking at a sixty-year-old version of Michael now – the wonders of good stage makeup.

“Fine,” he lies, because shit, now he’s apparently behind everyone else if Michael is all ready. How long was he gone for exactly? “Just nervous is all.”

“I can see that.”

“Can you now?”

“Well, I think we all are, really, so I don’t know if that makes me more perceptive to it or what. You know what I think would make you feel better?” Louis shakes his head. “Alright, come with me.”

Louis follows Michael back to a closed-off area that’s for the cast members only, a sort of VIP section that isn’t VIP on any sense of the word. It’s got dividers separating the small area from the rest, and inside are a bunch of tables, a vanity for makeup application, the racks with their costumes, and a worn-out couch. The other lads are there as well, fucking about on their phones or around with each other, and the first thing Louis sees is the fact that Luke doesn’t really look like Luke anymore… well, he does, but all his hair is gone.

Whereas Luke had once had blond hair that was just barely brushing his shoulders, it is now short and quiffed, making him look less like Bambi and more like a young man. He looks rather good, if Louis’s being forward, much better than before. He feels Michael nudge him at his side.

“Good, eh?” he asks Louis, and Luke looks up from his seat next to Ashton and smiles at them with large, happy eyes. Never mind. He definitely still looks more Bambi than boy.

“It is good. You do that?” Michael nods and crosses his arms as he admires his work.

“Indeedy. Loads of practise with my own, you know?”

“You cut your own hair?”

“Since I was, like, thirteen I think.”

“Huh.” Louis has to hand it to the lad, because the cut looks like it’s been done in a shop by someone who’s a lot more professional and qualified than Michael probably is. “Did you just feel up to it, Luke?” Luke settles back into his seat on the couch and consequently into Ashton’s side as well.

“Well, he sort of convinced me, I guess?” the youngest of the five cast members starts. “He said that whenever he gets stressed out about something or bored, he does something with his hair, like, colours it or cuts it. I told him I was nervous, and he just kind of… offered to cut it. Said it might help me out, and I just kind of said, ‘alright.’”

The odd thing is, Louis can sort of see the appeal. He does the same thing with his nails, just bites and bites and bites at them until they bleed and there’s nothing there. It’s nice to get rid of something, in a sense, especially in situations where he feels like everything’s being piled on at once. Louis briefly glances down to his hands to observe his absolutely ragged fingernails, specks of dried blood from where he tore at them just a little too hard. Unless he wants some kind of infection, he’s probably got to lay off of them for a little while. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with experimenting with different ways to de-stress, especially on such an occasion as this one.

“Did it work, though? Do you feel better?” asks Louis, to which Luke smiles at again. He can’t seem to keep a happy look off of his face at any given time, and Louis just barely keeps himself from pinching at the young boy’s cheeks.

“It did, actually. I feel so much better. He’s really good.”

“Would you feel up for it, Lou?” Michael asks. “I like doing it, so it’s no problem if it’s gonna make you feel better.” He puts himself directly in front of Louis and runs a hand through the older boy’s fringe. Then he says, like it’s an afterthought, “I already have an idea for something, and you’ll look great. I bet Harry and all your boys will love it.” That pretty much makes Louis’s mind up for him.

He can’t stop touching it in the few hours afterwards, because his hair hasn’t been this short in ages. He likes it a lot. It’s oddly a lot cooler now, as his ears and neck are a bit more exposed to the open air, and that’s good seeing as the auditorium is really bloody hot for it currently being nighttime in January. There’s a bit of a problem with dealing with the fringe, though, if you could call it a problem. It’s really rather swoopy, and it constantly needs attention so that the styled hair doesn’t fall in his eyes and blind him – either that or half a can of hairspray, and Louis isn’t really willing to do that at the moment. The interesting thing, and the best thing, is that Luke was totally right. Louis feels fantastic…

And then he makes the mistake of peeking out of the closed velvet curtain ten minutes to show time to see how big of an audience he’s going to be dealing with.

It’s packed. It is bloody packed to max capacity, like if the building dared to take on more people inside of it, it would simply implode with a scream in a moment of pure and anguished excess. Louis never really had a proper appreciation of how truly large the place is, and he now knows exactly why he never did, because oh Jesus Christ, he’s crumbling. Everything Michael and the other boys and Harry had tried to instill in him, be it confidence or some degree of calm, is completely gone. He can feel his chest caving in with the weight of his panic.

He can’t go out there. He simply can’t.

Louis wonders as he stumbles back from the crack of light coming through the heavy drapery when exactly he got so goddamn pathetic, when one of the things in life that he truly loves had stopped being something he wanted to do for himself and transformed into some terrifying thing that he was obligated to do for other people. He can feel the other boys staring at him, whispering about him. His hand finds his mobile in his pocket, and before he’s even consciously aware of it, Louis’s typing out a message to the first number that he thinks to send one to, a despairing and frantic please please help me please i cant do htis i cant help me to the familiar name that has a series of hearts and smiley faces around it in his contacts. There are tiny spots of blood all over the screen from where his shredded fingernails have been tapping painfully at it.

He hears him coming before he sees him, pushing the others away and asking them for a minute alone, but that might have something to do with the fact that by the time Harry actually makes it back there, Louis’s sight is being partially blocked by tiny little white dots. Louis thinks he might be sick when strong arms pull him to his feet from the crouched position he’s taken against one of the dividers in the cast’s section and squeeze him around his middle. Calming words are being thrown into his ear, but Louis can’t take it. He can’t go out there.

“I can’t, Harry,” he tells him quietly, barely loud enough to hear over the nervous and excitable chatter of the crew around him from the other side of the enclosed area. “I can’t go out, my whole family’s out there. Everyone… half the whole fucking school is out there. And I have to do it again tomorrow. Twice. God, why did I ever think this was a good idea? Harry,” he whines, and then he’s crying, smudges of stage makeup bleeding onto the shoulder of Harry’s crisp white dress shirt that Louis knows he wore just for this special occasion that Louis’s currently ruining for him. “Harry, I can’t do this.” Louis’s probably done enough crying in front of Harry for a lifetime, really. He’s getting quite sick of himself for it.

“Louis, listen to me, and listen only to me. Ignore all them, eyes on me, yeah?” Harry says, and Louis holds his breath so that maybe he has a chance to hear over the stifled sobs he keeps holding in. The younger boy holds him close. “I’m sitting up front, right in the middle of the second row. When you’re up on that stage, those lights are going to be blinding you for the most part, you know? You’ll never even remember that they’re out there. Just keep your eyes on me up front.”

“I don’t want to do it,” Louis begins again, his hands finding Harry’s hair and lacing his fingers into it. “I c-can’t. I literally cannot. It’s too mu – ” He’s promptly cut off by Harry’s mouth pressing determinedly against his own. Normally, this would be so against the rules, and there’s probably a high possibility of someone, Michael or Ashton or Luke or Calum or even Brother Winston, walking right in and seeing Harry and Louis tangled up with desperation in their fingertips and lips and tongues, but Louis can’t bring himself to care. He can actually feel the calm leaking back into his conscious with every second that Harry pulls with him and at him with his kiss.

Louis is dizzy, a different kind of dizzy than before, by the time that Harry finally pulls them apart to start peppering kisses all along Louis’s jaw and stiffly starched and pressed collar, and he realises with a bit of a start exactly what Harry’s just done. He no longer thinks the world is disintegrating under his feet anymore, and actually feels – dare he say it? – somewhat composed, or at least more so than he did before.

“I like your new hair, babe,” Harry says, grazing his teeth lightly over Louis’s pulse point, and the older wonders if he can feel the rabbiting pace of his heart inside of his mouth. “It looks so lovely on you.” Louis nuzzles at the top of his head with his chin.

“I look good, do you think?”

“Well, for the most part. You’ve made a right mess of your mascara, I’m afraid.”

Louis chokes on his laugh as he steps back from Harry and wipes at the area under his eyes with hard fingers. They come away streaked and shining with black. His hands are still shaking. “Damn it all. It was supposed to be waterproof, too.”

“They never really are though, are they?”

“Never. False claims. Two quid right out the window,” Louis remarks. He feels so much better as Harry gives a good squeeze to both of the hands he’s now holding. “They really are awful.” Harry looks at him fondly for a moment before smiling at Louis with all he’s worth.

“Come here.” Harry tugs Louis back into his space and finds his way into his natural spot in the crook of Louis’s neck. They decided a while ago that it’s where he fits best on Louis’s body, and he can feel the younger boy breathe his smell in deep in a sigh. It’s probably a mix of sweat, day-old cologne, and the dust of Louis’s stage clothes that have been in storage for two years or so.

“You really are going to be just fine, Lou,” he tells him. “You’re going to be brilliant and everyone will throw flowers and chocolate and the entire contents of their wallets up on stage for you.” Oddly enough, Louis isn’t inclined to brush him off now, and he gives Harry a good rub with his thumbs along the nape of his neck where the tiniest and softest curls on his head meet skin.

“You just pulled me out of a panic attack, did you know that?” he says. “There’s not many people that can do that successfully.”

“There’s not many people who can make me sprint off in the middle of a conversation without giving any kind of warning, either,” Harry answers back into Louis’s vein, and the older boy can feel the words seeping in through the skin to join his blood on its excursion back to his chest. “I guess we’re just made for each other.” Louis doesn’t say it aloud, but he thinks for a minute that, yeah, maybe they kind of are. He gives Harry a little nip of thanks on his shoulder and breathes in deep.

Harry eventually retreats back to where he came from, but only when Brother Winston literally shoves him away and down the stairs thirty seconds before the house lights go down. Louis blows him a kiss before Harry ducks back around the curtain, and Harry throws him a double thumbs-up before he disappears. Louis’s stage brother comes to his side just as the applause and entrance music begins to give him a short pat on the back.

“You alright there, mate?” Ashton asks him in a whisper, unsure of whether the tiny microphones that have been carefully taped to their cheeks are on or not. “We thought we were gonna lose you there for a minute.”

“I’m alright,” Louis answers back equally as quiet, and he slips his stage glasses, composed of thick brown frames and thick lenses to make him look somewhat owl-eyed, onto the bridge of his nose. “I’m all better now.”

“In that case, I’d like to personally thank God for Harry Styles, then,” his brother says airily towards the ceiling at the reassurance and makes a cross over his chest. “Thank you, Lord. Not sure what we would have done without him.” As the two boys watch Michael step onto the stage first to begin the night off to thunderous applause that sends butterflies racing through his stomach, Louis joins Ashton in thanking Him for sending Harry his way. There really is no way around it. Harry Styles is an absolute godsend.

~

Harry had known Louis was going to absolutely destroy his role, and he had been made aware every day that they’d spent preparing for this night of how good Louis is at what he does, but he’d had no idea as to how brutally the older boy would smash it, leaving his extremely well qualified costars in the figurative dust.

“I just can’t believe how incredible you were,” Harry’s mum is just about shouting at Louis for the tenth time tonight across the kitchen counter, her third glass of red wine tipping dangerously in her hand as she points it around the room for emphasis. “The accent, the emotion, that anger and frustration… I just can’t believe it!” Louis laughs so loudly every time she says it, clearly happy to have validation of his brilliance that Harry’s fully under the impression is probably inherent in his DNA. He’s so otherworldly to Harry, so gorgeous, and Harry believes with all of his being that every single square inch of Louis has to have been planned and put together by something or someone. A simple random and jumbled mix-up of nucleotides, hydrogen bonds, and proteins simply cannot be given credit for this incredible human being with so much life in the corners of his mouth and joy in his eyes, light remnants of brown liner in the creases beside them.

Really, there’s never even a thought of Louis that isn’t beautiful in Harry’s head, and he’s at the point where he’s accepted that the very idea of such a thought’s current or future existence is not only improbable, but totally impossible. In preparation for the upcoming half term test, Harry had heard Dr. Flynn explain earlier that week that all humans are made of the remnants of exploded stars, and looking at Louis, Harry knows it to be true. He can see the dust of them in his eyes, and he can’t stop himself from looking.

He’s been quietly pushing all night, gently, so as to make sure Louis thinks nothing of it. He’d pushed them out the doors tonight after the millionth person had come up to them to tell Louis well done, he’d pushed them away from the car park and into Anne’s car after Zayn had assured them for the tenth time that he’d be fine to make his way home himself, and he’d pushed the whole Tomlinson family out the front door, sans Louis, when the clock had struck ten forty-five. Now, he’s pushing the boy made of stardust away from his hilariously somewhat-inebriated mother and closer to the stairs.

“It’s past your bed time,” is his quiet and somewhat teasing excuse, and he’s rubbing circles in Louis’s lower back to make him shiver and his eyes go a darker shade of blue. It’s all very strategic in Harry’s mind, as he’s had this thing in the back of his mind for the last few weeks that can finally come to light.

Not that he’s impatient, but seeing as the time that they’ve been spending together recently has held nothing more than fleeting kisses if they’re lucky, it’s probably past due that they should push it, go a little further than what they’ve been allowing themselves. The way Harry sees it, Louis deserves a gift after the hellish few months he’s been through. He’s been making himself mad over everything, and now it’s at least partially over. Plus, it’s Harry’s sixteenth birthday in exactly five days, something Harry can hardly believe, and that’s important. Louis gave Harry something on his birthday, the red and cream coloured bracelet that can still be found on Harry’s wrist at any given time outside of school, the bracelet that meant more than Louis could ever have the capacity to know, and the younger of the two has kept it in the forefront of his mind to return the favour when it’s his time.

Harry pushes Louis against the closed door of his bedroom when they finally escape Anne’s loud conversation and immediately attaches his lips to Louis’s in a fervour. He can’t stop running his fingers through Louis’s newly shorn hair – it’s so short and soft from the cut and sticky with hairspray or gel or something in the back. Harry doesn’t care though, too involved with the hot temperature of the older boy’s mouth on his neck and the sharp, quick sting of teeth on his shoulder to do anything but give it a fleeting thought. Louis’s hands are exploring over Harry’s skin now, making their way under the soft t-shirt he’d slipped into earlier on that night in exchange for the shirt and jacket he’d worn to the play and across the expanse with a frantic and needy pressure. Harry’s so, so glad Louis needed this as much as he did.

“Bed, babe,” Louis mumbles against his lips again. “Bed, please.” And, well, Harry can’t exactly say no to that.

He reaches behind Louis to click the lock shut and takes his hand to lead him over to the bed in the darkness. There’s only a miniscule amount of light coming in through the window from the streetlight, and it just so happens that it’s casting the most perfect, glowing light on the boy who’s currently lying across his bed, lips parted, breathing heavy, and staring up at Harry with an intensity that he’s only ever daydreamed about. Harry latches his lips back onto Louis’s as he guides himself into his lap and wraps his arms around the older boy’s neck. They fall back onto the mattress together, and he feels Louis’s hands all over him again.

Truth of the matter is, Harry has absolutely no fucking clue how to go about this, and every second that he’s kissing Louis and dragging his hands a little farther down the older boy’s body, he knows he’s getting closer to something new entirely. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. He’s got the general gist of it for obvious reasons, but he’s hoping Louis has a better idea for him to follow.

“You really did do so well, Lou,” Harry says in shudders when the tips of Louis’s fingers dip under the waistband of Harry’s pants, just above where his hipbone pushes outwards of the skin. He swallows as the older boy nips at his neck. “You were so brilliant.”

“So will I be rewarded for my fine work?”

“That’s the idea,” Harry says, halfway laughing and halfway so turned on that he can’t think of anything else to do but start pulling at Louis’s shirt, gesturing up, up. Louis gets the idea and helps him out, discarding the item to the side where it falls to the floor, and Harry’s never seen this stretch of skin in such a light. He wants to take a picture to hang up on his corkboard and remember it forever. He bites at it instead, and he feels Louis’s hips jolt up to meet him.

“Christ, you bloody vampire,” he groans and runs a hand through Harry’s hair when the boy plants a light kiss on top of the now pinked skin just below the dip in his throat. “Don’t know what I’m gonna do with you.”

“I have some ideas,” Harry says, making his way farther down Louis’s chest with light drags of his lips, and just as his hand is about to pop the button on Louis’s jeans, he hears the vibration of a phone. He stops moving immediately. It’s not his.

“You are joking,” he begins slowly, and Louis’s body begins to tremble with stifled laughter, quiet so as not to wake the possibly sleeping parents of the household. “You didn’t… you didn’t silence it?”

“Well, I didn’t very well know you were going to attack me and drag me to your bed to have your way with me the second I stepped through the door, did I, caveman? A little warning might have done it.” Louis brings his hips up again to reach back into his pocket and bring out his mobile that sends bright white light across his teeth. Harry just wants to know who he has to kill on Monday for texting Louis at – he glances back at the clock on his bedside table – 11:28 at night. That’s just discourteous.

“Unknown number,” Louis tells him when Harry asks, his expression going pinched at the message. “Do you know it?” He holds it up to Harry, who blinks at the sudden light change, but when his eyes do finally adjust, the number is not the first thing that catches his attention. Instead, it is the message itself that reads –

zayn’s in trouble. help him please I cant.

“Zayn?” Harry asks after he shakes his head at the unfamiliar series of digits at the top of the small screen.

“Apparently. Have you heard from him since we last saw him?” Harry hasn’t. “No, neither have I.”

“Call him,” Harry says quickly, because he’s suddenly got a very bad feeling about this. All of his warmth has vanished, drained like water down a pipe. “Just make sure he’s alright.” Louis first shoots off a text to the number, enquiring exactly to whom he’s speaking to, and then dials Zayn’s number from memory.

It goes straight to voicemail.

“He didn’t pick up,” Louis says, idly rubbing at the perimeter of the device with his thumbs after he pulls it away from his ear. “He didn’t…” He trails off for a moment after that, waiting for the return text of the anonymous person, his gaze lowered. He then looks up at Harry with words in his eyes that Harry can’t quite read in the dark, and whispers, “You don’t think…”

Another buzzing from his hands cuts him off, and he unlocks it to read it the moment the noise ceases. Harry watches in wait across from him on the bed as Louis goes over the message again and again.

“It says that we need to go to the school, the football pitch,” the older boy says after a moment, and then pockets his phone as he shuffles a bit closer to Harry. His face is still pinched. “I know this is a bit strange, but do you have a really weird feeling about this?” Harry really does, and it’s only getting worse with every second that they sit here doing nothing, like antsy but worse, because as Louis had been reading the second message, he’d realised something that made him feel like his stomach had turned to stone.

Zayn had insisted he’d be okay when they’d left, said that he’d told his mum if he needed a ride, he’d call for one. At the time of Zayn’s leaving his house earlier that night, it had been undecided exactly where he’d end up, and seeing as Harry and Louis were a bit preoccupied and Niall had some sort of family thing in the morning, he was going to walk home.

All by himself.

It’s starting to kick up flurries again by the time Louis and Harry are well enough wrapped up for the freezing cold winter air outside and sneak past Anne, who’s fallen asleep on the couch, into the outside world. It’s a decent walk from Harry’s place, still shorter than Louis’s, and it’s made even lengthier by the silence between the two boys who are walking double time towards the familiar gravel path that will take them towards the school and eventually skirt along the edges of the pitch. Every falling flake that hits Harry’s cheeks is a pinprick, a reminder of how much of an idiot he truly is, and how terrible of a supposed ‘best friend’ he is.

“H, maybe we shouldn’t have come alone,” Louis says as they’re nearing the end of the path, and he grabs onto Harry’s hand to hold to give it a short squeeze. The hand is freezing cold and clammy to the touch, and Louis’s fingers are probably stiff like Harry’s are. “Maybe we should have woke Robin up or something?” The younger boy squeezes back, ignoring the dull pain that it sends through his joints.

In hindsight and due to the cryptic nature of the texts, that probably would have been wise, but then again, he’s not sure if Robin and Anne know about Zayn being out. Although he wouldn’t put it past everyone in his outrageously gossipy community to whisper about such things the moment they’d heard it in the opposite aisle of the Sainsbury’s or in the pews of the church, his parents haven’t said anything to Harry about it. He’s not sure if such an explanation would be taken as well by Robin as it had with Anne, and time isn’t a thing that can be wasted tonight. The wind picks up and whistles piercingly through the trees above them, rattling the few dried and dead leaves that have stubbornly refused to let go since the weather grew cold. It sounds a bit too similar to screaming.

Harry doesn’t answer his question back, just gives another short squeeze after a moment and assures, “We’ll be alright.”

It’s unspoken, but when the two finally reach the part of the path where the trees clear into open space to give a full view of the seven buildings that make up their school in front of them, Harry notices that their pacing inexplicably quickens. Harry knows both he and Louis are panicking at this point, unsure of exactly what will lie in wait for them on the football pitch in just a matter of moments. The dry, powdery snow has built up enough to crunch under their feet, and it almost squeaks like a small animal against their shoes at the pressure of every quick and heavy footstep. Louis’s icy hand tightens around his own, and Harry can feel and hear his heart pounding halfway out of his chest by the time that they reach the place atop the hill where you can only just see the field below. The tall, fluorescent lights are turned on around the pitch for some reason. They shouldn’t be on.

Louis suddenly pulls Harry to a forcible stop and points with a single finger down towards Harry’s feet. There are, Harry sees, a series of footprints, only partially filled in by the accumulating snow, that lead down towards the football pitch. Among them also, the younger boy swallows thickly when he realises it, are thick marks of someone’s heavy feet trailing behind the group, and it’s quite clear to Harry that someone’s been dragged along. But there’s something else there as well, and tiny and infrequent dots of it are staining the otherwise white.

“Isn’t that blood?” Louis asks breathlessly, all of the air sounding like it’s been stolen out of his chest at the sight, and Harry’s eyes rip themselves away from the red splotches to follow the trail of prints from where the paved-over car park starts on the far left all the way down to the field at the right. His breath hitches in his throat when he sees it.

There’s someone lying in the centre of the iced-over grass.

They’re not moving.

Harry is running as fast as his legs can carry him.

“Zayn,” he calls out as loudly as he possibly can, the name slashing and ripping at the inside of his throat like some hideous, evil creature from the depths of his worst nightmares, “Zayn!” But Zayn still isn’t stirring at his voice, and as Harry tears down the sloping hill through the snow closer to him, kicking up white with every frantically paced step, he starts to see bits and pieces of exactly what circle of hell he’s running towards.

There’s a puddle of red, a fucking river of it, that’s bleeding into the white around the unconscious boy currently lying motionless in the slowly amassing snowfall, and it’s coming from literally everywhere. Zayn’s mouth, his forehead, and his nose are all fountains of sticky red. Harry drops to his knees when he reaches the older boy’s side, the denim skidding wetly along the bloodied ground underneath, and he cradles the boy close to his chest. Zayn’s lips and fingertips are the most unsettling shade of dusty blue Harry’s ever seen, and the cracks between his teeth are pink. Harry’s never felt colder skin in his life, and if is wasn’t for the fact that Harry can see Zayn’s chest riseandfallriseandfallriseandfall, so quickly and so shallowly like a fish pulled out of the sea and left in the sun to suffocate but still there nonetheless, he’d think he had a dead human being lying in his arms, face painted different shades of crimson with blood and maroon with growing bruises in the shape of knuckles all along both sides of his jaw and under his eyes.

“Louis, help me,” Harry can hear himself screaming at the boy who has followed and looks like he’s seeing something out of a horror film come to life, which Harry can relate to at the moment, swaying on his feet at the sight of all the red that’s dotting and staining the snow around Zayn’s body. There are tears on Harry’s cheeks. He can feel them starting to freeze on his face.

“Lou, please, please help me,” he tries again, his voice crackling as it barely escapes his mouth, and that seems to snap Louis into action. He moves to Harry’s side in an instant, putting his own hands on Zayn’s face. The boy is nearly unrecognisable under the layer of red.

“He tried to get up, Harry,” Louis says as he rips the thick black coat off of his shoulders and drapes it over Zayn’s panting body. “Did you see his footprints behind you? All the drops? He tried to get up and walk away.” He’s crying too, Harry can see the tears trickling down his face now. Harry hadn’t noticed it actually, too preoccupied with the scene in front of him to do so, but that sounds like such a Zayn thing to do that it physically hurts to think about. Of course he had gotten up, because that’s what Zayn does. He gets back up.

It feels like the night has gotten so much colder as Harry and Louis run back to the house with Zayn carried between them, like the air itself is made of ice. Harry’s got Zayn’s shoulders, and Louis’s in the front holding up Zayn’s knees and ankles and leading the way through the near pitch-dark with a kind of urgency that Harry guesses that neither boy has ever felt before. Louis’s only in his thin t-shirt now, having sacrificed his protection against the cold for Zayn, and Harry can see he’s gritting his teeth against the wintery night air and rapidly falling snow, jaw clenched and tight. Neither speaks other than to encourage the other to move faster every so often, but Harry’s mind is positively screaming up until the very second they stumble up the two front steps Harry has in front of his door.

“Mum, help!” Harry cries as they carry Zayn in, and it’s amazing that he doesn’t break down the heavy wooden door with the force of how he throws it open. It hits the wall behind it with a deafening smack, and Harry calls out to her again. “Help us, mum. Wake up, please!”

Harry hasn’t heard his mother scream in years, but she does when she rounds the corner from the living room where she’d fallen earlier that night, wine-drunk and smiley, and sees what her two boys are dragging into the house, snow in their hair and massive red splodges staining their shirts and jeans. All hints of sleep are gone from her eyes in an instant. Harry hears her yell upstairs to Robin for, “Towels, Rob, bring all the towels we have,” and Harry leads Louis into the living room to gingerly lay a still-unconscious Zayn down on the long leather couch.

The next half hour passes like a dream for Harry, and it’s filled with heating up more water and getting more blankets from Gemma’s wardrobe upstairs and heating those blankets up in the dryer and rinsing the never-ending streams of red out of old rags in the kitchen sink again and again. Harry feels next to helpless, definitely robotic. He knows he can’t afford to be helpless, though, and he keeps that in the forefront of his mind after his mother peels back Zayn’s cold, snow-wet clothing and discards it to reveal the early hints of bruises all along the boy’s right side of his chest and back. He’s even more horrified when he gets up close and sees more of the unsettling colour around Zayn’s neck, deep reddish-purple in a pattern that looks too much like fingerprints along the skin to be coincidence. Harry’s gaze frequently travels to the dark, healed over scar on Zayn’s chest.

Louis is the first to see the fluttering of Zayn’s eyelashes as Anne puts more warm wet cloths across his chest, careful to avoid putting pressure on the steadily blooming marks. He calls out to Harry in a frantic shout, and the younger boy is by Louis’s and his mum’s side in a split second. The two boys begin coaxing Zayn out of his head with soft words of encouragement, and they can hear the boy’s breathing become more laboured and heavy as he drifts closer to consciousness. Robin, too, comes over with more hot towels for Zayn, and stands behind them. The air is thick with suspense. Zayn’s fingers are beginning to twitch at his sides and his lip is shaking and –

His eyes open.

Harry isn’t sure Zayn quite knows where he is, as he looks a bit scared and confused as his uncertain eyes flick across the ceiling and soak up his surroundings, but the moment his gaze falls upon Harry and Louis, who are staring at him intently, recognition and a bit of disbelief is thrown across his features.

“Harry? Lou?” is the first thing he says, and Zayn’s voice is suddenly an octave higher and scratchier than Harry knows to be normal. He chalks it up to the fact that Zayn was literally grabbed by the throat at some point in the night and hushes his friend with gentle fingers across his arm.

“You’re at my house, Z, you’re gonna be okay. You’re safe now,” he says with a watery smile, and Zayn just stares up at him with wide eyes.

“How… you found me?”

“We did, mate,” Louis says, equally as teary as Harry is right now. He rubs a hand along Zayn’s shoulder as he breathes in deep so he can continue. “And you gave us a right scare for it.” The five people in the room sit quietly for a moment, Zayn throwing glances around to the four surrounding him with concern in their eyes until reality apparently catches up with the broken boy on the couch and tears begin welling up in his eyes, too. Harry hears him begin gasping for air, but just as Harry’s about to reach out a hand to shush and calm him down, Zayn begins to mutter in sobs.

Alhamdulillah, La illaha ill-Lallah, Muhammad-ur-Rassul Allah,” Zayn manages to say in a single, shallow breath, and Louis wipes at the tears that are falling in streams down his friend’s still cool cheeks. “All honour and glory and thanks are his, and praise and worship belong to him. To God be glory in his Church, for ever and ever, amen. SubhanAllah. Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”

Listening to Zayn go back and forth in his prayers with closed eyes and such unbelievable conviction, one to one God and the next to another in a different language, is one of the strangest and most beautiful things Harry has ever experienced in his life. In fact, he’s certain that this is among the top ten most beautiful things he has seen and will see in his lifetime, because fuck, at one point, Harry wasn’t sure if he’d hear his friend even speak again. The thought had crossed his mind on more than one occasion as he and Louis had run home under cover of darkness, and it had nearly torn him apart in the process, so he listens with a throat that’s slowly filling up until Zayn literally cannot speak another word, his voice giving out on him in slow crackles like the end to an old vinyl record. Even still, Zayn mouths along to the words that he can scarcely produce until Louis physically quiets him with a finger to his lips.

“Believe me, babe,” Louis says with a winded laugh, and Harry can tell he barely believes he’s lucky enough to hear Zayn speak as much as Harry does, “I’ve said enough prayers tonight for the both of us.” Zayn is only silent for a moment before he clears his throat and forcibly pushes his creaky words out.

“I’m sorry, Lou, I’m so sorry,” he says, and another tear escapes from the corner of his eye. Louis wipes that one away, too. “This was supposed to be your big night and I’ve ruined it and – ”

“Zayn Javadd Malik, don’t you dare say it. Don’t you bloody dare say that to me.” Louis looks at him sternly, and he rubs his thumb across the delicate skin on Zayn’s cheek below one of his blackened and swelling eyes. Harry sees his parents leave Zayn’s side together to go towards the kitchen out of the corner of his eye, and he can hear the subtle beeps of his house phone dialing a number. “This was absolutely not your fault.”

Zayn sniffles and shakes his head, pressing his shining and thankfully now pink lips together. “I tried… Louis, I tried to run.” The boy on the couch swallows thickly as he blinks away at the saltwater that still unrelentingly collects in the corners of his eyes. He’s on the verge of gasping for air now, and Harry grabs at his hand to give it a squeeze. Zayn immediately returns it. There’s a clink of tea mugs hitting the countertop from the kitchen. “They chased me from the benches by the car park. They – they had knives, and I tried to run, but I fell. I slipped on the ice on the pavement.”

“They chased you?” Louis asks in disbelief. Zayn nods.

“They – ” Zayn pauses to cough, and he winces at the pain that’s probably radiating through his chest before continuing. He pants for air between his fragmented sentences. “They laughed the whole time, like something out of my nightmares, Jesus Christ, and I… They dragged me away by my throat, I couldn’t fight it, I couldn’t even see. I thought I was going to die out there on that pitch, I thought… and it just hurt so badly, I could barely breathe…” Harry’s eyes flick away from Zayn’s face over to his left where Louis is sitting on his heels, and he notes that the older boy’s knuckles have gone white from the tight fist he’s holding at his side. Louis then inhales deeply before releasing his grip and sliding his hand into his back pocket to reach for his mobile.

“Just one more thing, mate, and then you have to rest,” the oldest of the three says, making a point to keep his voice tender for the bruised boy lying in front of him. “One more thing, okay?” Zayn nods again, and Louis unlocks his phone with a swift drag of his thumb before hitting a few places on it and holding it up for Zayn to look at. “If you don’t, it’s okay, but… Do you know the number? Have you seen it before?”

It takes a moment for Zayn’s bleary eyes to clear up enough to get a good look at the series of numbers. Harry watches him, held in anticipation as thick as jelly, and before he even knows what’s happening, Zayn’s crying again. There’s dried blood under the older boy’s fingernails, and Harry runs his hands across the lines along the hand he’s holding onto.

“You know it?” Harry asks, to which Zayn nods one last time as he gasps for the air that’s just escaped him. Harry feels his stomach leap into his throat as he rubs tiny circles into his friend’s wrist. “Who is it? Can you tell us?” Zayn takes a moment to breathe, and Harry takes it upon himself to push a kiss into Zayn’s palm, coaxing the words out as best as he possibly can. Zayn chokes the name out with a smile.

“Liam.”

Harry’s heart ceases to beat.

Chapter Text

Louis can’t say that he’s ever seen red in his lifetime before, at least not before tonight, and there’s probably a good reason for that. It’s a bit scary to feel this way, so full of blind, boiling fury that his vision goes tunneled and every muscle in his body feels like it’s screaming and begging for him to just hit something, hit something damn it, rip something apart with your fucking teeth if you must. Louis knows who and what he feels like ripping apart, though, and he’s currently walking through the falling snow to get to him. At least he’s got objective. All Louis can think of as he walks and bares his exposed arms to the wind is Zayn’s pain, both physical and emotional, and how furious he is about it.

They chased him.

They’d kicked him where he fell.

They dragged him by his throat down to the field.

They beat him within an inch of his life, cut him, punched him, spat on him as he’d collapsed to the ground, and then left him in the freezing cold nighttime to bleed, to hurt, to die.

And Liam had been there the whole fucking time. Louis’s never been so irate in his life.

The walk is soon over, and when Louis comes across the familiar address, the Payne’s home thankfully isn’t dark yet. The lights and television are still on in the living room. Louis notices this as he marches up to the front door, the curtains glowing a soft yellow towards the street and the hum of a late night quiz show playing behind the walls. Louis wonders when Liam got home, and if he felt guilty at all as the warm air of the house seeped into his winter-chilled skin, knowing that someone else was lying in the snow. He adds these questions onto his list of things to ask Liam as he pounds on the door with a harsh fist.

“Louis?” Mrs. Payne answers the door after the third time that Louis knocks, and he can see the sleepiness in her eyes as she braces herself against the winter night. She’s huddled herself up in a fuzzy bathrobe and slippers, her glasses slightly askew on her nose, and the tiny woman peers up at Louis with something akin to puzzlement. Louis only feels guilty for a second when he remembers who and what he’s here for.

“Is your son in?” he asks, and his voice comes out a lot harsher than he’d thought it would. He sounds absolutely nasty, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Her eyes were on the collar of his shirt before he’d even opened his mouth.

“Louis Tomlinson,” she breathes, bringing a hand up to her mouth, “is that blood on your shirt?” Louis quells an eye roll.

“Yes. Is your son here?”

“He just got…” she begins, clearly unsure about what exactly is going on and probably wondering if her boy’s got something to do with that dark red-brown stain on his shirt, but then opens the door for him without another word. Louis brushes past her and immediately heads up the stairs to find Liam and destroy him.

As it turns out, it’s not all that difficult, because his bedroom door is wide open. Louis nearly walks past the room before he sees him sitting at his desk with a long sleeved black V-neck and joggers on, arms crossed and head down atop them. When Louis kicks the door closed as hard as he possibly can behind him upon entering, Liam doesn’t even flinch. Instead, he just looks up slowly and knowingly, like he’d been expecting someone all along and damn, isn’t Louis right on time?

Interestingly, what Louis notices first is that Liam looks absolutely horrendous. It almost appears that he hasn’t slept in days, and his eyes look vaguely hollowed with the pools of violet underneath. His wavy brown hair is partly matted and sticking to his forehead with sweat from where it had been pressed against his arm a moment ago, his jaw is strained, and the skin of his cheeks is a sickly shade of pale. He’s radiating exhaustion, and if he were in the right state of mind, Louis might say he looks fevered. Louis is not in the right state of mind at all, though, and his blinding rage is only coming back twofold now that he’s got the reason for his friend’s anguish siting right in front of him.

“He could have died out there,” Louis feels the words bubbling out of his mouth. His vision is once again tinged and blurred pink in the corners. Liam looks at him, and Louis’s unsure of what’s happening when Liam slowly, slowly gets to his feet. He notices that the other boy is limping on his right leg, and Louis sincerely hopes that Zayn kicked his kneecap in or something. There’s only maybe half a metre between the two boys where they stand across from each other, and Liam blinks at him.

“I know,” he says, face blank as slate. “That’s why I texted you.”

Louis’s fist makes contact with Liam’s cheek without him being aware that it’s happening, and before he can even wonder if that was a good move or not, since Liam could probably actually kill him with minimal effort if he wanted to, he spots bright red in the dustbin beside Liam’s desk. There are tissues, possibly a dozen of them, that are all crumpled and speckled with what is frankly an excessive amount of crimson. Louis focuses his gaze in on Liam’s hands, both tightened at his side. His knuckles are bruised, there are raised scratches all over the backs of them, and Louis’s now spitting venom out like he’s got no other purpose in this world.

“Tell me, Liam,” Louis says, resolutely ignoring the radiating pain that’s moving through his hand and up his arm, “was it just you there tonight, or did all of your little waste-of-space friends with the collective IQ of a goldfish join you for a ‘kick the biracial, bisexual kid around’ party? I’m only assuming you did, since you probably needed someone to help you chase and hunt him down like he was a fucking fox in December. Did you have a Facebook invite page for the occasion?”

“I didn’t want to, I… I’m sorry,” Liam says weakly. Louis narrows his eyes to slits.

“I don’t care,” he spits, and his words sound and feel like they’re carved from ice as they glide along his tongue and across his teeth. Louis is vibrating. “You know, he is nothing but nice to you, he’s nothing but good. He speaks so highly of you and defends you when the rest of us would like nothing better than to spit in your fucking face.”

“I know that.”

“And yet you still treat him like shit,” Louis snaps. “So tell me, because I’m curious; what the hell exactly is your problem with him?” He goes silent for a moment to watch as Liam’s eyes grow gradually more distant with every moment that passes. Not even twenty seconds go by before Louis is losing it in the silence, and he’s pushing Liam back towards the wall, another forceful shove every few seconds that his voice turns to knives with. He’s admittedly in near hysterics.

“Fucking answer me, you worthless son of a bitch, what the fuck has he ever done to you to where you would leave him bleeding like a dog in the street? Are you even listening to me? He nearly died out there.” Liam’s back is fully pressed against the cream coloured drywall behind him by the time Louis finishes his sentence. He stares back at Louis, and he can see the rise and fall of Liam’s chest begin to slow.

“I know,” Liam says quietly with a face of stone and eyes like black holes. “That’s why I texted you. I knew you’d come for him.”

The inside of Louis’s head has never been louder, like the drone of a jet is roaring in his ears, and he can feel his body turning white hot. If he was angry before, he’s bloody murderous now. His vision is starting to go past red, dotting into blackness, and he can feel his blood rushing through his body and his words coming out in a terrible and unrecognizable scream –

I’m going to wring your fucking neck.”

– and now Louis’s hands are around Liam’s throat. He’s squeezing so hard that his knuckles are popping in their sockets. He feels Liam’s hands atop his own, feebly pulling at them, and that only makes him squeeze harder. He wants to bruise him, to pull away with Liam on his knees and eyes rolling to the back of his head. He wants Liam to run his fingers over the marks on his skin in front of a mirror later, to wince at the pain of even grazing the lilac coloured prints along his jugular, just so he can match Zayn. Louis wants him dead for daring to look him in the eye, daring to hand him the responsibility of looking after one of the kindest and most wonderful humans that’s ever been blessed upon the world. He wants Liam dead.

Louis hears a woman scream behind him.

Rough hands pull him back just as Liam’s eyelashes begin to flutter, as his grip on Louis’s hands is starting to ease, as the tiny high-pitched wheezes for air are beginning to slow, and Louis’s thrown back into the opposite wall. The back of his head hits the surface hard, and he sees stars before he does the man holding him back, a fist in his t-shirt. Louis’s seen him at enough Sunday services and summer barbeques of neighbors to know that this is Liam’s father. A few feet away, Liam’s mother has, in the matter of a split second, moved across the room from the door to Liam’s side to hold her boy’s shoulder to her chest and run her fingers through his hair as he coughs into the soft, bedroom carpet.

“What in God’s name do you think you’re doing?!” Mr. Payne roars, tiny splashes of spit falling across Louis’s cheek and temple with every deafening word that makes his ears ring. “How dare you come into my house at this hour of the night and attack my family.” The words come out before Louis consciously thinks about them.

“Would you prefer me to come back at a more decent hour then, sir?” Louis asks with a sneer. Mr. Payne’s face distorts and turns an unbelievable shade of pink.

“Why you little sh – ”

“Dad, stop.”

Louis looks from the large man who is currently pinning him to the wall over to where Liam is. The other boy is on his feet now, which is somewhat miraculous given that his eyes were just about looking to the back of his skull only a moment and a half ago, and he’s putting out a hand to ease his father down from across the room. Mr. Payne looks as confused as Louis feels, and the older man’s brow twitches. “Liam?”

“He was only angry, dad. Let him go.”

“What have you done?” Mrs. Payne asks as she rubs her son’s back. She’s back on her feet as well, still in her robe and slippers, and she looks so warm and cuddly. “What’s he so angry at you for?” Mrs. Payne looks frightened as she holds her son close to her. She’s a sweet woman that her husband and Liam both positively tower over, and who would never do or wish harm on anyone, Louis knows this well, but there’s the matter of her offspring that is still making his blood as hot as the tea she’ll be drinking in a matter of minutes.

“Yeah, Liam,” Louis says with his head cocked to the side and a heart that’s still beating rapidly from the adrenaline comedown. “Tell mummy and daddy what I’m angry at you for, you bloody fucking w – ” The sharp sting of a slap hits his cheek and silences him immediately.

“Dad, stop it, please,” Liam says, far more desperate this second time. “Don’t hurt him.” Louis can taste blood.

“It appears to me that mine’s the only fight that’s been put up to this mouthy little…” Mr. Payne looks back from his son at Louis as he trails off, and Louis sees the man’s hardened eyes flick over the reddened skin of his cheek.

“Let him go. He’s fine, really. It’s okay.” Liam pauses for a moment as he stares down Louis and his father, watching as his dad’s grip slowly eases. He puts an arm around his mother’s middle and gives it a small, warm squeeze. His eyes look so sad. “He couldn’t hurt me if he tried.”

At this, Liam’s father relinquishes his hold completely and brings his tightened fist down to his side, but then he begins to mutter quietly in Louis’s ear so that the others on the opposite side of the room can’t hear. The man’s hot breath dances across his cheek.

“If you think that just because my son is being merciful to a little brat like yourself means that you’re getting out of this, you’re wrong.” Mr. Payne taps a finger into Louis’s collarbone. “My boy’s a bigger and better man than you will ever be. You will regret this some day. I don’t know how and I don’t know when, but I’m going to make bloody sure of it.” Louis pushes the cold feeling he’s gotten from those final words out of his chest, runs his tongue over the backs of his teeth as he smiles, and moves towards the open bedroom door as he glances Liam’s way.

“Oh, if you only knew just how good he is, sir.”

Louis moves down the carpeted staircase, closes the front door loudly behind him, and begins the trek home with his hands shoved into his jeans pockets. The snow has thankfully stopped falling from the still clouded over sky completely, and the night air is clean and crisp, making the hair on his arms stands up only seconds after it begins leaching into his skin. His right hand is currently killing him, so he grabs a fistful of snow off of the side of the pavement to hold to his knuckles and makes a mental note to ice them properly when he gets back to Harry’s to keep them from bruising as much as possible. He’s still shaking, and the cold isn’t making it any better, but he chooses to focus on the orange glow of the streetlights that are illuminating his way back to his boys.

