Louis hates ceremonies.
No, that is an unfair statement. He doesn’t hate ceremonies as a rule, just when they involve him being forced to do things he absolutely does not want to do. He’s currently standing in his bedchambers, lacing up his breeches while his attendant paces at the foot of his bed. Louis is due in the dining hall in a quarter of an hour, but he won’t rush, not even for this. He stares at his reflection in the mirror his mum had commissioned for his twentieth birthday, long and narrow and impressively clear, and brushes his fingers over the buttons lining the front of his tunic. The buttons are another thing his mum had made, small and wooden, with an imprint of an anchor for their seafaring kingdom. A kingdom he can only claim with a bride at his side, someone to give him heirs and win the hearts of the citizens while Louis rules. A bride who has been promised to him since before he was born.
Louis scowls at his reflection. A wife is the last thing he wants, has never had any interest in the fairer sex, but his mum won’t hear it. She found him a wife long ago - an ally, Louis should say, the daughter of a childhood friend. A princess from a kingdom in northern England, where the weather is cooler, the crops hardier, and the trade with Scandinavia rich and promising. She arrived this morning with her consort, and Louis is to attend a feast in her honor before being formally introduced. He doesn’t particularly mind playing host, not when it means opportunity for the kingdom, but not under these conditions.
Louis sighs and pinches a wayward lock of hair between his thumb and forefinger, tucks it carefully back into his disheveled fringe. It won’t do to make his mum angry and Stan is wearing a track in the carpet by his bed, so Louis turns away from the mirror and heads for the door, a sense of foreboding dragging at the pit of his stomach. Every step toward the dining hall on the ground floor feels like a march toward his doom.
The entranceway to the castle and dining hall are teeming with people, familiar and not. The princess had arrived on a ship full of staff and belongings, and after a brief rest, has now gathered her staff for a welcome feast with the Queen and her family and advisors. An informal introduction for a formal engagement - well, pre-engagement. Louis will be expected to propose to her officially within the coming weeks.
Louis weaves through the throngs of milling people and makes his way into the dining hall, Stan close on his heels. He’s not prone to nerves, but this is a special occasion, and he finds his hands trembling a bit as he approaches his mother where she’s standing beside the head table, fussing with one of his sisters’ hair.
“Alicia braided your hair just this morning, Felicite, I don’t understand how you’ve already managed to mess it up.” She tugs the fastenings out so that Fizzy’s hair tumbles down around her shoulders. “We don’t have time to redo it, you’ll just have to wear it down. Go take your seat, we are getting ready to begin.”
She catches sight of Louis as she turns to face the room and her shoulders slump with relief for a fraction of a second before she’s straightening back up. Her eyes track Louis as he approaches the table.
“Lovely of you to join us, Louis.”
Louis shrugs. He’s being insolent, but the low hum of guilt in the back of his mind isn’t enough to override the anger at his mum for making him go through with this. He takes his seat anyway, the dutiful son, and sits through an awkward speech and a raucous dinner without looking up from his plate once. He’s partway through a plate of roasted quail, a special request from the Queen as a welcome for their guests, when a prickle of awareness ripples down Louis’ spine.
Louis sets his fork down carefully and wipes his mouth with a handkerchief before looking up. He scans over dozens of familiar faces - family members and lords and ladies of the kingdom, servants carrying out dishes laden with food and taking away empty ones - and several unfamiliar ones, until his gaze lands on a pair of eyes, wide and dark and intent on his face. It takes the stranger a moment to realize that Louis has caught him staring, and in that minute, Louis takes in curls that tumble around a cherubic face, wide, lush lips, broad shoulders, and long, slender fingers that are busy shredding a bread roll to tiny pieces.
Once the boy realizes that Louis is staring back, he flushes bright red, visible even in the dim torchlight, and drops his gaze to his plate. He keeps his attention steadfastly on the table for the rest of dinner, no matter how hard Louis stares at him, and Louis smiles into his goblet of wine, mood sufficiently lifted. His mum may have promised him to the princess when he was but a babe in her womb, may have consigned him to a life on the throne with a woman he does not love at his side, but she’s said nothing of having a bit of fun with the princess’s escort in the meantime.
The sitting room just off of the dining hall is cool and dim, the tall, wide windows thrown open so that the breeze rolling in off the ocean flutters into the room and leaves behind the scent of salt and moonlight. There isn’t time for Louis to relax and digest his dinner before the princess arrives, but he lets his eyes slide shut for just a moment so that he can savor the smell of the sea and the distant calls of gulls.
His momentary peace only lasts a few short minutes before the heavy wooden door is swinging open, letting in a sliver of torchlight from the dining hall and the fading murmur of voices in the castle entranceway. Louis turns to face the door, respect and politeness too ingrained to do otherwise, and watches the princess and one of her attendants approach. He doesn’t realize until they step into the pool of light beneath a torch, fire dancing off thick, glossy curls and reflecting in a pair of luminous eyes. Louis’ mum takes his elbow and draws him closer so that she can introduce them.
“Princess Gemma, this is my son, Prince Louis. Louis, this is Princess Gemma of Northumberland, in Northern England. Her mother, Queen Anne, was one of my dearest friends when we were children.”
Louis takes a step forward, offering the princess a polite smile and a bow, and murmurs, “Hello, Princess, lovely to meet you,” before turning to her chaperone. His smile turns into something more natural, curiosity laced with interest. “And you are?”
He looks expectantly at the boy at the princess’s side. The boy blinks at him in confusion, perhaps at being addressed so directly, then dips into a bow and says, voice deliciously deep and syrupy slow, “Harry Styles of Northumberland, sire.”
Louis watches, bemused, as the princess rolls her eyes and knocks an elbow against his side. “No need to be so formal, Harry. Louis, this is my brother.”
Louis’ eyebrows wing up and he aims a glance at his mother over his shoulder. A brother. He hadn’t been aware that the princess had a brother. And such a lovely one, with his big eyes and bright red lips, thick, curly hair and long, willowy body. Interest hums in Louis’ veins as he gazes openly at the prince. He’s barely aware of Princess Gemma moving off to speak to his mum, completely focused on the way Prince Harry is staring evenly back at him, eyelids heavy. Louis watches, transfixed, as Harry slips his tongue out to wet his lips. The torches on the wall flicker just as arousal pulses low in Louis’ gut.
He’s about to say something, ask the prince about himself, when his mum says, “Close the window, will you, Louis? I don’t want the torches to go out.”
Mission derailed, Louis slips around Harry and toward the window to pull it shut. The back of his hand brushes Harry’s as he passes, and his skin sparks, the feeling spreading across his skin like wildfire. He thinks he hears a sharp intake of breath, and the flames licking at the wicks of the torches give violent shudders, plunging the room into momentary darkness.
Baffled, Louis heaves the window shut and latches it, but leaves the heavy curtains open so that moonlight still filters through the beveled glass. He hadn’t even felt a breeze.
Louis allows himself a bit of a lie-in the following morning. Well, truth be told, he has a lie-in every morning, was never one for waking up with the sun, but when Stan shakes him awake that day, Louis sends him to the kitchens to make sure his breakfast will be ready, then turns right over and falls back asleep. It’s not until Stan is pounding on the door an hour later and hissing something about the princess that Louis sits up with a groan and shoves the blankets back. He’s to take the princess on a walk through the castle gardens today. He hasn’t yet decided if he hopes their chaperone is the prince or someone else.
He thinks about Harry while he dresses - about his wide, expressive eyes and the lush curve of his mouth. About how he talks with his hands, expression and movements belying the calm, slow nature of his voice, and the way his breeches hug his thighs and make his legs look endless. Louis wouldn’t mind having those legs wrapped around his waist, he thinks, watching himself as he buttons his tunic in the mirror. There’s a healthy flush to his cheeks, borne of thinking about the prince a bit too explicitly, but he’ll blame it on having just woken up, on the heat of the morning pressing against the windows and warming the stone walls.
The first thing Louis sees when he steps outside the castle doors is the prince sprawled out on a stone bench, hand resting on his stomach and eyes shut as he soaks up the warm summer sun. His shirt is sheer, gaping open to mid-chest, and his trousers are so tight Louis can see the play of muscles through the fabric as he drops one foot to rest on the ground.
It takes him a moment to register that Gemma is sitting at Harry’s feet, hunched over a small book. A thread of guilt weaves itself into Louis’ conscience. The princess has traveled very far to spend time with him, just as much a stranger as she is to him, and he’s not spared her a moment’s thought. Determined to be friendly, at the very least, Louis steps forward, until his shadow falls across her book and she looks up.
“Good morning,” Louis greets, offering Gemma a smile. “Did you sleep well?”
“Very,” Gemma nods. Louis can see Harry sitting up from the corner of his eye, deliberately keeps his body angled toward Gemma so he won’t be tempted to stare. “I’m not used to it being so warm, it’s rare that we can sleep with the windows open back home.”
“The sound of the ocean was lovely,” Harry comments. Accepting defeat, Louis turns to look at Harry just as he pushes his hair off his forehead. Louis grins at the face Harry makes when it flops back down into his face immediately. He looks like a disgruntled, floppy kitten. Louis refuses to be endeared.
“Would you like a tour of the gardens, then?” Louis turns to Gemma for an answer.
In reply, she stands, slips her book into a pocket in her dress, and nods, “Lead the way.”
The walk to the gardens is short, easily accessible from the front of the castle for entertaining guests. They are one of his mum’s most prized indulgences - acres of sculpted trees, hedges, and colorful flower beds, interspersed with benches and pergolas from which to enjoy the surroundings.
They walk slowly, enjoying the mild early summer sun and the scent of the roses drifting along on the wind. Gemma and Harry tell Louis stories about growing up in northern England while they wander between curving beds of towering dahlias, along lakes of iris and swaying patches of bearsfoot. They sit under an arbor heavy with wisteria while Louis tells them about the pranks he and Stan used to pull on his sisters and some of the older knights of the kingdom, about how he used to shimmy out the study window to avoid his history lessons, how he and Stan used to slip out of the castle in the middle of the night to sleep in the center of the rose garden, listening to the sounds of the ocean beating upon the shore while millions of stars winked overhead.
Harry slows them to a snail’s pace once they reach the rose garden, enraptured with the variety, dozens of different shapes and sizes and colors, and the heady smells. Louis watches him wander from bush to bush, brushing the petals with careful fingers and humming quietly to himself. He’s so lovely, looks so at home in the garden, with curls that dust the tops of his shoulders and footfalls that don’t make a sound, like he doesn’t want to disturb nature, not even something as simple as a blade of grass. Louis watches, captivated, as Harry bends to pick something brown and shrivelled off the ground, but when he turns around and walks toward Louis, what’s cupped in his hands is a single blossom, whole and healthy and vividly red.
He hands it to Louis with a secretive smile, and Louis discovers that his eyes are green. It’s fitting, he thinks, that they’re green, just like the nature Harry seems to love and respect so much.
By supper time, they’ve not managed to move past the flowers, are sprawled out on benches in the rose garden gazebo, where the scent of the blooms surrounds them like a haze and the gentle rush of the ocean just over the wall absorbs the sounds of their hushed conversation.
Dinner that night is more subdued than the welcome feast, is a back and forth of sneaked glances and flushed cheeks, flashes of sparkling green and smiles hidden behind palms. Louis heads up to bed feeling light and slightly giddy, the rose still tucked carefully into one of the buttons on his tunic. He sets the flower reverently on the table beside his bed before undressing, falls asleep to the memory of gentle hands and laughing eyes and the delicate scent of roses drifting on the night wind blowing in through the window.
Louis wakes up with the roosters the following morning, lies in bed for a few minutes while the room brightens and the castle wakes up around him. He can feel excitement suffusing his body, a lightness he hasn’t felt in months, not since his mum informed him that the princess would be coming to meet him and finalize their engagement. Louis turns his head slowly on his pillow, but his breath leaves him in a disappointed sigh. There is just an empty stretch of wood where the rose had lain the night before, and all that’s left to hint it was ever there is a touch of perfume in the still air of the room.
