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all the lights are full of colour

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ALL THE LIGHTS ARE FULL OF COLOUR

When Harry meets Louis for the first time, he’s sure that he must have had one beer too many and somehow fallen asleep, because surely the man standing in front of him can only be a figment of his alcohol-infused, sleep-muddled brain’s imagination. Surely. Louis isn’t though, he is as real as Harry’s hangover will turn out to be the next morning, as beautiful in the dim lights of the club as he will prove to be in daylight, and as wonderful as homemade hot chocolate on a cold winter night.

Harry moved to London at nineteen, having been accepted into Le Cordon Bleu, one of London’s most prestigious cooking schools, to take the Grand Diploma and be one step closer to his dream of being a chef at his own restaurant. Niall had moved with Harry from Holmes Chapel, both of them ready for the big city life as Niall started studying business management at King’s College London. That’s where Niall had met Louis, a 21-year-old nursing student. Niall had been Harry’s best friend since they were ten and he had moved to Holmes Chapel from Mullingar, Ireland, and throughout that time he’d done his fair share of brilliant things for Harry, but introducing him to Louis topped all of them without a doubt.

From the very moment Harry lays his eyes on Louis at Niall’s party, he’s in love. He’s in love with everything from Louis’ looks to his view on life. And they fit, they fit so well – like butter on warm bread, like they are made to complete each other. It’s a love story for the ages, just so uncomplicated in the very best way. They fall together with such ease it’s almost ridiculous. There is no such thing as misunderstandings, or months spent pining. It’s simply clear from the very start what they both want.

They become best friends in tandem with them becoming boyfriends, and it’s one of the most beautiful experiences of Harry’s life.

Louis proves to be so wonderful, always so supportive of Harry’s mildly unrealistic dream of owning his own restaurant. He is the unofficial taster of every one of Harry’s experimental recipes, offering his honest opinion on each and every one of them, cheering Harry on whilst he sits on the side, watching Harry sweat over the oven. As soon as Louis finishes his nursing degree, he gets a job at a paediatric ward at the nearby hospital, working tirelessly to save as much money as possible to make their dreams of a future together more realistic.

Harry takes the first and best chef’s job he can get his hands on when he finished at Le Cordon Bleu, working his way through multiple restaurants while he garners both experience and saves up money. They live modestly, a small one-bedroom flat in Dalston, preferring to save up their money for later, perfectly content with what they have just the two of them. They don’t need much more than a bed, a kitchen, a TV and each other, after all.

Looking back, sometimes Harry longs for those simpler times so much it’s like a physical ache in his chest.

When Harry is twenty-three, his paternal grandmother passes away, leaving a significant amount of money to both him and Gemma. He and Louis purchase a nice little house not too far from their previous flat, and it’s around that time that Louis starts to sneak the word babies into conversations more and more often, telling Harry story after story about the kids he is treating at the hospital, and it doesn’t take much to get Harry on-board with the idea of starting a family. A year later they have a son, the most beautiful baby boy, Charlie.   

He is an easy baby, almost too easy really, though Harry quickly discovers that nothing calms the paternal instinct to freak out over every little cough quite like having a paediatric nurse for a husband. It is just so easy, and so good, that when Louis brings up the idea of trying for a second child a year later, it is impossible to say no. At twenty-six Harry is the father of two small boys.

In his first couple of months of living, Noah proves to be every bit as difficult as Charlie was easy, though, colic-y and rarely sleeping, taking a toll on both of them, their busy and complicated schedules making it only harder. They manage together, though, and when Louis proposes four months after Noah’s birth, falling down on one knee in the middle of their modest back garden, Harry doesn’t have to think twice before saying ‘yes’. They marry about half a year later, on New Year’s Eve, while London is covered in a heavy blanket of snow and fireworks colour the sky. The snow falls from the sky prettily the day they marry, nestling in Louis’ quiff and Harry’s own curls like small glittering jewels.

It isn’t easy making everything add up between both of their odd shifts at the restaurant and hospital, but they make it work together, so there is no part of Harry that can say no when the opportunity to open his very own restaurant presents itself.

Louis is supportive, promises Harry that they can do it, can raise two small kids while Harry essentially starts his own business, that they can do anything as long as they do it together.

Maybe that’s what goes wrong in the end; they stop working together.

Sometime between picking out the menu font and cooking the fiftieth plate of garlic shrimps for yet another guest to enjoy, Harry loses track of his home, of his family. He works insane hours, getting up early and leaving before the others are even awake, planting a kiss on Noah and Charlie’s brows before heading out of the door. He works tirelessly to manage both the business side of the restaurant and the culinary, spending his mornings talking to his suppliers, placing orders and accepting table bookings. The lunch crowd starts at around 11, at which point one of his three hired waiters will have shown up. Lunch turns to dinner eventually, and by the time he has cooked the last order and tidied up the kitchen, it’s often midnight, at which point he makes his way home. Charlie and Noah will be asleep, of course, and oftentimes Louis as well. More than once, he’s found his husband passed out on the sofa, as though he tried waiting up for Harry.

He is working for them, though, for his family. Everything he does is with their best interests at heart, is to insure them all the best future they can get.

It’s not like he never sees them. The restaurant isn’t open for lunch on weekends, so he gets to spend most of the day at home with them then. Every other weekend has Louis working, though, but at least that offers Harry some time with the boys alone. They are growing so fast, and he treasures those weekends with them more than anything, his heart aching with what he is missing every day. But it’s only temporary, he has no intention of continuing like this forever, it is just until the restaurant starts pulling in its earnings and Harry can hire some more people.

He had thought it would be okay, thought that they could make it through it together. But it doesn’t take long before there is no ‘together’ anymore.

He’s been blind, blind and much too preoccupied with what was going on with the restaurant to see what was going on with Louis, with his home, to see the strain he was putting on him.

He’s been a terrible, terrible husband, and only just tethering on the edge of slightly passable father. Pretty terrible at that too, in all honesty. It can’t be further from whom he’d thought he was, who he’d always thought he’d be as a husband and a father.

He couldn’t see it then though, he’d been so caught up in the restaurant, in having it succeed, in reaching his dreams, so sure that his family would be there when he got back, so sure that Louis would wait for him. He’d taken Louis for granted, and now he’s paying the price. There is nothing in the world he regrets more.

It all comes to cards on a Sunday evening four months after Harry opened the restaurant. It’s rather late, nine o’clock or so, when Amanda, one of his waitresses, tells him someone is on the phone waiting for him. Bewildered, Harry picks up the restaurant’s phone, only to be met with Louis’ best friend Zayn’s voice.

“You’ve gotta come home now, Harry,” is what the other man had opened with as soon as Harry says hello.

“What?” Harry asks, heart beating wildly suddenly, imagining one scenario after the next of increasingly horrible things that could have happened to his boys. “Are the kids alright? Charlie? Noah—“

“It’s Louis,” Zayn interrupts him.

Dread spreads through Harry like poison pumped into his veins. “Louis?” he manages to croak out, hand gripping the counter to steady himself. There is a restaurant filled with guests just on the other side of the wall, and yet he’s never felt more alone in his life.

“He’s fine,” Zayn hastens to reassure him, “I mean, physically, at least. He’s just—shit, Harry, just trust me, you have to come home. He needs you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like this, I don’t know what to do, and he needs you, Harry—“

“I—I—“ Harry stutters, trying to grasp all the information Zayn is hurling at him, “What the fuck is going on, Zayn?!”

“It’s that patient of his,” Zayn explains quickly, “You know, Miles, the one he’s been taking care of the last couple of months? I mean, of course you know about him.” With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Harry realises that he doesn’t, that he doesn’t know anything about a Miles, that he doesn’t know anything about what has been going on in Louis’ life for months, that it’s been ages since they’ve even had a proper conversation not about the restaurant. It is all Harry has seemed to be able to talk about, and he realises with horror that he hasn’t bothered to ask about Louis’ day in months. “Anyway,” he continues, “He called me over to sit the little ones, ‘cause there was an emergency at work, and when he came home he was just a mess. Harry, I need you to come home, he’s just crying and asking for you and… What are you even waiting for, fuck’s sake, Haz, just come home!”

“Shit,” Harry swears, running a hand through his hair, “Fuck. What do you want me to do, Zayn? Shut down the restaurant? I’m the only chef here, I can’t do that. Look, can you stay with him? I’ll be there as soon as possible, won’t be more than a couple of hours—“

“You don’t understand,” Zayn interrupts him agitatedly, “Shit, you’re not seeing him right now, it’s not a matter of a few hours. He needs you here now, Harry. He’s bloody asking for you.”

He takes a deep breath, nausea rising within him. “I’ll be there as soon as service ends,” he promises, and before Zayn can protest further, he hangs up the phone.

When he returns home that night he finds Louis tucked into their bed, fast asleep though his eyelashes are still wet, indicating that he hasn’t been out for long. Zayn is nowhere to be seen, and both Charlie and Noah are sleeping peacefully when he goes to check on them.

He manages to arrange for a later start for himself next morning, hoping to offer Louis some of the support he hadn’t been able to give before. Without too many thoughts he strips down to his pants and spoons up behind his husband in their bed. It used to be the other way around, Harry prefers it the other way around, really, having Louis hold him, and he knows Louis prefers it that way too. It’s not often they can do it like that anymore, though, not when Louis is already sleeping when Harry gets home. Most days Harry ends up being the one who has to hold Louis if he wants them to do anything even remotely resembling cuddling in bed.

He wakes up alone the next morning, sheets bunched around his hips and torso cold. The space next to him is cold as well, though the clock on Louis’ bedside table tells him it’s only seven am.

He finds Louis in the living room, clutching a slightly fuzzy Noah to his chest, heavy bags under both eyes speaking of too little sleep and too much worry.

“I’m contacting a solicitor today,” are the first words out of his mouth once he sees Harry enter the room. Harry suddenly feels too bare, too exposed wearing only his pants, a feeling he’s never had with Louis before in the eight years they’ve known each other. “I want a divorce.”

“What?” Harry manages to squeak out, shock numbing every one of his limbs.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Louis says, voice quivering slightly as he buries his face in the wispy blond hairs on Noah’s head. Harry had blond hair when he was little too, people rarely believe him when he tells them so. “I can’t—I’m already alone with everything, Harry. This isn’t a partnership anymore, it’s… it’s just me and the kids and you every other weekend. And that bloody restaurant. I can’t do this anymore. We’re not a couple, Harry. You’re treating me like I’m just a babysitter, the person taking care of your kids—“

“That’s not true,” Harry tries to argue, but Louis just shakes his head sadly.

“It is,” he’d maintains, “It is. I can’t do this anymore, Harry, you’re not here, you’re never here. You’re not there for me when I need it, and I’ve needed it so much.” It is an uncharacteristic show of vulnerability, and if Harry’s heart hadn’t already been shattered beyond repair, strewn throughout his torso, embedded in flesh and lungs and arteries, thudding away in one shared, dull pain, he might have been able to read Louis better, to understand where the other man was coming from, understand how to fix it all.

“Louis,” he chokes out, crying in earnest, “Please, I can—we can—“

“No,” Louis shakes his head sadly, tears slipping down his cheeks. In his arms Noah starts wailing as well, and Louis clutches him closer to his chest rocking him gently while cooing slightly. Harry can do nothing but watch, heart breaking apart piece by piece. “We can’t, don’t you see?” Louis finally looks back at him and says, evidently trying to keep his voice steady and calm. “I’ll call up my solicitor about the papers, and you should probably get one too. We need to work out what to do with the house, and—and—and the boys.”

“Louis, please, I love—“ Harry tries again, but he stops in his tracks once his eyes meet Louis’ bloodshot ones.

“Please don’t,” Louis pleads, hand running soothingly up and down Noah’s back. Harry longs so to step closer, to clutch them both to his chest. “Please don’t, Harry. I can’t do this anymore.”

-

So, fast-forwarding eight years from the day Harry met Louis, he is now a twenty-seven year old owner of one of the most up-and-coming eating establishments on the London restaurant scene, father of two wonderful boys and… separated from his husband. Now, that last part definitely was never a part of the original plan.

That’s how he finds himself outside of Louis’ terraced house on the twenty-second of December, the restaurant officially closed down over Christmas. He has a duffel bag thrown over his shoulder, and somehow his fingers only hover over the bell for a few moments of hesitation before pushing it. He counts that as a win.

He doesn’t see Louis much anymore.

With their solicitors they’d worked out an agreement where Louis takes the boys three weeks per month and Harry has them one week, with the intent to split it up equally once Harry gets the two new chefs and servers at the restaurant properly trained and working. It works for Harry, at least so far, with a great help from Niall who is willing to babysit whenever Harry needs it. It’s not the same for the boys as having both of their parents at once, of course, but they do what they can to make it as good for them as possible, and at three and ten months, Harry hopes that they won’t be too affected by his and Louis’ separation in the long run. He knows how tough it was for Louis when Mark walked out on them, so maybe there’s some twisted, morbid kind of luck in the fact that their sons probably won’t be able to remember Harry and Louis being and living together.

He doesn’t have to wait long from ringing the doorbell until Louis opens the door. It’s a shock, more so than Harry will ever willingly admit, to see Louis up close. Hidden under beanies, and scarves, and big jumpers and coats as he has been whenever Harry has seen him when picking up or dropping off the kids these last few months, he hasn’t noticed how skinny Louis has gotten. Now, it’s almost like seeing another man in front of him.

Louis looks tired too, looks absolutely exhausted with big bags under his eyes that have taken a decidedly unhealthy purple hue, and the way the lost weight has resulted in Louis’ cheeks sinking in, has only made it all look more sinister. It has been five months since their separation became official – fuck, they hadn’t even been able to get a divorce, having only been married less than a year – and logically he knows that those months have been rough for Louis, knows that the months before had been so too, but to see the visible strain on Louis’ body is enough to make him want to throw up.

He feels so, so responsible.

“Hi,” Louis says, after a moment of uncomfortable silence, opening the door wider to allow Harry into the small house.

“Hi,” Harry echoes as he steps inside, instantly enveloped by the heat of the house. It’s gonna take a while before the tip of his nose returns to normal temperature and he’d honestly kill for a proper cup of tea right now, but really he’s just grateful to be inside a warm home, in Louis’ presence (however awkward it might be) and his heart nearly bursts when he hears the pitter-patter of small feet clumsily running over the hardwood floors. He’s barely bent down before he’s got an armful of Charlie.

“Papa!” The small boy cries excitedly, tugging at Harry’s curls as Harry buries his nose in his son’s hair, breathing in the smell of baby and home. He misses having them as a constant presence in his everyday life so, so much. It’s in these past few months that he’s really come to realise how much he’s taken it all for granted towards the end, how he got so swallowed up with getting the restaurant up and running to insure a steady future for them all that he ended up forgetting his own family.

He wishes he’d never been presented with the opportunity of owning his own restaurant, wishes he was still working at the cosy Italian place near their previously shared house, wishes that everything was like it used to be. But it’s not. He’s made his bed, and now he has to lie in it, however lumpy and uncomfortable it may be.

When he looks up again, arms still holding Charlie close, he’s met with the sight of Louis shrugging on his jacket.

“Noah’s in the living room,” Louis says before Harry has the opportunity to utter a single word. “They’ve both had breakfast already. I’ll be back before dinner.”

“Where are you going?” Harry asks, confused. Silly him, he’d been under the impression that they’d be spending Christmas all of them together as a family, not that he was arriving at Louis’ house to stay with the kids alone. It feels a bit like Louis might as well just have dropped them off at Harry’s own house. He’s disappointed, honestly.

“Hospital called. They’re swamped. Holiday season, you know? Offered me an extra shift.” He shrugs like it’s no big deal, and, like, Harry gets it, there are sick kiddies who need Louis, but he’d just… he’d been looking forward to spending these couple of days together, however awkward it may end up being. Call him selfish, but, well… if the shoe fits.