~

Harry’s been sitting in the stands for the whole block, just past an hour of doing nothing but staring and stewing in thought. He wishes he’d brought a pen to draw on his hands or his knees to keep him occupied since no one’s willing to give him any attention whatsoever, including the teachers themselves. It’s just as well that he’s been left to his thoughts, though. He’s had a lot to think about lately.

“Your nan could do a better press-up, James,” Liam yells from across the room at a delicate, puppy-eyed year ten as he struggles on the dusty gym floor. The upper sixth former is wearing red today, a tight and long-sleeved shirt hugging the contours of his body, just as they always tend to. “Have you just been sleeping in my class this whole year?”

“You don’t even know my nan,” James yells back at him, cheek pressed to the hardwood. Liam looks like he wants to kick something.

Harry’s noticed that in the four days they’ve been back to school since the horrors of the weekend, Liam hasn’t been here. Not really. He’s there in voice and in body, of course, but there’s something very, very different about the way that he’s been carrying himself lately. Whereas before, Liam strode about the school with his whole company behind him, he now walks around like he’s afraid of shadows. His eyes are dull and his shoulders are hunched, rather like he’s caught a sickness that’s gradually stealing the life right out of him. Even as he shouts at several of the boys in the class, it’s not even a fraction as bad as it usually is on any given day. Liam looks, in a word, tired. Harry hopes that guilt has something to do with it.

Friday night and Saturday morning had been nothing short of hell on earth for everyone involved. After Louis had left in a rather loud and terrifying manner when he and Harry had been told who was responsible for sending those messages, Harry had been left with the task of calming Zayn back down. The idiot had actually tried to get up after that and go home, but Harry’s mum had put a stop to that immediately and told him that she’d already made a few phone calls.

First to knock on the door was none other than a very disheveled-looking and flurry-dusted Jay Tomlinson, as she was the closest thing to a nurse that Anne knew personally. She’d stuck around for a while, checking Zayn over for internal bleeding, cracked bones, and concussion, coming around to find only the last two. Ribs and concussion were definite, was her conclusion, but she’d said that it was advisable for him to be seen by a proper doctor anyways.

Louis had come in from the cold moments later, asking for ice or frozen peas for his knuckles. Niall came round after sneaking out when Louis had texted him a bit later so that he too could give comfort to the boy going continuously in and out of consciousness on the couch, only putting up a small fight from being woken up when he heard exactly what was happening. Lastly came the Maliks, both walking through the front door hand in hand, in shock and as pale as the snow outside.

Tricia Malik had rushed to Zayn’s side immediately the moment after dropping her night bag by the front door. She’d peppered kisses all over her son’s still-bruising face and shoulders as she’d cried softly, and Harry’s gut churned as he watched from the opposite couch with Louis’s arms around him and remembered that it wasn’t the first time she’d ever seen this happen to her son. He’d silently wondered if Liam had known that as well. On the other hand, Zayn’s father had a reaction that was possibly even more heart-wrenching that, after a while, Harry couldn’t make himself keep watching.

Mr. Malik had wandered all around the house as his wife attended to their son, muttering to himself or perhaps praying in a language that the younger boy didn’t understand, what he supposed was Urdu, with the occasional bout of English. He’d done so for over ten minutes before quieting down and joining his wife, tears that stubbornly refused to be shed still in his deep brown eyes.

“Why does it matter?” the man had said to himself as he paced, Harry listening on from the room over, “Wallah, those… My son, my poor son. Why does it matter?Mein nahin janta, mein nahin janta.”

It might have been selfish at the time given what everyone was going through, but as the three teenagers had all curled up for the night around four in the morning across from the broken boy with shortened breaths, and all the adults had either gone home or retired upstairs, all Harry could think about was kissing Louis and holding him close to his chest. It ached him to have to keep a distance, and he ached with how angry he was at the whole situation. The night was never supposed to have gone the way it did. Harry hated Liam for ruining it and for hurting his friend, but more than that, he had felt guilty for being stupid enough to let Zayn walk by himself.

Harry clicks his tongue against his teeth as he settles back against the uncomfortable painted wood that’s probably been there since the olden days of yore. That guilt from days before hasn’t yet faded away – Harry still feels it burning at his insides and sinking to the deepest pits of himself as he watches on from his place above everyone else’s heads, looking down at the older boy who has, so far, managed to get away unscathed. His spine presses against the jutting wood, and Harry rolls his eyes when a fellow year eleven trips on his shoelaces below and falls with a loud smack to the floor.

“Come on, Alex, are you serious?” Liam asks with frustration in his voice as he walks up to the lad, and Harry glares at him. He can’t really help it. “You all have the composure of baby penguins. You’re all hopeless, absolutely…”

This is when Liam catches Harry’s eye for the first time all week, and it’s something to the effect that the words have been stolen right out of his mouth. It’s the first time all week that he’s actually bothered to look even in Harry’s general direction at all, and when he does finally pull away, Harry smirks, because he knows. He knows that Liam is feeling destabilized from whatever wall he’s built up around himself, even more so than before, and the year eleven consciously makes a decision to keep doing it. As Liam trips away from the awkward scene and goes back to yelling at the other students, Harry makes it his mission to never take his eyes off of Liam once. He wants to make him squirm.

The glances become more frequent after that, like the older boy simply can’t help but to make himself aware that he’s under Harry’s scrutiny over and over again, and every time he does, Harry gets a kind of smug and sadistic satisfaction from it. He’s not quite sure when this became the game it has, but the odd thrill that he gets when he sees Liam swallow hard has made it exactly that.

It’s fifteen minutes to the end of class, five earlier than usual, that Liam walks over to Brother Radcliffe, whispers something in his ear, and then excuses himself to the locker room. Harry watches as he moves swiftly around various students and slips with a final glance in Harry’s direction past the doorway. Harry can’t help himself. He gets up and follows.

He can hear a shower going when he steps into the quiet room that distinctly smells of chemical cleaners and sweat, and he closes the squeaky door behind him softly with a gentle click. Harry’s heart is beating hard, and his ears and cheeks are burning. He treads lightly against the sticky maroon and white checkered tiles that makes up the flooring of the entire room, and he notes that there’s already heavy steam curling out from the separated section where the six tiny shower stalls are. Now that Harry’s actually here, he isn’t sure what to do or where to go.

And then he hears the wincing.

It’s a very distinct noise that Harry would know anywhere, a sharp intake of breath through gritted front teeth with a punched ‘ah’ to follow. It wouldn’t be odd if it were just one, Harry knows this, but then they just keep coming, again and again and again. Harry’s got that very weird feeling climbing up his stomach and towards his throat again, the same intuition that doesn’t tend to lead him to very nice things in his recent experience. Harry should go and pretend that he never heard a thing. He should really, really go.

He approaches the stalls with even lighter feet than before, making a point to only walk on his toes. This could be hazardous given that the steam, from what Harry can tell just by walking into the room, is from brutally hot water and is making the tiles more slick than they are normally, but he doesn’t want to take the chance of Liam seeing or hearing him. He’s getting just a little bit closer with every baby step that he takes, and the sound of falling water is heavy on the tiles of the floors. He walks over, a little bit nearer, so that he’s just about standing where he can almost see Liam, hand against the wall and back to the open curtain, and Harry sees it now, he can see

Harry wonders when his life became defined by the colour red.

It’s positively dripping down the backs of Liam’s legs and ankles, painting the white-tiled walls in tiny splashes, pooling in watery puddles around his feet before it slips down the antique drain, trickling down Liam’s back from where a tiny silver razorblade is being pushed deep into the boy’s skin. It’s a horrific kind of masterpiece, where every inch of skin is either carved into with angry red and brown cuts or healed over white and pink and purple ones. There are a countless number of them, sliced in wherever Liam could find opportunity to place one. Over his shoulders, over his hips, over his spine, just below his neck, and Harry can see that all over the arm with which Liam is pushing the blade in with, there are healed and faded-over white lines all over his upper arms.

There are three bloody slashes already cut into him, leaching more and more of the awful colour, and Harry nearly cries as Liam goes over the shoulder to start a new one, right over one of the disks of his spine where the skin is thinnest. He drags it across agonizingly slow, and Harry can see that his back is rippling and his hand is shaking from the pain he’s putting himself through. There are the sounds again that Harry had heard from outside, the quick biting intake of air that had given Liam away, only Harry can now hear what they were concealing before; he can hear the screams that Liam isn’t letting out, the tiny squeaks in the out-letting of air after every gasp. Harry feels them in the steam that he’s taking in as he breathes.

Liam’s finally done after maybe half a minute – possibly five. Harry can’t really say – and the younger boy can hear the crying relief in his shaky sigh as Liam lets the water run over his stinging and broken skin. The area around each wound is an inflamed shade of red, and his fists are both balled and held up to the cream-coloured tile as the crimson water begins to slowly clear to pink. The tiny glinting piece of metal is still held tightly between the spaces in the boy’s fingers, and Harry watches as his thumb slides along the blunt edge of it as Liam patiently waits for the pain to start to subside.

Harry’s holding himself up with two hands against the wall behind him as he watches the older boy’s naked body shiver in the heat and the water clear further around Liam’s feet. His breathing is becoming more even, his shoulders more relaxed, and the blood has finally stopped seeping from the raised scratches almost altogether. Liam then stands up straight with a deep sigh and turns around to step back into the water, his hair wetted down once more with newly heated water. He scrubs at it with his fingernails of one hand, the other still being occupied by the razor, wipes his face down with a harsh pressure, and looks up through the spaces between his fingers to meet Harry’s eyes.

The year eleven swears that his heart and Liam’s both stop in time.

Harry can actually physically see the panic that is coursing through Liam’s veins when the boy realises that he’s not as alone as he thought he’d been. His breathing has halted. His entire body has gone tense again, like he’s made of stone. The blacks of his eyes dilate. Harry wants to run away, but his feet feel like they’ve literally been nailed to the spot, and he’s guessing that Liam is feeling the same. This is around the same time that Harry’s eyes move downward and spot something that nearly puts Harry on his back.

It looks a little like a lightning bolt, a series of jagged lines in the same stage of barely-healed cut haphazardly over one another over and over again, into the skin of Liam’s right thigh with nothing but the opportunity for pain in mind. But no, Harry thinks with a light head as Liam stares back at him through his long, wet strands of brown hair, that can’t be. He knows it’s not, because he can clearly see now that it’s a perfect Z.

It’s the letter Z.

He feels the sting of the razor against his throat and the tight fist in the collar of his shirt before he even sees him. It’s like a car crash with the way that Liam moves, instant and impossible and painful. Harry never sees it coming, but he feels it. God, it knocks the air right out of his chest.

“Don’t tell anyone, don’t you dare tell anyone.” Harry feels the intense and abnormal heat off of Liam’s skin and the sixth former’s breath against his mouth as Liam holds him to the cool, damp tiled wall. “I have worked too long for this, I worked too bloody long for someone like you to mess this up for me.”

He stares back at Liam with wide eyes, his hands covering Liam’s, and he realises that he’s never seen this level of total and unreserved terror in another living being’s eyes before. Liam looks like he’s mad with it, like he’s drowning inside of himself and has to hold onto Harry with everything he’s got or else he’ll slip under and never come up again. The younger boy doesn’t know what to do.

“Promise you won’t tell,” Liam says. His fist is shaking against Harry’s chest as hard as his voice is in his throat. Harry feels the scratch of the metal on his vein. “Promise me, Harry.” The older boy’s voice cracks on the name, and Harry can’t find it inside of himself to answer, the air still absent from his lungs as Liam holds him. Liam doesn’t seem to want to wait for an answer though, or maybe he just doesn’t want to hear the truth of what he already knows will unfold regardless of how much he begs it to not be so, because he pushes Harry out to the side to where the lines of lockers are screwed deep into the brick wall with nothing more than, “Get your things and go.”

Of course Harry will tell, of course he will. They both know that the walls have begun to crumble.

The year eleven redresses in expert time, a quick change that he knows even the most experienced stage actors would be impressed by, and he throws his kit and shoes into the locker. Harry can feel hot tears spilling down his cheeks, and perhaps they’re a little past necessary. He quickly wipes away at them with the backs of his jacket sleeve and throws his heavy bag over his shoulder. The metallic clang of the locker is followed closely by a hollow-sounding voice.

“Stop crying, Styles,” Liam says quietly over the sound of the shower that is still going behind him, barely loud enough to hear, and he’s now partially dressed as well in his pants and trousers. Harry sees the deep purple lines along the back of his hip and the pale silver ones crisscrossing across both biceps. “There’s no time for tears around here.”

Harry can feel a tiny trickle of blood falling down his neck as he stumbles up the courtyard on the slippery cobblestones. He’s headed through the freezing February around him toward the West Wing where he knows Louis’s having maths, and he tries his absolute hardest to forget the awful sound of running water and violent retching that followed him out of the locker room only moments before. The liquid stains his shirt collar the same colour that his life has suddenly become, and he wonders when that happened, why exactly it’s happening to him of all people. Surely, there must be a reason for all this red.

~

“We can’t tell Zayn.”

Louis looks up from his place on his bed and over to Harry and Niall, both curled up together on the floor atop a pile of pillows. They’ve been far too quiet, too inside their own heads, for a while now. The air is thick and only getting thicker with every moment that no one speaks. It might as well be Louis to break the silence, since he knows Harry’s still slightly hoarse from his retelling of what had happened to him two hours before.

“We can’t tell Zayn,” he says again, this time a bit louder, a bit firmer. “You know the second he hears about this, he’ll run straight back to Liam’s side with his saviour complex and bullshit, and I can’t have that. I cannot have that monster anywhere near our boy.” Louis lies back when his boys both blink up at him and weaves his fingers together to rest on top of his sternum. He sighs and watches his hands rise with his chest. “He’s already halfway in the palm of his hand, you know he is. Those texts. Idiot,” Louis snaps at himself. “I shouldn’t have shown him.”

“You didn’t know who it was, Lou. There’s nothing that happened that night that any of us could have seen coming.”

“I can’t believe he did, is the thing, Ni. He knew. He’s got Liam’s bloody number memorized.” Niall goes quiet again after that, and Louis rolls back onto his stomach to look at the two teenagers on the floor. “That isn’t just a thing that happens, you know? You don’t memorize numbers for people unless you seriously care about them. How did we miss so much?” The youngest of the three clears his throat.

“Do you really want the answer for that, or…” Harry trails off, and he flicks his eyes over to where Niall lies, obliviously picking at the calloused skin around his thumbnail. Louis bites his lip and nods shortly. What Harry says is true; they were far too involved with their own secretive going-ons to pay any attention to Zayn’s. Keeping secrets is attention and time-consuming, really hard work, especially when it’s from people you care about.

Louis does feel bad for keeping Niall in the dark, he does, especially seeing how well he did with finding out about Zayn’s sexuality, needing only a day of contemplation before choosing to stick by Zayn through everything. He loves Niall, always has since the day they met when they were only little kids, and they’re as much brothers as they are best friends, but there’s just something that tells him it would be a mistake. Louis doesn’t want to say it’s a lack of confidence ( though that certainly might be it, unfortunately ), but he’s aware that if he were to lose Niall, he’d probably lose himself as well. He remembers how shit life was before Niall, and if he were just gone… Louis shudders at the thought.

“It just sucks,” he says in reply, and Louis swings his legs over the side of the bed. “It’s shit that they’re getting away with this. And no one in administration’s going to do a thing about it when they hear.” Niall makes a noise of contempt as he crosses his arms over his chest.

“They’ve probably already heard. Andy’s dad probably paid them off to keep their mouths shut. How much do you want to bet that he went home, told his dad what he’d done, and he got took out for a celebration ice cream or summat? Absolutely wretched bastards, the whole bloody lot of them.”

“You’re only saying that because your brother lost to his in a pub fight.”

“Are you going to argue with me that they’re not all bastards?”

“Not at all. No arguments here, mate,” Louis laughs, and the stretch in the corners of his mouth makes it feels like he’s rusty, out of practise with it. He hates that.

“How was he today, anyway?” Niall asks, now sitting up fully to match Louis. He scrubs a hand through his wild blond hair that’s snarled up at the back from the pillow he’d rested on. “Zayn, how is he?”

“In a lot of pain, really sleepy, stoned halfway out of his mind on medication, kept apologizing for being a nuisance, et cetera, et cetera. You know, the usual.”

“The usual,” Niall parrots the phrase. That’s all Zayn’s been for the past few days since he’d been moved from Harry’s living room all the way back home to stay bedridden, where he’ll stay until the chance of one of his ribs puncturing a lung if he breathes or moves the wrong way is minimalized. Louis feels cruel for reducing such a complex person and situation down to an expression. The usual. “Does he want me to bring him anything tomorrow?”

“Nah, Tricia’s said she’s got it covered.”

“Alright. Shit, that’s horrific. Can he walk yet?”

“Not without help.”

“Shit,” Niall says again, and he goes silent for a moment. He begins picking at his thumb again, this time with his teeth, and spits out the tiny pieces of skin that come off. Louis wonders if Niall picked the nervous habit up from him and if it’s more difficult with braces. “This whole situation is just so fucked. I don’t even know what to think about any of this. I… fuck it, I’m getting a drink. Do you mind?”

“Nah, mate. Just make sure dad doesn’t see you.”

The bedroom door clicks closed behind the sixth former, and Harry and Louis are left alone in the darkened room. Harry glances up at him with his lips pursed to the side and then gives a tiny smile, and Louis beckons him up with a simple suggestion of his fingers. Harry tucks himself into Louis’s side immediately when he gets there, snuggling his nose under the older boy’s ear.

“I don’t understand him,” Louis says finally as he rubs circles into Harry’s back. “I don’t… like, I would have never guessed Liam would be, like, sick or something.” Sick probably isn’t the right word for whatever Liam is, as it does an injustice in his mind for people who actually are that kind of ill, but he uses it anyway. There really isn’t a word for what Liam is, if everything that Harry told him and Niall today is true. Harry clears his throat again.

“Well, we know why he’s doing it, don’t we? His parents are crazy involved in the church, probably fifty times more than all ours combined, his friends are all pricks…” Harry runs his fingers over Louis’s kneecap and scratches at the soft material of the sweatpants he’d pulled on earlier. “He’s grown up with that kind of influence in his life, but now he’s in love with Zayn and he doesn’t know what to do about it. It must have been a horrific realization for him, which… you know, I can relate to.”

“Which is another reason we can’t tell Zayn. He deserves someone stable who doesn’t have the urge to beat him up because he’s uncomfortable with the idea that he might like dick. I don’t want this to turn into a whole Perks of Being a Wallflower type shit where Liam has to get drunk or hurt himself or some other complete shite to love Zayn like he needs. That would destroy Zayn, you know? He’s under the impression that he can just fix things and help other people; he doesn’t stop even when it’s hurting him. He deserves so much more than all that.”

“They both do, really,” Harry says.

“What do you mean by that?”

“You might hate me for saying it.”

Louis narrows his eyes and stops rubbing circles. “I think I want to know anyways.”

“What if Zayn’s right?” Harry says carefully after a moment, glancing down to the dark blue bedspread and spreading his fingers over it like a starfish. “What if Liam isn’t as bad as we think? Like, what if he’s just caught up in something that he’s completely lost control of, and he’s dealing with it the only way he knows how?”

“So you’re of the opinion he’s ‘dealing with it’ by beating the shit out of Zayn and cutting himself?”

“Louis, don’t be like that. I’m just saying that it’s not too crazy when you think about it. I mean,” Harry goes quiet, “you’d drink, and I pondered sending myself to a hospital on suicide watch. We all deal with things in different ways, and some are just – ”

“ – healthier than others,” Louis finishes for him quickly, and he shushes Harry by pulling him closer to his chest. He never likes hearing about that aspect of Harry’s past, not when it comes to Louis himself. It’s an unintentional guilt trip really, and every time he hears it, it sends him reeling. He wonders on more days than not if he’ll ever be able to make it up to the lovely boy curled up in his arms, if Harry will ever be able to forget the feeling of desperation that brought him so close to an edge that Louis gets scared of even thinking about. Even on his worst days, Louis had never gotten so far as that. It makes him sick to think how different things could have been, because even if he’s constantly stressed and worried about keeping them hidden from the intrusive eyes of the world, he’d rather have a ‘top-secret Harry’ than a ‘Harry he used to know’ any day. He pushes a kiss into the top of Harry’s head in a wordless apology for sounding nasty earlier.

“Look, I know it’s not something you want to hear,” Harry sighs, his skin pressing warm against Louis’s, “but if Liam could get better, like, fix himself and find whatever peace he needs to find, and if he cares about Zayn half as much as I care about you, then I bet they could be really good for each other. From what you were saying earlier on about what you saw at the library before the play, it sounds like they would be.” Louis doesn’t say anything back, but he does pull Harry just a little closer by running his fingers through his hair to make him purr like a kitten. Damn it, this boy knows exactly how to steal the words right out of his throat.

“Wait, what are we talking about now?”

“Nothing,” Louis and Harry chorus, and they pull apart slightly from each other to reclaim some space as their own on the bed. Niall squints from the doorway with pursed lips and rolls the bottle of beer between his hands.

“Alright. You can tell me later, then.” Niall walks across the floor and sits cross-legged to recline back into his mountain of pillows that Harry’s since abandoned. “Your dad really splurges on his alcohol, mate. All he had was London’s Pride. Posh lad, him.”

“Any normal human being would have just elected for fizz instead of swiping the good shit, Nialler,” Louis says with a smirk.

“I wanted a bloody beer, so I got myself a beer. Excuse me for taking what was offered.” The three go a bit silent after that, Niall wiping the slight condensation off of the bottle and his hands onto the front of his school shirt, Louis leaning back on his elbows with his legs tangled up in Harry’s, and Harry slouched over, chin in hand with his thinking face on. The younger boy laughs after a moment, and Louis raises his eyes from a fairly interesting dark spot, origins unknown, on his carpet.

“I’ll tell you what, though,” he says all of a sudden, breaking the quiet and pushing the heels of his hands into his eyes. His hair, which has gotten relatively long since Louis had first met him, falls in loose ringlets among the boy’s fingers. “Of all the things that could have happened this week, this week in particular, I definitely did not see this as part of the plan.”

“Why particularly this week, my love?” Niall asks as he unceremoniously bites the cap off of his bottle of beer. Louis winces at the horrible action and throws one of few remaining pillows on his bed at the boy. Harry leans back against the mattress.

“You don’t really expect all this sort of horrific bullshit to happen on your birthweek, do you?”

Louis and Niall both go still.

“What are you talking about, Hazza?” Niall eventually asks, because Louis certainly can’t open his mouth right now to do anything other than leave it hanging open uselessly in shock.

“I’m sixteen now.”

“Since when?”

“The 1st.”

And Louis. Louis feels awful, like sickeningly awful about this, because he remembers that one of the very first things he’d ever learned about Harry was his birthday. Two weeks from Valentine’s Day. His stomach feels like it’s turning itself inside out. In the wake of all the horrible, terrible, awful shit that has filled up this week, he’d completely forgotten everything that didn’t have something to do with making sure Zayn was okay and Liam was still suffering for his actions. How is it possible that he could have forgotten something so monumentally important as Harry’s sixteenth fucking birthday?

“Harry Edward Styles, why in the actual hell didn’t you say anything?” Niall questions him as Louis continues to gape. Harry shrugs.

“It didn’t seem that important in the grand scheme of things, really.” Louis wants to rip his heart out and throw it into Harry’s lap with his last dying breath in the place of a verbal apology.

“Well mate,” Niall says as he gets to his feet and crosses over to where his boys both lie together, “I’m of the opinion that this calls for a bit of a belated celebration. You take this,” he hands Harry his still sweating bottle of beer and makes his way towards the door, “and I’m gonna fetch us two more… and a bottle opener. That was a bit of a dumb move with my teeth. Bloody hurts.”

Niall leaves by swinging his body off of the frame, and Louis can hear it creak from his weight from the place on the bed that he’s still frozen to. Harry has amusement in his cast-down eyes. It only makes Louis feel worse.

“Harry…” he whispers, because that’s the only volume he can manage right now, “why didn’t you tell me? Why did you let me forget?” Harry rolls the bottle in his hands just as Niall had earlier. “Your sixteenth… babe, look at me.” The younger boy raises his eyes to meet Louis’s, and there’s a hint of a sad smile in them.

“It’s okay, Lou, really. I shouldn’t have said anything in the first place, bad joke – ”

“You’re sixteen and I forgot to even wish you a good one, spend some proper fucking time with you…”

Louis,” Harry tries again, and he cuddles back into Louis’s tensed side. “Honestly, we all had things that were way more pressing at the time than missing out on a stupid birthday. Mum made a nice cake and stuff, so it’s all f – ”

Louis cuts him off by pressing his mouth to Harry’s and tugging him as close as he can again. Harry pulls him in immediately and hooks his ankles around Louis’s waist as the two fall back onto the bed, and Louis tries to push his unending sorrys into Harry’s lips with his own. It’ll have to be quicker than he’d like, because he knows that Niall could walk back in at any second, so he’ll just have to do this right. Louis runs his hands through the thick chocolate curls and tugs at them gently, twisting them only as hard as he’s learned Harry likes before it becomes uncomfortable, and the boy responds with a breathless noise from the back of his throat. It’s wonderful, it always is, but it doesn’t lessen the heavy feeling that’s pushing his chest in like a sinkhole.

“Not that I didn’t really like that – which I did, I really did, but what was it for?” Harry asks, lips pink and shiny, when Louis pulls away and snuggles his head into Harry’s chest.

“I’m a shit person. I forgot your fucking birthday.” Harry runs his free hand, the other still holding onto the undrunk beer that Niall had given him, over Louis’s back. It sends shivers down his spine in an otherwise hot room.

“You know, you keep insisting that you’re shit,” Harry says quietly, “but I happen to think you’re a wonderful, caring person who put all of his energy and thought towards someone who was actually deserving of it.”

“You deserve my time as well. I can split my time, I’m fully capable of it.”

“I wasn’t saying you aren’t, but – ”

“I’m gonna make it up to you, you have no say whatsoever. It’s happening. This Saturday, we’re spending all day together, and I’ll have no arguments from you, Styles.”

Harry makes a pleased noise, and Louis looks up to see him shaking his head. “No arguments. Sounds brilliant to me.”

The two go quiet after that. Louis rests himself in his spot atop Harry, and he traces over the coarse outer seams of the boy’s school shirt with light fingers while he listens to him breathe under him. He still feels guilty, tremendously so, but… damn. Harry is just too good for him. He’s far too good for anyone on earth, probably. He looks up to the underside of the boy’s chin, the stretch of pale skin that’s flawed by a few raised spots of pink, and he’s only put off of kissing every single one of them by the sound of two pairs of feet stumbling up the stairs and towards the room. He sits up, and Harry stirs as well.

“You better have a bloody good explanation for why you’re stealing my beers, boy,” Louis’s father says loudly from the doorway, and he’s gently holding Niall, who is gripping the two bottles he went to retrieve like his life depends on it, by the scruff of his neck. Niall looks half amused, half terrified, and it’s actually quite funny that even after all this time, he still doesn’t know how to act around Mr. Tomlinson or when he’s being serious or not. Louis, however, can tell his dad is putting effort into looking more angry than he actually is, so he smiles at his father from where he’s now leaning back on one of his elbows, still partially covering his boy below him with his legs.

“Harry here is sixteen now, turned it a few days ago. Bit of a celebration’s all, father. Nothing wrong with that.” Mark Tomlinson’s mouth twitches to the side.

“Did it ever cross your mind to ask?”

Louis leaps off the bed, neatly tripping over his own ankles to fall to his knees in front of his dad. He clasps his hands tightly in front of his chest. “Please, daddy?” he whines, giving his best puppy eyes. Niall and his dad both laugh. “Pleaaaasee can we be stupid teenagers in a controlled environment for half an hour?” Mark looks back to the bed.

“Is it really your birthday, Harry?” Harry nods, and Mark squints at him. “Cross your heart?” Harry nods again and literally makes the action, and Louis’s dad lets out an exaggerated sigh and lets go of Niall with a slight push. The blond jumps on the bed to occupy the space that his friend had been half a minute before as Louis gets to his feet to join his boys. “Alright, alright, you can have them, but you’re all buying your own bloody beer from now on… And don’t tell your mum I let you have those. She’d have my head.”

“Thanks dad,” Louis and Niall both say in synch with each other, and Louis takes a running jump back to the bed. A thick splatter of the pungent liquid falls to the covers below as Louis tackles his friend down, and he can almost hear his dad rolling his eyes from across the room.

“For the love of God, please try not to break anything,” he hears his dad say as Louis grabs one of the cold bottles out of Niall’s hand and swallows a large mouthful of the golden and bitter liquid, “including each other. I don’t have nearly enough insurance.”

“Yes sir!” Harry replies from his place, still smiling on his back. “I’ll make sure these imbeciles don’t accidentally throw themselves out a window or something.”

“I’m counting on you Styles.” Harry does a short salute, which Mark returns as he steps back through the door and into the hallway. “And happy birthday, Harry.”

“Thank you, sir.” After the door clicks closed, Louis turns to Harry with a smirk.

“You call my dad ‘sir’,” he says matter-of-factly, and Harry shrugs as he sits up on his elbows and raises his own bottle to his lips.

“Got to impress the future in-laws and all that,” Harry replies simply and sips his beer so he can begin the process of choking the drink down until it starts actually tasting good. Louis leans over Niall’s relaxed body to push a thumbs-up into Harry’s dimple and tries to repress his satisfied blush down before he settles with his back against the wall. He must fail a little bit, because Niall gives him an odd look when he comes back. Louis doesn’t think too much about it and shrugs him off, and he instead plans ahead for the week, what he’s going to do this Saturday like he’d talked of. He takes another sip of his beer as he decides that he’s going to need to talk to Fizzy again about getting some more of that coloured string of hers.

~

“Hello, Harry! Come on in.”

“Hiyah, Tricia,” Harry says, addressing her by the name she’s insisted all the boys call her by, and kicks the greyed slush off of the soles of his shoes on the top step before entering. He steps into the small and cozy house that’s become even more familiar than before in the past week. It’s been a long day of half term testing, and the overwhelming and recognizable scent that comes over him is an immediate comfort. “How are you?”

“Not too bad, m’love. Bit stressful with handling the girls and work and all that, but Don’s been lovely about it. I don’t think the younger ones quite understand what’s happened still,” she says, twirling a dark lock of hair around two of her fingers as she helps Harry with his bag and heavy coat. She’s dressed up in a jumper, scarf, and fingerless gloves, and it’s no wonder, really. It’s not much better in here than it was outside. Harry almost puts his coat back on. “He’s been doing better though. He’s got his doctor up currently.”

“Do you think they’d mind if I just waited outside the door?”

“Not at all. Tea?”

“I’d love one, thank you.” Harry pulls his book bag tight over his shoulder again as he wanders across the floor and up the staircase. He treads lightly, trying not to disturb those on the floor above or the chipped paint of the old, wooden stairs. He can hear heavy footfall of a man and the high heels of a woman scratching across the hardwood floor as he climbs, one hand on the rail and the other holding the strap of his bag. Harry knows them from the last time he’d been here, and he listens to the hushed voices of the two people from outside of Zayn’s room. He leans against the deep yellow painted wall and waits.

The click and short creak of the door opening greets him sooner than he’d expected, and Harry is faced with two pairs of eyes, one black and the other the colour of the sea in a storm, smiling down at him.

“Hello again, Mr. Styles,” the man Harry knows as the doctor says, one large hand pulling his coat over a shoulder by its label and the other holding a large and worn velvet bag at his side. He’s got a thick accent and an even thicker mustache. Qureshi is his name, a long-time family friend of the Maliks, but Harry gave up on trying to pronounce it properly the first time, so he just smiles in reply. “Here to see Zayn then?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Alright then, I’ll let you to it.” He turns to his assistant, a pretty, stout girl with lipstick the shade of bubblegum and sandy blonde hair that’s been pinned up intricately behind her head, and he gestures with a jut of his chin, grinning playfully. “Are you coming, Salomé, or will you be flirting with this one as well?”

“You know how I like ‘em young, sir,” Salomé replies with a pink smile, and Harry presses his back to the wall to make way for the doctor, so he can push himself and his bag down the narrow hall and stairs. Harry turns back to the woman, the thick Derby accent whistling through the gap in her teeth. “‘iyah. You alright there, Harry?”

“Alright, Sal,” he says with a smile. “How is he?”

“Zayn? Ah, he’s alright.” She crosses her arms over her chest, bracelets and their various charms clinking together like tiny bells. “Bit of a cold came up last night, we think. Something going on in his chest. Bruises have started going green, though, so he’s definitely healing up quick. Quicker than I thought, which is good.”

“Am I alright to go in?”

“Ah, yeah. He’s been a bit lonesome, I think. You lot are the highlight of his day, he says.”

Harry glides through the bedroom door after a brief parting with Salomé and closes it quietly behind him. The room is significantly warmer than the rest of the house, but he supposes that Zayn’s probably earned it. There are three space heaters on full blast placed around the room, which also explains why the rest of the house could easily pass for a large refrigerator. Harry drops his bag and settles down on the side of Zayn’s bed.

Salgirah Mubarak,” is the first thing Zayn says when the mattress dips down next to him. “You really are a bastard, you know,” is the second. Harry rolls his eyes.

“A bastard who brought you your work from school?”

“I’m not sure why you think I’m supposed to be pleased about that.” Zayn rolls his shoulders, wincing a bit as he stretches himself out for the first time in a while, and squints up at Harry. “Why didn’t you tell me it was your birthday?”

“There were more pressing matters at hand.”

Zayn huffs. “Don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Make yourself insignificant, sell yourself short. You have a tendency to do that. You’re important, too, and I think you forget it sometimes.”

“Well, Louis’s making it up to me this weekend, so…” Harry bites his lip, a bit uncomfortable now. “How did you even find out about that?”

“Niall told me. Also, Louis called and yelled about how much he hated himself for a good half hour. I actually could have just hung up within the first five minutes and he wouldn’t have noticed.” Zayn clicks his tongue, and his eyes screw tight as a sudden episode of wet coughs erupts from his chest, his mouth covered by one of his bruised wrists. Harry sees now that both his eyes have gone down in terms of swelling, and Salomé was right when she said everything’s started to go green around the edges of the pools of purple.

Zayn settles back down and clears his throat. “Sorry. I should’ve done that, though… Next time he calls about your secret birthday, I’ll be prepared.” Harry quickly dives in for a change in subject, eager to separate himself from the idea that he’s caused so much strife among his small group of friends, especially given the timing. There is nothing he wouldn’t give to go back and never say anything about his bloody birthday at all.

“Salomé says your bruises are going away. They look a bit better.”

“Yeah! I’m a rainbow boy,” Zayn nods with a smile and gives another short cough before continuing. “I’ve gone as yellow as a bloody lemon on my knees.”

“Have you tried walking alone yet?”

“Not yet. Mum says maybe this weekend we can try it out, but…” Zayn goes quiet for a moment, and then relaxes back into his pillow. “I don’t want to try and then hurt myself worse, you know? She’s worrying enough as it is. I feel awful about it.”

“Not your fault.” Harry runs a hand over the older boy’s bare shoulder as gently as he dares. “You didn’t know this would happen.”

“Yeah, I did. We both know I did,” Zayn says, and Harry can’t exactly disagree. He’d said from the very beginning that he knew how all of this went down, a true pro, and he was willing and ready to take whatever was thrown at him. Harry isn’t sure if this was what either of them was expecting when Zayn said that.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you told me that day,” Zayn begins like he’s reading Harry’s mind, and Harry settles himself down into the older boy’s side – his good one, the unbruised one. Zayn scoots over towards the wall and opens his arm up, wriggling it out of the covers, to pull Harry in. His skin is as hot as hell itself. Harry wonders if he’s fevered. “I’ve been thinking about how much of an idiot I was being by putting myself out there. How I was putting everyone else in danger, and you know what? I didn’t even think about my family for a second. Like, I’m costing money that we don’t have, I’m taking time away from my sister who’s supposed to be looking for a job, and… God. I fucked up so badly trying to be some kind of hero.”

Harry isn’t quite sure what to say to that, because… well, Zayn’s not wrong, and neither was Harry from the very beginning. Now they both know it. Still, that doesn’t mean Zayn wasn’t brave, and that doesn’t mean he’s been stripped of his ‘hero’ title in any way. Harry tells him so with a smile, only half kidding.

“You’re my hero.”

“…Shut up.”

“You are, though.”

“You’ve got a very bad taste in heroes, mate,” Zayn smirks at him, and he presses a light kiss to Harry’s forehead before burying his nose in the thick, curly hair. “Looking back on it all, I can’t believe how fucking selfish it was of me. Like, I know I said I was doing it for other people, trying to set an example, but I don’t really know if that’s true. Maybe I was just doing it for myself, make myself seem really cool and good and brave, but it was all just recklessness and idiocy disguised as valor, wasn’t it? I nearly got myself killed over a lie.”

“I think you’re looking into this too much.”

“That’s just my tendency, isn’t it? Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe God just hates me.”

“God doesn’t hate you. No one hates you,” Harry insists. The very notion of it tastes sour as it worms its way up from his stomach and out of his mouth. “No one could ever hate you.”

“Don’t make me laugh, H. It hurts to do that.”

“I’m serious.”

“Would you prefer the reasons as to how you’re wrong to be in bulleted format, or numbered?” Zayn says rather shortly, and Harry feels his chest rise quickly. “My parents probably hate me a little with everything I’m putting them through. Mum’s had to take time off of work, and Dad’s had to pick up shifts to make up for it. Doniya probably does, seeing as I’m keeping her home. Plus, I moved her from all her friends the first time, so she’s probably doubly as pissed off now. People at school do, people – ”

“People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” Harry interrupts him with an extra snuggle into Zayn’s neck, “and they… they don’t really understand us. I don’t think we even understand us, so what hope is there for them, honestly?” Zayn turns on his side towards his friend, and Harry is a little frightened that it might be painful at the grimace that overtakes his jaw, but the older boy relaxes quickly and pulls himself even closer, now moving his ankles from underneath the layers of blanket he’s trapped under to intertwine with Harry’s. The younger boy feels him shiver from the contact of the cooler air.

“This tiny world we’re stuck in wasn’t meant for people like us, eh?” he asks. Harry nods his head, and the two boys stare back at each other like they’re their mirror’s reflection. Harry feels Zayn’s fingertips trace along his jaw and how their foreheads are pressed together, the slight clamminess of Zayn’s skin against his own. His pupils are fucking huge, unnaturally so from all the painkillers he’s on. Harry remembers the last time that they were this close, to where he could see the tiny streaks of chocolate brown and gold hidden among the dark amber in Zayn’s eyes, and heat flashes across his cheeks. Zayn doesn’t seem to notice.

“Liam hates me,” he instead says quietly, and Harry can see lights dying inside of him like stars.

It hurts him to hear Zayn’s certainty of his statement, hurts even more to hold the truth in. If only you knew, Harry thinks to himself as his fingers run across the scar on Zayn’s exposed upper chest. It’s the same deep purple colour of some of those on Liam’s back, Harry notes, and that makes him feel twenty times worse. If only Zayn knew exactly how much Liam does not hate Zayn in the least. He looks so sad about it, too, his lovely eyes going a misty kind of dejectedness that Harry never wants to see again.

“No he doesn’t.”

“You say that with such conviction,” Zayn says with a smirk, but his eyes and mouth go serious, sad again in an instant. “Do you really think so?”

“I know so,” Harry says immediately, like it’s impulse, and then he’s kicking himself for speaking so quickly. Why did he have to speak at all? Harry holds the tip of his tongue between his front teeth as Zayn laughs breathlessly, and the older boy’s teeth catch his bottom lip. His mouth is still chapped and bloody from being broken by fists and the winter air, painful and angry looking as it’s stretched into smiles. Harry wants to smear Vaseline all over it.

“Oh yeah? How do you know?”

Harry bites at the inside of his cheek until he tastes iron.

Harry knows as he looks back into the dimmed glow that is Zayn’s soul that he should say it, he really should, fully conscious that there isn’t just physical injury lying in front of him. Zayn may be one of the most resilient people Harry knows, but he’s still human and feels more than he shows. Harry’s painfully aware that Zayn fancies Liam, really truly had faith that he’d changed into someone else, only to have it brutally and cruelly thrown back in his face. To think about how Zayn must feel, stewing in solitude and trying to determine how he could have been so wrong about a person that he cared so much about… well, that hurts as well.

On the other hand, Louis was completely and one hundred percent right when he’d said that in Zayn’s hands, the knowledge that Harry has on the tip of his tongue has the potential to be a catastrophe 2.0. Zayn really does have a bit of a saviour complex – he himself had just about admitted it a few minutes before, but Harry isn’t sure if even a near-death experience will be enough to break that. The fact that Zayn feels the need to do right even if it puts him in harm’s way is terrifying, even more so now that Harry’s gotten a rather grim firsthand view of what comes of it. Harry hates how complex this story’s become, how fucked everything truly is. Nothing is simple anymore.

“Harry?”

The younger boy is brought out of his thoughts and back to Zayn, who is currently shooting a sharp stare in Harry’s direction, and up close, Harry can see the turning of gears in Zayn’s head. Zayn’s got lines in his forehead that basically spell his confusion out for Harry to read, and his eyes have gotten smaller. His gaze trails all over Harry’s cheeks, looking for any small sign or twitch that would solidify his suspicions, before he’s asking once again, “How do you know Liam doesn’t hate me?”

Harry doesn’t know how many seconds pass between them before he’s sitting up, shoving off Zayn’s hands, and getting to his feet to cross the bedroom to his discarded bag by the door. He knows he has to ditch, because for a split second there under the intensity of Zayn’s glare, Harry was actually about to spill. He could feel the words in the back of his throat, hot and stinging like vomit, and oh Christ, Louis is absolutely going to skin him alive for this.

“I’ve got to… go,” Harry says lamely, emptying half the contents of his heavy bag onto the old fashioned wooden desk next to him, piled high with textbooks, crumpled scraps of paper with short verses of prose written across them, and half-filled sketchpads. “I’m sorry for… yeah. I’ll just drop your stuff – ”

“ – Harry – ”

“ – right here. Keppler’s assigned a project apparently, but he says you can have an extra week on it since you’ve got to make up your half terms as well and it’s kind of long, and – ”

“ – Harry, stop. Now,” Zayn says fiercely, and Harry stills in his spot and curls in on himself inside when he hears the fire behind the older boy’s words. “I don’t know why, but I know you all are purposely not telling me something, I know you are. You’ve all been acting fucking weird lately.”

Harry had known he was screwed, but he was unaware as to exactly how screwed he truly was until this precise moment. He had pretty much been set up to fail by his friends, who apparently could barely keep the secret down either when they visited or spoke according to a very angry and determined looking Zayn, and if Louis of all people couldn’t contain himself, what hope was Harry supposed to believe he had? Brilliant. No use in even trying now, really.

“I’m sorry, Zayn, I really would tell you, but Louis would kill me.” Zayn’s eyes narrow to slits, and it sort of happens in a weird slow motion, but Harry can hear the question before Zayn even speaks.

“Out of curiosity… how is Liam?”

“I’ve gotta go, mate,” Harry says as he throws his bag over his shoulder and moves out the doorway to close the door behind him. Zayn visibly slumps back into the pillow and scowls. “Have a good weekend, and good luck with the walking.”

“Have fun with Lou,” he returns loudly, and the sound of contemplation so heavy in his voice is halfway drowned out by the sound of Harry’s footsteps banging against the creaking wood of the stairs. He comes face to face with Zayn’s mum at the bottom step, two steaming mugs of tea in her hands. She looks startled to see him there.

