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In many ways, life is like a play.

Some lives are shorter, some are longer, some have different themes, and some are less eventful than others. The antagonists are sometimes explicit and obvious, while some are hidden under a shadow of deception and the illusion of friendship.

But beyond that, in everyone’s life, they are their own protagonist. Their life revolves around themselves; and, whether they’re inherently good or bad or neutral in character, in the end, they are the ones to root for. They’re the ones who make their own choices and they steer their story in a certain way. They decide their supporting cast, where the story takes place, and what to do once a scene metaphorically ends.

Since he’s an aspiring actor, Louis understands this; he’s always contemplated his life through theatrical goggles. Life mirrors art, and as the great Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage.”

Louis agrees.

But from a young age, he’s never exactly felt like a protagonist. It’s like he’s always felt he was a side character, only there for laughs— someone to help move a friend or family member’s story forward, but never to propel his own. It’s like he’s never felt he’s leveled up and become the central character in his own life— like he’s waiting for some unknown to fall from the sky and change everything.

Onstage, Louis owns the scene and revels in the feeling of all eyes on him, tracking his every movement. He has an air of subtlety and commands ownership of any exchange. He’s been the star since GCSEs began.

Onstage, Louis knows exactly what part he’s playing and where he’s taking things.

But in real life, Louis feels like he has no plot.

He’s plotless.

Not only that, but he sometimes feels he’s reading off of an invisible script meant for someone else.

~

It becomes apparent the moment Louis parks in front of the restaurant that he has accidentally succumbed to being set up. The oddness of the hours beforehand clicks into sudden clarity, and he feels as oblivious as slacker three hours late for the exam worth 50% of his grade.

He should have known something was up when Liam texted him asking whether he’d prefer a man with straight or curly hair.

He should have known something was up when Niall mentioned his fit, gay cousin moving to their town.

He should definitely have known something was up when Zayn texted him that he should wear his tightest jeans and the blue shirt that makes his eyes pop, as well as spend extra time on his hair.

He should have known.

After all, this isn’t the first time it’s happened.

~

Louis thinks back half-fondly to the first time Niall tried to set him up on a date. He was the tender age of thirteen, pimples scattered along his cheeks and inwardly horrified by the alarming surge in hormones in everyone around him.

Her name was Hannah. She was lovely and pretty and laughed at all of Louis’ jokes, but after a few months of sending each other constant text messages and attending a grand total of three awkward group dates together, Louis realised that he wasn’t interested in the slightest.

It hardly came as a shock to his best friends that he was much more interested in Aiden, a boy in his math class. His hands were big, and he helped Louis with his homework and smiled whenever Louis could do a difficult problem all by himself. His attention made Louis feel warm and fuzzy on the inside; and when Aiden asked for his phone number, he felt like the world had tipped off its axis.

They texted for a bit, but when it came time to actually discuss dating, Louis froze up and told him he’d rather stay friends.

When he told Zayn what had happened as they walked home from school the next day, he yelled at Louis for five whole minutes about missing opportunities and living life to the fullest and how Louis would definitely regret not taking Aiden up on his offer.

He lay in his bed fighting off tears for hours after returning home, contemplating whether he was just being a baby about the situation and ruining something that could potentially be great. Aiden was a cool guy, as well as attractive and smart.

It was the first moment Louis thought something might be—different. Zayn had already had his first girlfriend, Liam was crushing on a shy girl in his English class, and Niall had already kissed two girls. And then there was Louis, rejecting a guy who was the holy trifecta and interestedin him.

And he wasn’t even sure why he was so averse to the idea. It just felt inexplicably wrong, like dating wasn’t something he was meant to actually do. It was different when it actually became a real possibility that something could happen, instead of a far off, wouldn’t this be cool situation—an unreachable great perhaps. Louis could hypothetically talk dating and sex all day, but he always imagined it in the context as for other people.

It made sense to him that Niall and Zayn would be doing things with girls. But he felt like there was something imperative missing inside of him; and since he was missing that piece, he couldn’t date. It wasn’t in the cards for him. It wasn’t right.

When he tried to explain it to his friends the next day at lunch, he got tongue tied and couldn’t put it to words intelligibly. Zayn looked at him like he was speaking Yiddish, Niall looked mildly confused, and Liam had his eyes squinted like he didn’t even believe him.

“I’m not understanding you,” Niall said to him. “Is this because of the gay thing? Maybe you’re just scared to come out, so you’re not ready for a relationship, yet.”

“That makes a lot of sense, actually,” Zayn agreed with a vigorous nod.

Louis ultimately decided they were right, but it still weighed heavily in the back of his mind that they were wrong. It was something more.

~

The second time it happened was when Liam whispered to Louis that a boy from his track team was interested in him.

Louis was sixteen and much too loud, all an elaborate distraction to mask the fact that he was secretly terrified he was the only one of his friends who hadn’t had sex yet. And that he honestly had no burning desire to change that fact, unlike everyone else seemed to.

Louis reluctantly agreed to a blind date, if only to try to figure out whether maybe he was secretly straight and entirely misguided.

But Greg was charming and Louis was smitten. After they watched a terrible action film and shared a milkshake, Greg held Louis’ hand as he walked him home. It felt nice, and Louis felt special. Greg kissed his cheek at his door, and Louis fell asleep smiling.

It almost felt like his story could be beginning, like it was the catalyst that could begin his journey to self-discovery and might even give some hint as to what might be in store for him in the future.

But. 

But when Greg unexpectedly moved across the country only two weeks later, Louis felt a sudden, colossal relief.

And it wasn’t because he didn’t like Greg, because he really did. It was just that he didn’t have to worry about their relationship actually progressing any further. It was like Louis wasn’t opposed to getting to know him but was just disinclined to the expectations that would come along with them actually entering a relationship. It felt like— like maybe he just wasn’t ready. Like maybe he was still too afraid of the unknown. Like maybe he hadn’t fully matured, yet.

Louis tried to imagine sex with Greg, but all it did was make him grimace and give him an anxious stomachache.

He hasn’t really thought of anyone in that way, since.

~

After that, there had been plenty of other subtle suggestions and mentions of this guy in my chemistry class and that guy at the check out counter.

It’s weird because, honestly, Louis knows he’s attractive. And he knows that doing drama for his A-levels and starring in every production he’s been involved with made it easier to come out because people already suspected it.

Louis knows he’s desired. He knows he could have a boyfriend in less than a minute if he really tried.

He just doesn’t want to try. He hasn’t ever wanted to try.

And not just that, he wants to not try. It’s a conscious effort to put in zero effort into trying.

He doesn’t understand what the big fucking deal is and why everyone is so obsessed with sex and dating and the idealised Hollywood romance bullshit. It’s tiring and redundant, and Louis still can’t see the allure of it. It isn’t that he’s a prude or anything (quite the opposite—Louis is one of the first people Niall turns to whenever he needs to make an innuendo), but, to Louis, it still feels more like an abstract concept to joke about. Not something he actually wants to participate in. Something fun for other people to participate in, perhaps, but not him.

It’s not like he’s disgusted by it, but he can think of a million things he’d rather do.

~

Liam’s running theory at 14 was that Louis was hitting puberty unnaturally late. Zayn’s theory was that Louis was secretly a ridiculous romantic with unreachable standards and was waiting for the one. Niall just thought he was weird.

Louis’ never really known what to believe.

~

Eventually, Niall’s constant nagging and asking how he got along without sex got to be too much.

Louis actually had fun with the lie, constructing a fake, lavish story detailing how he managed to seduce a guy named Stan that lived near his Nan. And that they had an ongoing fuck-buddy relationship whenever he went back to bring her his mum’s famous chocolate chip muffins.

There was also the boy in orange shorts from the cruise. He bragged about how they fucked out in the open on a pool table while the ocean wind romantically whipped around their hair, when in reality Louis had just been extremely jealous of Orange-Shorts’ spectacular tan.

So, at 17, Louis is a closeted virgin whose craft has infiltrated his daily life. It feels like he’s acting all the time, even when it’s the middle of class and nobody’s attention is on him. He’s sure it isn’t normal that he’s so averse to dating and sex and relationships, but, for the time being, it’s been easy enough to overlook and push to the side.

After all— out of sight, out of mind.

But he knows as soon as he walks into the Restaurant Trap, Niall, Liam, and Zayn are going to do their classic Dine and Ditch— an event remarkably similar to a Dine and Dash. But in thiscase, they skip the dining and simply dash, ditching Louis and leaving him to have an awkward dinner with a boy he’s never met.

Alone. Again.

It’s a routine they’ve practically perfected by now.

He sighs as he steps out of his car and straightens his shirt out. He might as well look nice. After all, it feels good to know he’s attractive and likable.

(And Louis can charm the pants off of anyone. He just chooses not to.)

Once he’s through the door, he relishes in the air-conditioning and takes in the crowded restaurant.

He spots Zayn brooding alone in a booth in the corner— his aloof but not unaware smolder aimed to his cup of water, so Louis knows he’s the second to arrive.

He sidesteps the host behind the podium and points to Zayn with purpose in his eyes, his practiced, charming, don’t mind me smile on his lips. Once he reaches the booth, he slides in across from Zayn and laces his fingers together on the wooden tabletop, all business.

“I know what you’re doing,” he insists, skipping the pleasantries.

Zayn closes his eyes in denial so he doesn’t roll them, Louis guesses. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve just been waiting here all by myself for five minutes. Least punctual friends in the world, I have.”

Louis’ eyebrows furrow in confusion. “But that’s not Liam-like at all. Normally he’s the one yelling at me for being late. Like somehow three minutes actually makes—oh, shit!”

Zayn’s eyes widen at his sudden exclamation.

“He’s not even coming, is he?” Louis groans, dropping his forehead to the table. A wave of Zayn’s water sloshes over the brim of his cup at the movement, but Louis can’t even bask in his small victory. “I’m never agreeing to come out to eat with any of you ever again. All you ever do is betray my trust and bring along fit boys you want me to have sex with.”

Zayn sighs as he balls up his napkin and mops up the small puddle.

“Why are you complaining about us being good wingmen?” Zayn lectures, his voice a bit strained. “We just want you to get laid for once, Louis. When was the last time you were even with someone? I never would have thought a teenage boy in his right mind would complain about his friends setting him up on dates without having to put in a drop of effort.”

He sighs and drops the napkin to the table, the wet thud hardly discernible. “But then you came along.”

Louis ignores the growing, dull ache in his chest he always gets whenever Zayn expresses his concern over the state of his brain.

“But it’s not my fault you all have the worst taste in men. The last guy wouldn’t stop talking about cross-fit, and he called me honey. Honey. Repeatedly. I don’t even think he learned my name,” Louis mumbles into the wood.

Louis cringes at the memory.

In truth, not every potential date they’ve chosen has been terrible. A few Dine and Ditches ago, he met Niall’s golf friend, a tall brunette with gorgeous grey eyes. He was a little bit shyer than Louis thinks he’d prefer a boyfriend, but the few things he said were sharp and witty. At the end of the date, Louis gave him his number mostly because he wanted to, and not just because he was worried Zayn would tell him he was stupid for not doing it.

Nothing came out of it in the end since Louis didn’t really care to text him back, but he remembers the date fondly.

Which is much more than he can say for countless other Dine and Ditches.

“I promise you’ll like this one,” Zayn assures him before he takes a sip from his glass. “He’s Niall’s cousin. He described him to me as ‘that one cousin that always got extra presents at Christmas by charming our Nan.’ I saw a picture, Louis. He’s adorable. You won’t be able to resist him.”

Louis sighs in disbelief. “You say that every time, though, and—“

“Oh, I see them!” Zayn grins, waving over Louis’ shoulder. In a fit of stubbornness, Louis refuses to move. He can feel that there’s probably a growing red spot on his forehead from the weight of his skull, but he can’t find it in him to care.

“Why’re you being so moody?” he can hear Niall ask. Louis reluctantly turns his head to the side and is met with a large bulge contained by a pair of tight black skinny jeans.

Louis can sense that it’s a nice bulge; one that, ideally, he should be salivating over.

“Well, that’s one way for you to meet,” Zayn snickers.

Louis imagines kicking him in the shin, but stares up at his innocent, accidental blind date, instead.

“This is my cousin, Harry,” Niall introduces from beside the unfamiliar, curly haired boy, the giddy grin apparent in the tone of his voice. “That’s my mate, Louis. He’s gay, too.”

Louis sits up and cradles his face in his hands in shame. “Niall,” he groans. ”I’ve told you a million times that you aren’t allowed to introduce me to people like that. Even if they’re gay, too.”

Niall shrugs and takes a seat next to Zayn, forcing his cousin to sit beside Louis. He slides over to make room for him because he’s a good fucking person, cursing the day Niall was born because it feels like his one goal in life is to make Louis’ difficult.

“Sorry about him,” Harry mumbles quietly, suddenly very close, his eyes to the sticky leather they’re sitting on. “If it makes you feel any better, he, um, he told me that beforehand. Not really news.”

He gives Louis a quick, brief once over, but it oddly doesn’t feel creepy or objectifying. Harry seems flustered or almost anxious, copying Louis’ pose with one elbow to the table, his back tense. “I’m, um, I’m not sure you’ve noticed, but I think this is a set-up. For— for us. They’re setting us up.”

Louis is impressed. He’s never had a Dine and Ditchee catch on as quickly as him, especially one who looks like he hasn't even finished his GCSEs.

He’s about to agree with his assessment, but Harry finally looks him straight in the eye and thoroughly distracts him.

You see, Louis appreciates colours. And Harry’s eyes are a nice, medium, forest green, rimmed darker around the edges. They remind him of subtly yellowing grass blowing in the summer breeze or afternoon sunlight reflecting off a calm and murky green lake.

And it’s fitting, because Harry gives off a warm and breezy vibe in other aspects, too. His timid smile feels inviting and his pose is hesitantly open and susceptible. His hair is wildly curly, frizzy at the top like he’s been spending too much time outside in the wind; Louis thinks it’s possible he might be summer personified.

Louis thinks offhandedly that he’s always preferred winter: the biting cold and the cool colours blending seamlessly into the early, dark nights. The comfort and relief of coming in from the snow and peeling all the cold, wet layers off and warming up by making a steaming cup of tea or hot chocolate—

Fuck, he’s been staring for too long. And he thinks he may have to reconsider his stance on seasons.

“Your eyes are really green,” he says bluntly, almost accusingly. Because it’s the truth, honestly. And it’s distracting. Nobody deserves to have eyes as pretty as Louis’. It’s unfair.

Harry grins at the compliment, anyway. His whole face seems to light up with it, bright and happy and almost sunny. And it’s such an honest smile. He’s only known Harry for about a minute, but he already seems like a good person— someone Louis would like to spend more time with, perhaps.

“Your eyes are really blue,” Harry counters, mirth half hidden behind his eyes, almost like he’s mocking him.

Which is a quick transition from the spluttering child he seemed only moments ago. He wonders what’s changed. Maybe he’s realised Louis is a lowly boy who likes to compare people to colours and seasons instead of focusing on actual conversations.

Louis squints unhappily at the maybe-mock, but he can’t be too bothered because he truly appreciates the attempt. Most dates are too intimidated by his strong personality and the meticulously assembled, artful swoop of his hair to attempt humor so quickly.

“Oh no, Zayn forgot to pick his sister up from ballet. And I have to drive him there. How unfortunate,” Niall fake pouts. “Louis, would you be a pal and drive Harry home?”

“You aren’t subtle,” Louis complains loudly. “We all know what this is. Zayn’s sisters don’t even take ballet.”

“Ah, but are you sure?” Zayn fires back. He’s already climbing out of the booth behind Niall, avoiding Louis’ eyes.

Maybe this will be the year Louis branches out. It could be good for him.

“See you later,” Niall calls out over his shoulder, and then all that’s left behind is the barely-there hint of musky, cheap cologne.

Just for something to do with his hands, Louis turns his silverware over while his eyes follow them out the door. The lingering silence isn’t exactly awkward, but Louis still feels the need to break it as he watches them both drive away.

Separately. In separate cars. They really didn’t try or plan ahead this time.

“Well,” he begins, but Harry interjects.

“I’m really sorry about Niall. He doesn’t know how to take a hint,” he laughs shortly as he stands and takes the spot opposite Louis, so they’re facing each other instead of sharing one side of the booth like obnoxious, lovesick teenagers. Louis lets out an unexpected breath of relief at the return of his personal space.

“This can be, like, a friend thing. Not a date. I don’t really know anyone here but Niall, so having another friend could be really nice,” Harry confides quietly, like he’s afraid of Louis judging him for saying exactly what was on his own mind, anyway.

It feels like Harry’s stolen his line. He’s not sure how he feels about it.

Louis’ definitely not judging him, though he does strangely feel a bit rejected. He’s 100% down with having a new friend, but it almost feels like Harry is writing him off unfairly. Not that he was planning on pursuing anything, obviously, but—

“Friends sounds nice,” Louis agrees with a small smile.

Once they order, Louis grudgingly asks the standard first date questions simply to get them out of the way, even though he knows it’s not technically a date, anymore.

Thankfully. It’s thankfully not a date.

Louis is glad. Rejecting people is beginning to get old, truthfully. It’s refreshing to know they’re already on the same page. Expectations are awkward and always lead to uncomfortable situations that end with weird half hugs and jolted conversations at the inevitable run-in a few weeks later.

But—

But the thing is, once Louis finds out Harry is going into Year 12 and interested in DT, and that he has one sister and a black and white cat, and that his biggest dream in life is to see a real life ghost, and that he’s never been on an airplane but is planning on taking a gap year for traveling after his A-levels… he finds that he likes Harry rather a lot.

Or just. A lot. He has a deep dimple Louis is contemplating asking to poke, and his eyes exude warmth and abstract happiness. His presence is naturally calming, like peeling off wet socks and setting them by the fire or soft, silky sheets straight from the dryer.

It’s just dangerous, is the thing. And doesn’t fit with the plan.

Because Louis isn’t stupid.

He feigns ignorance, but deep down, he knows.

He knows himself. He knows the reason he’s been single since he popped out of the womb. He knows why he resists Niall’s and Zayn’s and Liam’s innumerable attempts to get him laid so vehemently.

It’s because he just doesn’t want to get laid.

Possibly ever…

And it’s such a foreign but intimately familiar concept to Louis because he’s never met or even heard of another person with the same attitudes towards sex as him. He knows it’s weird, and unnatural, and that no guy would ever in his right mind want to date him since he wouldn’t be willing or able to offer him what another man could. And what everyone but him seems to really want.

He’s never felt the burning passion he’s seen portrayed in the movies and books and television shows. He’s never seen another man and fought off a boner because he was so turned on he couldn’t contain it. He only wanks on the mornings he wakes up with morning wood, and it’s always quick and fast and not at all sexual, more a release than anything. He doesn’t imagine anyone fucking him or him fucking anyone else as it happens because he just can’t see himself as a sexual being.

He’s not interested in sex. He’s not afraid of it or waiting for the one or anything; it just sounds dreary and phony and unnecessary. Like something he’d rather just not partake in if he can avoid it.