“Oh.” Harry says, not knowing what else to say. “Okay, yeah. I’ll do dinner for you when you get home then.”

“You really don’t have to,” Louis says distractedly as he bends down to kiss Charlie goodbye, his face so close to Harry’s suddenly, though Louis doesn’t acknowledge him at all. It aches in Harry’s heart, the knowledge that not long ago Louis would have kissed him goodbye too. How times change.

“We can just order take-away, it’s fine.” Louis continues his previous sentence, as he opens the door and steps out with nothing but a brief goodbye and the sound of the door closing reverberating through Harry’s chest like it’s the sound of their relationship ending.

It’s a reminder, this, of how much has truly changed.

“So it’s just you and me and your little brother, eh?” Harry murmurs into Charlie’s hair as he pulls him into a quick cuddle again. Straightening up with only a little difficulty, limbs feeling slightly stiff. He holds Charlie’s hand as his son wobbles next to him, and they make their way into the modest living room. Charlie is blabbering away about this and that, while Harry listens intently, and coos at all the right times. He’ll probably never get tired of hearing his son talk, no matter how inconsequential his topic of choice is. Harry immediately spots Noah, small as he still is, sleeping soundly swaddled in soft blankets.

Determined not to wake him up, Harry merely strokes a finger over his son’s brow, heart clenching when Noah scrunches his face a bit at the contact. He sighs, half sad and half wistful, before looking around to take in the house properly. It’s the first time that he’s inside it, and he’s struck by how impersonal it still looks, despite Louis having lived here for five months. There are no pictures on the walls, only the bare necessities scattered around the room. It’s living room and dining room in one, sparsely decorated with a table and chairs in one end and a sofa and TV in the other. There’s a staircase leading upstairs from there, and Harry checks that Charlie seems occupied before taking the stairs, two steps at a time, curiosity having gotten the best of him.

There’s a bathroom upstairs, and three other rooms. The first one he looks into must be Charlie’s, decorated in Spiderman stuff as it is. It’s fairly small, but everything in this house is compared to the house they’d shared, the one Harry still lives in. When they had to divide their joint property, Harry had offered Louis the house, seeing as Louis would be the one to have the kids the most, at least in the beginning, and maybe also because he couldn’t quench the guilt he felt at having caused them to end up where they are now. Louis had declined it though, saying that he wouldn’t be able to afford it on a nursing salary.

Next he opens Noah’s room, the crib being a dead give-away, and it’s almost physically painful to think back to the beautifully painted nursery room they have in the other house, all gentle blues and bright red ships. In true acknowledgement of the tattoos littered all over their bodies, tributes to their love for the other, they’d made Noah’s room nautical themed, and looking now at the bare white walls of the nursery here, it’s only yet another kick to stomach illustrating just how much it’s all been fucked up.

How much Harry’s fucked it up.

Finally he opens the door to what must be Louis’ bedroom, curiosity overriding the feeling that he hasn’t really got any right to look there. He’s shocked by what he sees, though, because what meets him definitely wasn’t a room meant to be a bedroom. It’s much too small, smaller than Noah’s even, almost claustrophobic to be in. There’s only just enough room for a bed and a chest of drawers, but that’s it. Unlike the two other rooms, there aren’t any windows either, giving off the eery feeling of being trapped in prison. He honestly can’t believe that this is where Louis spends his nights, the fact that this is where Louis and their sons live now. Their house might not have been anything particularly flashy itself, but this one makes their old one look almost like the freaking Ritz.   

He makes his way downstairs quickly again, not wanting to leave the boys to themselves for too long. Checking that Noah is still sleeping soundly, and Charlie is still playing happily, acknowledging Harry’s entrance with a toothy smile, Harry moves towards the kitchen. It’s not very big, a few dishes left by the sink presumably from their breakfast, and it’s decidedly lacking the many gadgets and other cooking appliances Harry had stuffed their kitchen with. They’re all still back in Harry’s kitchen, really, Louis having merely shaken his head sadly when Harry’d asked him if he wanted to have any of them.

Harry can’t help but wonder how Louis is coping with this whole single dad thing, if he’s doing any better than Harry. Louis has never been one for cooking, nor one for other domestic tasks like cleaning or doing the washing. It’s all the stuff that Harry’s always enjoyed doing, liked the peace and quiet of it, the opportunity to just let his mind wander while his hands went through the motions.

He feels nauseated when he’s reminded that all of this isn’t really new for Louis, though. It’s not like he was suddenly saddled with a load of extra responsibilities when they split, he’d had to be the one to do the cooking and cleaning a long time before they legally separated. Harry left him alone with everything a long time before it became official.

He opens the fridge, checking what he has to work with for dinner, having already dismissed Louis’ comment about take away. Turns out there’s not much; only a jug of milk, a couple of apples (which he quickly picks up and puts back down in Louis’ fruitbowl on the kitchen table, next to one lone orange) and various other things that even he can’t turn into a nourishing and edible meal. He supposes he’ll have to go shopping then, which is fine since he’d have to have done so anyway, needing to shop for Christmas anyway.

It is still an odd concept, still hard to wrap his mind around the fact that he is spending Christmas with Louis and their boys, that they are doing it as a family. The boys are so young, Charlie only three years old and Noah just ten months, it’s not like they would really understand it if they weren’t, no matter how many times Harry tells himself that they’re doing this for them. Truth is that this might even be even more confusing for the poor boys to understand, and it’s probably a little bit selfish of them, because in reality they’re spending Christmas together for their own sakes.

It’s not because they can’t get through a Christmas without each other, however much Harry wishes it wasn’t an option he would ever be presented with as the most logical. He wishes for a lot of things to be different these days. It’s just… It’s just that being presented with the idea of spending Christmas without their boys left both of them feeling like everything was shattering around them, and in the end, knowing how they felt about the prospect of a child-less Christmas themselves, none of them could bear the thought of actually making the other one have to face that.

Spending it together, all of them together, had probably seemed like the lesser of two evils for Louis; for Harry it is merely a dream come true.

Neither of their families is spending Christmas in England this year. Harry’s mum and Robin are going to Switzerland, where Gemma is currently working and living with her boyfriend of two years, to spend it with them. As far as Harry understood, Louis’ mum and stepdad along with the two sets of twins have booked a holiday in the sun, opting to spend Christmas under the shade of a palm tree. Louis’ other sisters are spending it with their respective partners’ families.

So in the end they are looking at a Christmas mostly just the four of them, though Harry has called up Zayn, Niall and Liam and invited them to come over for lunch on Louis’ birthday. He hopes the older lad won’t mind, thinks he knows him well enough, even still, to know that he won’t. He just wants to do something nice for Louis, feels like he has so much to make up for, and even though it won’t change anything between them, he wants to make this Christmas as easy and worriless for Louis as possible. He wants to make it good for him, wants to take away all of Louis’ worries.

He wants to be there for him, take care of things these next couple of days, like he neglected to do for so long.

He makes his way towards a wooden cabinet in the living room, hoping to find a block of paper or something he can write down a shopping list on. What he finds instead, when he rummages through the drawers, is a stack of bills. He wants to put them back, knows he has no right to snoop this way, but a bright pink post-it plastered on top of the stack of papers stops him. He leaves through them quickly, seeing a post-it attached to each new bill he comes across, and now he wouldn’t be able to curb his curiosity even if he’d been offered a million pounds.

Louis’ never been particularly organised with this kind of stuff, messy as he is. He’s always been the kind of person who has his own systems that make no sense to anyone else, not even Harry. Back when Louis was in still in school, his notes probably warranted more confusion than help to everyone but himself, but if you asked him to find something for you, he could do it in a heartbeat. Harry’d tried to clean up for him a couple of times, only to be met with a frustrated Louis who couldn’t find any of the things he needed. Harry had quickly learned to let Louis have his systems in peace.

He looks back through the post-its, reading them one by one and feeling his guilt increase with every new word.

‘NEED TO PAY BEFORE THE FIRST!!’

‘take a bit out of food money??’

borrow from mum? SORT SOMETHING OUT!’

It doesn’t take much more than the first couple to realise how much Louis is struggling to make ends meet. With only a nursing salary and two small boys to support, most of Louis’ savings having been used to help Harry out with the restaurant, and—fuck, it’s really no wonder, is it? Shit, he’s really cocked up Louis’ life in every possible way, hasn’t he?

And, god, why hasn’t Louis said anything to Harry? It’s Harry’s responsibility too, Noah and Charlie are just as much Harry’s responsibility, and if Louis is having a hard time… damn, it concerns Harry too. Their solicitors might have suggested that none of them needed to pay child maintenance since the goal was to split the time the boys spent with each of them equally, but… not at the expense of Louis’ living standards, not if he was cutting down on the food budget for himself to pay his share of day-care.

Fuck. Just fuck, fuck, flipping fuck. He’s gonna have to find some way to tactfully bring this up with Louis without hurting his pride and also preferably without letting him know that he went snooping in Louis’ personal papers. Right, ‘cause nothing can ever be easy.

Finally he locates a wad of paper and a pen, bringing it with him to the sofa. His mind is still whirling from his recent discovery, but he tries to push it to the back of his mind, wants to just focus on these next four days, on making them as good as possible. He kind of hopes that maybe Louis won’t have any more extra shifts, that maybe they can actually get to spend some time together.

When he’d called up Zayn, the other man hadn’t exactly been too pleased to hear from him. He had been Louis’ friend first, is Louis’ best friend, of course Harry isn’t his favourite person post the separation. He’d apologised, though, Harry had, and that probably went a long way in getting Zayn to listen to him. Harry hopes that Zayn could hear how genuinely sorry he is for the way everything happened, how he would do anything to be able to go back and change it all. Bloody restaurant be damned.

On top of inviting Zayn to Louis’ surprise birthday lunch, he’d also asked him if he’d like to go ice skating with them tomorrow. Now, Louis might technically not know that they were going ice skating, but Harry feels like Louis would probably be a bit reluctant if Harry just presented the idea without the safety net of having his best friend there too.

Harry just wants them to do as many normal family Christmas things as possible, wants these days to go by as well as they possibly can. He doesn’t want them to be one of those sets of parents who can’t even stand to be in the same room, who forces their children to have two birthday parties, and two graduation parties and who remain forever bitter towards each other. He hopes that somehow, maybe, just maybe if he’s lucky, he can eventually get to have Louis in his life in some capacity. It’s going to hurt like a motherfucker to see Louis potentially enter new relationships, it’s going to break his heart when someone else inevitably enters the boys’ lives as a new parental figure, but he knows that the way he’s hurt Louis, the way he’s singlehandedly destroyed the trust the other man had in him, he’ll never be able to get him back. So being his friend, having him in his life somehow is better than nothing. He’ll do anything to make it up to Louis as much as humanly possible.

So, the plan is ice skating tomorrow, and then they can go get a tree then too, since Louis apparently hasn’t had the time to acquire one yet. Then it’s Louis’ birthday, and Harry will need to get everything ready for Louis’ birthday lunch. He supposes it’ll probably be a bit tricky keeping it all a surprise for Louis, particularly when Harry’ll have to be using Louis’ own kitchen to do the cooking… eh, well, he’ll cross that bridge when he gets to it.  For now he’ll just focus on actually doing the shopping.

Remembering everything and getting it written on the list feels like an almost herculean effort, mostly because Harry’s so determined to make everything perfect, and it just won’t do to forget to purchase Brussels sprouts or something. By the time he’s finished and double, tripled checked that he hasn’t forgotten to write something on the list, Noah’s started to stir beside him. He’s making these small soft smacking noises, and his still so tiny fist is coming up to clumsily rub against his eyes as he blinks tiredly up at Harry.

“Hiii, buddy,” Harry coos as he picks up his son, kissing his forehead a few times. “This is perfect timing, you know. We’re going shopping now and you woke up just in time.”

He gets up from the sofa, Noah cuddled in his arms, and walks the few steps to where Charlie is sitting on the floor playing with two small toy cars, crashing them into each other with his little hands. “Are you ready to go down the shops with me, Charlie, love?” He asks, getting his son’s attention.

“Yes,” Charlie nods, climbing to his feet and reaching up to grab Harry’s hand. One of the cars, the red one, is still clutched in his other hand.

Harry closes his hand around his son’s, marvelling privately at the sheer size difference between them, and also loving how tactile Charlie has been recently. Harry doesn’t know if it’s just because it’s the way Charlie is, or if the constant need to be in physical contact is a side-effect of Harry and Louis’ separation. He really hopes it isn’t the latter.

He manages to get both boys into the hallway, and dresses both Noah and Charlie in warm winter coats, thick scarves and woolly hats and mittens.

The trip to the nearest Tesco’s luckily isn’t long, and despite being fairly unfamiliar with this part of the neighbourhood, he finds it easily. He’s got a mile long list of things to purchase, so with both boys placed in the trolley, he sets to work. It’s over an hour before he’s done, and in that timeframe he’s had to rethink the menu for Louis’ lunch twice because the shop was out of key ingredients, and had to make up three different games to keep Charlie entertained and happy. Thankfully Noah just slept through it all somehow, the buzzing voices inside the shop apparently serving no distraction for him. When he can finally load everything onto the cashier’s belt, it’s like a literal weight off his shoulders. Now he just has to get it all home, but luckily it shouldn’t be too big a problem even though he’d chosen to walk to the shops. He’s got Noah’s buggy, though, so he’ll make it all fit somehow.

When he finally makes it back into Louis’ house, he’s hungry and exhausted, clock ticked well past noon, and he quite feels like he could go for a nap along with his sons after lunch. He makes quick work of storing away all the food, before preparing cheese toasties from some of the supplies he’d bought, serving it with a tall glass of milk for Charlie, and a glass of orange juice for himself. Charlie seems delighted by his lunch, getting cheese smeared all over his cheeks in a truly adorable display if eagerness in the way he shoves the food into his mouth. Harry suspects he’ll probably find it far less endearing when he has to clean up his son in a moment, though. For now Charlie looks the very dictionary definition of cute as he grins happily at Harry. It’s a perfect moment, really, and it hits him, like it does embarrassingly often, that the little perfect human in front of him is a product of him and Louis, something they’ve created, and there’s no doubt in his mind that his children will always be his proudest achievement.

The rest of their day passes quickly, and soon Harry finds himself in the kitchen preparing dinner. Charlie’s sitting on the side, munching on a carrot stick as Harry chats with him while he chops carrots for the soup. Noah is sitting in his own world on the floor, playing with his favourite cuddly toy, a soft giraffe Gemma’d given him when he was born, while chatting away in his own little language. Every now and then Harry waves down at him from where he’s preparing the food, only to be met with a wave in return. It absolutely melts his heart.

By the time Louis steps into the house, Harry’s finished the chicken-curry soup, now just simmering away in the pot, waiting to be eaten, and he’s just taken the bread he’s baked out of the oven, filling the house with the distinct smell of freshly baked bread. He lifts Charlie down from the counter and watches fondly as the little boy hurries towards the hallway to greet his dad. Harry picks up Noah from the floor, squeezing the little boy close in a hug, and marvelling at the fact that Noah has now reached that age where he can actually somewhat hug back, wrapping his chubby arms around Harry and squeezing a little himself.

He carries him into the hall, where Louis is currently taking off his shoes while he listens to Charlie excitedly telling him all about what he’s been up to today.

“Dinner’s ready whenever you are,” Harry says softly, as Louis straightens up again.

Louis’ head snaps up, and for a second he looks quite confused, like he had forgotten Harry would be there, or like he didn’t expect him to be.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he says after a couple of beats of silence. “I told you take away would be fine.”

“I wanted to,” Harry shrugs honestly, handing over Noah for Louis to greet without the other man having to prompt him to do so. The small smile Louis aims at him is worth it a million times over. “I’ll take Charlie to wash his hands, will you be ready to eat after?”