“Leaving so soon, love?” she asks, holding up one of the drinks to the younger boy, and Harry shakes his hair out of his eyes as he slips past her to toe his shoes back on. He can already feel the chill of the February wind through the pane of frosted glass of the door, can practically hear it as it whistles around the sharp corners of the lines of houses on the street.

“I’m so sorry, I’ve just realized, I’m – I’ve got to be home.” He looks up and sees the recognizable crease of puzzlement in the middle of Tricia’s forehead as he drops his bag momentarily to slip on his coat. Like mother, like son. Harry throws the bag over his shoulder again and cracks the door open to face the biting air once more. “I’m sorry.”

It’s even colder than Harry remembered it to be outside, and the boy pulls his coat tighter around his body as he tugs Louis’s scarf out of one of his many oversized pockets that he’d stuffed it into earlier to wind around his neck. Harry avoids the large, icy cracks in the crumbling pavement, made bigger and longer recently by the melting and refreezing of the snow through the winter, as he walks home past the identical red-brick attached housing, some with frozen potted plants on the concrete steps and others with their Christmas lights still twinkling happily in their front windows.

It’s all rather idyllic, the quiet of any human activity while the sun is still partially out and throwing a slight orange glow across the ice on the street. While a part of him is looking forward to the springtime when the grass will grow green once more and the sunlight will stick around for much longer than it does currently, Harry knows he’ll miss this kind of quiet that you can only find on wintery late afternoons when it’s gone.

The sound inside his head, though, certainly leaves something to be desired. It’s the sound of hot and rushing blood in his ears, kind of like the ocean but not like the ocean at all. It’s angrier, more scared, and has come less so in waves than it has a flood. He’s got that feeling again, the one that tells him he’s probably walked right into something that he shouldn’t be anywhere near, and even if it’s not his fault and he was walking into what was essentially a trap, Harry’s cocked it up badly and he knows it. His hand, still strangely warm from trailing over the many marks on Zayn’s body, finds his back pocket and the phone inside of it, and his thumb quickly hits all the necessary buttons to call the one person who can possibly make this all better.

“Lou?” he says when he hears the tinny, crackling voice at the other end. Reception out here is properly shit, and he pulls the cool plastic closer to his cheek. “Love, I think we might have a bit of a problem.”

~

Louis should not be awake. The sun isn’t yet peaking over the slick rooftops across the street when his alarm clock begins to buzz for his attention, and his hand has never felt heavier with the weight of sleep. It’s the weekend. It is the bloody weekend, and he’s stumbling around his room, eyes only halfway open to get dressed at a time that even his nan would tut at.

He shouldn’t be awake, and Louis truly wishes that he could leap back into bed and close his eyes to the world again, seeing as anyone who is up at this hour must be above the age of fifty or so, but even if it takes the willpower of ten men stronger than he, it’s going to be worth it to watch Harry wake up. He’s only done it once before as all the other times, it’s been Harry to wake up first out of everyone else. Louis can’t help that he’s a heavy sleeper, but by what he knows from that one night that they’d all packed themselves like anchovies into Zayn’s room and Louis miraculously woke first to the sight of serenity in a sleeping face next to him, he thinks that he would go into battle just to see it again.

It’s not even a quarter to seven in the morning by the time that Louis has made his way to Harry’s doorstep, and he knocks quietly on the wood in favour of ringing the bell. There are lights on in the kitchen, the yellowish colouring that seeps through the thin lace curtains hitting the thinned out and patchy snow in the small space between Harry’s house and the neighbor’s to make it sparkle in the dark, and Louis takes it as a good sign when he hears quick and heavy footsteps from inside. He’s told Anne of his plans, so when the door opens, he’s expecting a woman and smiles brightly, probably a little too bright given this time of day.

“Ello, lad,” Robin says from the opposite side with steaming tea in his hand, standing in the warmth that Louis can feel on his chilled cheeks, and offers the space to the boy to come in. “Anne said you’d be here soon.”

“Is she… here?” Louis asks as he steps in, clutching the bag that he’d packed last night and brought with him to his side. It’s physically light, but inside are several things that Louis hopes will carry weight of their own at some point in the day.

“She’d come down with a bit of a cold last night, she was feeling rather poorly, so I said I’d get up to let you in so she could have a lie-in.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Louis says as he leans against the wall and tugs his rubber wellies off, wiping the cold slush that comes off of them onto the back of his jeans. “I’ll be quiet upstairs, I promise.”

“Have you had breakfast yet?”

“I haven’t, but I’m fine.”

“It’s no trouble. How do you take your eggs?”

Louis stands tall as he shrugs off his coat and hangs it up alongside the many colourful jumpers and scarves arranged there already. He drapes his green scarf next to a familiar maroon length of fabric, but doesn’t allow it to hold his attention for anything more than a split second before he smiles back at the man standing by in yellow striped pajamas and a fluffy blue robe. “Whatever’s easiest for you.”

The door that Louis knows to be Harry’s – the first on the right by the stairs – is closed when he tiptoes quietly into where he knows his boy will be, and he crosses his fingers that the slight squeak of the door hasn’t woken him up. The winter daylight is starting to slowly break, and the room glows light blue with dawn when Louis closes the door behind him and leans against it to listen to the light sounds of breathing from the bed in front of him. He briefly debates leaving the sleeping boy and going back downstairs to have a cuppa with Robin, but Louis had texted him last night to make sure he went to bed early specifically for this. And he’s here now.

Louis steps around the end of the bed to circle to the other side, drops the bag, and lies down carefully next to the curled up body that’s emanating enough heat through two down quilts to be a human furnace. Harry’s blanketed from nose to toe, and once he settles, Louis brushes the curls off of the boy’s warm forehead and presses a tiny and careful kiss there. The bed smells like sleep and slightly lemony, and Louis wonders as he sinks deeper into the mattress and begins to scatter kisses along Harry’s face and in his hair if Anne’s sprayed it down with freshener. His own mum’s complained about having to do that sometimes. Louis glances behind him shortly to the window and sees the growing light. He’s running out of time.

“H,” Louis whispers when Harry refuses to stir when he gives the warm shoulder a little shake. He kisses him on the lips a few times before giving him another, but Harry sounds too far gone to be bothered with waking, even if it is Louis there. “Babe, wake up.”

“Why?” Harry breathes, barely loud enough for Louis to hear, and his eyes screw shut tight. Louis scoots closer and kisses him again before worming one of his cool hands under the quilts to grab onto Harry’s. He latches onto the one that he feels is wearing a familiar soft bracelet made of string and thumbs over the thin skin of the wrist there.

“Birthday 2.0 is commencing,” Louis replies quietly, and he runs the fingers of his other hand across Harry’s cheek. “Early start, I know and I’m sorry, but you have to wake up for it.” Harry makes the argument of ‘Sleep,’ weakly with a little whine in his voice, but it’s a bit louder than last time, so Louis knows he’s beginning to wake. The older boy presses. “We can sleep later. I promise, we can take a nap after this.”

“We?” Harry asks, and he sounds almost childish with the way that his voice goes so high and crackles with slumber. It feels like a colony of ants is crawling around the lining of Louis’s stomach, and he smiles brightly across the pillow at the boy who still has yet to open his eyes to the early world.

“Yeah, we,” he says, “and I’ll be lying there next to you the whole time, but you have to get up now, okay?”

Harry cracks his eyes open at this, sleep stuck in the corners and lining his irises that seem a more startling shade of green than usual, and Louis can’t help but kiss him again for it. He’s slow and soft, pliant under Louis’s hands that tug his warm body even closer. Louis can taste the sharp sour-sweetness of sleep on Harry’s tongue, but he doesn’t dwell on it. He’s got two hot thermoses of tea in his bag to help remedy that in a few… if he can ever get Harry out of this bed, that is.

“We’ll miss the sunrise, babe,” he murmurs against the boy’s cheek where he pushes a final kiss before sitting up and running his hand through Harry’s disaster of already mussed hair. “You’ve got to get dressed so we can go find somewhere to see it.” Harry rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands and then groans loudly as he stretches out his curled limbs,  legs out under him and arms behind his head. Louis can hear a series of pops as the younger boy’s spine goes straight for the first time in hours, and when he settles back down into his warm sanctuary, Harry licks his lips once before looking back up to Louis and smiling.

“How’s the roof sound to you?”

“…The roof?”

“Yeah,” Harry sits up, swings his legs over the other side of the bed, and walks around to the right of the two windows that border his desk, “the roof.” His breath fogs the glass as he pushes up on the stiff frame, unyielding from lack of use, and after a long moment, it slides open. Louis shivers and regrets not bringing his coat up with him the instant the cold air hits him, but he feels worse for Harry. The boy’s not got a shirt on.

“Aren’t you going to get dressed, love?”

“Why?” Harry looks back with a smirk and grabs one of the down quilts off his bed to drag it over the short distance to the window. “I’ve got you to keep me warm, don’t I?”

The quilt does a surprisingly good job of protecting the two from the freezing cold and keeping out the wetness of the course roofing tiles that they sit on. It’s a tiny little space that hangs over the back of the house, barely large enough to comfortably fit two people on, and faces the changing colours of the sky. The boys sit with hands warmed by the two thermoses that Louis had brought along with him in his bag and legs tangled up together to watch the sky turn from a dusty gray-blue to salmon to yellow. It’s slow with the speed of winter, like everything else is at this time of year, and by the time that the bright orange sphere is finally sitting up unassisted in the sky, Louis can’t feel his toes.

“I’ve only pulled two all-nighters ever,” Harry says abruptly after a brief sip of tea, “and both times, I’ve come out here to watch the sun rise.” He curls himself into the crook of Louis’s neck. “It seemed an appropriate reward for pushing through.”

“I usually just crash and get my twenty minutes of sleep,” Louis replies, pulling the corner of the quilt further over his shoulder with one hand, careful not to spill his tea, and pulling Harry closer by his waist with the other. “‘s a nice idea, though.”

Harry sighs, and it’s warm on Louis’s shoulder through the fabric. “This was good. I’m glad you woke me up for this.”

“I’m just glad I managed to drag my arse out of bed.”

Harry sits back up a little to sip at his tea, and Louis watches out of the corner of his eye. The morning sun is throwing silver through his terrifically untidy, knotted hair and across his pale skin, marred by a scattering of tiny bumps of pink that have become more pronounced in the cold on his chin and forehead. There are still lines on his cheek from where it had been pressed against a fold in the pillow. He’s so young and so gorgeous, and Louis can’t honestly say that he’s seen anything more breathtakingly beautiful. His chest feels like it’s ready to implode.

“I love it when you look at me like that,” Harry says once he finally catches him staring, and Louis cocks his head to the side. He’ll never be able to get over the feeling of slight skipping that his heart takes on every time Harry smiles at him.

“Like what?”

“Like you want to kiss me,” the younger boy answers playfully, and Louis grins at the mischievous glint in Harry’s eyes and the bite of his lip.

“I do want to kiss you.”

“What’s stopping you, then?” It’s not incredibly common for Harry to initiate kisses like this, but he does today.

Like, he really does. He clutches onto Louis’s fleece jumper and tugs him into a kiss that turns heavy faster than Louis can keep up with. Maybe he’s feeling somewhat cheeky this morning, but Louis can’t say that he minds too badly. Harry tastes like black tea and table sugar and sleep and something that is innately Harry Styles, something Louis has yet to pinpoint exactly what it’s similar to. In retrospect, this is probably dangerous, closing his eyes and using his hands for something other than holding on for dear life and all that, especially given that they’ve got maybe a maximum of a square metre to be fucking around on, but Louis’s halfway sure that he could fall and die right now and not feel too badly about it all. At least he’d die feeling happy.

“You wanna go back to bed?” Harry says against his lips and drags his hand down the older boy’s chest to where the hem of his jumper meets his jeans, and rather suddenly, Louis would like little much else than to live a day longer.

After both mostly-empty thermoses are screwed shut tight and the window to the bedroom is carefully reopened, Harry slides back through, bare skin to the daylight, and pulls the blanket after him. Louis crawls in immediately following – though ‘scrambles’ is probably a closer description – and places the containers on the desk beside him, and he finds himself being pushed against the cold glass by firm hands.

“We should really close the window before…” Louis begins, but quiets himself because he’s not exactly sure what Harry has in mind. Harry, on the other hand, seems more than eager to show exactly what he’s thinking, and Louis finds his mouth reattached to Harry’s like it had never been left, his tongue still hot against Louis’s and hands warm on his hips from the tea.

“Don’t want to close it,” Harry says quietly as he splays his fingers across Louis’s stomach and back, and the older boy can hear the smirk in his voice as he trails his mouth across Louis’s jaw and neck. “I want everyone who passes by to hear.”

Louis is sure that a part of him has just died and ascended to heaven as he stood there, because he certainly hadn’t taken Harry for… well, he hadn’t ever really given himself the chance to think about that sort of thing – it is Harry, after all – but if Louis had to guess, it wouldn’t have been this. He’s so caught off guard, in fact, that he cannot form a solid, coherent sentence for the life of him, and he find himself gasping out fragments of one instead.

“You… fucking filthy, do you know…?” Louis can’t believe how high his voice is going right now. He can’t believe that Harry actually just said that.

“I want you,” Harry continues without another second’s hesitation, and after a beat of silence, finishes with “now,” and Louis is transferred from cold glass to soft, cool bed sheets in the literal blink of an eye.

It’s nothing short of a marvel how Harry moves with such confidence in his body and hands and voice, how he’s always managed to be the one to pick things up when Louis can’t, and Louis finds it terribly inconvenient that he’s choosing to get somewhat sentimental when Harry’s currently tugging on the zipper of his jeans. The air’s getting colder around them the longer that the window is open, and it’s probably a miracle Louis can feel that given that his skin is on fire with the intensity of the blush that’s quickly spreading across his whole body. Harry likes it loud, and – okay, that’s certainly something Louis can work with.

Only… not today, Louis realises with a groan, and he pushes Harry’s hands off of him.

“Your mum’s asleep down the hall, H,” he says. Harry doesn’t seem to want to hear it.

“Don’t care,” he says plainly against the fabric of the jumper he’s currently trying to push off of Louis’s body, but Louis stills him.

“Believe me,” he tells a very pouty Harry, “I’m annoyed that I have to stop you, truly one of the hardest things I’ll ever do, but your mum’s asleep and Robin’s downstairs making – oh.” Louis had completely forgotten.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I think we’ve got breakfast waiting for us.”

Harry growls in frustration and rolls off of Louis to bury his face in the blankets. “I don’t care about breakfast, I just need to know what God I have to make a blood sacrifice to so I can get your dick in my mouth.”

After Louis fully recovers from Harry’s little outburst ( later, later he tells himself ), he drags Harry down by the double-knotted strings of his pajama pants to the kitchen where Robin is standing by the counter, sipping at his tea and smoothing The Daily Mail out in front of him. He glances up at the two boys and points a finger towards a couple of mugs steeping by the electric kettle - on the stove beside it, Louis spots a pan with scrambled egg and sausages popping in it atop a low flame to keep it warm.

“I heard you coming down the stairs,” Robin says as he closes and folds up the newspaper noisily, “so the tea’s weak, and I’ve only just put the breakfast back on the heat a moment ago.”

“Brilliant, thanks Robin,” Harry says, an awful lot more bouncy and eager-sounding to be downstairs than he was before. Louis follows him over and inspects the steaming cups, giving them a bit of a stir with the tablespoon that’s still sat in one of them.

“You didn’t hear your mum up, did you?” Robin asks after a minute’s passed in quiet, and Harry shakes his head as he gets two plates out from out of the cupboard above. Robin hums thoughtfully before shoving the paper under his arm, grabbing his tea and another one beside it that Louis hadn’t spotted before, and facing the two boys again. “I’m going to go bring her tea and the news. Think you boys can handle yourselves down here until I get back?”

“I daresay so, sir,” Louis says as he pops a sugar cube from the dish beside the kettle into Harry's tea. “But I must warn you, I did almost accidentally burn my house down making a cheese toasty once.”

“Thank god you’ve got me then,” Harry says as he spoons out a helping each on both the plates and shortly slides one out to Louis down the counter. “I’ll make sure not to let you anywhere near open flame.”

“Always looking out for me, dear. How thoughtful.” Louis plucks the two teabags out of the scalding hot water with his fingers, discards them in the bin in the corner, and pours a splash of milk into the two mugs from the carton on the counter that Robin had probably gotten out earlier.

“Well, you two have fun with that, now,” Robin says as he turns from the boys and heads towards the staircase across the family room. “Help yourself to however much you want… And I’m sorry if the eggs are a touch cold,” Robin says on an afterthought as he makes his way upstairs to where his wife is still probably asleep in bed. “I did come up earlier to tell you it was ready, but you both seemed a bit preoccupied with each other on the roof when I knocked.”

Harry sputters around the sausage that he’s chewing. Louis inhales his tea.

It’s about eleven or so by the time that the two boys relocate to the Tomlinson’s house, a change of scenery from what Louis had originally planned for, because he thinks that if he has to spend another singular second in that house with Harry unable to touch him like he wants to, he may go mad. He can feel himself being driven closer to the edge of insanity, and he knows that Harry’s been doing it on purpose, because there’s absolutely no discernable reason that Harry should have been so monumentally suggestive with every move that he made as he flitted around the kitchen, insisting on making waffles with everything on top of them. Who actually eats whipped cream like that? In what universe was the singular most clichéd turn-on method so effective? And why did Harry have whipped cream in his fridge, anyway? Perhaps it was all a twisted punishment for Louis making him stop earlier, but joke’s on Harry in the end. He’s got a basement back home.

“Happy birthday, sweetheart,” Jay says as she approaches from the kitchen when the boys step inside and toss their winter jackets and scarves to the side, and Louis immediately notes that she’s dressed to go out in a coat and fuzzy winter hat. She looks rather toasty as she brings Harry in for a hug. “Sorry we missed it.”

“Thank you, and it’s alright,” Harry says sweetly, and Louis knows he means it. Jay runs her fingers through Harry’s curls to smooth them and gives him a short kiss on the forehead.

“I hope you don’t mind, but the girls got you something for the occasion.” This is as much news to Louis as it is to Harry.

“You really didn’t have to, honestly,” Harry says, a blush quickly rising to his cheeks, but Jay just shushes him.

“They were so eager, the whole lot of them put a bit of their money into buying something. They do love you so dearly, you know.” Louis ignores the ping of something that weirdly feels a lot like envy in his chest as Jay calls upstairs to announce Harry’s presence, and the thunderous sound of several pairs of feet crashing down the stairs answers her back.

“Harry!” The two younger girls chorus, and they too are dressed as warmly as their mother. Lottie and Fizzy make their entrance only a moment after Harry’s given the twins their respective hugs, the first of the older two with a tiny silver gift bag in tow. It’s made of silk and see-through, and Louis immediately spots a small black box inside of it. Harry must see the same thing at the exact same time, because he’s immediately protesting once again.

“Really, you didn’t have to get me anything,” he says once Lottie grabs one of his wrists and places it in his palm. “This is… girls, this is too much.”

“You don’t even know what it is, yet,” Felicite says, to which her younger sisters agree.

“We picked it out special for you,” Phoebe says, and Harry bites his lip as he unties the little bag with careful cold fingers and takes the box out. “If you don’t want it, I’ll have it. I like it.” Louis comes up behind Harry and hooks his chin over the boy’s shoulder so that he’ll be able to see what’s inside of it at the same time. He halfway wishes he hadn’t, though, because he’s as taken aback as Harry is when the box is opened. Harry glances back once to Louis to see the matched surprise in the older boy’s eyes and then turns back to the thin silver chain and charm that the girls have gifted him with.

“Girls, it’s absolutely gorgeous,” he gasps when he’s regained his composure, and then he’s moving away from Louis to embrace the girls in a massive group hug. “I’m never taking it off, ever.” Louis stands by and watches as the younger boy gets to his knees and lets the girls tackle him to the hardwood floor.

Try as he might, he genuinely cannot understand why he feels as weird about this as he does, but it probably has something to do with the fact that his little sisters have unintentionally overshadowed the whole day. Is that selfish? Maybe. Louis’s feeling a little too bitter at the moment to give a shit, and he unconsciously finds himself rubbing circles into the fabric of the bag that’s still hanging off his shoulder where his own present for Harry quietly resides in the front pocket.

“Try to look a little less pleased, Lou,” Louis hears his mother say from his side, and it’s only when he looks to her that he realises the tense, sour expression that’s taken over his face. He tongues over the backs of his teeth, sucking at the cracks between them once before replying.

“They got him a present.”

“They did, but I’m sure that he appreciates just being with you for the day.” Louis’s mum clucks and pinches his side, and it’s like she knows what’s going on in his head before even he does. Louis wonders if that’s a mum thing. “Lou, he’s a teenage boy,” she says softly as she ruffles the short back of his hair up with her fingernails. “Teenage boys don’t wear necklaces. He’s probably just being polite.”

Louis wishes he could take his mother’s word for it, he really does, and he probably would if he weren’t aware of how wrong she is about him. He knows Harry will never take that necklace off, true to his word, until it either crumbles to dust or breaks with no way to be fixed. That’s just the kind of person he is. He always thinks of others before himself, and even if it’s only a fleeting moment of happiness that the girls will get from seeing Harry wear that little charm around his neck, he’ll do it every chance that he gets.

“Alright girls, we best head out to meet your father and leave these two alone,” Jay says after enough thanks have been given, and the four girls quickly crowd out the front door to head out to the car, tossing happy birthdays behind them for Harry to catch and Louis to snarl at. The older boy shoves his hands into his back pockets as he hears the door click closed behind him and watches Harry, now on his feet once more, trace lightly over the contents of the box with eyes as bright and shiny as the silver he holds.

“They’re so thoughtful, Lou. You’re so lucky to have them,” Harry says after a moment, and then he’s removing the gift from its cardboard container and holding it out with a hopeful smile. It glints in the afternoon sun that streams in through the glass door behind Louis as it dangles through his fingers. “Help me put it on?”

“You really never are going to take this off, are you?” Louis asks as he steps forward and takes the chain from Harry’s hand, careful to keep his tone neutral as he attaches the two tiny clasps together. “You’re going to wear it forever.” It takes more effort and time than it should to make it catch, but that’s only because Louis’s got no fingernails to help him. Harry doesn’t complain though, only keeps his eyes straight forward to watch the older boy’s concentration face, and it’s only when the final adjustments are made to center the piece perfectly that he finally replies quietly with a hand on Louis’s cheek.

“I’ll only wear it if you’re okay with it.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Louis tries questioning. Harry shrugs.

“You don’t seem very happy right now, is all.” He cuddles in close, burying himself in his favourite place in Louis’s neck, and Louis feels remorse quickly seeping into his blood at the boy’s unbridled sweetness. “You know I don’t care about gifts, right? That I like spending time with you more than I like getting things?”

Louis nods. “I know. I just feel… I don’t know how to explain it, but, like, seeing that made me feel really… jealous, I guess.” He thinks for a moment. “And possessive. And I know that’s ridiculous and all, because they’re little girls, my sisters, just trying to be kind, but – ” Harry quiets him with a kiss.

“You’re silly,” he says after he pulls away, and Louis can hear the sound of the car pulling out of park behind him, “and cute. I think I rather like it when you get all jealous.”

“I don’t like getting jealous.”

“Then try not to be,” Harry says simply. “Just keep in the front of your mind that no matter what anyone offers or gives me, just know that I’d rather be with you doing and having nothing at all.”

“How disgustingly romantic and sweet of you,” Louis teases, and Harry hides his eyes further in Louis’s collar.

“It’s true though,” the younger boy says quietly.

Louis buries his face in Harry’s hair and breathes him in as he holds him tightly to his chest. The bag that holds Harry’s gift is still hanging off his shoulder, so he pulls himself out of Harry’s tight embrace and looks across at him. “So correct me if I’m wrong, but what you’re saying is you don’t want your present? Or the cupcakes the twins and I made?” Louis watches Harry’s face screw into a clear frown and feels hands twisting into his shirt.

“No one said anything about cakes.”

“Those,” Louis says, “will come later. First thing, though. I made you something.” Harry takes a step back without instruction and covers his eyes with both hands as Louis takes the bag down from his shoulder and digs deep into the front pocket to pull out the two small, thin presents that have taken up so many hours of the past few days since he found out about Harry’s secretive birthday. His fingers are still stiff from them. The bag is unceremoniously dropped to the side as Louis takes his standing in front of his boy. “Now, I know you said you don’t like presents – ”

“ – I like them when they’re from you.”

“You didn’t say that.”

“I also didn’t say I actively disliked them.”

“Oh, shush,” Louis says with a smile, and he grabs one of Harry’s hands off of his face to drop the two items into it. “Hope you like them like the last one, you weirdo. They’re not shop-bought quality like that bloody necklace you’ve taken such a fancy to, but… oh, Harry. Not again, love.” Louis pulls the younger boy into a tight embrace when he sees that Harry has, once again, broken into sniffles at the sight of the two hand-made bracelets that Louis has presented him with. “Babe, I hope you don’t mind me saying, but these are really nothing special enough to necessitate tears.”

“Yes, they are,” Harry protests weakly into Louis’s neck, and the older boy can feel salty wet traces on his skin.

“Oh yeah? How so?”

“Because you make them. You put, like, loads of time and effort into making something gorgeous that I can wear and show to people.” Harry sniffs loudly as he separates himself once more, wiping at his nose and cheeks with the back of his wrist before looking back up to Louis. His eyes have gone red-rimmed and shine like crystal. “You take the time to make them for me to wear and… I don’t know. I can’t really explain without sounding like an overemotional and attached idiot, but…” Harry bites his lip as he glances at the two bracelets resting in his open palm. “They’re important to me because it shows that you care, and in a way, it kind of, like, lets people know that I’m yours without explicitly stating it, I guess.”

“I… I never thought about it that way.”

Harry looks carefully over the bracelets and runs a finger along them for a while, across and over the bumps in their patterns. “It means a lot more than I can explain.” The first is green and blue alternating stripes, the one that Louis felt outrageously silly making, and the other a thicker and more complex pattern of small yellow x shapes amidst the black. Louis watches in silence for a moment before tugging on the sleeve of Harry’s t-shirt to make him look back up to him.

“In that case, you best never take those off either.”

They end up moving to the basement a few minutes later, and as Harry’s sat on the couch, tying up the ends of the additions to his wrist collection with slight difficulty, Louis kneels in front of the cabinetry that hides the DVD player and searches blindly in the darkness of the bag that he’s brought down with them for the disk that’s been labeled with pen and sealed safe from scratch in a paper case. It’s in here somewhere; Louis knows he packed it in last night.

“What are we watching?”

“Well, since I recently misplaced my copy of Spice World,” Louis pauses to let Harry giggle, “I figured we could watch something a bit different. Youth in Revolt. Have you seen it yet?” he asks just as the tip of his pinky finds paper. He brings it out and breaks the thin sticky taped seal with his thumb to pull out the disk.

“That’s Michael Cera, right? I think I meant to, never did. But I thought it was supposed to come out on DVD… months from now.”

“It is. I got a copy from a friend that used to work at the cinema.”

“How’d he get it?”

She stole it.” Louis corrects and hits the eject button with his thumb and carefully drops the film into the slot of the player before nudging it closed again.

“Is that why she ‘used to’ work there, then?”

“Actually, she burned a copy for herself of, like, fifty different movies and never got caught for it. Hannah got sacked for sexual misconduct in the end. Basically,” Louis explains as he gets to his feet to join Harry on the leather couch, remote in hand, “she was caught blowing her boyfriend by some manager or summat in a supposedly empty theatre and got thrown out.”

“That’s gross.”

“Innit.” Louis falls into the leather couch and pushes a pile of small pillows behind him, and he can hear the rather awkward sound of Michael Cera wanking himself off to a magazine, which Harry consequently buries his face into Louis’s neck even further as a result. Louis’s only seen this film once before with Niall earlier this month when it was still playing, but this opening scene had weirdly struck an affectionate chord with him from the word go. Niall reminds him very much of Nick’s friend, Lefty, with his four year obsession over that Barbara girl ( a comparison that he hasn’t told Niall about at all ) but he thinks it’s one of the reasons why he likes this film so much. “I’m thinking about working there this summer before I leave for uni, actually. Get a bit of money to help with expenses so that my parents don’t have to pay for everything.”

“What, at the cinema?”

“Yeah.”

“You should. That way, you could blow me in empty theatres.”

“...Harry, what the literal hell?” Harry doesn’t reply, just barks a laugh and snuggles further into Louis’s right side without another word.

In all seriousness, Harry’s flippant words should have been something to laugh over, but they weren’t. Louis can’t help it. He’s officially distracted by a semi in his jeans that’s only getting harder with the memory of Harry in his room earlier that morning. He’s a teenager, so fucking sue him. Still, the inconvenience, discomfort, and lack of good timing is enough to force Louis to try to put it down with thoughts of late-night RSPCA ads, the ones that always make him have to turn the channel or else he might be tempted to empty his current account to help the abused, one-eyed kittens. The two boys fall quiet next to each other until almost exactly four minutes into the film when Harry says something that throws all of Louis’s mental work out of the figurative window.

“Or maybe you could just sneak me into films and I could blow you while you’re on break.”

“Why is it that the action of giving head is a common theme today?”

“It would certainly be the frosting on the cake that is my birthday if you’d let me.”

“If anyone should be getting a blowjob today, it’s you.” Louis hits pause on the remote that’s still in his hand and tosses it somewhere into the pile of fluffy pillows the boys are currently being supported by. The DVD rental store goes still on the television.

“But I want to do it, wanted to for ages. And would you deny me of something I want on my birthday?” And then the boy bats his eyelashes, so fucking out of place that Louis could laugh about it, but… Okay, so Harry quite clearly wants this – hell, probably needs it judging by the look he’s now throwing off. Louis honestly isn’t too far off in the feeling, and in the next moment, he’s pulled by the front of his jumper into a bruising kiss. Louis falls into it without a moment’s hesitation.

“Off,” Harry mumbles after a singular heated minute passes, tugging at the warm, dark fleece with a hand that slowly makes its way under the fabric to rest on Louis’s stomach, and Louis has never been so glad to rid himself of clothing and toss it to the side. Before he can reattach himself in a continuation of the kiss to Harry, though, the boy goes still as he glances down at Louis’s t-shirt.

“Stripes?” he asks amusedly, barely concealed laughter in his voice.

“I’m bringing them back.”

“When were they ever a thing in the first place?”

Louis rolls his eyes and pushes his lips into Harry’s cheek, and he feels the younger boy’s other hand tighten on his waist. “Shut up and kiss me.” And Harry does for a moment, going so far as to tease at Louis’s bottom lip with his teeth, but then he’s pulling away in a fit of giggles again.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s just… you look like a sailor.”

Louis pushes himself up by his elbows off of the mountain of pillows behind him and cocks his head to the side, unsure of exactly why Harry seems so eager to tease right now when he was borderline gagging for it earlier that morning.“Harry – ”

“And it would seem,” Harry begins, his hand stilling above Louis’s waist and a cheeky grin spreading across his lips, “that you may currently be at,” he pauses for the punch line Louis knows is coming, “half-mast.”

“…What did you just say to me?”

“You should call me ‘captain’.”

“Is this, like, some weird kink of yours?”

Harry laughs shortly and nuzzles his lips into Louis’s cheek.“No, I just knew that it would make you smile.”

He wasn’t wrong, because the corners of Louis’s mouth have turned themselves up by their own accord. Unfortunately for Harry, along with being amused, he’s also so turned on that he could scream, so he presses his forehead to the younger boy’s and says lowly, “If you don’t shut your mouth and touch my dick within the next ten seconds, I will punch you right in the fucking mouth and laugh manically while doing so…” he bites his lip, “captain.”

“Ahoy, ahoy.” Harry wiggles his eyebrows.

“I have never hated another human being more than I hate you now.”

“Admit it. You love me,” Harry says with a grin, and he swiftly moves himself from seated position to that of a kneeled one on the floor. He pulls Louis’s leg with him so that he’ll be upright, and now he’s sitting on his ankles between Louis’s spread legs. He traces both of his hands over Louis’s stomach as he begins a line of kisses down Louis’s shirtfront, and it’s weird, the feeling that Louis feels spread through his body like bleeding ink across a blank page. It’s curling and warm and see-through and intangible, accompanied by words that have been there maybe the whole time they’ve known each other but are only daring to attempt to make their appearance here and now. Louis can feel the sentence behind his clenched teeth and strained jaw, but it’s not the time. No, now’s not the time, so he eases the tightening in his chest and finally breathes –

“Yeah, maybe.”

That seems to be even better than what Louis couldn’t seem to push out, more than enough, because Harry lights up like fireworks from where he pauses on his trail just above the waistband of the briefs that peeks over his jeans. He knows, Louis thinks as he watches the lights grow brighter and brighter with every heavy moment that passes. Harry surely must know, even without it actually being said.

There’s a series of tiny clicks of metal against metal as Harry pops the button on his jeans open and unfastens the zip for the second time that day. Louis eases his hips up slowly off of the soft, worn leather underneath to assist, bare skin pressing now against the cool surface under him as Harry pulls the two layers of fabric down Louis’s thighs. It’s slightly embarrassing with the way that Louis has to hold back a groan when he’s finally unrestricted by too-tight jeans to the cool air around them, and Harry glances up to the older boy only once before reaching out to grasp the now freed cock tight in his hand to squeeze experimentally. It’s a feeling that ricochets through Louis’s blood and across every nerve ending in his body. Harry’s intimidated and simultaneously excited, Louis can see it in his eyes as the boy looks over the aching prick that he holds thick in his palm, and it sends another coiling wave of heat through Louis’s abdomen. It’s been bloody ages since he’s gotten anything like this, and the look on Harry’s face only makes it better and the wait all the more worthwhile. This anticipation may very well be the death of him.

Harry parts his mouth as he ducks his head down, lips pink and shiny, and Louis watches on as he catches the head with his tongue first. It’s an innocent action that Louis’s seen before, countless times at lunch or the dinner table whenever Harry eats, tongue out before lips to taste. He knows he’ll never be able to look at Harry eating the same way from this point on, and the air catches like it’s been flash frozen in his lungs when, without warning, Harry goes almost all the way down to the base immediately. He can feel the panicked and instinctual tightening of Harry’s throat around him, and Louis knows before he sees the straining of the veins in his neck that Harry’s struggling not to gag.

“Easy, H, don’t hurt yourself,” Louis hears himself say, but the words sound distant and unrecognisable to him as they creak out of his mouth. Harry looks up, popping his lips off of Louis’s cock that is now thoroughly coated and glossy with spit, and smiles softly.

“Sorry. Eager,” Harry says shortly, coughs, and then he sinks back down with a looser jaw and laxer lips, undeterred by the discomfort so he can try again. Louis’s hands clench and unclench on thin air at his side as he watches on from above, agonizingly desperate to hold Harry in a way that he’s only felt a handful of times before. It’s excruciating, unbearably difficult to hold back and to not touch and feel and have so that Harry can continue on with minimal distraction, but it’s also the best feeling he’s ever had the pleasure of going through. Eager, he’d said. Harry’s been eager, and the older boy wonders how many times he’s thought about doing exactly this. It would certainly explain how he’s being so good about it, why everything Harry’s done today feels like it’s been done with determination. Louis feels winded.

Harry’s being unfairly slow and careful about this now, bobbing up and down on Louis’s cock with purposeful and methodical intent for what feels like an eternity. His throat is clearly still protesting judging by the thick wet noises he’s unwillingly letting off, but he’s pushing on through it like the absolute champion that Louis knows he is, giving himself barely enough room to breathe as he cautiously lowers himself and glides his slick lips down Louis’s length again and again. He’s bloody gorgeous, is what he is, and Louis tells him so every chance he gets.

“You’re doing so bloody well,” Louis breathes, and his fingers find their way to a lock of curled hair that’s fallen into Harry’s face to push it behind his ear and scratch lightly there. “Jesus Christ, Harry, fuck.” The younger boy keens softly at the approval, both physical and verbal, and looks up before popping himself off again.

“Probably best to not bring Him into this, love,” Harry says, sinking back down before the older boy can even choke out a laugh, and Louis reels at the way that his vocal chords sound like they’ve been ripped to shreds.

Harry’s hand makes its appearance once more, now tugging at the base in a rhythm that moves gorgeously at the same speed as his mouth. It’s clear from the way he only moves in one way that he’s never done this before, that this is the first time he’s ever touched a dick that wasn’t his own, but that fact somehow makes it a little better. And he really is doing so well. He’s making Louis feel like he’s ticking, set to go off at any moment. Louis has to constantly shove his moans down, only allowing breathy praises and sighs to escape, but Harry doesn’t seem to mind letting a few of his own off, small vibrations that move through his dick and up his entire body. It’s only after a few minutes when he takes a really good look that Louis sees Harry’s other hand moving at the same slow pace in his own trousers that he’d managed to shove down at the front. He’s getting himself off to this, and Louis feels like he might pass out with the knowledge.

“I’m really close, H, I don’t…” Louis says after he can’t possibly hold it in any longer, and he can just about taste the relief that Harry exudes. At this, the younger boy has quickened the pace up only marginally, a fraction of an amount, but this is enough to push Louis even further than he thought he could possibly go, precariously balancing himself on a familiar edge. He wants to keep going and holding on to drag this out, he really does, but the way that Harry’s moving with such intensity is inching him closer and closer to the place where he knew he’d have to end up at one point or another.

It hits him like lightning when he does finally come in Harry’s mouth, unable to hold it off any longer with only a broken gasp of Harry’s name as a weak warning. His eyes screw shut so suddenly and so tightly that his contact lenses nearly pop out, and his hands hurt from how tight they ball up. His vision and chest are absolutely fucking swimming. He can’t feel the upper half of his legs, and he can barely register the fact that Harry’s got his head resting on Louis’s trembling thigh, mouthing at the denim wetly and desperately chasing his own release on his knees that comes moments later with a shudder. It takes a solid minute for Harry to recover and push himself to his feet, rearranging and zipping Louis’s jeans back up with shaky hands as he does.

“You bloody took long enough. I thought I was about to go into lockjaw or something,” Harry says after he returns from the short trip to the bathroom in the far corner of the basement, and Louis attempts to ignore the way that the boy’s voice has gone raspy and strained, like he’s been starved of water for days. It’s deeper than Louis’s ever heard it go before, and though he tries to reply, he can only make an odd glottal sound from the back of his throat. He can see through the bleariness that Harry smiles down in amusement at him from where he stands, and then he’s lowering and rearranging himself in the empty space on the couch he’d previously occupied and abandoned ten minutes before.

“Hey, sailor,” Louis hears Harry tease after a minute through the quiet fuzziness, just when he’s finally staring to get all of his feeling back in his fingers. “So… I know we’ve sort of just been doing ‘us’ for a while, and we never really said it out loud, but… I’d really like to be able to call you my… first mate. Officially.”

Louis grins, turns his head, and relaxes his jaw once he’s absolutely sure that he can use real language again, flinching at the squeaky noise that erupts from his mouth along with the first word. “If this is some weird Harry-Styles-way of asking me to be your boyfriend – ”

“ – It is,” Harry says.

Instead of focusing on the way that Louis feels like he’s actually floating a little bit, he makes a quick and miraculous recovery of the use of his arms and wraps them around the warm body beside him to pull the younger boy on top of him. Their bodies are flush against each other now, and the older of the two feels the pointed edge of the forgotten silver paper plane charm of Harry’s brand new necklace pressing into his chest. He pulls Harry in for a kiss, careful against the abused mouth that’s flushed an angry and deep pink, and struggles not to lose his mind when he tastes himself on the boy’s swollen lips.

He loves him, by fucking God in heaven. Louis loves this boy.

“I’d love to… captain.”

“Best birthday ever,” Harry sighs contently, and he nestles into Louis’s ribcage as the older boy searches blindly behind him for the remote that’s slid somewhere between the cushions. Harry takes just another solitary moment after the film has started up again, pointedly looking up from his place on Louis’s chest as Michael Cera resumes his internal monologue on the large flat screen in front of them.

“I like the stripes, Lou.”

Louis smiles and finds Harry’s hand in the dim lighting to link their fingers together tightly, his gaze flicking down to the pale wrist that houses three bracelets, one more well-worn than the others and all made with loving care. He presses a short kiss into the sea of warm curls below. “I like you, Harry.”

Chapter Text

Harry can feel Louis tugging on the hem of his coat as he stands in front of his door and pushes his key into the lock. It’s gotten quite late, he’s not sure exactly where the time went today given that it had such a disgustingly early start, and it’s getting colder by the hour. Harry thinks he’s quite sick of winter by now.

“Why do you have to go?” Louis asks for the second time, and Harry glances behind him to smile at his boyfriend. Boyfriend, he thinks. Christ, he has a boyfriend now. He ducks in to kiss him quick before going back to the door.

“Because your mum made food and you’ve got to go eat it. We both know I had to come home at some point,” Harry says once the lock clicks open. “Don’t know why you’re being so clingy.”

“Let’s think. Because every second that I’m not with you is a second wasted? Because I’m terribly lonely all the time? Because twelve hours until we see each other next is far too long for me? Something equally as destitute and gross?” Louis gives another tug. “Take your pick.” Harry smiles and steps inside, and the warm air hits his body in a welcoming embrace.

“I’m sure you’ll be just fine until tomorrow morning. Hour-long service, and then maybe we can go see Zayn.” He turns back to Louis, somewhat expectant as he unbuttons his coat in the doorway. “So, you gonna kiss me goodbye, or…?”

He can still taste the sugar of the multi-coloured icing that Louis had painstakingly frosted over the large plate of sixteen tiny cakes the night before when the older boy kisses him for the thousandth time today. A few hours ago, Harry had probably eaten ten or so of the cakes himself before calling it quits and lying on the Tomlinson’s kitchen floor. Louis had joined him moments later and kissed him until they couldn’t taste the desserts anymore. Remarkably, though not surprisingly in any shape or form, this kiss in particular leaves Harry with the exact same tingling warmth in his stomach and fingers as it always does when Louis kisses him. He hopes it sticks around in the future, that the effect of Louis on him never fades. It’s quite possibly his favourite feeling in the whole world.

“Not a kiss goodbye, by the way,” Louis says once they separate again, and he hovers in the doorway leaning inwards with a hand that grips one side of the frame and the other lingering on Harry’s cheek. Harry thinks they probably look like something out of a young adult romance novel.

“What is it then?”

“It’s an ‘I’ll be thinking about you every second that we’re apart’ kiss.”

This is one thing that Harry’s come to find is a bit different from before. Louis’s been absolutely ridiculous and lovey all day since they’ve put a good, solid word to what they are, and if Harry didn’t know better, he’d call it a honeymoon phase. He’s definitely not complaining. Louis looks at him like Harry’s halfway certain he looks at Louis when he can’t catch himself early enough, and he won’t stop touching Harry in the simplest and most subtle of ways, be it a graze of his fingertips or a kiss to the forehead. Harry doesn’t think they’ve stopped touching in some way or another since they disappeared into the basement that afternoon. It’s something else that Harry hopes never goes away or changes; he could stay under Louis’s love-gaze for eternity and never need anything else. Harry’s on cloud nine about everything and god, he is so far gone and it should be terrifying. It isn’t, though. None of this is.

“I like that look of yours,” Louis says when Harry is silent and smiley for too long, and the younger boy pushes a finger into his cheek.

