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In Dreams

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“Oh. You’re a person.”

The raspy, high-pitched voice made Harry freeze in place, his body bent over and his fingertips brushing thin paper. He looked up and blinked across the hall, sleep dust still lingering in the corners of his eyes.

He studied the short, crumpled man slouching against the doorframe opposite his flat. His tight, black skinnies sagged off his round arse, a slate grey long-sleeved tee clinging to his lean torso. He wasn’t even wearing shoes or socks on his pudgy feet, scuffed black Vans dangling from dirty shoelaces tied around the strap of his band button-covered rucksack.

In the split second of study, Harry tried to remember if he’d pulled pants on before opening the door that morning to retrieve his newspaper. A cool breeze confirmed that, luckily, he had pulled on plaid pajama bottoms and a baggy Rolling Stones t-shirt, his nipples prickling against the thin material.

“Yes,” he rasped, his voice heavy. “I’m a person.” He stood up straight, his right hand pushing his long waves off his face. “I’m a Harry.”

Small lips quirked upwards, sleepy eyes crinkling at the edges.

“I’m a Louis.”

“Nice to meet you, a Louis.”

Louis’ smile grew, his arms crossing over his chest. His rucksack strap sagged off his shoulder.

“Just Louis is fine.”

Harry tapped his newspaper against his opposite palm.

“Just Louis then,” Harry said, Louis’ rapid-fire chuckle bouncing around the empty hallway. “Well,” Harry jutted his head back into his flat, the warmth of bed beckoning him, “I’ll see you around, Just Louis.”

“Yeah, definitely.” Louis made no move to leave, his tongue toying with the simple silver hoop pierced through the left side of his bottom lip. “Sorry if I startled you, by the way. Totally didn’t mean to.”

“It’s fine.”

“I didn’t realize anyone had moved in across the hall.” His mouth twitched into a smirk. “You’re a quiet neighbor.”

“Yeah, I, erm...Sorry.” Harry squeezed the rolled newspaper between his hands. “I’m not much of a morning person on weekends. Usually I’m a lot more polite. I’m kind of out of it right now.”

“Same, except,” Louis rubbed his hand over his face, stubble scratching under his palm, “it’s every day that I’m not a morning person, not exclusively weekends. Working nights was the only option. I’m gonna sleep for, like,” he yawned and stretched his arms up, “twelve hours straight.”

“You’re getting in now?”

“Yep. I own the tattoo shop down the block and we’re open crazy hours on weekends. Tattoo Zou, if you’ve seen it.”

Harry tried to remember what anything looked like besides the inside of his bare flat and the direct path to work. He drew a blank.

“Oh, yeah?” he murmured.

“Mmhmm.”

Harry leaned his shoulder against his doorframe, doing another quick glance over Louis.

“Not many tattoos for a professional.”

Louis quirked an eyebrow as he tongued his lip ring, pushing his sleeves up to his elbows. It revealed a multitude of ink, mostly black outlines, but some pieces coloured in with red, his tattoos varying from detailed, shaded birds to the simplest of stick figures. The slivers of his bare, un-inked skin were lightly tanned, his muscles wiry.

“Ah,” Harry said, nodding, studying a skull and bones on Louis’ delicate wrist. “Cool.”

“Any ink for you?”

“Nah,” Harry said, rubbing his hand over forearm. The downy hair that dusted his skin stood up at attention; their hallway was very drafty. “I’m not much for needles and I work with kids. Don’t think it would work.”

“Kids?”

“Yeah, I’m a teacher. Early years.”

Louis smiled and tapped his fist against his doorframe.

“Aww,” he drawled, his pitch fluctuating. “Cute!” Harry’s face flushed at that comment, Louis hurrying to add, “And you’re not alone. With the needles thing. I had to close my eyes for my first few tattoos. But then...” He licked his lip ring and hitched his bag higher, his shoes clunking against the wall. “You get used to it.” His eyes shimmered. “The pain is kind of addicting.”

“I have boring addictions.”

“Like what?”

Harry smiled and ran his fingers through the back of his hair, his socked toes digging into the cool tile floor.

“Nothing special. I, uh, should,” he gave Louis one more small smile and gestured back to the open door of his flat, “I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, sure, enjoy your weekend.”

Harry heard Louis’ door unlock and creak open, both of their doors mere inches from closing when Louis called, “Oh, hey,” across the hall. Harry turned back to him. “How long have you been here?”

“Just about a month.”

“A month!?” Louis laughed, his eyes bulging. The movement drew Harry’s attention to Louis’ eyes, electric blue and sparkling. “Shit, man. I had no idea. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself. I’ve been working a lot. My business partner got married and I’ve been covering the shop.”

“No worries. I’ve been sort of...Ghosting around, myself. Still getting settled.”

“I should have gotten you, like, a casserole or something. Well,” Louis bobbed his head side to side, “I could have learned to make a casserole and then given it to you. That’s neighborly, right?”

Harry chuckled.

“It’s fine. I don’t even like casseroles.”

“What do you like?”

Harry studied him for a long beat, the back of his neck heating. Louis stared at him with such warmth, such rapt attention, that it caused his insides to tremble a touch. Ghosting for a month and focusing on work almost made him forget what it felt like to be chatted up by a stranger.