And it’s just difficult to compartmentalise because he kind of thinks it would be nice to come home to someone when he’s older. Someone he loves and trusts and can have the prolonged, comfortable silences with. He wants four kids and a dog and guinea pig and an unnecessary, three-story house and a hammock, just because.

His ideal future has always included a faceless, blurred out man in the background. It’s as though Louis’ mind has always been ahead of his conscious and realised early on that falling in love and making it work might be impossible.

He doesn’t see how a guy could ever fall in love with him and accept that he’s possibly never going to want to actually have sex with him. Everyone is taught that sex doesn’t equal love early on, but he’s never heard of love not equating sex.

Not even once, though he’s been inundated with millions of other encouraging facts.

From his history books— a marriage isn’t even real unless consummated.

From the Internet— 10% of a relationship is sex.

From his mum’s friends— if he isn’t getting any from you, he’ll be getting some somewhere else.

And even from Niall— men think about sex every seven seconds.

So Louis doesn’t see how he could really love someone like that without sex— it’s called making love for a reason, after all. And if he were to fall in love with someone, he’s not sure it would even be considered romantic love. To his partner, how would their love be any different than the love he has for Zayn if he isn’t willing to have sex with him? What would separate what they have as a relationship rather than a close friendship if there’s no sex involved? Who would even be up for or appropriately enthusiastic about a relationship without sex, without eventually developing a secret resentment towards him? How would that even work?

Louis doesn’t know.

He doesn’t think it would, so he’s avoided confronting the topic, altogether.

And it’s always been easy. Other than Greg and Aiden, he’s never even been truly interested in getting to know another person romantically. He’s never really felt inexplicably drawn to another person in the way he feels he might be to this sixteen year old, curly haired slow talker that—

“—but anyway, sorry. I’ve been rambling because you’re really fit and kind of intimidating, so, whataboutyou?” Harry finishes in a rush just as their waiter sets their food on the table.

Louis blinks. The smell of chicken and Alfredo sauce assaults Louis’ senses and brings him back into the present.

Right. The Dine and Ditch.

There will be time to purposefully ignore his inner conflict later.

Focus.

“I— uh, sorry, what did you say?” he drivels in confusion, grabbing his fork as a distraction.

Harry is a gentleman and repeats the question clearly with an odd look of relief on his face, pretending it isn’t completely obvious how little attention Louis was paying to their conversation. “What are you studying?”

Ah, yes, studying. Louis is studying to become the finest actor in the West End, and he tells Harry just that much. His eyes light up satisfactorily at the admission.

“That’s so cool! Have you ever been to the Theatre Royal, then?” Harry questions eagerly, twirling his spaghetti with gusto. “It’s supposed to be, like, super haunted. I went there once with my family, and my sister said she saw something floating near the stage, but I don’t believe her.”

Louis rolls his eyes; Harry is endearing but he really is one of them.

“It isn’t haunted. Ghosts aren’t real, anyway. Everyone just thinks they are because they have to explain weird things, somehow, and that’s what Hollywood made up.”

“Oh, so you do admit there are weird things that go on that can’t be explained, then?” Harry questions shrewdly, wiggling his eyebrows theatrically.

Louis shrugs and pokes at his chicken with his fork. “You can’t just make something up to explain something else that doesn’t make sense. That’s not how things work. It’s illogical.”

Harry stares at him for an uncomfortable amount of time, his food temporarily forgotten. It seems to stretch on forever, until Louis feels the sweat begin to pool at the back of his neck and his foot tap impatiently. He’s about to break the silence when Harry finally answers him.

“Sometimes the most real things aren’t logical.”

Louis frowns in response, but he can’t even construct a witty response. That’s some Disney movie shit right there, but he can’t recall Rafiki ever saying such a thing. It’s possibly an original Harry Styles © quote.

Louis distracts himself with taking a bite of his chicken. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t intrigued.

~

It turns out to be the best Dine and Ditch Louis has ever been forced into. At the end, after a surprisingly casual and comfortable hug over the console while the engine is still running, he and Harry exchange phone numbers. He doesn’t even text Zayn moments later like he normally does in order to brag and gain his approval and delay the next inevitable set-up.

The number is for him, and only him. He’s actually interested in getting to know Harry. As a person.

It’s new. It’s scary.

But it’s also exciting. It feels like he’s stepping over a line everyone else has already crossed that he’s always been too hesitant to attempt. He’s not sure exactly where to go from here, but he’s almost looking forward to seeing where things could end up.

~

Louis is careful not to text Harry too much over the next week. He only sends him a solitary picture of a black and white cat wandering his street and a text late at night about weird sounds coming through his walls, falsely speculating about whether there might actually be a ghost in his house.

Harry texts back enthusiastically; but once the conversation dies down and the topic is finished, Louis is surprised to find that he’s the one who tries to revive it.

Which is unusual. Normally, he’s the one sending plain yeahs and okays and hahas to end the conversation, but he doesn’t want to stop talking to Harry.

Are you excited for school to start ?

Louis cringes as he sends the cliché text. He’s aware he’s making himself seem very unexciting and uncreative, but it's a valid question. He reasons that he’s new to this— this thing he still refuses to acknowledge. It’s uncharted territory, practically.

Yeah, definitely. I only know you Niall and Zayn though, so I hope youre ok with me intruding on your group : )

Louis most definitely does not have a problem with it.

~

The first day of school is always terrible. The air is extra muggy for the beginning of September, everyone’s smiles are stretched fake and unnaturally wide, and the smell of old books simply makes Louis want to gag.

He’s currently sat in English lit, debating between whether Hamlet or Macbeth would be a better option for the play they’re putting on in drama. Louis is a bit more partial to Macbeth, inwardly grinning over a hypothetical future of refusing to call it the Scottish Play only five minutes before opening and causing superstitious pandemonium backstage.

“What are you thinking about so hard?” a voice to his left whispers, scaring him and making him squeak. Louis turns to glare at his rude aggressor.

But his stare instantly turns into a giddy smile.

Giddy. Louis is giddy at seeing Harry’s face again. He didn’t realise how much he was looking forward to actually seeing him in person. “I didn’t know you were studying English lit.”

Harry is casually leaning back in the desk beside him, looking as though he’s been there for much longer than two seconds. Louis is an unobservant toad.

“You would have known if you listened to a word I said when we were ditched at dinner,” Harry laughs easily, his smile relaxed. His dimple is still there, Louis notes, deep and exactly where he remembers. “I think I probably mentioned it, like, three times.”

He then pauses, his head tipping to the side almost unnoticeably. “Wait. Why are we in the same class? Aren’t you in Niall’s year?”

Louis chooses to ignore his final question, the memories of deciding to start a more practical A-level from scratch still too fresh and painful. He decides to go for impressive instead.

“I only zoned out once. I remember loads about you, Harry Styles. Cousin of Niall Horan. One cat and sister. Oddly obsessed with creepy things. Four nipples and a really weird little toe that makes it look like you have twelve in all— don’t underestimate me.”

Louis’ recollection surpasses even his expectations. Memorising the bulk of his lines the night before going off book has definitely done wonders for his brain capacity.

Harry raises an eyebrow and drops all four legs of his chair to the floor with a thud. “That’s all easy, though. If you were really paying attention, you’d remember the one place I want to visit most in the entire world.”

Louis racks his brains, but that’s a deep question for someone he’s known for hardly a week. He’s truly stumped.

“Well, you’ve got me there. I forgot,” Louis accepts.

Harry giggles. “You didn’t forget. I just never told you.”

Harry giggles.

Harry is a giggler.

Louis has a growing crush on a giggling sixteen year old.

Except— except, Louis doesn’t have a growing crush, obviously. It’s just that Harry is attractive and nice, and he can see, aesthetically, that he’s probably desirable. To other people. He has this genuine, welcoming personality; and whenever he looks at Louis, it feels like he’s the only person in the world he wants to talk with and—

And yeah, Louis does have a little bit of a developing crush. It feels kind of like a plant beginning to sprout from the earth, a tiny speck of green poking through soil and waiting to bloom. It’s hardly there, almost invisible, but Louis wishes he could stomp it to the ground.

He doesn’t want it to bloom. He doesn’t want it to grow. It’s indefinitely setting him up for certain sadness and disappointment of some sort, and Louis is unprepared to deal with that. Nothing good can come from pursuing Harry. He doesn’t even know how to pursue someone, honestly, so it’s best left alone.

Plants don’t grow if they’re not given sunlight, right? Maybe Louis can metaphorically kill the plant.

“For future reference, it’s the Suicide Forest in Japan,” Harry hints quickly, like he’s going to test Louis on it later.

Louis is about to ask why, but their teacher chooses that moment to walk in and begin teaching.

~

An unexpected plus to Niall and Harry being cousins is that they spend a lot of time together. It’s unexpected, but feels perfectly reasonable that Harry is lounging on Niall’s couch when Louis comes over Thursday to skate on the shitty, probably-unsafe, handcrafted half-pipe.

“Hey, Louis. What are you doing here?” he asks as they pass through the living room, casually flipping through the channels on the TV.

Louis almost freezes up in alarm, but he plays it cool. He holds his skateboard up so Harry can see, glad they chose today rather than tomorrow. “Niall and I were going to skate in the backyard, if you wanted to join us.”

Niall laughs from beside him. “Of course he does! Yesterday, when I told Harry you were coming over, you should have seen how wide his eyes got! He was all like—when is he coming? Can I hang out with you, too? Oh no, what am I g—“

Niall suddenly is pulled back into a headlock. Harry’s hand moves to cover his mouth, his own face bright red.

Louis isn’t sure whether he Apparated or is somehow faster than Usain Bolt. Either way, he’s impressed.

“He’s lying! I swear that’s not— he was grossly exaggerating.”

Louis feels a little thrill go through him at Harry’s embarrassed, glossed over eyes. He specifically came over to see him, not Niall. He wanted an excuse to hang out with him. This isn’t a coincidence.

“Cousins these days. I swear, all they try to do is embarrass you,” Louis sighs, tapping Harry’s arm lightly to get him to let Niall go.

Niall pulls away with a violent jerk and narrowed eyes. He gives Harry an angry once over, like he’s been betrayed. “Just for that, you can’t borrow my extra board. That was rude, and I’m very, very mad at you.”

He stomps away and flings the backdoor open before he steps through. He doesn’t bother closing it.

“Well, I don’t mind sharing,” Louis says honestly. He smiles at Harry and they follow in Niall’s path together, walking slowly. “I could show you a few things, too, if you don’t know how?”

This feels oddly like flirting.

Louis is flirting.

This is a new development.

Harry’s eyes light up at the suggestion, but his words are hesitant. “Are you sure? I’m probably, like, really terrible. And I’m too intimidated by that— that half thingy to step foot there.”

Louis presses his lips together so he doesn’t laugh as they approach the backdoor. “It’s called a half pipe. And I can teach you on the path. I don’t think you’d make it on the pipe, anyway— no offense. And the responsibility of knowing I might have aided in your untimely death is a burden I’m not willing to bear.”

Harry seems a little bit put off by his lack of trust, but once they’re outside and Louis hands him his board, all traces of unhappiness vanish, replaced with determination.

Louis ignores Niall face planting and nods to Harry in encouragement. It’s easy to imagine they’re the only two there.

“So I just, like, get on and then…”

“Left foot forward,” Louis tells him gently. “On the front bolts, there—“

He watches as Harry follows his advice. An out of place pang of pride bubbles within Louis at the knowledge that he’s teaching Harry how to do something for the first time.

Once he’s properly situated and able to stand on the board without wobbling, Louis gives him the go-ahead to push off.

Louis watches as Harry slowly jolts a few yards forward, but covers his eyes and watches through his fingers at the second-hand embarrassment that follows. He’s doing a weird, awkward hip swivel to propel himself when it would be much more effective and simpler to just use his foot.

Louis walks up behind him and places a steadying hand to his lower back. “Harry, you just have to—“ he begins, but at the touch Harry flies forward and the skateboard flies back, ramming straight into the bone above Louis’ ankle.

Jesusfuckinghell!” Louis shouts, bending forward to clutch at his leg. Harry gapes up at him from the floor, jeans ripped up and his knees and palms bloody.

“I’m so sorry!” he gasps, his face crimson in embarrassment. “I don’t know what happened! I just— you— I didn’t see you— and then—“

Niall skates over to join them, laughing and popping his board expertly once he reaches them like the smug bastard he is.

“Ha ha, I told you you’d embarrass yourself,” Niall directs Harry’s way.

Louis ignores the pounding ache in his leg and glares up at Niall. “Is this really the time? He’s hurt.”

“You’re hurt, too,” Harry points out quickly, motioning to his ankle. “It’s my fault—I’m really sorry— I swear I’ll make it up to you—“

Louis shakes his head. “Stop apologising. I shouldn’t have scared you—“

“Can you both stop fretting over each other and suck it up? You should have seen the scrape I got when I—“

Niall’s story topping is so obnoxious he and Harry both stand and leave him in the middle of his tale of tripping.

“Do you know where they keep their first aid kit? You should probably disinfect your knees,” Louis advises as they pass through the backdoor. He waves Harry through and slams the door shut behind him, blocking out Niall’s escalating voice.

Harry leads him into the kitchen and opens a half-hidden cabinet by the sink. “It’s been here since they moved into this house. “

He pulls out a white box and sets it on the counter. “That reminds me of a funny story! So when Niall and I were seven, he split his lip open. I think we were, like, wrestling. Or we might have been climbing a tree. Or maybe we were jumping down the stairs?”

He shrugs and opens the box. “I don’t actually remember. Anyway, I climbed up onto this counter to get a Band-Aid— or, maybe, like, disinfectant? Basically, I did it so his mum didn’t find out, since we were doing something we weren’t supposed to.”

Louis watches as he turns to the sink and washes the dirt from his hands. “But then I ended up falling and spraining my wrist. So it didn’t even matter, because we both got in trouble.”

Louis almost wants to laugh at his pointless narration. It’s oddly endearing— Louis can imagine Harry in ten years, spending five minutes discussing the pros and cons of choosing a healthier salad dressing while Louis impatiently rolls the cart over his shoes.

Oh. Maybe he shouldn’t be imaging that.

“Are all of your stories so…?”

Harry pouts and turns, his back to the sink. “What are you saying?”

He suddenly looks so put out and disappointed in himself that Louis feels guilty for asking. “What are you even talking about? Give me that.”

He snatches the cotton wool and Dettol from the box.

“My mum’s a nurse, so I know exactly what I’m doing. Don’t worry,” Louis winks and sinks to his knees.

He cleans Harry’s scrape as best he can, but it’s difficult with the frayed edges and half-rips along the knee. He tugs at the edges and slips his fingers through the frays to get better access, but it still proves difficult. Harry’s oddly stiff and stationary below his hands, uncharacteristically quiet throughout the whole thing.

After Louis finishes with the first cut, he stands and grabs clean cotton to get to Harry’s other knee.

“This would probably work a lot better if you weren’t wearing jeans, honestly,” Louis jokes, but his laugh stops short as soon as he gives Harry a glance.

He’s biting his lip like he’s trying not to say something, and his face looks like it’s contorted in pain.

“Harry? Are you okay—“ Louis begins, but when he glances down to see whether he somehow caused that look to cross his face, he understands.

Harry is hard. There’s an erection threatening to rip a hole in Harry’s jeans, and it was only inches from Louis’ cheek moments ago.

Louis is strangely fascinated. He’s never had to deal with unexpected boners. He didn’t think popping boners because of someone being so close to your dick was an actual thing. He feels like he’s sitting in on an episode of Mythbusters.

“This is so embarrassing,” Harry groans, covering his face with his hands. “This whole day was embarrassing. And a failure. I’m sorry.”

Louis turns and leans against the opposite counter, crossing his arms over his chest. He wants to laugh and feels a bit disappointed in himself because of the smugness creeping into his smile. “Hey, it’s okay. It, um, it happens to everyone, right?”

Harry separates his fingers and takes a quick glance at Louis. “You don’t think I’m, like, creepy— or, or weird?”

Louis shrugs. He thinks maybe he should feel a bit objectified, but Harry looks so embarrassed and upset with himself he can’t find it in him to care.

“Nah,” Louis smiles. He doesn’t want to dwell on the rapidly creeping awkwardness, so he changes the subject.

“Where would I find an ice pack, though? My leg is killing me.”

Harry groans.

~

Mr. Cowell, Louis’ drama teacher, ultimately decides on Hamlet rather than Macbeth. Louis has a hunch it’s because he was so passionate in his support of Macbeth, but he isn’t upset. After all, Louis thinks he could definitely pull off Claudius; antagonists are much more fun, and the obvious choice, Hamlet, is much too judgmental towards women, anyway.

~

The auditions fall on a Thursday; Louis is possibly losing his mind.

He isn’t even near memorised (partly because the scene Mr. Cowell chose as their audition piece is stupid. Every other line is Louis asking where Polonius is, like Louis is a concerned parent upset his child is out past curfew.) But mostly it’s because he might have stayed up all night texting Harry instead of memorising and trying out new things.

Because his priorities are out of order. Because Harry is too funny and charming for his own good. Because Louis’ tiny, growing crush might have grown into a three foot high sunflower in a very, very short amount of time.

It’s made five times worse because he’s pretty sure Harry has a little bit of a crush on him, too. And it isn’t really surprising because, honestly, every guy at school with a gay bone in his body has had a crush on Louis, (he blames his chiseled cheekbones and natural charm), but he’s always found it easy to brush them off.

But he doesn’t want to brush Harry off. He doesn’t want to ignore Harry until he forgets about his hopeless crush. He doesn’t want things to crumple into oblivion between them until their connection is nothing but a spider web in the back of Louis’ mind.

He’s agreed to get his milkshake with Harry after his audition.

They’re celebrating Louis’ accomplishments together. It’s already gone too far. He’s in much too deep. He’s going to drown.

The cause of his mental breakdown walks into the room with a stupid, blinding smile and barrels straight to his seat. His seat right next to Louis’, where he’s sat since their first day of class together.

It’s a thing. They sit next to each other. They even whisper to each other when Mrs. Holt turns her back to the class. It’s probably obnoxious. Harry has turned Louis into even more of an obnoxious theatre student.

“Are you nervous for your audition later?” Harry asks, leaning his body to the side so they’re in each other’s space.

Louis gulps and leans away so their invisible bubbles aren’t touching. It’s probably a smart move because Harry is acting all concerned and caring and asking him about his audition, which—

Louis is ace at avoiding nerves. They don’t faze him, whether it’s opening night or his judgmental aunt is in the audience. He can deal with a measly audition, thank you very much. After all, it’s Simon, as Louis so rudely refers to Mr. Cowell outside of class. He knows how Louis operates.

“Nerves are for the weak,” he winks. Harry nods and pulls out his copy of Frankenstein from his bag, schooling his face into one of indifference. “So— so are we still on for later, then? After?”

Louis silently deliberates (at first simply because he’s debating his true motives, and then just to see Harry sweat and grow restless.) He doesn’t answer until Harry’s short nails are drumming against his desk, each tap harder than the last. “Of course. I always get a milkshake after auditions. It’s tradition. Couldn’t miss it."

Harry almost looks disappointed at that, and Louis pretends not to know why. It’s not a date. Definitely not.