“Don’t look so bloody pleased with yourself; conceit is not a good colour on you.” Harry steals another quick kiss. “Can I come over before service tomorrow morning? We could walk together.” Louis makes a disgusted noise and wrinkles his nose. Harry doesn’t hesitate to kiss it as well.

“You want to walk a half hour in the cold to service?”

“Are you saying you don’t want to spend extra quality time with me?” Harry asks with a playful pout. Louis seems to shortly reconsider.

“Only if it means I get to hold your hand.”

“Of course you can hold my hand. You can hold my hand and never let go if you so desire,” Harry says, and he offers his hand out to interlace his fingers tightly with Louis’s as proof. Louis squeezes it softly in reply before pulling on it so that the two boys are chest to chest in the doorway. Harry feels the new addition of a tiny metal plane press into his sternum at the pressure.

“And what if I so desire to take you back home with me?” Louis asks, and Harry suddenly wants to kiss him ten times for every crease that has appeared in the corners of his boyfriend’s eyes as he smiles down at him. He can’t honestly say he’s not tempted to fall right into Louis’s arms and allow himself to be carried bridal-style back to a familiar and welcoming bed at the Tomlinson’s, a warm body curled around him as he slowly drifts off to sleep.

“I’m afraid that’s a negative, ghost rider,” he says against everything his body and heart are telling him. “I’ve got a sick mum who I probably shouldn’t have abandoned in the first place today. I’m a poor excuse for a son, deserting her in her time of need.”

“So you’ll just desert me instead? I’m going to go home and cry about this, I hope you know that and feel bad,” Louis says, and then he bites his lip as he suppresses a short laugh. “God, listen to us. We’re absolutely disgusting, aren’t we?”

“Repulsive.”

“I’d loathe us if I were an outside observer.”

“Me too,” Harry admits as he leans in to lightly kiss him again, cupping both of the older boy’s cheeks with a delicate hand, “ but I’m not complaining one bit. And for the record, that was an ‘I’ll be dreaming about you tonight’ kiss. In case you were wondering.”

Louis hums and raises an eyebrow. “Do you need me to take off my shirt real quick for your unconscious nighttime reference, or…”

“Get out of here, you insufferable twat,” Harry giggles, leaning back towards the light and warmth of the inside of his home and spinning Louis around by his shoulders to give him a solid shove down the steps and into the growing evening. “I’ll be over at 9:30 sharp tomorrow morning.”

“Make it 9:15,” Louis says as he walks backwards towards the street, hands outstretched to the side. “If I’m expected to just sit there in the pews looking at you in your Sunday’s best for an hour and not snog your face off the whole time, I want to get a solid fifteen minutes of it in beforehand.”

“You’re an animal, Louis Tomlinson!” Harry calls out into the evening with a grin so wide that it very well might split his face, and Louis’s delighted laughter answers him back, a laugh that makes Harry think of wind chimes in the spring.

“Only for you, Harry Styles!”

Harry presses his forehead to the door for a moment after he finally closes it off to the nighttime and allows the tips of his fingers to run lines along the varnished wood grain. His cheeks ache from smiling so much, his jaw is still sore from hours before, and his body feels like electricity. Harry’s never felt so pleased with his life. As he shrugs his coat off of his shoulders, he finds the most content sigh escaping his lips at the exact same time he hears someone clearing their throat from the balcony above.

“Alright, H?” his mum asks after Harry’s turned to face her, her chin in hand, head tilted, and lips turned up in the corners. Her long, dark hair is put up messily atop her head, a few strands falling loose from her fringe beside her smiling eyes.

“Alright,” Harry replies as he folds his coat up haphazardly in his arms and hugs it to his chest. His mum grins down at him as he leans against the door, and Harry feels very sheepish indeed. Judging by the smirk on her face, his mum’s probably just caught him kissing his not-so-secret-anymore boyfriend. Christ in Heaven, he’ll never live this one down.

“You have a good time at Lou’s?”

“Yeah, we did,” he replies, and then he remembers what he was supposed to pass on when he got home. “Jay says hi and that she’d meant to call you back about next weekend, but work’s been hell. She’ll try to look for you tomorrow.”

“Okay, thank you, love.”

“She also says to feel better,” Harry adds with a smile. Anne beams.

One of the things that Harry never expected out of his and Louis’s friendship ( other than the given ) was for their mothers to get on as well as they have. It’s been a rather recent development that had formed over tea and Zayn’s injuries. They’d traded numbers that night in case Zayn had needed any emergency care that Jay could possibly offer, but had since been using them to send each other silly stories and odd emoticons with more symbols than necessary inserted amidst paragraphs of text. Harry knows this because Anne’s showed him on many occasions, and it sort of thrills him to think that they’ve gotten on like a house on fire in a matter of a single week.

“So, what did you do while you were over there?”

“Watched a film, hung out,” Harry says, looking down at the hardwood and trying not to furiously blush at the mountain of memories that the day has provided him. “I don’t know.” His mum takes pause from above before speaking again.

“Good. I’m glad you had fun. Did you eat?”

“No, I left right before they started.”

“Okay, sweets.” Anne takes a step back from the balcony and crosses her arms over her chest, the tips of her fingers dragging both fronts of her pale pink silk robe with them. “I thought we’d order a Chinese if that’s alright? I’m not really feeling up to cooking tonight, too tired.”

“Yeah, that’s fine, mum.”

“And will you go into the kitchen and put the kettle on for me? I’ve still got a bit of a sore throat.”

Harry toes off his shoes and finally hangs his coat that he’s had balled in his arms for the past minute on the wall, then makes his way into the kitchen as his mother watches him go from above. The tile is cool under his socked feet, and as he opens up the jam-packed cupboard above the oven to carefully shuffle around for teabags and mugs, the former of which seems to evade him for a frustrating amount of time, he catches the scuffle of heavy feet coming down the stairs.

“She’ll be wanting lemon and ginger, not black,” Harry hears from behind as he riffles through the cabinetry for a new box of Tetley. The first one he’d eventually found and picked up was empty. “She’s already had about six cups of it today.”

“Is that in the cupboard?”

“Nah,” Robin says dismissively, waving a weather-chapped hand in the air. Harry wonders when he glances back to the cabinet to rearrange what he’s disturbed what the man has been up to today to make his knuckles so red. “She’s got a whole box of it upstairs. You can just bring her the hot water and a spoon.”

That’ll work for Harry. He closes the cupboard door gently and goes about filling the electric kettle up. “Okay. So what have you been up to while I was gone?”

“Well,” Robin begins with a mischievous grin on his face as he leans onto the counter, “don’t tell your mum, but while she’s been napping on-and-off all day, I’ve been in the front garden. The ground’s gotten a fair bit softer these past few weeks, so I’ve planted some seeds and bulbs that’ll hopefully go into bloom in the spring.” The planting certainly explains the state of his hands. “I’d figured it’ll make her smile to see flowers there again.” Robin straightens himself out again into a proud posture, chest puffed out and all, and Harry wants to pinch his cheeks; he looks like he’s got a schoolboy crush with the colour that’s taking up his face.

“She’ll love them.”

“You think so?” Harry nods with a smile. “Good. It’ll all be worth it then.” The two men go into a comfortable silence after that, Robin watching on as Harry takes the kettle up that’s been filled halfway, more than enough for both he and his mother, and sits it back down onto the stand to begin boiling. When Harry clicks the switch into its ‘on’ position, he sees out of the corner of his eye that Robin’s giving him a rather interesting look, an expression that makes Harry’s stomach squirm.

“Do you… want one?” he tries, offering with a wave of his hand to add more water, but Robin shakes his head and runs the fronts of his irritated hands down his shirtfront a few times. He looks uncomfortable, an odd change from only moments before when they’d been having easy conversation. Harry wonders if he should start worrying now or later.

“Er… no, I’m alright, thank you. Why don’t you and I sit down while you wait, have a bit of a chat, eh? Man to man.” Robin gestures towards the living room couches, pulling Harry out from behind the kitchen counter.

If Harry wasn’t sure whether or now he should be worried before, he is now, because the look that Robin shoots him as he settles back into the pillows on the couch makes Harry remember rather abruptly what happened that morning before he and Louis had changed base to the Tomlinson’s house. He’s been trying not to think about it too much, lest it spoil the entire day that’s been so, so wonderful, but he suddenly can’t get the expression that Robin had thrown them both as they’d slipped out the door that morning out of his head. It had been one that looked a hell of a lot like pensive discontent, very similar to the one Robin sports now as the two sit across from each other in the dim lighting and the hot smell of the bubbling kettle settles in the air.

“Am I in trouble?” Harry asks after he can’t hold in the restless feeling that is resulting in an uncalled for burst of adrenaline in his chest anymore, and Robin clears his throat.

“Oh, no, no, I’m just trying to think of a way to start this off. Your mum wanted me to talk to you, you know, and this was never really a conversation I ever planned on having with one of my kids, but…” The man sighs and leans back to settle into his stuffed chair, hands crossed atop his belly. “I guess I should start off by saying that… I love you, alright? I do, and I hope you don’t mind me saying, but even if I haven’t been part of this family from the start, I do think of you as a son. I hope that’s alright with you.”

Harry nods. “Of course.”

“I know it wasn’t easy for you and Gem when I really came into your lives… it wasn’t easy for any of us. The move from the place you grew up, where your dad’s buried, the place… well, you know the rest. The change wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy on any of us. I’m pretty sure your sister had plotted my death more times than I care to know.”

Harry cracks a smile, because Robin’s not wrong. Those beginning transitioning years had been a living hell in the Twist-Styles household, and Harry may have loved her more than anything, but Gemma had not made it easy on anyone. She’d had two more years with their father than Harry had, technically known him for longer, and had clung to her dad’s memory like a lifeline. She’d been stuck in the past, an angry teenager with resentment for change and a new man in her mother’s life flowing thick in her blood. During the first few years in their new home that Robin had moved them to for a fresh start and a new job offer, Gemma had sworn up and down that she’d hated everyone in the house, Harry included. He had sided himself and sympathised with the enemy, after all.

“But you…” Robin says after a moment in meditative quiet, “you made it so much better. The whole experience, you made it better because you supported me and your mum’s decisions with such maturity. You were ahead of your age, always have been. You’re wise beyond your years, H, such a smart lad. You’re going to go places and do things that would have put the biggest smile on Des’s face. I was lucky to know him for the time that I did, you know?” Robin shakes his head, sadness seeping into the lines of his face. “Such a good man. I only wish you’d have gotten as much time to really get to know him as I did.”

It’s odd for Harry to sometimes remember this, that Robin met his dad back when they were Harry’s age. It hits him like a brick sometimes. Robin had watched Harry’s dad grow up and vice versa. He’d had been as much of a part of Harry’s father’s life as Harry had, and he’d been absolutely instrumental in helping Anne to move out of her grieving period that had dragged on for so long after cancer had stolen her husband from her. In the end, that’s why Harry had been so supportive of Robin joining the family for good. He’d only wanted to see his mother smile again, after all, and ever since Harry had given Robin the chance to make that happen so many years ago, she hasn’t stopped.

“He loved you something terrible, you know that? He loved you and your sister and your mum so much,” Robin says, and Harry hears the dense sentiment in the man’s throat as he speaks. “You three were his life, and all he wanted was to make sure that you three were taken care of. It’s all I’ve ever strived to do since…” He swallows hard. “Since he passed. Such a waste, really, such a waste of…

“That being said,” he continues, shaking his head and rubbing the bridge of his nose where his glasses sit with his thick fingers, “it is my job to make sure that you are being looked after and that you’re safe and well. It is a priority, you understand?” Harry nods. The older man seems content with this answer, and nods back. “Alright. Now, you haven’t really been in a serious romantic relationship quite yet, have you?”

“N-No. Not really, no.”

“Alright, well part of my job as your step-father is making sure that you’re getting yourself into good, healthy relationships when the time comes, so…” Robin clears his throat awkwardly. “Louis… he’s – he seems like a nice lad. Very polite, very sweet.”

“He is,” Harry agrees, biting at his bottom lip. Robin hums and nods, consideration heavy on his face.

“And he treats you well? Makes you happy?”

“I’m the happiest I think I’ve ever been with him.”

“He doesn’t hurt you? Physically or emotionally? Doesn’t pressure you to do things you don’t want to do?”

“He’d never. Honestly, he’s…” Harry pauses to search for the word and looks down at his wrist. The three bracelets, made with such obvious care and effort, still reside there in a little tangle and rest atop the skin where his hand meets the pale translucent flesh that his veins can be easily seen in. He’d felt like such an idiot with Louis and those bracelets today, overcome with emotions that he couldn’t even properly explain as he’d run his fingers over the patterns, but Harry supposes the little that he could struggle to convey had been accurate. He loves knowing he’s Louis’s, and he loves knowing Louis is his. Officially now. Harry smiles at Robin.

“He’s absolutely perfect.”

“Alright, good for you. You do talk about him like he’s the one responsible for putting stars in the sky sometimes, so…” The man chuckles to himself, and Harry feels warmth spread through his chest for his stepdad. Anne wasn’t the only one who got lucky with having him around.

“H,” Robin continues with soft words, “I know no one could ever replace your father. I never have and never will try to be him for you – those are some big shoes to fill – but in his absence, I’m going to provide you with all the love and support that he can’t give. I knew the man like the back of my hand, and I can say with certainty that he’d be thrilled to know Louis makes you so happy, and if he would have been, then I will be, too. I am honestly so, so proud of you, and I’m dead grateful that I have the blessing of calling you my son. Doesn’t matter who you love.”

“Thanks, Rob,” Harry says, equally as choked up as his stepfather is now. The two men sit in silence, simply looking each other over and unsure of how to move on until the kettle dings twice in the kitchen to signal that’s it’s ready for use. Harry isn’t sure that he wants to leave, though.

“It means a lot,” he begins in a break of quiet, looping his fingers inside the space between his wrist and the three bracelets there, “that you’d say that, by the way.”

“You mean a lot to me,” Robin replies easily, and Harry smiles across the room at him.

“And you me.” It seems the appropriate thing to say.

“So,” Robin continues before they can fall into quiet once more, “I hope I’m not out of line here, but I did catch rather an eyeful this morning, for a lack of a better word, and I was wondering… exactly what is your relationship with Louis? Because you two do seem to be rather – ”

“ – Boyfriend,” Harry interjects hastily. “As of today… Boyfriend.”

“Oh, is that so? Congratulations, then.” It isn’t hard to see, though, that despite the kind words, Robin looks sort of like he’s bitten into a particularly bitter lemon. Harry brings a thumbnail to his teeth and bites at the corner of it.

“Your words say ‘congratulations’, but your face says ‘concerned.’”

“Harry,” Robin sighs, “your mum and I are both happy for you and in complete support of you and Louis both, but… please, please keep this quiet. We know there’s nothing wrong with you, and what you boys have may be very special indeed, but I’m not sure I could live with myself if I let the same thing that happened to Zayn last week happen to you. I don’t know what your mother and I would do with ourselves. I made a promise, H. I’ve got to keep you safe, if not for your mum, for your dad.”

“I know.” Harry lowers his chewed thumb to his lap and wipes the spit off onto his jeans. “We’re being careful. Only the lads and Zayn know.”

“The other boys? Dylan, Ed? All that lot?” Robin asks, his eyes popping behind his thin-framed eyeglasses, and Harry can see a hundred alarms going off in his head.

“Nick and Finn are together,” he says first, and Robin looks an odd mixture of relieved and taken aback. Harry supposes it’s not far off of the reaction he had himself when he first found out, and he laughs. “Yeah, I know. Secretly for a year, so no one around here knows. But all of them are apparently, like, in complete support of whatever makes me happy, and I’m not exactly going to reject it.”

“Sounds fair enough,” his stepdad nods in agreement, and then his eyebrows crease together and his lips momentarily go white from pressing together. “So, uhm… I don’t presume that you’re going to do it at all, but… Would it be possible to get the… you know, ‘the talk’ from them two? About…” he clears his throat again. “Well, I don’t know how all that works with two boys, so – ”

“Oh-oh god,” Harry stutters, his cheeks bursting into flame, “yeah, no, please – please don’t. That’s what the internet’s for.”

“Okay, thank you,” Robin says just as quickly, and then looks back down to his hands where his fingers twitch fretfully together.

It doesn’t take long for both of them to ease back down and burst into laughter for a solid half-minute.

“I think I’ll go take mum’s water up now,” Harry gasps after he’s mostly recovered from the beautiful ridiculousness that is his life tonight. Robin settles far back into his chair once more to begin digging in between the plush cushions, presumably for the remote.

“You do that. I’ll just watch The Beebs, maybe. Not sure what’s on.”

“Okay,” Harry says, the lightness of laughter still filling his lungs as he gets to his feet to move back to the kitchen and Robin flicks the television on.

The journey upstairs and towards his mum’s bedroom at the far end of the hall is long, always seems to be anyway, especially with two mugs of scalding hot liquid that’s reaching barely under the lip and a teaspoon in hand. Harry didn’t really think this one through from the start, and he considers it a bit of a miracle that despite the adrenaline-comedown shakes and length of time, he pushes the double doors open and makes it to his mother’s bedside unscathed.

“Alright, H?” Anne asks as he approaches her. Her nose is red and irritated around the edges, her eyes are watery, and there’s a bin full of used tissue beside her, but she looks cozy and drowsy beyond words and beautiful, buried in a mountain of fluffy feather pillows and just on the verge of falling asleep again. Harry almost feels bad for disturbing her.

“Yeah. Got your water boiled. Rob said you had tea up here?”

“Oh, yeah. Ta, darling. I meant to take it back down, but it slipped my mind.”

“s’alright.” Harry sets the mugs on his mother’s bedside table and slowly makes his way around the other side of the extraordinarily large mattress. It almost takes up a third of the room itself. Harry flops facedown on it right in the middle, buries his still-warm cheeks into the cool down quilt, and listens to the quiet studio laughter of a The IT Crowd rerun on the small television sat on the dresser across the room. Spring will be here soon, and the heavy bedding will be put back into a storage closet to collect dust until October rolls around again. He can still smell the faintness of cedar on it from when it was last there.

“You okay, sweets?” his mother asks after he doesn’t stir for a while. He looks up with a strained neck and smiles at her.

“Robin was a good choice, mum. Good on you.” Anne smiles back.

“He was, wasn’t he?” she hums and settles back with her mug clutched to her chest, the tag of the tea bag resting on the side. Harry’s own tea sits steaming away atop a stack of magazines on the table where he left it. “I still thank God for him every day.”

Harry reburies his face into the quilt and sighs, tranquil in partial silence while his mum sips at her drink, occasionally sniffles, and even more infrequently flips the channel over. He isn’t sure what makes him say it after such a long, comfortable quiet, especially given that he can feel sleep descending further on him with every somnolent moment, but he asks anyway in a crackly voice.

“Do you really think dad would be proud of me, mum?”

“I know he would be,” she says, never missing a beat even after such a long period of not speaking, and she cards warm fingers through Harry’s hair as he wiggles his body closer to his mother’s side to snuggle his nose into her chest. “He’d be so, so proud of you.”

He falls asleep like that, without tea and without dinner, his mother’s hand on his skin and nose buried in the faded smell of cedar, and doesn’t wake until morning when the space in the curtains allows the beginnings of silvery daylight to shine into his eyes and Robin gives him a shake on the shoulder with a smile. The man speaks quietly so as not to disturb the still-sleeping woman next to Harry, hopefully giving her another hour to rest.

“Time to go see your boy,” he says. Harry’s up within moments.

~

“I’m only saying. You’re making it more complicated than it needs to be. Just text her and be, like, ‘Oh! Barbara! I was just thinking about you today. Haven’t spoke in ages, how’ve you been?’ You take her on a date, shag her finally, and then we can stop having this bloody discussion every single time we hang out.”

“Barbara’s different. And why the hell would I take girl advice from you? Because your last female endeavor went so well?”

“Fair enough. I can admit my defeats, but you, young stallion, are counting yours before the battle’s begun.”

“Why am I a young stallion now?”

“Does it matter? Or would you prefer to be ‘young lady’?”

“Alright, Tommo, we get it. No one’s quick as Louis, no one’s slick as Louis,” Niall halfheartedly sings through his teeth as he worms one of his offensive players past his opposing friend’s. “No one’s head’s as obnoxiously thick as Louis’s.”

Louis breathes a laugh. “Did you come up with that just now?”

“Yep.”

“Huh.” Louis shoulder-checks him and steals the ball just as Niall’s about to take the goal. The crowd goes mental off-screen and Niall cries foul, going even bitterer when Louis makes it all the way across the field to score his own goal in a matter of well-practised seconds.

“You cheating prick,” Niall yells, getting to his feet to pace quick circles in the area between the couch and the television, scrubbing a hand through his white-blond fringe, dark brown at the roots from a long winter. Louis hits pause on the ongoing game, leans back into the leather couch, and crosses his hands behind his head.

“I’m six points ahead of you and your defence is piss poor, as per usual. I’m pretty sure we can rule out cheating at this point, Ni.”

“You cheat all of the times.”

“All of the times?”

ALL of the times,” Niall says with finality before he plops back down to his previous seat, throwing his limbs out to the side carelessly. The blond boy’s right hand catches Louis in the cheek, to which the other limply swats at in response just as indiscriminately with one of his own.

“You’re a dick who can’t play FIFA without Zayn’s assistance. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, mate. We’re all good at some things and bad at others.” He stands up before Niall can punch him and makes his way to the liquor cabinet on the sidewall. Harry’s been gone for a good twenty minutes at least, off to do final edits on a book report for Sister Janes that’s due tomorrow as his excuse, so Louis feels less terrible about having a drink. He tries not to drink around Harry nowadays. It’s the least he can do given the history. “You want something?”

Niall raises an eyebrow. “On a Sunday?”

“As if you uphold all the teachings.”

“True. Get me a glass then, would you? Something warmer than that disinfectant-tasting shit you like so much.” Niall watches from his comfortable place as Louis sets about pouring two glasses full with straight drink, one of vodka for him, half of one of whiskey for Niall; Jameson, of course. “Zayn’s coming back to school this week, did he tell you?”

Louis pauses briefly amidst unscrewing the gold cap off of the bottle of Stoli. “No. Is that why he was at service today?”

“Yeah. He said Qureshi’s cleared him. Apparently he’s well enough to start walking around and doing flights of stairs by himself, as long as he’s slow about it. He’ll get five minutes before class to leave early and stuff, but other than that, he’s all set. Did you see the looks people were giving him and his family all during mass, though?”

“No.”

“Awful. It looked like a witch trial, everyone looking forward to a hanging or summat. Doniya looked like she was about to cry the whole time.” Niall makes a disgusted noise in his throat, like he’s ready to spit on the floor. “As if they don’t get enough on a daily basis. It’s like, now that there’s certifiable proof of what Zayn is, it’s like they’re using it as ammunition, just an excuse to be horrible. I get that they’re not conventional, but why’s everyone got to be so openly awful to that family?”

Louis shrugs, not that Niall’s looking at him, and walks back over to his place on his friend’s right to pass the glass over. “Because the world’s awful.” He sits cross-legged in his place and picks his controller up again from the space between the two boys where he’d dropped it a minute before.

“True,” Niall says again, taking half of his drink down in one go before returning to the temporarily paused game. Louis wonders as he takes a sip of his own, swallowing less than a quarter of the harsh liquid and lowering the glass to the carpeted floor, if he maybe should have filled Niall’s up all the way as well.

“You know,” Niall says minutes later just as Louis’s about to score another point, probably match given Niall’s terrible and repetitive defence strategy that he never seems to learn from or improve on, and Louis takes a risk and tears his gaze from the screen to look at him, “it could be dangerous for Zayn to go back now.”

“Well, it’s never, like, going to get less dangero – fuck,” Louis swears with a hiss when Niall’s defensive front – where did he even come from? – makes a steal. Looking away was a bad call. He bends his shoulders forward before continuing. “It’ll always be dangerous for him there. It was dangerous even before Liam and the Cobra Kais beat the shit out of him.”

“Not what I meant.”

“What did you mean, then?”

“Liam. He’ll be spending an awful lot of time with Zayn again, alone.”

“How’s that any different from what I was saying?”

“What happens if Liam tells him about the cutting?” Niall blindly picks his glass up from the floor and gulps the rest of it down in one go, visibly shuddering at the burn and sucking at his clenched teeth as it goes. Louis has thought about this on numerous occasions, actually, and truth be told –

“I have no idea. I don’t know how to stop it besides threatening Liam, which – ”

“ – isn’t likely – ”

“ – Or entirely humane,” Louis continues, formulating a double pass between two of his defenders and making a run for it down the field. “I’d feel weird threatening him, seeing as he’s got… you know…”

“Mental problems.”

“He looks awful lately, even worse than I thought he could. Have you seen him? Looks like he’s escaped a cancer ward or summat. But yeah, to put it indelicately, yeah. Mental problems.”

“There’s nothing delicate about the situation,” Niall grunts as his goalie thankfully makes a save from Louis’s attempted goal. “I mean, the whole thing is so fucking weird to me. Like… Liam Payne is gay, a cutter, and in love with our Zayn. Like, what the actual fuck kind of ITV daytime soap opera have we stepped into?”

Louis smirks and immediately feels bad for it. It’s difficult to sympathise with such a terrible human being, because despite what Harry seems to be inclined to believe, the fact that Liam’s not one hundred percent emotionally stable doesn’t excuse everything he’s done. It wasn’t just Zayn, it’s never been just Zayn. Louis knows and remembers what Harry and Zayn don’t, what kind of human being Liam presented himself to be for years and the names of other people he’s hurt, and he doesn’t plan on forgiving him for it in this lifetime. Still, laughing at Liam’s clear instability and problems makes him feel sick, especially given that he can kind of relate in one way or another. Harry’s words echo through his head; we all deal with things differently.

“Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?” Niall says when Louis’s quiet for too long. Louis glances to the side. His fingers already feel pleasantly warm and shaky from the alcohol.

“Think what?”

“How many other kids are secretly closeted at our school.”

Louis’s game falters slightly at Niall’s words, which the other boy takes advantage of with a gleeful shout. He chases after his friend’s offense back down the field before he can take a chance at a goal, but Louis silently wonders exactly where Niall could have been going with that comment. Harry recently told Louis about how cool his parents had been about it, how positive the reaction really had been from all of his friends. So it might be a bit of a long shot, but maybe if God is really good to him, Niall’s remark could hint at something positive.

“What are you doing?” Niall asks when Louis abruptly pauses the game once again.

“I need to ask you something.”

“…Okay?”

“Conjecturally speaking, right, say we knew someone who was… well, like, not gay, but not straight either.” Louis brings both his knees to his chest and hugs them. “Like, somewhere in the middle. They’re really, really close to us and scared to tell us what they are. Would you be okay with them?”

“Honest? I think it depends.”

“How?”

Niall shrugs. “Depends on who they are.”

“How about…” Louis purses his lips. “What about Harry?”

Harry?” Niall repeats skeptically, one eyebrow raised. “I mean, I guess I’d be okay with it,” he says with another shrug. “He’s a bit of a weirdo, so it wouldn’t be too shocking I guess, but I like him. He’s good fun, top lad, so.” That’s actually rather encouraging. Louis takes a deep breath.

“Okay, what about… me?”

“No,” Niall says with zero hesitance. Louis feels his fingers twitch.

“…No?”

“Yeah, I said no,” the blond boy says, definiteness curling at the edges of his words. He turns his body to face Louis now, and if he hadn’t known what to look for, Louis would have missed it; the mild purse of his lips, the downcast flick of his eyes, the barely noticeable hunching forward of his shoulders. It’s difficult for most people to see when Niall’s uncomfortable, like when he’s in tight spaces or large crowds that he’d rather not be in, or when discussions involving money arise. Louis’s known him for years, though, grown up beside him, so it doesn’t take much to recognize it.

“So you’re okay with Zayn and you’d be okay with Harry,” Louis treads carefully, “but… not with me?”

“Yeah, you’re different.”

“Different how?”

“You just bloody well are, Lou, so don’t even joke about it.”

“Why not?”

“Because now it’s stopped sounding hypothetical,” Niall snaps suddenly, his stare gone as hard and cold as ice. It’s extraordinarily rare to see Niall in this state, one of defensiveness and borderline anger. Louis’s only ever seen Niall truly cross twice in his life, once way back when they were fourteen years old and Louis was still finding his way, stumbling out of the awkward phase that was his entire life until that point. The other was after Harry had cried in guitar less than half a year before. Anger never has been a good look on the boy who always seems to have a smile on his lips and a glint in his eye.

“No, it is, it’s all completely hypothetical,” Louis lies, and the falsehood feels brittle as it floats across his teeth, “but… what makes me so different?”

“You just… you are, okay?” Niall says, a bit more even in tone than before. He rubs the back of his neck and glances to the paused game on the screen. “You’re my brother, not by blood, but we’ve grown up together to the point where I can say that I wouldn’t want you to be… gay,” he finally spits acridly, like the word itself is toxic on his tongue, “or anything like it.”

“How’s it affect you in any way?” Louis asks, shoving down the sharp tone he knows would be very dangerous to take on right now. Niall pauses for barely a moment before he straightens his shoulders and squints.

“Truthfully? Okay, look. I don’t want to say it’s unnatural, I’m not an idiot. I know that there’s, like, a hundred and something different species in the world that have ‘homosexual traits’,” Niall air quotes bitingly with a sneer that Louis can tell with a drop to his stomach is totally unconscious, “that there’s been gay people since record began, whatever, whatever. But… you can’t say that it’s moral. We’ve got an ethical code that we adhere to as part of the religion, and it goes against it. You can’t make the argument when the words are there in black and white, and it’s… for a lack of a better word, vile.

“The biggest thing that I have with it, though, is that I don’t want to go to heaven without my brother. I don’t want him going to hell for something that… You know. I can deal with Zayn because he’s just a walking contradiction by nature and I can’t expect better of him. I’d hypothetically be able to deal with Harry because I like him, but I wouldn’t care enough to interfere with his lifestyle choices, but you…” Niall shakes his head and glares across the short distance at Louis. “No. I wouldn’t be okay with it.”

“Oh,” Louis chokes out after a moment passes in thick and dreadful silence. Niall stares at him, his gaze cutting as a knife.

“You know what? Promise me something right now,” he says austerely, “and don’t you dare lie to me.”

“Okay.”

“Promise me that this was all hypothetical, that none of what I think is going on is actually going on.”

“What do you think is going on?” No matter how hard Louis swallows, the thick lump and the feeling of hot rising bile in the back of his throat won’t go down. The shaking in his fingertips has spread to his hands now, his knees, his jaw. He keeps it clenched tight to keep his teeth from chattering. He knows these tremors aren’t from the alcohol.

“Now is not the time to play stupid with me, Louis,” Niall hisses through his teeth, actually fucking hisses, at his best friend.

Louis’s never been genuinely afraid of Niall in his life… not until now, at least. His consistently kind blue eyes look menacing, like they could tear him down like an old abandoned building. Louis remembers when they were ten years old, so many years ago now, when they had gone to their mothers in the living room with their fingers interlaced, both convinced that the shared eye colour was some kind of evidence of their long-lost siblinghood. It didn’t matter that they sounded differently when they spoke, that Niall’s big boy teeth had come in crooked and Louis’s straight and small, that Louis had all the games and toys that his best friend could only wish for or ask to borrow with a blush. Niall had been the brother Louis had never gotten.

“Promise me, now.”

Brick by brick, piece by piece, until his foundations are all but crumbling in the wind.

“I promise,” Louis whispers, barely loud enough to be heard, but he knows that if he speaks any louder, his voice will surely crack. “Totally hypothetical conversation, like I said. It was a stupid thing to bring up. I’m sorry.”

Niall swipes his glass off of the carpet and gets to his feet without so much as another sideways glance, moving to the opposite side of the basement towards the bottle of whiskey that Louis had gotten out earlier like it’s a race. “I’m getting another drink.”

As he watches Niall ease the tension out of his shoulders, rolling them back again and again as he pours himself one shot and then another, Louis tries desperately to not think of Harry right now, nor of the carnations and pink and red bracelet he’s made for him that sit atop his chest of drawers upstairs. It’s going to be their first Valentine’s Day together tomorrow. He doesn’t want to think about his boyfriend right now. He cannot, and will not, get upset in front of Niall.

He reaches for his glass of remaining vodka on the carpet and drains it in one go.

~

Harry is bored and antsy, eyes stuck on the wiry silver clock that Sister Janes has nailed up at an odd angle on the brick wall above her desk. The tiny and delicate guiled flowers and leaves welded onto the mess of metal to give it a distinct birds nest-like look. He watches as the sister skips along the clumped aisles of desks, passing back the marked papers that they’d handed in last class with a smile, and the speed at which she goes is making his skin crawl. The cap of his pen has been chewed halfway to its death between his teeth. Truth be told, the fact that there’s only four minutes left of class – four such unbearably slow minutes – isn’t really why he feels unnerved, though it certainly isn’t helping to watch the minute hand tauntingly move so unhurriedly. It doesn’t even make sense. The day’s only just started.

Louis’s been acting weird lately, like, weirder than usual, and not the good kind. He’s nervous and jittery in a way that resembles a lack of sleep plus a near toxic amount of caffeine to counteract his exhaustion. The soft places under his eyes have taken on a lilac colouring, and Harry’s threatened him on more than one occasion with duct taping rubber gloves onto his hands to keep him from chewing at the remnants of his fingernails. He’s bitten them to the quick again, and they have the tendency to dot blood if they touch or bang against anything the wrong way. Really, it’s Championship all over. And it isn’t as though he’s lost the ability to be silly or doesn’t smile at Harry, but it almost seems like he’s overcompensating for something lacking. It’s quite uncomfortable to be in his presence lately. It’s like…

It’s like Louis is trying far too hard to fix something that Harry hasn’t yet been made aware is broken. He’s clingy yet guarded, affectionate yet unreasonably pushy, and he’ll do this only to pull Harry back a moment later and apologise for things that really don’t necessitate it. He doesn’t know who or what to blame it on, stress, school, or family, and he’s afraid to ask, but whatever it is, it feels wrong, sticky in a way that Harry can’t explain.

Louis doesn’t look at him the same, and spends most of his time either staring off into space or looking appallingly guilt-ridden. Harry doesn’t like the idea of leaving him alone for any more time than is required by school or sleep, and the longer this clock keeps stalling, the longer that Harry has to wait to meet Louis in the halls to walk the former to his own English class with Niall before Harry dashes off to the East Wing for biology.

His watch of the clock is disturbed by the click of rings and scratch of paper against his desk.

“Very good, Harry,” Sister Janes says with a wink as the four-page report is slid the short distance towards him. There’s a red 89 written on the top of the paper and circled. English never has been his best subject. He’d had a lot of help from Gemma those two weeks that he’d read Jane Eyre, mostly due to his sister’s insistence, Skype being his literal life and grade-saver. He’ll call her tonight, and hopefully she’ll be pleased to see her mild obsession with the book has finally paid off somehow. “Very interesting read.”

He nods a thank you, picks up the paper, and slides it between two of his books in his bag to keep it in good shape for him to show Gemma later. Harry’s one of the last in the class to receive their grades back, the desks being arranged in alphabetical order, and only one of the few who don’t groan or bang their foreheads against the desk in disdain at the numbers drawn in thick pen atop the first page. He takes this as a good sign.

“Now take what I’ve written in the margins into consideration for the one due next month,” Sister Janes says once she’s safe and seated behind her desk once again, “and that’ll be the last one for the year before you all finish coursework and start preparing for your GCSEs.” Some of the lads cheer for this, but Harry thinks it’s a bit misplaced. The threat of the exams, the application that will determine whether he’s allowed to stay at the school for sixth form, is rather frightening to him, and rightly so in his mind. Louis, Niall, and Zayn have all promised him it’ll be a snap for someone like him, but it doesn’t make it less intimidating, if he’s honest.

The bells finally chime in the courtyard, and the distinctive rustle of boys anxious to leave to get to their next class – the click of pens, the gentle flutter of textbooks closing, the zipping of bags – starts up immediately. Sister Janes has been in the business long enough to know that it’s a folly to try to get them all to settle back down in their seats, so she leans forward on her elbows and watches her boys filter out of the small classroom and through the door. Harry is about to follow suit until he hears Sister Janes call after him.

“Mister Styles,” she says as he’s got one foot outside and one in, and he presses himself flat to the wooden frame to allow the others behind him out, “would you be so kind as to come back to me at the end of the day, please?” She’s got a friendly smile on and one hand wrapped around her rosary beads, today a bright lime green that pops out against the black on her chest. He’s probably not in trouble.

“Am I in trouble?” he asks anyway, just in case.

“Oh no, Harry,” she says. “I just need to have a chat with you is all. Mates to mates.” Sister Janes smiles at him. Mates to mates. Harry can live with that.

At the end of the day, Harry spends a fairly leisurely amount of time at his locker, taking his time to walk from history in the West Wing over to the second floor of the East, then back again to Sister Janes’s class. The courtyard is in full swing by the time he’s walking through, past the chapel doors where the brothers and sisters enter and emerge out of like honeybees and the empty fountain that still hasn’t been turned back on yet for spring, and it’s all so loud. He should look for Louis or Zayn or Niall to tell them where he’s going. They’ll be expecting him, probably looking for him.

He walks with his eyes lowered to the recently seeded ground.

“Pull up a chair, dear,” Sister Janes says once he’s knocked, entered, and the old door has clicked shut of its own accord. Harry does as she asks, dragging one of his classmate’s still-warm chairs out from behind the desk and pulls it towards the sister to sit, the metal legs squealing against the laminate tile. He crosses his hands in his lap once he settles his bag on the floor beside him.

“Alright, sister?” he asks politely.

“Alright,” she returns with another smile, and then a crease in her brow forms. “Actually, that’s what I wanted to ask you about.”

“What?”

“Are you alright?” Sister Janes asks. Her eyes go smaller and her lips purse a little bit. “You seemed a bit distracted in class today. Normally when we have discussion, you’re one of the first to raise your hand to add something, and today, I never heard from you. It was like you could hardly wait to leave. I just wanted to check in with my,” she winks, “favourite student. Make sure everything’s okay at home, at school, all that. I hope you won’t find my inquiry too brazen.”

“No, not at all,” Harry says with a reassuring smile that fades faster than he means it to. “Everything’s fine, I’ve just got…” he pauses, “a lot on my mind, I guess.”

“Anything I could help you with?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Have you tried talking to God about it?”

Harry feels a corner of his mouth turn up. Her suggestion shouldn’t make him sad by any account, but for some reason, he feels a jolt of the out-of-place emotion in his chest. “I don’t think so. It’s a bit difficult for me to ask Him for help when I’m not even sure what to ask for.”

Sister Janes hums in her chair and leans back. Her hand rubs at her rosary again. “I see,” she says, and her eyes go to the window that Harry spent half the class period staring out of. The courtyard below is still bustling with bodies, half the week down, under half to go. She’s quiet for a good half-minute, Harry counts on the birds-nest clock above her, before she asks, “How is Mister Malik?”

“What?”

“I noticed that he’s back this week,” Sister Janes says, still looking out the window. There’s a distant clanging of lockers being slammed shut from somewhere in the building. “I’ve just had him last class. He isn’t quite ready to sing again or stand for too long, but he’s there.”

“Oh, right,” Harry blinks. He sometimes forgets that Sister Janes teaches choir as well. It’s probably good that he took so long at the East Wing, then. “Yeah. He’s back.”

“How is he?”

“Fine, I guess.”

“Have they finally caught up with any of the boys who did that dreadful stuff to him?” she asks, and Harry doesn’t mean to snort at her curiosity. He does anyway.

“Sister, excuse me for my tone, but literally everyone on the bloody campus knows who’s responsible for what happened to him. It doesn’t make a damn difference though, because the school owes half of everything we have and ever will have to one of their fathers.” Harry isn’t even trying to be subtle about it ( Louis and Niall have both made him a little more bitter over time than he considered himself to be before ), calling Andy Samuels and his friends out by everything other than name, but Sister Janes doesn’t flinch, not even at his choice language. She just nods, attentive with a dark pink lip between her teeth.

“You’re right. The word ‘disgrace’ doesn’t quite do the whole situation justice, does it?” She clicks her tongue, and her thumb rolls over the cross at the end of the beads that she’s pulling rather tautly over her breast and towards her stomach. “I heard you and Louis were the ones that found him in the first place. That must have been horrible. Tomlinson’s seemed to take the whole thing very hard on himself in the last few weeks.” Harry can’t argue with that.

“He’s – ”

“You two have gotten very close,” she interjects. “Extraordinarily so. I’ve seen you both in liturgy and between classes, and it’s like you two can’t stand further than the minimum away from each other at any given time.” Like gravity, Harry thinks. “He’s the one you’re worried about, isn’t he?” the sister finally finishes for him like she’s been reading his mind this whole time, and he can’t exactly lie to her. He nods, and something that Harry isn’t quick enough to catch in the light changes in her face before she suddenly takes a bit of a turn in subject.

“It was interesting, what you wrote your paper on.”

Jane Eyre?” he asks. Sister Janes hums.

“Most boys who pick out that book – there aren’t very many, mind you – choose gender differences, importance and reoccurrence of religion and penance, or familial relations to focus on and write about. Brontë did write all of that in there, very heavily for a reason. It was all very important to her, I believe.” Her gaze finally breaks from the glass and she stares across her desk at Harry. “You chose to write about love.”

“My sister made me read it, threatened to bite my head off when she gets home on spring hols if I didn’t,” he says, shrugging slightly. “Love just seemed to jump out of the book at me. Am I the first to write about love?”

“First in a long time.” There’s something in the way Sister Janes looks at him now that makes Harry feel like she’s barely holding back her words, like she’s got so much more to say than what she’s giving up. Harry wishes he had Louis’s bracelets on to fiddle with right now ( he’d gotten yet another one on Valentine’s Day, the first day he’d noticed Louis was being off with him. He doesn’t like it as much as the others because of how much it feels like an apology ), but instead rubs his fingertips over the shirt fabric underneath his tie where he knows the familiar edges of a hidden paper plane rest against his sternum.

“Oh.”

“You probably know this given that you wrote four pages on the subject, but love is a very central theme in the book. In particular, it’s a clash between a love for God and a love for a man, a struggle to find balance and resist temptation to find an ideal state.” Harry nods. “You seemed to be able to sympathise rather greatly with that.”

“I think that I can relate to Jane as of late, I guess,” Harry begins with a sigh. “I don’t know. I understand what it feels like to have, like, confliction between fully following the word of God and what you want, choosing between religion or something that you know will make you happy. It’s not exactly a choice of whether I’m willing to participate in adultery or not, but it is hard, harder than anything I ever thought that I’d have to go through other than my dad’s death, so I do sympathise with her, yeah. I know what it feels like to be burdened with guilt because of your heart.”

It should feel dangerous spilling his guts like this, Harry knows, but looking across at the woman whom he’s known for two years and has come to see as a friend just as much as an educator, it’s difficult to feel that way. Besides, he lives on an edge every time he leaves his house, nowadays. He’s gotten rather used to the feeling of being in constant peril.

Sister Janes nods. “And have you figured it all out yet?” Harry thinks about it. He can sympathise with Jane Eyre more than he ever could with another character, but he knows who he is. Harry knows what he wants. He knows who he loves.

“I think I’m starting to.”

The sister nods again. “So… That Tomlinson.”

“Yes?”

“Is he the Rochester to your Jane?” Harry is unsure of what she’s asking and frowns.