Louis seems almost dazed when he replies, shaking his head slightly as if to rid it of whatever thoughts had dominated it. “Yes, yeah. Of course. I’ll just…” he tosses his head slightly, giving a small shrug, before clutching Noah closer to his chest and hurrying past Harry into the living room.

Harry washes Charlie’s and his own hands quickly, before they make their way to where Louis has set the table while they were away. Noah is already sitting in his high chair, and Louis is bringing the soup and the bread to the table. Harry sits down next to Charlie, Louis and Noah opposite them. He accepts the bowl filled with piping hot soup Louis offers him, before slicing the bread.

“Uuhm,” he hears Louis moan, and Harry looks up quickly to see the now clean spoon leave Louis’ mouth. "This is brilliant, Harry.” Louis smiles kindly once he’s swallowed. Next to Louis Noah is attempting to eat small squares of potato with his tiny hands, and Louis turns to him to make sure the potatoes actually end up in their child’s mouth and not just on his cheek.

Harry smiles bashfully, resisting the urge to preen under the compliment. “Thank you.” He settles on replying sincerely.

“It’s my favourite,” Louis muses quietly, nearly too quiet for Harry to pick up on it, like he’s really only thinking out loud, not intending for Harry to hear him.

Harry breaks off a piece of bread, squeezing it between his fingers until it’s gone from being fluffy in texture to being a small ball of compressed dough.

“I know,” he says simply, because he may have been a bad husband, and Louis may think he’s forgotten everything, but truth is that Harry knows Louis better than he probably knows himself, and there isn’t a thing Louis has told him over the last many, many years that Harry’s forgotten. Not a thing.

“Thank you,” Louis says sincerely, looking up from his bowl and locking eyes with Harry. “It was a long day at work. This was exactly what I needed.”

Harry’s heart simultaneously soars and shatters, because pleasing Louis, doing something so small that apparently means so much to him is the best feeling in the world. At the same time, though, it also reminds Harry of all the long workdays Louis must have had where Harry wasn’t there to help, didn’t have dinner ready, or the kids picked up from nursery. All those days where Louis had to do it all himself. And yet he had still been trying his best to wait up for Harry, just to spend a little time with him when he came home from the restaurant. It hurts to remember how many times he’s found Louis asleep on the sofa, the TV still on, and it hurts even more to remember how there came a time where Louis didn’t even try to stay awake anymore, where Harry would just arrive home to find Louis tucked into their bed, staying carefully on his side of the mattress rather than drifting towards the middle like he used to.

All the signs had been there all along, but Harry had been too blind to see them, and now he is paying the ultimate price. He’ll be paying it for the rest of his life, and there’s nothing he will ever come to regret more, he’s sure of it.

“No problem,” he murmurs quietly, looking down into his soup. He takes in a quick spoonful, the liquid burning his tongue as it makes contact but he hardly notices. “Zayn is coming over tomorrow,” he blurts out then, finally looking up to gauge Louis’ reaction.

“Oh,” is all Louis says at first, clearly taken aback by the new information. Next to Harry, Charlie has started blabbering excitedly about ‘his uncle Zayn’. “Oh, I, uh, I didn’t know the two of you talked…” Louis trails off, sounding awkward and unsure, and almost a little bit hurt. Harry supposes it isn’t too odd considering the fact that he currently thinks Zayn and Harry have been hanging out behind his back.

“We haven’t really,” Harry admits with a shrug, cutting off a piece of bread and handing it to Charlie, who’s still almost too excited to accept the bread. “I just thought it’d be nice to do something with the kids together, and wondered if you might be more comfortable if Zayn was there too. I thought we could go ice skating, maybe.”

“Harry,” Louis says, tone careful as he meets Harry’s eyes straight on. He continues then, completely ignoring the second part of Harry’s sentence. “You don’t have to bring in Zayn as a buffer; I wouldn’t have agreed to spend Christmas with you if I was uncomfortable in your presence.”

Harry breaks eye contact, hands ripping the bread into smaller pieces for something to do. He doesn’t really want to admit it, hasn’t actually really admitted it to himself even, but he has been kind of worried about exactly what Louis just said. He never wants to make Louis uncomfortable, or make him feel like he’s not even home in his own house. He doesn’t want to make Louis’ Christmas worse just because he’s there. He’d thought that if bringing along Zayn might make Louis happier to spend time with Harry, might make everything easier, then it was more than worth it.

Like usual, though, Louis seems to know him better than anyone, knows exactly what he’s thinking about and worrying over, and though it isn’t his job at all anymore, he still eases Harry’s concerns.

“I just want you to have as nice a Christmas as possible,” he admits, finally letting the bread drop to the table next to his bowl. There are crumbs everywhere. “I don’t want it to be worse because you have to spend it with me.” It’s painfully honest, and it hurts saying the words, because he’s basically admitting to the fact that his presence in Louis’ life isn’t a positive one anymore, that he probably is the cause of more hurt than happiness. It’s the exact opposite of everything he has ever wanted.

“Ice skating sounds lovely,” is what Louis settles on saying after several moments of heavy silence, focusing on feeding Noah rather than looking at Harry. “It was nice of you to think to invite Zayn along.”

Harry breathes out heavily, not sure if he feels relieved or not that the earlier line conversation was dropped. “You don’t have to work, right?” he questions suddenly, voicing out his concern.

“No,” Louis shakes his head. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Okay. Okay, yeah,” good, he wants to say. But, well, it doesn’t seem quite right. The sentiment is there anyway. Harry thinks Louis can probably hear it regardless.

The rest of their meal passes in companionable silence, only filled when they each chatter with Charlie about this and that. When they’re done eating, Harry shoots down Louis’ offer to do the dishes in order to allow the other man to spend a bit of time with their boys, catching up with them after a day away. When he finishes he finds Louis and Charlie curled into each other on the sofa, Noah resting in Louis’ lap, and some kind of animated film playing on the TV. Wordlessly he places himself in the chair next to the sofa, ignoring how six months ago he’d have immediately sunk into the sofa next to Louis, wrapping his arms around his family.

He spends more time watching Louis and their sons than he does the movie. If Louis notices, he doesn’t say.

Noah falls asleep about halfway into the movie, helped to sleep probably by the soothing hand Louis has been rubbing up and down his back for the duration of the movie. Without really pausing to consider it, Harry gets up and takes Noah from Louis’ arms, carrying him upstairs and tucking him into bed. He stays for a few moments, watching the rise and fall of his tiny son’s chest as he continues to slumber, before Harry makes his way downstairs again.

Louis has luckily had the foresight to make sure Charlie had changed into his pyjamas and brushed his teeth, so when the movie ends and Charlie is practically asleep, it’s easy for Louis to guide him up the stairs and into his bed. Harry follows behind soundlessly, bending down to kiss Charlie goodnight once he’s tucked into bed, and the small smile the boy falls asleep with donning his lips speaks volumes of how happy he is to have both Harry and Louis there together. It tugs at Harry’s heartstrings in the most bittersweet of ways.

While Louis goes into Noah’s room, presumably to check on him and say goodnight, Harry makes his way back downstairs. He surveys the sofa, for all intents and purposes his bed the next couple of days, and figures it could be worse. It’s a nice sofa, though a bit on the short side, so he’ll have to curl up a bit, or let his legs hang over the armrest, which can’t be too comfortable. He’ll figure something out though, beggars can’t be choosers after all, and Louis has so generously allowed him to stay the night here, when Harry technically could just as easily drive home every night. He’s grateful for what he can get.

He doesn’t know where Louis keeps his sheets and blankets, so he opts to go brush his teeth instead, tired already, even though it’s still quite early. He’s got a book in his bag though, one he’s been wanting to read for ages but simply hasn’t had the time to, so he’s looking forward to inhaling a couple of chapters before going to sleep.

Once he emerges from the bathroom, it’s to find Louis bent over the sofa, spreading a sheet along it, a stack of blankets and pillowed piled on the coffee table in front of the sofa.

“You don’t have to do that,” Harry says gently, “I can do it myself.”

“Oh,” Louis replies, halting his movements and turning around. “I was actually thinking I’d take the sofa, yeah? It just makes sense. You’re the guest, and I’m shorter, and also your back… we both know it would be awful for it to sleep on this thing.”

“I can’t let you do that, Lou,” Harry shakes his head, touched by Louis’ consideration, but feeling quite unable to accept. “It’s your bed, your house. I’m already putting you out just by being here, I don’t want to force you out of your bed too.”

“You’re not,” Louis says simply, sitting down on the cushion, now covered with a sheet. “I’m offering, and I won’t take no for an answer. My bedroom’s upstairs, I changed the sheets this morning. Let me know if you need something.”

Harry stands silently rooted to his spot for a few moments, before accepting that there’s nothing he can say that will change Louis’ mind. Deep down he’s grateful too, happy that he won’t have to deal with back pains and cricks in his neck. He just wishes he wasn’t kicking Louis out of his bed, making him sleep on the sofa. It doesn’t seem right.

“Thank you,” he settles on saying sincerely. “Sleep well, yeah? I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You too,” Louis offers quietly, looking up briefly to meet Harry’s eyes.

Nodding to himself, Harry backs out of the room, and makes his way upstairs and into Louis’ bedroom.

He barely makes his way through the first chapter of his book before sleep overtakes him. The sheets are cool and crisp, the bed comfortable, and he’s surrounded by Louis’ smell. He falls asleep easier than he has for months.

-

They don’t make it to the ice skating rink before the afternoon the next day, but Harry can’t say he minds. Somehow Louis convinced him they should spend their morning making Christmas cookies, and Harry was powerless to resist two times Tomlinson puppy eyes, Charlie having needed little convincing from Louis to join in once he’d heard there’d be cookies involved.

Their morning of baking had quickly blending into noon and early afternoon, only interrupted by the arrival of Zayn, and the left over soup they had for lunch. Zayn hadn’t seemed to mind the skating having been postponed a bit, as he’d merely picked up a green icing and started artistically painting a cookie shaped like a Christmas tree.

Now Louis’ dinner table is filled with cookies painted in a plethora of different colours with varying degrees of artistic skills, and all five of them are bundled up in as much winter gear as possible, though Harry’s feet still somehow manage to be freezing in his skates. Zayn is sitting on a bench with Noah in his lap, and though he’s got skates on his feet, he’s yet to actually go on the ice, waving them off every time either Harry or Louis tries to switch places with him. Harry isn’t actually sure if it’s because Zayn just isn’t into skating, or if he’s sneakily trying to allow Harry and Louis time together with Charlie, but Harry’d be lying if he said he wasn’t grateful for it.

He feels slightly guilty though, he didn’t invite Zayn to use him as a babysitter after all, but it’s hard to hold onto those thoughts when all he sees are Charlie and Louis’ smiles, and all he hears is the perfect symphony of their laughs. For a few moments he can almost let himself forget what’s happened between them, can almost let himself believe that everything is as it was before the restaurant came into the picture. It’s so bittersweet in hindsight, how he’d thought he was missing something back then, thought that he’d gotten it all when the restaurant became a possibility, when in reality he’d already had everything he could ever wish for.

Zayn ends up staying for dinner, the five of them picking up a Christmas tree on the way home from the rink, and Louis gathers the decorations while Harry fixes dinner. Zayn leaves soon after they’ve eaten, a tin of cookies in his hand Harry had insisted he take home to Perrie. They don’t mention that they’ll be seeing each other tomorrow again, it being a surprise for Louis after all, but Zayn looks at him with the oddest expression just before he leaves, and Harry can’t place it at all, but he suspects that the small nod he gets is confirmation or something. It has honestly been less awkward with Zayn than Harry had expected it to be, the atmosphere mostly just playful and friendly, and if Harry’d had caught the other man looking at him contemplatively a few times during the day, well, he’s probably better off not contemplating what those looks mean.

Noah’s sleeping, but Harry and Louis spend the evening with Charlie, letting him help them decorate the tree until the little boy deems it satisfying, and the whole thing is so painfully domestic that for a few moments Harry allows himself to close his eyes and pretend that this really is his reality; that they’re still a proper family.

When both the boys have both been tucked into bed, Harry finally dares breach the topic of money, having found an angle he hopes won’t be too obvious.

“I’ve been thinking,” he opens with, fiddling slightly with his fingers in his lap. “It’s not quite fair that you don’t get a bigger percentage of the restaurant proceeds, is it? I mean, you’ve invested so much in getting it up and running, it would never even have been if not for you, you know? I was just thinking, you know, you should get half, yeah? It’d only be fair, right?”

Louis frowns. “I’m not contributing anything to the restaurant now, though, Harry. That’d be like getting money for doing nothing. I appreciate the sentiment, I do, but it’s fine as it is.” He smiles, but it’s strained, and Harry has known all along that it wouldn’t be that easy. He knows that Louis is proud to a fault, and while Harry does want to help Louis out financially, he also means it when he says it would only be fair.

“It’s not, though,” Harry insists, shaking his head. “You should get more, it’s only right. The restaurant is doing well, and you should benefit from it too—“

“I’m not some charity case, Harry,” Louis shakes his head, “I don’t need your money when I haven’t earned it, or your misguided pity or whatever. I work, I work damn hard, and I get by just fine. The boys aren’t lacking anything, I don’t need your extra money just because you feel bad or whatever.”

“Louis, please,” Harry pleads quietly. He wants to reach out and take Louis’ hands in his, but he can’t. Of course he can’t. “I feel… I feel so fucking guilty, Lou, I… please just accept this, it’s only fair—“

“Only fair?” Louis interrupts, voice raising. “What? Because you fucked me over? Because you forgot all about me the second your dream of owning a restaurant came true? Because I was just someone you needed to make that dream come true, have a happy family for a bit until something more important came along—“

“That’s not true, Louis,” Harry interrupts, shocked that Louis would even think so, would ever say so. “You know that’s not true. I love you, I love our family. I got caught up in it all, I was a shitty husband and a shitty father, but I never stopped loving you. I—“

“Did you ever even want it?” Louis continues, as though Harry had never spoken at all. “You can’t have really wanted it, can you? A life with me and the boys? Not if you could forget about us so easily, forget about me.” He trails off, and it hits Harry that they’ve never talked about this, never talked about their split or what lead up to it. Louis must have bottled up these feelings for months and months. It’s no wonder they’re pouring out now, no wonder it hardly took any prodding from Harry.

“I didn’t—“ Harry attempts to protest, but is once again interrupted by Louis.

“Was being with me that fucking awful? Was that why you spent so much time at the restaurant, because you didn’t want to be at home with me, with the kids?” Harry opens his eyes to reply, but Louis continues. “Was it easy? Like, just moving on, was it easy? While I was raising our kids, while I was trying to make everything work at home, and you were just… was it easy? Why did you even say yes? Why did you agree to start a family if it wasn’t what you wanted, I—“

“Because I could never deny you anything, Louis,” Harry finally explodes, the most curious mixture of hurt and angry and so, so, so sorry. He doesn’t even know what he’s saying, words just pouring out of him, defensive and desperate and hopelessly untrue. “You were the one pushing for kids, Louis, with Charlie and with Noah before Charlie could even talk. Maybe I wasn’t ready, maybe I wanted to wait, but you just pushed and pushed, and—“

He half expects Louis to slap him, but the other man just looks stunned, like despite his earlier allegations he hadn’t actually believed it. He looks winded, almost. Like he’s just taken a fist to the stomach and all fight has left him with the air forced out of his lungs.

“I didn’t mean that,” Harry shakes his head quickly once he realises what he just said, insinuated. “I didn’t mean that at all. God, Lou. No, fuck, I’m so sorry, I don’t know why I said that, it’s not true. You didn’t push. I wanted them, I want them, I do and I did and I always will. There are so many things I regret in my life, but never them, never you. You guys are the best thing that ever happened to me, I—“

“I’d like to go to bed now,” Louis interrupts him, voice quiet and disturbingly distant.

“Louis,” Harry pleads, reaching out to touch Louis’ forearm. His hand gets to rest there for a few moments before Louis pulls his own arm closer to himself. “I’m so sorry, Lou, I didn’t mean it.”