It’s early enough that the breakfast room is still full of people when Louis arrives. His mum has already come and gone, but three of his sisters are sat at the table while their handmaidens fuss with their hair, and Harry is huddled over a steaming tea cup on the opposite end, shirt drawn tight across his shoulders and hair falling over his forehead in loose curls.
Louis’ stomach clenches and flops over pleasantly when Harry looks up, as if he sensed Louis there. Louis can still see the sleep behind his eyes, but the smile Harry offers him is warm and genuine, and a sudden gust of wind blows through the room, sending the curtains flapping like mad and toppling over Daisy’s cup of milk. Louis shivers at the drop in temperature, glances out the window, baffled. The sun is still shining bright and there’s not a hint of cloud in the sky, and he can still hear the castle workers bustling about outside as if nothing is amiss.
Shrugging, Louis makes his way over to Harry, brushing a hand over his sisters’ shoulders in greeting as he goes. A servant sets his breakfast down at the seat next to Harry without a word to the fact that it’s not his usual seat. Louis thanks him with a quiet murmur, then tucks into his food, waiting for Harry to speak first.
He doesn’t have to wait long.
“Good morning, Louis,” Harry hums. He taps two fingers against Louis’ wrist and heat spirals out from those points, warming him after the gust of icy air.
Louis takes a sip of tea to give his racing heart a moment to slow before answering, “Good morning yourself, Harold. Did you sleep well? Were you comfortable?”
Harry hums, eyes bright and lips quirked up into a shadow of a smile. His tone is mild when he says, “I’m not used to sleeping in such a large bed. So much space for just one person.”
Louis freezes, hand clutching his tea in mid-air. He feels something settle in the pit of his stomach, something that feels like anticipation. He is aware, somewhere in the back of his mind, that this is dangerous - Harry is the brother of his betrothed, and as such is off limits. He has never been one to pass up an opportunity for some harmless flirtation, though, so Louis sets his tea down carefully, then angles his body toward Harry and murmurs, “Is that so.”
Something taps gently against the side of his boot, and Louis feels Harry’s foot settle, heavy, on top of the toe. Excitement spreads like a vine down his limbs, trailing warmth in its wake. He lifts his toes inside the soft leather of his boot so that Harry can feel the pressure against the bottom of his foot, grins at the way Harry ducks his head to hide a blush.
He leans in close, cheek nearly brushing the soft material of Harry’s shirt, and says, quiet and slow and raspy, “I’m sure you can find ways to put that space to use, hmm?”
When Harry looks up, their faces are close, close enough that Louis could count Harry’s eyelashes if he wanted. Close enough that he can see the flecks of darker green around Harry’s pupils, can make out every freckle, can feel his sharp little intake of breath.
Harry’s voice is deeper, slower than usual, thick like the molasses the cooks use when they bake cakes when he says, “Do you have any suggestions, then?”
Desire throbs in Louis’ gut, but before he can answer, another gust of wind blows into the room, whipping Harry’s hair into his face and rattling their tea cups in their saucers. Louis shakes off his confusion, takes a moment to steady his tea cup. When he looks back up, he’s disappointed to find that Harry has put space between them. They eat the rest of their breakfast in relative silence, bodies held carefully apart, save the gentle pressure of Harry’s foot over Louis’.
Harry is still feeling flushed and flustered when he and Louis arrive in the entry hall. Gemma is already there waiting, leaning back against a wall with a small wooden puzzle in her hands while people bustle about around her, paying her no mind. The hall is a flurry of movement - servants and butlers, gardeners and handymen scurry across the flagstone floors, while lords and ladies meander about in pairs and groups, chatting quietly.
Gemma doesn’t seem to notice them approaching, doesn’t look up until they’re standing before her and Harry has reached out to pinch her in the side. The puzzle falls to the floor with a clatter and Gemma slaps his hands away with a hiss.
“Fucking hell, Harry, how many times have I told you -”
Louis stoops down quickly and retrieves the puzzle, handing it to Gemma with a wink and effectively cutting off her tirade.
“Don’t be too hard on him, Gemma, that’s what little brothers are for, isn’t it?”
Gemma rolls her eyes, but slings an arm around Harry’s shoulders as Louis guides them out of the hall. She has to walk on her toes, but she squeezes him close and says, tone wry, “I suppose so, little brother.”
Harry tries to pay attention to the tour Louis is giving them, he does. It’s just that Louis himself is so very distracting, with his fluttering hands and his high, rasping voice, hair still sleep-rumpled and lips distractingly pink. Harry trails his fingers over the cool stone walls as they walk along hallways and up and down stairs, across vast, echoing ballrooms and through countless salons and receiving rooms. There are half a dozen atria, some small enough to fit one plot of flowers and a bench, some large enough for ponds filled with flashing silver and orange fish that flick their tails across the surface of the lily pad-dotted water, scales winking like small jewels in the sunlight streaming through the gap in the castle roof.
Louis lets Harry linger in the atria, watching quietly as he flits from flower to flower, tree to shrub, brushing the tips of his fingers over the petals and leaves and whispering to them as he goes. The plants are happy, well-tended and healthy, and Harry has to shield only a handful from sight so that he can close his eyes and focus his energy, feel life bloom in his hands like a burst of light, warming him from the inside out. Gemma doesn’t say a word, though he knows she’s noticed his flushed cheeks and over-bright eyes, just places a hand on his back and leads him into the castle after Louis.
Bright, lovely Louis. Harry should feel guilty for the way he keeps dropping his gaze to Louis’ thighs, wrapped up in a pair of fitted trousers, or the way he can hardly seem to take his eyes off Louis’ mouth when he faces them to speak. He should, because his sister has been promised to Louis since birth, will eventually marry Louis and unite their kingdoms, give him heirs, except.
Except that Louis has not a glimmer of interest in Gemma, nor she in him.
Their first night in the castle, following their initial meeting with the Queen and her children, Gemma had followed Harry back to his chambers and draped herself across his bed. Feet in the air, chin propped up on her hands, and a sly glint in her eyes, she confessed that, just short hours after meeting him, she had no desire to marry Louis, and that she was fairly certain he felt the same. Bewildered, Harry had nodded along, watched his sister as she blew him a kiss, then slipped out of the room. He had no idea what she meant, or how she knew.
He thinks he knows now, with the memory of Louis’ face mere centimeters from his still fresh in his mind, his eyes hooded and lips parted, voice tripping along Harry’s nerves like a spark. The embers are still glowing steadily in the pit of his stomach, flaring to life every time Louis catches his eye. It’s useless, he knows this. Knows that as long as Louis is crowned prince and Gemma is promised to him, Harry needs to keep away. But he figures it doesn’t hurt to look and admire, in the meantime.
Harry is so caught up in his thoughts that he doesn’t realize they’ve stopped moving until he walks bodily into Louis. Harry grabs instinctually at Louis for stability and twists on his heel, falling back against the wall and taking Louis with him. Louis catches himself with palms against the stone, effectively caging Harry in.
Louis’ eyes are bright and amused when Harry looks up at him, lips quirked up into a smirk that robs him of his senses, has him blurting out an eloquent, “Oops.”
“Hi,” Louis grins, fingertips brushing the dip of Harry’s waist. “You have two left feet, you know that?”
Blushing, Harry knocks his head back against the wall and runs a nervous, trembling hand through his hair. “Yes,” he nods, mind whirling too quickly for him to be able to latch onto proper sentences. “Yeah. Sorry, I. Big feet.”
He points down at his boots, then immediately feels his cheeks heat up in mortification. He closes his eyes briefly, wishing fervently that the stone floor would crack wide and swallow him whole. Instead, he feels a tentative brush of fingers at his hip, then Louis is saying, “Hey, no worries. I’m not hurt, you barely touched me.”
Harry swears he hears Louis mutter under his breath, “More’s the pity,” but before he can puzzle it out, Louis is turning away and addressing Gemma. Oh. Harry had forgotten about her presence completely. Chastising himself, Harry follows the two of them into another room and is immediately distracted by all of the noises. They’re in the kitchens.
Harry looks around, fascinated. The room is vast, half-filled with tables and benches, the rest with rows of free-standing counters that are topped by racks stuffed to overflowing with cookware. The back wall is lined with stoves and brick ovens sporting towering chimneys. Harry spots a larder to the right and stairs to what he assumes is a wine cellar, but before he can ask, someone approaches them out of the crowd of cooks working intently on the day’s lunch.
“Get out of me kitchen, you dirty thieves,” he calls, and Harry’s eyes widen in shock at how someone is addressing the prince.
Louis just laughs, though, and reaches out to draw the stranger in against his side. “Niall, this is Princess Gemma,” he gestures to Gemma, and the man - Niall - bows his head in respect. “And Prince Harry. They’ve come from -”
“Gemma!” Niall exclaims, cutting Louis off. Louis’ eyebrows shoot up comically, and Harry doesn’t miss the way his hand squeezes around Niall’s shoulder. “The Gemma? You’re - oh. Er. It’s nice to meet you both.”
Harry snorts and nudges Gemma in the side, amused by this bubbly, smiling boy with no verbal filter.
Shaking his head, Louis continues, “Niall is one of the cooks, obviously. We’ve known each other since we were born.”
“Used to run through the Queen’s prized roses in our nappies,” Niall confirms, and Harry laughs at the visual of a little Louis being chased amongst the flowerbeds by butlers and handmaidens, laughing and toddling along on wobbly legs. He has no idea what Louis looked like as a child, but he’s certain that he was adorable, and imagines he was a hell-raiser.
For a fleeting moment, he can see himself in a couple of years, chasing toddlers with curly hair and bright blue eyes around the castle and grounds while Louis watches and laughs, and the scene is so vivid, feels so real that Harry jerks back violently and bumps into one of the tables hard enough to send it sliding a few inches across the floor with an almighty clatter. Blushing furiously, Harry straightens himself up and grips the table, avoiding Louis’ eyes even though he can feel Louis watching him. He’s never been very good at hiding his emotions, is afraid of what might be written across his face, so he stays hunched over the table under the guise of scooting it slowly back into place until his heart has stopped rabbiting in his chest and his face is no longer burning.
“Everything alright, Curly?”
Louis is still watching him, brow furrowed in concern. Harry just nods and tucks his hands carefully behind his back, tries desperately to forget his vision. He’s known Louis only a matter of days, is going to know Louis the rest of his life as someone married to his sister, he has no business thinking of Louis this way.
By the time Harry tunes back into the conversation, Niall has disappeared and Louis is gesturing Harry and Gemma toward one of the tables. Niall reappears a moment later and sets a wooden tray on the table, laden with thick, fluffy loaves of bread and a wedge of soft cheese. He claps Louis on the shoulder and says, “I have to go back to work, but just leave the board there when you’re done, I’ll get it later.”
Harry eats bread and cheese in silence, listening to Louis and Gemma chatter aimlessly and ignoring all attempts to draw him into the conversation. At one point, he feels pressure against the toe of his boot, looks up to find Louis’ eyes intent on him, even while he speaks to Gemma. Swallowing thickly around a piece of bread, Harry drops his gaze to the table, but pushes back against Louis’ foot helplessly. There is a smile in Louis’ voice when he next speaks.
The hall is chilly after the warmth of the kitchen, and Harry hunches in on himself, peering up and down the corridor as people bustle back and forth. He feels a hand settle at the small of his back, fights another shiver when Louis’ voice says in his ear, “We have time for a bit more before lunch, are you alright? Should we continue?”
Harry nods wordlessly, too weak to put space between them or claim that he’s feeling poorly so that he can lock himself in his chambers, away from Louis and the warmth of his touch, the worry in his eyes. Louis leads them toward the right wing of the castle, back toward the ocean. Parlors and storage rooms fall away, turn to halls that look vaguely familiar, corridors lined with guest bedrooms and small, cozy reading rooms. They pass the corridor to Harry and Gemma’s quarters and turn down a wider one, inset with heavy oak doors sporting large iron knockers in the shape of anchors.
“These are my sisters’ rooms,” Louis explains, pointing at individual doors and naming sisters in turn. They come to the end of the hall, and Louis stops in front of the last door, says, “And these are my chambers.”