“I don’t – ” he begins in confusion, but immediately blanches when he sees the smug grin on the sister’s face and catches up with what she’s inferring. “Oh – oh my god – ”

“Is he your sympathy? Your better self? Your good angel to whom you are bound with a strong attachment?” she asks, elbows knocking on her desk and her chin in her hands. Harry doesn’t think he’s ever seen a smile so blindingly cheeky in his life.

Sister,” Harry chokes out after he’s unconsciously halfway strangled himself by pulling on his necktie, cheeks burning, “I hardly think that’s appropriate.”

“Appropriate?” she remarks, her lips spreading wide across her face. “Have you met me, Harry? Have I not been teaching you for the last few years?”

“Well… I…” Harry stumbles around his words, unsure of how to make his escape without either lying to the sister’s face or making it blindingly obvious that what she apparently suspects is going on is actually going on. Yeah, he probably went a bit too far with the talking. He’s really got to learn how to shut up.

It’s a bit of a lifesaver that there’s a timid knock at the door just as Harry’s about to open his mouth to reply, surely to say something that will only bury him deeper. Harry feels his shoulders relax and a breath that he wasn’t aware he was holding escape, and Sister Janes straightens herself back up in her seat and evens her complexion before bidding the person a smooth, “Come in.”

Harry isn’t surprised to see Louis peek in through the half-opened door.

“Hi again,” he says to the sister, pushing the door open the remainder of the way before flicking his eyes over to Harry. He looks mildly surprised to see Harry sitting where he is, and he watches as an apparent switch seems to go off in Louis’s head that maybe he’s not supposed to be here. “I’m… I’m sorry, were you having a meeting? I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“Mr. Tomlinson, it’s been eons since I’ve seen you last,” she jokes, crossing her fingers in front of her on her desk. Her beads click against the flat surface as she bends forward. “It’s alright, just having a bit of a chat. We were just talking about you, actually.” She smiles. “What can I do for you?”

“You didn’t come down,” Louis says, seemingly ignoring Sister Janes entirely to talk to Harry instead. He runs a finger along the wood frame as he leans on it, eyes cast down, and he looks so much like a toddler who’s been caught in a place he knows he shouldn’t be that Harry nearly melts. “I wondered if you’d either gone home, or – ”

“No, I’m here. Sister Janes just wanted me to stay back a while,” Harry explains, the pace of his heart quickening. “Why would I leave without you?”

Louis just shrugs, his gaze picking up from the floor to look up at Harry and – and there. There it is. It’s wild, it’s needy, and it is bloody terrifying to be the subject of such a glance. This is Louis, he has to remind himself as his fingers clutch at the hard plastic of the seat under him, the boy you pined after for months. The one who makes you feel like the universe orbits around you. It’s hard to think like that when Louis’s eyes get this way, though; tired and scared, like a wounded animal just about ready to give itself up to the wolves that chase it. Harry feels his heart falter with trepidation to follow Louis home at all, something he’ll never be anything short of disturbed to feel.

“I’ve got to…” are the words that come out of his mouth and trail off at the end as Harry stands and slings his bag over his shoulder, and Sister Janes nods with a discrete and delicate smile like she knows. There’s no way she could possibly know, though. Harry joins Louis outside the room after a brief goodbye, walks down the stairs, doesn’t hold his boyfriend’s hand, and tries not to feel so painfully alone in all of this.

Gemma doesn’t know what to say about it, either.

“That does seem weird,” is all she has to offer when they’re sat at their respective computers, having talked about everything and nothing for the past two hours. Harry’s hot chocolate is ice cold to the touch now, and Gemma has a paper that she keeps mentioning that she has to get to. This doesn’t appear to stop her from getting involved in Harry’s life, trying to solve a problem that Harry isn’t even sure has a name. “That doesn’t sound right to me either, but I don’t think there’s anything you’ve done to make him like this.”

“I don’t know what to do, what to say,” Harry says, idly tracing circles along the red pen lines at the top of the page with a limp finger. Gemma had been ever so pleased with the grade and made him read out all the comments Sister Janes had written in the margins, but now that he looks at it again for the hundredth time, the 89 bothers him.

“What have you said?”

“Nothing.”

“Might be for the best,” Gemma says, and her voice rings tinny and thin in the ear buds that Harry wears. He thinks he’d give anything for a hug from the young woman in the screen who is looking at him with pity in her eyes. He knows from the slump in her shoulders that she wants to be home as much as he does. He’s had enough of these calls to know that time away from her family and her first year of uni’s been rough on her.

“Why do you say that?” Harry asks, fingernails scratching lightly on the paper.

“From what you’ve told me about him, I think he’s still a really anxious person, even if Niall says he’s mostly grown out of it. You’ve seen him in some of these states, like when he runs away from you and stuff. To me, it kind of sounds like if you push him the wrong way, if you go about things too hard with him, he’s put off and goes into a bit of a shell. Would you say that’s right?”

Harry is constantly amazed at how intelligent his sister sounds when she speaks. “That’s… yeah, that’s actually him to a t.”

“I’d just be concerned with talking to him too soon about it. I don’t want him to go all psycho on you, but you might just want to give him a little time to himself before you rush in or try to swoop him into your arms and save the day. He’s stressed out about something and clearly trying to hide it from you, so if you don’t play along with the illusion that he’s trying to build – that everything is all alright in the world and that all’s well – he might shut down. Then you’ll never get anything out of him.”

Gemma pauses for a moment to take a sip of the tea that her flatmate had brought her ten minutes before, then sets it down to play with her necklace. It’s a silver cross like their mum’s, but a lot less ornate. “Maybe he’s just doing what he thinks is best for the situation. This whole relationship-with-a-boy thing is new to him as well, mind you. In my experience, girls like being told what’s going on and having conversations about feelings, boys mostly don’t until it’s imperative. Maybe that’s what he thinks?”

Harry doesn’t actually remember telling Gemma that he’d ever been interested in Louis in the first place, that anything had happened at all. He’s not sure if one of the boys told her, if it had been his mum during one of their girl-chats, or if he’d just been too blindingly obvious during their Christmas shopping together when he’d dragged her into six different stores, hunting for that light blue scarf that he never did end up finding ( Gemma had been the one to eventually suggest green, and now that he thinks about it, he’s amazed he didn’t catch on to his sister’s antics earlier ).

What he does know is that the morning after New Year’s that he’d come in from the mass sleepover at Nick’s house, Gemma had taken one look at him, smirked, and asked whether Louis had been a good New Year’s kiss or not. Harry had replied in the affirmative without thinking much of it, she had nodded, and that had evidently been that. It had been the most boring of all his ‘come-outs’ since they’d began, but he supposes he’s rather grateful for it now. He loves his friends dearly, but Gemma’s been the one he’s gone to talk to about everything that’s been happening since it’s all started. He’s not sure what he’d do without her.

“But Gem, I do want to know,” Harry whines, scrubbing a hand across his forehead and sweeping the hair off. This whole situation that’s been unfolding over the past three days is giving him a headache. “It’s eating at me to see him like this, and it’s barely gone, like, half a week. How am I supposed to just pretend it’s all good, or kiss him like I’m oblivious to the fact that he looks like he isn’t sleeping again?”

“Is he not, then?”

“I don’t know. He looks so tired all the time and he overplays trying to act normal and over-does it and – ” Harry stops himself when his voice cracks, and whether it’s from him getting upset or his increasing age, he doesn’t care to contemplate. He clears his throat. “He’s really been putting his acting skills to use. I don’t think the other boys have even noticed how strange he’s being.”

“Niall would probably know if something were up, wouldn’t he?”

“You’d think. He’s been really busy with prepping for an upcoming project that Brother Mades assigned him to plan, and he’s seemed kind of spacey and intensely focused on that lately, so I don’t want to add stress onto him as well.”

“You’re too good for this world, H,” Gemma smiles at him, and he can practically feel the hand that she’d be extending out to him on his shoulder if she were here. “Louis’s lucky to have you.”

Harry smiles. “I’ll pass the word along.”

“You better,” his sister replies, flicking her long hair that looks so much like their mother’s behind her shoulders and leaning back in her computer chair to stretch her arms above her head for the first time since they’ve started speaking. Harry hears the crackles and pops of her back as she lengthens her body out before she settles in her seat again. “If things haven’t gotten better by the weekend, call me again and we’ll go from there, but I don’t want you turning this into something huge, okay? Try not to worry about him. Louis is a big boy.”

“I know he is, it just sucks to see someone you care about in a state and feel like you can’t do anything about it.”

“I know the feeling,” Gemma says sadly, and she reminds him to give their mum a kiss for her. Harry wishes her luck on her paper, and the box goes black.

Unsure of what to do, Harry sits there for a minute after his sibling has disconnected before deciding that he should probably clean up after himself. He picks up the forgotten mug of chocolate, makes his way out of the office and down the stairs to the kitchen, and dumps the cold dregs down the kitchen drain. He rinses the cup out under cold water and leaves it in the sink, and normally, he’d wash, dry, and put it away, but he doesn’t feel like he has the energy to do anything, really. He’s got physics homework that he’d put off so that he could go to Louis’s house and play with the girls yesterday – it’s due second block tomorrow, and there’s no way he’ll be able to do it in maths beforehand – but he’s not sure if he’s going to be able to concentrate on the complex equations like he knows he needs to tonight.

His skin is crawling ever so slightly, just as it has been for the past few days, and it’s like all the soothing words that Gemma had offered up and all the warmth that the drink had brought have been in vain.

~

Louis’s mum isn’t one to cry, never really has been even when things have gotten difficult, but he remembers very clearly that his mum had cried when he was ten years old and he’d proudly told her that Niall was his best friend.

Other boys terrified him for some reason, but when Niall had come around, he’d miraculously broken through Louis’s walls and made a home there, even if it had taken some compulsory play dates and insistence from both their mums to make it happen. He’d never had a best friend before, had always been the mummy’s boy and clung to her side like a lifeline.

So it isn’t too surprising that his mother’s crying had terrified him at the time, and he’d crawled into his mother’s lap at the kitchen table and hugged her around the middle, asking with fear what he did to upset her. He didn’t want her thinking she was being replaced, having insisted for years that she was his best friend, and was just about to take back the friendship when Jay had shaken her head, kissed him hard on the forehead, fixed his skewed glasses on his nose, and made him promise to really try to stay best friends with Niall as best as he could.

Louis had promised and squeezed his mother tight.

Niall hasn’t said a thing since Sunday when he’d left through the basement door half-drunk on whiskey during their game, not a word regarding what had been talked about or inferred in the week since. On the occasions that they are together during school, he looks at Louis with such transparency now, such composure, that it makes Louis feel sick to be the focus of it. Niall hasn’t even acknowledged that he was at Louis’s house at all that day, and if he weren’t being so goddamn cool and nonchalant about it all, Louis might think he were desperate to forget. It isn’t too shocking that Louis feels like absolute shit. Niall’s been a sure thing in his life for so long that, as stupid as he feels saying it, he doesn’t really know how to just be.

And then there’s the matter of never feeling safe anymore.

It seems like no matter where he turns, he’s got a blatant, in-his-face reminder that the world hates him, hates what he is. His classes and the hallways all have walking reminders of how unsurprisingly trivial him getting upset about Zayn’s predicament has turned out to be. Liam and his friends continue to walk free of justice and punishment, Zayn has to run to class to avoid further harm, an enormously painful task for the lower sixth former, and everything continues to be awful and unjust.

Even Louis’s safe haven, theatre, continues to be polluted by the presence of Nat Chesney, who looks at him in scorn like Louis is something he’s scraped off the bottom of his shoe. The feeling is largely reciprocated. At the same time, it seems that the new semester has come with a refreshed mindset for Chesney, who has been showing up to every class now and, weirdly, getting kind of involved. Brother Winston has even taken a bit of a liking to the lad, which makes Louis want to gouge his own eyes out.

Home isn’t much better. Louis could honestly kick himself for never thinking about his own father though all of this, but it seems that with the recent speculation from Parliament about gay marriage becoming less of a rumoured possibility and more of a certainty in the UK within the next few years, Mark Tomlinson has taken it upon himself to lead dinner table lectures on the subject to his children, the first occurring the same Sunday night that Niall had stormed out. And really, the timing of it all would have been comedic if it hadn’t been so sickening.

“It’s absolutely shocking to me,” the man had said over his wine glass, slowly swirling the dark liquid as he spoke, “that the whole movement has gained as much notoriety and attention as it has. Poisonous. The support for this idiocy is absolutely astounding.”

“Maybe people are in support because there’s nothing actually wrong with it,” Louis had mumbled after he could no longer hold his tongue, picking at his salad as tension built to the weight of a stone in his stomach. Lottie had kicked him under the table and given him a stern look.

“Nonsense,” Mark had asserted, overlooking the irritated tone his son had taken on. “People are just too politically correct nowadays, too scared to speak the truth and stand for what they believe in if it hurts feelings.” Louis’s father had tipped the glass at him and made a slight nudging motion. “And you know what? The fact of the matter is, most people aren’t in support of that sort of thing, anyways.”

“You don’t know that. The world’s changing,” Louis had insisted sharply. Jay began directing her own look at her son at this, more of a pleading one than the severe gaze of his little sister. Louis had just looked down at his plate.

“I wouldn’t be so sure. I know for you teenagers, supporting these sorts of things is trendy or whatever – hell, I had those days myself when I was your age – but the older and wiser of us have more experience with the world, and still have the well-being and sanctity of our families and our religion in mind. For instance, if you were gay, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you that it would be in yours and this family’s best interest to keep that lifestyle to yourself and move on in your life. It’s toxic. Besides, you wouldn’t want to end up like your pal Zayn, now would you, Louis?” he’d asked his son with a conclusive grin, and maybe if Louis hadn’t caught onto the rather distressing gleam in his father’s eye, he’d have reacted differently.

The fact remains, though, that Louis had seen it, and as a result, hadn’t known how to respond, so he’d just excused himself from the table, went upstairs to fall into bed, and woken up at midnight in a sweat. He’d had his first nightmare in a long time that night, the first of what was to be a series of recurring nightmares through the week.

In the dream, he holds Harry’s hand in front of the whole school, an impossibly tight grip as they stand together on the familiar auditorium stage under a brilliant spotlight. All eyes are on the two of them, and after a moment, Louis feels the skin of his boyfriend’s palm begin to heat up and blister from the contact. He never lets go of Harry for any of it, physically cannot make himself like he’s trapped in his own body, even when Harry begins to scream and beg for Louis to release him, falling to his knees with hot tears rolling down his cheeks.

Louis still doesn’t know what it means.

On top of all this, he feels even worse because he knows Harry’s got no idea that anything’s even going on, and Louis’s been taking all of this tension out on his boyfriend. Since Niall’s unofficially taken leave, Harry has been subjected to bits and pieces of the nervous energy he usually takes out on his best friend in times of life-weirdness ( on the rare occurrences that it comes out at all ). He feels anxious, self-contained, and on high alert at all times, and this conflicts directly with Louis’s constant desire to make Harry smile, to do good for him. Together, it creates this odd and paper-thin push-shove dynamic that even Louis can see through.

Louis’s been trying his best to stay normal but knows that there have been cracks, and he can see flickers of something in Harry’s face that looks terribly like distress every time it happens. He wants so badly to make this work despite all this bullshit that’s weighing him down, because even if the world’s against him, he’s still got Harry, and that has to count for something. Lately though, it’s been feeling like even Harry is slipping out of Louis’s grasp faster than he can collect him back into his arms.

He doesn’t know what he’s doing, and doesn’t know how to make anything better.

Louis feels like he hasn’t slept in years.

Clean-up from Championship has been a long time coming, but it’s finally done, finally fucking done, and by Friday, there’s nothing left to accomplish. The stage has been swept and mopped, the props and costumes have been put away, the scripts have been either packed into labeled boxes or recycled if they’re in bad enough shape, and now it seems that as Louis slumps back in one of the velvety auditorium seats, everyone’s breathing in collective relief at the total and utter lack of things to do. He doesn’t see a single person in the room that doesn’t have a minimum of a hint of a smile on his face.

“Alright, you lot ready for the next project?” Brother Winston starts the class with a smile as he stands on the stage, and the entire room moans.

“Do you think he gets pleasure from making the rest of us want to drown ourselves in the bathroom sinks?” Stan asks in a hushed undertone after Brother Winston has calmed the boys down enough to be heard over the sound of unanimous protest. Louis smirks.

“Wouldn’t shock me. We’ve basically had three weeks off, in his defence.”

“Not enough. Give me a full month, then maybe we can talk.” Stan slants his eyes. “Maybe.”

“You’re so lazy, mate,” Louis laughs quietly, but it sounds disturbingly hollow to his ears. Stan notices as well, breaking his watch of Brother Winston walking up and downstage as he talks about the next big thing that the drama department will be working on over the remainder of the semester to look at the friend that sits on his right.

“I think you may need the extra break more than I do.”

Louis rubs the heels of his hands into his eyes and tries to shrug away. “I’m fine,” he says, but apparently a week of pretending has made him a terrible actor, because Stan only rolls his eyes.

“And I’m going to land a starring role in Ben’s next production. You look… honestly, you look ready to go to sleep, mate.”

Louis settles further into the soft upholstery of the seats and hums. “You could get one, you know.”

“One what?”

“A role,” he says, eager to shift the attention of the conversation away from him and how he would actually gladly give a kidney for the ability to sleep without nightmarish disruption right now. “You could get one if you actually tried.” He raises his thumbnail to chew on before he remembers that he doesn’t really have much of one anymore. He bites on the rough, winter-dry skin of his knuckle instead.

“He’s got his favourites,” Stan says, apparently content with the change in discussion, and crosses his arms over his chest. “Same as any teacher. For example,” he says with a gesture of hand, “you’ll get the lead even if you show up to the audition drunk and in your pajamas.”

“Is that jealousy I hear in your voice, Stanley?” Louis teases. Stan grunts. “I thought you weren’t even interested in theatre.”

“I’m not particularly, but I probably would be if I actually got to do something other than be Ben’s PA. That man drinks more tea in a single rehearsal than my whole family combined does in a week.” Louis bites his lip and gives Stan a bit of a nudge in reply, and the boys go silent to regain their focus of Brother Winston as he paces the stage and strokes at the beard – he calls it his ‘winter coat’ – that he’s been working on for the past few months. Louis wishes he could grow a beard. He thumbs over his very smooth and very hairless chin. Maybe someday.

“…so I need everyone’s full attention and cooperation. I know there wasn’t much room for cast in last semester’s production, though I think it went splendidly, so I’m looking for more…” The brother pauses his strides, twirling his fingers in midair as he tries to search for the word that he’s missing. He apparently gives up halfway. “Whatever. I’m looking for productions with more people to act in them.”

“What if you can’t find anything, sir?” Louis hears from the opposite side of the auditorium. It’s Michael who’s spoken, the same one Louis had shared the stage with a few weeks before in Championship. He’s recently redone his hair, a new cut and bleached as blond as Niall’s goes in the summer.

“Yeah,” comes another voice, this time from a few rows behind and to the right, and Louis grits his teeth when he sees that it’s Nat Chesney who’s spoken up. His outrageously gangly legs are folded awkwardly so that he’s sitting with his knees up on the seat in front of him, and his freckled fingers trace the outline of his pale bottom lip as he speaks. “‘Cos all due respect, sir, but I’d rather not be stuck doing something that we did two or three years ago again just ‘cos we can’t find anything better.”

“I’ve thought about all this as well,” Brother Winston says. “If worst comes to worst, we can do several one act plays. We’re obviously limited in what we can do with an all-male cast, and I’m sorry for that, but I’ll do my best to find something.” Louis perks up at this, because even in his sleep-deprived, stressed-the-fuck-out and emotional brain, he’s somehow managed to have a bit of a flashback to the winter hols.

“Sir?” he interrupts with his hand raised, and the whole room’s eyes turn to him. “Does that mean you still don’t know what play we’re doing yet?”

“Yes, Mr. Tomlinson, that means that I don’t know what play we’re doing yet.” Brother Winston gracefully hops off the stage, crosses his arms, and leans back with a wink. “I do expect you to audition, though, no matter what it ends up being.”

“Of course. Out of curiosity, though, would you be up for suggestions as to what we might do? You know, if we have something in mind?”

“I would be open,” the man says with a high eyebrow, “very open, as it goes. What were you thinking?”

“Tell me, Ben,” Louis begins with a small smile and a tilt of his head, “have you considered the piece Twelve Angry Men?”

~

March has been kind so far; mild in weather and mild in strange occurrences. It’s not to say that everything’s brilliant, necessarily – they could be much better in the grand scheme of things – but Harry’s pleased to say that for the most part, things have gone back to normal.

Zayn’s taken the task of surviving in a hostile and entirely unsympathetic environment rather well, and from the little information that he’s been willing to give up, Harry had gathered that by the end of February, things were actually on steady ground with Liam again. Of course, this was only the tip of the iceberg, and Harry had known better than to take this as the full truth. This was Zayn after all, and after the stunt Harry had pulled the week of the ‘secret birthday’, he wasn’t expecting much inside information to come his way.

Harry had managed to sneak down to the first floor of the Arts building into the library on the first day of the new month that he’d had guitar, Niall’s permission given without thought, to go see if he could get a first-hand glimpse at what Zayn was getting up to. He had been right to be suspicious in the end, because when he’d eventually stumbled upon the two boys, they were on the floor in a secluded corner of the library, Liam curled up and half asleep with his head in Zayn’s lap. Zayn had had one hand in Liam’s hair, gently playing with the wavy locks and curling them around his fingers, and the other had held a book. His mouth, still recovering in healed cuts and bruises in muted shades of yellow, had been softly upturned as he’d quietly read aloud to the boy under him. Harry had gone back upstairs, not daring to disturb the two, and he still hasn’t said a word about what he’d seen in the weeks following, even to Louis.

Niall’s life seems to have been overtaken by finals prep, so none of the boys have really been seeing him around lately, making it impossible to have the weekend hangouts and FIFA competitions that they’d gotten used to at one point. He seems glad to have the work, though, so Harry’s pleased about it for him. Harry is, however, worried about the state of the sixth-former’s and Louis’s relationship. He’s not sure what to do to help them, or even what the cause of the palpable tension is that’s been building between the two since mid-February. They don’t seem to speak to or even look at each other in the way that they usually do, but neither of them have said anything to Harry about it. He’s inclined to believe that it’s because they have a bit of a co-dependency, even though neither of them would likely admit to it, and not having the familiar presence of his best friend is putting Louis on edge. In the back of Harry’s mind, though, he does worry that it may have something to do with him.

Harry tries to not think about the fact that Niall doesn’t know about their relationship, that he’s in the dark about something that’s been existing under his nose for the past three months, because he feels horribly guilty about it when he does. He actually brought it up last week for the first time, asking Louis when he thought they should finally tell Niall about everything that’s been going on, but Louis had been quick to shut him down. He’d said that it wasn’t a good idea and had gone very quiet afterwards, only opening back up to the conversation when Harry had vowed to never bring it up again and kissed him for fifteen minutes until his shoulders lost their tension. Niall is one of his best friends, sure, but if Louis knows him well enough to know that he wouldn’t react well to it, then Harry’s going to listen. He won’t endanger his or Louis’s relationship with Niall for acceptance that won’t come.

On the bright side of things, Louis’s general demeanor has eased back down to a tolerable level, much to Harry’s relief, so he doesn’t feel the need to ask about it. Granted, it had taken a little longer for him to return to normal than what he’d been hoping for, but it seems that with Louis’s attention fully focused on the drama department’s newest project, all of his university applications being done ( something that he’d been working on and gradually submitting for the past few months ), and the discussion of revision and the end of A-levels starting up, he’s calmed down significantly. Harry can actually spend a full weekend with his boyfriend and not feel uneasy for any of it, which is, in a word, nice.

Gemma’s also coming home for an entire three weeks at the beginning of next month along with most of the boys, which Harry is absolutely ecstatic about. Other than the two weekend visits that had mostly consisted of Gemma catching up on lost sleep in the comfort of her own bed, it’ll be the first time since the Christmas holiday that he’s going to have his sister or any of his friends home.

“We need to have them all over at mine,” Louis says as Harry sips at his blackcurrant squash and tries to study a particularly complex cellular metabolic process. The younger boy thinks that by the time he’s actually memorized what the hell all of the steps of the Krebs Cycle are, all of the enzymes involved, and their respective reaction types, he’ll be on his deathbed as an old man.

“All of them?” Harry pushes the textbook away from him across his desk and turns behind him. “Like, all the boys and stuff?”

Louis hums and rolls over onto his stomach on Harry’s bed. “Yeah, and Gemma as well if she wants. She seems really good friends with all of them.”

“It’s just because they all give her attention and tell her she’s pretty,” Harry says with a grin.

“Well, they’re not wrong. You’ve got a fit sister, H.”

“Oi!”

“What? I think you’re the much fitter sibling, anyways,” Louis insists with a smile like spring sunshine, stretching out a hand to Harry. He’s dressed today in what Harry has titled ‘soft Louis’ attire; a red beanie, joggers, a loose t-shirt that might have been borrowed off his father judging by the way that it’s nearly falling off of his shoulders, and his glasses. It’s the ensemble that’s strictly reserved for weekends, a nice break from the stifling ties and jackets of the school uniform, and right now, he looks far too cuddly and inviting to ignore any longer. It’s a wonder that Harry’s found enough self-restraint to study for as long as he has rather than curl up into the older boy’s side and nap.

“You’re supposed to say that,” Harry says, getting to his feet and picking up Louis’s hand with his own as he walks the short distance to his bed. The mattress dips down with his added weight as he approaches Louis’s side on his knees and plops down to lie with him. “You’re my loyal, loving boyfriend, remember?” Louis gives his fingers a squeeze.

“I do remember, actually.” Louis touches his nose to Harry’s. “And I’m very lucky for it.”

“You’re going to make me blush.”

“Then I’ll consider it a job well done.” Louis kisses him softly one minute and in the next slots one of his legs between Harry’s, moving so that he’s on top.

It’s quite clear what he has in mind, and after an hour of staring at different variations of the same chart in his textbook, Harry is more than happy to indulge, and he languidly grinds his hips upwards to meet. Louis bites at his lower lip and groans. This has turned heavy kind of fast, and although he often wishes that he could go without having to breathe so that he could kiss Louis forever, after a few minutes of this, Harry can feel himself already becoming lightheaded from both the kiss and the relocation of blood in his body. He separates himself to catch his breath.

“Somehow, we always end up here,” Harry says once Louis’s taken the hint and pulled away to begin kissing down his jaw and neckline. He can practically hear the older boy smirk as Harry pants the air back into his lungs.

“As if you have something better to do.”

“Well, actually…” Harry meaningfully glances back over to his desk. If biology textbooks had eyes, his would probably be staring at him angrily right now, attempting with a glare to communicate imminent failure on this upcoming test if Harry doesn’t pick up where he abruptly left off to have it off with his boyfriend instead. Angry textbooks be damned, though.

Louis huffs a laugh against where Harry’s neck and shoulder meet. “Let me rephrase that; as if you have anything you’d rather be doing.”

“Well, actually…” Harry teases in a drawl and gives another theatrical and prolonged glance at his desk. Louis nips hard at Harry’s shoulder to bring his full attentiveness back, the attention-coveting fiend he is, and Harry emits a slightly embarrassing squeak at the pain.

“Shut up, Styles.”

“Such a gentleman.” Harry gasps at first, biting at his lip as Louis tongues over the sensitive skin, but then, “Why don’t you make me?”

And Harry loves, loves seeing that expression on Louis’s face when the older boy pulls back, probably more than he loves most things. It’s shock smattered with glowing lust, something Harry never tires of and probably never will in this lifetime. He loves knowing he’s the one who put it there, the only one who can put it there, and loves knowing that despite him being the younger of the two, he’s running the whole show.

He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but there’s something about Louis that makes Harry so outlandishly and nonsensically confident and gives him the ability to talk the way and do the things that he never could otherwise. Before Louis, and even with Louis sometimes still, Harry would blush at even the mention of something remotely sexual. On days like this, though, when he can already feel Louis’s cock literally jump against his thigh after only the slightest implication of what’s about to occur, Harry feels like he could fell entire kingdoms just by taking off his shirt.

“Bet you’d be a little quieter with my dick in your mouth,” Louis says as he looms over him, voice shaky and betraying in the attempt for the cool air that he was obviously trying to radiate, but seeing as that wasn’t exactly what Harry was looking for –

“Or mine in yours.” Harry untangles his fingers from Louis’s and pushes on the older boy’s shoulder to make him go down. Louis sniffs and rolls his eyes.

“Yeah, I’m the gentleman.”

Harry doesn’t know how to reply cleverly to that, so he doesn’t. He just watches from below as Louis makes his way further down, and at this point, Harry’s matching the older boy’s hardness. It’s a little bit embarrassing if he’s honest, since he skipped out on pants today to just wear Louis’s pajama bottoms that he’d lent Harry ages ago, and they’re far too loose and big on him to hide anything even after the growth spurt he’s been going through lately. At the same time, he knows Louis likes seeing it.

“I love you in these,” Louis says like he’s reading Harry’s mind, screwing the fabric around Harry’s knees with his fists as he pulls them further down his legs. Harry lifts his hips up slightly to help. “Love seeing you in my clothes.”

“Do you one more then,” Harry says, and without another thought, he snatches Louis’s beanie off of the older boy’s head and puts it on his own, tucking the longer curls under it neatly before lying back against the bedspread again. He needs a haircut soon. “Now get to work, if you please. My textbook’s been looking at me funny since I left it.”

“Unbelievable,” Louis mumbles fondly, more to himself than to Harry, as he wraps his hand around Harry’s now uncovered and half hard cock. Harry feels himself go dizzy with another blood rush. “Your textbook can’t give you head, though.”

“That’s true,” he barely manages to get out before Louis goes down on him, taking just the tip in and sucking on it gently. Harry bites down on the gasp that he nearly lets out and tries very, very hard not to let his hips move at the feeling. And god, this is so good. It’s always good when Louis does this for him. Harry likes to think he’s gotten better and more playful when he does this himself, experience and practise lending him the ability to make Louis go weak and wordless, but it’s doubtful that he’s quite as good as Louis is. Probably impossible, because this feels like a blessing from God Himself. If blowjobs were divine, Harry thinks, this would be the Holy Grail of them.

“You’d probably get even more studying in than you do now if they could blow you,” Louis says as he licks up and down wetly, a tiny drop of spit in the corner of his mouth and his eyes that deep swimming pool blue staring up through the slightly fogged up lenses of his glasses. It’s utterly obscene. Harry already knows he’s not going to last as long as he’d like, though in his defence, he is only sixteen. That, and Louis is just an Adonis. Fucking Louis and his fucking glasses.

“I do like getting blown,” he says as he runs his fingers through Louis’s hair, “though I can’t imagine my class degree would be as thankful for it as I would be.”

“Your class degree would probably hate you,” the older boy says with a smile before sinking down all the way once, then twice, and… well, it’s done what Louis was originally intending. Suffice to say that other than a few scattered moans through the whole thing, Harry’s completely shut up now.

He likes watching, though, so even if he doesn’t say anything about it, he marvels at the way that Louis moves so slickly, so much better and skillful in his movements than he had been the first time. Harry’s a simple observer today, halfway sat up on his elbows and occasionally reaching out to run his thumb over the older boy’s jawline and the dip of his hollowed cheek. After maybe five minutes, it’s about to be over, he can feel it at the base of his spine and between his hips, but as nice as the prospect might be, Harry doesn’t want to come like this.

“Come here,” he growls ( he’s not quite sure where that one comes from ), gesturing with a single crook of his finger to the boy who’s currently mouthing down the side of his dick, and Louis moves back up on one of his hands and knees to kiss him again, still stroking Harry through as he does. Harry roughly shoves down the front of Louis’s joggers to finally get a hand around his dick for the first time all day, the poor neglected thing, and Louis sighs into his mouth. He thumbs over the tip where it’s gotten slick, and he can taste the sweetness of relief on Louis’s tongue when it finds its way to the backs of Harry’s teeth. Harry thinks briefly that if they both come at the same time like this, he won’t be able to concentrate on his studying for the rest of the weekend.

Alas, it’s not meant to be, because moments later, Louis twists his hand in that way that he knows Harry likes and he pulls on the back of Harry’s hair and bites down hard on the same area he’d left his mark earlier, and Harry feels his body tense up and shudder and his toes curl in his socks.

“God, don’t stop now, so close,” Louis presses him on after giving him time for the briefest of comedowns, sucking at the mark that’s surely going to be there in an hour or so, and Harry complies, picking back up even when his wrist is starting to hurt from the odd angle. Louis moves his hips at the same pace of Harry’s hand, thrusting into the pressure, then, “God, god, godfuckfuck,” comes out of his mouth just as Harry’s biting down on his lip, almost hard enough to draw blood, and he holds the older boy tight against his body as he shudders and tips over into bliss.

After a long minute, Louis manages to somehow roll onto his side, another quiet god escaping in a bit of a whimper as he falls, and it gives them both the ability to assess the damage. Harry’s got a maroon spot forming above his collarbone that’s still slick with spit, they’ve both got come on their t-shirts, Louis’s glasses are totally lopsided and only halfway on his face, both of their dicks are still out of their pants, and it’s all very disgusting and real and beautiful. Harry kisses Louis for it on the temple.

“We should probably get rid of these,” Harry says, tugging at the dirtied hem of Louis’s shirt. Louis glances down and groans.

Once he manages to get Louis up and on his feet, both boys shed their t-shirts. Harry flings them onto the floor in the far corner of the room, too lazy and keen to get back to bed to open the closet door and throw them into the hamper. He’ll get them later if he remembers, and he tells Louis to pick a new one from his collection of clean laundry by the door that still has yet to be put away and replaces the beanie on his head. Once he’s changed over to a simple white t-shirt and looks back over to the bed, he sees that Louis’s already flopped back down and snuggled into the pillow.

“You can keep that one if you like,” Harry says when he sees what shirt Louis’s pulled over his body. It’s a powder blue one that has thick navy bands going across the front, light to dark as it goes down, and it’s very big in the sleeves on him. It was Gemma’s at one point, but he’s not too sure Louis needs to know that.

“Only seems fitting,” Louis says with a crackly voice, “seeing as you robbed me of that hoodie on Tuesday.”

“It’s soft, and I like sleeping in it,” Harry says as he hops back up onto the bed and drops his head onto Louis’s chest. “It smells like you. And since when are we keeping tabs on who stole whose clothing?”

Louis doesn’t answer, just laughs and brings Harry in for a cuddle on the bed again. Louis always smells so nice, so very him, and Harry buries his nose into the older boy’s side and breathes him in, making a point to scratch his eyelashes against his ribcage. The slight tickle makes Louis giggle, and he doesn’t know why he thinks of it right now, but Harry sits up and breaks into a smile.

“It’s just occurred to me that I never did show you Beckham’s card.”

“…Random. Let’s see it, then.” Louis gives him a little pat on the bottom as Harry untangles himself from Louis’s arms and stands up to go to his desk, and he opens up the middle drawer to search for a familiar envelope, yellow and soft on the edges from both time and being handled by Harry’s hands. He finds it in the back by an old pencil case that he still has from primary school for some reason and brings it out, blowing on the paper to get rid of the trace amount of dust that’s collected on it.

“Here,” Harry passes it over to Louis, and ‘delicately’ doesn’t begin to describe the way that Louis clutches it. He touches it like it’s made of sand, apt to crumble into bits if he holds it the wrong way. There are stars in his eyes.

“Shit…” he breathes, trailing his fingers over the inked, scratchy writing of the return address, “like, this is David Beckham’s handwriting. Sick.” He shakes his head as he carefully brings up the flap of the envelope and takes out the card. Harry would lay down and look with him, share the experience, but he already knows every bubble of the silver ink on the paper, every loop and squiggle, and every letter of the short sentence With love, David Beckham like the card’s an extension of his own body. Louis is absorbed in it, though, and Harry’s content to just watch. “Sick. Fuck, this is so cool. What a class man.”

Harry takes a seat on the bed next to him as Louis sits up from the pillow, body curled over the card almost protectively. His fingers trace the perimeter of the card, and Harry lets him have this moment in quiet, because although most people might laugh at this kind of adoration, Harry knows it’s important to him. Louis looks like he’s seeing Jesus resurrected with how wide and shiny his eyes are, but after a moment, he looks to the side at Harry.

“Can I ask you something?” Harry hums approval, and Louis blinks. “What did your dad look like?”

The question sort of takes Harry aback, even though there’s probably as much mental connection with this card and his dad for Louis as there is for Harry. His father hasn’t been brought up since Christmas hols when he’d animatedly told the story of the card in the first place, and though it’s not exactly something Harry likes talking about too much, Louis looks a little too curious to put him down. Besides, his dad is a huge part of him, and he’s going to share all of his parts with Louis eventually, including the secret ones. Might as well make it today.

“Uh… there.” Harry points to the corkboard above his desk where the colourful arrangement of photographs is pinned, finger straight at one in particular. “The one in the middle is me and him. It was taken in London less than a month before he died, sort of a ‘last trip with you before I go’ thing, so it’s the best one I have.”

“Huh,” Louis says shortly, glancing down at the card once before slotting it back into the envelope and pushing his glasses back up his nose as he looks up to Harry. “Did you know he was dying?”

“I knew he was really sick for a long time, but I didn’t know what it was or how bad it actually was, but I think Gemma did have a suspicion, so… it kind of messed her up for a while after he died. I don’t blame her for how she was over the next few years, although it would have been helpful to stop being such a brat for my mum.”

“Gemma doesn’t strike me as the bratty type.”

“She was a nightmare, believe it or not. For a really long time, she was sad about my dad and angry about how she wasn’t told. I guess she felt like she’d had the right to know about what was going on, and she took it out on mum. It only got worse when Robin came along, bringing a new sibling for us and a new house and a new life. She refused to go to church, acted out, hung out with all the wrong people, all that super cliché stuff. We used to fight all the time, too. It actually got kind of physical a few times…” Harry doesn’t want to go much further and paint his sister in a bad light, so he stops there and clears his throat. “She’s all good now, and she and my mum are all good again. She fixed herself up enough by the end to get into a college and do well with it, too, which is a relief. She’s too smart to just be working in a shop for her whole life, you know? And we’re better now. She’s, like, one of my best friends. We tell each other pretty much everything.”

“She’s brilliant,” Louis agrees wholeheartedly, and under the circumstance, Harry’s never been so glad to hear someone speak well of his sister. “And how did you take it? Did you cut your hair and paint your nails black and stuff?”

“I was, like, eight years old.”

Louis shrugs. “Still.”

“No, I was not a pre-pubescent emo kid. I got really attached to my mum, though, which we still are… Attached, that is. She needed someone to sort of help her through everything, to be on her side when her other kid flat out refused to be, so I picked up the slack. I helped make dinner, sometimes even made the whole thing when she had her really bad days, and that’s how I really learned how to cook in the first place. I did laundry, cleaned, got her up in the mornings when she couldn’t do it herself.” Harry stands back up again to go over to the corkboard and unpins the photo of him and his father to give to Louis. “She just needed someone on her side. She loved my dad a lot. It was really rough for her to lose him in the way she did.”

It’s amazing how much baggage Harry’s been carrying over the past few years, and he didn’t even realise it until this particular moment. Even the others don’t know about most of this stuff, especially about how badly he and Gemma used to get on and how terrifyingly deep his mum’s depression had gotten at one point, but it feels… good. It feels good and safe. Louis looks over the picture in his hands with fondness in his eyes, perhaps not only for Harry, but also the man who he never had the chance to meet.

“You’re too good, Styles. I have to say, though, you look nothing like him.”

“I know. Me and Gem both look like mum.” Harry taps at Louis’s ankles to get them to lift, grabs at the throw blanket that’s been draped over the bottom of the bed to bring it up and cover them, and settles down to snuggle back into Louis’s warm side. “I know I’ve said it before, but I do think he’d have really liked you, my dad. Robin and mum both think so as well.”

“You’re lucky to have such a supportive family,” Louis says, and he hands Harry the photograph and the envelope together. Harry leans over Louis’s body with an outstretched arm and places them on the bedside table beside his alarm clock.

“I never thought they would be,” he says, relaxing half on top of Louis, half into his right side. He rests his previously outstretched arm on his boyfriend’s chest so that it rises and falls with every breath he takes. “I was so scared I was going to get thrown out or something for it, but consider my expectations defied. Who knows, maybe your parents will be fine about it when you tell them.” Louis covers his wrist with a light clasp, squeezing it softly.

“You don’t know my dad, sunshine, but your optimism is lovely.”

Harry wishes he could make that sad tone disappear, because he absolutely loathes hearing that Louis has such dismal expectations of how this will all eventually unfold. His eyelids are starting to feel heavy, so he buries his eyes into Louis’s neck. “Do you think you’ll ever tell them?”

Louis sighs, and with his other arm around Harry’s slowly warming body, he rubs circles through the two thin layers of fabric onto his spine. “Yeah, maybe when we’re older. As it goes right now, I’m kind of dependent on them for a lot.” He pauses for a moment, and before Harry’s heart can senselessly sink any further in his chest, he continues with, “But I don’t want you thinking that I don’t wish it weren’t so. I’m not ashamed of this anymore, you and me. I wish I could go and scream from the rooftops how much I love what we have and how important you are to me. Because you are. You’re important to me.”

Harry yawns in Louis’s shirt. “Yeah? Why don’t you, then?” He feels the grip on his wrist tighten slightly.

“Because someone might hear me.”

Chapter Text

“We’re having a girl’s day today,” Jay says upon entering Louis’s room the next weekend, throwing the door so wide open that it pings off of the wall stop behind it. Louis’s been in bed since he woke up an hour ago, studying the script that he was given two weeks before for the last audition on the afternoon that they return. Harry’s promised to stay with him after school to hold his hand and help keep his nerves down, but if he’s going to go up there and not feel like his stomach is filled with insects, then he needs to study and memorize these lines for his desired role to the point where he could recite them in his sleep.

He lowers the pages down to his lap and looks at his mother. “Good for you?”

“Get dressed, then. We’ll leave in an hour?”

“You said ‘girl’s day’.” Jay nods and crosses her arms as she leans against the doorframe, and Louis raises an eyebrow before lifting up on the neck of his shirt and glancing down at the flat and very breast-less chest underneath. He looks up at her and feigns confusion.

“Oh, for god’s sake, you know exactly what I meant.”

“Final cuts and part assignment auditions are on Monday, mum,” Louis says as he reclines back into his propped up pillows, and Jay crosses the room to sit at the foot of her son’s bed. “I’m trying for the lead. I need to study.”

“Oh, let me see that?” Jay gestures for the booklet that Louis’s basically had attached to his side for the last few weeks with wiggly fingers, and when he hands it over, she promptly throws it over her shoulder and into the wall behind her. Louis stares at the crumpled heap of paper that’s now lying in a dejected mess on the floor before slowly trailing his widened eyes back up to meet his mum’s expectant gaze.

He and his mother make a rather convincing argument for flairs for the dramatic being genetic.

“I needed that.”

“And we need to have quality mother-son time.” Jay collapses into the bed and rests her head on her son’s knee. “It’s the first weekend I’ve had off in months, Anne and Maura are both busy, and I feel like I only ever see you at the dinner table now.” She sticks out her lower lip and does puppy eyes up at him. “Not to mention, since you adamantly refuse to take a gap year, you’ll be leaving me and going off to university in less than half a year.” Louis gives his best unimpressed look.