“Um,” he chuckled again, breathier, his eyes cast at the ground, “I’ll, uh, answer that when I’m more awake. I’m sort of fading fast. Haven’t been sleeping well in the new space.”

Louis smiled easily.

“Sure thing. Get lots of sleep.” He held up one hand. “See you around, mate. Let me know if you need any help settling in.”

“Sure, thanks,” Harry said, mirroring his motionless wave. “See you.”

. . .

One thing Harry learned about his new home was that the lift was a sacred space not meant for loud noises and chit chat. Early mornings were near silent, people still half-asleep as they rode the lift to start their long, exhausting day. Those same people usually rode the lift eight hours later, even quieter and more braindead.

Harry preferred to doze off in the corner of the lift with his earbuds in and his hood pulled over his head. Maybe that was why he’d only met one neighbor for approximately five minutes since moving into the building.

He returned home after a long day and saw a white box resting in front of his door. He looked around the hallway and bent over, picking up the box. There was no postage on it, only his name scrawled in elegant, looping black calligraphy, a red heart drawn around his name. The heart was lopsided, the right peak slightly higher than the left.

His eyes rolled around the hallway, checking for any sign of a delivery person. The hallway was empty, not even the sound of a television on from behind a closed door.

Harry pulled the top of the box off, the calming smell of vanilla and milk floating to his nostrils. He smiled with furrowed brows and lifted the round white candle out out of the box. The candle was poured into what looked like a vintage milk glass, the scent warm and soothing.

“Sleep,” he read aloud, thumbing over the printed label. The paper was bumpy and cream coloured, a shade darker than the pure white candle. “Huh.”

He looked around one more time before he opened the door to his flat. That night, he lit the surprise candle while getting ready for bed. He slept the full night for the first time since moving in.

. . .

Harry was roused from sleep a few days later by a single bang on his front door. His eyes shot open, his hands clutching the pillow under his face. He blinked at his alarm clock and frowned, pushing his face deeper into his pillow. Then the bang came again, Harry huffing a breath out of his nose.

He pulled himself out of bed and stomped to the door. He looked out the peephole and saw nothing. Something was blocking his view. He unlocked the door, pulled it open two inches, and peeked out the gap.

There was a note taped to the front of his door.

Traffic. Crazy delays. Better get an early start! :)

Harry’s sleep rumpled face grew ever more wrinkled, his lips pursed forward. He sighed and shut the door, shuffling into the kitchen. He was up already; might as well give up on sleep and get ready for his day, even if he’d arrive at work very early.

Later, after a jam-packed drive to school that delivered him a comfortable fifteen minutes early, he sat in the teacher’s lounge and sipped his vanilla latte, watching other frantic employees running in late. He thought of the little note and smiled, running his tongue over the vanilla-sweet inside of his bottom lip.

. . .

“Hey!”

Louis turned away from his door, his keys clutched in his hand and his rucksack hanging off his shoulders. A big smile brightened his face, his tongue swiping once over his lip ring.

“Hey, man.” He adjusted a full grocery bag balanced against his chest, glancing over Harry’s body. Today, he was wearing a pale blue Oxford tucked into his dark, skinny jeans, his chocolate brown boots spotless. “What’s up?”

“Not much,” Harry drew small circles in the back of his hair, “just,” he seemed lost for words for a moment, “uh, settling in.”

Louis leaned back on his door.

“Tired of being a ghost?”

“Something like that. Hey,” Harry said, softer, stepping closer. “Um, this is probably a weird question, but have you seen anyone, um, lurking around my door?”

Louis’ standard smirk slid into a full-blown, wildly amused grin.

“Lurking?” he said, drawing out the word. He made a spooky motion with his fingers. “Luuuurking?”

“Yeah, like, uh,” Harry ran his hand over the top of his head, stifling a smile, “people dropping packages off? Or leaving notes?”

Louis shook his head, his mouth pursed forward.

“Nah, sorry, man. I haven’t noticed anything. I haven’t been here a lot, though, so maybe I’m not the best person to ask. I’ve been sleeping at the shop most days.”

“Ah. Alright.”

“I’ll keep an eye out, though. If I’m around, I mean.”

Harry nodded, “Thanks. Sorry to even ask. That’s--That’s such a weird thing to ask.”

“Nah, it’s alright. Our building is kind of quiet most of the time. It’s weird you can’t hear them coming.”

“Right!” Harry said, his eyes widening. “That’s exactly…That’s what…”

Louis’ brows furrowed, his head tilting.

“What?”

Harry tore his eyes away from Louis’ chest.

“Nothing.” He nodded again, jerkier. “That’s what I thought.”

Louis looked down his own body, a smile working its way onto his face.

“What, this?” he asked, pushing the grocery bag into his right arm. The motion caused his black Skate Tough tank to stretch further across his chest, revealing a sliver of his chest not covered by his tank or black hoodie. “Not much for piercings, either?”

Harry’s face shook while he blurted out, “No, I don’t care, I just wasn’t expecting it. Your nipples are your business.”

Louis smirked wickedly, his nipple, and its shining silver barbell, on full display.