Except it kind of might be. Louis is terrible at denying himself the things he wants; he’s been known to eat entire tubs of ice cream in one night simply because it tastes good. Harry could be a less edible version of mint chocolate chip— just as indulgent and with inevitable regret following the transgression.

~

Louis’ audition is a blur. All he knows is he fumbles over his lines, and his performance falls flat.

Perhaps it falls inwardly. His performance is concave. His performance is a valley of failure.

He’s so caught up in his own thoughts and disappointment and gallantly fighting off tears that he’s confused when he first sees Harry standing by his car. He’s leaning against the passenger door with his arms crossed over his chest casually— like he stands by Louis’ car all the time, like this isn’t their first planned Non-Date.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, making his way to Louis with concerned eyes once his expression becomes visible.

Louis tries to wave him away with a joke, but it seems the anguish on his face is more discernible than he thought. As soon as Harry reaches him and pulls him into his chest, he lets a few stubborn pity tears slip.

He doesn’t mean to let it happen. He’s not sure anyone but his family and maybe Zayn have seen him cry out of true emotion, but Harry feels so comforting and warm and sincere that he has to give in.

“It was terrible,” Louis whines honestly and pathetically, his own arms wrapping around Harry’s middle like a sad child.

It feels nice, safe, wrapped here in Harry’s arms; and though Louis would quite like to be literally anywhere but with people right now, he quite likes it. He buries his face in Harry’s shoulder, grimacing at the possibility that his snot could be getting all over the fabric, but there’s not enough room in his brain to care. He breathes deep and relishes in the smell of washing powder.

He steadies his breathing and offhandedly notes that they’re similar in height. He doesn’t have to lean down or get on his tiptoes, and it just feels like they fit together. It feels even more natural than hugging Zayn, and so much better. He likes the way Harry is scratching at his hairline and the way he can feel Harry’s cheek against his ear. His eyes widen when he realises he likes hugging Harry more than he’s possibly ever liked to hug anyone else.

But that’s a thought for another time, when Louis is feeling less emotionally vulnerable and wounded. He allows himself a few more seconds of temporary consolation before reluctantly pulling away. He wipes below his eyes and points Harry to the passenger seat.

“Sorry,” Louis sighs shakily in explanation, turning the car on and driving away as soon as they’re both inside. “It’s just— the only thing I really know how to do is act. So a failed audition literally feels like the end of the world to me.”

He thinks Harry can probably see that there are still embarrassing tears on his cheeks— less frequent now, but definitely still there. He doesn’t mention it, though, and Louis is grateful.

“I’m sure you’re being too hard on yourself,” Harry reassures him, reaching over to grasp his thigh. “And that you can do much more that act.”

Louis’ eyes snap open and his panic temporarily overshadows his misery because who does that? Are he and Harry really on that level, already? Thigh touching level? Surely that’s level seventy or something, and they’re on, like, thirty.

Things are progressing more quickly than Louis was counting on. He knows where things are heading. He and Harry are going places. They’re on a Not-Date. Things can only get heavier from here.

But Harry’s hand squeezing his thigh isn’t necessarily bad. It’s calming, in a way. It’s like he’s saying I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere, and that’s just nice. Louis decides he likes it.

He tentatively sets his hand on top of Harry’s and squeezes, not taking his eyes off the road. That way, he can pretend it’s not happening, even though he wants it to be happening at the same time, too. A lot.

He’s not sure exactly what he wants. There’s too much to consider.

He gets even more confused when Harry turns his hand over and laces their fingers together. He’s glad they’re at a red light because Louis closes his eyes when he squeezes back.

~

“I swear this is all true!” Harry insists.

Louis is almost positive Harry’s making shit up to make him feel better. They’ve been laughing for the past twenty minutes, milkshakes hardly touched, and Louis’ abs feel sorer than that time he foolishly decided to do a workout DVD with his mum.

Harry’s foot is pressed firmly against his, and Harry’s hand is shyly making its way to Louis’ end of the booth. Louis feels almost giddy at all of the attention being thrown his way, his earlier desolation thrown right through the window, forgotten.

“After he spit milk all over her dress, she stood up and said, like, you owe me a new dress! But Niall was only nine, so he didn’t have any money and couldn’t buy her a new dress. We freaked out.”

Louis bravely runs his little finger along Harry’s open palm. “So what did you two do, then?”

Harry traps Louis’ fingers between his and continues his story. “We ran away, obviously. Crossed the street and ended up at a Nando’s for an hour until Niall’s mum found us. I don’t think she stopped yelling the entire way back to my house. It was terrifying.”

Louis tries to act casual, but he knows his fingers are trembling between Harry’s. They’re holding hands. And they’re not pretending it’s because someone’s cold or they’re praying or someone is about to fall off a cliff. This is purposeful. This is happening.

Louis coughs and reminds himself to stay in the game. “You deserved it, though. That poor little girl probably never recovered. I doubt she’ll ever be able to look at blonde guys the same way. She’s probably scarred for life.”

Harry shrugs and leans forward to take a sip of his milkshake. He almost gets a straw up his nose, and Louis thinks the snort he makes is probably the most unattractive sound ever.

And it’s just, like, Harry is fun to talk to and he fits in with his friends and he has these gorgeous eyes Louis could stare into for probably forever. And Louis thinks he definitely likes him, and in a very different way than he likes Zayn or Niall. It’s more intense— like when he’s hanging out with Zayn he wouldn’t care if he went off to talk to girls, but he knows if Harry saw a fit guy and went to go get his number, he’d be jealous.

He’d be really jealous. Because Harry’s attention is unfairly addictive. And if he were to treat someone else the way he’s treating Louis right now, holding his hand just because and playing footsie and smiling more than strictly necessary, he would be so disappointed.

He likes Harry. He likes Harry a lot.

Which is both freeing to finally admit, as well as panic inducing.

Louis spends the rest of the Not-Date trying to act like a normal human and not zeroing on every single point of contact between him and Harry. It’s distracting that they’re still touching so much, so obviously not platonically, but they’re carrying on with their conversation as though it isn’t earth shattering. As though what’s happening right now isn’t a complete game changer that will ultimately lead to a cataclysmic end.

But it just feels so right, too. Harry’s hand is big and soft and not clammy at all— confident for a sixteen year old. Louis can hardly pay attention to Harry’s story about breaking into an abandoned, rundown house downtown and trying to do EVP through his shitty phone microphone because he’s too fixated on the moment.

Maybe all of Zayn’s loud lectures actually had a point to them. Maybe he is being dumb and too picky and not allowing himself to let people in. Maybe he really is a hopeless romantic, and Harry is the one.

Maybe he’s found the one.

Maybe, if Harry kisses him, he’ll finally understand what he’s always felt so disconnected from. Maybe he’ll be so affected by the passion of the moment he’ll beg Harry to fuck him right then and there, and everything will finally click into place. He’ll level up.

In a whirlwind of teenage hormones and virgin sex, he’ll finally come to realise he’s just like everyone else and unbroken. He’ll feel normalfor once, like an actual person because he’ll finally be able to cross over the invisible line he’s never been able to step over. An intimidating, invisible line that he’s never felt he was ready to cross and that separated him from everyone else in the world.

Louis knows it’s probably a long shot, but it’s worth a hope.

~

After dropping Harry off at home and brazenly kissing his cheek, Louis drives straight to Zayn’s. His heart is pounding the entire way there, like it knows how pivotal their conversation is going to be.

Zayn seems unsurprised to see him in his doorway. He allows him through and then makes them both a cup of tea while Louis fidgets at the table, trying to figure out what he wants from Zayn.

“Why are you being so twitchy?” Zayn asks as he sets the cup in front of Louis.

He stalls by taking a sip of tea. He knows it’s perfectly brewed because they’ve been friends for so long they know each other’s preferences almost better than their own, but all it does is burn his tongue.

“I was just wondering— how did you know you wanted to date Perrie? To, like, date her and kiss her and… and everything.

Zayn leans back in his chair and studies Louis with his arms crossed intimidatingly, his eyebrows raised. Louis feels rudely judged.

“So you’re talking about Harry, then?” he asks without blinking.

“Not— no, I’m not—“

Zayn shakes his head. “Bullshit. When we were all at Niall’s last weekend, you were looking at him like he was a unicorn or something. It’s going to happen eventually, unless you somehow ruin it like you do all the other guys we send your way.”

Louis swirls his little finger along the rim of the mug to avoid Zayn’s hypercritical eyes. “I don’t ruin them, Zayn. They just don’t work out because—“

“Because you undermine them,” Zayn cuts in, scooting his chair in and leaning his elbows onto the table. “Louis, what are you so afraidof? It’s just dating— why do you look like someone just died or you’re about to jump out of an airplane without a parachute or something?”

Louis doesn’t appreciate his sass. He wants to let him know exactly why he’s nervous and for Zayn to cuddle him and tell him everything will be okay and Harry will love him whether they do it or not, but he knows Zayn would never give him that. He’d tell him to go to counseling or grow up or get over it or something, and Louis has heard that one too many times in the past to voluntarily listen to it again.

“It’s just, like, what if it doesn’t work out? He’s Niall’s cousin, so wouldn’t that be kind of weird?” he says instead, talking around the actual issue.

Zayn sighs— his long, drawn out, condescending sigh that lets Louis know he’s about to get a speech.

“You need to stop worrying about what might happen and just go for it. That’s what you always do. You obviously like him a lot, and he’s obviously into you, so I don’t know why you’re acting like you’re Romeo and Juliet and there’s some shit destined to tragically break you two up. This is real life.”

Ah, Shakespeare references. Zayn knows how to get under his skin.

“You’re seventeen, and you’ve never even really dated, Louis. Like, I know you had that thing with your Nan’s neighbour and then that one guy from the cruise ship, but that’s not anything substantial, you know? There’s more to a real connection with someone than just, like, sex and hooking up. And I feel like you and Harry could definitely have that.”

Louis’ eyes widen in alarm. Perhaps Zayn can be of some help.

“So you’re saying I should date Harry. Like, boyfriends and all? That— that we have a connection, and that’s more important than everything else?”

Zayn nods slowly and dramatically. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. I don’t want you to regret staying away from him. If you start singing Katy Perry on me and calling him the one that got away, I’ll probably strangle you. So, yes. The sooner the better.”

Louis might be having a tiny, mini-crisis.

He wants Harry all to himself, but not like that. Or… or maybe not like that. Can he decide later? Is it selfish to want to date Harry and try to make him fall in love him and stay if he’s not going to have sex with him? Isn’t that kind of an expectation of a romantic relationship?

That’s probably something to discuss up front. That’s definitely something to discuss upfront. It’s not nice to go into something big without discussing something that’s normally such a massive factor in a relationship.

But Louis is scared it will be an automatic ending. He’s scared it will change everything for the worse. He’s afraid Harry will give him the same blank stare Liam gave him when he kind of tried to talk to him about it.

He’s afraid Harry won’t want him anymore when he finds out. And that sounds so scary Louis decides he’ll deal with whatever this is later.

~

Rosencrantz.

Louis is Rosencrantz. And, like, he’s still playing a deceptive, secret enemy, but he isn’t his own person. It’s always Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, never just Rosencrantz. And Louis doesn’t like sharing the spotlight. 

Especially with an actor as mediocre as Nick Grimshaw. It’s a testament to how terribly Louis’ audition went, and he kind of wants to cry.

Again. He had a nice, little session after checking the list while hidden away in a vacant toilet. But he’s mostly composed, now. Mostly.

He still puts his head down on the lunch table and pretends to be tired as Liam goes on and on about his sister’s newest, terrible boyfriend. Somewhere between ranting about his handlebar mustache and how blatantly disrespectful he is, Harry’s hand finds its way to Louis’ knee and squeezes.

“What’s wrong?” he whispers, making the hair at the back of Louis’ neck stand straight.

Louis shrugs, feigning casualty. “Kind of a shit day.”

“Ah,” Harry sympathises. He trails his hand from Louis’ knee to his lower back and rubs cautious circles next to his spine. “Does this have to do with the— with your audition?”

Louis gulps, thankful Liam has so much to say because he hopes their little exchange is going largely unnoticed; Zayn is the only person whose eyes Louis can actually feel on the two of them. After a short pause, he nods and grumbles, “I didn’t get the part I wanted. I got, like, not a very good part.”

“Lou,” Harry breathes, his hand brushing up Louis’ back until his thumb is resting at the nape of his neck. He scratches softly, his forefingers brushing against the pounding vein along the side.

Harry’s arm draped along his back, his elbow rested against his spine, feels heavy and calming and warm, almost like a reassuring weight that’s holding him together when it stupidly feels like his life is falling apart.

“Come over after school,” Harry suggests quietly, twining the end of a lock of Louis’ overgrown hair between his fingers. “I was going to make cookies. You can help. Or, like, sit and watch. If baking isn’t really your thing.”

Louis almost laughs. “It really isn’t.”

“Okay, but, like, if you wanted to. Please.”

Harry leans in close, until his lips are practically touching Louis’ ear. “I’m kind of terrible for using this as my excuse to invite you over. I was going to ask you anyway, but I’m really sorry you feel like shit. And cookies do make everything better, so.”

Louis has always been one to appreciate honesty. He nods.

Harry’s house is cozy and welcoming, just like Harry himself. It’s fitting, honestly; Louis’ not sure exactly what he was expecting in the first place.

He’s sitting on the floured counter with his legs dangling from the edge, being of no help whatsoever. Harry’s making cookies— chocolate chip, simple, but Louis would somehow burn the house down if he were to help. (Louis is actually much better in the kitchen than he’s letting on, but he’s still dejected and feels kind of oddly belittled, so he’d rather not bake when he could just watch.)

Harry doesn’t believe him, anyway.

“Can you make yourself useful and hand me the vanilla extract, at least?” he asks in exasperation. He’s fussing over the dry ingredients, his hair a bit frizzy from checking to see that the oven preheated, the springy bits by his ear tempting. Louis wants to tug on one and watch it shoot back into place.

“I don’t live here, Harry. How am I supposed to know where you keep that?” Louis grins. He’s being difficult and he knows it, but he thinks he has a right. He’s in distress, and, in his mind, days like today are unofficially dedicated to making him happy and allowing him to do whatever he pleases.

“Fine,” Harry relents. And then, in one small stride, he’s suddenly right in front of Louis.

He admires Harry’s legs’ capabilities.

But he’s close. Much too close.

Louis’ knees are bracketing Harry’s hips, and he didn’t even mean for this to happen. He can see the little lightning bolts of yellow scattered throughout Harry’s irises in close up, high definition, and they’re practically breathing each others’ exhalations, which surely isn’t healthy. Maybe Louis will pass out from an excess of carbon dioxide.

He kind of feels like he might pass out, anyway. This is kissing distance. This is intimate distance. If this were a movie, kissing would be on the horizon. Harry might possibly be about to kiss him, and he’s not sure how he feels about it.

And— fuck. Harry places his hands on Louis’ waist and digs his fingernails into the fabric of his shirt. He licks his lips and leans in a little as he pulls Louis even closer to the edge of the counter, and Louis should really say something. He should say something now, but he’s so, so curious; and even though his heart is hammering and it feels kind of awkward and different for Harry to be looking at him like he’s some kind of person who actually does this, he thinks he’d like to kiss Harry.

And then Harry opens his mouth, and Louis can’t help but think surely that’s not how kisses work.

“Can you just lean forward a bit,” Harry whispers, and Louis is a little bit affronted because Harry was the one who initiated this, not him. He shouldn’t be the one working for it. This wasn’t his idea.

So he stubbornly says, “No, you lean in.”

Harry drops their foreheads together, and Louis prepares himself with a soft gasp. This is it— this is happening. Hopefully this will be the kiss that awakens his inner sex god and he discovers the reason he’s never really wanted to have sex— because he’s never had anyone he wanted to have sex with. Louis’ heart pounds harder in anticipation, with the knowledge that he might have the answers he’s been craving since Liam whispered to him about wanking to thoughts of their English teacher in Year 7.

“But, Louis, how am I supposed to grab the vanilla extract if you don’t lean forward?” Harry hints.

And that’s when Louis realises he’s sitting directly in front of the baking cabinet. And Harry is just trying to get his cookie dough all mixed together.

He flushes from the neck down, red all over in embarrassment.

“Sorry,” he murmurs, dropping his chin to his chest. Harry pushes into his space so his shoulder is level with Louis’ chin as he rummages through the cabinet. Louis contemplates biting it in retaliation of Harry’s dirty tactics, but then Harry backs away, vanilla extract in hand, and Louis has lost his chance.

He watches with narrowed eyes as Harry completes the concoction and places rounded globs of dough in the oven and then sets the timer.

His face is set carefully, giving nothing away; Louis’ never had blue balls, but the disappointment and lingering excitement is similar to what he imagines it would be like, mentally.

Harry doesn’t seem to be as affected, though. He leisurely makes his way to the fridge and calls over his shoulder asking whether Louis is thirsty.

“I’m okay,” he says. Harry shrugs as he pulls out a water bottle, but then shakes his head and stalks his way straight to him.

He sets the bottle to the side and steps between Louis’ legs.

Again.

He’s not sure Harry understands that he can’t just do that and expect him to act like it’s something normal. Because it isn’t. People don’t normally have conversations while one person is between the others’ legs. That’s not a conversation stance. 

The silence stretches on. Both seem to be afraid of breaking it, but the moment is hanging suspended and unsure, and Louis wants none of that.

“What the fuck, Harry?” he ends up spitting out.

And, like that, the tension breaks. Harry begins to laugh and steps in closer, setting his hands on Louis’ thighs right above the knees.

“You’re, like, you’re kind of into me, right?” he asks once he lets out a last chuckle, his eyebrows raised hopefully. “Like, at least a tiny bit? This isn’t all in my head?”

Louis gulps, eyes narrowed because Harry’s face is suddenly only inches away. This time feels different, like the breakdown right before the crescendo of a song. It’s either going to be brilliant or terrible. The moment is impending.

And it’s just, like, how should he answer? He’s kind of into Harry… but what kind of into does he mean? Does he mean into in the way Louis feels— like he wants to spend all of his time with him and maybe kiss and cuddle him before going to sleep? Like he wants to know he’s Harry’s and Harry’s his and they’re only each other’s? Like he wants to be able to do this, to have someone who’s there for him when he has a shit day to make him smile and distract him with baking cookies? Someone whose first priority is him?

Or— he probably means into in the normal way. Into. Into. I want to put my dick into you.

But— that is a thought for a different day. As it is, Harry’s breath is ghosting over his lips, and his thumbs are rubbing circles into his thigh, so Louis jerks out a quick nod.

He likes Harry a lot.

And then Harry’s lips are on his— closed and soft and sweet as cookie dough. He kisses gently, with only a hint of pressure against Louis’ mouth. And it’s— it’s not bad, per se, but it isn’t the way Louis has always imagined first kisses. He doesn’t feel a swell of heat course through his body; he doesn’t see fireworks, and nothing becomes tinged golden yellow. He sees the black of his eyelids and feels Harry’s peach fuzz tickling his chin and hears Harry inhale softly through his nose. It feels— not the way he thinks it’s supposed to.