“I’m continuing my education, mum, I’m not dying,” he says at his mother’s pout that looks more silly and endearing than it does heart-wrenching, and he crosses his arms and sighs to drag the moment out before asking, “Where did you have in mind, then?”

After a very full day of shopping and when their arms have become sore from the weight of everything that they’ve been carrying for the past five hours, they find themselves in a Nando’s around four o’clock, as both are decently hungry and neither of them are willing to wait two more hours for a meal at home. They must have at least ten multicoloured plastic bags surrounding them on the floor and beside them in the booth, and Louis thinks with a smirk as his mum orders a glass of Cara Vina to go with her meal that there’s a good reason why they don’t go shopping together very often.

“So,” she begins once the server’s disappeared off to another table, “talk to me about this play that you’re auditioning for.”

Twelve Angry Men.”

“What’s that about then?”

“Basically,” Louis begins once he’s taken a sip of the water the waitress gave them, “it’s an American play about a jury’s decision over the life of this teenager who’s being charged with the murder of his father. It’s set back in the thirties I think, so if the kid’s convicted, he’ll be put to death. It seems very cut and dry at first with the evidence presented, so eleven of the twelve jury members are ready to just call it in, but there’s this one guy who doesn’t think there’s enough to put a teenager to death just yet, and he slowly invalidates all of the proof and changes everyone’s mind about convicting him.”

“Sounds like it could be interesting.”

“It is. It wasn’t even my idea to originally do it.” Louis runs a finger along the watery ring that was left on the tablecloth by the sweating glass. “I have a friend who graduated last year who’s wanted to see it done since he was part of the department, but he left before they could.”

“And I’m guessing you’re auditioning for the part of the man who doesn’t think he’s guilty.”

“Right. He’s such a moral character, so I think it’ll be cool to play that. They turned it into a movie, too, and it’s brilliant.”

His mum leans over the table and puts her chin in her hand, the large laminated menu falling to the side in her other. “We’ll have to watch that some time… maybe when we get home. Think you could find it on the internet or something?”

“Definitely,” Louis nods, “I’ve already watched it once.” That makes his mum chuckle, and she smiles into her menu as she runs her eyes over the selection. Louis doesn’t know why she bothers. She only ever gets one of two things.

“Louis, if there is one thing no one could ever say about you, it’s that you’re not entirely dedicated to your craft.”

“I love it,” Louis says honestly, and he can feel the warmth he has for the stage leaking into his voice. “It’s fun and cool. I love sort of sliding into a whole other dimension and changing up mannerisms and the way that you speak, becoming a whole other person.”

His mum sits back and tilts her head with a teasing smile. “What’s so bad about being Louis Tomlinson?”

He doesn’t mean to do it, honestly he doesn’t, but he can’t help but feel a little twinge of sadness and pity for himself, and he unintentionally goes quiet for a moment. In reality, he knows that as of late, according to his parents and best friend, there’s a rather lot that’s bad about being Louis Tomlinson. His mother, perceptive as she is, gives him a look when he holds his silence for too long.

“Nothing,” he finally says. “Nothing’s bad about it, it’s just… I don’t know. I like temporarily becoming other people. It’s a nice change-up.” Louis wishes that he had some kind of food in front of him already so that he could stab it with his fork until he felt less tense. He elects for squeezing his thumbs in his hands under the table until the two knuckles pop, because his nails are still in the healing process and he really doesn’t like the concerned expression on his mother’s face. Rather than linger on the matter, he elects for a quick subject change. “So why couldn’t your friends hang out today?”

Jay starts flicking through the food selection again. “I texted Anne this morning, and apparently she’s got Gemma and her step-son coming back from Italy for Easter, so she’s cleaning up the house, all that, and then Maura’s packing to go back to Ireland for the week. Evidently, Niall’s granddad is doing rather poorly.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that.”

She glances up. “Hasn’t he told you?”

Louis really wishes he had food to stab at. He squeezes his thumbs tighter. “Uhm… No. We haven’t really been seeing much of each other lately.”

“Why’s that?

Louis shrugs, casting the bitterness that he feels rising in his chest aside. “I guess we’ve both just got things going on.”

“You’ve got enough time for Harry and Zayn.” Well then. “I’d hate to see you two fall out.”

Louis returns his eyes to his menu to prevent them from rolling. “We’re not falling out, mum.”

“Okay,” his mother seems to catch onto the fact that this is something he’s only going to talk about if he wants to, and she goes back to looking at her menu as well. “Speaking of Zayn, how is he?”

“Fine when he’s not ducking from balls of paper and heavy objects being thrown at him.”

“Poor thing, bless his heart. Such a shame he’s like that.”

Oh, god. “Not you, too,” he groans, resting his menu on the table and putting his face in his hand.

And it’s not that Louis wasn’t anticipating this from his mum at some point – he can’t expect miracles out of people like Harry seems to lately, and it’s not like she’s vocalized her opposition to his dad’s speeches at the dinner table – but… he won’t say that it doesn’t sting to finally hear it. There’s a kind of solidity in it, a shift of blame for what’s happened to Zayn over the course of the past two months, that Louis could have willingly ignored for the rest of his life, because in the worst way possible, it means much more than what his mother was intending when she said it.

“What?” she asks, confusion dense in her voice and eyes. Louis watches as her fingers pick up the discarded paper from their drinking straws and begin balling it up.

“It’s not a shame that he likes boys as well as girls, mum,” he says. “The real shame is that people are unaccepting of the fact that he’s like that. There’s nothing wrong with him, but there’s something very wrong about the fact that it’s 2010 and people still think that there is.”

Louis picks his menu back up and begins scanning it mindlessly, and he probably looks over the optional side dishes ten times before giving up on it entirely. He’s not going to be able to concentrate when he feels like a ball of tension and stress. More than anything, he wants to pull out his phone and hear Harry’s voice, telling him that everything’s fine and to put a brave face on. He finds it increasingly difficult not to do just that when he sees how his mum is staring at him.

“You’ve changed a lot since you’ve met that boy,” Jay finally says quietly, picking up her drinking glass to sip at because she doesn’t have anything else to do with her hands now that both hers and Louis’s straw paper have been decimated. He and his mother both have a fidgeting problem, always have, and while Louis is usually prone to biting at his hands, his mum likes to rip things. Unfortunately for her, the paper napkins haven’t been brought out with her wine yet.

“Call it personal growth,” Louis says rather nastily, more so than he probably needs to, and he takes another sip of his own water, looking anywhere but his mother’s face right now.

“I’m sorry that I’ve offended and upset you, babe.”

“You haven’t offended me mum, it just sucks to know that my own parents – ” Louis cuts himself off abruptly, catching himself at the very last second as he sets his glass back down.

“What?”

Wouldn’t accept me for who I am, Louis thinks.

“Nothing,” he says instead.

Rather than look back at the menu that he knows he’s not reading anyway, Louis glances around the restaurant at the other patrons of the ‘late lunch, early dinner’ crowd. His eyes fall upon one table on the far side in particular. There are two women sat together across the room, and even from afar, Louis can see that they’re holding hands across the tablecloth. He feels a hot flash of jealousy flare through his core as one of the women, the blonde one, picks up the other’s hand and kisses it gently.

“It bothers you pretty terribly to hear your dad talk about that stuff at the table, doesn’t it?” his mum asks, apparently either following his gaze or picking up on what he’s thinking. “I can tell you’re uncomfortable sometimes. I’m sorry I don’t tell him to just shut up, but you know your dad…” She begins tracing lines in the tablecloth as Louis continues watching the couple with envy. “You know, Lou, you can tell me anything.”

Louis breaks his watch and stares back at his mum with narrow eyes. “Can I?”

“…What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What it means, mum, is that you…” No, no, this isn’t right. He isn’t going to snap at his own mother today, not when she isn’t to blame for any of this. She’s decided to spend her first weekend off in months with her son, after all. Louis eases his shoulders down and takes a deep breath before continuing.

“You and dad are a team, right? Like, you guys work together, you agree on things, and you’ve got a similar mindset.”

Jay purses her lips. “I wouldn’t say that’s completely accurate, but continue.”

“Dad and I have never really seen eye to eye on anything since I’ve been, like, eight years old; school, lack of interest in sport, what I want to do with my life.” Louis sighs and reaches across the table for his mum’s hand. “Mum, I love you, and I trust you more than I do most people, but I don’t know if I can come to one half of the team when I know the other half doesn’t approve of who I am and where I’m going in life.”

“What are you going on about, babe?”

Yes, that’s a very good question; what the hell is he going on about? Surely, Louis scolds himself, he can’t be considering telling her what’s actually going on in his head, because even a hint of that went so well with Niall last time. He quickly backtracks, letting go of his mum’s hand to pick up his menu again and make himself look preoccupied.

“Doesn’t matter. Can we stop talking about this please? I’d rather not have a disagreement in the middle of a Nando’s when we’ve had such a good day.”

Silence falls between the two, and Louis resorts to listening to the sounds of the restaurant around them and looking outside to the late afternoon population. He thanks the lord above they’ve got a seat close to a window to distract himself from the pit of tension he’s seemed to have fallen into, because he doesn’t think he’d be able to endure looking at the salad section over and over, or that table of the two women who’ve taken to kissing each other every minute now, until their server comes back to take their order.

“Lou, babe?” Jay says just as an old couple passes by the glass, the man with a cane and the woman holding him up by his elbow as he potters along the pavement, “I know you said you didn’t want to talk about it anymore, but I just need to say something quick, then we’re done.” She continues only when Louis drags his eyes over again.

“Your father’s a man’s man. He does what he likes, says what he likes, and yes, he has certain expectations of his only son that you haven’t fulfilled. But Louis, sweetheart, it’s not a bad thing that you haven’t, that you’ve chosen your own path to go down. Every parent has dreams for their children from the moment they come into the world, ideas about what kind of people they’re going to be, what they’re going to talk like and do for a living and who they’re going to marry…” Jay pauses to look up at her son, and Louis can feel his heart physically come to a stop in his chest. “It just comes with the territory of being one. But babe, there are much, much worse things that you could have done in your life,” Jay places a delicate hand on Louis’s again and squeezes softly, “than fall in love with theatre.”

Louis can’t decide whether it’s a relief that his mother’s completely missed what he’s been subtly hinting at, or whether it feels like a knife to his heart.

“Like what?” he says, playing along. He swallows hard when the corners of her eyes crinkle up in a smile.

“You could have finished school at sixteen and gone to work in a garage, putting everything I know you have to offer the world to waste. You could have made friends with bad people and gotten involved with drugs. You could have gone against your religion and done terrible things, gotten involved in all kinds of sin. But you haven’t. I know your dad’s never been as supportive as he could be, but he does try. He’s been ever so good about it, even if he does slip up a lot, but you need to know that he loves you with all his heart. You’re a good boy who has done us both very proud.”

It’s at that moment that the waitress comes back with his mum’s glass of white wine and sets it on the table atop a couple napkins, which Louis is very thankful for. His throat’s started to sting with how guilty he feels about everything; the lying, the sin, the betrayal of his parent’s trust and expectations. They’re all things that haunt him in the moments both before he falls asleep and in his dreams, but he usually tries to push away the horrible feelings that come with them as fast as possible when he wakes. Right now, though, it doesn’t seem to be working. He then thinks about Harry, how confident he always is about everything he does, and how fucking lucky he is that his family still loves him despite him being with Louis. Most of all, though, he feels so utterly weak and powerless.

The teenage girl, wearing a bit too much concealer that’s a shade too dark on her spots and long caked eyelashes, pops her gum and asks for the order with a ballpoint pen to her pad of paper.

“One more minute if you don’t mind,” Jay says, and the girl walks away with an impatient huff that isn’t even remotely inconspicuous, stuffing her booklet into her apron. “I’ll talk to your father, get him to stop talking his rubbish at the table.”

Louis shakes his head and rubs the heels of his shaking hands against the denim on his thighs. “Don’t. I don’t want him thinking something’s up.”

“I do wish you two had a better relationship,” she sighs. “He works too much away from home now, doesn’t he?”

Louis looks up from the condensation on his water glass to his mum, because it’s impossible to miss the sadness that she has in her voice. She’s fidgeting again, and now that she’s got her napkins, she’s tearing one of them into tiny pieces. Louis’s dad has, over the past few months, been taken all over the country to do business, often three or four meetings with important people in the same city over the course of a week, so it’s becoming increasingly common for him to be gone for days at a time for convenience. It’s all the fault of a promotion that Louis remembers they had celebrated with expensive champagne the night it had been announced last year, but he’s never really thought about how hard it must be on his mum to have such separation from the man she married.

“Do you miss him when he goes away?”

Jay hums. “Yeah, pretty terribly. But everything he does is for family, and it’s not easy supporting five kids, you know?”

“One less in the house next year,” Louis smiles, giving her a little jab in the back of her hand with his fingers. Jay swats them away, abandoning the small but rather impressive pile of shredded paper she’s amassed in a mere minute.

“Oh, please don’t say that, you’ll make me cry. I hate thinking about losing one of my best friends.”

“For the second time today,” he says with pretend weariness in his voice, “you’re not losing me. And I’ll always be your best friend, just a bit long distance for nine months out of the year.” She laughs at that, and for a moment, Louis feels a little less terrible than he did seconds before. He loves his mum, he really does, and even though he’s had Niall since he was ten, his mother’s always been there. She really is one of his best friends, always has been.

He notices when she looks back down at her menu that she’d lain on the table earlier that, rather than go back to her paper pile, she’s playing around with her bracelet. It’s something that’s as reliably on her wrist as her wedding ring is on her finger, and has been for years to the point where Louis knows everything on it in order. It’s essentially a charm bracelet for grown women, and though Louis’s never seen the appeal of one, it certainly brings less guesswork to her birthday and holidays. She’s got charms and beads representing everything that’s important to her on it: her religion, her job, her twenty-year marriage, and one for each of her five children. It’s rather abrupt, but when Louis’s eyes fall upon the familiar gold charm in front of the four little girl figures, he can’t help but wonder if she’d take off the tiny boy and throw it to the very back of the jewelry box if she ever found out about what he really was.

“So,” he says, leaning back in his seat, “what are you getting, the salad or the wrap?”

~

Zayn’s house is perpetually freezing cold, even in the early spring months, and Harry would jokingly complain about having to keep his school jacket on in the house if he didn’t know that it was to save money. He’s never actually heard Zayn say this, but Louis lightheartedly said something about it once to Tricia back in November, and the look on her face had kind of said it all. To this day, Harry still hasn’t heard Louis speak as quickly and as uneasily as he had once he realized that he’d put his foot in his mouth. Tea is not just a customary offer in this house like in any other, but rather it’s to keep the joints in your hands from aching with cold during your stay.

Harry clutches his mug close to his chest as he and Zayn snuggle under the two quilts he’s got on the bed, watching torrents of House MD on his dad’s laptop. Zayn had picked up the show when he was bedridden and it’s since become one of his favourites, and he’s not even a little bit embarrassed or quiet about the fact that half the reason he even watches it is for the fit Australian. Harry much prefers Thirteen over everyone else on the team, though. She’s brilliant, pretty, and quick to help. Plus, she’s bisexual like him. He thinks that might be half the reason he likes her so much.

“I think if I were a patient in that hospital and getting treated by House’s team, I’d lick a used petri dish just to keep myself there longer.”

“A petri dish of what?” Harry asks, sipping at his tea. Zayn thinks about this for hardly a moment.

“Fasciitis.”

“What even is that?”

“Flesh-eating disease.”

“You’d give yourself a flesh-eating virus just so that you could get treated by a hot doctor?”

“It’s actually bacterial, and have you looked at him?” Zayn asks incredulously, taking a sip at his own tea as he locks his and Harry’s ankles together at the bottom of the bed. “He’s, like, the hottest bloke on the face of the planet. Seriously, God bless Australia. Don’t know what we did to deserve that beautiful continent.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “He’d never be able to fuck you if you got a flesh-eating disease of the mouth, mate. You’d have to be quarantined and you’d probably die within days. You’re better off with, like, malaria or a fungal infection, just something that won’t kill you so quick, because if you died as a result of being an idiot and licking cultures of fatal diseases, you’d deserve it.”

Zayn nods, taking this input into serious consideration. “You’re probably right. Maybe… can you give yourself pneumonia?”

“I think so… I think it can be viral, bacterial, or fungal,” Harry says, pulling from every scrap of medical information he’s got in his head out for the cause. “It’ll usually take pretty well in compromised lungs, and seeing as you smoke – ”

“ – Then I’m probably in a good position for it,” Zayn finishes, and he smiles as he brings his drink back to his mouth. “Knew killing my lungs would bring me good things one day.”

“You do remember that we’re talking all hypotheticals, right? House is a television show, it’s not actually real.”

Zayn puts a finger to Harry’s lips and shushes him.

Both boys return their attention to the screen, where a patient’s reason for coming into the hospital in the first place and the title sequence has finished playing out. From what Harry’s gathered so far, this episode has apparently introduced a man who suddenly doesn’t have the ability to lie – either that, or he’s just a proper dickhead who doesn’t know how or when to shut his mouth when the time calls for it. Harry feels like he can relate sometimes.

“Liam says he likes Hugh Laurie more than Chase. I think he’s mad.”

Harry goes very still at the mention of Liam’s name, and rightly he should. He still hasn’t told Zayn about what he saw that one day in the library, nor has he said anything about the note he saw Liam covertly pass to him on their way out of said library after school today. Reading it in the privacy of the loo was the first thing Zayn did after stepping into the house, leaving Harry to put the water on boil by himself, and he’d come back out with it refolded in his hand and colour on his cheeks. Harry doesn’t know what was written in it, but judging by the way that Zayn was near swooning where he stood, Harry would guess that it was probably a saccharine, sentimental love poem, complete with tiny hearts instead of dots for the ‘i’s.

Right now, though, it’s the opposite of amusing, and it’s actually kind of shitty to be sat next to something like this. They still haven’t talked to Zayn about the February shower incident with Liam, but it’s highly improbable that he doesn’t know given how well his and Liam’s relationship has rebounded since. Zayn’s noticed how quiet Harry’s gone, and he hits the spacebar hard, freezing the torrent, and looks at him.

“I know why you did it,” he says quietly, “why you three didn’t tell me about him cutting. I understand why you did what you did. I know you’re thinking about that.” Well, that makes Harry feel slightly better… but only slightly.

“Are you angry?”

Zayn shakes his head. “I mean, I bloody was at first, yeah, but only for, like, an hour at most.” He reaches over Harry’s chest to the bedside table and places his half-finished tea there, to which Harry follows suit. “I’ve thought about it, and in the grand scheme of things, I know you all kept it secret because you wanted to protect me. I’m a reckless idiot who doesn’t always think when it’s good for me, so…”

“Do you still wish we had told you when we found out?”

“Yeah, yeah I…” Zayn nods, rubbing his fingers along the corner of his mouth. “I really, really do.”

They sit in quiet, only the outside sound of old cars in long-time need of a tune-up passing by on the street below, and Harry thinks. Niall couldn’t have told him, a combination of a lack of time and loyalty to Louis preventing him from doing so, and he knows Louis would rather walk across the M62 blindfolded than to tell Zayn about what Harry stumbled upon that day, so there’s probably only one way that he found out.

“Did Liam tell you?”

“I walked in on him doing it, actually.” Oh. Harry’s heart drops into his stomach and Zayn bites at the dry skin on his lip. “I went to go see him on the Friday of the week I got back, because he wasn’t being normal with me at all, or even apologetic. Every time he’s done something to me, saying something nasty to me in the halls, shoving me off in front of his friends, he’s always said he’s sorry for it, even if it’s not actually that bad.” Zayn pauses to tongue over his teeth. “He was so closed off to me when I came back, though, even after I made it clear that I forgave him, and it didn’t make sense to me. I went to his house and walked in on him doing that to himself in his room and I just…”

“It’s horrible, isn’t it?” Harry asks, filling in where Zayn can’t. He can be sympathetic to how Zayn feels right now, thinking about the horrors of watching someone mindlessly and mechanically hurting themselves the way Liam does, because… well, he knows exactly the stomach-turning feeling that spreads through your being and makes a home there when you see something like that. “It’s sickening to watch.”

“No, I just think it’s really, really sad.” Zayn sighs and shakes his head. “It’s awful to see obviously, but to know that he felt like that was the only way he could help himself and that I was the reason that he was doing that, the reason why he picked that up again – ”

“ – Again?”

Zayn nods. His lip is spotting blood from how hard he’s gnawed at it, and he swipes his tongue over the red before continuing. “He’s got a history like you wouldn’t believe, mate, even worse than mine. It’s incredible how wrong you can be about someone, how just terribly, terribly wrong you can be.” Strangely, he laughs at this, making his lip bleed even more at the stretch. Harry can see the silvery scar that Liam and his friends left him with just under it as he smiles. “You think you’ve got someone, like, at least a little figured out to where they’re not a fucking labyrinth of a human being, and then they…”

For the first time ever, Harry can actually physically see how terribly the years have treated Zayn, how many lifetimes of agony and loneliness he’s been through in his seventeen years. His dark eyes speak volumes to Harry more than Zayn ever has with words. He looks drained under the courageous smile he’s pasting on, and Harry can see right through it.

“You alright?” he asks the older boy, quickly throwing an arm over his shoulder when he sees the slowly forming tears of frustration and sadness in Zayn’s eyes.

“No, I’m not to be honest,” Zayn replies shakily, easing slowly into Harry’s side. “I don’t know how to make him better, I don’t know how to fix someone like him, and it’s literally all I want to do. I care so much about him. I just want to make him better.”

“Zayn,” Harry sighs, “it’s not your job to fix him. If he’s as damaged as you’re implying he is, then there’s probably no way you can. You’re not a psychologist, mate, you’re not a counselor, and there’s no pill that can magically fix the damage he’s done to himself and to other people. What you’ve got to do is just be there for him while he fixes himself. It might be exhausting, but if you care about him as much as I know you do, then that’s what’s got to happen. You’ve got to stick around through the bad to eventually get to the good, right?”

“Right,” Zayn agrees with a nod, and this time, the gentle smile he gives Harry is genuine. “How’d you get so smart, eh?” Harry shrugs, and Zayn lights up. “In any case, I’m glad I have you around.”

Harry presses a light kiss under Zayn’s eye where a little water has trickled, then snuggles into the older boy’s cheek. “Yeah, well whether you like it or not, you’ll always have me around. Us freaks have to stick together.”

“So… can we keep this just between us, H? You know Louis would lose his bloody head if he found out about me and Liam.”

That’s probably true. “You got it. You still coming ‘round this weekend?”

“What, and miss out on you two being disgustingly cute together, waxing poetic about each other’s cocks and rubbing your love and sexual activeness in my face? I’d be mad to turn down the chance.”

Harry blushes. “Well, if Niall actually shows up this time, we won’t be able to. Lucky you.”

“I’ll drag him there myself if he says no again. He’s been working himself to death over the past month.” Zayn settles into the pillows that are propped up against the headboard, bringing Harry down with him, and presses the spacebar once again to start the show back up. “I still can’t believe he doesn’t know.”

“Louis says it’s not a good idea, and I trust him to know better than I do.”

“Okay,” Zayn says quietly. “I understand why he’s scared, I know how all of that goes, but I think he’d honestly be cool with it. He was okay with me, and he and Louis are like family. You’d think Niall of all people would be extra supportive, you know?”

“I think so, too,” Harry says as Taub and Kutner make their first patient visit on the screen, “but I’d rather not be there to find out if I’m wrong.”

~

“You’re a bloody fucking cheat, Tomlinson. You’re a filthy cheat, and you don’t even care.”

“I say it every time, don’t I?” Niall says back up to Zayn, who’s taken to standing on the couch cushion on the blond boy’s left and holding his controller out as far away from his body as he possibly can. “It’s disgusting.”

“What ever happened to honour, Niall?” he asks as he fails once again to steal the ball back from Louis and Harry’s player that Zayn has loudly regarded several times today as one who’s paid off the ref to not card when he sees any kind of penalty. None of the boys have yet bothered to correct him and tell him that that’s quite literally impossible. “What ever happened to integrity and general decency?”

Louis and Harry both laugh rather maniacally in response as they run down the field together, passing back and forth, and Harry takes the brief moment of Louis taking full control of the ball to lean across Louis’s lap and stuff a whole handful of crisps into his mouth. Out of the four boys who regularly touch Louis’s game sets, Harry and Niall are both usually the ones to blame for greasy fingerprints all over them. The salt and vinegar crisps that Niall had swiped from his father’s stash before Zayn had come and gotten him will probably be leaving a mark or twenty of their own by the end of today.

“It’s the dream team, baby! Ain’t nobody breaking up the dream team!” Louis shouts moments later, getting to his feet as he and Harry make game point with six seconds left on the clock, not enough time for Zayn and Niall to score even if the whole opposing team figuratively dropped dead on the spot. He can hear Harry starting up the chorus of ‘We Are the Champions’ behind him on the couch as he takes a victory lap around the basement. Niall tosses his controller onto the carpet in disgust.

“I don’t know why we bother, Ni,” Zayn says as he hops down to the couch and falls against Niall’s shoulder. “How many is that out of the fifty games we’ve ever played?”

“Forty-eight I think,” Harry quips from the odd upside-down position that he’s taken in the last few seconds, the longer pieces of hair brushing along the floor. Louis doesn’t pass up the opportunity to lean over the sofa and tickle him mercilessly along the stretch of skin that his shirt’s allowed until Harry’s red in the face and has nearly kneed Louis’s teeth out twice.

“Oh, get a room, you idiots,” Zayn growls from his place on the couch, arms crossed over his chest. Louis tries and ultimately fails to ignore the scowl that Niall shoots his way as a result.

He wasn’t expecting Niall to show up today at all, given that he’s turned them down the last ten times or so, but colour him surprised. He’d nearly choked on his pot noodle this afternoon when he’d texted him the usual obligatory inquiry, asking whether they’d be graced with his presence tonight or not. Expecting the ‘not,’ it’s needless to say that he was overcome with nerves when Niall had replied with a short, “sure,” and a question as to whether he’d need to bring anything.

It’s been fairly okay for the most part, which is the most surprising thing of all. It’s been good to have Niall back in his house and to have mostly normal talks with him and the other lads, especially when he and Niall haven’t had a proper conversation in ages. They had even gotten to the point where they could sit next to each other for the entirety of the game, only the large crisp packet and a sense of mistrust on both boys’ parts between them.

That’s the thing about all this. Louis and Niall have always gotten into little spats, clashes of personality or whatever, but they’ve always either just faded out and been forgotten or have been resolved within days. It’s coming up on a month since Niall was last in his home, and it’s difficult to shake the feeling he gets when Niall gives him that look of disapproval, one that says, “I know what you’re doing,” when Louis so much as smiles at Harry for too long. He can’t look at Niall or vice versa without feeling extraordinarily edgy, and if it weren’t for the other boys here in the same room to diffuse the tension before they’ve even become aware of it being present, Louis would be out of his head from the pressure by now.

Harry keeps Louis distracted and smiling, Zayn keeps Niall talking, and it’s been as nice as Louis can imagine their friendship is going to be from this point on.

“Alright, I’m out of here,” Zayn says, reaching over Niall’s legs to snag a few crisps and stuff them into his mouth before getting to his feet and putting his jacket back on. The sound of the zipper comes just as Niall and Louis both whine in a protesting chorus. Apparently, Louis isn’t the only one who feels like he needs Zayn here.

“Sore loser,” Harry gasps from his halfway on the couch, halfway on the floorposition, still not entirely recovered from the tickle attack. Louis pokes him hard in the belly and watches as he jolts away and fully rolls onto the carpet to make his escape.

“No, I just really need to be home. Mum’s making biryani tonight, and there’s no way I’m passing up on that to hang out with you three wankers.”

“Oh, we love you too, Zayn.” Louis blows him a kiss when Zayn gives him the middle finger.

“Tell your parents I said thanks for having me when they get back,” Zayn says as he gives a two-fingered salute, and the three boys who are left give their farewells as the lower-sixth former ascends the basement stairs, closing the door behind him.

“There’s a Kim Possible marathon on,” Harry says when the awkward silence goes on for a hair too long, and Louis, still sprawled across the top of the couch, smiles down at his boy on the floor.

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Gemma texted me. She and her flatmate have been watching it all day ‘cos it’s raining,” Harry explains. “Crisp me.” Niall digs a hand into the bag to drop one into Harry’s waiting open mouth, and the younger boy smiles as he chews.

“I haven’t seen that show in years,” says Niall, getting a few crisps of his own to munch on. “What’s that thing that Ron always carries around in his pocket? The rat?”

“Naked mole rat,” Louis corrects him, clicking the telly on with the remote that kindly decided to show itself on the arm.

“You ever see them in real life?” Harry asks. “I have in the zoo. Nasty looking things. I was so disappointed.”

“If you let your expectations get raised by an animated Disney series, that tends to happen.” Harry sticks his tongue out up at Louis, who’s fallen back down onto the couch where he and Harry were sat for the entirety of the four games played today. Louis just throws him a thumbs-up, and Harry returns with two. Not to be outdone, Louis gives him two more, pushing them into Harry’s knobby knees in a place he learned a few days ago tickles him terribly. The younger boy curls up into a tight, giggly ball as Louis starts flicking through the channels to find Disney.

“Are you just gonna stay down there, then?” Niall asks Harry a few minutes later. He’s been on the floor for the entirety of the intro of the first episode Louis had managed to flick onto just in time. Harry nods up at him, straining his neck to look away from the screen behind him.

“I was planning on it, actually.”

Louis nudges him with his toe. “Whatever makes you happy, dear.”

Harry sniggers up to Niall. “He called me ‘dear’.” Niall doesn’t seem nearly as amused.

“You love it when I call you that,” Louis says, getting Harry’s attention before he realises something’s wrong, “so shut up.”

“Whatever you say, pumpkin.”

“Did you just… yeah, I’m the weird one,” Louis says down to a grinning Harry. He leans over and tugs softly on one of the longer curls that’s falling across Harry’s forehead. “Come up here. I don’t like you so far away from me.”

Harry gladly takes the invitation, finally getting up from his long-occupied location on the floor to one beside Louis. He lies back down and finds a comfortable enough position, his head on Louis’s lap and legs dangling over the arm of the couch so that his bare toes graze the carpet. Louis’s hands, of course, find their way into Harry’s hair, tugging on the chocolate locks and being careful to avoid his hairline where he’s got several angry blemishes just starting to go down. The drastic change in weather over the past few weeks, cool and wet to a more mild and breezy climate, hasn’t been good to Harry’s skin.

“I’m glad you decided to come over today, Niall,” Harry says once the first ad break starts up. “Hasn’t been the same without you.”

“Yep,” Niall says shortly, shooting Louis another scathing look. Louis shrinks into himself and Harry frowns.

“You finished with the guitar final yet?”

“Been done for a while now.”

“Oh…” Harry trails off, and Louis can see the question as to why Niall hasn’t been coming around without him even verbalizing. He can also see the obvious confused hurt along with it. Louis bites down on the inside of his cheek. “So what is it?”

“You’ll find out after April hols,” Niall sighs, giving Harry a short glance. “Wouldn’t be right to tell you ahead of time.”

“Suppose that’s fair,” Harry shrugs and then turns his attention back to Louis. “Crisp me.”

Louis quickly digs into the bag, knowing with certainty that Niall won’t from this point on, and dangles a few above Harry’s waiting mouth. Harry pokes his tongue out, attempting to catch a taste of the strong flavoured snack, and Louis just pulls it a little bit farther away every time he gets closer. Harry positively whines like a puppy from the teasing, and it’s only when the younger boy gives his best pleading eyes that Louis finally relents, placing the crisps on the flat of his tongue. Ever the cheeky one, Harry makes a point to lick the salt off of the two fingers that fed him before Louis can pull away.

“Gross,” Louis cries out, pulling back his fingers like they’ve been burned, and he wipes the excess salt, vinegar, and spit off on his jeans while giving Harry a halfhearted stern look. Harry only laughs at him as he chews.

It’s in these sort of moments that Louis wishes he had tunnel vision, because rather than be able to turn his full attention back to petting his boy and watching this stupid fucking television show he hasn’t seen since before he started puberty, he might have been able to avoid the horrible look of utter disgust Niall is giving him. Unfortunately, peripheral vision is something his whole species possesses, and he can’t miss it. It’s odd, but rather than shrivel back into an anxiety-riddled state as he has all month, he becomes a little short.

“What?” he says curtly, a mildly audacious curl to his lip as he glances at Niall out of the corner of his eye, and Niall gives him something akin to a startled look before shooting one final glare at him and looking back to the screen.

In this moment, something occurs to him; Niall is taking full advantage of him tonight, pushing his buttons in ways that he knows Louis will panic from. He’s been around since they were little, after all. He’d been present for the years in the start of secondary school when Louis and his dad would be having a go at each other day and night over his heavy involvement in the arts and total lack of interest in playing sport; he was around for the period when Louis was shoved around in the hallways for being the awkward kid who didn’t know who he was or where he belonged; and he’s been there to listen to every detail of Louis’s mind and how it works.

Louis never stands up for himself, never really has because he cares too much about what other people think of him. He isn’t able to defend himself until it starts impacting people he cares about – Zayn being the obvious and most recent example – and Niall knows this. He knows Louis and how he thinks and feels, he knows his anxieties and what triggers them, and he’s clearly fully aware of the fact that Louis still cares about what he thinks. Niall knew that Louis wouldn’t defend himself against his best friend, and he’s been playing on this all night, manipulating Louis to make him feel awful for even looking at Harry the wrong way. Louis giving him attitude back just now wasn’t what he’d been expecting of his old best friend. He’d been caught off guard.

Harry’s voice snaps him out of his mind space. Louis shakes himself back into reality and gives his strongest smile down to the boy in his lap. “What was that, love?”

“Do you have water glasses down here?” Harry asks again.

“Yeah, over by the bar,” he replies, easing the tight fist he’d unknowingly made at his side. “You’ll have to get the water from the sink.”

Harry wrinkles his nose. “Sink water is the worst kind of water, though.”

“Alright then, Mr. First-World-Problems,” Louis rolls his eyes and pushes Harry off of his lap, “go upstairs and get some from the kitchen, then.” It’s only after the full sentence is complete that Louis realises what a terrible mistake he’s made. The words are out of his mouth before he can take them back, and Harry’s on his feet before Louis can make a mad grab for him and offer to go get it in his place.

He and Niall both watch Harry go up the stairs, one with dread and another with clear detestation in his gaze, and it’s silent for less than half a moment after Harry shuts the door behind him.

“You lied to me.”

Niall’s voice is like glacial ice, cold and gravelly and angry, an unconditional promise of impending devastation in every callous word. Louis already knows he’s not prepared for whatever is about to be thrown at him with the pain and accuracy of poison darts, but he still puts on as brave of a face as he can muster and asks equally as frosty in tone, “About what?” He turns his gaze when Niall doesn’t answer him. “Come on then, about what?”

“I’ve been watching you two all day, you and him. You’ve been together behind my fucking back for ages, haven’t you?” the blond boy spits. Louis feels dizzy. He breathes in, breathes out, breathes in, and –

“We would have told you – ”

“Bloody Christ on the cross,” Niall mutters, his voice shaking as he cuts him off. Louis knows it’s not from emotion. “Zayn knows, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he? I can tell.”

Louis stares at him. “He was the first, actually.”

“There’s… there’s others?” Niall laughs breathlessly. “You know what? It’s all… yeah, it’s all coming back to me now. The inside jokes, the – the afterschool stuff, and… Jesus. I’ve walked in on you before, haven’t I?” Niall laughs hard now, a proper cackle like this is the most hysterical thing he’d ever heard in his life. His cheeks and neck are turning red, and his hands are curled into trembling fists at his sides. “And you’re really gonna do this? After everything we’ve been through together?”

“Don’t pull that bullshit on me, Niall,” Louis snaps, “don’t you dare. You’re the one making this difficu – ”

I’m making this difficult?! I am? You have some bloody nerve,” Niall shouts hysterically, halfway ready to get on his feet and hit the closest thing to him. If he gets the chance, that will probably be Louis. A smile of any sort has been wiped from his lips. “You’ve lied to my face for how long? You’ve come to me, talked your hypothetical bullshit, promised me that you would never, and – and.” He makes a sound of repulsion in his throat. “You’ve betrayed my fucking trust, started fucking around with Harry of all people, and you have the bloody audacity to tell me that this is my fault?”

“How is – ”

“You’re going to hell for this.”

This is it. This is the moment he’s been dreading for a month.

Niall says it with smugness, a crooked sneer at the corner of his mouth as he articulates the worst he can think of at Louis. It’s something Niall just innately knows he’s thought about, that he’s contemplated in the dark under the covers as he’s held Harry more times than he can count, and Louis was expecting it to hurt, but he didn’t expect it to hurt this badly. It feels like a train has hit him, thrown him offside with a direct hit to the chest. He can hear the whistle of it in his head. Louis feels like he needs to be sick, but he keeps up his composed façade as best as he can.

“You need to leave,” he says quietly and as calmly as he can, lowering his eyes to the ground. He feels the next words slap him harder than the last.

“You and your little boyfriend both.”

Louis sees red.

“Get out,” Louis yells. The volume of his own voice is deafening to his ears. “Get out of my fucking house.”

Niall doesn’t get to talk about Harry, doesn’t get to look or speak or even so much as think of him anymore if Louis has something to say about it, and the fact that he is insolent enough to suppose so makes Louis want to break his fucking neck. He doesn’t remember getting to his feet – doesn’t remember Niall getting to his, either – but here they are, staring each other down with blazing hatred for each other in their eyes, and it’s so surreal for Louis to think that this was the boy that only weeks ago he’d have taken a bullet for. Now, given the chance, he’s not so sure that he wouldn’t be the one pulling the trigger.

Niall breaks away first under Louis’s vicious gaze with a scoff, sharply turning on his heel and leaving Louis in the wake of his wrath like one with the impact similar to that of an atomic bomb. Niall gives him one last look of indignation and, Louis thinks, disappointment as he ascends the stairs and slams the door behind him. He isn’t even worth Niall’s fight anymore.

Louis falls to his knees once he’s sure he’s alone.

Whereas only a moment before, when he was filled to the brim with such hot rage and defensiveness for the boy that couldn’t defend himself from those terrifying words, now he feels hollow, like everything’s been taken out of him in an instant. His legs don’t seem to want to support him anymore, and he holds himself close as he shudders into the carpet. He feels a sob and vomit rising up in his throat, but he holds his breath, hoping, praying this won’t end up in a panic attack where he’ll scratch at the rug and gasp for ten minutes just to catch a single breath. He already knows it’s a useless struggle, though, one that will never go his way, because… well, nothing really goes his way anymore.

Then he hears a glass break on the upstairs floor.

Everything happens in a bit of a flash after that, like time itself has stood still. The crash sounds, the realization that he has made a terrible mistake allowing Niall upstairs by himself comes, Louis’s heart stops, and it doesn’t even take even a split second before he’s scrambling to his feet again with adrenaline and a startling amount of protectiveness for one person only pumping through his veins. In this moment of terror as he races up the stairs three at a time, his own problems are forgotten, because there’s only one person and name going through his mind.

Harry.

~

There isn’t enough ice in the front of the dispenser.

Harry doesn’t know why, but there’s always been something rather unnerving about reaching into the actual freezer and fishing around the metal coil for pieces of ice. There’s always a bit of an image of his hand accidentally brushing the frozen metal and his skin sticking and tearing off when he pulls away, kind of like with those kids in the one Christmas film he remembers Robin making the whole family sit down and watch a few years back. One of them had licked a metal pole in the dead of winter, their tongue had gotten stuck, and Harry genuinely can’t imagine many things much worse than that.

He manages to scoop four ice cubes out without his hand sustaining any kind of traumatic damage and drops them into the glass one after the other before closing the freezer door again. He fills it up with water only three-fourths of the way, knowing that the ice will melt within a few minutes and fill up the rest, and takes a small sip as he leans against the cool surface of the countertop behind him to look at the fridge. For the most part, the top is clear minus a few decorative magnets and a scribbled grocery list written with five different pens, but the bottom half is scattered with colourful and messy drawings, some clearly older than others, and lettered magnets that spell out small words and love messages. They’ve obviously been left here by the younger girls, not yet tall enough to reach any higher on the fridge, but one in particular near the very bottom catches his eye.

The paper has aged a buttery colour over time and is speckled with water damage, likely from the many moppings this kitchen floor has seen, but the bright colours of the pen and crayon combination shines through. It’s a cliché drawing of a stick-man family, not unlike many of the others among it, but the size of the family in the picture is very different. This one only has three smiling people in it, the sole woman in the picture with a circle drawn over where her belly would be, and written in the top right corner in ten different colours in rainbow order is the crudely written name Louis William Tomlinson. Harry sips at his water again, giving the fridge a last once-over before deciding to head back downstairs.

Today, he was forced to come to a realization as to why Niall really hasn’t been over, and he’s not sure if he should be relieved that it’s obviously not something he’s done or whether he should be feeling bad for Louis. He’s been catching the glances Niall’s been throwing at him and the rigidity Louis gets in his shoulders and legs and jaw as a result, and although he probably should have stuck it out for Louis’s peace of mind, Harry had needed a minute out of that antagonistic environment for his own sake. He felt like he was about to explode from all that nervousness Louis was exuding. He isn’t wholly sure what’s going on, but he hopes Louis doesn’t think he’s blind.

This is when the shouting from below starts up.

Harry can’t hear exactly what’s being said, the floorboards muffling and distorting the words to an undistinguishable blur, but he knows who’s speaking. It’s Niall, and he sounds livid as all hell with whatever is going on. Harry switches his glass over to his other hand, rubs the cold condensation off his palm onto his jeans, and carefully makes his way back over toward the door that will lead to the basement. By the time he’s just about to hop over one particularly squeaky part of the floor out of the kitchen and into the hallway, everything goes quiet. Harry pauses again, only the sound of his ice cubes clinking against the glass pervading through the stillness.

The very, very distinct shout of, “get out of my fucking house,” comes a moment later. Harry’s eyes widen as he hears quick and heavy footfall against the basement stairs, and he forgoes all need to stay silent to instead rush towards the door.

“What’s going on?” Harry asks when he sees Niall emerge from the basement and slams the door behind him. “What’s happened?” Harry thinks Niall must have forgotten he was upstairs getting a drink or something, because he looks like he’s been startled to see him standing there. This only lasts for a moment, though, because in the short time the two boys stand in complete quiet as they face one another, Harry can see anger slowly leak into his gaze.

“You,” Niall murmurs, a look that screams murder filling every line in his face. “This is all your fault.” Oh, Harry thinks, his heart dropping into his stomach, because it doesn’t take a mastermind to figure out what’s going on under the circumstances.Niall knows.

“We were fine,” Niall continues, each word becoming more terrifying than the last, “we were good before you. I never should have brought you along, you fucking freak. I never should have introduced you, should have left you well alone.”

“Niall – ”

“This is all. Your. Fault.”

Harry doesn’t even see the hand coming, it’s fast like a flash of lightning, but Niall smacks the glass out Harry’s grip hard, and it falls to the floor below where it shatters. Ice cold water splashes up Harry’s leg as he tries to back away, but a rush of sharp, ungodly pain surges through his foot and up the back of his leg and stops him where he stands. Unable to move anywhere else, he plasters himself against the wall behind him as Niall approaches.