“A lot of guys get their nipples pierced these days. It,” his tongue teased over his lip ring as he smiled, “has many benefits.”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Harry said, laughing out the words. He put his hand over his lips to muffled the honked sound, Louis laughing loudly across the hall. “Alright, well, thanks, um, yeah.” He smiled at Louis, who was still smiling and leaning against his doorframe. “I’ll see you around.”

Louis winked and gripped his grocery bag, letting his shirt slide back across his chest.

“You wanna have a beer?”

“Um,” Harry said, nibbling his bottom lip. “I should...I have to…”

Louis held one palm towards him.

“I promise to keep my nipples to myself.”

A sudden smile broke across Harry’s face, his head ducking down and his hair falling in his eyes.

“Um, okay, sure,” he said, looking up at Louis, who cried, “Hells yes!” in response. Harry smiled crookedly, smoothing his hand over his Oxford. “Yours or mine? I need to neaten up a bit, if you want to come to mine.”

Louis pushed his door open with his bum.

“You can probably smell my flat from here. I’m the last man on Earth to give a shit about cleanliness, unless I’m putting a needle in you. Then I’m Mister Clean.”

Harry sniffed the air as if he was a sommelier testing the bouquet of a fine wine.

“Is that a combination of Cheetos, feet and weed?”

“Close enough,” Louis grinned, his lip ring shining. “Come to think of it,” he jostled the grocery bag in his arms, "I just bought a sixer of this amazing Belgian beer and it’s so fucking tasty. I can host this time.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, definitely. Then we can start drinking immediately, no tidying needed. If you can stomach my flat, that is."

“Oh, uh, okay. Cool. Thanks,” Harry huffed on a chuckle. “Lemme just,” he thumbed over his shoulder, “grab my phone and keys."

“Look at you,” Louis said proudly, his voice teasing and light, leaning back on his doorway. “Making a non-ghost friend.”

“Ha,” Harry said, his throat clucking the sound out. He stepped into his flat, the door slowly closing. “I’ll be over in...One second, just need to..."

His voice trailed off, the sound of an iPhone ringing filtering through the cracked door. Louis waited for him to come back, but he could only hear Harry's voice speaking quietly in tight tones.

“I already switched that one to you, I told you that. I did that before I even moved out.” Harry paused for a beat, Louis’ ear leaning closer to the sliver of open door. “I paid you for the last month I lived there, and even gave you extra as a courtesy, but why--Why would you assume that? I haven’t lived there in over two months. Why would I still owe you for…” His voice dropped. “No, of course not. This isn’t about money, I just…”

Harry sighed heavily, papers shuffling around behind the door. He was silent for a moment.

“I know it’s hard,” he murmured, the private tone making Louis step backwards. Harry continued, “It was hard at times for me, too, but it would really help if you’d do your part. I asked you to let me know if any of my mail was…”

He sighed again.

“No, I’m not. I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just saying, my mail’s been forwarding perfectly fine to my new address for weeks, yet you always seem to have to meet to give me a magazine or a catalogue or something that you know is rubbish. It’s not good for you and it’s not good for me because--Because,” he repeated, tension twinging his tone, “I’m doing well, you’re doing well, and it’s not good for either of us to keep harping…”

His voice rose in volume. He was not even close to shouting, but spoke with more firmness than Louis could remember hearing in their short conversations.

“Alright, well, why am I still getting emails from Melly about the flat? You handed in the revised lease, yes? That’s why we had that coffee meeting with her, so we could both….” Harry sighed even heavier, Louis practically able to see him pinching the bridge of his nose. “Then why didn’t you tell her to contact you for future issues?”

There was a quick clicking sound, as if fingertips were tapping on something, Harry’s shoes slapping over the hardwood floor.

Harry barked out a humorless laugh.

“Why didn’t you update the email on file to your email? I don’t live there anymore and--And I’m trying to be patient, I’m trying keep things friendly, but I can’t keep getting dragged back into things with you that have nothing to do with me. It’s not healthy for either of us.”

Louis’ grocery bag wilted in his arms, discomfort from snooping weighing him down. He took a step forward and knocked gently on the door frame.

The door swung open and Harry appeared, his eyes frazzled and his hair standing outwards in tufts. He had his phone balanced against his shoulder and an open laptop cradled in his arm.

“Oh,” Harry gasped, his eyes widening. He shifted his phone and whispered, “Uh, just a--”

He gently placed his laptop on a small white table beside his door, switching his iPhone to his other hand. He held up one finger towards Louis, the sound of another voice buzzing through his phone loud enough for Louis to hear. Harry winced and held his hand over the bottom of the phone.

“Sorry,” he said quietly to Louis, clenching his teeth. “I’ll have to take a rain check on that beer.”

Harry’s face fell and his eyes darted to the side to focus on whatever the person was saying on the other end. He blurted out, “No, no, that’s not--”

He looked back to Louis and clammed up, his mouth bobbing silently, the phone’s voice buzzing again.

“It’s cool, man, no worries,” Louis whispered, giving him a small smile and two thumbs up. “Another time.”

“Okay, thanks,” Harry said, relieved but distracted, his eyes not even landing on Louis’ face before he was turning away.