“Please,” Louis says earnestly, raising his head to look Harry in the eyes. He looks exhausted. “Harry, please, I don’t want to talk about this. Can we just… tomorrow, alright? Can we just wait until tomorrow to talk, I really just want to go to sleep now.”

Tomorrow is Louis’ birthday, but Harry doesn’t point it out.

“Yeah,” Harry sighs, finally getting up from the sofa. He’s got no right to deny Louis his request, after all. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. I didn’t mean it. You’re the best part of my life, Lou. The very best. You and the boys will always be the best part of my life.”

He’s reached the door leading out of the living room by the time he’s finished speaking, and he pauses for a moment in the doorway.

“Goodnight, Harry.” Louis says eventually, the only acknowledgement of having heard what Harry said.

Saddened deep into his being, and with the feeling that he’s just made everything a thousand times worse embedded in the very marrow of his bones, Harry leaves the room.  It’s truly remarkable that when you’d think he couldn’t possibly cock up things any more than he’s already done, he manages to do so. Truly fucking remarkable, indeed.

-

When he wakes up the next morning there are a blissful ten seconds where he doesn’t remember what happened last night. Then, it all comes back to him, clear as crystal, every moment burned into his memory forever, every frame etched into the back of his eyelids to torture him night and day.

Shit, of course he had to fuck it up, and when things had been going so well too. Just fucking typical. He’s got to apologise to Louis today, has to make sure he understands that Harry didn’t mean it at all, that Harry feels so insanely guilty about what happened between them, how he treated Louis, that he took it out on Louis. It was an awful thing to do, and it was unfair beyond reason, and Harry is so, so ashamed. It’s just hard to face how much of a fuck up he truly is, how much he singlehandedly ruined everything.

He swings his legs out of bed and quickly gets dressed. He’d like to wake up Louis with breakfast, but since Louis is essentially sleeping in the same room as the kitchen, Harry’s pretty sure that’s just a pipe dream. He can wake up the kids though, and take them to wake up Louis, and then make breakfast. Louis deserves a proper fry-up on his birthday, it’s the least Harry can do.

He wakes the boys up fairly quickly, Charlie getting out of bed with no fuss as soon as Harry reminds him that it’s Louis’ birthday. He lets Charlie stay in his pyjamas and hoists him up onto his hip, even though he’s been too big to be carried for a while now. Together they check on Noah, but the little boy is sleeping deeply, looking so soft and peaceful, so Harry can’t bring himself to wake him. Instead he walks downstairs with Charlie, setting the boy down in Louis’ lap on the sofa, and letting their son wake Louis by peppering his face with kisses.

Louis moans softly as he comes to, hand coming to cup Charlie’s cheek and then run through his hair.

“Happy birthday, daddy,” Charlie chirps happily as Louis cracks his eyes open.

“Thank you, darling,” Louis smiles, voice raspy with sleep, as he lifts his head enough to place a kiss on Charlie’s brow.

“Happy birthday, Lou,” Harry echoes, from his position a couple of paces from the sofa. There’s an awkward few moments where they just look at each other, both remembering just what went down on the sofa last night.

“Thank you, Harry.” Louis replies softly after a few moments. He offers a sort of tentative smile, more of a grimace really, as though he’s the one who has something to apologise for. Harry feels sick to his stomach.

“I’ll make breakfast, yeah?” he somehow gets out, forces the words past the nausea building in his throat and out his mouth.

“Yes, papa!” Charlie exclaims happily, clapping his hands together in excitement. “Can I have bacon?” Louis’ face softens into an expression much more sincere than the one he’d offered Harry as he chuckles at Charlie’s enthusiasm.

“Of course you can, pal,” Harry says with a smile, before making his way into the kitchen, and getting started on the fry up.

Soon enough the dinner table is filled with various dishes, everything from scrambled eggs to hash browns, bacon and fried mushrooms. He’s laid out a couple of drawings Charlie did for Louis as well as newest FIFA game they’d picked out and wrapped when they went shopping; a gift from Charlie and Noah to Louis. Harry’s present to Louis is there as well, and he just hopes that maybe it can help to dissipate some of the awkward tension that has permeated all their interactions today.

“Brekkie’s ready,” he calls, though he’s within sight of Louis and Charlie, so it’s not exactly a surprise. It doesn’t take long before all three of his boys are seated around the table. Louis must have picked up Noah while Harry was cooking, and their son seems to still be in the process of waking up, looking soft and sleep-warm, giving Harry an intense want to just pick him up and cuddle him into his chest.

“Looks yummy, papa,” Charlie grins as Harry starts loading his plate with food.

“Thank you, bubs,” Harry replies with a smile, filling Charlie’s cup with juice. “Do you think daddy should open his presents before we start eating?”

Charlie nods excitedly and they both turn their attention to Louis, the presents stacked on top of his plate.

“Alright then,” Louis smiles softly, picking up the stack of drawings first. “Did you make these, love?” He asks, addressing Charlie who nods with a proud grin. “They’re so lovely. You’re so talented, thank you so much.” Louis leans over to kiss Charlie’s brow, and the little boy practically preens under the adoration. Harry sympathises, there’s really nothing like having pleased Louis, having made him happy and proud. “Who’s this?” Louis asks, smiling, pointing at a drawing Harry can’t see.

“That’s you, daddy,” Charlie replies, pointing to something on the paper. “And that’s papa, and that’s me and the little one is Noah.”

“Oh,” Louis says, a sort of odd note to his voice. “It’s really proper brilliant, Charlie. Thank you so, so much. This is my favourite present ever, ever!”

“Can I see?” Harry blurts out, question coming out before he could even think to stop it. Louis looks up from where he’d been alternating between smiling down at Charlie and the drawings, and then wordlessly hands Harry the drawing in question.

He accepts it, bringing the paper closer to him. He has already seen all the drawings Charlie made for Louis, of course, but his son has yet to reach the age where he can draw anything recognisable. On the particular drawing in Harry’s hand, it’s nothing but some lines and blobs, nothing resembling him, or Louis, or the kids. Charlie’s imagination is something else, but still it’s bittersweet to know that it’s what he believes he’s drawn. This feeling of having fucked everything up, having led everyone down never seems to end.

While he’s been caught up in his own world, staring at the drawing, Louis has opened the game from Charlie and Noah, and is in the midst of thanking them profusely. Harry puts the drawing down, and focuses on Louis as he picks up the last item on the table; the envelope from Harry.

Louis frowns as he picks it up and turns it over, a simple ‘happy birthday’ written on it, and a couple of balloons drawn next to it. Harry’s never been much of an artist.

“From you?” he questions, peering up at Harry through his lashes. He must have recognised Harry’s handwriting. Harry merely nods in reply, suddenly feeling slightly nervous, though he’s certain Louis will like the gift. “You didn’t have too—you shouldn’t have, Harry.”

Harry shrugs, odd feeling spreading through him, almost like hurt. “I wanted to,” he states simply.

Louis doesn’t answer him, instead he merely reaches down to open the envelope. He pulls out the two tickets before looking up at Harry, clearly surprised.

“Harry—“ he starts, but is quickly interrupted.

“I’ve cleared my schedule,” Harry ensures him, “I’ll watch the kids, and you can bring whoever you want to. I just—I know how much you love Man U, Lou, and it’s been ages since you’ve been to a game, so I figured it’d be a nice present. You can get a bit of time to yourself, and not have to worry about the boys, and just have fun with Zayn, or… or whoever you decide to bring.” He winces slightly, ramble dying out as he can’t help but imagine some faceless stranger with Louis at the game. What irony if Louis ends up bringing a date, if Harry actually end up helping to find a new partner for his ex-husband. Better not think about that, really.

“Thank you,” Louis says, smile genuine this time. “You really shouldn’t have, H, but thank you so much. I can’t wait, this is brilliant.”

Bashfully Harry looks down onto his eggs, cheeks most likely colouring as he mumbles through a smile, “You’re welcome.”

After that everything is a little less awkward, though their conversation from last night seems to still be hanging over them like a grey cloud, metaphorically threatening to start a thunderstorm any moment. It feels a bit like it’s a ticking bomb, like any minute Louis could go off, or Harry could go off, like it’s only a matter of time before everything explodes and is put out in the open. They need to talk this through, Harry knows, needs it more than anything, at least if their future relationship is going to be as void of animosity as possible. He’s just not sure how to bring it up, how to approach it. Doesn’t want to ruin Louis’ birthday at all, if he can avoid it.

They put up an impressive front in front of the boys, Harry thinks. There’s this unsaid consensus between them that whatever the fuck is going on between them, they don’t want it to affect Noah and Charlie, so civility it is. They’ll save the blowing up for when they’re alone, Harry supposes.

Somehow he convinces Louis to take Charlie out into the garden. It’s started to snow softly, not enough to really mean anything, and it only stays on the ground for a few moments before melting, but Charlie’s delighted. Harry gets started on the lunch, an ambitious amount of different dishes needs to be cooked, none of them even remotely Christmas related. They’ve got tomorrow for that, today’s Louis’ birthday, and Harry’ll be damned if not every one of Louis’ favourite dishes, right from nachos, to small burgers, to pizza and garlic prawns, won’t be present.

When Louis and Charlie come back inside it’s almost one, and Harry’s set the table and is nearly done with all the cooking.

“What’s this?” Louis questions, startling Harry from where he’s flipping the small beef patties in the pan.

“Uh,” he says, not actually having thought it through how everything would be presented to Louis, but then he’s quite literally saved by the bell. “Maybe you should get that.” Harry suggests with a smile, before starting to place the beef patties on top of the buns he’s already baked and smeared with ketchup.

Louis eyes him suspiciously, but refrains from commenting further, making his way towards the front door instead. He leaves Charlie with Harry, and Harry hoists him up on the side, letting him place a piece of salad on each patty before Harry adds the top bun and sticks a toothpick into it. He can hear Zayn, Liam and Niall’s cry of ‘SURPRISE!’ when Louis opens the door, and then their voices lower into normal chatter so that Harry can only hear their voices, but not make out what they’re saying.

He puts Charlie down, giving him a gentle pat as he encourages him to go greet his uncles. Then Harry brings the last of the food to the table, an expressive spread waiting the hopefully hungry guests.

The other’s enter just as Harry’s placed the nachos fresh out of the oven on the table next to his homemade salsa and guacamole. He smiles up at them, and moves to greet their guests. He offers them all a tight hug, before urging them all to go sit down.

He feels a hand on his shoulder as he’s checking to see if Noah’s still napping, and turns around to be met with Louis’ face.

“You arranged this?” Louis questions, his hand remaining on Harry’s shoulder, a strange quirk of his lips as he smiles slightly, waiting for Harry’s reply.

“Yeah,” Harry nods, slightly distracted by Louis’ close proximity, by the hand on his shoulder.

Louis squeezes briefly, before letting go of him. “Thank you,” he breathes, almost too quiet for Harry to hear. It seems they’ve hardly said anything but thank you and you’re welcome today, but Harry supposes it’s better than fighting.

In lieu of answering with words, Harry dares to reach out, squeezing Louis’ hand in his briefly with a smile, before releasing it and stepping around Louis, making his way towards the table and taking his place. Barely a moment passes before Louis joins them, and they all tuck into the food at Harry’s encouragement.

He helps Charlie to the food he wants, before loading his own plate, listening to the chatter going on around the table. Zayn and Louis are telling the two other about the ice skating from yesterday, and Harry chimes in a couple of times, before the story progresses to Liam’s story about when he went ice skating with Sophia, and nearly broke an ankle.

“Got grand plans for tomorrow, lads?” Niall questions, looking between Louis and Harry.

“No,” Louis shakes his head, before looking sideways at Harry with the ghost of a grin playing on his lips. “At least not that I know of.”

Harry can’t help but chuckle, before shaking his head. “Nah,” he says, addressing Louis even though Niall was the one who asked the question. “I’ve got no more surprises. Think we’re just gonna keep it relaxed, make sure Charlie gets the best day he can.”

“Do you guys have any plans?” Louis asks, addressing the rest of them.

“Gonna do lunch with Soph’s family, and then dinner with mine,” Liam smiles, smitten look taking over his face. He’s been with Sophia as long as they’ve known him, and he seems to only get progressively more love-struck. Harry envies them something dreadful. Him and Louis had met Liam together when they’d been together for a year, making him, unlike Niall and Zayn, a joint friend from the start. It hadn’t taken long before the five of them were a unit, making it through thick and thin, the three other boys like uncles to Harry and Louis’ kids.

They’d been inseparable, family, brothers, until Harry and Louis’ split seems to have divided their group into shattered fragments. Zayn with Louis, age-old loyalty hard to break, much like Niall with Harry, and then Liam hovering in the middle, not taking any sides. It’s pretty amazing, Harry thinks, to have all of them together like this, to know that they still can. He hopes that maybe it’s one step closer to things between them being as they used to be. If him and Louis by some stroke of miracle can become proper friends again, then surely the rest of the group will be mended once more. Seems like it’s pretty much there already, after all.

“I’ve promised myself to B and her family,” Niall tells them smiling, picking out the toothpick of his burger. “And then we’ll fly to Ireland on the 26th to see my family.”

“Yeah, uh, Pez’ family is in, like, Egypt or something,,” Zayn says then, “So we’re just gonna chill at mum’s. She’s been begging for us to stay for a prolonged period of time for ages, she wants to help plan the wedding.”

“That’s so lovely,” Harry smiles, after having swallowed a prawn. “Have you set a date?”

“Uh, yeah,” Zayn smiles, “April 27th, yeah? So, like, mark your calendars and all. You’re all invited, of course. Pez has been working on personalising your invites for ages, I think she’ll probably send them out sometime in January, but you might as well hear it now.”

“That’s great, mate,” Niall grins, “I’m so happy for you.”

“Has Pezza figured out which hair colour she wants for the wedding?” Louis asks, grinning.

“Personally I think a nice turquoise would be good. Pretty bold.” Harry jumps in, sending a quick grin Louis’ way.

Louis grins back. “Uh, that’s one we haven’t seen yet, Zaynie, that’d be cool.”

“Bugger off, you two,” Zayn shakes his head, though he can’t help but grin too. It’s the most normal Harry’s felt around Louis in months and months, just joking together, teasing Zayn like a team. It seems that Louis notices too, because when Harry sneaks another look at him a few moments later, Louis is still looking at Harry, an odd contemplative look on his face.

The rest of lunch passes with the same teasing atmosphere, and the other boys seem to enjoy doting on Charlie and Noah as well. It feels like no time has passed at all by the time Niall gets up, claiming that he’s got to get home. Harry hugs him goodbye, before starting to take out the food, putting the leftovers in the fridge and the plates and cutlery in the dishwasher.

When he’s done he finds Louis, Liam and Zayn on the sofa. Noah is sitting in Zayn’s lap and Charlie in Liam’s, Louis in between them. He brings tea to them, placing the pot and mugs on the table before sitting down in a chair, pulling his legs up as he takes in the men in front of him. When they’re all together like this, he can almost forget what the reality is. Almost.

When they’re one cup in, Zayn announces that it’s time for him to go as well, and both Harry and Louis get up to follow him to the door. Zayn squeezes Harry tight in a hug before turning to Louis and doing the same, and Harry’s hit once again with just how much he’s missed Zayn over the last couple of months. It’s been nice these last two days, spending time with the other lad, becoming sound in the knowledge that at least Zayn really doesn’t hate him, that even though he’ll always be Louis’ best friend, always take his side, he’s still Harry’s friend as well.

When Zayn is out the door, Harry turns to go back into the living room, but he’s stopped with a hand on his elbow. He turns around to face Louis, butterflies suddenly alive and fluttering in his stomach, and he raises his brow in question.

“Can we take a walk?” Louis asks quietly, releasing his hold on Harry’s arm. “Liam said he’d stay with the boys.”