He pushes the door open without warning and waves them inside. Harry doesn’t even realize that Gemma isn’t following them until the door swings shut and he hears her muffled voice shout, “Don’t be long, you tossers!”
He hadn’t even considered how improper it would have been, having Gemma in Louis’ bedroom, even with him there as a chaperone. But his concern for leaving her out in the hall fades almost instantly when he turns back to face Louis where he’s standing at the foot of the bed.
It’s a spacious room, flagstone floor covered in a thick, plush carpet. The bed is enormous, even larger than the one in Harry’s room, and covered in pillows and goose down blankets. He tries not to notice the way the blankets are mussed, the indent on one of the pillows from Louis’ head. Instead, he turns his attention to the wall of windows overlooking the ocean, walks over to them so he can lean out of one of them and breathe in the rich, salty air, so different from the smells back home.
“It’s so beautiful here,” Harry murmurs when he can feel Louis’ presence at his side. “Back home, the ocean is gray and angry and the air smells of fish and overpoweringly of salt. But here, it smells like sunshine and flowers.”
He turns to look at Louis, finds Louis already watching him, a soft expression on his face that makes Harry’s heart trip up into his throat. It takes him a moment to catch his breath, too wrapped up in the blatant, quiet adoration in Louis’ eyes, and he has to turn away abruptly so that he can focus again, to distract himself before he does something stupid.
Moving away from Louis, Harry walks around the perimeter of the room, brushing his fingers over the intricate woodwork of the small tables beside Louis’ bed, the tall bookcase packed with leather-bound volumes with flaking gilded titles, the wide, low desk littered with scraps of parchment and hastily capped ink pots. The walls are covered with paintings and tapestries depicting nature scenes and the castle, and it’s not until he’s on his second pass of the room that Harry notices the enormous oil painting above Louis’ bed.
He stops with a gasp, stumbling toward the bed for a better look. He can feel Louis watching him again, but he can’t look away from the painting. It fills the entire space behind Louis’ bed and depicts a stormy sea, swipes and swatches of every shade of blue imaginable coming together to form rolling waves topped with foamy whitecaps, gulls swooping low in the background. It’s stunning.
“That is incredible,” Harry whispers, still studying the painting.
“Thank you. My mum painted it.”
“An artist queen,” Harry murmurs. He glances at Louis, then back at the painting. “Zayn paints, as well. He’s wonderful.”
Louis’ eyebrows are raised when Harry turns to face him, and Harry frowns. “Oh, have you not been introduced? He traveled with us, he sits beside me at meals? I thought you had.”
Louis shakes his head, expression settling into something Harry can’t read. He opens his mouth to speak, closes it, then opens it again, finally asks, “Is he... are you -”
He cuts himself off, lips pressed together and expression uncomfortable. It takes a moment for Harry to catch his meaning, and it startles a laugh out of him. Shaking his head vigorously, Harry rushes to say, “No. Absolutely not, Zayn is my best mate. Duke of Wakefield. Just a friend.”
He thinks - hopes - he sees Louis’ shoulders relax and the tight corners of his mouth unknit, but before he can look closer, Louis is turning away and heading toward an archway in the far corner of the room. Harry follows him, not quite sure what’s just happened. They pass a beautiful mirror, the largest one Harry has ever seen, before emerging into a smaller chamber serving as a wardrobe. A large copper tub sits in the corner of the room, but the rest is dominated by racks of clothing and a small sofa.
“Nothing very interesting here,” Louis says quietly, flicking at the hems of a few shirts before meeting Harry’s eyes. “Just rounding out the tour. We should go back out to Gemma.”
The sound of Gemma’s name douses any remnants of hope, and Harry follows Louis out of the room numbly, hanging back so that Louis and Gemma can walk back to the dining hall together. One of Louis’ sisters calls to him from across the entry hall, and he leaves them at the doorway to the dining hall with an apology and a quick brush of fingers over Harry’s elbow.
He feels the phantom press of Louis’ fingers all throughout lunch, resolutely refuses to look up at the head table the entire meal. Instead, he throws himself into conversation with Zayn, ducking in close to hear him over the din, and ignores the heavy weight of Louis’ gaze sparking along his nerves like flames licking at his skin, threatening to consume him.
After lunch, Louis finds Harry standing by the door with his friend and Gemma. Harry’s friend, who is arguably the most attractive man Louis has ever seen, apart from Harry, with his dark hair and scruffy beard, broad shoulders and trim waist. They’re standing close - too close, in Louis’ opinion - heads bent as they speak, just like they had throughout lunch, where all of Louis’ attempts to catch Harry’s attention had gone unnoticed. Something heavy settles in Louis’ belly, bubbling up into his chest the closer he gets to Harry, the longer Harry steadfastly ignores his presence in favor of his beautiful companion. A gust of angry air whirls through the open front doors, ruffling Louis’ hair and chilling the tips of his fingers.
Louis makes his presence known by stepping right into the center of their group.
“Hello, Louis,” Gemma laughs, stepping aside so he can squeeze between her and Harry. He knows he must look ridiculous, but can’t help the angry clench of his jaw, the stormy set of his eyes. Harry’s friend bows respectfully, eyelashes sweeping down over his eyes, and he’s even more beautiful up close. Louis tries not to hate him on principle. Gemma gestures toward the man and says, “Louis, this is Zayn, Duke of Wakefield.”
“Ah, the painter,” Louis nods, trying to be civil, even while resisting the urge to push Zayn back a few feet, until his shoulder is no longer brushing Harry’s and they’re no longer breathing the same air.
Zayn’s eyebrows wing up and he glances between Harry and Louis before shrugging abashedly and taking Louis’ proffered hand. “I dabble. It’s nice to meet you, Sire.”
“Yes, lovely to meet you, as well.” He glances over at Harry, who’s staring down at his feet, toes pointed in and hands clasped behind his back like a child who’s just been reprimanded. Louis wants to touch him, wants to ease the tense lines of Harry’s body, loop their fingers together and kiss that frown right off his face. Instead, he claps Harry on the shoulder gently and says, “I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, but I’ve got to steal these two away.”
Zayn nods and takes a step back, reaches out with gentle fingers to touch Harry’s arm and murmur, “Walk later?”
Harry nods quickly, reaching up to squeeze Zayn’s wrist. “After supper,” he responds before letting Zayn go.
Placing a possessive hand in the small of Harry’s back, Louis waves shortly to Zayn, then turns Harry and Gemma toward the hall to continue their tour. There are more rooms to show, the entire left wing still unseen, but Louis only has one more room he wants them to see, has a feeling that Harry will appreciate it most.
“So,” he comments mildly, leading them back toward the right wing of the castle. “That was Zayn. He seems nice.”
“He and Harry have been friends since they were in nappies,” Gemma says with a smile. “For a while, my mum thought they would be married.”
Louis startles at that, hand twitching against Harry’s back where he’s still guiding him around corners and down corridors.
“It was never like that,” Harry murmurs, and a small knot in Louis’ chest eases, making it a bit easier for him to breathe.
“Much to our mother’s disappointment,” Gemma teases, reaching around Louis so that she can pinch Harry’s side.
“A duke is a fine match,” Louis mumbles in some semblance of agreement.
He nearly chokes when Gemma adds, under her breath so only Louis can hear, “Another prince is better.”
“I can’t say I saved the best room for last, because I’ve already showed you my chambers,” Louis laughs, “but I think you’ll enjoy this one.”
Louis lets go of Harry reluctantly when they stop in front of an intricately carved wooden door, immediately missing Harry’s closeness. He forces himself to take a step back anyway and pushes open the door, waving Harry and Gemma through.
It’s a cavernous room, cloaked in darkness that takes a moment to adjust to. Louis feels his way through the room with his hands outstretched until he reaches the far side and can shove open the heavy curtains that line the entire back wall, flooding the room with light. He can hear Harry’s gasp from across the room, and he’s smiling when he turns around to see his reaction.
Harry’s face is alight with wonder as he gazes around, eyes wide and mouth hanging open in a delighted smile. Louis watches him as he studies every square inch of the place, from the frescoed ceiling standing three stories above their heads to the plush, carpeted floor. Two walls are lined entirely with shelves that tower all the way to the ceiling, each shelf stuffed to overflowing with books of all shapes and sizes. Settees and overstuffed arm chairs dot the room, and an enormous fireplace dominates the wall to their right, logs stacked neatly inside the firebox.
Louis watches Harry drift over to one of the bookcases in a daze, hand outstretched so that he can brush the tips of his fingers reverently over the gilded leather spines. Gemma moves over to stand beside Louis, backs to the windows that overlook the jewel-bright ocean.
“He loves to read,” Gemma says quietly. There’s a smile in her voice. “He learned when he was four and never stopped. You’ll never be able to get him out of here, now.”
Louis just shrugs, never taking his eyes off Harry’s profile as he cranes his neck to look at some of the titles on the shelf just over his head. The sunlight is hitting him just so, turning his eyes translucent and edging the wispy ends of his curls in silver, an angel more beautiful than a Botticelli painting. There is a ladder that runs the length of the bookcase, but Louis is enjoying the way he’s on his toes, arm stretched so high his shirt has slipped up over his hip to expose a sliver of skin too much to tell him just yet. “I don’t read for pleasure much, myself, but I like being in here. It’s peaceful.”
Gemma mutters, “I’m sure,” under her breath, and Louis turns just in time to catch the tail-end of a smirk before she’s heading toward the shelves to choose a book, herself.
They spend the rest of the afternoon in the library. Louis throws the windows wide so that a cool breeze filters into the room, then he settles on one of the settees, Harry on the floor beside him, reading aloud from The Canterbury Tales. Halfway through the cook’s tale, Harry tips his head back against Louis’ thigh, eyes falling half-shut and voice slipping an octave lower as he continues to read.
Without thought, Louis plucks at a fat curl, tugging it straight, then watching it spring back into a loose coil. Harry cuts off for a moment and Louis holds his breath, afraid he’s crossed some sort of line, done something Harry doesn’t like, but then Harry hums in appreciation and nudges his head against Louis’ thigh as if asking for more before picking back up where he left off. Relieved, Louis continues to play with Harry’s curls, listening to the quiet lull of Harry’s voice as he lets thick locks of hair slide through his fingers like silk. He wants to grab onto it, never stop touching, wants to bury his face in Harry’s hair and breathe him in. Louis is pretty sure that is not normal behavior, especially not when he’s known Harry just three short days, so he resists, continues to tug gently and scratch at Harry’s scalp until his voice has gone thick and hazy and he’s practically purring like a kitten.
Louis gets so absorbed in the sound of Harry’s voice, the warmth of the sun on his skin, the feel of Harry’s hair between his fingers, that he doesn’t realize how quickly time has slipped away until the light has faded so much that Harry can no longer make out the words and has to put the book down. It takes Louis a few minutes to even realize that Harry has stopped reading, and he struggles to sit up, stares bemusedly at the rapidly darkening sky. He wonders hazily what the time is, how much longer till supper.
A quick survey of the room shows him that Gemma has fallen asleep on one of the settees, book open on her stomach, and Harry seems halfway there, himself. His eyes are shut, head tipped back against Louis’ thigh and Louis’ hand buried in his hair. Louis can see his chest rising and falling slowly, evenly, can just see the soft flutter of his lashes against his cheeks in the light of the dying sun. He looks so peaceful, so incredibly beautiful, that Louis is loathe to disturb him.
Before he can consider just lying back down, though, his stomach gives a furious growl and Harry’s eyes slide open, amusement curling the corners of his mouth as he tilts his head to grin at Louis.
“Shut it,” Louis mumbles, tugging sharply on Harry’s hair. He doesn’t get quite the reaction he had anticipated, though, and all thoughts of hunger flee Louis’ mind when, rather than flinch or laugh, Harry gasps and shivers, mouth falling open and eyes going dark. Louis swallows thickly, the sound of his own breathing harsh in the suddenly still, quiet air of the room. He can no longer hear the rushing of waves outside the window or feel the cool evening breeze on his overheated skin. All he can see, all he can hear or feel, is Harry - Harry’s eyes, Harry’s bitten red lips, Harry’s pulse fluttering at the base of his throat, Harry’s hair in his hand, the heat rolling off Harry’s body in waves.