Louis reached into his grocery bag and pulled out a bottle of beer. He looked up, holding a beer out.

“Hey, how about I donate a beer to--”

The door closed in his face before he could finish his sentence. Louis froze for a second, staring at the door. He sucked on his lip ring and rolled back on his heels, tucking the beer back into his bag.

As he turned back towards his flat, he could hear Harry’s voice saying, “Nobody. It was just the guy from across the hall,” through the door, Louis sucking a touch harder on his lip ring.

. . .

The next morning, Harry woke up to three origami frogs sitting on his doormat. After the long night of back and forth conversations via phone, email, and eventually Facetime (with a person he didn’t really care to see their face at all), he slept terribly. Waking up to cheerful paper frogs sitting in front of his door didn’t quite bring a smile to his face, but he let out a quiet breath, the corners of his lips twitching upwards.

He picked up the frogs and carefully tucked them into the front pocket of his leather messenger bag. He pulled a gray beanie over his hair and went towards the lift. There was one person waiting for the lift already, that person yawning loudly and stretching his arms high above his head, a sliver of his tan lower back revealed beneath his black leather jacket.

“Hey,” Harry said softly.

Louis tipped his head backwards, then whipped it sideways, smiling sleepily at Harry.

“Hey, mate, alright?”

“Yeah, I’m...I’m so sorry about last night. I was really rude.”

Louis burped, “Nah,” and swung his hand in the air. “Not at all. You got busy.” He shrugged, metal safety pins clinking together on the sleeves of his jacket. “It happens.”

“Yeah, but I should have...Are you,” Harry squinted and brought his face closer, “wearing eyeliner?”

Louis’ eyes fluttered in Harry’s direction, the blue extra electric.

“Yep.”

“Right, okay, right,” Harry said, nodding quickly. “What I meant to say, was that I shouldn’t have made you stand in the hall and listen to me and my ex dealing with stuff over the phone.”

“Really, it’s alright,” Louis said on an easy laugh. He crossed his arms over his chest, glancing at the lit numbers above the lift. “It’s fine. You don’t have to apologize.”

“I shouldn’t have shut the door on you.”

Louis’ neck flushed beneath his warm leather collar, his smile faltering for half a second.

“Harry--”

“I’m sorry,” Harry said softer, his throat bobbing. “I was distracted, though that’s no excuse for rudeness.”

The lift pinged on their floor with their eyes locked. The sleek metal doors sliding open. Louis held his arm out, Harry stepping first inside the crowded space.

They ended up standing next to each other, wedged in the front left corner of the lift. Other riders sighed around them, the lift continuing to the next floor down.

“I’m sorry to have disappeared like that,” Harry whispered, mindful of the cranky crowd around them. He tried to angle his face towards Louis’ ear just as the lift lulled, earning him a noseful of vanilla shampoo. “I normally hate phone calls, but I had to take that particular one to straighten some things out.”

“It’s totally cool, mate,” Louis whispered back. “Don’t worry about it. I fully accept your apology.”

Harry watched Louis’ head bob as he spoke, his eyes dropping down below Louis’ chest. Louis’ phone was cradled in his hands. He apparently was playing some sort of pizza related game on his iPhone, his lips pursed forward and his pointer finger poking at his screen.

“Ah, fuck,” Louis muttered, a cheesy pizza exploding on his screen. He pocketed his phone and looked up to Harry with a smile. “I always lose when the pepperonis come in.”

“Are you sure we’re okay?”

Louis’ smile remained on his face, but his eyes clouded, a mix of concern and seriousness deepening his voice.

“Harry. You’ve just said more words to me in your apologies than in the actual conversations we’ve had. Was I bummed I didn’t get to read another chapter in the Just Harry mystery series?” His smile widened, his bottom lip pinched in his teeth for a beat. “Yeah, of course. But, we’re, like,” he see-sawed his hand in the air, “teetering on the brink of being friends. Friends understand that, sometimes, friends are stressed and have the unfortunate aspects of life to deal with. And that’s fine. I’m just sorry you had a bad night.”

The lift landed one floor lower. The door pinged, people shuffling inside and pushing them even closer. Harry could smell the spicy nip of Louis’ cologne, whatever product he had in his bed head scented like oranges.

The lift started to move again. Harry brought his lips closer to Louis’ ear.

“Even though last night was kind of not good, I got another ghost gift today,” Harry whispered.

Louis gasped and turned his head as best he could, his arm stuck in a curled, cramped position against Harry’s ribs.

“What’d you get?”

Harry pulled one frog out of his bag, resting it in his palm.

“Three of these little guys.”

“Froggies!” Louis cried, unbothered by the chorus of tired groans from the other people in the lift. “Are they the jumpy kind? I think those are harder to make. Very impressive.”

“What?” Harry laughed softly, his brows furrowed. “Jumpy?”

“Yeah, like,” Louis pressed his finger on the back of the frog and said, “ah ha!” He lifted his finger and the frog soared up to bounce into Harry’s chin. “They are! How cool.” Louis plucked the frog from the collar of Harry’s shirt and replaced it on his palm, making it jump again. “Origami is an art, you know?”