“Niall,” Harry pleads, a hand in front of himself and a stream of blood now making a puddle on the hardwood floor under his stinging foot. “Niall, please just listen to me.” He doesn’t get to finish a plea for mercy of any sort, though, because before he can even fully raise his fist to Harry, the older boy is being forcibly dragged by the collar of his shirt and thrown against the opposite wall. He makes a surprised choking noise as he goes, and Harry sees the shock in his bright blue eyes as the back of his head loudly smacks the drywall he’s been hurled into.

Louis must have moved at the speed of sound to get to Harry, because he never even heard him come up the stairs or fling open the door. Harry can see the muscles of his back and shoulders heaving under his tight t-shirt as Louis stands between him and Niall, and he can’t see his face, but Harry knows without a doubt that it’s probably terrifying.

“Don’t you ever lay a hand on my boy,” Louis roars with ire, the very volume of his voice making the floor vibrate under their feet, “don’t even think about it, or I will fucking end you.”

Niall looks as scared as Harry feels, a jump from the self-assured anger he’d surrounded himself in just a moment before. His fingers spread out over the flat of the wall, holding himself up as his head probably spins from the impact. Harry wouldn’t be shocked to see a Niall-sized dent in the wall when he leaves. Mostly, though, he’s just buzzing at the phrase ‘my boy.’

“So this is where we’re at, then?” Niall asks breathlessly. “This is it? You chose him over me? Over your brother?”

“I love him, you fucking idiot,” Louis shouts back. “It’s him over everything.”

The pain in Harry’s foot has all but disappeared.

Niall, on the other hand, appears to be positively wounded with this information. Though Harry’s head is spinning as fast as the earth is under his feet and his heart feels like it genuinely might beat right out of his chest, even he can see the kind of pain Louis’s put Niall in. Harry doesn’t think he’s truly understood the immense power of the word ‘love’ until this moment, because Harry feels as tall and indestructible as a mountain, but Niall looks like he’s never been more worse for wear as he holds himself up, back still to the wall where Louis put him.

“Fine,” Niall says softly, the slightest suggestion of an unfathomable sorrow in his eye as he stumbles over to where his shoes are by the door. “Good luck without me, then. I hope you both have a nice fucking life together.”

The silence is utterly deafening once Niall leaves, the door closing ever so softly behind him as he walks out with his shoes in his hand, and Harry wishes he hadn’t heard it, but he can hear the gut-wrenching sound of a sob from outside, and if the shuddery recoil in his defensive stance is something to go by, Louis must hear it, too.

“Okay…” Harry mumbles once he’s sure Niall’s left the front step and begun the long journey home through the cool March evening, “now I understand why you didn’t want to tell him.”

Louis turns to him, and the younger boy immediately notices how exhausted he looks, what Harry imagines people in Azkaban look like after a Dementor encounter – like every happiness in their souls have been ripped from their bodies. His weary eyes travel all over Harry’s face, his shoulders, his hands that are balancing his body against the chair-railing of the wall as he supports himself on one foot, all the way down to the floor where the shards of broken glass and the large puddle of water still lay. Harry can pinpoint the moment Louis spots the blood.

“Harry,” Louis gasps, “you’re bleeding.”

“No worry. ‘Tis but a scratch,” Harry jokes. Louis doesn’t crack so much as a smile.

“Don’t move, okay? I’ve just got to get… get…” Louis looks back to the front door where a pair of his trainers sit amongst a pile of his family’s. He quickly makes his way over, slips them over the backs of his bare feet, and promptly picks Harry up so that he has his ankles locked behind the older boy. Louis kicks the larger pieces of glass away from him as he walks, hurriedly moving over the rest to make them crunch under his protected feet, and they make their way back to the kitchen. Louis sits Harry down on the counter and kneels so that he can inspect the damage on his knees.

“Let me clean you up, alright?” A smear of clotting blood and another stab of pain comes as Louis swipes his thumb over the tender area, and when Harry’s knee jerks back from the sting, he cautiously presses a paper napkin from beside the sink to the cut. “I’m so sorry, H, I shouldn’t have let him up here with you.” When Louis pulls away the bloodied towel, Harry can see that his hand is trembling.

“Lou, it’s okay,” Harry says, running his fingers over his boyfriend’s shaking shoulders to soothe him. His whole body is like an earthquake. “It’s okay, alright?”

Louis shakes his head as he tosses the used napkin to the side and wets a new one under warm water from the sink. “I’ve got to clean that glass off the floor before my parents get home with the girls, I have to – ”

Harry’s heart swells. “Louis.”

“I have to – ”

Harry tugs him into a hard kiss the instant Louis presses the warm cloth to his cut, opening his mouth with fast, needy lips and tongue, hands holding him steady on either side of the older boy’s face. Louis practically melts into it, and Harry doesn’t even care that he’s pressing down too hard on the cut now, tiny streams of pink water dripping to the wood below, because he still can’t get those words out of his head. Louis loves him. He really, really loves him. He still wants confirmation, though, so he pulls away once he feels all traces of tense anger leave Louis’s shoulders.

“I want to talk to you about something,” Harry says as he laces their fingers together at his side, pressing one last light kiss on Louis’s forehead before leaning back so that they can look at each other properly.

Louis blinks. “Yeah?”

“Did you mean it?”

“Mean what?”

“Do you love me?” Harry asks slowly. It takes a while, but after a brief moment of intensely raised blood pressure on Harry’s part, Louis blushes and gives his hand a squeeze.

“Yeah, I do,” he says with a small smile. “I kind of love you a lot, Harry Styles.” Harry pulls him in for another kiss, unable to possibly contain himself. He could burst with how happy he feels, and Louis smiles against his lips.

“I love you, too,” he says once he’s regained a slight bit of control. “I’m sorry it had to come out like that for the first time.”

“Same,” Louis nods. “Doesn’t make it less true just because it was in a moment of passion, though.”

Harry beams. “That’s a relief… It was actually quite sexy, you defending my honour and protecting me like that back there.” At first, he thinks Louis is laughing at him, but it doesn’t take long to see that he’s struggling to breathe, like he’s forgotten how to do it. He’s trembling again. Harry really needs to learn how to shut his mouth. “Hey, easy,” he mutters, pulling Louis in close to his chest. Louis buries his nose into the crook of Harry’s neck and clutches at his hand like a lifeline, digging what little fingernail he has into the soft flesh below Harry’s knuckles.

“Sorry, sorry.” Louis exhales a shaky breath into Harry’s shirt. “It’s just… I shouldn’t have had to. This is all just so hard.”

Harry reaches down to where Louis is still pressing the wet towel on his cut, tosses it to the side, and replaces the empty space with his other hand. It’s clammy and shaky, more so than the other one that Harry’s still gripping tightly. “I know, but it’s worth it.”

Louis sounds drained as he sighs hotly onto Harry’s skin. “Is it?”

In all fairness, it’s an appropriate and valid question, and maybe Harry shouldn’t feel so scandalized hearing it come from a person who’s just had to physically fight against someone who was extremely significant to him, but it drums up panic inside his chest. Since the start, Harry’s never been sure about many things; how they would be received by people they care about, how they’d act around each other in school, or if this was all even too good to be true. Louis, though, has always been a sure thing since this all began. Harry knows they’ve had bumps, especially recently, but he can’t remember a time where he’s thought about giving Louis up completely, and to hear the hint of such a subject in Louis’s theoretical inquiry has his heart beating faster.

“Yes,” Harry frowns into Louis hair, “it is. Why do you say that?”

“Don’t look at me like that, please,” Louis says, not even having to look to know that Harry’s expression has gone sour. On any other occasion, Harry would like this fact a lot more than he probably should allow himself, but right now, it’s difficult to feel anything but dread for the argument that might be happening if Harry doesn’t play his cards right. “I just lost my best friend of almost a decade.”

“You’ve still got me,” Harry says softly, but he gives this sentiment up in a flash when he sees the effect his words have had. “Might I ask what’s so funny?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Louis asks, actually laughing this time. His voice sounds suddenly unkind and rough in Harry’s ear, a total reverse from only a moment before. “I literally lost a member of my family, and… and you have absolutely no idea how that feels.” Harry finally lets go of Louis’s hands and distances himself as well as he possibly can with Louis still standing between his knees.

“Please don’t say that.”

“Why, because it’s true?” Louis’s eyes are stormy when the two boys look at each other. “Harry, you are so lucky. You are so stupidly fucking lucky that everyone still loves you, openly tells you every day that it’s okay that you’re like this. I live with people who think that – ” Louis gets continuously louder as he speaks until he’s nearly shouting in Harry’s face. “You don’t get it.”

“Are you actually getting angry with me right now?” Harry replies incredulously and equally as loud, all thoughts of being the calm and collected one between them straight out the window. “Fine. Tell me what I don’t get.”

“You don’t get anything! You don’t get fucking anything!” Louis bursts out, pushing himself away from where Harry still sits on the countertop all the way to the opposite side of the kitchen to pace as he yells. “You get a group support system, you get a sister who’s your personal weekend shrink, you get a friend who was your first fucking boy-kiss so that you didn’t feel like your chest was about to explode when you did it, you get parents who don’t constantly tell you that gay people are wrong and disgusting and headed straight for the fiery pits of hell over your fucking meals. You get everything Harry, but you understand absolutely nothing. You’re spoiled fucking silly with it all, and you don’t even realise how lucky you are. It’s all so fucking easy for you.”

Harry is stunned. Louis’s never looked at him this way before, like how he probably looked at Niall earlier to drive him away, and he hates that to an incalculable level. He hates that Louis has kept this all from him, because when has he once mentioned his frustrations or problems at home? How could he expect Harry to just know something like that? The bigger question, though, is how could he honestly be under the impression that Harry’s had an ‘easy’ time through everything that they’ve been through together? He wishes he had a higher pain tolerance, because he really just wants to walk across the floor to Louis despite his bleeding foot and hit him.

Harry watches as Louis moves around the kitchen and drags his fingers along the shiny granite countertops with hard pressure to make it squeak, words frozen in his throat. He thinks Harry’s life is easy. Incredible. He curls his hands in, pressing his nails into his palm until he thinks they may just break skin.

“Easy?” Harry manages to croak. Louis stills in his tracks and stares back at him. “You think going through all of this has been easy? You think loving you is easy? In case you weren’t aware, this relationship hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park for either of us, so if you’re honestly under that impression, then you can kindly go fuck yourself. None of this is easy, but you’re worth it to me. You’ve been worth it since the very beginning, the self-hate and the doubt and the threat of losing everyone I’ve ever cared about. It’s never been a contest.” He grips the countertop under him tightly as his throat starts to swell. “And you know what? You don’t get to tell me you love me and then break my heart. You just don’t.”

“Harry – ”

“You – ” Harry tries, but he has to stop when his voice crackles and breaks. He shakes his hair in front of his eyes as he looks to the ground and tries to breathe his voice steady. When he looks up with pent-up tears finally coming down his cheeks, Louis looks like he’s been stabbed. Harry quickly brushes the water away with the back of his hand and sniffs.

“I get it, believe it or not,” he continues. “I get that none of this is fair, I get that you’ve just lost one of the most important people in your life, and I get that you’re angry and scared. I’m a teenager, I’m an idiot, and I know nothing of the world, but you don’t have the right to laugh at me when I remind you that you’ve still got me through all this, because unlike a lot of people in our lives, I’m going to be there when everyone else refuses to be.” They stare at each other until Louis’s shoulders fall.

“I’m sorry,” Louis says, his eyes dropping to his feet. Harry knows that look, and he suddenly feels like he might have gone a bit over the top with his little speech.

“Listen to me,” he starts quietly, “this is never going to be a sure thing for us, and we’ll never be completely accepted anywhere we go, but I’m willing to try for you. I’m in this for the long run.” Harry reaches out his hand across the short space between them that Louis has just walked back into and runs his fingers across Louis’s cheeks. He asks, “Do you feel guilty?” even though he already knows the answer.

Louis swallows and rests his hands on Harry’s knees. “Yeah.”

“Good. Now come here and let me hold you, okay? I feel like I’ve starved you off of properly being upset about the situation for long enough.” This is permission enough for Louis to fall straight into Harry’s open arms and hold him close around his middle, releasing every quiet noise he’s held back for the past few minutes since Niall symbolically walked out of both of their lives.

“I didn’t mean to make you cry, H,” he says so sorrowfully that it pains Harry to hear, “I’m so sorry. You’re worth it, you are. I didn’t mean anything I said.”

“I know,” Harry answers back, still holding Louis tight. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry as well. We both have a hard enough time as it is without hurting each other.”

Louis told Harry a little while ago that he hates crying on his shoulder and that he never used to do it so often, even with Niall, but in a weird way that Harry kind of feels bad about if he thinks too long over it, he likes it when this sort of thing happens. Louis is always so brave about everything, even if he doesn’t think so, and it makes Harry feel important and loved to be trusted to put Louis back together when he just can’t do it for himself anymore. He can always rely on Harry to be gentle with him when he’s damaged, or rougher when he needs to be shaken back into reality. Either way, Harry adores him.

And he still adores Louis now, despite that they’ve just had their first ( and hopefully, last ) fight, despite the fact that there’s been a clear lack of communication between them over the past few weeks, and despite the terrible feeling that Louis’s yelling put inside of him. That’s all gone now and in the past, as Harry prefers it to be. They’re still together, they’ve made it, and if they’re lucky, maybe they’ll even come out of this even stronger than before.

“Promise me something, okay?”

Harry kisses the top of Louis’s head. “What’s the promise?”

“Just… Promise me that I’m not hurting you,” Louis says, sniffling and sounding unsure of himself as he pulls himself out of Harry’s tight hold and looks to his boyfriend, “that all this… I’m not…”

“Not what, love?”

Louis looks like he’s about to erupt with his unspoken words until he finally blurts out, “Am I blistering you?” in one breath and then looks horrified that he’d ever asked. Harry wouldn’t lie and say he isn’t worried. He grips the hair behind Louis’s ear with his fingertips and tugs softly on it.

“What are you on about?”

“Nothing.” The older boy bites his lip and slides his fingers through Harry’s belt loops to bring their hips together. “It’s nothing. I just… I don’t want to be your biggest regret when you look back on this in ten, twenty, fifty years’ time. I love you, but I don’t want being together to be hurting you.”

“You make me happy. Being apart again would be the thing to hurt me,” Harry replies honestly, running a hand through Louis’s soft fringe to sweep it to the side and out of his swollen and watery blueblueblue eyes, “and a long time ago, you told me that wouldn’t happen. You said no more running away. I plan on holding you to it.” Harry wonders if Louis remembers that day, knows how important that was to hear him say those words.

“I won’t run away,” Louis vows as Harry presses a soft kiss between his eyes, “I promise.” He pulls Harry closer and blinks his wet eyelashes against his jaw.

~

“The devil does not always come to you in the shape of a man, but rather, he comes in the shape of desire. He knows who and what you love, and he knows who and what you want, which is why it is sometimes easy to let him into your heart through temptation. Do not let him deceive you. Do not let him in. Fill your heart with so much goodness and love that there is simply no way for him or temptation to enter.”

Louis gives Harry’s hand a squeeze, concealed and buried between their thighs so that no one looking at them from any angle would be able to notice, even those sitting right next to them in the pew. It’s a practised art that they’ve been working on for the past few months during morning mass, becoming skilled experts of the action out of necessity, but this week, it looks a tad bit strange that they’re sharing such a small space, as they’ve been given extra room. It’s a struggle not to notice the fact that there’s a body missing next to them. It’s been hard not to notice all week. Louis runs his thumb over Harry’s to make him smile.

“Over the next three weeks while you’re home or on holiday, wherever God is leading you,” Brother Francis continues his exiting monologue from the front, “find a way to do that. Spend time with your friends, family, and in beautiful places. Fill your heart with love; that is the sure way to keep closer to the gates of Heaven than Hell. Through your holiday, make sure to keep your eyes on God and what matters, as I know that temptation is high during his time, and please, please be safe.” He gives one final sweep of his eyes over the crowd of students and nods. “Rise for the closing.” Louis releases his hand at the same time Harry does, and together, they stand with the congregation of students to prepare for their dismissal. Once the shuffling of bags, books, and people have stopped and the building is silent, Brother Francis begins.

“The Lord be with you.”

And also with you” they answer back.

“May the Almighty God bless you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – ”

Amen.”

“Go forth in peace and glory.”

Thanks be to God.”

Brother Francis smiles brightly and nods one last time. “Have a good day at school and a pleasant Easter Sunday.”

The entire student body scuffles to leave nearly at once, a steady flood of boys unenthusiastically crossing themselves in the aisles as they exit the pews to hurriedly make their way to their respective classes. Harry’s out first, dipping all the way down until his knee hits the stone floor, then Louis, then Zayn, who follows Harry’s example. They all hike their bags over their shoulders and prepare themselves for the humid April air that will greet them once they leave the dimly lit chapel, Zayn being the only one out of the three to reach for holy water. He crosses both of his friends with what’s left on his fingers once they’re all outside along with a parting kiss on the cheek.

“If the devil comes in the shape of desire,” Harry says as they walk across the remainder of the courtyard to the auditorium, post-farewells with Zayn by the fountain and out of earshot by anyone else walking past, “then I must conclude that you are the devil, my dear.”

Louis bites him on the shoulder, leaving tiny marks of damp in the shape of teeth when he pulls away. “That’s a really weird compliment.”

Today’s a very special day, and not only because it’s the last day of school until the end of the month, but also because Brother Winston is posting final character assignments up outside the auditorium doors today. It took him a lot longer to do than he’d anticipated, meaning that they’re probably going to have rehearsals almost every day again for the next few weeks when they get back until he’s satisfied that everyone’s got their parts, but Louis knows that this only means he’s deliberated over his choice long and hard. Ben’s going for the best possible cast the department can possibly have, and that puts a good feeling in his stomach.

Still, Louis is nervous. He needs to get a big part, because not only is it a hope that there will be university scouts coming to the show in June to offer last-minute places in their programs, but it’s slightly anticipated. They all come rather sporadically, skipping some years and coming twice some others, but Louis is crossing his fingers that they’ll come for this upcoming production. If he’s honest, Louis isn’t too hopeful about getting into his top choice schools with just a paper resume and a video submission of a monologue or acted scene, so a scout could probably be his ticket in if he did well enough. To even have a chance to get said ticket, though, he needs a lead role.

“You’re going to get it,” Harry says once they approach the small group of boys hovering around the doors. “Don’t worry.”

“Do I look worried to you?”

“No, I just know that you’ve put a lot of effort into it, that it’s important for you. I can just tell you’re worried, even if it’s senseless.” Harry stops short of the crowd and pushes Louis forward towards where a single sheet of paper printed with bolded writing is taped and fluttering in the slight breeze. “Go on.”

Louis does. He pushes past a few of the boys with a quiet pardon, some of whom he knows aren’t even a part of the department but seem interested enough to take the chance of being late to class to finally find out about the casting, and makes his way to the front, not noticing the way that everyone seems to have hushed around him.

The paper is crisp and white with FINAL CAST – SPRING PRODUCTION; 12AM typed loudly in an announcement across the top. He holds the bottom down so that it won’t move as he skims from top to bottom, starting with the smaller parts of Judge, Guard, and Clerk that only appear at the beginning part of the first scene, and goes down in the order of the jury numbers to end with The Foreman. Louis’s eyes travel straight to the words Juror 8 and run across the page along the trail of dots to the other side where the names of students are listed with underlines and –

“I got it,” he whispers to himself. There it is in black and white; Juror 8 will be played by Louis Tomlinson. He turns around and raises both of his fists in the air.

“I GOT IT!” he screams again as loudly as he can. The whole crowd around him goes into a cheer with their own fists raised, some of them slapping him on the back and grinning as widely as Louis is. Then again, he’s not really sure what his face is doing right now. He can’t actually feel it out of pure excitement. If it’s even possible, Harry looks even more excited than Louis is. The sixth former watches through the throng of his enthusiastic classmates as Harry throws his bag in the air into the courtyard behind him and starts doing an odd celebratory series of wild dance moves, including a bastardised interpretation of the sprinkler complete with a head-bang that makes him look like a possible epileptic. Louis wants to kiss him so badly.

Juror 8,” Louis yells as he takes a running start back to Harry, and in the short distance, he opens his arms for Louis to leap into like he knew it was bound to happen. “I’m bloody flippin’ Juror 8, Styles! It’s an Easter miracle!” Harry squeezes him around the middle as they spin in a circle, Louis’s thighs tight around Harry’s waist and still holding his arms up in victory as his head is thrown back in a laugh. Oh god, he needed this so badly and he hadn’t even realised. He hasn’t felt so joyful and light in over a month.

“I told you,” Harry says once they’ve stopped, and Louis’s world is spinning when he’s set down on the grass. “I bloody well told you you could do it.”

“You did,” Louis replies, too gleeful and pleased to say something sarcastic in return. He holds a thumbs-up to Harry’s bottom lip and Harry returns it with one of his own. Louis hopes this laughter never fades from his voice. “You did tell me.”

“Who else made it on?” Harry asks, and… well, Louis hadn’t even thought to check.

“Let’s go see,” he says, and he tugs on Harry’s sleeve so that they can begin stumbling the short distance together over to the door with fuzzy heads and unsteady legs.

The first three listed roles, the small ones with only a few lines of dialogue to them, go to younger boys with less experience that typically work crew. Louis doesn’t have classes of any kind with them. The first name closest to the top that does pop out at him is Ashton Irwin, his brother from the last production, who will be playing Juror 11, a German clockmaker.

“That lad from last time, Michael, he’s got Juror 9,” Harry says with a smile and a tap at the paper, remembering Louis’s four cast mates that he’d been briefly introduced to after the third and final showing of Championship, and Louis laughs at that. Go figure that Michael will have to wear the heavy lined makeup of an old man two productions in a row. Louis scans the paper to see who will be playing the other important jurors of 10, 7, and 3, and… oh, no.

“What?” Harry asks with apprehension when he sees the downturn that Louis’s expression has taken. “What’s wrong?” Louis answers him with a tap of his own finger and a noise of disgust at the name down the line of Juror 3, the character that Louis is going to have a lot of his exchanged dialogue with. Harry goes sour at this as well. “Ah. I see.”

Louis groans and scrubs a hand through his hair. “Isn’t it a twist of fate that Ben would put Nat Chesney as the bigoted twat-bucket of an antagonist?”

“Not the most twisty of twisted fates, I don’t think,” Harry replies, his head on Louis’s shoulder. “Hell, he might have even done it on purpose because he knows you hate each other. This could be very strategic, bring out the tension on stage.” Well, that’s a positive way of looking at things. “And on the bright side, look who’s playing Juror 1.” Louis’s eyes go straight to The Foreman at the bottom, the last listed name, and that sense of elatedness is back in a flash like it was never gone.

“Oh my god, Stan is going to flip his shit,” Louis says when he’s gone over the name Stanley Lucas three times and traced over the line leading to it once, just to make sure his eyes don’t deceive him. “I can’t believe it.”

“I want a picture of this moment,” Harry declares, “and I want to print it out and pin it on my board. Give me your mobile.” Louis shrugs his bag off of his shoulder and unzips the first pocket on it where his phone is. Harry dips his hand in to retrieve it, and although the crowd has died down significantly, Harry still spies a familiar face. “Luke, can you take a picture for us?”

Luke walks over, the blond fringe that Michael had cut back two months ago now falling freely in his doe eyes as he smiles at the two of them and takes the phone out of his hand, shuffling around on the screen to locate the camera. He finds it just as Harry and Louis have positioned themselves to the left of the paper, Harry’s arms around Louis’s waist and one of Louis’s draped across Harry’s shoulder.

“On three, yeah?” Luke asks as they pose next to the listing, holding the camera up after a quick look around for any teachers who would have something to say about it. “Okay, one, two – ” On the word three, Louis feels Harry move quickly at his right to make it before the camera snaps, and there’s a pair of warm lips on his cheek. Louis feels himself flinch in surprise.

“That’s adorable,” the blond boy teases with a grin, holding the picture up to the two boys when it comes up on the small screen. “Lovely picture of a lovely couple.”

The photo is a brilliant quality given that it’s been taken on a shitty mobile phone camera. Louis can make out the bolded, capitalized words at the top of the page that miraculously managed to stay flat to the door without someone holding it down, and even the blue in his widened eyes is visible. Harry looks stunning as usual, his curls blown out of his face by the slight breeze and his eyes closed as he kisses Louis’s face. The older of the two boys in the picture has joy in his smile and shock in his eyes from the unexpected kiss, shoulders slightly drawn up in a laugh, and they do actually look like a genuine couple. Louis thinks that this photo is going to be his wallpaper for the rest of his life.

“I love it,” Harry says, verbalizing what Louis is thinking, and he looks up to Luke with a bright smile. “Definitely the one.”

Louis spends the whole day with buzzing blood, wandering the halls on cloud nine and a constant smile on his face. Even the fact that he still sits next to Niall in English in second block can’t take away the grin from his face, and he can see how irritated it makes Niall to not know what’s going on and to know he can’t ask. For a small part of Louis, it only makes him more pleased, even if he can’t say it aloud to Harry in chemistry or at break hour so as not to sound like a complete arsehole. By the time choir is over and Louis is lounging in the velvety seats awaiting the first official cast meeting of the twelve jurors, there are already two of his cast mates in with him. Apparently, they’re as anxious to get started on this as he is. This is definitely reassuring to him.

“Wait a minute,” Nat Chesney reads from his seat in the circle, finger tracing his jawline as he recites from the page. “The phrase was ‘I'm going to kill you,’ and the kid screamed it out at the top of his lungs.” He looks up briefly to shake a finger at Louis. “Don't try and tell me he didn't mean it. Anybody says a thing like that the way he said it, they mean it.”

“And how they mean it!” a lower-sixth named Shaun says at Louis’s left, not missing a beat with his part. Louis vaguely remembers him trying out for the role of Juror 10 at auditions. He’s glad he can say he’s not the only one who got the role he tried out for. He doesn’t even need to read from the page at this point, so he just holds out a hand as he recounts his lines from the weeks of practise. Louis clears his throat.

“Well let me ask you this; do you really think the boy would shout out a thing like that so the whole neighbourhood would hear it? I don't think so. He's too bright for that.”

“Bright?” Shaun yips, his voice echoing off of the stage that they’ve all been set up on. “He's a common, ignorant slob. He don't even speak good English!” The whole group giggles a little bit, including Louis, because with the sudden putting-on of the American accent for the last part of the sentence, the line sounds pretty ridiculous. After a concise recovery, Ashton interjects from down the line in an equally awful accent, this one some kind of European twang that sounds nothing like German.

“He doesn't even speak good English.” The group bursts into snickers again, and it’s not at the purposeful irony of the line.

“You lot are impossible,” Brother Winston groans from his place in the orchestra seating. He clicks his pen against his clipboard that he writes notes and annotations on, though Louis isn’t sure what there is to note-take on so far. “Absolutely impossible.” Louis leans back in his chair, crosses his arms behind his head, and puts on the grossest Southern American accent he can.

“Wouldya prefer if we talked lak this, surr?”

“The play takes place in the Eastern US, Louis.” He can’t see it in the dim lighting, but Louis can hear the playful eye-roll in Brother Winston’s voice. “General American or a New England kind of accent would be preferred, if you please.”

Louis tips an imaginary cowboy hat in Brother Winston’s direction. “Beggin’ yer pardon, surr.”

At the same moment that another tittering of laughter goes up around him, both of the main doors at the entrance of the auditorium open, throwing agonizing light into the eyes of the group of boys who haven’t seen real sunlight in over an hour. As far as Louis knows, this is a closed rehearsal, but the brightness behind the person who’s just entered makes it far too difficult for anyone to see who or what they’d be chiding for the disturbance. The door finally clinks closed after the person sighs loudly and waves a silent hello above their head.

“Karen! Finally!” Brother Winston shouts in recognition when the door has shut behind whom Louis can clearly see now is a middle-aged woman clad in a red pencil skirt that clings to her thick thighs and chunky heels that make walking down the stairs a bit of a job for her.

“Don’t let me interrupt your boys, Benji,” she replies with a crystal clear posh London accent, a hand out for balance and the other one clutching a slim black briefcase as she wobbles down towards where Brother Winston is now standing. “I’m here to observe the creatures in their natural habitats, after all.”

“Nonsense,” he says, waving a hand at the crowd of curious boys still sitting on stage. “They were just about to go on a break, anyway.” The twelve boys all look around and across the circle at each other, shrug at the news of a break that they weren’t previously aware of, and go about their assorted business. Some stand to get water and others get up to take the seats left by the water drinkers to talk to their friends. Louis sits and watches the scene below.

“It’s been ages,” the woman apparently named Karen says once she’s reached where Brother Winston has outstretched his hand to assist. When she’s safe on solid ground next to him, she gives him a bear hug and large kiss on the cheek. “You look well.”

“As do you,” the brother replies. Karen scoffs as she pulls away.

“You don’t have to lie to me,” she says, giving him a slight push to the chest. “Look at me! My arse has gotten huge. Took me twenty minutes to squeeze into this blimmin’ skirt.”

“True, but what woman doesn’t like a proper arse to squeeze?” Brother Winston asks, and then in a more cheeky fashion than anything Louis’s ever seen from him, Ben reaches behind the lady and grabs a full handful of her bum. Karen cackles uproariously at this and swats at Brother Winston with her briefcase, laughing madly like it’s about the bloody funniest thing that’s ever happened to her.

“No woman I’ve ever been with, that much is certain.” She slaps her own arse and laughs again in the absolutely fascinating way she does. Louis has no idea what in fresh hell is going on, but he thinks she rather sounds like a stereotypical witch… looks the part, too. From this distance, he can see a long, flat nose that a pair of thin, gold-rimmed glasses perch upon the end of, and there are black spots across the already dark skin of her nose and cheeks that look like they’ve been unsystematically painted on with the artist’s eyes closed. Her hair is frizzy and wild and in what Louis supposes is its natural state, and her lips are thick and too pink to be natural around her gap-toothed mouth. Her colourful clothing hugs at her every generous curve, and for a fleeting moment, Louis thinks she’s about the most interesting-looking person he’s ever laid eyes on.

“So where is this boy you brought me here to see again?” she asks with an arm around Brother Winston’s shoulder. “I didn’t come all the way from London to the middle of blinkin’ nowhere for some chit-chat with you bloody clergy types.”

“Your prejudice towards the church and its members astounds me,” Ben says.

“Ironic,” Karen smirks. Brother Winston looks up to the stage after he beams another smile at the woman with the briefcase still clutched tight in her hand, and the first thing he spots is Louis, still staring in bewildered silence at the two people who clearly have some kind of history and established friendship with each other.

“Tomlinson,” he calls out with a wave of his fingers, “come down here. I’d like you to meet someone.” Louis gets to his feet immediately, pushing back his chair and dropping his hilariously unused script onto it before jogging over to the side where he’ll be able to slide onto the floor and properly introduce himself. Apparently, when he gets down at last, Brother Winston is willing to do it for him with a guiding hand on his back.

“Louis, this is Karen, a friend of mine from university and one of the most brilliant, intelligent, and talented people I know.” He gets a nudge on the shoulder from Ben towards the frighteningly unconventional-looking woman in front of him. She isn’t any less intimidating up close. “Kay, this is my pride and joy, Louis Tomlinson.”

“Pleasure to meet you finally, Louis,” Karen says, dropping her briefcase to the carpeted floor with a clunk and grabbing at the limp hand at Louis’s side to shake it firmly. “I’ve been simply dying to since I saw your performance in February.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” he says with a faint laugh when she’s finally dropped his hand. It throbs from how hard she crushed it between her two.

Karen flicks her hair off of her shoulder, giving Louis a glimpse at the multitude of expensive gold rings with dozens of various jewels inlaid in the metal that she wears on nearly all of her thick fingers. “More than enjoyed it, dear, I loved it. Your teacher here had been positively harassing the department since November, so I got sent to see if you actually lived up to the hype. Luckily for the both of us, the trip was not in vain.”

“Sorry…” Louis asks slowly. “Department?” Karen looks appalled that she could have possibly forgotten.

“Oh, Christ, sorry, yeah,” she shakes her head, hair swishing around her like a cloud as she pats her front down. She digs into her front jacket pocket and brings out a small accumulation of business cards, one of which she hands over to Louis between two long, bright blue fingernails. “Sorry, you must think me so rude. I’m Karen Abenth; I’m the one of the heads of admissions for the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama of the University of London.”

The catch isn’t immediate, and he’ll look back on this in a few days appalled by his slowness in front of a rep for one of the many prestigious acting schools he applied to with barely a fleeting hope at his disposal, but when he finally realises who and what is standing in front of him, he briefly takes on the appearance of a dead fish, eyes and mouth wide. Didn’t he only just finish submitting applications within the past few weeks? Nonetheless, he now has certifiable proof that the University of London has heard of him. The University of London has sent someone up on a train just to shake his hand and exchange pleasantries. Suddenly, the earth under Louis’s feet is no longer solid and his ears sound like they’ve been flooded with water.

“U-Uni… Lon…don,” he stammers, dropping the business card through his abruptly incompetent fingers. He feels like he’s emptied an entire tube of toothpaste into his mouth, clogging up any chance he has at forming a solid word or coherent sentence of any sort. “Central… You?”

“Yeah, the University of London. How do you like that?” Karen asks with glee. Louis likes that very much, as a matter of fact. “We’ve got some pretty prestigious alumni there from our department; Catharine Tate, Judy Dench, Laurence Olivier, Martin Freeman, Natasha Richardson, James Nesbitt,” she snaps her fingers, “the ninth Doctor Who. Lots of names you probably recognise, and I could go on for ages!”

Louis couldn’t name a single thing half of the people listed have been in if you put a gun to his head. He nods enthusiastically anyway.

“Oh, don’t be nervous dear,” she says, seeing right through him. “We reviewed your application that you sent in a few weeks ago and we like you plenty. You come highly recommended by your teacher, and I made sure to put in a good word for you with Championship.” Karen winks at him, and for the first time, he sees that she’s wearing electric blue mascara to match her nails. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re in very good standing, so if you pass your A-levels with acceptable credentials and nail the final audition, you could see yourself on our campus in London by the autumn semester of 2010.”

The next half hour passes in a glorious fog. Louis goes through the motions of what he needs to do, reciting his lines in perfect time without so much as glancing down at his script once, and even throws in the American accent Harry helped him perfect last semester. Everything is flawless. Stan does well on his first day, Brother Winston is in a lovely mood with his friend there, and Chesney doesn’t even so much as rub Louis the wrong way. On his way home, Louis thinks to himself that everything’s finally coming up Tommo, because his dad’s out of town for a meeting, the girls are at all friend’s houses since Louis had to stay back today, and his mum won’t be off work for another two hours. He skips down the path with his ringing phone to his ear, feeling as light as the warm spring air around him.

“Harry, get over to my house,” Louis says giddily when his boyfriend picks up on the other end, the business card with the words ‘Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’ printed across it burning a hole in his back pocket, “because you are never going to guess what’s happened to me today.”

Chapter Text

Harry’s never been so well fucked in his life.

He feels dizzy with it, so happy for his talented and beautiful boyfriend and so wonderfully worn-out with whatever the hell has been happening over the past hour or so. He could curl himself into Louis’s warm side and sleep for a thousand million years if he put his mind to it, could probably go a single million without even trying. With Louis trailing light fingertips along the silver chain around the back of his neck as they lay together in the warm daylight that’s only just starting to tinge the sky gold, it’s likely to happen.

“I want a cigarette,” Louis declares in the midst of the post-sex haze. Harry hums into the mattress and brings the bed sheet up to under his chin.

“What?”

“Cigarette. I want one.”

“Why?”

“It seems appropriate.” Wildly enough, that’s true. There’s something about the moment that just about calls for it.

“It does, doesn’t it?” Harry remarks slowly, going quiet once again so that he can listen to Louis’s steady breathing beside him.

Harry can hardly believe the kinds of twists and turns this past week has held for the two of them. Last week, he hadn’t seen Louis so low in ages, and today he’s never seen him higher. He’s so pleased for Louis and the opportunity he’s been given, because he knows how much Louis’s wanted exactly this since he was young. Acting is a hard gig, Harry understands this better than most people do, and to have such a chance handed over from the University of London itself is… it’s incredible. The timing couldn’t have been better, either. If Harry should say so, the spring holiday is off to a bloody good start.

“We need to shower,” Louis interrupts his pre-sleep thoughts with a tap on his shoulder and a kiss in his sweaty hair. “This is gross.”

It is kind of disgusting if Harry thinks about it, sweat and come and spit sticking to their skin and each other and making Harry’s skin itch as it dries. Still, Harry feels like he’s made entirely of lead weights. He doesn’t want to move, and unless Louis plans on carrying him into the shower and scrubbing him down so that Harry doesn’t have to lift a finger the whole time, it’s not likely to happen.

“How are you still awake right now?” Harry whispers, unwilling to open his eyes.

“I’m buzzing. I’m still feeling it.”

“I made you come,” Harry grunts. His boyfriend snorts and rolls onto his side so he’s lying perpendicular to the spent body that lies between him and the wall. Harry feels a hand run through his fringe, even more curly and wild than usual with the salt from his perspiration.

“So did I for you,” Louis says with obvious pride in his voice. “Twice, if I remember correctly.”

“And like a normal human being, it’s made me tired.” Harry cracks one eye open just to glare behind at Louis and insist, “Sleep now,” then shuts it again and rubs his cheek on the pillow. Not only is it the exhaustion though, but…

Okay, the fact that he’s not exactly sure if he wants to get under the water in the first place is most of it, because he’s seen himself emerging from a shower many times, and he never looks good. Sex of any kind with Louis always feels like as much of a performance as it does an adventure, be it getting each other off in carparks or that one-off blowjob in the toilets at school at break hour. Sure it’s fun, but there’s always an element of presentation to anything they ever do together, and Harry knows for a fact that if he’s got his mind on how red his shoulders and chest will be from the heat, how clearly his spots will show on his face and back, or how catastrophically terrible his hair looks when it’s dripping wet, it’s going to suck the fun right out of it.

“Come on, H,” Louis says. He moves his body even closer now, pressing his bare legs to the back of Harry’s and wrapping his arms around the younger boy’s chest. He settles his lips on Harry’s neck and growls lowly into his ear, “I want to see you pressed against my shower wall,” sending shockwaves down Harry’s spine.

“For Christ’s sake, no.” Harry’s not sure if he’s saying it to Louis or his own dick, because unlike Harry’s very tired body and utterly spent brain, both of them seem to have some level of interest in the idea. Louis whines, nuzzling his nose right into that spot behind Harry’s ear. Harry unwillingly shudders.

Harryyyyyy. Why not?” Harry may keep his eyes sealed tight, but he can still feel Louis’s eyes traveling south to the thing that’s currently bumping against the clinging sheet. “Because it looks to me that you like the idea.” What a bastard.

“You’re a bastard.”

“Fine. Little Harry likes the idea.”

Harry snorts. “Little Harry is also a bastard. Tired.”

“Not that tired, apparently. And a shower will help you wake up,” Louis reasons with his fingers trailing down Harry’s ribs, eventually settling on the curve of his hipbone. He runs his thumb over the peach-fuzz hair on Harry’s tummy as he presses a light kiss on the shell of his ear. “It’s something else, isn’t it?” Most days, Harry’s pleased that they can read each other like it’s simple intuition. Today is not one of those days, because this appears to be more and more of a losing battle of will.

He finally opens his eyes and looks behind at Louis. “I look stupid with wet hair.”

“So you’ll let me suck you off against my front door before you’ve even got your shoes untied, but showering with me is below your pay grade?”

“It’s embarrassing,” Harry whines and casts his eyes down to the dark blue bed sheet, cheeks warm with a blush. “I look awful. And knowing us, there’ll be very little showering going on, anyway.”

“That’s half the fun of it.” Louis casts the bed sheet off of him and rolls off to the side of the bed, stretching his arms above his head and arching his back as he glances down to Harry. He looks positively golden in the late afternoon daylight, Harry can admit that much, but he resolutely refuses to give Louis the satisfaction of letting his eyes travel down to the two little dips above his boyfriend’s frankly amazing bum. Harry gets to touch that bum. He smiles despite himself.

“I’m not a bloody sex machine, Lou.”

“Yeah… I suppose we can’t get everything we want,” Louis says with a thoughtful gaze as he stares off into space. If Harry had enough energy to spare, he’d lift his arms above his head to grab at Louis’s pillow and chuck it at him and his dumb back dimples. Even that seems too much to ask of himself right now. Eventually, after Harry’s given him enough of a glare that he stops his teasing, Louis leans down across the bed and kisses Harry’s forehead in a last ditch attempt to get what he wants. “Please, love?”

Harry blinks up at Louis’s fond and smiling eyes, at the creases in the edges, at the subtle turn in the corners of his mouth as he bites at his bottom lip with small, sharp teeth. With a heaving sigh and a great deal of effort, he throws the sheet off of himself as well and swings his legs over the side of the bed.

“You’re ridiculous.”

“And you’re gorgeous when you come, so forgive me for wanting to see it every chance I get.” Louis grabs Harry’s hand to lead him over to the door and unlocks it in a flash, and they walk the short distance across the hall to the door right next to Louis’s. “In fact, you’re gorgeous always, so enough with you being worried about looking stupid. I look stupid 24/7.”

“No you don’t,” Harry objects. The tile flooring is icy cold under his bare feet, and he wishes so badly that he could be back in Louis’s warm bed. He’d be asleep by now if it hadn’t been for him. “You never look stupid.” Harry kicks the door closed behind them.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Louis agrees as he flings the shower curtain aside.

The water comes out in a dull roar, echoing through the tiny room as it hits the painted metal of the tub until Louis changes it over to the shower. He holds his hand out under the hissing water to test, and Harry takes the opportunity given by Louis’s distraction to finally allow his eyes free reign over the bent body in front of him. Unfortunately, Harry isn’t the only one in this relationship to have the ability to feel the other’s eyes on him.

“Like what you see?”

The younger boy leans onto the countertop behind him and shrugs. “I won’t lie.”

“Well, take a picture, it’ll last longer,” Louis says, flicking his hair to the side and making a point to wiggle his bum at Harry.

“Not sure how that’ll look hanging up with all the others, if I’m honest.”

Louis straightens his posture, reaches a hand over, and pulls Harry to him. “We’re gonna have an ice cream bath in here together in the summer. Have you had one of those yet?” Harry shakes his head. “You’re slacking, Styles,” Louis nips at the younger boy’s shoulder as he pushes Harry over the edge of the tub and under the now steady stream of hot water. “Slacking.”

Harry immediately ducks his head under the hot water, soaking his thick hair all through and ignoring the slight sting of the temperature against his back as best he can, because if he’s going to look ridiculous at some point, he might as well get it out of the way. He scrubs through it a few times with his fingers, focusing mostly on the fringe and above his neck where he knows that his sweating has made it go all knotted and gross. He hears the rattling cchhhhhh of the curtain closing before he feels Louis’s fingers along his side, and he wipes the water out of his eyes before blinking the rest away. Louis looks like he’s in stitches.

“What?”

“I’m sorry for laughing,” Louis says, hand on Harry’s wet cheek, “but you look like a drowned rat.”

“Hey,” Harry scowls as best as he possibly can, but it only makes it more difficult for Louis to keep a straight face. He pouts. “I’m gonna leave.”

“Shhh,” Louis whispers, pressing him back up against the slick, icy cold wall of the shower and mouthing smiling kisses against Harry’s already pink neck. “You’re the prettiest drowned rat in the whole sewer system.”