Time feels suspended, world reduced to just to two of them, and Louis is contemplating pulling on his hair again, just to get that reaction one more time, see what Harry does the second time ‘round, but before he can do so, a peal of thunder rumbles across the sky, scaring Gemma awake.
Louis lets go of Harry immediately, turning lust-hazy eyes to the windows so he can study the sky in confusion and hide the way his cheeks are flushed and his chest is heaving. There doesn’t appear to be any rain on the horizon, he thinks muzzily, baffled by the unexpected rumble of thunder that seems to have been a one-off. The weather has been off, in general, the past few days, and Louis wonders vaguely if it’s possible that Harry and Gemma brought the tetchy weather with them from England.
He never gets a chance to complete that silly line of thought, though, is interrupted by Gemma asking, “What time is it? Have we missed supper? I’m quite hungry.”
Scooting to the end of the settee, Louis pushes to his feet and holds a hand down to Harry so that he can help haul him upright. Harry’s feet catch on each other on the way up and send him careening into Louis. Louis can’t help laughing as he catches Harry with hands on his waist, amused and endeared by this boy, whose wide eyes and lack of coordination resemble that of a newborn fawn.
“Steady there, Curly,” Louis murmurs, reaching up to brush Harry’s fringe out of his eyes without thinking.
Harry just blinks at him, expression soft and open, before whispering back, “Thank you for catching me.”
“Of course,” Louis smiles, squeezing Harry’s sides. “We can’t have you falling and injuring that pretty face of yours, now, can we?”
That startles a laugh out of Harry, and he flutters his lashes as he takes a few steps back, letting Louis’ hands fall away. “You think I’m pretty, Lou?”
Amusement bubbling up in his chest, Louis forces a nonchalant shrug, says dismissively, “You’ll do.” Ignoring the look of shock and indignation on Harry’s face, Louis turns to find Gemma already waiting by the door, watching the two of them fondly. He chooses not to acknowledge that, instead steps over to her and offers his elbow with an exaggeratedly posh, “My lady.”
Giggling, Gemma takes hold of Louis’ elbow and lets him guide her out of the room. Louis can hear Harry trudging after them, feet shuffling against the stone floors of the corridors. The dining hall is already teeming with people when they arrive, and Louis bids Harry and Gemma a good evening at the door, lets his hand linger an extra heartbeat against Harry’s side before he takes a step back toward the head table.
“Enjoy your supper, I will see you in the morning,” he tells the two of them, though his eyes are locked on Harry’s. Feeling more relaxed and confident than he had that afternoon, he adds, “Have a lovely walk.”
Louis can feel Harry’s eyes on him as he turns to head toward his seat. He tucks a secretive smile into the palm of his hand while he slides into place beside his sister, his mother’s seat still empty as it awaits the Queen’s entrance. He knows he should be behaving himself a bit more, should be focusing his attention on Gemma, rather than her brother. He’s working on borrowed time, is expected to announce his engagement to the princess within the next few weeks, but he can’t seem to help himself. Gemma is lovely, kind and witty and beautiful, but he has no interest in being married to her, had no interest in marriage and the throne before her arrival, period.
Teeth sunk into his bottom lip to disguise his smile, Louis risks a quick glance toward Gemma and Harry’s usual seats, finds Harry already seated and staring steadily back at him. His hair is a mess from Louis’ fingers and his cheeks are still flushed, and Louis’ heart gives a heavy, delighted thud. No, he thinks, he has no desire to be betrothed to Princess Gemma, but he finds he wouldn’t mind being married after all, if it was Prince Harry he was promised to, instead.
The sun is still low in the sky when Louis is startled into wakefulness by Stan shaking his shoulder violently. He comes awake spitting curses and flailing about, trying to shove Stan off, but Stan just pokes at him until he sits up in bed, blankets pooling around his waist, and growls, “What the bloody hell, Stanley?”
“Liam is ready for you and you still need to eat breakfast, get your arse out of bed, you lazy git.”
Squinting out the window to gauge the time, it takes a moment for Stan’s words to sink in. Confused, he turns to look at Stan, asks, “What? Liam?”
Stan rolls his eyes, then moves about to start getting Louis ready for the day. “Do you listen to anything the Queen says?” Grumbling to himself, Louis slips out of bed and follows Stan into his bathing chamber to wash his face and teeth. Stan just rolls his eyes and selects a pair of breeches and a shirt for Louis, says, “She asked you to take the Princess riding.”
Louis frowns into his washcloth, bits and pieces of the conversation coming back to him. He had been distracted at the time, too busy watching Harry lean into Zayn, their shoulders and foreheads pressed together as they laughed and talked quietly between themselves. The jealousy had been irrational, Harry had assured him they were no more than friends, and Louis had no claim over Harry regardless, but.
Sighing, Louis steps into the breeches Stan had selected without comment, but wrinkles his nose at the shirt. “Not that one, I want something lighter. It’s unseasonally warm out.” Thinking of Harry’s eyes, he points at one of the shirts, says, “I’ll take that green one.”
Louis finishes dressing quietly, humming a tune under his breath as he laces up his boots and fixes his fringe in the mirror. It isn’t until he’s slipped through the breakfast room door to find Harry sitting at the end of the table, head bowed over a cup of tea, that he realizes it’s the same tune Harry had been singing to the flowers on their castle tour.
The stables are teeming with people by the time Louis makes it down there with Harry and Gemma in tow. He spots a familiar figure waiting by the doors, is just about to lift a hand and call out to Liam when Harry grabs his wrist and says, voice tense, “Louis, I should tell you, I’ve never -”
He cuts himself off, swallowing thickly, and Louis stops in his tracks, turns to Harry and asks, “Harry, have you ever ridden a horse before?”
Teeth sunk into his bottom lip and something akin to terror in his eyes, Harry shakes his head slowly. He has his hair held back by a scarf today, but there are curls flopping over the edges of it and brushing at his temples, too long to be contained. He looks so achingly lovely, eyes wide and cheeks flushed with nerves, lips bitten red and hair a fluffy halo around his face, that Louis acts without thinking. He cups Harry’s face in his hands and leans in close, foreheads nearly touching, so he can murmur, “I won’t let anything happen to you, Hazza, I promise.”
He can feel Harry start to relax, blowing out an unsteady breath as his hands lift to circle Louis’ wrists. They stand there until Harry’s breathing has returned to normal and he doesn’t look quite so close to collapsing, then Louis drops his hands regretfully and they walk over to where Gemma is already chatting with Liam.
She turns to them when they stop at her side, says, “Liam is going to bring you a calmer horse, Harry. He’s promised you the most sedate horse in the stables, says it won’t do more than a trot no matter how hard you try.”
Louis can feel Harry practically vibrating beside him again, places his palm flat against the small of his back in an attempt to comfort him once more. It seems to work, tension slowly leeching out of him the longer Louis keeps touching him. He briefly considers telling Liam to forget Harry’s horse and letting Harry ride with him, but scraps the idea almost immediately. It’s unnecessary, and would be improper when he’s meant to be courting Harry’s sister. Right. Something he would do well to remember.
Louis makes a show of helping Gemma onto her horse, tightening the girth and handing her the reins before moving over to where Liam is trying to coax Harry onto his horse. He’s got the gentlest mare they have, a long-legged dun with large, kind eyes and tiny braids in her mane. Harry is just standing beside her, a careful distance away, staring doubtfully at the saddle. Scooting up behind Harry, Louis takes his hand and places it on the horse’s neck so that he can feel her breathing, try and help Harry connect with her.
“Harry, this is Epona.”
“Epona,” Harry murmurs, fingers twitching underneath Louis’. Epona snorts in response to her name, twitches her tail attentively and shifts her weight from one foot to the other. Louis feels Harry tense up again, but he just cups his free hand around Harry’s hip and rubs his thumb back and forth soothingly, holds his hand against the horse’s neck. He can sense Gemma watching them, perched atop her own horse, but he’s more concerned with getting Harry to agree to ride Epona than how this looks.
“I used to ride Epona when I was a boy, she was always very good.”
Harry aims an amused glance over his shoulder, asks, “Are you calling me a child?”
Louis squeezes Harry’s hip, and his voice is pitched low when he says, “Believe me, Harry, there is nothing childlike about you.”
A shiver ripples up Harry’s spine and his fingers go slack underneath Louis’, breath quickening so that his back brushes Louis’ chest on every inhale. He doesn’t let go of Epona when Louis steps back, though, instead leans on her for support while he turns to stare at Louis with eyes gone dark and heavy-lidded.
Before either of them can speak or make a move, Liam’s cheerful voice interrupts with, “Are you ready to mount, then, Prince Harry?”
Eyes still on Louis, Harry nods absently, like he’s not even aware of what he’s agreeing to. Louis steps forward again so that he can help Harry mount, lips pressed together to hide his smile. He lets Liam instruct Harry on how to climb into the saddle, then wraps a hand around Harry’s ankle as he swings his leg over, holding him steady and helping him find the stirrup. Louis keeps his hand on Harry’s thigh a fraction longer than necessary, distracted by the play of muscles underneath his palm as Harry shifts about, trying to get comfortable in the saddle.
“You alright up there?” Louis asks, peering up at Harry from underneath his fringe.
Harry lets go of the saddle with one hand so that he can brush Louis’ hair out of his eyes, the drag of his fingers against Louis’ skin leaving a trail of fire in its wake. “I think so,” he whispers, letting his hand drop to rest on his own leg, just centimeters from Louis’ hand. He wants so badly to slide his hand over, link their fingers together. “Thank you for always making me feel safe, Lou.”
Warmth blooms in Louis’ chest, and he squeezes Harry’s thigh briefly before stepping back once again and letting his hand drop to hang at his side, cold and empty. He forces an air of casualness into his voice when he says, “Of course. Any time, Curly, I want you to have fun. I’m going to go mount now, alright?”
Harry nods, and Louis turns away. He pats Gemma’s horse on the rump as he skirts around them to get to his own horse, an Andalusian brought over from Spain just a few years prior with a gleaming gray body and a charcoal mane. His bridle reads ‘Apollo’ in careful white stitching. His beautiful sun god, Louis thinks, scratching Apollo’s muzzle before checking his saddle and launching himself into it easily. He waits while Liam checks the girth and ties a knapsack to the back of the saddle, then swivels around in his seat to check on Gemma and Harry.
“Alright?” He asks, waiting for them both to nod. Addressing Harry directly, he says, “We’re just going to walk around to the ocean, then into the woods for a bit. I have water and some food for lunch, so we don’t need to worry about being out too long.”
He can see Harry worrying his bottom lip, but he nods anyway, and when Liam tells him to nudge Epona in the sides with his heels, he complies and only lets out the smallest of squeaks when she starts to move.
It takes a half hour for them to reach the castle gate, a lot of stop and go with a nervous Harry, but eventually he settles into Epona’s slow, easy gait, hips rocking rhythmically with every step. It makes Louis’ belly ache every time he watches a bit too long, all too easy to imagine Harry’s hips rocking while perched atop something else. So to distract himself, Louis makes easy conversation while leading them along the outside of the castle wall toward the beach.
They walk the horses through the surf, kicking up bits of sand and salt water that stain their boots and seep into the fabric of their riding breeches before drying in the summer sun. The splash of their horses’ hooves scatter oystercatchers digging for mussels in the sand, startle noisy gulls cooling their feet in the water, send tiny white crabs skittering across the wet sand, claws waving menacingly in the air.
The birds and crabs and the bright flash of scales as mackerel leap into the waves distract Harry enough that he loosens up even more, enough to hold the reins with only one hand, the other settled comfortably on his thigh. Pride swells Louis’ chest. He isn’t sure Harry is even aware that he’s given up control, but he doesn’t want to alert him to the fact, doesn’t want to set them back a step by startling him, so he doesn’t mention the horses, just distracts Harry as much as possible with aimless chatter.