“Yeah,” Harry lifted the jumpy frog from the bottom waves of his hair, “definitely.”

“Oh, hey, dunno if you saw this,” Louis said, knocking his knuckle against a flyer taped to the lift wall. “They do a little happy hour thing downstairs in the lobby once a month.” Harry scanned over the flyer as Louis talked, the corporate flyer complete with misspellings and the obligatory clipart of a wine glass. “I haven’t gone for a couple of months, but they usually put out a pretty good spread.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. It starts at seven, and if you’re not there by seven-oh-five, you’ll likely go home empty handed. Cheese will literally fly off of the trays. But,” he shrugged his shoulder, resulting in a warm slide of their outer arms, “it’s kind of fun. This building is huge, but most people who live here are really nice.”

“We’re nice when you’re not blabbing at half seven in the bloody morning,” came a grumbled, high pitched voice from the other corner of the lift. “Insane skater boy.”

“Oh, hush, Gretchen. You love me,” Louis said, grinning and lifting his head to wink her direction. “Anyway,” his smoky eyes landed on Harry’s face, “if you want to come, I’ll be there. They have wine and sad beer, but it’s free alcohol, nonetheless. And, hey,” he nudged Harry’s ribs with his elbow, his eyebrows wiggling, “maybe your ghost will be there.”

“Ha. Yeah, maybe,” Harry said, a rush of heat pinking his cheeks. He placed his frog back in his bag, the lift pinging. “We’ll see.”

. . .

Louis ran down his hallway. He reached the lift in time to flail his arm at the closing doors, his fingers just missing the shrinking opening. A large hand flattened on the left door, pushing it open for him. Louis tumbled inside, landing with his back on the right wall. He peered at the person attached to the hand.

“Oh,” Louis said, blinking once. He smiled wide. “Hi, neighbor.”

Harry smiled at him and quietly said, “Hey,” as he looked down at his tan boots. He smoothed his hands down his neat, red and white checkered shirt, which was tucked into his spotless black skinnies. His hair looked extra shiny and freshly brushed, shimmering in waves down to his shoulders.

Louis noticed the ground level button was already lit up, his hands sliding into his pockets. He relaxed against the wall. He jutted his chin at the flyer taped to the lift.

“Getting there five minutes early?”

“Yeah. I, um,” Harry started to smile, glancing sideways at Louis, “heard you need to be prompt if you want cheese.”

Louis grinned.

“Sounds like you’re talking to the right people, Just Harry.”

“Yeah,” Harry chuckled, biting his bottom lip. “Sounds like it.”

. . .

For the next couple of weeks, Harry's surprise ghost gifts were small, thoughtful additions into his daily life.

One evening, he came home with groceries. Upon entering the crowded lift, he realized that he forgot to buy milk, muttering to himself in the tight space while rifling through his grocery bag. Five minutes after getting inside his flat, there was a brisk knock at his door and a fresh bottle of milk on his doorstep, but no delivery person around long enough for him to catch them.

He came home to a variety of presents left every other day or so. A small bundle of wild flowers left on his doorstep. A dark chocolate bar propped against the door. A fresh pair of cozy socks with smiling frogs on them wrapped around his door knob. An origami crane family balanced on top of his newspaper.

One of his favourite ghost gifts was a steaming cup of tea and a hot blueberry scone from the bakery down the block on a Sunday morning, left far enough away from his doorway so as not to spill when Harry opened the door.

All gifts were accompanied by the normal, lopsided red heart scrawled on some part of the present. Some even included a handwritten note in boxy, strong handwriting. The notes varied from lyrics to songs he’d never heard before to random daily thoughts to jokes that were so silly he couldn’t help but laugh as he read them in the privacy of his flat.

A part of him wondered if he should alert the building’s management that someone had been sneaking in to leave gifts on his doorstep, but so far, the gifts were harmless. And sort of sweet. Each gift knocked away a brick in the wall surrounding his brain, letting out some of the sad, hazy smoke that had pooled in his skull.

One morning, Harry woke to big, fat flakes of snow tumbling outside. He wrapped himself in his duvet and scooted to the side of his bed, peering out the foggy window. The entire city was coated fluffy white from the surprise storm, cars slowly meandering down the roads.

He checked his phone to see if school was cancelled, but he had not received any sort of call or notification. He groaned and fell face first down to his pillows, pressing his face into the puffy clouds.

He pulled on the warmest clothes he could find. He bundled up to the point of walking like a toddler in a stiff, over-stuffed snowsuit, his long limbs almost unable to bend at his knees and elbows. He’d have to use his mittens to push snow off his car windows and hope his wheels could handle the icy roads; he didn’t take any shovels of car brushes from his old flat in the rush of moving.

He reached his car and blinked, snow fluttering down to rest on the ends of his curls not covered by his moss coloured beanie.

Every car parked on the street was still covered with snow, but his was completely cleaned off, save for a small heart of snow that had been left over the driver’s side window.

Harry stepped up to his car, snow crunching under his boots. He touched the fluffy snow shape with the end of his mitten, afraid to disturb the lopsided heart. His phone vibrated in his pocket and he fumbled to lift it with his snowy mittens. He clicked on the new text from one his school colleagues, a perky physical fitness teacher named Liam.

snow dayyyyyy!!!!!