“And you’re a terrible human being,” Harry says, barely managing to get the last word out. Louis’s taken to scraping his teeth along the soft skin and pulling on the longer pieces of hair above his neckline, just like he knows Harry goes crazy for. He knows exactly how to get a reaction out of him, and Harry hates to admit it after the genuinely exhausting session they only just finished ten minutes ago, but it’s working. God help him.

“I can make it up to you,” he purrs in Harry’s ear. “Come here.” Harry is pulled away from the wall with strong, eager hands and turned so that his back is to Louis’s chest. “Kneel.”

Harry does unquestionably, immediately sitting on his ankles with his hands on his knees with his head bowed. With the way that they’re positioned now, Harry is protected by Louis standing from the spray of the showerhead above. His thick hair is still dripping beads onto his shoulder and back as he sits and waits for what feels like an eternity. In reality, it’s more like ten seconds, but when Harry can’t take the suspense anymore, he looks up and behind him to watch Louis rinsing his own hair out with frantic fingers from only one hand. Harry isn’t sure what the rush is about until Louis is all done and raises the bottle that he had in his other hand to dispense a decent amount of the same liquid back into his palm. He looks down to Harry, makes a flicking motion with the now bottleless hand, and Harry waits in anticipation with his head turned back to the front.

It’s not exactly a secret to the world that Harry loves to have his hair played with, something that for some reason, most people seem to correctly assume just by looking at him. He always has Gemma brush for a half hour before and after she cuts his hair, and he falls asleep within minutes if his mum does it when they cuddle up together on the couch or in her bed, but this is a kind of heaven on earth. It’s always a bit different with Louis doing it, and if he’s honest, it’s only turning him on even more than before. His cock is filling up in slow twitches with every unhurried circle Louis makes on his scalp, still untouched since leaving the bed. The older boy’s fingers gently and patiently work through all the soapy kinks and tangles, some of which Harry might have put there a few minutes earlier with his harsh scrubbing, and Harry can feel the sigh building in his chest.

“You can touch yourself if you want. I know you like this,” Louis says when he sees, and then on an afterthought, “but don’t move otherwise, okay? Don’t do anything. This is for you right now.”

Again, he does as he’s told. It’s not fantastic with nothing but water to help ease the drag, per se, but oh god it’s good. It’s really fucking hot feeling Louis’s eyes on his slow-moving hands below, trailing fingers along the head of his dick and others on one of his nipples. He remembers the first time he’d shown Louis the two little extra ones he has, remembers the fascination he had with them from the word go. He’d tried to get them hard along with the two bigger ones, pinching them lightly to see if Harry was just as sensitive on those as he was with the others. They weren’t, which Harry could have told him before he’d gone further and nibbled on them both to find out for himself, but it’s never stopped him from trying ever since. Plus, Harry won’t lie that it’s a nice feeling, even if it’s not arousing, and it’s even nicer to watch.

Louis steps to the side and tips Harry’s head back into the water once more, going through with his fingertips and meticulously washing out all of the shampoo there is. He’s careful to keep all of the suds away from Harry’s eyes, cautious hands wiping away the bubbles and trickling water before they even reach Harry’s eyebrows.

“Lovely,” he hears Louis say, probably more to himself than to Harry, but the younger boy still smiles up at him. When Louis sees Harry’s eyes on him, he smiles sweetly in return and leans down to kiss Harry on his hairline before standing back up and reaching to the side for another bottle precariously sat on the edge, this one an alarming shade of orange. Harry smells what’s in it before he feels the cool, creamy substance on his head.

Though he doesn’t usually use conditioner on his own time, Harry’s not exactly going to protest. With Louis’s hands in his hair, the hot water falling against his ankles and the back of his calves, the chill of the cold air from outside leaking in through the curtain on his chest, and his own hand moving at such a leisurely pace, it’s all starting to feel like too much at once. Harry feels useless, itchy, and in surreal and desperate need to do something that isn’t for him, and it doesn’t help his case when he straightens his back and his ear brushes what can only be Louis’s half-hard cock.

That’s about what does it for him. Against Louis’s command to not do a single thing, Harry gathers all of the spit from under his tongue and behind his teeth, lays it on the flat of his tongue, turns his head to the side, and drags it all along the underside of Louis’s dick. The result is… well.

The reaction is instantaneous, a surprised jerk of Louis’s hips at the unexpected sensation so that Harry’s temple brushes against the bone of his hip. He can’t seem to stop himself from moving, too worked up from a combination of today’s happenings and watching Harry get himself off on his knees underneath him, and if that doesn’t spur Harry on, probably nothing will. His neck hurts a little from the odd, twisty position he’s taken so that he can get his mouth on Louis, but god, he’s not going to rest for anything until Louis physically stops him.

To Harry’s disappointment, that comes relatively quickly. Louis catches himself just as Harry’s got his mouth around the head and has started sucking, tonguing around the slit to gather the tiny drop of precome he’s let out.

“No, no,” he says as he pushes Harry off with a hand to his forehead, slick with the conditioner he still has on his fingers. “I told you not to.”

“I want to, though.” Harry licks his lips and gives Louis the most intense and sexy look a drowned rat on his knees can possibly give. It thankfully works wonders, and Harry can see the spark in Louis’s blood the second he’s being softly tugged upwards by his hair.

“Oh, fuck,” Louis mutters as Harry gets to his feet. “Come here, babe.”

Something that consistently amazes Harry is how astoundingly gentle Louis always is with him, like he’s trying to protect him from everything bad in the world with his touch. Even now as Louis pulls on his hair to bring him closer and tangle their tongues together, Harry can feel the soothing ease in his grip, like he could let go at absolutely any time if Harry needed him to. It’s kind of always been like this even when they weren’t together, and along with this sentiment, he thinks that it’s quite funny that Louis wanted to see Harry on the wall. How the tables have turned.

When one of Louis’s conditioner-slippery hands wraps loosely around both himself and Harry to get them off together, the fuzziness of Harry’s cloudy brain pulls itself together long enough to get a bit of an idea.

Harry’s been doing a bit of… research, he supposes, though ‘watching gay porn’ is what most people would call it, and about two weeks ago, he found something rather interesting. It’s not that he didn’t know how two men fuck, he’s aware of how all that works for the most part, but he wasn’t conscious of all the things that it involved and could be incorporated. Some of the stuff he’s seen involves acts that Harry already knows he’s incapable of, be it physically impossible for someone of his body type or his lack of nerve, but there have been a few that he’s been rather keen to try with Louis, one of the simpler ones which brings a blush to his cheeks just thinking about, but fuck if it isn’t amazing to watch and to feel.

He first tried fingering himself in his room the night he stumbled across it, and at the time, he was completely underwhelmed and put off by the gross mess it made afterward. He wasn’t sure what was so wonderful about this sensation, what had made the boy on screen cry out into Harry’s headphones in a manner that had him scrambling out of the chair to try it in the first place, and Harry was ready to cut his losses and say that it probably just wasn’t for him until he found another video a few night afterwards. It was similar and covered the same material, but far more instructional and slow. With two people showing him how it was supposed to be done this time, Harry could see that the angle and depth necessary to get there hadn’t been right after all, and after some deliberation, Harry was willing to try again, this time in the shower with the help of soap to make the glide easy rather than the lotion he’d used in bed. It took a while to get it right, but the first brush of the particular spot the older man of the two in the video had calmly and evenly told Harry about as he’d reduced the other into a shaking mess on the table beside him with his fingers was everything and nothing like what Harry had been expecting.

He’d fallen to his knees with the feeling, mindlessly chasing after something unlike anything he’d experienced. It came from a place that Harry hadn’t felt before and didn’t even have the proper name for yet, and Jesus Christ, he could definitely see the appeal after that. He’d come so hard that the marks he left on his knees bled from biting down on them while he curled into a ball to wank himself off and get at just the right angle. He wants to do this for Louis now. He wants to give it away, to show him what kind of good things Harry can do, all the while being as gentle and caring as Louis always is with him. He wants to turn Louis into his own shaking mess.

“Do you trust me?” Harry asks when he breaks off the kiss to brush his eyelashes against Louis’s cheek. The water around them has lost its initial stinging heat that had both of their skins turning red, now a nice, comfortable warmth surrounding them in the steam.

“Of course I do,” Louis replies breathily, reattaching their lips together. Harry pulls off again before he can lose himself and opens his eyes, nearly derailing his entire train of thought when Louis opens his as well. Bright blue eyes shine back at Harry through the pieces of wet hair that are plastered to Louis’s forehead, and his cheeks and lips are a beautiful shade of blushed pink. He looks moderately spent already and fucking gorgeous, and Harry feels another jolt of nervous excitement go through his stomach.

“I want to try something with you.” Tearing his eyes away from the lovely boy held up by the wall, he reaches down to the ledge where Louis had placed the bright orange bottle of conditioner earlier. In an ideal universe, they’d have some proper slick to use, but if all goes as well as Harry hopes, it’ll likely become one of their mutual investments from this point on.

“What are you…” Louis asks when Harry dispenses a generous amount onto two of his right fingertips. He doesn’t sound concerned exactly, but there is a considerable smattering of curious hesitation in his tone. Harry pecks him on the lips, places the bottle back down, repositions his stance in front of Louis, and locks his knees and gently clasps onto Louis’s shoulder, knowing that it’s possible that he’ll be completely supporting him against the wall at some point or another since this is his first time. It might be a bit too much if Harry does it right.

“Just… trust me, okay? If you can’t handle it and you want me to stop, tell me.” Harry takes the hand that isn’t currently partially coated in conditioner and guides Louis’s stilled hand below back into movement on both of them. “Keep moving your hand, that’ll make it easier.” Louis looks troubled with whatever is about to happen at Harry’s particular wording, and Harry gets up on his toes to kiss the corner of his eye. “It’ll be strange at first, but it’s good, I promise. You trust me.” This reminder of confidence is enough to make Louis’s shoulders ease down, his eyes close in faith, and his hand start moving again. Harry begins.

According to the man on the video, it’s a tricky process to do it right when you’re first starting out, not so occasionally a frustrating one, and Harry can attest to this. He can feel nerves begin to wriggle around like worms in his gut as his hand makes its way down, brushing past where Louis still moves his own hand in a smooth, deliberate rhythm that Harry wishes he could pay attention to. He rubs the conditioner along his two fingers with his thumb to spread it and hopefully warm it up to some degree, breathes the steam around him in deep, and places his fingers atop the small space of skin behind Louis’s balls. God he hopes he does this right.

He presses down firmly with the pads of both his fingers. Louis’s eyes fly open in shock.

“Fuck,” he says abruptly, and Harry stills. “That’s… that was weird.”

“You felt it? Inside?” Louis nods. “Good weird?” He nods again, looking extraordinarily confused, so Harry’s just going to take it that Louis hasn’t been doing the same kind of research that he has as of late. Mainly though, he’s just thrilled that this is working. “Okay, just relax. Keep going.”

Louis picks up the pace that he’d accidentally dropped almost cautiously now that his attention is elsewhere. Harry can feel him trying his very hardest to relax under the hand he still has on Louis’s shoulder again, even more so now that Harry’s moving even further back with his fingers than before, but his eyes are glued downwards. Harry, on the other hand, keeps his gaze transfixed on his boyfriend’s face, keeping track of any hint of serious distress or fear in case he needs to stop, and it’s because of this that he sees the flash of understanding without him even making a sound.

His eyes don’t race to meet Harry’s, but rather they trail up his body. Blue eyes the colour of summer sky with blown midnight black in the middle, heavy with trust and moving up to catch Harry’s green. The older boy’s hand moves away from the cool wall to hold onto Harry’s wrist so he can keep himself up, and Harry can feel that it’s trembling in the heat. It’s always an occasion to see a vulnerable Louis, one of Harry’s favourite kinds of Louis, and he sees this trusting openness now as he slowly buries his middle finger in as deep as it will go, slowly and carefully, never taking his eyes away. Louis’s total ease cracks, but he doesn’t falter. Harry loves him so much.

“It’s okay, you’re okay,” he reassures him. Louis swallows hard.

“Weird,” he repeats himself in a rasp. Harry kisses him as he starts moving his finger in and out of the tight space, and Louis squeaks behind his closed lips.

“I’ve hardly even started,” he says with a laugh when Louis has to pull away to breathe. His grip on Harry’s arm has tightened only slightly since Harry slipped inside of him and started the slow process of opening him up, and the already unhurried rhythm of his hand on himself and Harry has crawled to an irregular and nearly unbearable slowness. Harry ignores his own vibrating want as best he can. Contrary to Louis’s earlier statements, this is not about him at all. “It gets better, I promise.”

Louis nods. “I trust you.” He presses his forehead to Harry’s and begins dusting feather-light kisses against Harry’s lips, perhaps trying to distract himself from the temporary uncomfortable stretch that he knows is about to come.

“Relax,” Harry soothes him with gentle whispers against his mouth. “Just breathe.”

The older boy does the best he can, mindfully relaxing his body under a watchful gaze and easing the heavy air into his lungs as Harry continues to move inside of him. When Harry finally retracts his finger almost all the way and slips in the second as well, it’s fair to say that there’s a bit of a more perceptible reaction.

Fffffffuck,” Louis spits, his head thrown back against the tile wall and neck exposed to the air.

“You okay?” Harry asks him quietly, ghosting his lips against the presented hot skin.

“Fucking hell,” is the eloquent reply.

Harry can see the racing heartbeat in Louis’s throat as he drags his fingers in and out, in and out, slow and smooth enough that Harry knows he won’t hurt or scare him off, but quick enough that he’s nearly gasping. Louis’s hand has completely stopped moving, too caught in the moment, but Harry’s not going to spur him on right now. He knows that the first time you do this right is totally overwhelming.

“Okay?” Harry asks again, leaning down and planting a kiss in the hollow of his boyfriend’s collarbones each. Louis nods in response, even though Harry can see his tongue and lips moving in the shapes of exaggerated and hastened words that never quite make it out. “I’m gonna do it for real now, okay? Can you do it?” Harry scatters kisses along Louis’s neck, and when he’s finally given his go-ahead with another short nod, all the instructions for how to do this properly to another person comes at him in bulleted format. Hard, but not that hard. Soft, but not so soft that it has no effect. Even pressure, consistent ‘come hither’ motions. Harry breathes in deep. Okay, he’s ready.

The sound of knocking on the bathroom door makes them both freeze.

Harry turns his face towards the sound, praying that what they’ve just heard is a mutual hallucination from the heat and the sex, and he can see Louis mouthing “ohmygod, ohmygod,” over and over again out of the corner of his eye. It’s not possible that they’ve been in the shower for any longer than ten minutes tops – how could anyone possibly be home right now? Another series of knocks actually makes Louis whimper quietly, but he has an even worse reaction when they both hear, “Louis?” and immediately recognise it as Felicite Tomlinson.

Louis looks like he’s having a proper meltdown with Harry’s fingers still inside of him and his hand in a tight grasp around his and Harry’s cocks, and the younger boy has to give him a light smack with the back of his free hand across his chest to make him finally call out in shaky response to his sister.

“What’s up, darling?” The door creaks open.

“Do you mind if I put a bit of makeup on while you’re in?” Felicite asks, closing the door behind her. “Dad’s come home a day early and mum wasn’t busy at work, so we’re all going to pick him up from the station and go out for dinner. Mum wants you out of the shower, dressed nice and posh, and ready to go in fifteen.” Harry buries his scorched cheeks into the older boy’s neck. Louis hiccups.

“Could you put it on in your room, Fizz?”

“Mum says she doesn’t want me doing that anymore,” she responds, and Harry can hear the sound of the cupboard under the sink creaking open and her rummaging through her makeup bag when she comes across it at last. “Says I ruin the carpets.”

Harry has no idea what to do. Normally, he’d turn to Louis so that the older of the two could start taking care of it and Harry could follow, working together to move past whatever obstacle they’re facing at that moment, but Louis looks absolutely stricken with fear. He’s clenched so tight around Harry’s fingers that he feels himself losing circulation in the tips of them, and Harry knows he shouldn’t move, knows that he could blow this whole thing with a single misplaced movement, but at the same time…

At the same time, despite that Harry recognises this is literally the singular most dangerous thing he’s ever done in his entire life, knows it with every cell in his body, it wouldn’t be him if he weren’t up for a challenge. Harry stands up straight and looks into Louis’s eyes. It’s decided. He finally curls his fingers to hit that perfect spot inside of Louis for the first time and attaches his mouth back to the older boy’s before he can make any sort of sound in surprise.

Unfortunately, he isn’t quite quick enough in his movement, and a tiny muffled moan escapes Louis’s mouth before he can stifle it. He hears Felicite pause at the bathroom counter as she’s going through her makeup bag again, and Louis’s eyes are so wide when Harry pulls back that he could count every blood vessel in them.

“Lou,” she asks cautiously, popping what vaguely sounds like a tube of lipstick closed, “are you alright?” Harry mouths ‘breathe’ at him. Louis takes a gulp of air and clears his throat.

“I’m fine,” he replies as evenly as he can. “I just… cut… myself.” Harry smiles and sinks his teeth into Louis’s lower neck. Louis jolts under him like he’s been shocked.

“With what?”

“Uh,” Louis stumbles, his eyes frantically searching around the tub for something, anything that could validate his frail fabrication as Harry tongues over the marks he’s left. He finds it at the same moment that Harry hits the spot inside of him again with his fingers, and he half-chokes, half groans, “Bottle,” between clenched teeth. The grip he has on Harry’s wrist that’s since moved to Louis’s waist is alarmingly tight, and Louis mouths something that looks like ‘you little shit,’ but whatever tiny sound he makes is drowned out by the sound of falling water around them.

“You cut yourself on a bottle?” Felicite asks, an unimpressed smirk in her voice. “How’d you manage that one, Mister Clever?”

“Would you know that I have absolutely no idea how one cuts themselves on a bottle,” Louis replies with a squeak as Harry does it yet again, and Harry narrowly stops himself from laughing aloud at how he already knows he’s probably getting punched for this later, “and yet, here we are.”

“O…kay?” Fizz goes back to her rummaging, eventually picking out a palate of something and clicking it open. All the while, Harry continues his steady stroking of the spot, what the internet told him several times is the relative size of a walnut ( he doesn’t even know how big a walnut is supposed to be ) and what the man on the video called a “patch of nerve endings” in a crystal clear and confident American accent, and every time he does, he can see Louis falling a little deeper into the feeling, moving his hips along in a rhythm that he’s probably not even aware of. He’s got his lip caught so tight between his teeth to keep himself quiet that Harry fears it might bleed. Even so, Harry kind of wants to push it even further. God forgive him, but despite the circumstances, he just can’t help himself.

He slowly makes his way downward from the space he’s claimed as his own with his teeth, dragging his lips along the hot skin as he goes. When he looks up just as he’s gotten to where sparse hair is starting to create a line, Louis is staring down at him like he’s grown a second head. Harry sees him mouthing “no, no, no,” and shaking his head, but Harry just grins at him and brings the hand that’s now only loosely grasping his own prick away to rest in Harry’s hair again, still thick with the conditioner that he’d forgotten all about. For the second time in only minutes, Harry is on his knees, fingers still dragging at Louis’s insides, and after a quick rinsing down of the traces of conditioner left on the skin, he takes Louis into his mouth with a challenging look. Louis looks halfway between killing Harry and killing himself.

“Are you s-sure you can’t take that to mu-mum’s bathroom?” he stammers to his sister as Harry simultaneously ups the speed of his fingers and his mouth together. If Harry didn’t have a mouthful of cock, he’d be grinning like the Cheshire Cat with how flushed Louis is.

“She’s in there bathing the twins already,” Fizz says with a tinge of impatience in her voice. “I’ll be quick, I promise.”

“Right,” Louis groans with defeat, the hand that’s not in his boyfriend’s hair halfway covering his mouth, “that’s f-fine, then.”

In the two minutes after that, it’s a lot of experimentation. Harry decides to overlook using what he knows Louis reacts best to, what he likes the most and almost always moans at, knowing that he might be a bit too loud with Fizz still in the room, so he just glides his lips over and over the older boy’s cock while keeping his fingers moving inside. At the same time, he’s taken his other hand that he’d kept up on Louis’s waist and brought it down. He’s been teetering on the edge as it is, keeping his hands off of himself until it’s agonizing, so he quickly wanks himself off double time to what he does for Louis, the remainder of the conditioner from Louis’s hand making it slide. It’s too much, over too fast, and for the third time today, Harry comes with a near painful shudder, the few drops of liquid that his system gives up after such an intense day washing away with the warm water that cascades down his lower back and between his legs.

Louis, however, is still going, and in the wake of the momentary pause that Harry had to take to tend to his own orgasm, he’s picked up the slack, bringing the second hand down from his mouth to join the first in tangling in Harry’s hair. Harry’s done enough of his ‘research’ to know where this one is going, and he takes as deep of a breath as he possibly can before Louis is full on fucking his mouth within seconds. Harry knows the total loss of control from this, knows that Louis is a little too deep in the feeling to be reached with a simple tap, so he presses on through and lets Louis use him even though his eyes are watering so badly that he can hardly see and he feels like his gag reflex is going into hyper-drive. If Louis somehow manages to go on for much longer, Harry might vomit or pass out from a lack of air. Whatever comes first, really.

Harry doesn’t know why he expected this to all be so systematic and clean and precise, but he’s found through the actual practise that it’s anything but. It’s enthralling and exciting and daunting, and not just because there’s a huge chance that they could get caught. It’s also oddly more intimate; this is a brand new, more intense Louis that Harry hasn’t had the pleasure to witness thus far, because even though there’s a high possibility of him going home today with no voice, he likes this. He rather likes knowing that he’s being used, that he’s reduced Louis to this. He digs his nails into the skin of his boyfriend’s hip as he moves them, increasingly uneven in the timing of the thrusts as he goes, and ups the pace of his fingers inside of Louis even more. It’s at this that Louis finally comes moments later with a string of muted expletives, an arch in his back, and a final, rather painful tug at Harry’s hair.

Okay, that’s new.

“Fucking hell,” Louis whimpers for the second time today, apparently completely forgetting that his little sister’s in the room. Harry holds a hand up against the middle of Louis’s chest to keep him steady to the wall as he sways, coming down from the highest high that Harry could have possibly given him, and after he’s pulled off, confident that he’s sucked up every drop of come coating the back of his throat under his tongue, he spits it out into the running water and covers his own mouth with the other to keep himself from making any noise. He can’t remember ever feeling such a need to cough in his whole life.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Fizz asks from the counter, closing the cupboard with a little bang. Harry feels so lightheaded.

“Yeah,” Louis says, his voice strung high and thin, “just…” He looks down at Harry, unsure of how to continue with his shitty string of lies until Harry momentarily brings his hand away and mouths ‘soap in the cut’ up at him. Louis nods with a spent shrug and a shake of his head. This is what their lives have come to, apparently. “Soap in the cut.”

Felicite sucks in air through her teeth. “Ouch. Well, I’m done now, so I’ll let you get out and take care of it.”

Harry waits until he hears the click of the door closing and a series of footsteps fading outward until he finally allows himself to explode into a coughing fit. He curls himself up into a ball on the floor of the shower and coughs as deeply as he can into his knees until he’s sure half a lung is going to come out if he’s not careful. The warm water runs over his back and through his hair, finally ridding him of most of the product that’s been in several minutes too long.

“Oh my god, Harry,” Louis pants above him, still miraculously on his feet given the way that his knees are wobbling. “Oh my god.” Harry takes a deep breath of air to alleviate his short-lived nausea and smiles up at him.

“Good?” His voice has been destroyed. He sounds like he smokes two packs a day.

“In a word, yeah,” Louis replies with a shaking voice, brushing the wet hair out of Harry’s eyes. “And… Jesus, I’m sorry, love. I just lost control like that at the end, I… I couldn’t help it.”

Harry coughs into his elbow again. “Believe me, I know.”

“Did you come?” Harry nods as he gets back to his feet, and Louis throws his head back against the wall. “I just came with my sister in the room. I just got fucking fingered with my little sister in the room.” He shakes his head with the hint of a smile in the corners of his mouth, like he can’t believe he’s gotten away with this. “Christ. I’m going to hell for this. One-way ticket to hell.”

Harry kisses one of the smiling corners. “I think we both are.”

Both boys hastily wash their bodies clean and rinse the soap off just as quickly. Harry scours his hands under the cooling water, getting under the nails and between the fingers with some of the body wash he’d nicked from between Louis’s shoulder blades at the last second, before ducking his head under one last time and giving it a good scrub to get any remaining conditioner out. Louis steps out of the shower first into the colder air of the small bathroom, immediately covering himself before Harry gets out.

“As much fun as that was, we are never doing that again. You were right,” Louis whispers when the water’s been turned off and he has a towel around his middle. He looks shaky on his legs still, and Harry doesn’t blame him. He’d stayed on the shower floor in a balled-up daze until the water turned cold around him the first time he’d come with his fingers inside of himself. “A shower was a terrible idea.”

Harry hums huskily as he shakes his soaking wet hair out onto the mat below. “Not that terrible, though.” Louis yanks his wet towel off of his waist and whips it at Harry’s bare bottom, and Harry tries not to scream.

It’s a bit of a high intensity operation to sneak across the very short distance back to the bedroom, but they miraculously make it without a single member of the family downstairs being made aware. Louis locks the door behind them both, tosses Harry some clothes out of his dresser drawers so that he won’t have to put his school uniform back on, and quickly dries his hair with a series of rough rubs of his towel. They both come up with a whispered plan as Louis moves around the room, combing his damp hair out with his fingers and straightening his tie out. Louis will leave with his family and Harry will escape out the back door, through the back garden of the Tomlinsons and the neighbours, and make his way home. Simple enough.

“I’ll see you and Gemma at Sunday mass, yeah?” Louis asks just as he’s about to depart and throws a nice jacket over his shoulder, leaving Harry to sit on his bed until the Tomlinsons have all left the premises. Harry thinks it’s wonderful that Louis remembers these sorts of things, knows Gemma’s coming in on the train tomorrow afternoon. He kisses him on the nose.

“Sunday,” he agrees.

Harry doesn’t actually leave immediately when he knows that he’s alone. He stays absolutely still on the bed, legs crossed under him until he hears the car’s tyres against the asphalt outside, but it’s difficult not to notice the state of the bed sheets he’s sitting on for those heart pounding five minutes. They’re quite disgusting, the whole room smells of sex and sweat, and Harry doesn’t have to be home any time soon. It’s honestly a bit of a no brainer. He strips the bed of its sheets, duvet cover, and pillowcases, opens the window, and makes his way downstairs to the laundry room behind the kitchen with the whole set in his arms for a short cleaning.

While he waits for the washer, Harry makes himself a cup of tea to rehydrate himself from earlier and sits at the kitchen table, dozing off once or twice with his head in his hand until the loud buzz wakes him up. He changes the setting over to high on the dryer, and instead of allowing himself another catnap that he’s not so sure he’ll be as lucky to wake up from, he busies himself with doing the dishes that are in the sink and dishwasher and putting them in their respective cupboards until the sheets are all dry. As he walks back upstairs to Louis’s room to redress the bed with the clean, warm sheets, he can’t help but think of himself as a bit of a young housewife. He also thinks with a weird, swirly feeling in the pit of his stomach that he wouldn’t mind doing this sort of thing for Louis for… well, for always.

It’s about 8 at night when his phone buzzes on the arm of the loveseat beside him. He’s on the couch with his mum, socked feet in her lap as he waits for the phone that she’s currently chatting through to his nan about coming up for Easter Sunday to celebrate so that he can say hello. He doesn’t even have to look to know that it’s Louis.

                  Louis Tomlinson xoxox <3 : Did you actually do my family’s dishes?

Harry replies with a simple ;) x, hoping that it’s both teasing and telling enough for Louis. He’s not disappointed.

                  Louis Tomlinson xoxox <3 : Bloody hell babe. Bedsheets AND dishes. Now Im deffo keeping you around.

The younger boy texts back a quick “good luck getting rid of me” before he’s handed the phone over. The exchange carries on longer than Harry intended, as is always the case for phone conversations with any of his grandparents, but he knows that they don’t get to talk that often and she’s had a bout of health problems lately, so he ignores the buzzing when he hears it. When his nan finally decides that she’s retiring for the evening and they hang up, Harry dives for his mobile to read what Louis had sent him.

                  Louis Tomlinson xoxox <3 : As if Id ever try. xx

~

In the beginning of the school year when they’d first met, Zayn and Louis were the same height. The younger boy has grown a good inch since then, but Louis doesn’t think he ever noticed until now, as Zayn’s plastered himself to Louis’s back and is holding him tight around the middle as they watch their younger sisters frolic around the park. Daisy, Phoebe, and Safaa are all the same age and seem to love each other, typically chasing one another around the whole play set whenever they all come. Lottie and Waliyha, on the other hand, are also the same age but older than the others, and they always seem to be rather hesitant to conduct anything that isn’t polite conversation on the swings. Occasionally, one will take a break to push the other as high as possible.

“I feel as though I should start singing the Titanic theme,” Louis says when Zayn sighs into his ear. He beats Louis to the punch, though, and whistles the opening of the Céline Dion song before Louis can even purse his lips. He reaches a hand up and pulls on the longest strands of hair he can grab atop his friend’s head with a good tug.

“Unnecessary.” Zayn bites the vein of Louis’s neck.

“You’re unnecessary,” Louis says back.

Considering that it’s Monday, today’s been good. It’s the day after Easter Sunday, and unremarkably, he hasn’t had the need to eat since yesterday afternoon. He still feels completely stuffed and slow moving through everything. All that food and those sweets apparently had the opposite effect on his siblings, though; building up enough energy in his little sisters’ tiny bodies overnight so that they were ready to tear down the house by morning, he’d been bribed by both of his parents to take them to the park for an hour or two, and knowing that Zayn might be in a similar situation with his sisters, he’d invited the Maliks along, even though he isn’t quite sure if all of them even celebrate Easter. They must have an awful lot of holidays to celebrate with three religions in the house ( Zayn told him earlier that Doniya’s taken up a recent interest in Buddhism. Do Buddhists even have holidays? He doesn’t know. Louis will have to ask her the next time he’s over ).

“We still going out on Wednesday?” Zayn asks as they watch a new game of hide and seek amongst the five girls begin to take place. Louis hums confirmation. “Been ages since we’ve seen that lot.” He hums again. “Bet Harry’s happy.”

“He actually won’t shut up about it.” Not that Louis’s stopping him.

‘Happy’ doesn’t begin to cover what Harry is. It’s been three months since he’s seen his friends or had quality time with his siblings, including the stepbrother named Mike whom Louis only met yesterday at mass, so he’s going to drag out the younger boy’s glee for as long as possible. It’s wonderful that Harry’s getting to spend so much time with his friends and family who love and support him to the degree they do, but if he doesn’t distract himself quickly enough, sometimes it makes Louis think of how much he misses Niall. He doesn’t say this to Zayn, or to anyone for that matter. He just keeps quiet and watches the girls run around on the woodchips.

“Heard you two had a rather interesting experience on Friday,” Zayn says finally, retracting his arms from around Louis’s middle to retrieve his pack of cigarettes from his back pocket.

“Did he tell you that?” Louis asks over his shoulder.

“Can’t say,” Zayn deadpans with one now in his mouth, “I told him my lips were sealed.”

Louis shakes his head as his cheeks heat up. “That boy is going to be the death of me.” Which is likely true if Harry keeps telling his friends about their exploits, the list of which includes Nick of all people. At the same time, it puts a bit of an odd kind of pride in Louis’s chest to hear that other people know about that particular incident, even if there are specific characteristics of the day that make him feel a tad bit ashamed of himself. He can’t wait until they have some alone time this holiday so that Harry can teach him how to do that thing. He wants to make Harry feel like that, and maybe if he’s lucky, Harry will do it for him again… minus his sister being within a literal arm’s-reach away, though. That, he could definitely live without.

All things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it is much better to be killed by a lover.”

“Who said that, then?” Louis blinks at Zayn expectantly. The younger of the two clicks his lighter a few times before it takes.

“Bukowski,” he mumbles around the cigarette as he raises his light to it, cupping a hand around to protect the flame from the mild spring breeze. “My main man.”

“…Bukowski.”

Zayn rolls his eyes at Louis’s unenthusiastic tone, breathing out the first of the grey smoke in a cloud to the side. “I’m studying English in uni, you twat. I read Bukowski.” He pockets the lighter, sighs out whatever remnants of the smoke are in his lungs, and flicks the already accumulated ash off of the burning end. “I actually have a question for you, sort of related to love.”

“Go for it.”

At first, Louis is under the impression that the inquiry is going to be immediate, but after a few seconds of dead silence, Zayn still hasn’t said anything. Rather, Zayn inhales deeply, holding the fiery smoke in his lungs until Louis can see his eyes starting to water, then on the exhale, he turns on his heel and heads to the nearest wooden bench. Louis follows. The bench is splintery on the palms of his hands when he sits to Zayn’s right, noting how it’s in need of a paint job after the long winter with the way that it’s flaking off teal chips of colour into the grass below.

“Do you remember,” Zayn begins once he’s taken another heavy drag, “that day outside the library when you said that if I liked Liam, you’d be supportive of that?”

It takes a moment, but yeah – the day comes back to him in a flood, how he’d walked into the library and been taken aback by how close Zayn and Liam were acting, how cold it had been outside, all the ice on the ground and in the spaces between the cobblestones in the courtyard. His mind had chosen to forget that particular string of memories with the exception of the play and everything that had followed that night, and now that they’re all back, Louis realises why.

“I do remember,” he replies. “I also remember finding you lying in a pool of your own blood later on the same day.” Zayn looks extremely unimpressed.

“Why’ve you got to bring up old shit, Lou?”

“You brought it up first, and why are we even talking about this? He nearly killed you.”

“I know, but – ”

“If it hadn’t been for Harry and me, you’d be dead.”

“Liam was the one who told you where to find me in the first place.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “That doesn’t take back what he did, Zayn. That doesn’t take back what he’s done to you, your family, or every single other person he’s hurt that you don’t even know about. He can say sorry as many times as he likes, but he can’t turn time and take everything back.” The two boys stare each other down, but it’s Louis that wins this round. Zayn lowers his eyes and brings his cigarette to his lips again, but not before mumbling, “Got it,” so quietly that Louis doesn’t hear it at first.

The game of hide and seek with the girls has not lasted long, the twins having come here so many times that they know all the decent hiding spots in the rather small park area like the backs of their hands. The older girls have lost interest in the games of their younger siblings, and Louis watches as Lottie suggests gymnastics. She’s apparently been practicing, something Louis had no prior knowledge of, but before Waliyha can agree, Zayn’s sister spies the glowing item in her brother’s hand and walks over with intent in the dark brown eyes that she shares with her family.

“I’m telling mum you still smoke,” she says with a wicked sneer once she comes to a full stop in front of them. “Mum and dad both told you to stop.” Zayn takes another defiant drag and exhales in a thin, well-trained stream right in her direction, narrowly missing her face by barely an inch.

“What the parents don’t know doesn’t hurt them, but if you do decide to tell them,” he tells her with a cool smile, “I’ll come into your room and hack one of your braids off while you’re sleeping.” Waliyha’s face goes sour at this, and she mutters something in Urdu to which Zayn replies to in the same language, then shrugs. Waliyha rolls her eyes and goes back to the plot of thinned grass where Lottie is currently attempting to do a handstand.

“What did she say?” Louis asks when she’s out of earshot. Zayn holds the cigarette between his front teeth. The end burns bright orange with every word.

“That she can’t wait until I leave next year so she can have my room.”

Louis sucks in the spring air with pursed lips. “Harsh.”

“I told her that she’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

“And will you miss her?”

“Terribly.” Zayn watches over his siblings as they climb around on the frame, kicking their legs out at each other as they hang off the high-bars until one of them lets go, and Louis looks to his own, the three of them playing audience on the ground below.

Louis doesn’t even know what’s going to happen to his room when he leaves, hasn’t really thought about it yet, but it’s likely going to Fizz, who’s still sharing with Lottie. He’ll probably end up in the spare room on holidays or weekends he comes home. He’s the first to leave for uni out of his family, but the Maliks already have Doniya taking classes at hers part time. If he remembers correctly, she has to go to classes on a half hour bus three days a week, which seems like a bit of a pain in the arse to him, but he’s never really asked Doniya about why she still lives at home if that’s the case for her as well. That’s rather odd now that he thinks about it, because he goes over there enough. He’s had plenty of conversations with her before.

“How is it that you’re leaving for uni, but Doniya’s still living at home?” he asks. “Why doesn’t she live closer to hers?”

“Well first, we kind of stick together as a family, a sort of cultural thing, I guess, but it does tie into the religion. There’s this idea that any unmarried woman needs to have a mahram, a person that she’s related to by blood so she can be protected and never alone. So basically, girls live at home until they get married to help out with the house and the family and stuff, just kind of a thing we do. Second, we don’t have the money to send to support her for anywhere else. Good thing, too, in a kind of selfish way. I’d have been completely fucked for the entirety of February if it hadn’t been for her.”

Louis hadn’t considered that. He’s fucked up enough times with Zayn to deserve way more than the weary looks Zayn throws at him when he’s accidentally said something offensive, be it regarding Zayn’s second religion or customs or food, but Zayn apparently has endless patience to spare when it comes to Louis. He’s glad he has someone like Zayn in his life to teach him about the world beyond the little he knows. Sometimes, he feels like he’s lived inside of a bubble his entire life, and though Zayn doesn’t exactly pop it, he brings colour in.

“Tell me if I’m being invasive,” he begins carefully, crossing his fingers that he’s not being as stupid as he feels, “but doesn’t she hate being kept at home?”

“No one’s ‘keeping her’ anywhere, really. Mostly, she just chooses to stay at home,” Zayn shrugs. “She’s got loads of friends nearby, she and mum have gotten really close over the past few years, she’s got a part-time job, and she doesn’t want to leave. Compared to some of our other Paki friends, my dad’s super lenient. I’m inclined to believe it’s because he loves my mum to death and wants to make her happy, even if he gets weird looks from his mates for it. Like, we can date if we bring them over for dinner once or twice and we get the go-ahead from our parents, we can practise whatever religions we want, and if the younger girls really want to when they get older and head off to uni, they can scrap some money together and move out.” Zayn sucks more smoke into his lungs. “It’s kind of weird, because I know for you, the whole idea of eventually moving on and getting a place of your own is what you’ve grown up to expect, but all our friends think we’re some crazy liberal family for doing a modified version of the same thing.”

“That is weird.”

“They all make fun of dad because they think a white woman’s turned him soft.”

“Sounds like you think so as well,” Louis grins at him, settling into the soft, aged wood. “I feel like I learn a new thing about your culture every time we talk.”

Zayn leans back and stretches his arms behind his head. “Gotta educate the white boy somehow.” Louis punches him lightly in the shoulder, and Zayn just takes another drag of his cigarette with a smile.

For some reason, this talk about Zayn’s culture and religion always brings Louis’s thoughts to one thing, but he’s never really dared to ask. From what Louis’s gathered, there’s a lot that Islam has in common with Christianity, but there’s just different principles and customs that he’s had to take time to try to understand fully. With all their talks, however, Zayn’s never really talked about how it’s affected him personally with regards to one particular. Sometimes Louis thinks he does it on purpose, avoiding the subject any time it’s hinted at, so he’s never pressed. Now seems as good a time as any, though, with the girls distracted, no one else around, and plenty of space for Louis to run away if Zayn tries to kick him for trying to dive in too deep. There’s a lot Louis knows about Zayn, but there’s even more that he doesn’t.

“Were your parents cool when you told them that you were…” he trails off, motioning the carryover of his thought with his hand. It’s obvious what he’s trying to say, but even after all this time and preparation, Louis shies away from saying it aloud. He doesn’t quite know why. Zayn looks at him for a moment and then, deciding it’s safe, clears his throat with a light cough and a deep breath to begin.

“I think a lot of people have a lot of misunderstandings regarding mine and my dad’s religion. When they hear I’m Catholic because of my mum, most people don’t really blink, but the second I say I’m also Muslim, they’re, like, convinced I hate women and gays and that I’m trained to make bombs out of stuff you can find in a garage or something. Out of the two religions I have, though, only the second one is painted on my skin. People look at you and they think they know all about you in a split second.” Zayn purses his lips, his eyes cast down to the ground. “I’ve lost track with how many times I’ve walked into a shop by myself or with my brown friends and got told to leave by the owner just for looking around too long, but when I’m with my white friends, it’s smooth sailing, like I need supervision. They get scared of you when they see that your skin isn’t right.

“The thing is,” he continues, flicking his cigarette and scattering the ashes into the newly grown grass below once more, “after a while, they make you think you’re wrong for something you can’t help and it starts sticking in your head, the stereotypes, the misconceptions. It’s hard to explain to someone who will never go through it, but the ideas are reinforced everywhere you go. Kids spit at you and throw stones if you’re in a wrong area of the neighbourhood, white people get picked before you for the job, politicians discuss whether you can stay in this country or whether you should be shipped back to Pakistan where you belong. Eventually, you start thinking, like, ‘what if they’re right?’ There has to be a reason why they all hate you so much, right? There has to be something wrong that you’re just not seeing.

“And it spread, too, after a while. I was always different, always felt less-than at every bloody school I went to, even when I was eight years old. My sisters and I all got dirty looks and got treated differently, and us being poor as fuck certainly didn’t help anything. I grew up knowing and understanding that I was never going to be what the world wanted me to be, and other than Dylan or Danny or whatever, I never really had any really, really good friends as a result. After a while, you just accept it. You learn to never complain, you learn to turn the other cheek because it’s how you survive, but… the second I realised at that stupid fucking party that I liked boys as well…” He stops for a moment and runs the fingers that hold the low-burning cigarette between them over his lips. “To be honest with you, I wanted to die, because this only made me more of a freak, gave people more reason to hate me. I was so… so ashamed of myself.”

Zayn takes a moment to breathe, taking the fingers of his free hand and running it through his fringe. He screws his eyes shut, perhaps to draw back the water that Louis heard in his voice, and rather looks like he’s in pain, even more than Louis is listening to this. The older boy snakes his arm around Zayn and pulls him in.

“I was so fucking scared to tell my parents because of what the world did to my head for years and years, and I got lost in my fear,” Zayn continues with his head on Louis’s shoulder. “I was afraid of people, afraid of my God… It took any faith I had and crushed it. Like, I was going out of my fucking head from thinking that I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t go to church and confess because I only ever went with my family, and I couldn’t go to mosque and do taubah because I was still involved in the thing I was calling sin.

“I thought I couldn’t tell my parents because ‘Muslims stone gays to death,’ and ‘Catholics chuck their gay kids out of the house,’ so both of my parents were out. I was only thirteen years old at the start, for Christ’s sake. I was a bloody child who was lying about my age so I could go places I shouldn’t have been going and do things I shouldn’t have been doing. I’d be shoving my tongue down people’s throats if they looked at me the right way because I needed to get it out somehow. I needed to somehow make up for the attention and love and acceptance that I wasn’t getting at home. I was a mess.

“After a while, it got even worse. I started taking all of that and building it inside myself and getting angrier, and then one day while I was on the way back from mosque with my dad, I realised that in the two years I’d been doing all that stuff, I’d never been kissed by someone sober. I started wondering if I was really so off-putting and disgusting to the world that no one could love me or think I was attractive and worth their time without s