They don’t stay on the shore long, veer off for the cool shade of the woods so that they don’t burn and the horses don’t dehydrate. They have to walk single file as they weave between the trees, but Louis leads them toward a brook that runs across the forest, where the banks are wide enough for them to walk two-abreast and the horses can stop for drinks of water. Louis paces himself so that he’s walking alongside both Gemma and Harry, Harry in the forefront so that he can keep an eye on him and make sure he stays relaxed and doesn’t veer too close to any branches.
A few hours into their excursion, Louis stops them where the brook widens and splits into two streams, dismounting easily and tying Apollo to a tree close to the edge of the water. He helps Gemma down first, hands high enough on her waist to be deemed appropriate, then moves over to help Harry while Gemma tethers her horse alongside Apollo.
“You know,” Louis comments mildly, slipping Harry’s foot out of the stirrup, then walking around to his other side. “Gemma has taken to horseback riding quite well, almost as if -”
“We do have horses in England,” Gemma calls from where she’s stretching out on a large boulder. “Harry just never wanted to learn. As a child, he was afraid that riding the horses hurt them.”
Harry is scowling in Gemma’s direction when Louis looks up at him, heart skipping at his adorable, mutinous glare and the embarrassed flush to his cheeks.
“Gemma, remember when we discussed what is and is not okay for you to tell people?”
Louis shakes his head, laughing softly, and reaches up to tap Harry’s side. “Don’t be embarrassed, darling, I think it’s sweet.”
Harry’s flush deepens, but he settles his hands on Louis’ shoulders and leans into him. It takes him a second to realize what he’s doing, though, and he freezes, fingertips digging into Louis’ shoulders hard enough to leave crescent-shaped marks from his nails. His voice is tense when he asks, “Louis, what do I do -”
“Relax, I’ve got you,” Louis soothes. “Just lift your leg over and turn toward me. Hop down, I’ll be here to catch you.”
Hands trembling, Harry does as he’s told, sliding his leg over slowly and turning in the saddle. Louis tries not to notice how high Harry can lift his leg, swallowing thickly as Harry turns to face him, knees caging him in. He doesn’t have to make the effort long, though, because as soon as Harry starts to ease off the horse, the moment his feet touch the ground, his knees buckle and he crashes into Louis, knocking the wind out of him.
“Woah,” Louis laughs, stumbling back a step and taking Harry with him. His arms are wrapped tight around Harry’s waist and Harry is clinging to his neck, face buried in his shoulder. Louis squeezes his sides and nuzzles into Harry’s hair without thinking. It smells like apples. Louis’ stomach tightens and it takes him several heartbeats to pull himself out of the moment, to straighten back up and ask, “Are you okay?”
Harry nods, forehead still pressed to Louis’ shoulder, but he doesn’t try to move.
Louis swipes a tentative hand up Harry’s back to cup the back of his neck, scratch lightly at his hairline. He can feel an appreciative rumble against his chest, buries a smile in Harry’s hair before sliding his hand back down so he can grip Harry’s hips and set him back a step. Gemma is still lying down on the boulder with her eyes closed, but this is too much, they need to put space between them before Gemma looks over to see what is taking them so long.
Harry’s cheeks are rosy, eyes bright, when Louis manages to ease away. He keeps his hands on Harry’s hips, though, as he still seems a bit wobbly. Ducking down to meet Harry’s downcast eyes, Louis asks, “Are you alright, Curly?”
Harry nods quickly, a bashful smile curling his lips. He drags the tips of his fingers down Louis’ arms before letting them drop.
“I couldn’t stand. My legs were too stiff from sitting on the horse for so long.” Harry shifts his weight from foot to foot, nose wrinkling in discomfort. Louis watches, amused, as he curls his hands into fists and knuckles at the small of his back, arching into it with a soft sigh. Louis watches, not so amused, as Harry cups his hands over his own backside, wincing and kneading, withdraws his hands from Harry’s sides immediately and takes a hasty step back. Harry aims a sheepish smile at him again and adds, “Bum is sore.”
Louis can hear his throat click when he swallows, vision gone hazy with something that feels a lot like lust. He turns blindly toward his horse, desperate for a drink of water, something to cool him down. Gemma is still asleep on the rock, completely oblivious to the fact that he and her brother have been dancing around each other for the past three days. At least, Louis hopes that she’s oblivious to the fact. Or else that she doesn’t mind. He doesn’t think she would mind, as she’s not shown much interest in him, but he needs to be cautious, nonetheless.
Needing a break from these thoughts before he gives himself a headache, Louis busies himself with taking out the waterskins and the food he and Stan had packed for their lunch. He’s overly aware of Harry moving around behind him, tying up Epona and introducing himself to Apollo and Bridgit, Gemma’s horse. He can hear Harry murmuring quietly to the horses as he spreads the food and water out on another boulder sitting half in the creek, though he tries not to listen too hard. His chest already feels tight enough, he’s already in too deep, he doesn’t want to make this worse for himself.
Food set out, Louis tugs off his boots so that he can dip his feet in the creek. The water is clear and cool, and he watches it rush around his feet, toes forming little rapids that swirl about his ankles and lick at the pebbled creek bottom, shifting them slowly downstream. He gets lost in the rippling water, lost in thoughts of green eyes and too-pink lips, broad, gentle hands, and a body that is a confusing, alluring mixture of hard and soft.
He’s so wrapped up in his thoughts that he doesn’t hear anyone approach, doesn’t hear the shifting of fabric against stone or register the heat and presence of another body until Harry is murmuring in his ear, “Coin for your thoughts?”
Louis startles, feet slipping on the water-worn pebbles, and Harry buries a laugh against the back of his shoulder, fingertips light against Louis’ sides.
“No,” he says stupidly, voice too high and breathy. Harry’s eyebrows wing up in surprise and Louis rushes to fix it, blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. “Sorry. Er, fish.”
Harry’s face lights up in interest and he stretches to peer over Louis’ shoulder, asks, “Oh, are there fish in here?”
Louis schools his features into something more composed and clears his throat, answers, “No, it’s too shallow here. The creek widens the farther east you travel, though, and becomes a river deep enough to swim in. You can find fish and turtles, and we have a small population of the great crested grebe, if you have an interest in birds.”
Harry hums consideringly, head tilted to the side as he pops fat red grapes into his mouth. The sun is filtering in through the trees, casting dappled light over the ground and Harry’s face. Shadows are pooling in the hollows of his cheeks as he sucks on the grapes, glossy curls gleaming where he’s sitting in a patch of sunlight, and Louis wants to touch him so badly his fingertips ache.
He forces himself to occupy his hands by breaking off a chunk of heavy honey wheat bread, uses his fingers to smear the soft cheese Stan had packed across the top and licks the rest of the cheese off his fingers. He hears Harry’s breath hitch beside him, flicks a glance up at him through his lashes before dropping his hand and taking a healthy bite of the bread. He’s still waiting for Harry’s answer.
“I like birds,” Harry finally mumbles, rolling a grape between his fingers.
Louis tips his head back while he chews the sweet bread, closing his eyes and letting the sun heat his face. “I’ll take you there,” he murmurs after he’s swallowed. There’s a short, pregnant pause before he remembers to add, “Both of you.”
That night, after supper and a short walk around the gardens with Harry and Gemma, Louis soaks in his copper tub, letting the hot water and lavender soothe his sore muscles. He hadn’t been on a ride that long in ages, and he’s promised Gemma and Harry another tomorrow, secretly pleased at how well Harry has taken to horseback riding. And if he tugs himself off to the thought of Harry riding something else, well. No one needs to know.
Harry’s legs ache something fierce when he wakes up the following morning, and it takes him twice as long as usual to dress and walk to breakfast. To his surprise, Louis is already sat at the table when he arrives, looking sleepy and adorable with a mug of tea clutched in his hands and a droop to his eyelids that says he hasn’t fully woken up yet. Harry slides into his usual seat beside Louis with a smile, trails his fingers across the back of Louis’ neck in greeting.
Louis’ voice is sleep-rough when he rasps, “Good morning. How do you feel?”
Harry shrugs, shifting in his seat to try and find a more comfortable position. He had stretched before dressing, but it hadn’t done much to loosen him up. Riding again so soon might not be the best idea, but Gemma had sent a message to his room earlier that she wasn’t feeling up to it, and Harry is hungry for time alone with Louis. He murmurs a thank you to the server as she sets a steaming cup of tea and a plate of sausages and poached eggs before him, then says to Louis, voice deliberately mild, “I’ll survive. My bum is still quite sore, though. Any ideas on how to remedy that?”
He slides Louis a sly look, silently preening at the way all traces of sleepiness vanish from Louis’ eyes and he chokes a bit on his tea. It takes him a minute to compose himself, hunched over the table while he coughs and wipes furiously at his watering eyes. Harry rubs his back, trying to ease some of the discomfort, and once he’s caught his breath, Louis leans into it, gulps in air and says lightly, “You should try stretching. Or I’m sure we could have the court physician draw up a salve for you, if you’d like...”
Harry hums into his tea, says innocently, “I would probably need assistance applying the salve, who would help me?”
Smiling indulgently, Louis leans forward, close enough that Harry can smell traces of lavender and something spicy and appealing, and says, “I’m sure you’ll find someone, darling.”
Harry tries not to pout too hard at Louis’ nonchalant response as he eats his breakfast, but he can see Louis watching him from the corner of his eye, and he just wants - well, he’s not quite sure what he wants. But he’s almost positive it involves Louis’ hands on his bum.
It isn’t until they’re stepping over the threshold of the stables that Harry remembers to tell Louis that Gemma is not riding with them today.
“Oh. Is she not well?”
Harry can’t be certain, but he doesn’t think Louis sounds overly concerned. He’s not sure whether he should be insulted on Gemma’s behalf or pleased that Louis doesn’t seem too put out at the prospect of being alone with Harry today. In the end, selfishness wins out and he knocks their shoulders together as they approach their horses, answers, “Yes, she’s just being lazy.”
Louis’ eyes are sparkling when he turns to help Harry onto his horse. His palm is warm through the fabric of Harry’s trousers, grip firm where he’s grasping his thigh, and it takes Harry three tries to successfully launch himself into the saddle, too distracted by Louis’ nearness.
He looks down at Louis to thank him, but before he can speak, Louis squeezes his leg and says, voice pitched low and mischievous, “Well, then we’ll just have to have an exciting adventure without her.”
They forgo riding on the beach this time and head straight for the woods. It’s warmer than it was yesterday, the sun strong on their backs as they lead the horses for the line of trees, but it’s cool in the forest, underneath the canopy of leaves. Louis angles Apollo close so that they can chat easily as they wander between the trees.
Harry settles into Epona’s rhythm quicker than he had the previous day, finds himself leaning into her turns and swaying with her loping gait with ease. They find the creek again and follow it for hours, stopping occasionally to stretch their legs or to watch a deer drink downstream.
The forest is full of sounds, of the quiet hum of life, and Harry drinks it in, fingertips itching to touch every tree, learn every flower, so that he can take their imprints with him and bring light to the bleak winterscape that he calls home. Louis doesn’t know, though, so he settles for gazing around with wonder, taking in the sweet trill of birdsong, the splash of creek water around their horses’ hoofs, the rustle of the underbrush as rabbits and foxes scamper out of sight.
He and Louis talk about everything and nothing as they ride. Louis tells him about his uncles Charles and William, who visited with their children this past winter, and how William, expecting their fourth child, needed a chair on wheels to traverse the castle. It had taken the palace engineer and blacksmith three days to design and build the chair, and to this day, they speak of it as their proudest work. Harry tells Louis about the fishermen who spend weeks at sea and return to their wives with fish larger than two men stacked on top of each other, about the barn cat he snuck into the castle earlier in the year who now lives underneath his bed and sleeps on his pillow at night.
“I’m sure your hair makes a lovely cat’s nest,” Louis teases, leaning across the small gap between their horses to tug on a curl just above Harry’s ear. He doesn’t tug hard, just enough to have butterflies erupting in Harry’s belly, but his eyes flutter shut and his breath hitches just a bit, loud enough to have Louis freezing, hand still buried in Harry’s hair, before withdrawing.
The air between them goes thick and silent, heavy with tension that spins out until all Harry can hear is the soft puffs of Louis’ breathing and his own heart beating in his ears. Harry can feel anticipation building in his chest, tingling and snapping along his nerves like a flame - the same feeling he gets when he uses his magic.