An email from his school popped up as he read the text, confirming that their school was closed due to poor weather. Harry huffed out a foggy breath, smiling down at the screen.

He pocketed his phone and pulled his right mitten off. He used his pointer finger to write, “Thanks! :)” in the snow heart, his whole body buzzing.

He waddled back into his building, rode the lift up to his floor, and waddled faster down the hall. He stood outside Louis’ door and knocked, his mitten causing the sound to be muffled and dull. He pulled his mitten off with his teeth and knocked again.

The door slowly opened to reveal Louis slouched over, a striped, knit blanket draped over his bare shoulders.

“Am I under arrest?” Louis croaked, his eyes still shut. “At least let me make a cuppa before you haul me away, that’s only polite.”

“Hi!” Harry chirped, clasping his mittens in front of his stomach. “Do you want to make snow angels with me? As my only friend in this city, you’re sort of obligated to.” His green eyes glowed brighter. “It’s snowing, by the way! Oh, and, no.” His voice simmered to a calmer tone. “You’re not under arrest, as far as I know.”

Louis’ eyes blinked open, his posture straightening. The blanket fell off his shoulders, revealing the lean muscles of his tattooed torso. His wiry frame was softened by a thin layer of pudge that lingered on his stomach and hips, a tiny silver ring pierced through the top of his navel.

Harry’s full body flush must have been due to the multiple layers of sweaters he had pulled on, not the sight of Louis topless in a pair of sagging gray and black Adidas sweats.

“Sure,” Louis said, sounding a touch more awake. “Can you come back in, like,” he checked his watch, “four hours?” He squinted at Harry, itching his shin with his bare foot. “Can we do it then?”

“Oh, c’mon, you’re up already,” Harry said, letting out a little laugh. “If we wait, the snow might melt. And I have no school today, so I want to make the best of the whole day.” He crooned, “I’ll buy you breakfast,” and wiggled his eyebrows.

“Ugh, you’re so fucking chipper, and a little bizarre, in the morning,” Louis grumbled, though a smile licked at his lips. “But I can’t resist a free breakfast burrito and your froggy face.”

Harry gasped happily.

“There’s a place that sells breakfast burritos around here?”

“You have much to learn,” Louis yawned, motioning for him to come inside. “C’mon in. I’ll put clothes on.”

Harry stepped into Louis’ flat, Louis walking ahead of him with his blanket dragging along the floor. He closed the door and looked around.

Louis’ flat looked much like his own, a moderately sized one bedroom with a small sitting area and kitchen, though Harry’s flat did not have clothes and dirty dishes dropped all over every available surface.

The majority of Louis’ kitchen appliances looked brand new, as if he’d never even turned on the oven. The only evidence that the kitchen had ever been used was a beat-up tin tea kettle on the stove and a collection of mugs in the sink, some tea bag labels hanging over the edges of the mugs.

Sketch pads and an array of markers and coloured pencils were spread over his tiny kitchen table, crumpled papers and half completed sketches covering the surface. An old looking stereo system was propped on a shelf beside the table, CDs and CD cases balanced like a paused waterfall trickling from the top of the shelf and onto the messy table.

“You draw a lot?” Harry asked, pushing a few pieces of paper aside.

Louis’ voice called back, “Yeah, stuff for work. Ideas. That sort of thing.” His words dropped to a low mumble of, “Where are my bloody boots?”

Harry continued to poke around the piles of sketches until Louis emerged from his bedroom. Louis stood in front of the table with his hands on his hips, his chest puffed out, an enormous white puffball bobbing on top of his knitted beanie. He had on polka-dot rainbow wellies, water squelching under the soles.

“Ready?”

“Mmhmm,” Harry hummed, a pile of bird sketches fluttering to the kitchen table. “Let’s go.”

“I’ll warn you, wee snow angel. I’m a merciless snowball fighter.”

Harry’s cheeks burned as he grinned, his boots tripping over themselves.

. . .

The next mysterious delivery came days later in the form of a burned CD slid under his door. There were handwritten lyrics on a folded piece of white paper tucked into the clear case, a lopsided red heart drawn in Sharpie on the face of the CD.

Harry fell off the sofa and ran to the front door, his socks slipping on the hardwood. He pulled the door open.

There was no one there, the hallway eerily silent.

Harry pouted and cradled the CD as he shut the door. If he had a secret admirer, he’d prefer for them to be alive, not a ghost.

He went into his flat and picked up his laptop from his coffee table. He put the CD into its drive and settled against the corner of his sofa, one foot tucked under his thigh. His laptop recognized the CD and opened the unnamed track in iTunes. He shrugged his headphones over his messy hair and double clicked.

A song started, Harry reading along with the lyrics.

He smiled with furrowed brows as he listened and read. He would be lying if he said he never inspired someone to give him a mixtape, quite a few, actually, but he’d never received one with a single track, and never this particularly dreamy Roy Orbison song.

. . .

His next surprise came in an unlikely place: the laundry room in the bottom level of his building. Harry brought a book to kill time and had dozed while reading, his cheek resting on the folding table. His body was bent at a strange angle, his bum barely hanging on to a small stool, his book mashed against his open, drooling lips.