He reaches up to grip Harry’s shoulders, and they feel strong and decently sized; but when he imagines him pinning him against the wall, it doesn’t do anything for him. The kiss is nice, and Louis wouldn’t mind doing it again, but he can’t imagine enjoying this for hours, as everyone else seems to. He likes that he feels closer to Harry like this, connected in a way he’s never connected with anyone else before, but it doesn’t feel any more exciting than he thinks it would feel to be tucked up under Harry’s arm while they watch a movie or spooned together as they fall asleep. He can’t imagine kissing riling him up in any way or making him want more.

Which is concerning. Louis is concerned.

Harry pulls away after a quick, wet, unnecessary slide of his tongue against Louis’ bottom lip. He smiles and runs his hands up Louis’ thighs until he’s gripping his hips, his breath a bit labored. Louis thinks maybe that’s flattering, and his technique isn’t too terrible.

“Can we be boyfriends?” Harry blurts out, breaking the peaceful silence, his eyes wide and earnest and his lip trembling almost unnoticeably.

The world seems to stop turning for a moment because it’s like— thinking about Harry kissing anyone else makes Louis feel an ugly, jealous green. But thinking about being boyfriends and doing the more advanced boyfriend things makes him apprehensive and uneasy.

But thinking about being able to hold Harry’s hand whenever he wants and having a person to fall back on makes his insides a calm, clear blue. He wants to be Harry’s boyfriend and wants Harry to be his boyfriend, more than he cares about worrying about something that could potentially, maybe, not even matter or come up.

Maybe Harry is religious and has pledged chastity, so it won’t be an issue unless they somehow get married. Maybe Harry isn’t into sex, either. Maybe he’s a mind reader and already knows and likes him and wants to date him, anyway.

Whatever the case, Louis says yes; he nods, his face glowing rosy with happiness and excitement at having a real, actual boyfriend.

“Can we just—“ Louis trails off, fingers raking through Harry’s hair. “Can we go slow? I don’t know what Niall’s told you, but this is all kind of new to me— the boyfriend thing,” Louis assures him quickly, afraid Harry might get the right idea.

“Yeah, Lou. As slow as you want, okay? No rush. I’m planning on keeping you.”

Harry’s declaration is just as reassuring as it is terrifying. Louis figures he has a little bit longer before everything goes up in smoke. He has more time to figure it out— to figure himself out.

~

Their first official date is unplanned, a result of a series of halfhearted text messages complaining about how bored they are.

I wish I had a car so I could drive us to the cinema :(

Louis only half comprehends the text the first time he glances at it, too busy trying to cut Phoebe’s peanut butter and jam sandwich into four perfect triangles. But once he really takes the time to read it, he realises he has a car. And that Harry is possibly trying to make a subtle suggestion.

I have a car…

Louis waits impatiently for the response.

Pick me up at 7???

It’s their first date as boyfriends, and Louis gets so dizzy with excitement and nerves Lottie stands on her tiptoes to feel his forehead, asking whether he feels okay.

Zayn is only marginally more helpful, sending Louis a half-supportive text when he sends him an incoherent mess of jumble and then First date??????

just be your lovable self and youll do great man :) make sure he pays for the popcorn since youre driving though  lol

It turns out the movie Harry has in mind is a movie Louis would never see in a million years. It’s a cheesy horror movie, complete with promiscuous teenagers who die early and music reminiscent of The Shining. The demon’s motivation is revenge, clichéd and unoriginal.

But Harry makes it enjoyable. He buys them the large popcorn and they take turns throwing the kernels into the air and trying to beat each other’s catching record. He holds Louis’ hand throughout the adverts; and once the lights dim and the movie begins, he pulls the yawn and stretch. Louis hides his face in his hands in shame but ultimately finds Harry’s shoulder to be firm but soft at the same time, the perfect consistency to lean his head against.

He wouldn’t mind watching more movies like this, curled into Harry with his fingertips rubbing against his shoulder.

Harry kisses him during the sex scene, using his pointer finger to angle Louis’ chin up. Their lips are both greasy from the popcorn, but it’s surprisingly soft and chaste while such a heated moment plays onscreen.

And maybe Harry just keeps it quick because there are so many other people around, but Louis appreciates it, nonetheless. After Harry pulls back and gives him a private smile, he surges forward and kisses him messily on the cheek, unable to hold in his affection.

It’s only a few minutes later, when they watch the mother get dragged across the house by the hair, that Louis realises his stomach feels strangely knotted.

And it isn’t because of how graphic the movie is (because, honestly, the blood looks like ketchup.) It’s because Harry kissed him during the sex scene.

It’s like he’s starting to get almost nervous to touch Harry too much, afraid he’ll take it as a cue to start doing more.

Harry’s kiss feels significant, like a teaser trailer for later.

The demon throws up onscreen, and Louis tries to ignore Harry’s hand on his thigh.

~

“That was a terrible movie, Harry. Like, probably one of the worst I’ve seen in years,” Louis complains. “My little sisters could probably create something five times as believable.”

Their fingers are brushing, but Louis’ earlier apprehension has dwindled to nothing but a dull, throbbing thought at the back of his mind. Harry hasn’t tried to kiss him since, and he mentioned how excited he is to pass out once he gets home.

It doesn’t feel like there’s an impending promise of more tonight; Louis feels like he’s in a safe zone.

“But, Louis, did you see the way the ghost protected them? And then felt fulfilled and could move on at the end? It was such a nice ending. So nice I can forgive the way the demon’s head did that full rotation,” Harry insists.

They make it through the double doors of the cinema, into the car park. It’s dark, the early October wind cutting into Louis’ skin as soon as they’re out in the open.

He visibly shivers, and Harry pulls him into his side. He’s so warm, Louis almost sighs in relief.

It’s a little bit difficult to walk squished so close to Harry, but he figures they’ll figure it out eventually. He pushes through the awkwardness as they begin the toilsome task of trying to find Louis’ car, continuing their conversation from the theatre.

“My issue with the ending was that the ghost was stuck fixing what happened a billion years ago. Like, why was killing the demon her responsibility? And why couldn’t she just move on? It just seemed unfair to her— like a terrible job that seeped into the afterlife. Imagine running tech support for all of eternity. I felt bad for her.”

“Hm,” Harry ponders. “I think it was kind of a shitty lesson about living life without regrets? Like, she regretted that she couldn’t save her own family when she was alive, so she wanted to save this family. Kind of to appease her own mind? She didn’t want her life to go wasted, or her afterlife.”

They stop to let a car cross in front of them.

“I—” Louis hesitates. “I mean, that’s— interesting. I’ve always thought, if ghosts were real, they only stayed on earth of they wanted to get revenge. Kind of like that demon.”

“Common misconception,” Harry winks, rubbing his fingers against Louis’ shoulder. He can sense that Harry’s excited to educate him on a subject he’s ignorant to. “I think most ghosts stay here for more sad reasons. Because they feel, like, incomplete for some reason or another. Maybe they didn’t fulfill all they wanted to in life, or they’re afraid of change, but they’re searching for something to make them feel whole before they go on to… to wherever, you know?”

Louis doesn’t really have an answer to that.

He looks down at his feet and kicks at a stray rock because, in a sudden burst of clarity, he realises he feels like a ghost. He understands his true predicament with the movie and Harry’s kiss.

He feels transparent, like he’s inhabiting earth but not truly alive, stuck among the world full of people inherently more than him. On a level more human than him, in a way. It’s like he’s here, but not. Like he has the same composition and looks like a real person but inside isn’t made of the same stuff as Harry is. As everyone else is. Like he’s only halfway human.

He feels insignificant and out of place in this world, and he always inexplicably has, but there’s nowhere to escape to.

They reach Louis’ car and climb in gratefully. Inside, they’re shielded from the wind and chill, but they can still hear it blowing against the metal.

Harry breaks the silence. “I read a saying once, that was, like, the brave don’t live forever, but the cautious don’t live at all? And I think that’s kind of it, really. The ghost didn’t feel like she really lived when she was alive, so she wanted to live for— for not forever, but for longer. To do what she didn’t when she was alive.”

Louis’ jaw clenches. Harry has unwittingly buried himself under Louis’ skin and built a campfire.

In a mess of half thought out action and actual desperation to feel something he’s supposed to, Louis throws himself into Harry’s lap and kisses him.

And it’s not just a kiss, it’s a kiss. There’s teeth and tongue and saliva mixing and wandering hands and Louis is instantly overwhelmed.

And it feels— wrong. It feels wrong. And weird. And unnatural. And indisputably like a mistake.

But he likes Harry so much.

So much.

So it can’t be wrong.

It shouldn’t feel this wrong.

He shoves his tongue into Harry’s mouth and tries to copy his technique, his eyes only half closed in concentration. Harry seems so much more confident and practiced, and Louis is sure he’s probably an amazing kisser, but it just doesn’t feel the way it’s supposed to make him feel. It’s just making him feel kind of grossed out and confused and, in the back of his mind, panicked.

Harry is hard— he can feel that he’s hard against his thigh, and shouldn’t Louis be hard, too?

Why isn’t he hard? Why isn’t he getting turned on?

Why isn’t Harry’s hand on his bum doing anything for him? Why is he thinking about the easiest way to get out of this without raising suspicion? Why isn’t he kissing Harry back as enthusiastically? Why is he letting Harry do all of the work and sitting and just taking it? Why is the whimper that comes out of his throat out of worry, rather than excitement?

Why isn’t he hard?

When Harry pulls Louis closer so their cocks are pressed together through their clothes, why do Louis’ eyes fly open in alarm? When Harry ducks down to kiss his neck, why does he grimace at the wet slide of his tongue?

Why does he pull away when Harry starts grinding up against him? Why does he tell him he thinks they should slow down?

Harry apologises and tries to cover his boner, as though Louis hasn’t already felt it.

“I’m sorry,” he rushes out, and Louis feels like his eyes are permanently widened.

“It’s okay,” Louis whispers as he clumsily climbs out of Harry’s lap, shaking from the rush of so much at once. The car suddenly feels even colder than before, like an instantaneous transition from a brisk fall day to a frozen midnight in winter.

He drives Harry home with his mind halfway somewhere else. Harry kisses him almost shyly as he opens the passenger door, another apology on his lips.

And then, when Louis drives home, he has something else on his mind. Because he didn’t mind that kiss. That kiss was nice. It was the other one that made Louis feel… icky.

When he gets home, he turns his computer on and clicks incognito.

He types don't get turned on by kissing? into the Google search, not entirely sure of what he’s searching for.

He browses through a few terribly unhelpful Google answers before he comes across a link that makes his body feel like it was hit by a meteor.

Help??? I think I’m asexual?????

~

The rest of October passes in a flurry of orange and brown. He and Harry walk through the park and kick up leaves after school with scarves tied tight around their necks, their fingers frozen together between them. They sip steaming cups of tea at coffee shops and watch excited children pass through the streets, their noses red from the wind and skin pale with the absence of sun.

Cobwebs covered with dew fly through the air and the crowded cafes smell like warm pie and cinnamon. The days are chilly and the air tastes like the smoke coming from the frosted over chimneys. There’s an almost tangible shift in mood— from lazy summer days to busy autumn nights filled with bonfires and blankets.

When the sun sets, the golden light bathes the leaves in a dazzling, warm orange that Louis thinks he should spend more time admiring.

He breathes it all in and pretends everything is okay.

~

The good thing about being too busy to function is that Louis can forget about the fateful night in which his world came Crumbling to the Floor and he learned about the A-word, a word that most definitely does not describe Louis’ entire life. No. He can throw that thought in the bin and set it on fire until it’s nothing but ash and flames and a distant memory, and he reverts into an even deeper denial.

Things with Harry are going well— surprisingly well, considering. Harry’s too busy with with his own projects on the set (trying to build a rotatable stage and construct a strong enough coffin to hold Ophelia’s weight, though Sophia is so tiny Louis doesn’t imagine it will be difficult) to be frustrated that they haven’t been able to squeeze in very much alone time together.

Louis is too busy trying to keep up with his Personal Statement to freak out about trying to keep Harry interested while simultaneously convincing himself the night of their movie date was a fluke, a freak happenstance that did not set the tone for all future rendezvous.

He’s never been so thankful to have issueswith his character because it’s given him something else to dwell on.

~

“Louis, Rosencrantz isn’t a tough role. I don’t see why you can’t connect,” Simon questions after class, just as the first snowflake of the season drifts to the ground.

Louis groans and pushes the fringe from his eyes. “It’s just— I don’t know. I have other things on my mind, and it’s not like my role is even important.”

Louis realises he’s fucked up the moment the words leave his mouth. The dark flash from Simon’s eyes is only confirmation.

He wishes he could reach out and collect them and shove them back in.

“Well, Louis. I think we both know every role is just as important as the next. But if you think you’re too good for the part, I won’t hesitate to give it to someone with a better attitude.”

Louis watches as he leaves, the right words caught in his throat and unable to escape.

And it’s just shitty. Everything feels shitty. He’s not even sure why he said it. He knows his role isn’t unimportant and that probably the worst person to complain to would be Mr. Cowell.

But he did. He did it. And now he’s probably on his shit list, and so close to their performance before the Christmas holidays. And then his shitty attitude towards Louis will continue on throughout the year, and he’s probably going to fail his A-levels and never achieve anything he wants in life. Maybe he’ll work in a cubicle, never to perform again.

Perhaps he’s exaggerating, but it feels like a possibility.

Shitty

He steps into the hallway with a lump in his throat. The windows are fogged and icy, frosted in a way that they look like they’re only moments from cracking due to the cold. 

He wanders along in a daze, his heart rate too high and his breathing challenged. It seems so childish to him that he’s finding it hard to fight back tears when he’s only just had a tiny reprimanding from Simon, but he tears up, anyway. He just feels so lost, so unaccountably lost. Bad days happen, but it’s felt like he’s had a lurking rain cloud behind his shoulder for ages. It’s like he’s not exactly sure what he’s waiting for, but he knows it’s going to pour soon.

He turns the corner and runs face first into a solid human. He narrowly avoids falling to the floor, held up by a pair of hands to his biceps.

Familiar hands. They’re Harry’s hands.

“Louis! I’ve been looking for you since lunch started,” he sighs. “Where’ve you been?”

“Was talking to Simon— Mr. Cowell,” Louis automatically corrects himself.

Harry’s stare feels piercing, and Louis spits the words out without thinking ahead. “He told me I’m not connecting to my role, and then he kind of threatened to give it to someone else because I said it wasn’t an important part.”

Harry frowns and slides his hands down Louis’ arm until he’s gripping his fingers. He steps forward, and Louis steps backwards without thinking. His back hits the wall.

“That’s shitty of him. Nobody could play Rosenpants like you.”

“But you have to say that because—“ Louis begins, but Harry’s words catch up to him. He feels himself start to smile despite his bitter mood. “Wait. Did you say Rosenpants?”

Harry’s eyes widen. He looks down and bites his lip.

“No. No, I definitely didn’t say Rosenpants.”

Louis is definitely smiling, now.

“You did! You uncultured turkey! Have you never read Hamlet?”

Harry frowns. “I actually think that’s next year for me. We can’t all be Shakespeare experts.”

And then Harry is kissing the smirk from his face. It’s so cliché— Louis’ back to the wall with Harry’s hands running along his side in the deserted school hallway, but it’s like Harry knows exactly what he needs. His kisses aren’t heated or prolonged; they’re short and sweet and teasing, so quick Louis can hardly even kiss back. They’re like a distraction. Harry trails more kisses to the rest of his face, kissing over his eyelid in a quick, comical succession that ends with Louis knocking the back of his head against the wall in laughter.

But then Harry wraps an arm around his waist, and Louis’ eyes widen because he’s positive things are about to get more serious. Harry licks his bottom lip, his eyes to Louis’ mouth, and Louis sucks in a shaky breath— but then Harry breaks into a sneaky smile, and tickles him. And it’s like he’s watching from above as he shoves at Harry’s shoulders, gasping out stops and oh my gods and other expletives because it’s as though Harry sucked out all of his sadness with just his fingers and one small misunderstanding.

Once Louis threatens to throw his laptop out the window the next time he comes over, Harry relents. He pulls the sides of Louis’ shirt back down from where they’ve bunched up but keeps his hands at Louis’ hips.

“I’m sorry you’ve had a shitty day, though. Seriously,” he adds. “You could come over tonight, if you want? We could relax, maybe watch a film or something?”

Louis nods easily, hugging Harry around the shoulders, going up onto his tiptoes so he’s leaning most of his weight on him. It feels grounding, like it always feels with Harry. And he doesn’t pull away until his calves are screaming in protest.

He likes it here in Harry’s arms more than he’s liked being anywhere but the stage in his entire life.

Maybe it isn’t as safe to find home in another person, but he might like Harry even more than performing.

~

Later that night, before leaving for Harry’s, Louis receives a text.

My parents are gone so make sure you bring monopoly cause I wanna play all nightttttt ;)

~

Harry gets to him as soon as he’s through the door.

And Louis feels like he’s in the middle of a battle—a kissing attack.

He wasn’t expecting this. He definitely wasn’t expecting this. He stopped by Sainsbury's to pick up Monopoly since Harry seemed so excited to play; but, looking back now, Louis realises he was mistaken.

He’s never been more mistaken.

The wink should have alerted him. It’s just that he was so excited to have something to look forward to and to spend time with his boyfriend who would help him forget about his shitty day that he failed to consider the repercussions that come along with an empty house.

He’s not sure how it happens, but he ends up sprawled across the couch with Harry hovering above him, his tongue halfway down his throat. The Monopoly game is thrown to the floor, unopened and forgotten, and now Harry’s hands are running all over his body.

Louis squeezes his eyes shut and kisses back, reaching up to tug on Harry’s curls. He tightens his grip to try to get him to slow down, but Harry doesn’t get the hint. He thankfully detaches from Louis’ lips but moves right on to his neck, sucking more than Louis thinks is necessary.

But then he realises that maybe he’ll end up with a mark, and Zayn will be proud of him. Or that maybe today he’ll finally feel something and prove his Fateful Internet search wrong. Maybe he should let this happen.

Maybe he should encourage this. Maybe this can be good. Maybe he’ll like it.

With his best, practiced bedroom voice, Louis purrs out more. But Harry seems to interpret this to mean a lot more.

Louis grimaces and shifts when Harry’s fingers dip into his pants. He squeezes, his fingernails digging into Louis’ skin and groans into his ear.

And that’s when Louis feels it. At sixteen, Harry has an anaconda cock, and it’s poking into his hip.

Fuck. It’s digging. He can feel it— hard and long and very much searching for contact.

He’s dry humping him, and Louis almost laughs because of how uncomfortable and out of place he suddenly feels, even more than before. His breath is coming out heavier now, and it definitely isn’t in the good way.

This is happening. This is his life. His boyfriend is on top of him, kissing his neck and dry humping him, but all he can think of is how much he wants to extricate himself from the situation entirely. He’s not even close to being hard, and maybe that would bother Louis more at another time, but all he can think of right now is escape.

He squints his eyes as Harry rubs off against him and tries to remember when Phoebe has piano lessons— maybe it’s Tuesday? Or is it Thursday?

Harry scrapes his teeth against Louis’ vein. It’s terribly uncomfortable.

He’ll have to check the calendar.