Harry gulps, heart speeding up at the implication of what a walk with Louis actually means. He’s powerless to resist him though, has always been and will always be. “Yeah, okay, sure.” He agrees, and they make quick way into the living room to say goodbye to Charlie and Noah, and letting Liam know they’ll be going.

Liam smiles up at them big, and Harry wonders if maybe he thinks this walk is something it’s not, thinks this whole Christmas spent together is something it’s not. It’s a logical conclusion to arrive to, Harry supposes, but it’s also laughably far from the truth, sadly.

He sticks his feet into his brown boots, and puts on his coat, draping a thick, woollen scarf around his neck. His hair is pulled up into a bun, the length having run a bit amok recently and he should probably have put on a hat or a headband or something to protect his ears, but, well.

Louis is waiting with a gloved hand on the doorknob when Harry’s done, similarly decked out in warm clothing, and he’s been sensible enough to put on a beanie even. There was a time where Harry had to remind him to even wear a coat sometimes, but it seems that times change.

“Ready?” Louis questions, and he looks warm and soft, not at all like he’s almost about to tear Harry to pieces, so that’s something probably. He really, fucking hopes it’s something.

Harry nods in reply, and follows Louis out the door, shoulders hunching slightly as the cold winter air meets him. It’s still snowing slightly, and it seems that the temperature has dropped enough for it to at least stay on the ground, but the layer isn’t thick enough for it not to disappear when they step on it. If it continues over night, though, they might wake up to a London properly covered in snow. It would be beautiful. Right now it’s pretty too, the falling snowflakes giving off an almost fairy tale-ish feel, but it’s also bloody cold. Harry rubs his gloved hands against each other, before sticking both of them into the pockets of his coat.

They walk side by side, shoulder by shoulder, and they’re a couple of streets away from Louis’ house before Louis decides to speak.

“I wanted to talk to you about what you said last night,” is what he opens with, and even though that’s what Harry had figured, it still sends chills through his body to hear the words spoken out loud, chills that definitely have nothing to do with the snow or the minus degrees outside.

“I didn’t mean it,” Harry denies instantly, shaking his head. He’s about to elaborate when Louis speaks again.

“You did, Harry.” He says, and then continues before Harry can even protest. “You wouldn’t have said it if you didn’t mean it on some level.“

“Louis…” Harry starts, but then trails off. He isn’t sure what to say, because, well… Louis is right. On some fucked up level he’s right, and—shit. If Harry’d ended up being in a relationship with anyone but Louis, he wouldn’t have wanted kids that early, he’d have wanted to wait until he was older, until he had his own restaurant up and running so he wouldn’t have to juggle both things at once. So he wouldn’t have to be a struggling businessman, and a new father, and a husband at the same time. He’d always wanted to wait to have kids until he really had his life together. He was already two years younger than Louis, but… well, he could never deny Louis anything.

“I’m sorry,” Louis continues. “I didn’t… I guess I never really realised it wasn’t what you wanted, like me and the kids... family life. I mean, of course I knew that your dream was to own a restaurant, but I never thought that that and having a family were mutually exclusive. I didn’t… I thought you would have said something if you really weren’t ready. I…” He trails off, staring down into the snow and refusing to meet Harry eyes even though they’ve both stopped in the middle of the pavement, the snow falling around them.

“Please don’t apologise,” Harry practically begs, wanting nothing more than to reach out to touch Louis. “Please don’t. This is not your fault, Lou. God, this entire fucking mess, I’m the only one to blame. I’m the one who fucked it all up, and I’m so sorry.” He sighs and buries his head in his hands for a moment, before looking up again. This time Louis is looking back at him, and Harry meets his eyes straight on.

“I always thought I had my life planned out,” Harry starts talking again, after a few moments. He’s speaking slower than usual, selecting his words carefully, because he knows how important it is that he gets this right. “I was going to go to culinary school, the best I could get into, I was going to work hard to become the best chef I could possibly be, I was going to work my way up to starting my own dream restaurant, I was going to make it a success, and then hopefully I’d meet a nice boy I could settle down with and eventually have a couple of kids with. That was the plan, for as long as I remember that was the plan I had for my life. But then… then I met you, yeah? And, like, that just shattered everything, completely tore apart any plan I’d ever made, because you were this gorgeous, wonderful man and I just couldn’t believe my own luck. Suddenly it wasn’t about the plan at all, it was just about you, about you and me, because you just came and took my world completely by storm. I hadn’t expected to meet the love of my life so early, I hadn’t expected for kids and marriage and forever to be a part of the equation until after everything else. But you came into my life, and you just turned everything upside down.

And… like, Lou, I never wanted this whole kids and stuff so early, not until I met you, and then suddenly I wanted everything with you. I was so young, and you were so enthusiastic, and getting a family meant so much to you, that I just… I couldn’t say no, because whatever you wanted, I wanted too. So, no, it was never a part of my plan to have kids so early, or to get married so early, and I wouldn’t have wanted to if I hadn’t met you, but… I wanted everything with you—I want everything with you.” He finally stops his ramble, drawing in a deep breath. His eyes are still locked with Louis.

“Harry…” Louis says into the silence, a tsunami of different emotions washing over his eyes. “Harry…”

“I fucked up so badly, Louis.” Harry continues, as though Louis hasn’t spoken at all. “I fucked up so badly because I couldn’t work out how to balance it all out, and I thought everything would be fine, and I just wanted to get it up and running so we wouldn’t have to worry about anything again. I took you for granted, and I’m so, so sorry. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done, I’ve literally never regretted anything as much in my entire life. I’m so sorry. But I’ve never regretted you or the boys. Maybe it wasn’t a part of my original plan, and maybe I wouldn’t have had kids so early if not for you, but I don’t regret it for a second. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I miss all of you so much. I miss you so much, Louis.”

“I can’t remember the last time you’ve talked so much in one go,” Louis says once he seems to realise that Harry’s done, and… well, Harry’s heart just plummets. Just sinks, really, and he doesn’t know what he’d expected, because of course it’s too late, there isn’t anything he can say now to make up for all the terrible things he did to Louis. But, for maybe just a second, something in Louis’ eyes had ignited the tiniest spark of hope in Harry that maybe, just maybe, things were more mendable than he’d thought. Clearly not though. Clearly not at all.

Louis must see the way Harry’s face falls, the way his whole world comes crumbling down, because he reaches out to take Harry’s gloved hand.

“Hey, Haz,” he says softly, drawing Harry’s eyes back to Louis’ instead of their intertwined hands. If Harry’s eyes are lined with tears, it only because of the harsh, cold wind, and not because of the emotional rollercoaster he seems to be on board of, which destination he still doesn’t know, whether it ends in happiness or sadness still up in the air, so to speak. “Harry, I don’t know what to say, I—fuck, I just… I don’t know what to say. I don’t… what does it mean, that you miss me? What does it mean to you? Because, like, I miss the way I used to be friends with Stan too, but I don’t exactly want it back with how he is now, and just… What do you want?”

“You,” Harry answers simply, honestly. “I miss you. I love you. I want you. I want you in my life however I can get you, whether as my friend or my husband, or whatever else. I just want you in my life. I know I fucked up, and I have no right to ask you to forgive me, but you’re asking me what I want, and it’s you. I’d give anything to have you and the boys back.”

Louis pulls his hand out of Harry’s to bring it to his face, burying his head in both of them, and Harry tries not to be hurt, tries not to take it as a bad sign, but under the current circumstances it’s pretty hard.

“I don’t know if I can forgive you,” Louis states honestly, once his head emerges from his hands. He wraps his arms around himself and looks up at Harry. “I just don’t know. I know we both contributed to everything ending up like it is now, I know I made my fair share of mistakes, and that I should have talked to you properly before just demanding a divorce. I should have done so many things differently, we should have put down some ground-rules, we should have been smarter about all of this, but… you basically abandoned us, and I don’t know if I can forgive you for that, but at the same time I don’t know if maybe I’ve already forgiven you, and, fuck, I just don’t know. I don’t know anything, I don’t even know what’s going on inside my own head. How do I know it won’t just end like last time? How do I know that you’ll change? I don’t—“

“I’ve gotten perspective now, Lou. I know my priorities. The restaurant means nothing to me compared to you. You want me to sell it, I’ll sell it, I swear.” Harry interrupts, desperate, just so, so desperate. He wants to reach out to Louis, can feel the hope expanding slowly in his chest, and though Louis hasn’t technically said that he misses Harry too, much less that he still loves him, Harry kind of feels like it’s at least a little bit implied. There’s something there at any rate, and that means something. It has to.

“That restaurant’s your dream, Harry.” Louis protests, and he’s starting to look as cold as Harry feels, a reminder that they’re literally standing in the middle of a snowy pavement on Christmas Eve. Harry thinks they better get back soon, no matter what, get inside in the warmth before they turn into scarily lifelike ice statues.

You’re my dream,” Harry counters, the cheesiness of the statement not hitting him until after the words have already left his mouth. Too late to take them back then, but then again, Louis already knows that Harry’s a sap, it’s really only to be expected. “You and the boys, that’s my true dream. No amount of restaurants with our name on it will ever make up for that.”

“Not even a Harry Tomlinson cookbook series, or a Harry Tomlinson cooking TV show?” Louis teases, the endearment in the joking both welcomed and so misplaced.

“No, Louis,” Harry denies softly, and he’s really just confused, to be honest, because at this point Louis’ behaviour, his words are giving Harry whiplash.

“Would you…” Louis trails off, coughing awkwardly. “Would you maybe want to get some dinner? Together, I mean, uh, the two of us.”

“Now?” Harry blurts out, shocked. It’s more than he’d dared hope for really, it feels like an olive branch, like Louis is really saying he’ll give them another shot, or is at least willing to consider it.

“Yeah, if you want,” Louis nods, and then shrugs, “I’m sure Liam won’t mind watching the boys a bit more, and it’d be nice, I think. To talk, I mean. Somewhere warmer, you know…”

“Yes,” Harry nods eagerly, trying not to get his hopes up too much, “Yes, please, please, Lou, I’d love that!”

“Dunno if there’s anywhere that’s still open though. Christmas Eve and all, you know…” Louis muses, rocking back and forth on his toes slightly.

An idea suddenly strikes Harry, and he can’t help but grin. “I know just the place.”

They pull up in front of Tomlinson’s thirty minutes later, Harry paying the taxi driver before climbing out of the vehicle.  

“Harry…” Louis says once he sees where they are, but Harry merely smiles at him, and dares to take Louis’ hand, leading both of them to the door. He lets go of Louis’ hands for a few moments, unlocking and opening the door, holding it while Louis enters first.

The restaurant is dark, the chairs placed on the tables upside down. Harry could navigate the room with both hands tied behind his back, blindfolded, though, so it’s no hard task to lead them through the dark room. He grabs Louis’ hand once more, secretly tucking it away as a small victory every time he does so and Louis doesn’t pull back.

He leads them all the way into the kitchen, switching on the lights as they arrive, and wordlessly he starts rummaging through the connecting pantry and fridge, collecting the produce he finds useable. He doesn’t have that much to work with since the restaurant isn’t getting fresh deliveries of greens and meat while it is closed. He pulls out a jar of home-marinated artichoke hearts, though, some spinach he finds in the freezer, leftover from before the restaurant even opened and he was already spending all his time here, eating most of his meals. There’s cheese in the fridge, luckily, and he finds some tinned tomatoes too. Soon he finds himself with his elbows deep in pizza dough.

They haven’t spoken since they arrived. Louis has perched himself on the counter and is watching Harry carefully, the ghost of a smile tilting up the corners of his lips.

“Sorry,” Harry apologises, as he covers the dough with a cloth, putting it aside to allow it to rise. “Don’t have much food to work with here,” he admits with a shrug. “Not gonna be the most interesting dinner, I’m afraid.”

“’S okay,” Louis says, with a small smile. “I don’t mind. I’m sure it’ll be delicious.”

“I know we technically already had pizza for lunch, and I haven’t actually got any meat to put on, and—“ Harry rambles, suddenly nervous now that he doesn’t have much else to do besides wait for the dough to rise.

“Harry,” Louis interrupts gently. “You know I could eat pizza all day every day. And I don’t mind the lack of meat, I’m sure you’ll make it great anyway. You know I love artichokes, so that’s almost better than meat to me.”

Harry finds himself grinning shyly back at Louis, can’t really help himself, and he pulls out a small pot to turn the tinned tomatoes into something resembling a delicious tomato sauce.

“You could find a bottle of wine, if you’d like?” Harry suggests with a small smile. “Or a soft drink or beer, whatever you want.”

“Wine sounds lovely,” Louis replies, jumping down from the side and making his way out of the kitchen. Harry tries to keep his insane need to smile down, but wine just seems like such a date thing, and that’s kind of ridiculous, because they’re basically navigating a minefield currently, and any moment, just one wrong step and everything threatens to blow up in their faces. Everything is so fragile. But, but, pizza, wine, Louis – it’s so reminiscent of who they used to be, it almost hurts.  

Louis returns with a bottle of rosé just as Harry’s taking the sauce off the hob, and he turns his attention to the other man, quirking an eyebrow once he sees how Louis is looking at him.

“I don’t want you to give this up,” Louis blurts out, surprising both Harry and himself it seems. “I mean… I know how hard you’ve worked for this, and how much you love it, H. I would never want you to give it up no matter what happens between us.”

“Maybe I want to, though,” Harry shrugs, turning away a little and starting to pull the mozzarella into shreds just for something to do with his hands, something to focus on that’s not where this conversation is most likely heading.

“Do you really, though?” Louis questions gently, his hand coming down to hold Harry’s wrist, stilling his actions, and forcing Harry to look up at him.

“No,” he admits with a small shrug. “I wish I could have it all, of course I do, Lou. But if I had to choose between having you and the boys and having this restaurant, I choose you. I choose you. And, like, I don’t know if getting you back is even really a possibility, but…” he trails off and shrugs again, staring down at the floor instead of meeting Louis’ eyes, because honestly he’s a bit afraid of what he’ll see in them.

Next thing he feels is a couple of fingers under his chin, tipping up his face up just enough for his eyes to meet Louis’.

“I’ve spent the last five months going over and over what happened between us, trying to work out where we went wrong, how we could have prevented it. I’ve cursed myself repeatedly because it’s been five months since we broke up, but I just can’t stop loving you and I’m not sure if I ever will. And it’s not just about us, is it? There’s Charlie and Noah too, and I don’t want to do anything that will harm them even more. We’ve both fucked up so much, we’re both at fault for ending up where we are now, and, like, I’m sorry for the part I played, I wish I could go back and redo it all, react differently, but…”

“What?” Harry asks carefully once Louis hasn’t spoken for a few moments.

“I just don’t understand how it was so easy for you?” Louis admits, voice a curious mix of hurt and frustration, and Harry kind of just wants to cuddle him close, if he’s being honest.

“How what was easy?” Harry questions, confused. “Nothing about this has been easy for me.”

“Leaving us,” Louis answers, speaking rapidly. “Agreeing to the separation. You didn’t even question it, you didn’t do anything, you just… you just accepted it.”

“I questioned it,” Harry can’t help but argue, voice rising slightly. “I protested, I tried talking to you about it, you pleaded me to stop. You said you couldn’t do it anymore, and I felt like the least I could do was honour your wishes since I’d been such a shitty husband for so long.” He runs a frustrated hand through his curls, pulling a few strands out of his bun in the process. “I don’t get what it is you wanted from me, Louis.”

“I wanted you to fight for me,” Louis practically explodes, voice loud and slightly hysterical. “For our family! I wanted you to show that you still wanted me, wanted us! I wanted you to show that you cared!”

Harry’s stunned, really, and he buries his head in his hands with a pained groan, before looking back up at Louis. They’re standing much too close for a confrontation like this, really, but he doesn’t want to step back, couldn’t even if he’d wanted to, probably.