He’s so distracted, hyper-aware of Louis’ presence, of Louis’ hands on his waist while he tries to dismount for lunch, that he loses his footing in the stirrup and falls before he can settle one foot safely on the ground. He goes careening into Louis’ chest, too much momentum from being so high up, and they both go crashing to the ground in a tangle of windmilling limbs. Louis manages to twist them so that they have less chance of hitting their heads on the rocks, but it hurts nonetheless, steals Harry’s breath right out of his lungs and leaves his shoulder and hip throbbing where they hit the ground.
“Louis,” he whispers, horrified. He reaches up to touch Louis’ cheek, watches the way Louis’ eyelids tremble before opening. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean - are you alright?”
He feels sick, frantic, worried that he’s hurt Louis. He wants to run his hands over Louis’ body and make sure he’s not broken anything, wants to gather Louis against his chest, bury his face in the crook of Louis’ neck and breathe him in, but he waits for Louis to speak, breath held and unmoving.
Finally, after what seems an age, Louis groans and rolls onto his back so that he can blink up at the leaves. “I’m fine,” he mumbles, scrubbing his hands over his face. Harry reaches out a tentative hand so that he can brush at the dirt clinging to Louis’ shirt. It’s torn in places, Louis’ skin scratched up, and Harry thinks about trying to use his magic to heal him, wonders if it would even work on a human.
Before he can decide whether or not to attempt it, though, Louis is sitting up with another groan and twisting around to look down at Harry. Harry blinks up at him from where he’s still lying on the ground, flushes when Louis smooths his hair off his forehead and asks, voice soft and laced with concern, “Are you okay? I didn’t want you to hit the ground, but the rocks were too close and I was afraid -”
Harry reaches up to grasp Louis’ wrist and cuts him off by squeezing it, just hard enough to get his attention. Without thought, he drags Louis’ hand down so he can press a kiss to the center of his palm, says firmly, “Louis, I would much rather have a few scrapes and bruises than risk you hitting your head on a boulder.”
He lets go of Louis’ hand so that he can struggle into a sitting position, muscles stiff and sore from a combination of riding and falling. His shirt is torn as well, the thin fabric ragged and dotted with blood, and Harry sighs and plucks at the material forlornly. “This was my favorite shirt.”
Louis is smiling at him when he looks up, shaking his head in amusement. “You take a tumble off a horse and the first thing you worry about is your shirt?”
Offended, Harry scrunches his nose and says, “No, the first thing I worried about was you.”
Louis stills and Harry worries that maybe he’s gone too far, said too much too soon. He holds himself steady, breathing shallow as he waits for a response, but when Louis leans in, he forgets to breathe entirely. Eyes open, Louis presses his forehead to Harry’s, hand cupped around the back of his neck, and whispers, “You shouldn’t say things like that, Curly.”
“Why not,” Harry murmurs back. Somehow, his hands have found their way onto Louis’ thighs, fingertips digging into the muscle like his grip on Louis can anchor him.
Louis’ eyes drift shut, lashes casting pale shadows against his cheekbones, and his voice is barely more than a whisper, soft enough that Harry can only just hear, when he says, “Because it makes me want to do this.”
Before Harry can wonder what Louis means, Louis is kissing him, firm and chaste, just a dry press of lips that has Harry’s heart rabbiting in his chest and his pulse thundering in his ears. He thinks he feels a brief spatter of raindrops, but his mind is a confusing jumble of Louis and lips and an endless chant of please and finally and more. The kiss doesn’t last more than a few heartbeats, though, and Louis is gone before Harry can react and kiss him back.
He watches, dazed and bemused, as Louis pushes to his feet and walks briskly to the edge of the creek. It’s widened into a river, really, wide and deep enough for them to wade in. Louis turns back to face Harry and says, casually, as if he’s not just turned Harry’s world on its axis, “Come on, Harry, we should wash off our scrapes. It’s a long ride back to the castle and we don’t want any infections setting in before the court physician can see us.”
Louis keeps a careful distance while they strip off their shirts and walk out into the water, stays a few meters away while they scrub painfully at their banged up shoulders and hips. They eat lunch sprawled out on the river bank while their trousers dry and then they mount their horses again, this time without Louis’ help, and ride back toward the castle in silence. It’s not an uncomfortable silence, but it feels heavy, too many things left unsaid, but not enough words to say them.
They don’t mention the kiss, but Harry thinks about it constantly. He thinks about it during dinner, while Louis watches him from across an ocean of faces, thinks about it while he bathes and Zayn tends his cuts with the salve the court physician drew up for him, while Gemma tells them about her day with Louis’ sisters and how she taught them to bake fruit tarts that took her a half hour to wash out of her hair.
He replays the kiss while he lies in his too-large bed, staring up at shadowed rafters and listening to the crash of waves upon the shore outside his window, and when he falls asleep, he imagines the phantom pressure of lips against his own and the scent of lavender on the air, a brush of fingers through his hair and the heat of another body seeping into his own.
When Harry wakes the following morning, his bed is disappointingly empty and his shoulder smarts. He dresses slowly, wishing Zayn were here to tell him how he should act around Louis when he sees him at breakfast, but Zayn wakes when he pleases. Harry dawdles in front of the mirror, fussing with his hair and undoing and redoing the buttons on his shirt until he no longer has any excuses to put off heading down to breakfast.
Just as he had done yesterday, Louis is already seated at the table, sipping from a cup of tea clutched in both hands. His eyes are closed, lashes feathered across his cheekbones, and he looks soft and warm. Harry wants to crawl into his lap and burrow into the curve of his neck, maybe stay there forever, if Louis would let him.
He’s so nervous he feels light-headed as he approaches his usual seat, not sure how Louis is going to react, whether he will address the kiss or not. He’s trembling by the time he pulls back his chair, but Louis just opens his eyes slowly and looks up at him, offers him a warm, tentative smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes and exposes sharp little canines that Harry would quite like to feel scraping over the skin of his hip or nipping at the curve of his neck.
He shakes those thoughts off as he takes his seat, returning Louis’ smile and pushing his fringe off his forehead with still-trembling hands. “Good morning,” he says quietly, tracing idle shapes against the table and looking up at Louis through his lashes. “How does your shoulder feel?”
Louis shrugs, wincing a bit with the movement. “I’ve had worse, if I’m honest. Yours?”
He sets his tea down and reaches out to touch Harry’s arm, but draws his hand back at the last second, hesitation flashing across his face then disappearing before his face settles into a blank mask.
Hurt, Harry frowns down at the table and mumbles, “I’m fine.”
They sit in tense silence for a few minutes, the cheerful sounds of Louis’ sisters chatting and eating just enough to distract Harry from his own thoughts. He’s considering heading back to his chambers and waiting for Zayn to wake up, any way to avoid this uncomfortable air between him and Louis, but before he can make a decision, push back from the table and go, Louis clears his throat and asks, “I thought maybe you’d like to go back to the library today.”
Harry chews on his bottom lip for a moment, torn between wanting to say yes and self-preservation. In the end, the lure of thousands of unread books and the promise of Louis’ presence, terse or not, wins out and he nods once, says quietly, “Yes, that sounds nice.”
The library is just as lovely as Harry remembers, and he takes a moment to look around, crane his neck so that he can see every book and take it all in before attempting to select one. Louis busies himself with opening the windows, and Harry tries to put Louis out of his mind as he wanders along the shelves, trying to decide which to take a book from. In the end, he chooses a book of Arthurian legends and sprawls out on his belly on a chaise, kicking his feet back and forth absently in the air while he reads.
It takes just over an hour of reading with half a mind, the other half hyper-aware of Louis as he moves around the room flipping through books and fluffing pillows, before Louis is shoving at his feet and saying, “Budge over, Curly, and read to me.”
Harry flips over onto his back a bit too eagerly and lets Louis rearrange them on the chaise so that he’s settled against the back. Louis stretches out opposite him, legs draped across Harry’s lap so he can kick his bare feet against the armrest. He watches Louis’ toes curl against the fabric, trying desperately not to think about the fact that his legs are pressed right against the front of his trousers, when Louis startles him out of his reverie by asking, “What have you got there?”
He stares blankly down at the book for a minute, not taking in any of the words, before the question registers and he says, tongue thick and clumsy in his mouth, “Oh, um. Le Morte d’Arthur.” He glances over at Louis, then back down to where his fingers are tracing across the page. “You know, it’s -”
“King Arthur, yeah. I may not read much in my spare time, but I do know about books.”
Harry flushes pink, curling in around the book and blurting, “I didn’t mean - I don’t think you -”
He’s cut off by Louis’ hand covering his mouth and Louis laughing in his ear, forehead resting against Harry’s temple. Harry goes completely still, heart pounding at the base of his throat, while Louis chuckles out, “Relax, love, I know you don’t. I was just making a joke, stop apologizing.”
Harry shakes his head minutely, Louis’ hand still clasped over his mouth. The hand, combined with Louis’ proximity, is making to a bit difficult for Harry to breathe, to think straight, to stop heat from pooling in the pit of his stomach. He whispers one more ‘sorry’ into Louis’ cupped hand, then swallows thickly and waits for Louis’ next move. He’s not quite sure what to expect, considering the last time the air between them went tense and spangled, like the bright edge of a star, Louis kissed him.
This time, though, Louis releases his face slowly and rests his hand on Harry’s shoulder for a moment before pulling back completely. Harry tries not to let disappointment show on his face when Louis settles back down on the other end of the chaise, just lets Louis position his feet across his lap again and picks the book back up, clears his throat, and begins to read.
He lets the story sweep him away, lets the scenes form in his head like a play as he reads to Louis, lets Arthur and Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table put Louis out of his mind. Well, as much as they can do when Louis’ ankle keeps shifting against his crotch and he can still feel the imprint of Louis’ hand over his mouth.
Harry leaves the library that evening with Louis’ scent lingering on his clothes, Louis’ laughter ringing in his ears, and a despondent tilt to his mouth. He tells himself that he’s being ridiculous, that he’s known Louis less than a week and they could never be together anyway, but it doesn’t help. Doesn’t alleviate the heavy feeling in Harry’s chest when he catches Louis’ eye across the dining hall, doesn’t stop him from falling asleep to the thought of Louis curled around him, face pressed to the back of his neck and fingers intertwined over his stomach while he keeps him warm in this big, empty bed.
The next few days are a confusing, stress-filled whirlwind of chaperoning outings with Louis and Gemma. After the kiss and the odd, tense day in the library, Harry keeps a careful distance whenever Gemma is with them, taking himself out of their vicinity and letting them get to know each other instead out of some misguided sense of self-preservation, though he tells himself it is because it’s the right thing to do.
He accompanies them on a walk around the gardens and a ride through the forest, spends another day with them in the library, reading and napping on sofas while a cool ocean breeze ruffles their hair and fills the room with the summery scent of salt and sunshine. The outings never last long, though, despite Harry’s good intentions, and Gemma always begs off immediately after so that she can go rest or find Louis’ sisters, leaves Harry and Louis alone to shuffle their feet and mumble awkwardly and indistinctly about what to do next.
Their days after Gemma leaves start out slow and uncomfortable, but invariably end with the two of them finding every excuse to touch each other, whether they are huddled together on one of the sofas in the library, sprawled out on a boulder alongside the creek, or knelt on a sandbar in the ocean several meters from the shore, watching silvery fish dart around them and bobbing gently with the current. But despite how easily they slide into each other, how attuned they are to each others thoughts and movements, something heavy settles over them as they trudge toward the dining hall every night, and by the time the meal is over, Harry’s heart feels weighted down once again with the knowledge that Louis is someone he can never have.
“Zayn,” Harry groans, throwing himself face-down onto the bed in his chambers. Zayn is stretched out on the other end, Harry’s torn shirt from the fall last week puddled in his lap and a needle and thread in hand. “Zaaaaaaayn,” Harry repeats, drawing it out this time.