The ding of a dryer pulled him from his nap. He snuffled and wiped the back of his hand against his lips. He pulled himself upright and blinked, his laundry basket resting on the table in front of his face.

He stood and examined his clothes. They were neatly folded and stacked, save for a pair of pink gym socks (an error made months before when sorting lights and darks), which had been folded into the shape of a lopsided heart. A CD, complete with handwritten lyrics, sat inside the heart, Harry’s insides fluttering.

He ran to the elevator and punched in his floor number, bobbing from foot to foot. When he reached his floor he hurried to Louis’ door, knocking loud and fast. He waited two beats, then knocked again. There was no answer, Harry huffing out a breath. He turned to his flat and let himself in, making a mental note to tell Louis about the recent secret admirer gift later.

He had just finished putting his clothes away, the most recent mystery admirer song playing on a loop from his laptop, when there was a knock at his door. He hurried to answer it and pulled the door open with a flourish, only to find an empty hallway.

He stepped forward, peering side to side. His feet bumped into something. He bent over, snuffling out a laugh, and picked up his forgotten copy of Moby Dick. A white piece of paper was tucked into the spot he had face planted on the book, his drool still damp on the worn pages. He smiled wide, eyes scanning over the note.

Forgot this! Pervy book choice ;)

The tell tale heart was drawn on the bottom of the paper, lopsided and in vibrant red Sharpie.

“Hey, mate.”

Harry looked up from his book and note to find Louis smiling at him as he fished his keys out of his rucksack. Another man with jet black hair and a half shaved head stood beside Louis, staring bored at Harry.

“Hi,” Harry said, glancing between Louis and the pouting, high-cheekboned model in a black tank. His cut sleeves were fraying, the shirt trimmed to crop top height to reveal his flat abs. His whole outfit was black, from his tank to his thick soled combat boots. “Just getting in?”

“Yeah, we were swamped at the shop,” Louis said, letting out a small grunt as he pulled his keys out of the front pocket of his bag. “We do a Ladies Night special once in a while and it’s always crazy. We end up going well into the next day, then have to clean the shop and all. If I never see another belly button ring or lower back butterfly in my life, I’d be satisfied.” Louis jutted his head to the side. “This is Zayn, my partner in crime.”

Zayn held his hand out. Harry noticed that he had three metal rings in his eyebrow, the shape and colour much like Louis’ lip ring. Zayn also had an array of ear piercings, a shiny black ring looped through his left nostril, and a multitude of tattoos on display. Ink ran up his sides and over every inch of his slender arms, even going along the tops of his hands and fingers.

Harry caught a glance of a metal stud on his tongue when Zayn said, “Hey, man,” in a low, rasped tone.

They clasped hands.

“Hi, I’m Harry.”

“Yeah,” Zayn’s lips spread to the world’s smallest smirk, “I know.”

Louis honked, “Ha,” and shoved his door open with his shoulder, pulling Zayn inside by the front of his shirt. He looked back to Harry. “We’re gonna have a beer. You wanna join?”

“Oh, uh,” Harry glanced back at his coffee table and array of open notebooks, “I should finish up some lesson plans.”

“Nonsense,” Louis scoffed, beckoning him with one scrunching finger. Harry smiled shyly, his feet bringing him across the hall without a second thought. “All you have to do is tell the youths to wash behind their ears and treat humans with as much love as they give their iPhones. Everything will be a-okay.”

One beer, and two scorched frozen pizzas, later, and Zayn was pushing himself off the sofa, smoothing his palm down his crop top.

“Gotta get home.” He itched up under his shirt to scratch his chest, his small bicep flexing. “I think Niall’s forgotten what my face looks like.”

“How could he forget a face like this?” Louis asked in a baby voice, pinching Zayns’ cheeks.

Zayn grinned and pushed his hands away, Harry chuckling from the sofa. Zayn’s amber eyes landed on Harry’s face, his gaze twinkling mischievously. He squeezed Harry’s shoulder.

“Nice to finally meet you. I’m sure I’ll see you around.” His eyes swept from Harry’s face down to his socked feet, sliding back up with a small smile. “Good luck with your ghost.”

Harry flushed, smiling. He nodded, looking down at the ground.

“Thanks.” His right foot covered his left toes. “Nice to meet you, too.”

Zayn winked at him and gave Louis the hand, Louis cackling as he walked with him to the door.

Harry started to stand, but Louis called, “Not you, Harold. Your lesson plans can wait one more beer.”

Harry eased himself back to the sofa, which only smelled slightly like a mixture of Fritos and stale cologne. He perched himself on the edge. There were some questionable stains on the sofa that he wasn’t sure if even his best scrubbing effort would remove from his clothes.

The door slammed shut, followed by Louis pondering, “I have more beer, I think?” The refrigerator door swung open, a tiny gasp of joy released into the dim fridge light. “I do have more beer! Rejoice!”

Harry chuckled, rubbing his palms over the tops of his thighs. Louis came back to the sofa and handed him a bottle of beer, another bottle placed on the coffee table. Louis sat on the floor facing Harry, his eyes scanning over his open laptop screen. He hummed and double clicked.