“God,” he sighs, “This is such a fucking mess. I wanted to fight for you tooth and nail, but I thought I was respecting your wishes. I thought it was what you wanted, I thought I wasn’t what you wanted anymore. I thought I’d already fucked up your life enough, I didn’t want to cause you anymore hurt. I care, Lou, I care!

“I just wanted something to change,” Louis admits quietly. “And I wasn’t really thinking clearly that morning, not after that awful night. And then by the time I was, you’d already agreed, and you seemed fine with it, and, just, what was I supposed to do, when it was clearly what you wanted?”

“It was never what I wanted.” Harry denies, voice quiet and serious.

“Yeah,” Louis sighs with a shrug, seeming tired and defeated suddenly. “Well, me neither.”

“We’re such idiots,” Harry shakes his head, tears wetting his lashes, threatening to fall.

“Yeah,” Louis chokes out, seeming just as affected as Harry. “Fuck, yeah.”

“What does this mean, though?” Harry dares asking, “For us, I mean. Is it—is there too much damage? Is it irreparable?”

Louis reaches a hand up and wipes away the lone tear that’s escaped Harry’s eyes. Harry can’t help but tilt his head slightly, pressing it into Louis’ palm and closing his eyes, making several more tears fall.

“I hope not,” Louis answers quietly. Blindly, Harry reaches forward, wrapping his arms around Louis and pulling him closer until he’s pressed into Harry’s chest, Harry’s own head buried in Louis’ soft hair.

They stand clutching each other for several moments, until Harry whispers into Louis’ hair, still reluctant to let him go. “We better get the pizza in the oven, I think.”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees with a smile, pulling away and taking a small step back. He smiles tentatively and watery at Harry, and it’s really all the courage Harry needs to say it.

“Can I kiss you?” he whispers, a part of him still dreading the answer, afraid that he’s misinterpreted everything. He wants it more than anything though, wants to feel the soft press of Louis’ lips against his for the first time in too many months.

“Please,” Louis breathes with a small nod. Louis’ eyes fall closed as Harry’s hands come up to cup his face, and Harry leans in, heart beating wildly in anticipation for what’s to come. His own eyes fall closed as their lips make contact, just the softest touch, really, brushing against each other with a feather light pressure that nearly makes Harry faint.

It’s not fireworks going off or champagne popping, it’s just quiet and soft, and so, so right. It’s home, it’s belonging, and it’s possibly the very best thing Harry’s ever felt.

He pulls back after a few moments, the kiss remaining chaste and innocent, though it’s loaded with so much intimacy, so much familiarity and knowledge. It’s the kiss of age old lovers, the kind of kiss he’d expect to share with Louis when they’re 92 and 94, having spent the vast majority of their lives together and in love.

“I love you.” The words leave his mouth with such a practices ease it’s no surprise that he’s said them a million times to Louis already. Will hopefully get to say them an infinite amount of times in the future too. It feels bigger somehow now though, more loaded, but also freeing, like it’s the only right thing in the world.

Louis moves his head slightly to kiss the palm of Harry’s hand, but he says nothing. It’s okay. It’ll come, Harry can’t blame him for being a bit cautious, and through his actions there’s no doubt that Louis feels it still too.

Harry knows it doesn’t mend anything, but it’s a nice start. They’ve still got so much to talk about, so much to sort through, have no doubt not finished yelling at each other, but for the first time in longer than Harry dares think about, it seems like they’re on the right track, like they’re on their way to a better forever, for them and their kids.

Harry can’t help but peck Louis one last time before taking a deliberate step back, and turning his attention to the ready dough.

He starts forming two pizzas for them, and once he’s got them laying ready on the stainless steel top, he turns to Louis with a raised brow.

“Wanna make pizza with me?” He questions, holding up a spoon.

Louis grins, and jumps down from the counter he’d perched himself on once more, moving towards Harry. It’s something they used to do sometimes, back before they had kids, when Harry was still in culinary school. Harry’d cook and Louis would help.

Harry places himself behind Louis, his front pressed to Louis’ back like two connecting puzzle pieces. It’s almost just like old times, and together they smear tomato sauce over the dough, then add the shredded mozzarella, and at last the spinach and artichokes. Harry gets them into the pizza oven and turns back to Louis, who’s looking at him with a fond look Harry hasn’t seen directed at him for much too long.

Something strikes him suddenly, and he can’t help but blurt out, “Shit, Lou, the kids! Is Liam okay with watching them so long? Should we have gotten home ages ago?”

Chuckling, Louis shakes his head. “No, he said to take as long as we needed. I think he’s going to get Sophia to come over for dinner and help him watch them, so it’s all good. We can take our time.”

“Okay,” Harry nods, relieved.

“Do you think…” Louis starts, seeming to cautiously be choosing which words to use. “Do you think this is too easy? That we’re moving too fast? I just don’t want it to all blow up in our faces and end up being even worse than before. For the boys’ sake, but also for ours, for mine… I’m not sure I can get through another break up with you.”

“Then we don’t break up,” Harry states simply, and then shakes his head when Louis makes to interrupt. “No, love, I mean... I know it’s not that easy, or that simple. I know we can’t just snap our fingers and have everything be perfect and how it used to be. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to be a lot of work, I realise that. We’re probably going to have times where we hate each other, and where we want to give up, but we’re not going to, yeah? I mean, we love each other and we want to be together, right?” Somewhat anxiously, he waits for Louis’ confirming nod before he continues, “Yeah, so I think, you know, that’s the most important. That’s the pillar we’re going to rebuild everything on. The love’s here, the willingness to work for it, to sacrifice to make it work is there. We know what it’s like to be without each other now, we know we work better together when we’re both a hundred percent in it. We’re not about to allow it to fall apart again.

We work hard, Lou, and we learn from our mistakes. We work out a way for the restaurant not to be a liability, not to come between us. We make sure to have time just the two of us together, and hopefully you’ll learn to trust me again with time. We know how important communication is now, so we won’t let things build up like we did before. If something’s the matter, we tell the other, we talk about it, we fix it together. No more secrets. I love you, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep you and the boys, to make this work. I’m not gonna fuck up twice, I’m not gonna take my second chance for granted. I’ll never take you for granted again. I’m not going to risk losing you again.”

“I’ve missed you so much,” Louis says quietly, taking a step closer to Harry. “I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t, because I didn’t think you cared anymore. You hadn’t really been there for so long, so it’s not like there was really anything to miss, but I did anyway. So much, no matter how hard I tried not to. Even when you were never home, and it felt like I never got to spend any time with you, there was still a miniscule comfort in the fact that you were there, that at least we shared a bed at night, even if we never got to fall asleep in it together.”

“It’s gonna be different now,” Harry vows. “I’m not sacrificing my family life for my career again. We’ll sit down together and work out something with the restaurant, yeah?”

“You should hire Niall,” Louis says, hands playing with the hem of Harry’s jumper. “To manage the business portion, I mean.”

“That’s…” Harry starts before trailing off, because he can’t believe that he didn’t even consider it before. “That’s a really fucking brilliant idea, Lou.” He says, feeling slightly in awe. “And I can do mainly lunch, so I’ll be home in the evening. Maybe just a few night servings a week.”

“That’d be really nice,” Louis smiles, trailing his hands up Harry’s chest. “We can make it work, yeah?”

Harry nods, pulling Louis closer and into his arms. “We can. We will.”

“It’ll be tough,” Louis says, paraphrasing Harry’s earlier words. “Things aren’t just magically gonna be better, even if it feels like it now.”

“I know. It’ll be worth it though.” Harry says earnestly, and they’re pretty much talking in circles, but it’s important.

Harry cups Louis’ face in his massive hands again, leaning down to seal their lips together once more, drawing Louis’ bottom lip between his, and sucking lightly on it. He draws back just a moment to murmur; “I’ve missed this too,” before drawing Louis’ lips back to his once more. Louis hands are fisted in his jumper, holding Harry close as he hums his agreement without breaking their contact. Eventually, it’s Harry who pulls back when he remembers the pizza in the oven. He makes to step back, but is prevented from doing so by the iron grip Louis has on his shirt, the older man letting out a sound that is easiest described as a growl.

“Pizza,” Harry says, somewhat dumbly, “Gotta get the pizza out of the oven.”

“Who cares about the pizza?” Louis asks rhetorically, attempting to pull Harry closer again.

“You do,” Harry laughs, “You’re gonna murder me if I burn the pizza and we end up with nothing to eat.”

“Not true, Styles,” Louis grumbles indignantly, though he releases his grip on Harry’s jumper. “I can think of other things we could eat.”

“Tomlinson,” Harry corrects with a shit-eating grin, turning towards the oven. The innuendo of Louis’ last comment is not lost on him, but it’s almost too much, the thought of having Louis like that again, so he files it away for later. He opens the oven, before looking over his shoulder at Louis who’s watching him, face impossibly fond. Harry’s heart feels like it could burst any second. “I’m still a Tomlinson.”

Louis sounds almost like he’s gonna cry when he nods and says, “You are.” He turns around then, collecting plates, wineglasses and cutlery, while Harry takes out the pizzas. The crust is only slightly blackened in places, and the smell is delicious.

“Where do you wanna sit?” Harry asks, once he’s transferred the pizzas onto the plates Louis had found.

“In the back room, maybe?” Louis says, posing it more like a question than a statement.

“Of course,” Harry nods, picking up the pizzas and making his way there, trusting Louis to get the rest of the stuff. It’s more private there, somehow, sitting at the table where Harry and his staff will have their breaks. It’s smaller and more intimate, not quite as intimidating as the big main room would have been. He understands why Louis chose it.

Louis opens the wine and pours them both a glass, before sitting down opposite Harry. They eagerly tuck into the pizza together, both of them having garnered quite the appetite over the past couple of hours, and the pizza is luckily as good as it smelled.

They remain largely silent while they eat, apart from Louis’ occasional moan when he gets a bite he finds particularly good, and Harry can’t help but extend his legs under the table until he’s got his ankle hooked around Louis’ foot.

Eventually Louis groans, and leans back in his chair, Harry copying his action while munching on his last crust.

“That was so good, darling,” Louis sighs, grinning lazily as Harry. Harry’s reply is a big smile, lips widening while he chews on the crust. “I like your hair like that,” Louis then muses, and Harry moves his hand to self-consciously touch his bun. “I mean, the length, too. I like the length and the bun, you look really good.”

“Thank you,” Harry says, and he’s fairly sure he must be blushing something dreadful. It’s Louis, though, so he can’t really be bothered by it. “You’re outrageously handsome, as always.”

Louis shakes his head with a grin, like he can’t quite believe Harry. Louis takes a sip of his wine, and all Harry can focus on is the way his lips close around the glass. He shakes his head, though, finally ready to voice something that’s been bothering him, figuring they might as well get it out sooner rather than later.

“That night,” he starts, somewhat unsurely, eye flickering between Louis and the table. “What happened?” He waits a couple of moments, and then finally looks up at Louis properly, when the other lad has failed to answer him. Louis isn’t meeting his gaze, seems awfully interested in the wood’s structures of the table.

“I’d had this patient, right?” Louis starts, somehow drawing his knees up to his chest and peeking over them at Harry. “Like, for a few months. Uh, Miles, was his name. He was, like, this cheeky little bugger, and so lovely. Four years old just, and he had leukaemia. He got a bone marrow transplant from his sister, and, like, for a few months everything was really good, I mean, he was out of the hospital, only came in for check-ups, everything seemed fine.” He draws in a big, shaky breath. Harry feels sick to his stomach already, dreading where the story is going.

“It’s a fine line, right?” Louis continues. “Threading between caring for the patients but not becoming too attached, emotionally, like. And I’m good at it. Usually, I mean. Just not with Miles, because, I don’t know, maybe it was because I saw so much of myself in him, and you, and, like, he was so like Charlie is now… His four month check-up showed that the cancer was back, and it was more aggressive this time, and it seemed like no matter what we did, it was just two steps ahead of us. No treatments worked, and Miles was just… he was just so brave. His parents were a mess, his sister was a mess, like they could hardly be with him without crying, so I spent so much time with him, and I got attached, I guess. How could I not when he was just so wonderful?

That day, I was called into work because his condition had worsened, and he and his parents were asking for me. I knew you’d be at the restaurant, so I called Zayn to ask him to take care of the kids while I went there. Miles died four hours after I arrived. It was quick. Like, he basically just fell asleep… and I went home, because I wasn’t technically at work, there was no longer any reason for me to stay. I don’t—I don’t actually remember that much from when I came home, most of it is what Zayn’s told me afterwards, but apparently I just broke down, and I kept crying and asking for you, and then crying some more, and... he called you?” The last part is aimed directly at Harry, and Louis meets Harry’s eyes finally, tears threatening to spill from Louis’.

“He did,” Harry nods, bile rising in his throat. He feels fucking awful, and it’s his turn now, to have tears pool in his eyes. “I—It was in the middle of service, and I was the only chef there, and I guess I thought it would be okay if I just waited until work was done, I didn’t—I was wrong, obviously, I was a shitty friend and a shitty husband and a shitty human being. I’m so sorry, Louis, I regret it so much. I wish I could go back and change it, God, so much, you have no idea. I—“

“No,” Louis shakes his head, getting up from his chair and scrambling towards Harry. He settles  himself on top of him, one leg on either side of Harry’s, bum placed firmly in Harry’s lap. Louis’ face is suddenly so close, and if he’d wanted to, Harry could count every single feathery lash, even wet and stuck together as they are now. “Obviously I wish you’d been there, and I wish you’d have understood that I needed you, but I also know that your hands were tied, and you couldn’t just say fuck you to all the people waiting for their food and bail. I don’t want to dwell on it anymore, anyhow. I just want to move on. It sucked, and it was shitty, and I hope we never find ourselves in that situation again, but what’s done is done, and I don’t want to think about it anymore.”

Louis leans forward to kiss Harry’s lips gently, before pulling back, expression slightly unsure. “Just not again, please.” He says, voice uncharacteristically quiet.

“Never again,” Harry vows. He means the words one hundred percent, and he pulls Louis close to his chest, burying his face in the crook of his neck, breathing in his smell. They sit there for several moments, just holding each other tight, before Louis pulls back just enough to be able to view Harry’s face.

“Should we get back?” He questions quietly, thumbing over the soft skin beneath Harry’s eye.

Harry’s hand comes up to grip Louis’ wrist, leading his hand to Harry’s mouth and he presses a kiss to Louis’ thumb.

“Okay,” he says, releasing Louis’ wrist. “Yeah, let me just stick these things in the dishwasher and we can go.”

Louis climbs off Harry’s lap with a nod, and together they collect everything and bring it back into the kitchen. It doesn’t take long to clean up after them, and soon enough they’re leaving the kitchen behind them, Harry turning off the light as they go.

It’s almost a shock how cold it is outside, after having spent the past hours in a room that’s been heated well and proper from a pizza oven.  Harry zips up his jacket, watches as Louis does the same, and then reaches for his hand. Louis smiles up at him when their fingers intertwine, and Harry can do nothing else but smile back, completely smitten.

It feels amazing, knowing that he can just take Louis’ hand whenever he wants to again, and though they still have so much to talk about, like whether they should move in together immediately or wait, and what they’ll tell the boys, or when they’ll tell their parents. They’ll work it out, though, somehow.

“Can we walk for a bit?” Louis asks, squeezing Harry’s hand.

Harry nods in reply, finding that despite the cold, there’s really nothing he wants to do more.

“Got any plans for New Year’s?” He asks with a half-smile and a squeeze of Louis’ hand.

“Well, it’d be a shame if I didn’t spend it with you, I’d think,” Louis shrugs, “It being our one year wedding anniversary and all.”

“Feels almost like cheating, though, doesn’t it?” Harry muses, “Like, with the separation and all.”

“Nah,” Louis disagrees, “I mean, we made it a year, didn’t we? We’re still together. We’re still married.”

“Separated, technically,” Harry can’t help but correct with a shrug.