Zayn doesn’t respond, just concentrates on threading the needle and waits for Harry to continue, as he always does. Harry doesn’t feel like opening up immediately this time, though, so he props his chin up on his arm and turns his right hand over, closes it into a fist and focuses his energy. Within moments, his palm heats up and begins to tingle, warmth radiating up his arm and blooming in his chest. When he opens his hand, there is a flower sitting in the center of his palm, small and perfect and strikingly pink. He focuses more energy on it, watches it grow and bloom before his very eyes while Zayn just sews his shirt together quietly.
“You know,” Zayn comments mildly, finally deigning to speak, “most people in the throes of angst would destroy, not create.”
Staring down at the peony, now the size of his palm, Harry shrugs and says, “What satisfaction is there in destroying something when you could be giving something life?”
There’s a long stretch of silence, and Harry wrenches his attention off the flower and looks up at Zayn. Zayn is staring at him, eyebrows raised in wonder.
“What,” Harry mutters defensively. His vision from the previous week pops suddenly back into his head, and he’s not entirely sure he’s speaking of flowers anymore when he says, “I like giving things life. I want to create a lot of life.”
“Harry,” Zayn sighs, his voice immeasurably fond. “We’re not talking about babies again, are we?”
Biting his lip, Harry drops his gaze back to the flower, strokes a finger across the top and watches the curling petals ripple. “Maybe,” he mumbles, cheeks heating up a bit under Zayn’s stare.
He hears a rustle of fabric, feels the bed shift, and then Zayn is draping himself along Harry’s side and cuddling in close, whispering, “You’re not expecting, are you? I’ll kill Louis, I don’t care if he’s royalty.”
Harry bursts into surprised laughter, rolls onto his side so that he can look Zayn in the eye and say, “Zayn Malik, please tell me you are not being serious right now.” At Zayn’s blank look, Harry says, “We have been here less than two weeks, how could I possibly be pregnant already.”
Zayn raises an eyebrow and Harry rolls his eyes, says, “Alright, fine, how could I possibly know if I was pregnant already? Not that I am,” he hastens to add. “That’s actually quite impossible.”
Any amusement Zayn’s question had brought him fades when he remembers why being pregnant at the moment is impossible, and he rolls back onto his belly and resumes fussing with the peony. Its sweet scent is a comfort, as is the weight and warmth of Zayn at his side, but Harry still wants.
“You know,” Zayn sighs, breath ruffling Harry’s hair where his chin is resting on his shoulder. “I don’t know why Louis is still betrothed to Gemma.”
He can feel Zayn’s shrug against his side, feel the vibrations when Zayn says, “He doesn’t want to marry her. They will never make a good match when his interest clearly lies with you.”
Harry scoffs and pushes the flower aside so that he can roll onto his back, arms and legs spread, and stare moodily up at the ceiling. He likes the ceilings here, lined with heavy wooden beams that criss-cross in fascinating patterns. He’s fairly certain that there’s a cat living on one of the beams in his room. He wishes it would come down and let him pet it, he could use another friend in this castle.
“Louis only enjoys my company,” Harry laments, lacing his fingers across his stomach. “In a few weeks, he’s going to announce his engagement to Gemma and I’ll see them married, then we’ll travel back home and hardly see them again. She’ll be happy here.”
“You’re wrong,” Zayn states before picking back up the shirt and his needle. He takes a moment to start sewing, then continues, “Louis and Gemma are a poor match. Gemma loves England and Louis loves you.”
Harry ignores the way his stomach twists at Zayn’s words, refuses to entertain hope where he knows there is none. Instead of responding, he lets his eyes slide shut, listens to the soft rustle of fabric while Zayn works and the calm, even rhythm of his breathing, lets the sounds lull him to sleep.
The forest is dark and inviting as they approach on horseback. It’s just past noon and Gemma has run off for a baking lesson with Louis’ sisters, has left the two of them to ride alone. Harry’s thighs burn pleasantly as he grips Epona’s sides, and he thinks about the fact that he’s had to call for a tailor to loosen his trousers with not a small amount of pride. His legs have always been quite skinny, but he’s built some muscle while riding and his breeches are a bit too snug for it.
He’s contemplating the merits of leather trousers when Louis asks, “I thought we might ride a bit further today. It’s so bloody hot, a swim in the river might be nice?”
Harry nods in agreement and loosens his grip on the reins, letting Epona follow Apollo and Louis as they wind through the trees along a different path than they usually take. Distracted and restless from the growing tension between himself and Louis over the past few days, Harry allows himself the stolen luxury of plucking a strange purple flower off of a vine creeping up the trunk of a tree as they pass, cups it gently in his palm so that he can learn it. By the time Louis slows them to a stop, he has a perfect duplicate of the flower in his other hand.
He smiles down at them, well pleased with himself. He doesn’t realize that they’ve stopped and Louis has dismounted until a shadow falls across his hand and a voice says, “Toadflax? Did you find that here?”
Harry nods, peering down at Louis. He tucks the flowers into Epona’s bridle, then twists in the saddle to dismount. “It was clinging to a tree.”
“Weird, they prefer stone. It grows along the palace in the spring, maybe it wanted shade from the summer heat.”
Harry can feel Louis’ eyes on him as he hops to the ground and straightens up, and he smooths out his trousers nervously before turning to face him. Louis is still watching him, eyes dark and unreadable.
“Are you hungry? Do you want something to drink? I have water and a bit of wine Stan put in my pouch.”
The thought of drinking wine while out in the middle of the woods with just Louis and the heavy tension spinning out between them makes Harry feel a bit nervous, and he shakes his head, mumbles a thank you before turning to loop Epona’s reins to a nearby branch.
He spends an inordinate amount of time making sure that it’s secure and petting her muzzle, only turns around when he hears a whoop and a splash, followed by, “Come on, Hazza, the water is warm!”
Louis is already waist-deep in the river, expression radiant and chest distressingly bare. Harry catches sight of a pile of clothing strewn across a nearby rock, is able to make out a pair of trousers in the mix. A sense of trepidation winds its way up his spine as he approaches the rock to undress. It’s not that he has an aversion to nudity. On the contrary, he prefers to wear as few items of clothing as possible when he can. It’s Louis’ nakedness and his own sense of self-control that worries him.
Harry takes his time stripping off while Louis waits. He folds his tunic into a neat square and removes the scarf from his hair, sets his boots on the rock so that no critters will make their home inside of them, then unlaces his breeches slowly and meticulously. He can hear Louis shifting about restlessly in the water, poorly-disguised sighs as he waits for Harry to join him. By the time Harry is fully nude, there are goosebumps raised all along his torso and his throat feels thick as he swallows. He doesn’t ask Louis to turn away, though, just makes for the edge of the water and tries not to think about the weight of Louis’ eyes on him, or the fact that Louis has never seen him without a shirt, much less completely disrobed.
He doesn’t look up from the reflective surface of the water until he’s waist deep, finds himself only an arm’s length from where Louis is stood watching him with hooded eyes. Louis’ voice is gruff when he says, “It’s about time, Curly. My nan moves faster than you do.”
Harry tilts his head to the side, a playful smile flirting with the corners of his mouth. He relaxes a bit, pleased that Louis at least feels comfortable enough to tease him again. “Do you watch your nan undress often?”
“Oh, piss off,” Louis laughs, slapping at the surface of the river with the side of his hand, so that water arcs up toward Harry and hits him full in the face.
Harry splutters and shoves his sopping wet curls out of his eyes, then narrows them in challenge. He advances on Louis slowly, trying to look menacing and desperately holding back a giggle. “You may be the crowned prince, Louis, but I can still best you.”
“I’d like to see you try,” Louis throws back before sending another wave of water toward Harry. He takes the opportunity to flee while Harry wipes water from his eyes, and once Harry has managed to slick his hair off his face, Louis is already several meters down river, body cutting a neat path through the water as he swims.
As it turns out, being from northern England, where the water is always frigid and rough, is a slight disadvantage. He’s determined, though, and Harry only gives the chase up once his arms refuse to work and he can barely see the horses where they’ve left them tied up. He calls out a weak surrender and rolls onto his back in the water, lets his eyes fall shut while he floats along gently and listens for the sound of Louis’ return. The trees are more sparse down here, and he can feel the sun on his face, warming him and giving his winter-pale skin some color.
He’s considering getting out of the water and just walking back to the horses when he feels the water ripple around him and something blocks out the light above his face. Harry squints one eye open to find Louis looking down at him, eyes dark and chest flushed from the effort of swimming. His hair is pushed back and there are beads of water sliding down the sides of his neck, shadows pooling in the hollows beneath his cheekbones. He’s beautiful. Harry has never wanted anyone more in his life.
They stare at each other for a long moment, the world around them gone fuzzy and muted, reduced to just the two of them floating quietly in the middle of the river. Without a word, Louis lays a tentative hand on Harry’s stomach, tanned fingers stark against his skin. Warmth spools out from that point of contact, Louis’ touch heavy, like a promise. Harry swallows nervously, the sound echoing in his ears, and fights to steady his breathing, to stay afloat under the weight of Louis’ gaze. Silence stretches out between them as Harry stares steadily back up at Louis, neither of them daring to make a move.
Harry’s blood is thundering in his veins, nerves and anticipation fluttering madly in his belly as he waits for Louis to do something. Mesmerized, unable and unwilling to look away, Harry holds his breath. Finally, finally, Louis begins to close the gap between them, bending slowly to give Harry time to protest. Pushing him away is the last thing Harry would do.
Louis is close enough that Harry can hear the soft cadence of his breathing over the frenetic pounding of his own heart, can feel the warmth of Louis’ breaths on his face, when a hawk screeches loudly and suddenly overhead and Louis jerks back, hand slipping back into the water and cheeks flushing bright red.
They watch each other for a minute while the forest settles around them and their heart rates slow, then Louis whispers, “We should head back toward the horses.”
Harry’s heart sinks. Disappointment weighting his limbs, Harry drops his feet to the riverbed and he and Louis make their way upstream, lips pressed firmly shut and hands brushing on occasion. Every brush of skin is a jolt to Harry’s miserable heart, and he just wants to go back to the castle, to lock himself in his chambers and mope in peace. Their belongings are right where they left them, scattered haphazardly across a rock on the river bank, and the horses are grazing unconcernedly beside the boulder, as if they’ve not just been left alone for an hour.
The ride back to the castle is silent and tense, and Liam watches the two of them in confusion as they dismount and turn the horses over to the stable hands without speaking. It isn’t until they are stood at the fork in the castle corridor where they part to go to their separate chambers that Louis says, voice stiff and distressingly formal, “The tailor is coming to meet with us an hour before dinner. Stan will show you to my chambers when he arrives.”
Harry nods, then watches Louis turn and walk away, doesn’t head to his own room until Louis has disappeared from sight.
The sun is low in the sky and Harry is dozing on and off, lulled by the sound of waves on the shore, when a knock sounds on the door, startling him out of a wonderful dream. He and Louis had been married and living in a cottage nestled in the woods, had been lying in bed with Louis’ hands cupped protectively over Harry’s pregnant belly. He rubs his stomach, frowning when all he feels is muscle and bit of softness at his sides. His dream had felt so real.
Another knock propels Harry out of bed. He shakes the disorientation from his limbs as he walks over to the door, eyelids still heavy and mind a bit sluggish with the remnants of sleep. Louis’ attendant is standing on the other side and he bows with a murmured, “Your highness. Prince Louis and his tailor are ready for you.”
The walk to Louis’ chambers is brief, and they arrive to find Louis standing in the center of his room wearing only a pair of fitted trousers, legs spread and arms held aloft as a man stands before him with a measuring tape. It’s not until the man turns to face them that Harry realizes the tape measure is moving of its own accord, measuring the length of Louis’ calf and the inside of his thigh, while the tailor makes marks in a small journal. The tailor waves a hand and the tape drops to the floor, then steps forward with a small bow.
He winces as he straightens up and fists a hand in the small of his back, rubs his other hand over his swollen belly. “My apologies, sire, I hope you don’t mind a bit of magic. Normally I would do all of the measuring myself, but as you can see, bending over is quite difficult at the moment. My name is Marius, I am Prince Louis’ tailor.”
All thoughts of sleep and fading dreams flee Harry’s mind and he holds his hands out, asks excitedly, “May I?”