He could lie and say he forgot to finish their English lit assignment— but no, he finished that with Harry at the library. He’d see right through that in a minute.

Harry gasps as he bites into the juncture between Louis’ shoulder and neck and picks up the pace.

He could just tell him to stop and that he’s not into this— but…

But that would require explanation. Harry’s panting against his collarbones now and, fuck, really going for things.

God, he’s probably an animal in bed. Louis cringes at the thought, his heart constricting painfully and bile rising in his throat when he imagines them going even further.

“Uh, Harry—“ he warns in a panic once Harry begins to go for his zipper with his free hand. It feels like too much, like they’re on the Titanic and the final boiler room has finally filled with water, and they’re going down. He has to tell him.

Harry stills in response, and Louis almost sighs out loud with relief because maybe he knows without asking. Maybe they’re on the same page, and they’re not going to have to have the huge, awkward discussion about why and because.

But then he notices Harry is shaking, and his fingernails are digging even deeper into his arse.

And Louis’ not dumb; he’s had orgasms before, and he’s seen porn. He gasps as soon as he realises what’s happening.

He pushes Harry away on instinct. He falls off the couch to the floor, his nails leaving raised red lines against Louis’ skin in their exit path.

Louis throws his head back against the cushions, closing his eyes in disbelief and sudden relief. He takes a deep breath.

But, fuck. Harry’s going to know. He’s going to ask why Louis acted so weird.

He’s not sure how he’s going to explain everything. He doesn’t know what to say. He’s certain I just don’t want you like that would be insufficient. Would Harry’s dick feel unappreciated? It seems impressive— surely Harry is confident in his cock’s abilities.

Harry pops his head up from the floor and drapes an arm across Louis’ heaving stomach. Louis opens one eye slowly in trepidation, but Harry’s face is surprisingly happy and a bit red.

“Is that, like, a thing? Pushing someone off of you when you come?” Harry questions, his breathing still labored. Louis blinks.

Harry thinks he—

Ohhhhhhhhhh.

“Yeah, I’m kind of shy,” Louis lies outrageously. He’s as transparent as a sheet— he’s sure Harry must see straight through him. 

But somehow, Harry believes him. He shrugs and sits up on his knees before he shuffles up to kiss Louis’ cheek. After, he lays his head down beside Louis’, petting over his side with his thumb.

“That was… okay, right?” Harry whispers into his hair. He sounds so unsure and vulnerable and hesitant that Louis can’t bear to take a shred of confidence from him.

It’s becoming a problem. He’s becoming a pathological liar. Who is he, really.

“It was great,” Louis lies, his voice hardly higher than normal. “The best, honestly.”

Harry smiles at that, dimples like craters of actual sunshine while Louis feels like muddy snow. He lifts his head and presses his lips to Louis’ briefly, unheated and unhurried.

And it’s just so fucking confusing because this kiss doesn’t send Louis into a frenzy of panic. It feels sweet and romantic and lovely, and Louis has honestly grown to like and almost look forward to these kinds of kisses. It doesn’t make sense.

“I feel kind of gross,” Harry admits as he pulls away. “Do you want new pants?”

Louis’ about to ask why he’d need new pants, but he catches himself at last minute.

“Yeah, great,” he tries to smile.

Harry leads him to his room by the hand, only letting go once they get to his dresser and reaches in.

He looks unsure how to proceed once they have their clothes to change into. “I’ll just, like, over here?” he says, pointing to the corner. “I don’t want you to feel weird, since, you know.”

Louis holds in his laughter (Louis, actually shy?) since he doesn’t want Harry to get suspicious. He changes quickly, sneaking a peek over his shoulder because he’s curious to see what his boyfriend’s anaconda cock actually looks like.

“I know you’re looking,” Harry teases, looking over his shoulder as well. “That wasn’t sly. But I don’t mind.”

Harry comes to join Louis in his corner of the room once they’re both changed into loose trackies. He grabs his hand as they make their way back to the living room, his eyes to the floor. His voice sounds small. “I kind of liked that you looked, though, to be honest. Sometimes when we’re, like, kissing and stuff, it kind of feels like you’re not as into it as me? So it’s nice to know you’re into this, too.”

Louis gulps. Harry is suspicious. He’s noticed and he doesn’t feel desired.

Louis feels like a fake and a failure 

~

They fall asleep on the couch spooned together, a tasteless romance movie playing on the television.

Here and now, simply spending time together without the threat of doing more (though surely threat in relation to doing things with his boyfriendis a troubling word), Louis feels calm.

He feels calm and secure and respected and almost loved.

It feels good. This is the part he loves about being Harry’s boyfriend— the time they spend together, alone when Harry isn’t trying to paw at him. He loves the little laughs and the way Harry will kiss him just to kiss him. He loves how it feels as natural as when he’s with Zayn, but he also loves how it’s so different than when he’s with Zayn.

Zayn doesn’t give him butterflies. Zayn doesn’t make his smile go soft when he tells Louis how good he looks in red. Zayn doesn’t hold him close and cry into his shoulder during predictable and cliché movies. Zayn doesn’t make him feel like he’s thawing from the inside out.

He knows what he feels for Harry is stronger and different than what he feels for anyone else. 

But Harry doesn’t even know that because he’s been giving mixed signals. Because he’s not sure what signals he even needs to give.

How can you show someone you love them, if not physically? How is it possible for him to fall in love with someone he isn’t attracted to in that way? Would Harry even love him back if he knew the truth?

Louis brings his left hand to his lips, pressing a kiss to their joined knuckles softly.

He needs to try harder.

~

Louis wakes up hard in the morning.

He groans and buries his face in his hands. Because of all times for this to happen, it would when Harry is spooned up behind him, his breathing soft and aimed straight to his ear.

It’s not completely unheard of— it’s just biological, really.

He has a cock. It gets hard at night, sometimes.

Louis racks his brains, but he can’t remember exactly what he was dreaming about. He doesn’t think it was sexual. He’s pretty sure it involved Tesco and Voldemort. Zayn might have been there, too, but it’s a little fuzzy.

He tries to weasel his way out of Harry’s arms, but he clings tighter when he tries to get away.

“Mmm, morning,” Harry rasps into his ear, and Louis knows he’s been caught in the middle of his escape.

“Morning,” Louis falters at the end, which instantly causes Harry to perk up.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, his voice deep with sleep. He presses his lips to Louis’ cheek, and that’s when he notices. He must notice. Because he stills, and his voice gets even lower, if possible.

Oh. I can help you out with that, if you want,” he insinuates, trailing his pointer finger along Louis’ side.

Louis’ heart stutters. He can see this going two ways:

  1.      He says thanks but no thanks and hurries off into the bathroom to get it to go away, one way or another. Alone. By himself.
  1.      He says okay, and they go from there.

He should probably go with the first option. He has absolutely no idea how the second would go. It’s possible it would be a disaster. It’s possible he’d embarrass both of them. It’s possible it would put things into perspective, and Harry would know about his— his, disinterest. And that could be tragic.

But it’s also so tempting to finally have confirmation, one way or another. In the back of his mind, hidden behind a locked door and empty closet space, he knows he knows. He’s always dreamed that one day he’d find the perfect man, and he’d change his mind, and he’d feel like a real, functioning member of society capable of doing the things expected once you reach a certain age, but he knows it’s helpless.

But it’s also such a strong hope that he wants to try it out at least once before he makes the Declaration. Before he steps over the threshold and knows for sure and there’s no turning back. Before it becomes more than a possibility— a truth. A fact.

Real.

So he nods the tiniest bit, every nerve in his body frozen. 

Harry trails his hand low at Louis’ nod, fingers light and almost ticklish, but Louis is afraid he won’t get there in time if he keeps up that pace. They’re already over the hardest part— getting hard, and he’s not about to let the opportunity slip through their fingers, now. Not when they’re so close.

He grabs Harry’s hand and pushes it against his cock, breathing out in relief once they make contact.

And, fuck. It doesn’t feel bad. It feels good, honestly, but maybe it’s because he’s basically using Harry’s hand as an extension of his own.

Maybe he should let Harry do this himself. Maybe that would make this a more accurate reading.

Louis is suddenly frantic, desperate to get this over with and finished as soon as possible. To put it behind him. To know. To understand.

“Can you— want you to touch me—“ Louis begs, tugging down his boxers before Harry can respond.

“Now, now, hard and fast,” Louis grunts out, too impatient to take Harry’s soft little gasp into consideration.

He feels like he’s being too pushy, like he isn’t even really letting Harry be a part of the experience.

But it’s because this really isn’t about Harry— it’s about him. Which might be a little bit selfish, and he kind of feels like he’s using Harry’s hand as a tool.

(Right now, right here— Harry’s hand flying over Louis’ cock like it’s trying to wank him into tomorrow— that’s what’s physically happening.)

But it’s really more about Louis closing his eyes and picturing that he’s alone. It’s about wanting to squirm out from under Harry’s hold so badly he has to clench his fist and bite his lip to hold himself still. It’s about feeling so uncomfortable he literally has no clue how anyone finds this pleasurable. It’s about ignoring the prickling wetness along his lash line and forcing himself not to curl up into a ball. It’s about it feeling so unnatural Louis has to bite his tongue before he asks him to stop. It’s about picturing himself anywhere but here. It’s about feeling like he’s going to shake out of his skin. It’s about how difficult it is to control his face, because he’s sure if Harry were to look at him now all he’d see is repulsion. It’s about how much he wants to enjoy it, but he can only focus on the little voice in the back of his mind chanting stop, stop, stop. It’s about his heart pumping so hard he thinks he might be going into cardiac arrest. It’s about ignoring Harry’s hard on pressed to his back and his heavy breathing aimed into his ear. It’s about focusing only on the slide of something against his cock that’s propelling him into the hopefully inevitable orgasm. It’s about pretending it’s just like those rare mornings because he’s afraid his erection is going to go down if he pictures anything else. It’s about his eyes squeezing shut so he doesn’t cry or something equally as embarrassing.

It’s about how forced and wrongwrongwrong this feels. It’s entirely about that.

But Harry takes his words to heart and goes hard and fast, harder and faster than Louis thinks he’s capable of himself.

And when a dick is presented with friction, an orgasm will happen.

It’s quick and unfulfilling and makes Louis feel emptier than anything, but it happens. He shivers through it, biting his lip even harder as he tries not to gasp at the sensation and give Harry the wrong idea.

Because this isn’t happening again. Because he can’t do this again. He won’t.

Harry strokes him through it as he grinds against his back, and Louis knows he’s just trying to be helpful— and, fuck, this is what boyfriends do. He knows he should appreciate it. But he just wants Harry to stop touching him and thrusting against him and kissing behind his ear and let him break down in private.

Harry is still young and horny, so Louis doesn’t have to wait long. He can feel his dick twitch against him as he shoots into his pants, and Louis wants to gag.

It feels so inauthentic. It feels like a show put on for no reason. It feels like something Louis isn’t meant to do. Ever again. It feels like a sick joke.

He needs to leave. He’s either going to throw up or cry, and he’s not sure which he’d prefer. All he knows is he needs to be alone.

Now. Preferably ten minutes ago.

“Uh, Harry, I have to go. I’m babysitting today,” Louis dictates more clearly than he thought possible. 

“You have to go now?” Harry questions, his voice blissed out, less rough than before. Louis nods as he tucks himself back into his pants, then stands on shaky legs.

Harry sits up with him and grabs his hand like it’s the most important thing he’s ever done, stopping Louis from walking straight to the door.

“Are we— are we okay?” Harry pleads, his eyes wide and trusting and so distressed and confused Louis almost collapses. Because Harry thinks he’s acting weird because of something he’s done, when this is all entirely Louis’ to deal with right now.

He’s not ready to share this with someone else, yet. He’s hardly even ready to share it with himself.

He takes a calming breath and pretends he’s on stage, temporarily playing the part that will get him out quickly and unscathed.

“Of course we are, love. We’re great. I just really need to get home. And I have some laundry to do,” he jokes, gesturing to the come stains on his t-shirt.

“Are you— are you sure?” Harry presses on, eyes squinted in confusion and dejection.

Louis bends down to kiss Harry quickly in goodbye, but he grabs at Louis’ face like he’s unwilling to let him go. He’s sure his expression is less than encouraging.

“Don’t want you to go,” Harry whispers against his lips once Louis pulls away, confirming his suspicions.

But it’s just— the longer Harry looks at him, the smaller he feels. He needs to leave right now before the impending tears spill over, and he can’t breathe, and he breaks down into a blubbering four year old, incapable of dealing with his feelings.

It’s happening. Soon. The tears are prickling at the back of his eyes, and he feels like he needs to keep his gaze down because if he looks anywhere else they’ll all spill out at once.

He forces out a laugh, trying to ease himself out of the house as quickly as possible. “Babe, I’ll see you Monday at school. Why are you being all don’t leave me?”

Harry lets go of his hand and sits up straighter, an almost defensive look in his eyes. He opens his mouth like he’s going to say something but bites his lip and decides against it only seconds later.

“I— I guess I’ll see you Monday, then,” Harry concedes.

If the situation were less dire, Louis would feel terrible for leaving things on such an unclear note. But, as it is, he practically runs out of the house in his haste, leaving the unused Monopoly game on the floor.

The wind stabs him like a knife.

He leans his forehead against the steering wheel once he slams the car door shut. But it’s like he can feel Harry’s eyes on him, watching through the window, so he turns the key in the ignition and drives away with a halfway composed expression.

But once he turns the corner, it’s like everything crashes on top of him at once. He feels disgusting, his face grimy with sleep and his shirt stained with unwanted come and his teeth unbrushed. His heart is beating too fast, and he has to pull onto the side of the open road because his eyes blur over with tears within moments. His breathing is shaky and halted, uneven and inconsistent, and he’s positive he’s never felt so shitty in his entire life.

He feels inhuman. He feels like a different species. He feels like if God is real, when he built Louis, he forgot to add an essential part of his brain. He feels incomplete. He feels broken. He feels like an outsider, an observer of the human race but like someone without a right to live in the world everyone else does.

He feels like he doesn’t belong. He feels like an alien in a human’s body.

He shuts the car off and brings his knees to his chest, hugging them tight to his body as he presses his forehead into his knees. He feels safer curled up in a ball, like maybe it doesn’t really matter that he’s not really like anyone else he’s ever met in real life. That he’s different.

But it comes crashing down on him that it will never get better. That it will, in fact, only get worse as he grows older. Everyone around him will have sex and get married and settle down— even his sisters. But Louis will forever be trapped in a traitorous body and mind that won’t find pleasure in the things it’s supposed to find pleasurable. He’s always going to be the outcast, the minority, the unspeakable and unmentionable. If things work out the way Louis’ always envisioned, every Christmas and work party and reunion will end the same, with confused glances and loud whispers about how Louis’ been alone forever and probably always will be because he’ll never be able to find someone to love him back and—

And Louis can’t believe this is his life. That he’s probably going to die a virgin, and Zayn will never understand and tell him to seek counseling and Harry—

Harry.

He has to tell him.

But he’s never going to stay with Louis. He’s going to think there’s something wrong with himself or that his magic dick can cure him or that Louis’ just a prude who doesn’t put out.

It’s real. He can’t keep denying it. Denial has just made things more difficult. Acceptance is the first stage to— to anything.

Louis sniffles and pulls the sun visor down, flipping it open to reveal the mirror. He stares into his own icy eyes, grimacing at the red rim around the edges.

He tries to say the words, but they still feel too final and condemning.

“I’m not— I’m not into people, like that,” he tries to tell himself.

His eyes betray him, but it’s a start. He turns the car back on and shivers against the warm air spilling through the vents.

~

The next few weeks come in a complete whirlwind. It’s like time has kick started, and seconds have shortened in length, and the days end when they’re only half over, and, suddenly, Louis’ performance is only a few days away and—

And the secret is eating away at his insides. Each time he’s alone with Harry, whether it’s in the library or walking back from getting tea or holding hands over the console as he drives him home, he tries to get the words out.

He’s hinted at the conversation so many times— toed the line and teetered at the top of the building; but every time he’s seen the light and looked down, his jaw locks.

And it’s so pitiful because each time he gets close it’s like Harry can tell he has something important and difficult to say. He rubs his thumb over his knuckles, and his voice gets soft as he asks Louis what’s bothering him, but Louis always changes his mind at the last minute and says something stupid and not at all on topic.

It’s sad, and Louis is honestly so fucking frustrated and upset with himself and everything in his life that he’s surprised he hasn’t self-destructed yet.

It all comes to be too much after a much-needed milkshake date. As he drives Harry home, he formulates a leading question and somehow gets it out.

“Hey, Harry. How many sexualities do you think there are in the world?”

Harry takes his time answering, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the seat. He’s had a long day— the rotating stage suddenly stopped turning altogether, and only three days before opening— so he’s been overwhelmed and overworked.

“Not sure,” he mumbles. “There’s gay and straight and bi, and then there’s, like, pan, and I think there’s a sexuality for being fluid? I don’t know, really. Why?”

Louis gulps and licks at his bottom lip, turning the corner before he answers. “I think you might have missed a— a few.”

“Yeah?” Harry asks slowly, his words trickling like syrup. Louis glances over, and he looks close to sleeping. “What’d I miss, Lou?”

Louis’ breath hitches. The words are on the tip of his tongue, but he ultimately changes his mind.

“Is— is there a word for someone who’s only attracted to androgynous people? Maybe you missed that,” Louis winces at himself.

“Mmm. Yeah, we’ll have to look that up one day,” Harry agrees, only moments before he lets out a soft snore.

Louis has to wake him up when they arrive at his house. Harry blinks out of sleep and kisses Louis once before he whispers that he’ll see him tomorrow and sluggishly shuts the passenger door.

Louis idles outside his house far longer than the time it takes for the door to slam closed behind Harry. It feels oddly like their relationship is stagnant.

And not in the way Louis would like for it to be. It feels like something important is missing. Harry hasn’t tried to initiate anything since the Morning Wood Fiasco; and though he’s appreciated that, Louis can’t help but think there’s a reason for it. A secret reason Harry isn’t sharing. Like maybe his acting that day wasn’t actually up to par, and Harry knew something was up. Knows something is up.

It feels like the line of understanding and communication they had before has blurred, and maybe he’s not the only one keeping a secret. And it’s not like anything really seems different on the surface, but underneath, Louis knows something is desperately wrong.

He puts the car in drive and decides to give Zayn a visit.

He doesn’t even bother calling. He simply knocks on the door and expects Zayn to answer and take him into his loving arms, but Tricia opens the door.

“Oh, um, I’m sorry I didn’t call. I was just wondering if Zayn was home?” Louis asks, feeling awkward.

“He’s upstairs doing homework,” she smiles. “Come in!”

Louis hesitates before he steps inside. It feels like he’s stepping into the land of no return— he’s telling Zayn once and for all. And telling himself.

He’s never said it out loud. He’s going to say it out loud.

He fake-smiles, thanks her, and begins the long journey up the stairs.

He can feel it in his bones— today is the day he comes out once and for all. He walks with purpose, trying to train his gaze into one of confidence and faux-calm, but his smile drops when he walks into Zayn’s room.