“Well,” Louis says after a few moments, almost cautiously, “Do you want to stay married to me?”

“Of course I want to,” Harry answers, shaking his head slightly with a smile on his face, unable to understand how Louis could ever doubt it. “More than anything.”

“Then I think that the whole separation thing is pretty inconsequential, don’t you?” Louis asks, tugging Harry slightly closer by his hand.

“Would be a shame to cheat ourselves out of our first wedding anniversary, I think.” Harry says, grinning widely.

“Innit,” Louis agrees as they stop walking, both of them scouting the road for a taxi. There’s not exactly an abundance of them driving around the streets of London, considering the fact that it’s Christmas Eve, but Harry’s sure it’ll be fine. He stops looking briefly to turn Louis towards him, bending down to seal their lips together once more. It’s like now that he has it again, he can’t go too long without feeling Louis’ lips against his. It’s addictive, more than anything else he’s ever tried.

“Happy birthday,” he murmurs against Louis’ lips after a few moments of kissing. There’s only a couple of hours left of Louis’ birthday, so he supposes they should make them count.

“The happiest,” Louis agrees sappily with the most beautiful smile, turning Harry’s insides to absolute mush.

“Yeah?” he asks, because hearing it is bliss and double confirmation would be paradise.

Louis, however, doesn’t answer him, but the way he tugs Harry closer to kiss him again, his tongue probing for entrance to Harry’s mouth, might be more of a response than words could ever be.

-

They get a taxi eventually, and they walk up to Louis’ house hand in hand. Liam’s car is still outside the house, thankfully, and they can see that the light is on in the living room through the window. The boys should be in bed by now, but it’s okay. Tomorrow they’ll wake up and they’ll open presents together and everything will be wonderful.

They enter the house quietly, stripping off their coats and scarves, discarding their boots as soon as they’re inside. They can hear the low hum of the TV being on, and they make their way into the living room, to be met with the sight of Liam and Sophia cuddled up on the sofa, both seeming engrossed in the movie on the TV screen.

“What are you watching?” Louis asks, startling the both of them, neither of them having noticed Louis and Harry entering.

“The first Harry Potter film,” Sophia answers them with a smile, while Liam’s gaze seems stuck on Harry’s hand where it’s resting on Louis’ hip casually. He quirks an eyebrow, eyes flitting up to meet Louis’ and then Harry’s. Harry smiles back slightly bashfully, and then fuller as Louis’ leans more of his body weight against Harry.

“Seems things went well,” Liam comments dryly, and Sophia giggles, a small smirk playing on her lips too.

Harry expects Louis to come up with some biting come back, something sassy and witty, but what he does instead is look up at Harry, meeting his eyes. Louis looks at him with so much fondness, eyes crinkling, that Harry’s heart almost threatens to burst. If one could die of too much happiness, Harry would probably be dead ten times over, to be honest.

“Yeah,” Louis says softly, turning his attention back to Liam and Sophia. “Thank you for watching the boys, I know it’s not exactly an ideal Christmas Eve.”

“It was fine, Lou.” Liam smiles.

“Good practice.” Sophia grins, her hand falling to rest on her flat stomach.

“Yeah, we might be needing the two of you to babysit soon.” Liam says, somewhat bashfully, and it takes Harry an embarrassing ten seconds to understand what the hand on the stomach and their words actually mean. Louis gets there before him.

“Oh, my God!” He exclaims, “Are you…?”

“Ten weeks.” Sophia nods, smiling widely.

“You’re the first ones we’re telling. We’re going to let our families know tomorrow,” Liam continues, radiating happiness and pride.

“Congratulations,” Harry gushes, completely in awe. “You’re going to love being parents; it’s the fucking best thing in the world.”

“We’re so happy for you,” Louis says earnestly, and it’s fucking amazing to hear Louis talking about the two of them as a unit again. Harry doesn’t think the day can get much better, in all honesty.

“Thank you,” Sophia says, sounding just so genuine and happy that it warms Harry’s heart, honestly. “It’s such a relief to have the two of you near us, I’m gonna have to grill you for baby knowledge and tips soon.”

“Anything you need,” Louis says, and Harry nods in agreement.

“Yeah, if there’s anything we can do, just let us know.” He says, thumb rubbing circles over Louis’ hipbone.

“Definitely,” Liam agrees, “We probably won’t be averse to watching those two again,” he nods towards where Charlie and Noah must be sleeping upstairs, “Nice practice and all.”

“That can definitely be arranged,” Louis says with a grin, “I’m thinking second weekend in January, just off the top of my head.”

“But that’s the Man U game—“ Harry begins, until he realises what Louis is saying. “Oh.

Louis laughs at him, delighted, and then reaches up to peck Harry’s lips, though it’s nearly impossible due to the impressive size of Harry’s grin.

“It’s about time the two of you got it together,” Liam says with a fond headshake, as him and Sophia get up from the sofa. “Just don’t fuck it up again, please.”

“Never,” Harry vows, pulling them both into a tight hug, one after the other. He holds Sophia a beat longer, just because he’s so fucking happy for the two of them, and there’s a baby in there, and it’s really, truly a night for miracles. “Congratulations,” he mumbles into her hair again, before releasing her.

“To you too,” she beams, and she’s already got that fucking pregnancy glow, seems to just radiate contentment and happiness.

“Thank you,” Harry says sincerely, because he too, much like Liam and Sophia must do right now, feels like the happiest and luckiest person on Earth.

“Drive home safe, yeah?” Louis says as the other two have pulled on their coats and boots, ready to head home.

“And thank you again for watching the boys,” Harry adds, his arms snaking around Louis’ form, holding him from behind.

“And congratulations.” Louis finishes, placing his hands over Harry’s on his stomach, intertwining their fingers.

“Will do, you’re welcome and thank you,” Liam rattles off with a grin as he holds open the door for Sophia, letting in the cold December air. It’s started snowing again, Harry notes.

“And happy birthday, Lou!” Sophia says, as she slips her hand into Liam’s, allowing him to help her down the slippery steps outside the door.

“Thanks you,” Louis grins, waving his hand. “Bye!”

“Goodbye,” Liam calls, as they’re nearly at their car. “Merry Christmas!”

“Happy Christmas,” Harry calls back, and he stands there with Louis, holding the other man close for warmth and just because he can, while they watch the car pull away from the curb and drive off. Louis closes the door and turns in Harry’s arms, placing his hands on Harry’s pecks. He looks up at Harry, a small smile playing on his lips, as Harry’s thumb comes up to stroke along Louis’ cheekbone.

“I can’t believe they’re having a baby,” Louis says, and Harry hums in agreement. “I guess it’s been a long time coming. Pezza and Zayn probably won’t be far off.”

“And what about us?” Harry asks, surprising both himself and Louis, because honestly that’s probably one of the topics for a far later date and not the exact same one they decided to try to be together again.

“You’d want that again?” Louis asks, seeming genuinely surprised, like he’d never expected Harry to want more children. “More kids, with me?”

“Of course,” Harry says, smiling down at him, one hand sliding down to rest on Louis’ lower back, just above him bum. “I mean, not right now, perhaps not for another couple of years. I think we should probably work out everything first, and Noah should be a bit older. But, eventually, yeah, I’d really like at least one more kid with you. It’d be nice to have a girl too.”

“It would,” Louis agrees with a small smile. “I’ve always wanted to have three kids.”

“And we will.” Harry promises, meaning the words one hundred percent. There are several hundred reasons for them to wait a few years before having another child, but not a single one of them is because Harry doesn’t want more, or isn’t ready.

“Wanna go to bed?” Louis asks then, slipping his arms loosely around Harry’s waist. For a moment, Harry’s thoughts flicker to the sofa in the living room, and then to the bed upstairs he’s slept alone in. As though Louis can read his thoughts, he continues, “Together?”

Hardly able to control his smile, Harry nods. “Yeah, let’s.” He takes Louis by the hand, and leads him upstairs. They stop by the boys’ bedrooms, checking that they’re still sleeping, before squeezing into the small bathroom, brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed. Louis is out first, so by the time Harry makes his way into the bedroom, Louis is already lying in the bed. He’s still wearing a t-shirt, so Harry pulls off his own clothes, leaving on his pants and t-shirt, before crawling into bed next to Louis.

He turns on his side, Louis having done the same, and watches Louis silently. There’s a gap between them on the mattress, and Harry isn’t quite sure how to breach it. It’s like it’s all been almost too easy tonight, and now that they’re here in the silence and privacy of Louis’ bedroom, it’s suddenly awkward, because what do they do? Do they cuddle, do they even touch, do they snog a bit, or, like, actually have sex? Where the limits are, Harry has no idea because they haven’t talked about it, have probably both just sort of assumed that everything would work itself out, much like it has so far.

Louis reaches his hand out tentatively, and Harry follows its path with his eyes. It feels almost as though it’s happening in slow motion. The anticipation for the contact is almost too much, making his skin jitter. It turns into actual goose bumps the second Louis’ hand touches Harry’s clothed chest, though if Louis notices how the skin on Harry’s arms rises, he doesn’t mention it. It’s almost embarrassing how much it affects him when Louis moves his hand over Harry’s chest, especially since there’s still the soft cotton of his t-shirt separating them. Louis is feeling and tracing, though, thumb flicking over one of his nipples gently through the fabric, and more than anything Harry wants to just rip off his t-shirt and have Louis touch him properly, feel his skin on his own.

“Would it be a massive mistake if we shagged now?” Louis asks, voice no louder than a whisper.  His hand has stilled over Harry’s heart, and surely he must be able to feel how wildly it’s beating.

“Dunno,” Harry mutters, rolling on top of Louis with more grace than he ever thought he’d possess. “Not sure I care.”

“Me neither,” Louis murmurs, before pulling Harry down into a kiss by the neck.

Their lips meet while their torsos are aligned, and Harry can already feel Louis’ dick in his pants against Harry’s own, both of their members starting to perk up. He focusses on kissing Louis, puts all his attention into it as he cups Louis’ cheek with one hand, using the other arm to hold himself up so as to not completely crush Louis. Both of Louis’ hands are buried in Harry’s hair, and he’s pulling slightly in exactly the way Harry loves.

When breathing becomes a necessity, Harry pulls back, regretfully separating their lips with an audible smack. Louis’ lips look swollen already, shiny with spit, and his hair is fanning out over the pillow slightly. Louis tugs a little at the hem of Harry’s t-shirt, and getting the hint, Harry sits up so he’s straddling Louis’ thighs, and pulls off his t-shirt, revealing his naked chest.

“Harry…” Louis gasps in apparent shock, and it takes Harry a couple seconds to understand what Louis is reacting to. Then Harry’s hand moves up to close around the two rings hanging from a long chain around his neck, reaching just above his butterfly tattoo. He’s so used to wearing them that he’d completely forgotten they were there, not even sparing it a single thought.

Louis visibly swallows, before squeezing the wrist whose hand is still wrapped tightly around the rings, hiding them from Louis’ view. Harry loosens his grip, letting his hand fall into his lap and exposing the rings. They rest against his naked stomach now for Louis’ to see, two identical silver bands on a silver chain.

“Is that…” Louis trails off, reaching out to touch the rings and simultaneously grazing Harry’s skin with his fingers in the process. Harry can’t read Louis right now, doesn’t know if he’s angry or touched or indifferent, feels a bit as though he’s just sitting on the edge of a cliff waiting for Louis’ reaction to decide whether he stays on solid ground or goes tumbling into the abyss. It’s scary.

It comes a few moments later, when Louis’ lets out another “Harry”, this one almost slightly choked up, and reaches forward to wrap his hand around the rings, using the chain to pull Harry down towards him.

Harry comes gladly.

They seal their lips together once more, and Harry could cry from how wonderful this is; now finally feeling Louis’ lips on his, and Louis’ hands on Harry’s skin.

“You’ve been wearing them all this time?” Louis asks, words getting slightly muddled from how his lips are pressed against Harry’s still.

“You left it,” Harry mutters, hands travelling up under Louis’ shirt, to trace over his stomach and up his ribs. “Felt a bit like it was the only piece I really had left of you besides the boys.”

“I forgot it,” Louis admits, and Harry starts kissing down his neck, pausing to suck a mark into that place just under Louis’ jaw that drives him wild. Louis lets out a quiet moan, before continuing. “Didn’t feel like I could ask to get it back.”

“Tomorrow,” Harry vows, pulling back and looking Louis in the eyes as he hovers over him. “We’ll put them back on tomorrow. Let that be our Christmas present to each other.”

“Sap,” Louis teases, hands seeming unable to stop running up and down Harry’s chest, as though they’re trying to memorise everything once more. Harry’s definitely not complaining.

“Not denying it,” Harry says cheekily, smile big and sunny. He leans back a bit once more, and pushes up Louis’ t-shirt, revealing more and more skin. The little tummy Louis used to have, the one Harry’s always loved sucking love bites into, is no longer there, a result of the weight loss Louis has experienced over the last few months, no doubt. It doesn’t matter, though, no kind of weight or body type could ever make Louis unattractive to Harry. He is kind of looking forward to exploring and getting to know this new body of Louis’, even if he wouldn’t mind it the other man gained a few pounds back. With Harry’s return to his kitchen, though, it’s probably quite likely too.

With a few awkward movements and a bit of dedication to the task, they manage to free Louis from his t-shirt, and Harry throws it carelessly onto the floor next to them, focussing his sole attention on Louis’ body underneath him.

He leans down, trailing his lips over Louis’ skin, still golden despite it being the middle of December. He kisses up his stomach, giving each of Louis’ nipples extra attention, before taking his time to nibble along Louis’ chest tattoo and his collarbones, leaving behind an impressive spread of marks.

Louis is uttering these small, quiet moans and gasps, little whimpers that go straight to Harry’s cock, which has now reached full hardness. It’s not going to take much to finish him off tonight, he knows, seeing as he hasn’t seen any action besides his own hand for so, so long.

Desperate to get things moving at a faster pace, he leans down to kiss Louis once more, while he simultaneously reaches into Louis’ pants to grip his hard cock. There’s already precome leaking from Louis’ slit, and Harry uses it for an easier glide as he starts moving his hand up and down Louis’ shaft.

Louis’ mouth falls open in a silent moan, prompting Harry to move on to kiss his jawline, nibbling on the skin before soothing it with chaste kisses. Louis used to be a lot louder, especially back in uni when they’d first met, but Harry suspects that the other man is as aware as Harry is of the two sleeping boys not far from where they are. They’re going to have to take Liam and Sophia up on their babysitting offer to have loud, loud, loud sex again at some point.

“Harry,” Louis gasps, his nails raking over Harry’s back, his hips having started to rock into Harry’s fist slightly desperately. “Want you to fuck me, please, Harry.”

Groaning, completely overwhelmed, Harry buries his head in the nape of Louis’ neck, breathing in deep a few times, trying to steady his racing pulse.

“You sure?” he mutters into Louis’ sticky skin, cock achingly hard at the thought.

“Yes, yes,” Louis babbles, and Harry can feel how Louis’ head nods up and down in extra confirmation. “So sure, please.”

“Okay, okay, yeah,” Harry agrees breathlessly, pulling his hands out of Louis’ pants and ignoring the other man’s whine of protest as Harry sits back, settling on Louis’ thighs, and tries to gather himself. “D’you have stuff?” Harry mumbles, hands sprawled over Louis’ stomach, because he seems unable not to have as much physical contact between them as possible.

“In the drawer,” Louis says with a nod, hand absentmindedly gesturing towards the bedside table on one side of the bed.

Harry climbs off Louis slightly to reach it, rummaging around until he comes into contact with a bottle of lube. He pulls it out and places it on the bed, before putting his hand back in there, searching for a condom. The search proves futile, even after what feels like ages, and he turns back towards Louis who is watching Harry impatiently.

“Condoms?”