Marius nods him forward and Harry places his hands gently on his belly, thrilled and only the slightest bit jealous.
“How long do you have?” He asks, then erupts into delighted giggles when he feels a kick against his palm. “I think he likes me.”
He looks up just in time to catch Louis watching him, expression soft and open. It makes Harry’s chest ache, casts him back to his dream and the tender way Louis had looked at him, the reverence in his touch.
“Just two months left,” Marius sighs, jolting Harry out of his thoughts. Louis drops his gaze to the floor, and Harry tries not to let his disappointment show on his face. “My husband is convinced this one is a boy, but I think it’s a girl.”
Harry bites his lip and rubs Marius’s belly, thrilling every time the baby responds to him with little shuffling kicks. It’s definitely a boy, Harry can feel it, but he won’t tell Marius, doesn’t want to ruin the surprise. Harry is so caught up in his baby-filled reverie that it takes Marius three tries to get his attention.
“I’m so sorry,” Harry flushes, taking a step back and tucking his hands behind his back. “You probably want to get back to work so that you can go home. I’ll just...”
He looks around the room for somewhere to sit, but the small sofa in the corner is covered in Marius’s sewing kit and bolts of cloth, and all that is left is Louis’ bed. Swallowing thickly, Harry makes his way over to it slowly, sits tentatively on the corner. When Louis doesn’t comment, just watches him quietly for a moment with eyes gone dark and unreadable, Harry relaxes a bit. He shuffles back so that he can draw his knees up and rest his chin on them while he watches Louis get measured.
There’s not much left to be done, but Harry watches the measuring tape with fascination. He loves his own magic, wouldn’t trade it for anything, but he wonders what it would be like to be able to move things with only a flick of the hand. He gets lost somewhere between that thought and the dimples at the base of Louis’ spine, is brought back to the present by Louis’ hand on his cheek, chilled fingers tucking his hair behind his ear.
“Your turn, darling,” Louis whispers.
Harry eases past Louis, careful not to touch him. His naked skin is too tempting by half, and he’s not entirely sure he would have enough self-control to stop once he began.
“Remove your shirt, please, Prince Harry,” Marius instructs.
Confused, Harry asks, “But I only need trousers?”
“I would like to have your measurements anyway, just in case you need shirts in the future,” Marius says casually, nodding at his chest.
Still a bit bemused, Harry does as asked and tugs his shirt over his head. He moves as Marius tells him to, widens his stance and holds his arms out at his sides while the measuring tape stretches along the length of his forearm, wraps around his thigh, spans the breadth of his shoulders. He can feel Louis’ eyes on his back the entire time, goosebumps spreading across his torso from the weight of his stare.
When all of his measurements have been taken, Harry tugs his shirt back on, then follows Marius over to the sofa to select some fabrics for his new trousers. By the time the fabrics have all been set aside, Stan is poking his head in the door to let them know that it’s time for supper.
Harry spends all of supper trying to shake the feeling of Louis’ eyes on him as he touched Marius’s belly. He tells himself that it won’t do to dream of how things could be, under different circumstances. He needs to dwell in the present, be realistic, protect his heart. And so he ignores the way Louis watches him throughout dinner, listens to Gemma’s story about her French lesson with Princess Charlotte and tells her about his swim in the river, though he leaves out the part where Louis had nearly kissed him. He doesn’t realize how tense he is until Zayn closes a hand over his knee to try and still his frantic, nervous twitching. Harry leaves dinner feeling anxious and unsatisfied, declines Zayn’s offer for a walk and instead retreats to his chambers to stretch and practice breathing exercises in an attempt to relax.
Louis draws to a halt in front of the wooden door and stares down the heavy brass knocker shaped like a mermaid. The sack he’s holding is heavy, but nerves have his free hand frozen at his side. Inviting Harry to meet Marius had been a mistake. Seeing how carefully he had interacted with Marius, his reaction to his pregnancy, how delighted he had been at getting to touch Marius’s belly, has left Louis a bit weak. He’s been weak for Harry from the beginning, if he’s honest, never really stood a chance.
Before he can decide that this is a bad idea, Louis lifts his hand and knocks on the door. He hears a muffled thump and a moment later, the door is swinging open and Harry is standing there in just a pair of trousers, breathless, bare chest heaving. Louis’ mouth goes dry and his hand convulses around the bag he’s still clutching. The trousers are too tight, and Louis wants to close his hands over the softness of Harry’s sides, mark up all of that smooth, pale skin with his mouth.
“Sorry,” Harry gasps, shoving sweat-damp curls off his forehead. “I was meditating.”
Louis raises an eyebrow and squeezes past Harry into the room. “I thought meditating was supposed to calm you down, not get you all...sweaty.”
“There is this practice called Hatha yoga, I think it comes from India - nevermind, it’s too complicated to explain. What’s in the bag?”
Louis turns around from where he’d been looking around the room. Harry has taken over the space, put his mark over every surface. There are pots of flowers and creeping vines everywhere, and a painting of a field of wildflowers Louis supposes Zayn did hangs over the desk. Books are stacked on the table beside the bed, and there appears to be a small dish of food of some sort by the window.
“Are you still hungry? I can have Niall bring you some proper food.”
“What?” Harry asks. Louis points toward the window, but Harry just laughs. “Oh, that’s for the cat that lives in the ceiling.”
Louis finds himself even more confused than before, but he just nods and lets it go. He turns to place the bag on Harry’s bed so that he can open it and start pulling out the contents. “I’ve brought you your trousers. Marius wanted to deliver them himself, but I sent him home to rest.”
“That was very kind of you,” Harry murmurs, much closer than he had been a moment ago. He reaches past Louis, grazing his arm, to smooth a hand over the top of the pile. “They look wonderful. Shall I try them on?”
Before Louis can protest, Harry has already started to work his trousers off. It takes him a while to get them over his thighs, as they’re much too tight, and Louis has to steady himself with a hand on the bed. He wants those thighs wrapped around his waist, wants to taste the sweat beaded at the base of Harry’s neck, spread him out on the bed and explore every centimeter of skin. He doesn’t breathe until the new trousers have been fastened around Harry’s waist.
“Perfect,” Harry confirms, smoothings his hands over the soft fabric. They cling to his thighs in a manner that should be illegal and does nothing to alleviate Louis’ desire. He needs to get back to his own room, put some distance between himself and Harry. Before he leaves, though -
“There is one more thing.” Louis turns to the bag where it’s still sitting on the bed and pulls out one last item, hands it to Harry with unsteady hands.
Harry takes the garment, eyes wide and hands gentle as he unfolds it. His voice is quiet, awed, when he asks, “What is this?”
Louis coughs into his hand, fusses nervously with his fringe. “You said the shirt you wore when we went riding - you know, the day we took a tumble - was your favorite, and since it was ruined, I thought. I asked Marius to make it for you, I hope you like it.”
“Louis,” Harry whispers, eyes locked on the shirt pooled in his hands. “It’s beautiful.”
The shirt is lovely, made of peach colored silk with a pale pink and green flower print. The fabric is sheer and light, and while it’s not an exact replica of the torn shirt, it’s fairly close. Judging by the expression on Harry’s face, he doesn’t mind one bit.
Harry’s eyes are bright when he looks up, smile wide, and he clutches the shirt to his chest, lets out a damp laugh. “But it’s only been a few hours, how did he make all of this?”
“Magic,” Louis shrugs. “Anyhow, I should be going. Sleep well, Harry. Enjoy your new clothes.”
Before he can go, Harry grasps his shoulder and ducks in, brushes a soft kiss across his cheek. Louis’ heart stops for several long beats, can’t breathe until Harry draws back, cheeks flushed pink, and murmurs, “Thank you, Louis.”
Louis forces himself to take a step back, out of Harry’s orbit, and to make his way over to the door. Just before he reaches for the handle, he turns to look back, to call one last goodnight. Harry is still standing where he left him, staring down at the shirt with wonder as he strokes the tips of his fingers over the fabric, tracing flowers and the lines of the seams. He looks so happy, so enticingly beautiful, standing there barefoot in just a pair of tight black trousers while he marvels at the gift Louis has given him, and something inside of Louis clicks into place.
Shaking his head, Louis drops his hand from the doorknob and curls it into a fist. This is a bad idea, he tells himself, he shouldn’t do this. In the end, though, his heart wins the battle against his mind, and he unclenches his fist, crosses the room with long, purposeful strides. Harry hears him at the last moment, looks up just as he comes to a stop in front of him, but before he can ask what the matter is, Louis is cupping his face in his hands and pulling him into a kiss.
They both freeze the moments their mouths meet, stand there unmoving for the span of a few heartbeats. But then Harry gasps, short and sweet, and Louis snaps into action. He slides one hand up into Harry’s hair and tugs him closer, uses the other to pull the shirt gently out of Harry’s grasp and toss it onto the bed. He doesn’t want the shirt to tear, wants to feel Harry’s hands on him, get his own hands on Harry as soon as possible.
As always, Harry doesn’t make him wait long.
The moment Louis’ teeth make contact with Harry’s bottom lip, he moans, stumbling into Louis and grabbing at his shoulders. Louis slides his free hand around Harry’s waist and holds him close, tugs gently on his hair and revels in the way a shiver ripples down Harry’s spine and his mouth falls open. Every shift in angle, every glide of his tongue has Harry gasping and moaning, has him trembling in Louis’ arms and clutching desperately at his shoulders.
Louis doesn’t realize that he’s trembling as well until Harry whines and pulls back, body shaking like a leaf. Louis clings to him, both arms around his waist now, and kisses along his jaw, down the side of his neck while Harry looks around. He doesn’t open his eyes again until Harry whispers, “Louis. Louis, look!”
Louis blinks his eyes open, has to wait a moment for the haze to clear, but when it does - “Is that snow?”
“Louis,” Harry breathes, grip on his shoulders tightening. “Are you doing this?”
“No!” Louis shakes his head rapidly, the fog of lust slowly lifting. The snow stops. “No, I can’t, I don’t have magic. I thought maybe, when I was younger, but it never...”
Harry’s hand curls around the back of his neck, fingers like ice. Louis lets out a slightly hysterical laugh and clings to Harry tighter. It was just snowing. Inside.
Confused, amazed, Louis tips his head back a bit so he can see Harry’s face, asks, “Do you have magic? Maybe you lost control.”
“Yes, but not weather magic. Nature magic - flowers, trees, animals. Anything with life. Nothing like this.”
Realization dawns on Louis, and he gasps, “The rose.”
Harry bites his lip, finally looks at Louis, away from the dusting of snow covering the floor around them. “You’re not angry, are you?”
“Of course not,” Louis reassures him, lifting a hand to smooth his hair back from his face. Harry turns into the touch, noses at the palm of his hand, and Louis’ heart aches. Snow forgotten, he draws Harry down into another kiss, loses himself in the softness of Harry’s lips, the way he tastes of peppermint, the quiet noises he makes when Louis squeezes his hips.
His mouth is numb, senses dull and hazy when eventually Louis pulls away, and he buries a smile against Harry’s neck at his mumbled protest. His limbs feel weak and his heart full, and he can’t help the way he drags the pads of his fingers over Harry’s kiss-swollen lips as he steps back, attempting to exercise a bit of restraint.
“I should go, love. Get some sleep, we’ll see each other at breakfast in the morning.”
Harry’s hands stretch toward him, seeking, and he suggests, batting his eyelashes, “Stay here, we can get some sleep together.”
Louis laughs and takes another step back, silently congratulating himself on his willpower.
“As tempting as that sounds, if I stayed, we would get no sleep tonight.”
Harry’s mouth drops open and he whines, watches Louis longingly as he backs toward the door.
“I don’t need sleep, I rested before supper,” he calls out, but Louis just shakes his head and blows him a kiss before slipping through the doorway and out into the corridor.
It’s dark in the hall, the castle empty and silent around him, so Louis allows himself a moment to lean back against the door with a sigh. He has no idea what he’s just gotten himself into, has a feeling it will not end happily, but he’s tired of resisting. He’s desperate for Harry, will take as much of him as he’s willing to give, for as long as he can.