Because he isn’t alone. Perrie is sitting at the other end of the bed. And it’s not like he’s walking in on an intimate moment or anything. They’re both just doing homework and listening to background music, but Louis bursts into defeated tears, anyway, his shoulders slumping forward in grief.

They both turn to him instantly, eyes wide and terrified. Which makes Louis cry even harder because he just wants to talk to his best friend and be comforted, and it’s not like there’s anything wrong with Perrie, but he doesn’t want an extra pair of judgmental, disbelieving eyes on him when he’s about to bare his soul.

“What happened?” Zayn practically shouts just as Perrie springs up to hug him.

Louis crosses his arms around his stomach, like he’s holding himself together. Perrie leads him to the bed, and he brings his knees to his chest, avoiding both of their eyes as he tries to compose his breathing and fails terribly.

“Louis, what happened?” Zayn asks again, a hand to his shoulder.

And Louis would really prefer to do this when it’s just the two of them, but he feels so sad and alone on the inside he can’t wait. He’s waited seventeen years, made excuses, and denied what was undeniable, and he’s so sick of keeping it inside that it tumbles out in one breath.

“I don’t— I don’t like Harry like that,” he lets out, his voice breaking at the end.

“Did he do something wrong?” Perrie asks from his left. That only makes Louis cry harder.

“No! No,he didn’t. It’s all me,” Louis explains through a shiver.

Zayn sighs. “You’re going to give him the it’s not you, it’s me speech? You don’t think he deserves more?”

Louis shakes his head and rubs at his nose with his wrist. “I’m not breaking up with him. I don’t want to. But he’s going to break up with me.”

Louis registers that Perrie and Zayn exchange a look.

“Why do you think Harry’s going to break up with you?” Zayn questions calmly.

And— and this is it. It’s all coming out. Louis is coming out. Right now.

“We haven’t had sex, yet. And I— I don’t want to.”

“But babe,” Zayn coos. “If you’re not ready, yet, Harry will wait for—“

Louis cuts in, his eyes glossed over but his voice decisive. “I don’t want to ever.”

Zayn’s fingers tighten against his shoulder. “You don’t want to have sex with Harry, ever?”

Louis sighs out in unforeseen, glorious relief, glad Zayn seems to understand, at least a little. “No. I don’t. Never. I never want to do anything like— like that ever again.”

Zayn’s eyes harden and he pulls away. “Okay, but then why have you been stringing him along for months if you’re not even interested in him? That’s a dick move, Louis.”

Louis’ heart stops and he lets out a pathetic little squeak of dissent. “That’s not what I’ve been doing, Zayn. I am interested in him. A lot. Just not— not in that way.”

“Okay, so you just want to be friends? But you’ve let him think you’ve been dating for the past few months?” Zayn snaps, his hands curling into fists. “God, I shouldn’t have told you to go for him. I knew you’d end up losing interest and hurting him, just like you’ve done to everyone else.”

Louis’ eyes water up even more, if possible. Zayn is his best friend, but this is what he thinks of him: his uncensored, honest-to-God, no-filter opinion. He feels lower than chewed gum stuck to a shoe.

“You know he’s been talking to Niall because he knew something was up? Saying you seemed to be uninterested. I told him not to worry, but I guess I was wrong.”

The look Zayn is giving him is icy and hurts, and Louis feels like he made a bad decision.

He wants to crawl back into the closet he just escaped from. He wants to rewind to before school started again and schedule a dentist appointment during the Dine and Ditch so right now he could be anywhere but here.

Zayn’s stare and cold words are almost worse than feeling alone in a world with 7 billion other people.

“That’s not— Zayn, I don’t ever want to have sex with anyone. It isn’t about Harry. It’s a real thing, a— a real sexual orientation. I’m—“

He shuts his eyes and blows out a puff of air. “I’m asexual. Which is like— the Internet said it’s basically when you don’t feel sexual attraction. And that’s— Zayn, that’s me,” Louis insists through a fresh wave of tears, desperate for him to understand how vital the moment everything suddenly made sense truly felt to him.When I read that, it was the first time I realised, like, maybe I’m not just weird and afraid of getting close to people or whatever.”

Zayn’s face is stony, his eyes squinted in confusion.

“I’ve read about this,” Perrie interjects helpfully. “I never thought I’d ever actually meet someone who isn’t into sex, though. What’s that even like, Louis?”

Louis appreciates her not dismissing him immediately, but it’s not exactly the response he’s looking for. He doesn’t really appreciate feeling like a zoo animal to be observed.

“Yeah, Louis, what’s it like to want to have sex with a guy you’ve never met one day on a cruise ship; but when it comes to actual commitment, you magically freeze up?”

Louis thought only moments ago was the worst he’s ever felt, but this response makes his body feel like he’s been struck down by an avalanche.

He doesn’t understand. He thinks Louis is making up excuses. He isn’t listening.

“I—“ Louis begins.

“Zayn,” Perrie cuts in sternly. “It’s not like he’s incapable—“

“I lied—“ Louis interrupts. “There’ve never been any other guys. I made them all up so you didn’t think I was weird.”

“Mhm,” Zayn hums noncommittally, nodding his head sarcastically.

“I’m not— I’m not lying about that,”Louis stresses, hurt beyond words.

“I know you’re not—“ Perrie begins, but Zayn interrupts.

“Louis, I’m not trying to be insensitive or anything, but this isn’t normal. Humans naturally want sex. It’s, like, ingrained in our brains.”

Louis shakes his head and bites his trembling lip. “It’s not—“

“It is.”

Zayn’s expression turns almost tender. “Who hurt you, Louis? Why are you so afraid—“

“I’m not afraid, Zayn. I just don’t want to!” Louis cries, his vision blurred. He feels like a petulant child unable to explain himself.

“Louis, everyone wants to!”

Louis feels so miserable and frustrated and powerless he might explode. He remembers how everyone on the website seemed to be obsessed with cake, and tries to put it into words.

“No, they don’t. It’s like with cake, Zayn. Some people want chocolate, and some want vanilla, and I just prefer neither. And now you’re making me feel like there’s something wrong with me for not liking cake.”

“You can’t live without food, though,” Zayn hints after taking a moment to try to comprehend.

“You can live without cake,” Louis reminds him, his voice still weak and fragile.

“Not happily, though.”

“Happily if you don’t like cake, Louis mumbles, his lip trembling.

Perrie is rubbing at his shoulder like she’s on his side, but Zayn doesn’t stop with his cold stare.

“I just don’t want you to miss out on something so important,” he says. “You have so much to offer, and you’re never going to be as young and attractive as you are now. It’s, like, it just feels like a waste for you to miss out on the now, you know? I just want what’s best for you.”

And that’s what’s making it so difficult to get mad at Zayn for reacting like this, because he isn’t trying to be nasty. He isn’t trying to make him feel like shit. It isn’t malicious. He just doesn’t understand and truly thinks he’s doing what’s best for him, even though it’s entirely misguided.

But Louis is tired of compromise and pretending to consider any option other than the obvious and correct one.

“Can you just— look it up online for me? Please?” Louis practically begs. “I don’t want to fight about this, but it’s actually really important to me. So I’d really, really appreciate if you were on my side with this.”

Zayn still looks hesitant, but less so once Perrie pinches him on the arm and tells him he’s being a terrible friend.

“Okay, fine! I’ll look it up and become enlightened or whatever,” Zayn relents.

It’s quiet, then, Perrie’s expression anxious and Zayn’s confused and Louis’ a mixture of every feeling on earth.

“Have you not told Harry or something?” Zayn finally breaks the awkward silence.

Ah. Yes. The real reason Louis decided to come over and spill his heart out.

“I haven’t,” he answers in a whisper. “But I think I have to, now. It’s just, like, I don’t think I can avoid it any longer.”

Zayn looks like he’s trying to work something out in his head, so Louis presses on, too afraid to hear what he’s thinking.

“He’s probably going to break up with me because that’s probably something you should bring up by the time you go official. And start doing… stuff”

Louis drops his head onto his knee, still drawn to his chest. “I just like him so much. It might be, like, the real deal. The ‘L’ word. And I knew it would blow up in the end, but I’ve just never really felt like that with anyone else, so I felt like I’d regret not going for it, you know? And I knew the whole not into sex thing would probably be a deal breaker.”

He sniffles and turns. “I mean, like, Pez, would you have dated Zayn if he told you upfront he wasn’t into sex? Is that even negotiable with a relationship?”

Her eyes widen. “I mean, I’d have to think about it, I guess. I’m not sure it would be an automatic no, but…”

She trails off and grimaces. “Does this make me shallow?”

She looks so horrified Louis has to smile as he wipes below his eyes.

“I don’t think it makes you shallow, no.”

He gulps, digging his fingernails into his calves. “If that’s what you’re into, that’s what you’re into, you know? It’s better to talk about things and know you have same thoughts from the beginning, and then you won’t have problems like this. Knowing what you want out of a relationship isn’t— it isn’t bad. Sex is just— it’s what you want. But not me. And that’s not— it doesn’t make one of us wrong.”

“I’m still confused,” Zayn butts in. “So you think you’re in love with Harry, but you don’t want to have sex with him? It’s just, like, how does that even make any sense?”

“I don’t know, Zayn,” Louis breathes. It’s hard for him to explain even to himself, and he really just wishes Zayn would say something, anything, to make him feel less attacked.

It isn’t how he imagined. At all. He doesn’t feel safe or loved or respected or like Zayn is even listening to him.

He tries to explain anyway. “It’s just, like, being with him makes me happy, and I feel all the butterflies and shit, and it’s really nice to know he’s my person. And, like, a lot of the time, I really do like kissing him, and the thought of him being with someone else makes me jealous. Everything about our relationship is just like yours and Perrie’s; but just when he touches me like— like that, it feels forced and wrong, and I don’t like it. And I guess it makes sense for me.”

“I really just don’t understand,” Zayn confesses. “What do you mean?”

Louis sighs in frustration. “It’s, like, your sexual orientation and romantic orientation can be different? Romantically, I’m gay as fuck, but sexually, I’m like get away from my dick.”

Zayn lets out a short laugh. “That— that literally makes no sense. Does that mean you’d never give a blowjob? Or want to get one?”

Louis shrugs and thinks it over, still not a fan of how Zayn’s firing question after question, like he needs to justify himself.

“I think— I don’t think I’d be opposed to giving one in the future… if Harry doesn’t break up with me. I’m not sure I’d find it particularly pleasant or anything, but it’d kind of be like when I let him pick the movie? I’d like to make him feel good, as long as it doesn’t involve my dick, too, you know? I don’t think I’d ever want one myself, though. I wouldn’t like it.”

Zayn blinks, his face hesitant before the words seem to slip from his mouth without permission. “You realise no guy is going to want to stay with you if you’re never going to have sex with him, Louis? Like. That’s not even a real relationship.”

Louis might throw up.

It feels like Zayn’s punched him in the stomach. It feels like he’s choking him with just his words. Louis can’t breathe. He’s told himself the exact thing too many times to count, but hearing it from Zayn feels even more crushing and condemning. Final.

Like a new low.

But surprisingly, rather than wanting to curl up into a ball and die, Louis finds that he’s— he’s angry.

He realises right then and there, for the first time ever, that he has a right to be angry that someone thinks they have the right to define what is or what isn’t in regards to his own life.

That he doesn’t have to put up with it.

That he has a right to eliminate whatever and whoever is putting him down. That this is his life and he can live it however the fuck he wants. That there’s no preset rules about what he has to or shouldn’t do as a person in order to live his life correctly. And that even though he’s not sure how things with Harry will end up, what they have right now is real.

That even though it might not make sense to someone else, it’s just as real as any other relationship. It’s real to him, and it’s real to Harry, and nothing Zayn says can or will ever change that.

“God, Louis. I didn’t mean for that to come out like that—“ Zayn tries to apologise, but Louis holds his hand out to stop him from talking. He stands and shakes his head in disbelief before he makes his way to the door.

He pauses before exiting and turns to where they’re both still frozen on the bed. It feels kind of like a performance with both of their eyes locked on him, unsure and curious and at rapt attention.

But it’s real life. Louis can feel in his bones that this is real— that what’s happening now is critical and significant. He feels almost empowered through his disappointment, like maybe this is the catalyst that’s going to propel him over the threshold into the unknown. 

“Zayn, you were like— this was the first time I’ve ever talked about this with anyone. I trusted you, and I specifically came to you first because you’re my best friend, and I thought— I thought you’d be, like— I don’t know, supportive?”

Louis feels a sudden rush of anger bubble up and boil over until he can’t stop the words from spilling out. “Fuck you, Zayn. I can’t— I can’t be friends with someone who doesn’t support me. Someone who makes me feel like shit for being who I am. Who won’t even listen when I try to explain something that’s been— it’s been fucking eating at me for years, and you just—“ he shakes his head, unable to get out just how hurt he is.

Zayn stands and opens his mouth like he’s going to argue, but Louis backs away and says don’t follow me before rushing down the stairs.

But a hand to his elbow stops him just before he reaches the doorknob. He turns to tell Zayn to fuck off, but he’s surprised to see Perrie beside him, her eyes swimming with tears.

“Louis, he didn’t— I’m sure he didn’t mean it,” she says, but he can see that she isn’t convinced.

“He did,” Louis tells her.

She drops her eyes to the floor but doesn’t try to convince him otherwise.

“Are you— are you going to go tell Harry now?” she asks, her voice small.

“Yeah. I think I have to,” Louis sighs. “He’s probably going to break up with me, which will really be the cherry on top of this amazing day, but I can’t even be mad at him if he does because I’ve been hiding it from him the whole time.”

Perrie begins to argue against him, but she stops short.

And that’s all there is to it, really. It’s time to tell Harry. Get it over with. Accept whatever’s coming.

“I’ll have to call him, I guess. Now. Before I kind of think all of this over and lose my nerve.”

He feels like shit, honestly. He feels fatigued and disheartened and hurt and offended and sad, but at the same time, there’s a weight off his shoulders he never really noticed before and a new little flicker of pride burning in his stomach.

Perrie bites her lip and pulls him in for a tight hug.

“Sorry about Zayn being so… terrible,” she whispers into his ear. “Once you go, we’ll look it up together and I’ll give him a stern talking to.”

She rubs at his back in a way that almost reminds him of his mum. “It was brave, what you did in there. And I wish things played out differently, but I’m here for you if you need to talk or anything, okay? And Zayn will be, too. Once he gets his head out of his arse.”

“Thanks,” Louis murmurs, squeezing her tight. It means a lot to him that he has at least one person on his side.

Once he’s in his car, he lets out a few more tears before he centres himself and dials Harry’s number.

~

“You seemed kind of… off. When you called me on your way here,” Harry explains as he shuts the door behind Louis.

Louis gives him a small smile and tugs at the bottom of his sweater. He feels guilty for more than one reason— for the main reason of course, but also because it’s evident he’s worried Harry into a frenzy. He still seems sleepy and slow from the nap the phone call woke him up from, but he has an almost defeated and sad gleam in his eyes.

Like he knows something’s coming. Something big.

“Maybe we should, like, sit down,” Louis suggests, uncomfortable under Harry’s gaze.

Harry chews at the inside of his cheek with downcast eyes. “Can we just—“ he cuts himself off, shaking his head before leading Louis to the couch in the living room.

He sits on the very edge of the furthest cushion, shoulders curled in like he’s asking the couch to swallow him whole.

Louis knows Harry thinks he’s about to be broken up with. Maybe it says something about his character that it makes him hopeful Harry will be less upset about what he’s going to tell him, instead.

He would have expected to feel more upset than terrified currently after Zayn’s hostile reaction. But Harry is staring at him with his sad eyes and he still has an indented line on his cheek where his pillow must have cut into his skin during his nap, and he looks so broken and confused Louis can’t feel anything else.

He doesn’t want to lose this. He doesn’t want to lose Harry. So he blurts out possibly the worst thing he could blurt out.

“I love you.”

Harry gasps like he doesn’t believe him, but Louis keeps going. “And I swear I’ve never met anyone in the world who’s made me actually want so much. I want— I mean— when I’ve thought of the future I’ve never really let myself imagine anyone else there because— because— I never though I’d meet someone who likes me— or all of me, I guess.”

Louis pinches his thigh, but he’s tearing up again and he’s pretty sure nothing could stop him at this point.

“And now that I’ve met you and got to know you, I can’t imagine ever wanting anyone else to grow old with me or start a family with me or even love me back. And, fuck, Harry, before you tell me anything else, I need to tell you something, and I want you to please hear me out because I’ve been trying to tell you this for months, probably. And I just, like, I’ve felt so alone my whole life, and I don’t think I’d be able to keep this in for any longer, anyway, but—“

“You’re scaring me,” Harry cuts in, eyes wide. “You’re not, like, secretly thirty, are you?”

“I— what the fuck, no,” Louis answers quickly without even laughing, desperate to get the words out.“It’s just, like… I don’t want to have sex with you, Harry. And I’m honestly never going to want to.”

Louis watches the blood drain from Harry’s face, making his skin stand out pale white. It’s like he’s just seen a ghost.

“Oh my God. You’re straight?"

“What?” Louis gasps in disbelief. “No! It’s just, like, I’m not into—“

Harry shakes his head, his eyes doubtful, a glossed over, murky green. “Was there someone else? Is there someone else?”

“What? No. I—“

“Are you— are you not attracted to me?” Harry’s voice trembles.

“That’s— that’s only—” Louis begins, but Harry covers his face with his hands.

“I’m asexual, Harry,” he admits. “It’s not that I’m not attracted to you, because I am. Just not sexually. Honestly, I’m not sure I know what sexual attraction even feels like.

Harry’s voice comes out thick through his fingers. “You’re my boyfriend, and you’re not even sexually attracted to me? Fuck, Louis, this is the weirdest breakup I’ve ever heard. Can you just get this over with and spare me, please?”

“I’m not breaking up with you—“ Louis explains, for what feels like the hundredth time.

“It sure sounds like it,” he almost laughs.

Harry drops his hands, balling them into fists on top of his thighs. “I don’t know what it’s like to feel sexual attraction? Can you at least go with something a bit more realistic, Louis? I’m not stupid or fragile or whatever it is you’re thinking. I can take it.”

Louis knows he’s hurt, which is why he’s saying these things, but he can’t help but feel the little jolt in his heart when Harry, Harry of all people manages to make him feel like a liar or someone trying by any means to weasel out of a relationship.

“Can you just, like, listen to me for one second?” Louis demands. Harry’s eyes snap up to meet his, fiery and hurt, and Louis tries to explain where he’s coming from.

“It’s just— Harry, I’m so, so tired of not considering myself on the same level as everyone else because I feel like there’s something essential missing inside me. And of feeling that there’s this huge, prominent part of me that’s not even worth mentioning or discussing— it just makes me feel so insignificant. So, now, you not listening to what I’m saying and accusing me of being some liar is so— it’s just so disheartening.”

Louis feels— almost stronger with each word. Harry’s face is less set and his fists are curled more loosely.

He has his attention. Good.

“What are you talking about?” he asks lowly.

“I’m talking about how I didn’t know what was wrong with—“ Louis cuts himself off, reminding himself there’s nothing wrong with him.