Louis shakes his head and bites his lip, looking at Harry with an unsure look in his eyes. “Don’t have any,” he admits sheepishly, “Haven’t exactly needed them recently.”

“Without then?” Harry questions seriously, holding Louis gaze, “Or, I mean, I don’t—have you—I mean, like, if you—“

“I haven’t had sex with anyone since we broke up,” Louis answers the question Harry couldn’t spit out, but he looks nervous still, almost like he’s afraid of how Harry will take those news, or like he’s afraid of what Harry will tell him in return. Harry quite understands, if he’s honest. The confirmation that Louis hasn’t been having random sex with strangers is quite comforting, though he hates to admit it.

“Me neither,” Harry admits honestly, shaking his head. “No one but you since I was nineteen.”

Louis smiles up at him prettily, eyes crinkling as he takes Harry’s hand in his and brings it to his mouth to kiss Harry’s fingertips.

“I love you,” Louis says, voice quiet and calm, like he’s just settled in that knowledge, content with it. Like they’ve said and meant those words their entire lives and will continue to forever.

Harry’s heart feels too big for his chest, in the very best way.

“Love you too,” he murmurs with a smile, bending down to peck Louis’ lips one last time before climbing off Louis’ legs. He hooks his fingers in the elastic of Louis’ pants, and pulls them off his legs, revealing his leaking, flushed cock. Harry throws the pants off the side of the bed, before quickly following suit with his own, and then bending down to kiss up the length of Louis’ legs. He starts at his ankles, inexplicably one of his favourite parts his husband, and then up his calves, spending extra time on his knees where Harry knows that Louis is ticklish. At last he reaches Louis’ thigh, and he patiently sucks marks up along the soft skin of Louis’ inner thighs. They’re thinner than Harry remembers them, but no less luscious, and the bruising he’s creating along them, the prettiest mural of blues and purples, is more beautiful than any other piece of art Harry’s ever seen.

Finally he turns his attention to Louis’ cock, watching it for a moment where it lays heavy and red against Louis’ stomach. He then looks up at Louis’ face and finds that the other man is watching him too, eyes wide. He’s been silent all through Harry’s touches, nothing but small whimpers and heavy breathing, mindful of the fact that they have to remain quiet. Harry’s quite impressed at how well Louis has been doing so far, and even more impressed with how, when Harry takes him into his mouth, only a quiet, high-pitched moan leaves Louis’ lips.

“Harry,” he whispers, as Harry works him over with his mouth. Louis’ hand weaves itself into Harry’s hair as Harry takes in more and more, until his nose meets the hairs on Louis’ stomach leading down to his groin. “God, Harry,” Louis moans once more, his fingers tightening in Harry’s hair and pulling slightly. “Harry, fuck, you have to stop.”

Popping off with a small smirk, Harry quirks his eyebrow, “Now why would I do that?”

“So you can fuck me,” Louis answers with a matching smirk, like he’s perfectly aware of the fact that he’s posing a scenario that’s impossible for Harry to say no to. He probably is. Aware of it, that is.

“Hmm,” Harry hums, pretending to contemplate the suggestion, while nosing up Louis’ chest until he’s nuzzling against his cheek and kissing along Louis’ jaw. “Isn’t it called making love though, when it’s us?”

“Frankly,” Louis says, pulling Harry’s mouth to his, kissing him deeply before pulling back. “Frankly, I don’t quite care what we call it, as long as it happens right bloody now.”

“Okay, okay, hold your horses.” Harry says, laughing, because apparently that’s a thing; laughing while shagging, though how could it not be with Louis, Harry doesn’t know. Back in the old days they were always laughing, it seems. Hopefully they’ll get there again.

He kisses Louis hard twice, before pulling back and picking up the bottle of lube, squeezing a healthy dollop onto his fingers and coating them thoroughly, and then reaching down to touch a wet finger to Louis’ rim. He circles it a couple of times, before pushing it in, the tight heat of Louis soon enveloping his finger. He starts thrusting slowly, working Louis open.

“Always so much better than my own fingers,” Louis breathes, somehow managing to sound fond still, despite the fact that Harry’s now worked himself up to having three fingers inside Louis. “I’m ready, love, wanna feel you.”

“Don’t wanna hurt you,” Harry grunts in protest, leaning down to latch his lips onto Louis’ throat while maintaining his fingers’ rhythm awkwardly.

“You won’t,” Louis shakes his head desperately, detaching Harry’s lips from his skin in the process. “Want to feel you proper, baby.”

That particular nickname has always been Harry’s Achilles heel, and Louis knows that. It’s frankly playing dirty that he uses it now, particularly because it’s the first time he’s said it since they got back together.

“God, Lou,” Harry breathes out, completely overwhelmed.

“Baby, baby, baby, baby,” Louis whispers, his breath hitching at the last one as Harry pulls out his fingers.

“Stop misusing your power,” Harry admonishes in mock-seriousness, trying to focus on getting his dick lubed up.

“God, I love you,” Louis blurts out, and then laughs a bit, like he can’t really believe this is where they are. Honestly, Harry can’t either.

When Harry finally presses inside Louis, it’s like returning home after years spent at war, unsure of whether you’d ever be able to come back. It’s fireworks behind the lids of Harry’s closed eyes, it’s jitters under his skin, it’s pure love gushing through his veins. It’s familiar and new all at the same time, a conundrum in itself. Science couldn’t ever describe or explain this feeling, even if infinite experiments were conducted, Harry’s certain, because it’s unexplainable, unimaginable and absolutely soul-consumingly good.

“It’s been so fucking long, god,” Louis moans out, hands tightening on Harry’s shoulders, nails digging into his skin.

“Me too,” Harry replies, more gasping than talking. “Me too, fuck. I’ve missed this so much, missed you so much.” He babbles, and fuck, he’s buried inside Louis, shit. It’s almost incomprehensible.

He lies down on top of Louis fully and seals their lips together. He hasn’t moved yet, is letting Louis get used to the feeling of having Harry inside him again, and soon he feels something warm and slightly heavy cover his back, Louis having somehow manoeuvred the duvet up over Harry’s shoulders, creating a hot little cocoon for them to be inside. Harry’s never quite understood why Louis loves the heat so much, but he’s not exactly complaining; it’s almost like a sex version of hot yoga, which Harry fucking loves too, and it’s never not lead to an amazing finish for both of them. Then again, there’s not much that hasn’t.

“Move,” Louis gasps out, sweat already starting to perspire from the pores on his neck, making him taste salty and delicious under Harry’s lips.

He starts doing so, moving slowly and having no intention of doing anything but that. The glide is amazing, and it’s so, so intimate, here in their little nest. He’s surrounded by the tight heat of being inside Louis, the heat of having Louis underneath him, sticky skin against sticky skin, and the duvet around his shoulder. He’s breathing hotly into Louis’ mouth, hardly something to be labelled as kissing, but the connection feels almost as necessary as breathing for Harry’s further survival on Earth.

It continues like that, Harry thrusting slow and deep inside Louis, adjusting his angle slightly until he’s nailing Louis’ prostate dead on, eliciting long breathy moans from him, harmonising with Harry’s deep grunts. It might as well be the most intricate, perfect symphony for all Harry knows. To his ears it’s the very sweetest music.

“Love you, love you,” Louis gasps as Harry’s hand wraps around Louis’ dick, starting to pull him off. Harry can feel the beats of sweat make their way down his own back, can feel how Louis’ skin is tacky as well, as Harry’s knuckles glide along Louis’ stomach abs with every stroke.

“Adore you,” Harry gasps into Louis’ mouth as his thumbs swipes over the head of Louis’ dick while his own cock hits Louis’ prostate with a steady force, and somehow that seems to do it, throwing Louis over the cliff, orgasm rippling through it.

Louis’ back arches, his hole tightens around Harry’s member, squeezing it deliciously tightly, and effectively sending Harry over the edge as well. The orgasm rips through him like waves crashing onto a beach, uncontrollable and so, so powerful.

He stays there for a moment, his cock pulsing, and breathes heavily into Louis’ neck, until he feels the other man’s hand come to rub his back gently. Pulling out with only a small wince of discomfort, Harry throws back the duvet and breathes in heavily, the room’s chilly air assaulting his body immediately. He lets himself fall down next to Louis, and without thought, cuddles up to him, careful to avoid the cum splattered heavily over Louis’ torso.

“Lou,” Harry breathes out, reaching down to tangle their fingers together.

“Haz,” Louis replies, tone teasing, and a smile dominating his face when Harry tips his head upwards to look at him.

“We still got it,” Harry says dumbly, a grin overtaking his features after a couple of moments.

“We do,” Louis agrees with a laugh. “Go us, yay.”

Hitting his shoulder lightly, Harry settles his face into a pout. “No need to make fun of me,” he says teasingly.

“Oh, but isn’t it a sign of love?” Louis replies, voice disgustingly sappy, and somehow he manoeuvres his body into a position where giving Harry a chaste kiss is actually a possibility.

“Maybe,” Harry coincides, because they both know that Harry loves it when Louis teases him, and always have. He changes the subject then, as his thumb strokes down Louis’ sharp cheekbone. “We should really get to bed, early start tomorrow and all.”

“Yeah. Should clean up first, though,” Louis agrees, “We don’t want Charlie to climb into bed with us like this in the morning.” Louis gestures towards his come splattered chest with a disgusted look, and laughing Harry can’t help put swipe his finger through it, collecting a bit on the tip and popping it in his mouth.

“Yum,” he says with a shit-eating grin, making Louis chuckle and shake his head.

“You’re disgusting,” he says, as he swings his legs out of bed.

“Disgustingly in love.” Harry counters, and he fucking loves this, this banter after sex. It’s so normal and so them. It’s such a huge proof of the fact that despite everything they’ve gone through, and everything they’ve yet to sort out, they’re still the same people, the same couple as they were before everything went south. If they can just keep holding on to these two people, these versions of themselves, then everything else is trivial in comparison. They’ll make it through anything together, then, as long as they don’t forget each other in the process. It’s all about communication and not shutting the other out, and, Harry thinks, they’ve learned their lesson. They won’t be making the same mistakes again.

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis deadpans, face impossibly fond. “Will you change the sheets while I go take care of this,” he gestures towards his stomach, though Harry knows he will also have quite a situation to take care off where Harry’s come must be leaking out of his bum by now. The thought is hotter than it ought to be. “I’ll bring you back a wet flannel to clean you with.”

Nodding in agreement, Harry gets out of bed, rummaging through the chest of drawers a bit until he comes across the clean sheets. He makes the bed slowly, tucking in the corners and making sure everything is perfect.

“You’ve marked me up proper,” Louis says, when he returns to the bedroom, now free of come, gesturing towards the love bites adorning his collarbones, just above his tattoo. There’s a flannel in his hand, but he makes no move to give it to Harry.

Harry finds that he doesn’t mean it one bit, when he says; “I’m sorry.” His lips curve into a bright smile, and there’s a caveman part of him that sort of wants to show off Louis’ naked chest to every male within the borders of London to let them know that Louis is his, that they’re together.

Louis makes his way over to Harry then, and instead of handing him the wet flannel, he starts wiping Harry off himself, kissing Harry’s skin chastely every now and then too. Finally, when he deems Harry properly clean, he straightens up and places one last kiss on Harry’s lips, before discarding the flannel on top of the chest of drawers and pulling out two pairs of pants. He hands one pair to Harry, keeping the other to himself, and Harry slips into the clean ones gratefully.

He’s finally starting to feel tired, so when they climb into bed, the crisp sheets underneath them, cool and clean, he’s quite ready to sleep. Harry turns on his side, and it’s impossible to keep the smile off his face when Louis scoots up behind him, their bodies aligning until they’re spooning properly, and Louis wraps his arms around Harry, holding him close.

“I’ve missed this too,” Harry admits with a whisper, his hand coming up to cover Louis’ on his own naked stomach, right over the butterfly.

“Me too,” Louis agrees, and Harry can feel how Louis presses his lips against Harry’s shoulder, lingering there for a moment. “I don’t sleep that well without you.” He admits then, lips still touching Harry’s skin gently, murmuring the words into it so they’re almost unintelligible.

Harry takes Louis’ hand and brings it to his lips, kissing it chastely before returning it to its place. “Me neither,” he admits. “So let’s not do it anymore.”

“Agreed.” Louis whispers sleepily, his breath starting to even out against Harry’s back.

Harry can feel how sleep is slowly overtaking his body as well, and with a content smile, and the arms of his husband surrounding him, making him feel warm, happy, safe and so, so loved, he drifts off to sleep.

-

Harry wakes up to a knee to his stomach and an excited hand yanking in his curls.

“Papa, papa,” Charlie’s voice sounds as Harry groggily opens his eyes, taking in his surroundings and trying to make sense of what’s going on. “Christmas, papa.”

Harry groans, and his arm comes up to wrap around Charlie’s body, pulling his son against him in a cuddle. “Merry Christmas, love.” He croaks out. “You’re up early.”

“Pressies,” Charlie says, as though that explains everything. Harry supposes it does.

Laughing, Harry kisses Charlie’s brow. “You’ll get your presents soon enough, sweets, I promise.”

“Daddy awake?” Charlie asks then, peering over Harry’s shoulder to where Louis lays, arm still wrapped around Harry’s middle.

“Not yet,” Harry replies, keeping his voice down, as he runs his hand up and down Charlie’s back soothingly. It’s remarkable that the little boy doesn’t see anything strange in Harry and Louis being in bed together after all this time apart, but it’s so lovely too.

“Can I wake him?” Charlie asks, making to climb over Harry.

“If you’re gentle,” Harry says, shifting a little. “Wake him up with kisses.”

“Okay,” Charlie agrees seriously, like this is a mission of great national importance. “Daddy,” he whispers, much too quiet to have any effect on the still sleeping Louis. He leans down then, and Harry can see how Charlie’s chubby hands come to hold Louis’ face, before the little boy peppers Louis’ face with small kisses. Harry’s heart literally melts.

Louis comes awake slowly, his arm removing itself from where it was resting on Harry’s naked stomach, to rub up and down Charlie’s back.

“Morning,” Louis grunts, as his eyes finally open, concentrating first on Charlie, who starts babbling excitedly about Christmas and presents once more, and then on Harry, who has shifted a bit now, and turned on his other side, facing Louis and Charlie.

It hadn’t occurred to Harry until now that maybe in the harsh morning light, Louis would look at things differently, but suddenly he’s overpowered with an intense sense of fear. It’s irrational too, because the way they talked the biggest points through yesterday, there’s no reason for a night’s sleep to change anything between them, but fear isn’t rational even on its best of days.

It’s almost as though Louis can see the change in Harry’s demeanor, because next thing Harry feels is Louis’ hand in his, tangling their fingers.

“Morning, love,” he says with a gentle smile, and he’s so beautiful that Harry’s heart just about skips a beat. “Merry Christmas.”

Harry finds his own mouth stretching into a brilliant smile. “Merry Christmas, Lou.”

They grin at each other for a moment, until Charlie demands Louis’ attention once more, and Harry opts to climb out of bed, picking up a discarded t-shirt from the floor and pulling it over his head. It might be Louis’. He then makes his way into Noah’s room, and gently picks up the small boy from his cot, clutching him close to his chest as Noah begins to stir slightly. He walks back into the bedroom, hopelessly endeared by the sight of Charlie sitting in the bed on his knees, gesturing wildly while he tells some sort of story to Louis who is acting completely enraptured by Charlie’s words, gasping and wow’ing in all the right places.

When Louis spots Harry enter with Noah, he makes grabby hands for their small son, and Harry hands him over gently, before climbing into bed once more himself.

Louis rests his head back against Harry’s shoulder as Harry settles back against the headboard, and he quite thinks, right here, right now might actually be the happiest he’s ever been. Charlie is cuddling up in Harry’s lap, Noah lying on Louis’ stomach, and Harry can’t help but wish that he could somehow preserve this moment forever, because he doesn’t think he’s ever felt more complete.