“I mean, how I didn’t know there was even anyone else like me until a few months ago. It’s just, like, everyone treats sex like this huge thing everyone wants no matter what— that when they reach a certain age, that’s it, and there’s no going back, and you become a sex crazed adult, and I’ve just—“

Louis chokes on his words, all semblance of composure leaving him in one short breath— with blunt honesty he’s never had the strength to speak.

“I’ve never felt like that. And ever since Liam had a crush on Ms. Chelsey, and Zayn had his first girlfriend, and Niall had his first kiss on a swing set, I’ve felt like this fucking child, stuck in a body growing too fast for me. Like my body grew faster than my brain, and I’ve been stuck in this weird permanent Peter Pan state, and everyone else has grown up, and I’ve been left behind. I’ve always felt like I was programmed differently, and I’ve literally never talked to anyone about this until today, and it’s just built. I feel, like—“

Louis isn’t even sure how he feels. He’s crying a lot, but he figures it’s mostly out of pent up frustration and not because he’s baring his soul to Harry.

“It’s so freeing to just admit this and have someone listen to me, honestly. But it’s terrifying, too. Because I know, like— I know this changes things.”

“How come this is changing things? Are we not— do you not want to be with me anymore?” Harry asks.

Louis shakes his head, heart pumping harder. “I do! I really do, but I figure sex is probably a pretty important part to a relationship. I thought maybe you’d be mad at me or be finished when you realised it wasn’t— that it’s not happening. That it’s not going to happen.”

Harry bites his lip and looks up to the ceiling. “I mean— I’m not going to pretend it’s not a big deal. Or that I’m not— Louis, I’m really pissed you hid this from me for so long. What the fuck? I thought, like, you were seeing someone else behind my back for a while, and then, I thought you were just not really into me—“

He laughs to himself. “I guess that one was kind of right. But you can’t— fuck, Louis, you can’t make me fall in love with you, and then tell me this, now. After we’ve already—“

He sighs and closes his eyes. “I love you, too. And that isn’t, like, changing or anything. But I don’t— I know I’m really mad at you. And I want some time to, like, regroup and think about this all. Okay?”

Louis gulps, recognising his cue to leave.

“I’m really sorry,” he whispers, because it feels like the only thing he can really say.

But he doesn’t want to leave. It feels like—

It feels like he’s bared his soul twice over and received no support. When he officially came out as gay to Zayn and Liam and Niall they all hugged him and told him it didn’t change anything and that they loved him no matter what. He was so, so lucky to be surrounded by great friends and a supportive family, and he took it for granted.

Niall bought him a rainbow flag, and Liam started calling out their classmates who used gay slurs, and Zayn held his hand under the table when he came out to his mum and step-dad. He felt loved and like he wasn’t alone and like it mattered.

This time it feels like it doesn’t matter. Other than Perrie’s hug and her few quick words, he’s only got questions and anger and dismissal. Harry’s reaction is nowhere near as heart-breaking as Zayn’s but he literally just talked about how he’s never talked about this with anyone; and even though he knows Harry’s upset, he wants cuddles and kind words and for Harry to tell him he loves him at least 50 more times before he even thinks of walking out the door.

He wants Harry to reassure him it’s okay that he doesn’t want sex and that he’s not a child and that he’s fine the way he is and that loving him without sex is enough, and that he won’t secretly resent him for unintentionally forcing him into un-discussed beforehand celibacy, even though that would be perfectly reasonable.

That’s not too selfish to want, is it? Some validation? Some support?

“Harry, can you, just, like. Can you please be mad at me in five minutes? Because I just really need someone to hug me after— Zayn didn’t take it very well,” Louis begs.

Harry looks like he’s about to say something, but he crawls over to him from the opposite end of the couch and simply pulls him into his arms. It’s all encompassing— tangled arms and legs and Louis’ tears in Harry’s hair and bodies moulding together, but it’s exactly what Louis needs.

He feels so safe in Harry’s arms— so unexpectedly accepted because since Louis explained things, even though he’s upset, Harry hasn’t once tried to undermine him or point him in a different direction. There was no are you sure or freak-show fascination or badly disguised eye rolling.

Just acceptance.

Acceptance and unexpected, undeserved love, and he didn’t even break up with him. It’s honestly more than he was ever expecting— a million times better than telling Zayn and just as liberating as the first thread he found on AVEN.

Harry breaks the hug and holds Louis at arms length before he thumbs below his eyes, wiping his tears. He leans in after, but he stops himself only a quarter of the way through with a finger to his lips.

“Is that not— do you not want to kiss me? Is that a part of it?” Harry asks, and Louis swears he’s died and gone to heaven.

Harry cares. Harry listened.

“No, I like to kiss you,” Louis whispers, and then he leans in first.

There’s a quote, Louis remembers, about how freeing and safe it feels to have a partner who can say, “I love you, but I’m mad at you.”

Louis has never understood its significance until now.

He has thirteen missed calls and a million texts by the time he gets back home, all from Zayn.

hey man im really sorry call me back when you can

how did things so with hary

im reallysorry

perrie yelled at me and i feel really terrible

im sorry

can i come over

*come over to explain im not just inviting myseld over

god why are oyu even friends with me im so shitty

niall said harry c alled him

can i just say that im not just pretending to feel like shit i really feel like throwing up

shit not that im not saying you don’t feel like shit too because you probably feel worse and its my fault

im so sorry

i just want to make things right ive been a bad friend

louis weve been friends forever can i just try to make this right

i looked things up and i promise im trying

im really just really sorry and im not really sure what else i can say to make up for this.

youre my best friend

when youre ready to talk to me again i promise im going to be a better friend to you

~

Louis ignores every single one. He falls asleep with cold toes.

~

The next few days pass both slowly and quickly, if that’s even possible.

Harry’s not exactly ignoring him, but it’s not like they’re talking about the things that matter, the things Louis really wants to discuss. He knows Harry’s still wrapping his head around everything and trying to get a handle on things, while also stressing about the rotating platforms, which have taken to only working every other rotation.

Louis is stressing, too. Grimshaw has come down with a terrible bout of laryngitis; and with no understudy and a voice so weak he can only speak briefly, Louis has had to take over almost every line of his that doesn’t directly coincide with something Louis has said to him. He’s taken to spending lunch in Mr. Cowell’s classroom, memorising and rehearsing, which both serves as a quiet place to study and a refuge in which he can escape Zayn’s hopeful stare and superfluous, strained encouragements, as well as Harry’s avoiding, careful eyes.

Everything is unfairly stressful, is the thing. He doesn’t think he’s properly slept since the night he learned ace has more than two meanings, and dress rehearsals and the final run through for the show were less than satisfactory. He’s so focused on remembering to say the right lines that he’s been forgetting to stay in character when the audience’s attention isn’t on him.

Guildenstern’s lines are terribly unpracticed and, at times, awkward. And Louis appreciates that Simon is trusting him with this— he hopes it will get him back in his good graces from when he said the Terrible Awful, but he’s so nervous he thinks he might throw up.

He’s surprised he doesn’t when he walks into the greenroom with his costume in hand. Because Harry is standing and applying makeup to a distraught Ophelia and whispering to calm her down.

Because Harry volunteered to do makeup. Because he raved to Simon for weeks about how he’s always liked helping his sister get ready to go out. Because Louis is still an oblivious toad since he was the one who urged Harry to volunteer in the first place.

A soon as the door slams shut behind him, Harry glances up and nods a weak hello before turning back to Sophia. It feels so impersonal and halfhearted that Louis is positive that, this time around, he’s going to be the one to have a nervous breakdown before the show.

Louis walks to the corner and pulls on his suffocating costume. The material has no breathing room, one of the buttons is hanging by a thread, and Louis feels like he’s walking on eggshells.

Once he’s dressed, he realises the possibility of throwing up is more real than he originally thought and rushes to the toilet to escape. He locks himself in the stall and does a breathing exercise Simon taught him last year, but it doesn’t calm his nerves.

He can’t go onstage like this. He can’t live for even five more minutes with his life like this— at an absolute standstill and without any of the necessary explanations. He needs to talk to Harry. He needs to know whether things are okay.

Whether they’re okay.

After a few moments of bullshit meditation, he walks out of the restroom on shaky legs. He’s disappointed to see that Harry is in the middle of Grimshaw’s makeup when he returns to the greenroom.

But more than that, it makes him jealous. It’s just— doing someone’s makeup is intimate. Harry’s hands are on Nick’s jaw, and he’s leaned in close to his face to make sure the base is blended in along his hairline, and Louis remembers Nick once made a comment about how he was surprised Louis was able to land someone so fit.

And they’re talking. And laughing. And Louis realises with a sharp pain in his chest that Nick could offer Harry something he can’t.

And he’s struck with sudden, crippling insecurity. He doesn’t see how Harry could choose him over everyone else, every time. He doesn’t see why he’d want to. Why he’d continue to want to.

He watches them from the corner, his chest concave. Once Harry finishes Nick’s makeup with a neutral lip stain, Louis walks over.

“Harry, can we— can we talk?” he asks, shuffling his weight from one foot to the other.

Harry gives him a soft smile and screws on a stray lid. “Yeah. Where do you—?“

“Toilet,” Louis suggests immediately. He pulls Harry up by the hand and hardly allows him time to grab the makeup bag before he’s following in his exact footsteps from minutes ago.

Once they’re inside, the harsh lights washing both of their faces out, Louis lets out a breath.

“Harry, I know we haven’t—“

“Can you hop up on the counter?” Harry asks him. “I still have Hamlet and Gertrude’s and Horatio’s makeup to do, so we need to be quick.”

Louis nods and pulls himself up onto the counter. He thinks it’s probably wet, but his costume is so thick he doesn’t really care.

Harry pulls out a few bottles of foundation, weighing between two options.

“Are we, like— are we okay? You haven’t really…”

Louis trails off, inviting Harry to take complete control of the conversation. It’s not in his hands anymore.

“Yeah. I think we’ll be okay,” Harry reassures him after a long look. He throws one bottle back in the bag and pulls the cap off the other as he steps between Louis’ legs. “I just— the thing that’s really bothering me is that, like, I can’t get over how long it took you to tell me. You said you couldn’t hold it in, anymore. Were you even planning on telling me, ever?”

Louis shrugs as Harry splashes the foundation onto a sponge and brings it to his cheek. “I think I was kind of hoping you’d know without me telling you?”

“How was I supposed to know that without you telling me? I can’t read your mind,” Harry shakes his head, his eyebrows furrowing as he spreads the colour across Louis’ face.

“I know it was hard to say, but I don’t want to be in a relationship with a guy if he’s afraid to tell me things about himself— big things like that. And it’s just, like, something like that affects both of us, you know? So you can’t— you can’t hide things like that from me anymore, okay? That’s my— my only request that’s come out of all this.”

Louis nods, his eyes to the floor. “I’m sorry—“

“I know,” Harry says. “I realise it was probably, like. I did some research. So I know people have probably told you really terrible things, and you were probably afraid of my reaction or something, so I’m not mad. It’s just, like, I’m disappointed—“

Louis cringes. It’s the exact thing he’s been so nervous about. Because if Harry is disappointed, he might… he might…

“We can have sex if you really want to,” Louis blurts out without thinking. It’s a last-ditch effort and the prospect of it is daunting, but if it gets Harry to stay with him, he thinks maybe it would be worth it.

The sponge stops on Louis’ forehead, and Louis tries unsuccessfully not to cry because of how hopeless he feels. It’s just that he doesn’t want Harry to want other people like that when they’re together, but he doesn’t want to have sex with him, either, but he thinks it’s probably selfish to want to force Harry into being celibate for him.

He doesn’t want Harry to want someone else, though. He doesn’t know what to do.

Harry shakes his head as he drops his hand and steps closer, his free hand to Louis’ waist. They’re almost perfectly at eye level; Harry licks his lip before he speaks.

“If you don’t want it, I don’t want it,” he declares, and Louis almost falls over in relief.

“You shouldn’t have to do something you don’t want to just to make me happy. You don’t owe me anything just because you’re my boyfriend. And even though you waited to tell me too long, it doesn’t mean I’m going to hold it above you or threaten you with it or anything, okay? Sex isn’t some bargaining tool.”

Harry’s hand is the only thing keeping Louis upright. He sniffles, the words coming out broken between his deep, rattling breaths. “You don’t— you don’t think you’re settling or something? When you could have— you could have someone else? Someone else who wants you in— in the same way you want them?”

Harry shakes his head and thumbs below Louis’ eye.

“Your makeup, babe,” he reminds him quietly.

He smiles sadly and resumes spreading the foundation to Louis’ jaw. Louis reminds himself to breathe.

“I do have a question for you, though,” Harry mumbles as he pulls a neutral eye colour from his bag. He gently closes Louis’ eyes before he begins the application.

“Are you only— you said you loved me and I— like, I believe you. But I’m worried you’re just kind of latching onto me because— because you’re afraid nobody else will love you once they know your secret? Is that…” Harry trails off.

Louis shakes his head, the warm pressure of the eye shadow hindering him.

“Are you sure?” Harry questions, moving to the other eye. “I just— I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself knowing the only reason you’re with me is because of that. Because, like—“

He drops the eye shadow to the counter and places his thumbs at the corners of Louis’ eyes, allowing him to open them. “What you said to me the other day about how you’ve always felt insignificant and stuck really scared me. You’re so—“

He looks Louis up and down, his mouth open like he’s not sure how to continue. “You’re so significant. You’re significant, and important, and you mean so much to me and Zayn and your family and even Mr. Cowell, and you’re going to be some fancy actor that won’t even be able to walk down the street without people asking for your autograph someday soon, and I can’t believe you don’t see how important that is. How important you are.”

He pauses, sliding his hands down Louis’ body until he’s gripping at his ribs. “You belong here just as much as anyone else— sex or no sex, having your dumb boyfriend pull you off in the morning or not. You deserve to be talked about, and you deserve to not be afraid someone will tell you you’re wrong about who you are, and I just want you to know I’m not the only one who will see it that way. Like, if things didn’t work out with us in the future, it’s not like you wouldn’t be able to find anyone else.”

Harry sighs and lets his hands drop to his hips. “It’s not hard to love you. I feel like you think you’re some burden or like I’m going to end up thinking you’re not worth it in the end, but you are. You’re so worth it.”

Louis isn’t sure he’s breathed once during Harry’s entire speech. He brings his hands to Harry’s biceps, but he doesn’t really know what to say.

He opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He feels warm all over, tingly and throbbing with something. He’s never had someone know exactly what he needed to hear— he’s never actually known exactly what he needed to hear, but Harry’s speech has left him feeling overheated and prized in a way he never has before.

“I think I’m just trying to ask whether that’s why you’re with me,” Harry finally admits, his lip between his teeth.

Louis shakes his head and tries to tell him not at all, but he still can’t get the words out.

Harry lets out a sigh and wipes below Louis’ still leaking eyes. “Can you please stop crying, then? You’re on soon, and I don’t want you to be upset.”

“I’m not upset,” Louis finally squeaks. “I’m just— are you real?”

Harry shrugs and grabs the eye shadow from the counter. “As real as anyone.”

Louis closes his eyes but tightens his grip on Harry’s arms. He hooks his ankles together behind Harry’s back, but it doesn’t feel like enough.

He’s so in love he isn’t sure how to react. He can’t believe how wise and perceptive Harry is, at only sixteen. He’s surprised in the most pleasant way, and he just wants to spend the rest of the night with Harry wrapped in his arms. The show can wait.

“Love you,” he whispers once Harry gets to his lip stain. The words still taste fresh, and Louis’ never liked a flavor more.

“Stop talking,” Harry giggles, adding pressure against Louis’ lips.

Louis stays silent, puckering up just like Harry asks.

“And you’re finished!” Harry announces. Louis’ face feels like it can’t breathe, covered and constricted with heavy stage makeup, but his lungs feel like they’ve never been able to expand more.

“Thank you,” he says, his voice shaky.

“No problem,” Harry grins, stepping out of the way so Louis can hop back to the floor. “Break a leg? Or, like, yeah, that’s what I should say to you, right?”

“That works,” Louis shrugs, stepping into Harry’s space, making Harry’s lips the same neutral-pink as his own.

~

The show goes on, Louis’ spotlight amber on his skin.

He forgets a few of Nick’s lines, which prompts him to squeak them out himself, and Hamlet, Gertrude, and Horatio’s makeup is sloppy and rushed, but Louis thinks it’s one of the best openings he’s ever been a part of.

~

Zayn and Perrie bring him flowers after the final performance. Zayn looks sheepish, his sweater grey and loose across his shoulders. He hands the flowers to Louis unsteadily, like he’s asking a question.

Perrie hugs him and congratulates him on his performance, citing how sad she was when he died.

“The best one in the entire play, honestly,” she grins.

Louis turns to Zayn next, clutching onto his flowers like a newborn child, unsure exactly where they stand.

“You were great,” Zayn agrees with Perrie. He scuffs at the floor with his boot, hanging his head.

“Listen— I’m really sorry about before. When you— that took a lot, and I wasn’t a very good friend to you.”

Louis shrugs. “No, you weren’t. You were a terrible friend.”

He’s still bitter, but he’s also still high off adrenaline and is feeling forgiving. Zayn’s head is hung in shame, he still has over thirty unread texts in his phone, and he can sense that his point has been made.

“I guess it makes up for the time I laughed at you when you broke your arm skating, right?”

Louis expects a laugh, but it doesn’t come. It seems Zayn is taking this even more seriously than he is himself.

They stare at each other for a moment before Zayn steps forward. “So, asexual, right?”

“Yeah,” Louis confirms, not really sure what else to say, gauging his reaction.

“Okay,” Zayn says. He nods his head. “Does— does anyone know other than me and Perrie?”

“Just Harry,” he sighs out, aware of how close a group of his classmates are standing.

Zayn grimaces. “Are things with the two of you okay?”

“Better than I thought they ever could be, honestly,” he answers, his voice accusing.

Zayn looks to the floor and apologises again. He looks kind of like a kicked puppy; Louis would feel bad if he didn’t deserve it.

“Can we pretend you just told me for the first time? Right now? So I can do it right?” Zayn requests.

Louis rolls his eyes but nods.

Zayn wastes no time before he pulls him in for a hug and doesn’t let go.

“Thank you for telling me. I know it was probably scary, and I want you to know I still love you just as much as I did before, if not more. You’re not broken or weird, and I accept you for who you are.”

It comes out smooth and almost practiced, the words flowing quickly and seamlessly.

“Did you rehearse that?” Louis asks suspiciously. Zayn isn’t one for spontaneous supportive speeches.

“Yeah. Perrie and I drafted it together,” he affirms. Louis isn’t sure whether to be touched or upset that the words didn’t come straight from the heart.

“But I promise I mean it. Every single word. I’m just— I’m really sorry, Louis.”

“I know,” Louis squeezes tighter.

“I know.”

“Harry, where are we going?” Louis whines for the five-hundredth time.

Harry grins and pulls him out the doors of Covent Station, sidestepping the crowds of tourists who seem to have no idea where they're going. “I told you, it’s a surprise.”

Louis shivers, though it’s surprisingly not freezing for the 23rd of December. He squeezes Harry’s fingers between his and grins, allowing himself to be pulled past the red brick of the building with no idea of what direction to go.

Right as they step out, they’re inundated by streets decked in red and gold, fairy lights wrapped around the buildings and trees decorated for Christmas. The people surrounding them seem hectic but cheery, as though they’re simply trying to get shit done before the holiday. Louis feels a certain belonging, as though his body understands that in a few years it could be him on the same exact street, places to go and people to see and important things to do. He smiles and walks a bit faster.

They turn past the market, the golden light mixed with blue spilling across the pillars, and Louis stops in the middle of everything, tugging Harry to a halt with him.

People glare as they circumvent them, but Louis hardly notices and doesn’t care.

“What is it?” Harry asks, sidestepping a grumpy old woman hurling insults their way.

Louis isn’t sure. He’s been to London too many times to count, but there’s something different and more magical about being here so close to Christmas and with someone he loves.

He shrugs and steps up onto his tiptoes as he pulls Harry close, wrapping his arms around his shoulders and kissing him. He doesn’t give an explanation, smiling into the kiss and only pulling away once a small child runs into Harry’s legs and almost sends them both toppling over.

They continue on their way, pointing out touristy things to each other as they go. Louis feels like he’s thrumming with excitement, unsure exactly what’s in store for the evening but looking forward to the unknown.

At the corner, Harry pulls him against a wall so they’re out of the direct pedestrian path.

“Okay,” Harry breathes, his back to the wall beside Louis. “I might have— this trip might have two purposes.”

Louis turns his head to the side, surveying Harry up and down. He looks so nervous, his hands wringing together without purpose.

“What are these two purposes?” Louis probes.

Harry bites his lip. “Do you remember that day I almost killed you with your skateboard?”

Louis nods, his leg throbbing in phantom pain at the reminder.

Harry laughs self-consciously. “Okay, well, please don’t think I’m creepy! But, I decided, like, I’m going to make this up to him! So I— after you left Niall’s, I went online to try to find something cool to do in London, as, like, an apology? And because I kind of already really liked you and wanted to trick you into falling for me at this point.”

Louis can feel elation rising higher in his stomach. “And?”

“And— and we didn’t go anywhere, right?” Harry asks rhetorically. “Because I found tickets to a show at Drury Lane, and I really wanted to go because I knew you’d appreciate it, and we kind of talked about it during the first date. And I found them the day before your birthday. And so I was, like, ‘I really feel like things are going to work, and we’ll still be on good terms, then.’ And so I bought them. And now— and now here we are.”

“How did you even pay?” Louis asks, because he knows tickets aren’t cheap. Not only that, but Harry insisted on paying for the train and the Oyster card burning a hole in his pocket.

“Doesn’t matter,” Harry shrugs, his dimple out in full force. “Do you accept my apology? Or will I have to try even harder to win your approval?”

Louis rolls his eyes, so ridiculously fond for this boy he didn’t even know only a few months ago. “This is the best birthday present I’ve ever got. And you really didn’t have to do all this; I think the bruise was gone within a week, honestly."

Louis pulls him away from the wall to continue their journey, with a destination now in mind.

“Thank you for the present, though. I mean it,” Louis begins, eyes to the floor. He’s so happy he feels like he might burst, but he also feels a bit guilty, like he doesn’t really deserve to have such a thoughtful boyfriend when he kept Harry in the dark for so long. “It’s nice to— to just have a night out. Especially with— with how I kind of messed things up bef—“

“You didn’t mess anything up,” Harry reassures him. He tightens his grip on his hand and turns to the side to pass through a group of women who may or may not be drunk, already. “I’m so glad you finally felt like you could, like, tell me."

Louis bites at the inside of his lip because he knows Harry has placed a little bit of the blame on himself— like he should have known without asking or like he didn’t make Louis feel safe enough when it was just the two of them alone together.

Louis pulls him to a halt and makes sure Harry knows how serious he is. “I always knew I could tell you, I just wasn’t ready to tell myself.”

Harry nods like he’s not quite ready to believe it, but he’s trying.

The somber mood is broken once the theatre comes into view, the white building almost unremarkable save for the huge Oliver poster above the entrance.

“Food, glorious food,” Harry giggles as they step into the queue.

Harry doesn’t pay attention to the entire musical, choosing instead to crane his head from side to side the entire time in search of a ghost.

Louis spends the entire show focused on Dodger, critiquing his every move and silently thinking to himself how much better he could have played the part, if he was only a few years younger.

During the interval, when Harry is pretending to be stuck in line for the toilet, while really searching for the man in grey or the ghost of Dan Leno or someone, Louis sighs and sends Zayn a sappy text about how Harry is the best boyfriend ever.

Harry comes back just as the lights go down, his eyebrows furrowed in frustration.

~

They take the Picadilly Line back to King’s Cross and begin the grueling journey back home. The white tiles remind Louis of the hospital his mum works at; and as he and Harry wait on a black bench for the train, thighs pressed tight together, Louis feels at home.

He leans his head on Harry’s shoulder, content and happy and tired and, most of all, warm.

~

After a quiet and slightly uncomfortable conversation on the train, Louis agrees to stay the night.

“Just, like, to sleep,” Harry stresses, the look in his eyes purposeful. “I just want to wake up with you next to me. And it’s already late.”

Louis agrees and sets his head on Harry’s shoulder, letting the dull rocking of the train lull him to a peaceful sleep.

~

“Shh,” Harry presses his finger to Louis’ lips. “My parents are sleeping.”

They creep through the door on their tiptoes before sneaking up the stairs.

Once they make it to Harry’s room, Louis shuts the door softly behind them. He sighs with his back to it, closing his eyes as he lets the day’s events wash over him.

“I still didn’t see a ghost,” Harry pouts as he sits on the edge of his mattress, pulling his shoes and socks off and interrupting Louis’ thoughts.

Louis walks to join him but doesn’t begin undressing. “We’ll go again. We’ll find your ghost one day. Don’t worry.”

Harry drops his shoe to the floor with a thud. He turns to give Louis a calculating and suspicious look. “You don’t even believe in ghosts.”

Louis shrugs. “But you do.”

Harry grins and begins to pull his shirt off, but stops halfway.

“I— um, does this make you uncomfortable?” he asks through the fabric, half of his stomach exposed.

Louis laughs as he helps him pull it the rest of the way off. Once he’s free, he kisses him on the nose and throws it to the floor.

“No. Sleep in whatever you like,” he tells him. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine— I know you’re not going to, like, try anything.”

Harry hesitates. “I normally sleep, like—“ he pauses. “I’ll keep my pants on. Do you want clothes to sleep in?”

Louis considers as he pulls his own shirt off. He normally sleeps in just pants, too, but he wonders whether it would be okay to sleep practically naked next to Harry.

“Would you think I’m being a tease if I said no?” he asks seriously. He doesn’t want Harry to think he’s trying to seduce him in any way, but he actually thinks it would be nice to sleep like that next to Harry, to feel their bare skin on skin and feel close to him in a new way. In a way he’s never wanted to get close to anyone else.

“No,” Harry answers, his voice sincere. “I know what to expect. And what not to expect.”

They change quickly and slip under the covers, bodies pressed close on Harry’s tiny mattress. It’s almost hesitant in the way they come together, Harry’s fingers careful against Louis’ arm and Louis’ arm almost unsure of exactly where to go.

But it’s skin on skin, hearts pressed together and beating as one, the tips of their noses brushing, their eyes crossed because of their proximity. Harry brings one hand down to Louis’ waist and pulls him in closer, tangling their ankles together under the covers.

Louis pushes their foreheads together and places his hand on Harry’s waist, too. The air is placid and silent between them— so calm it’s like they’re the only ones awake in the entire world.

And Harry is warm. Harry’s hand feels like a steaming hot bath after a long day, each point of contact heated, like Harry has fire in his veins.

But Louis doesn’t feel cold in comparison.

He can’t imagine that there’s anything better than this. He can’t imagine that he could ever feel closer to someone than how close he feels to Harry now. He can’t imagine their relationship being any less than another because they haven’t had sex.

It feels like love.

It feels like maybe holding each other close under the covers without any barriers between them is their own personal version of making love, even more intimate than the few physical experiences they’ve shared.

Louis squeezes at Harry’s waist and leans in a few centimeters to give him a gentle kiss. It’s almost transcendental, the kiss so soft and sweet that Louis beams into it and clutches Harry closer. He’d happily stay here for the rest of his life if he could.

It’s only moments later that Harry stiffens, curling his body inward and mumbling out an apology.

Louis strokes his hair back and kisses his cheek. Things feel fuzzy, like they’re floating, only half in reality, but he knows he needs to address it.

“Don’t feel bad, love. I’m not scared of your cock,” Louis explains with a soft smile. “And if you have to…” he pauses, unsure how to phrase it. “If you have to take care of things, don’t be afraid to.”

Harry shakes his head and presses in close again. Louis can feel his half-hard cock against his hip, but he isn’t pressing demandingly or insistently. He’s expecting a flash of panic or dread, but since he knows nothing is expected on his end, he finds that it doesn’t bother him.

“Maybe another night,” Harry whispers before taking a deep breath. “Tonight I just want— this.”

He pulls him closer and presses his lips to Louis’ forehead.

It feels momentous, like an acceptance he’s already given Louis twice over.

Louis feels loved. He could fall asleep at any moment, bathed in pink warmth and soft kisses, if not for the bright streetlamp shining through Harry’s open curtains.

“How do you even sleep with all that light?” Louis jokes.

Harry sighs and shuts the curtains before climbing back into bed with him.

 

~ Next Year ~

  

Louis wrings his hands in front of him anxiously before he glances at his watch for the fifth time. He flicks his fringe out of his eyes and wipes his hands on his jeans as he thinks to himself that he probably should have brought flowers of some sort.

Or chocolate. Maybe he should have brought Harry’s favourite sweets.

He sidesteps a man in a fedora and snags a spot on a black bench. He sits on his fingers and tries to remain calm, trying out one of the new breathing exercises he’s been forced to learn.

It’s just that he hasn’t seen Harry since the day he officially moved to London to begin uni at Middlesex, and he still can’t believe that this is his life, sometimes.

He pulls his phone out and stares at Harry’s last text (cant wait to see you!!! xxx) with his lip between his teeth, his mind racing.

Louis knows he shouldn’t be worried, but he is.

It’s irrational. He and Harry Skype at least twice a week and they’re always texting, and sometimes, he’ll even call Harry during lunch just to hear his voice, but things aren’t easy.

Their relationship already has such a significant hurdle that the distance has made things difficult at times. Harry still struggles with not feeling completely wanted some nights, and Louis still struggles with feeling like half a person on his bad days, but they’ve made it work. Things haven’t been exactly smooth, but they’ve been good. They’ve been great, even.

Louis thinks he’s finally happy, at least mostly.

Uni is fun and stimulating, though his classes have been a challenge. He likes the freedom to choose what to do and when to do it with nobody to answer to. The independence is exhilarating, and Louis thinks he fits in here much more than up north.

He’s met so many new and exciting and interesting people his age that he can’t even keep up with half their names; but for some reason, nobody has really stood out to Louis as someone he can truly relate to. It feels like every new person is just a face to do things with— someone to have fun with and talk to but not someone he can actually open up to or that he really wants to get to know. There’s nobody he’s really connected with in the way everyone always mentions when talking about their uni friends.

So the environment is exciting and fast paced, and he’s never bored or alone, but he does get oddly lonely, sometimes.

It doesn’t feel like he’s found his niche yet. He’s cast in Woyzeck, and he joined comedy society, but when he gets home from pub crawls and late night study sessions at Costa with his friends from directing, he misses home.

It’s weird because after a bit of contemplation, he realises he doesn’t really miss the town, or his old teachers, or anyone other than his family and close friends. He misses something intangible.

Louis realises that he feels at home when he’s in his bed Skyping Harry. He feels at home when he’s laughing with Harry as he’s crossing campus to try to make his class he overslept for. He feels at home when he’s texting Harry in the middle of lecture about whether caterpillars know what’s happening when they make their caccoons.

Harry is like his home away from home. He makes him feel safe and loved and at ease. He makes his heart race and slow at the same time and his lips tingle with a memorised pressure and his heart ache in the best way.

The thing Louis didn’t understand before moving away was that once you leave, you’re not sure where home truly is. His bedroom at his parents’ feels like a faraway, distant memory, but his lumpy bed in London sometimes feels hypothetical and too temporary to be considered home. It’s like he’s caught between two places, but neither really feels like it could be considered his home, in his eyes.

He imagines if he went up north to visit his parents, he’d miss London— he’d miss the sights and the sounds and the opportunity to wake up and just walk and for there to be a guarantee that he’ll find something to do on the way. But on dreary mornings when he has term papers to write and text messages from people whose names he can hardly connect to their faces, he misses the familiarity of waking up to a cup of tea and a hug from his mum.

He feels like his heart is stuck in a perpetual tug of war between wanting to be somewhere other than where it is. He’s not sure either place feels like home, anymore, since his heart is always longing to be somewhere else.

Louis realises that home isn’t really a place.

Home is a feeling of contentment and belonging, familiarity and serenity, somewhere he can block out the rest of the world and relax and refresh.

Talking to Harry feels like home. He never wants to be anywhere else.

But now that Harry is only minutes from being here, right next to Louis and staying the entire weekend and sleeping in the same bed as him, he’s afraid Harry will change his mind about him and leave him homeless.

He buries his face in his hands, because that’s the exact type of talk Harry feels like absolute shit about when he hears. And Louis knows it’s his own insecurities peeking through because Harry never pushes and always reminds Louis over Skype, once their voices are sleepy and slow, that he loves him more than he’s loved anyone else.

Which would be cheesy and cringe worthy if Louis didn’t physically need to hear it so often. Whenever Harry tells him stories about his new friends or posts a new picture on Instagram of him having fun with people decidedly not him, Louis aches with how badly he wishes he could be there, too.

He knows Harry keeps the more intimate details of their relationship private; but he’s sometimes worried that, as a result of alcohol and secret, pent up frustration, he’ll announce things to his new friends, and they’ll somehow convince him to leave Louis.

They’ll convince him that he’s missing out on his prime and that he should find someone he’s more compatible with on all levels. That the distance isn’t worth it. That he could find someone better in a heartbeat.

Because they wouldn’t understand.

Sometimes he doesn’t understand, either, though. He’d always thought of sex as some huge, serious thing, but when Louis tried to give his first blowjob and laughed because it just seemed so ludicrous to him that Harry actually wanted to put his dick in his mouth, they laughed together.

When Louis’ mind wanders while Harry has his cock out during Skype and he calls him out for scrolling through Facebook, it isn’t in an offended way.

It just is. It’s almost funny because Louis has always imagined the kiss of death for his relationship would be the fact that he doesn’t want sex, but the distance is more of a hindrance.

Love is hard through just a screen. It’s hard, and Louis knows that this visit will either improve or completely ruin everything. It feels like there’s pressure coming in from all sides, making him small and scared and unable to breathe.

A train whistles; and soon enough, Louis is closing his eyes against the sudden rush of wind throughout the station. His heart rate stops and then pounds erratically with the knowledge that Harry is here in the same building, seeing the same things and breathing the same air and here.

He tries to think of something dramatic and intriguing to say to Harry once they’re finally face to face again to begin the visit on the right foot, but his mind is a blank.

People rush out of the doors once they open, hurrying with their bags to meet their loved ones. Louis watches a woman in a red coat almost runto the fedora-man and pull him into a kiss.

It’s passionate and radiates so much love Louis thinks he’s probably catching second-hand embarrassment, but it’s a scene-stealer. A few people nearby begin to clap and cheer, so fedora-man lifts her up until her toes are skimming the floor.

“A little bit over the top,” a voice to his left says directly into his ear, and Louis almost jumps.

“Shit, Harry,” he says as he turns to face him.

His breath hitches at the familiar smell of Harry’s cologne. It’s so familiar it’s almost like the day he left for London could have been only yesterday.

“I was going to say something theatrical and charming when we first saw each other, but now you stole my chance.”

Harry grins and drops his bag to the floor before putting his hands on Louis’ shoulders and looking him up and down.

“God, you look so good, Lou. I’ve missed you,” Harry mumbles quietly, his fingers rubbing soft circles into Louis’ sweater.

Louis gives Harry a scan as well, his eyes raking over his chocolate curls and his green, smiling eyes and his… taller frame.

“You’re— you’re taller,” Louis frowns, his eyebrows furrowing at the realisation. “Like, significantly taller than me. Fuck.”

He panics. “What else has changed? Any new tattoos? Did you pierce your nipples? Switch cell phone providers? Become a vegan?”

Harry blushes and hunches inward. “I’m still me, Lou. It’s just been a while.”

Harry fingers twitch against his shoulders before he gets a hand behind Louis’ neck and tentatively leans in for a reunion kiss. Louis hesitates the tiniest bit before their lips meet— the feeling almost new since it’s been so long. But once Harry’s arms wind around his shoulders and he’s gripping Harry’s waist with both hands, he falls back into it.

He’s missed this. He’s missed Harry. He’s missed how natural being with him is. He’s missed his curls and his smell and his taste and the way he remembers even after all these months that Louis likes when he scratches along his hairline as they kiss.

He almost loses himself in the moment, but the same group that clapped for fedora-man and red coat-woman begin to cheer for them. Louis breaks away red faced and laughing, pushing his face into Harry’s neck as the applause dies down.

The crowd slowly dissipates, and he and Harry make their way to the doors along with the group.

In a rare turn of events, the sun is shining. The rays are reflecting off of the leftover puddles from last night’s rain, and there are grey clouds creeping towards them, but it’s good weather for Harry to come home to, regardless.

“What do you want to do first?” Louis asks, squeezing Harry’s hand tight between his.

Harry shrugs and squeezes back. “Don’t really care, as long as I’m with you.”

“You sap,” Louis groans. “We could go sightseeing. Shop at Hamleys or Oxford Street or Harrods, or something. And then tonight we could probably go out with some of my theatre friends, if you’re up for it.”

Harry smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

Louis’ heart sinks. “What’s wrong?”

“I mean— I just thought maybe tonight we could hang out just us? Not that I don’t want to meet your friends or anything, it’s just that I’ve missed you. And I’ve missed, like—

He stops when he sees Louis’ smug grin but doesn’t back down.

“It’s been, like—“ he does a quick calculation in his head. “It’s been seven weeks and four days since I’ve seen you in person! I took the train all the way down just to see you, so excuse me for wanting my boyfriend to myself for one night.”

“Never said there was anything wrong with it, love,” Louis smiles, stepping up on his tiptoes to press a kiss to his cheek. Harry pulls him straight into a hug before he pulls back.

He’s shorter, now, but it feels like nothing else has changed. Harry’s still the same rom-com lover, and he’s still the same sarcastic skeptic.

“I need cuddles,” Harry whispers into his ear, Louis suspects only half sarcastically.

He sighs into Harry’s neck and smiles before extricating himself from Harry’s hold and pulling him along.

It’s the one thing they both know they’re always up for.

A gust of wind blows, and the clouds move to cover the sun, painting London in a sudden, familiar blanket of dark overcast. It looks like it might rain, but Louis is too elated to feel sad about the weather.

He’s going home.