“Lady Gaga?” Harry laughed.

“What?” Louis said, offended, a smile threatening to be released. “What’s wrong with Lady Gaga?”

Harry’s brows arched, his smile growing.

“Nothing, I just never would have thought that you’d be into her. With your whole,” he swirled the bottom of his beer bottle in front of him, “thing.”

Louis stood from the floor, the neck of his beer bottle balanced between his fingers like a cigarette.

“My whole thing?” he said, mimicking Harry’s lower drawl. He placed his beer on the coffee table. Slower, he dragged out, “My whole thing?

He threw himself on the sofa. Harry held his hands out as he started to laugh, Louis gently rubbing his knuckles against his upper ribs.

“Yes! Your whole, like, punk thing,” Harry said, giggling, Louis’ fingers scrunching into his stomach at around navel height. Light brushes of fingertips on his long neck made Harry spasm, giggle-babbling, “Your whole punk thing works for you, I swear!”

Louis stopped his gentle strokes, sitting back on his heels. Harry squirmed, still giggling, arching to find a comfortable spot on the lumpy sofa with Louis’ weight on his hips, his beer clutched between his fingers.

Blue eyes scanned over Harry’s grinning face, lingering on his dimples and the creases beside his bright eyes. His smile was contagious, Louis smiling softly down at him.

“It’s nice to see you, like,” Louis sucked his lip ring for a beat, “happy.”

“Why do you say that?”

Louis pushed himself onto his bum on the other end of the sofa. He reached out to grab his beer and took a sip, his throat bobbing. The bottle clinked quietly against his lip ring, another swallow gulped down.

“You seemed...I dunno.” He squinted at Harry. “Kind of reserved, at first.”

Harry’s face rumpled, disgruntled like an over-worked kitten.

“I’m--I’m shy. When I first meet someone, I’m shy.”

“Yeah, I totally get that,” Louis said quickly, holding his palm towards Harry, whose cheeks had flushed practically magenta. “That’s totally fine. I get it. You just seemed…Like...”

“No, you’re right,” Harry said on a sigh, interrupting Louis’ half statements. “Sorry, I was…” His lips closed and pursed slightly, his fingers working through the knotted curls on the back of his head. “I was pretty out of it for a while. Pretty antisocial.”

“Why?”

“I…” Harry bit his bottom lip, wondering what it’d feel like if he had a lip ring to nibble on instead of puffy flesh. “I have a habit of sort of closing in on myself when I’m stressed or busy. Moving and dealing with the breakup all at once was...A lot.” He took a quick sip of beer. “For me. So, I closed in on myself.”

A warm hand landed on Harry’s shoulder.

“Would be a lot for anyone, mate. Makes total sense.”

“I guess.”

The hand disappeared, taking its comforting warmth with it. Harry focused his attention down the neck of his beer bottle, turning the bottle in his hands.

“Why…”

Harry raised his eyebrows at Louis’ single word.

“Hm?”

Louis sucked on the rim of his beer.

“Um,” he swiped his fingers through his long hair, sneaking a glance at Harry, “why did you and your girlfriend breakup? If you don’t mind me asking.”

Harry’s lips rounded.

“Oh. Uh...”

Louis put more space between them.

“Is that too private? Sorry, mate, I didn’t mean to pry--”

“No, no, it’s fine. Um, it…” Harry let out a quiet laugh. “His name was Phillip. He was my boyfriend.”

Louis eyes widened, his mouth falling open to exhale, “Oh.”

The room went silent. Harry’s expression hardened, his jawline setting.

“That’s good,” Louis said quickly, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat. “Cool, I mean.” He held his palm over his chest. “I’m bi, myself.”

“Oh,” Harry said on an exhale, nodding. “Okay. Sorry, I’m used to…” His nose wrinkled as he laughed, the sound strangled in his throat. “You know what I mean, right?”

“Yeah, absolutely. Right. So.” Louis sucked on his lip ring, his eyes focused on Harry’s face. “Phillip?”

“Right. We, um...”

Louis’ complete attention caused sweat to burst from Harry’s skin, his fingers playing with the ends of his hair. He looked down at his lap, biting his bottom lip.

“We realized that we wanted different things. I want kids. Multiple kids, if I can manage it. I was always very open about it and he’d sort of,” he shrugged one shoulder forward, “change the subject. Or laugh and say, ‘Someday.’” Harry’s lips twitched downwards. “He neglected to mention he never wants kids until right before we broke up.” He let out a huffed laugh. “Was probably my own fault for never pushing the subject. I should have known he was skirting the issue. We were both busy with work, yeah, but something always seemed to pop up that got him out of further discussion. A business trip, a new client, whatever.”

“So that’s what did it?”

“Well…” Harry glanced at Louis, his head tilting side to side. “We’d been sort of…” His eyes rolled around the room for a moment. “Fading. We both felt it. Finding that he never wanted kids out was a dealbreaker for me, and it happened to fall right around when we both felt like we’d run our course. So, we ended it. And,” he gently clapped his hands together, “that’s that.”

“Ah.”

Harry nodded.

“Yeah.”

“How long were you together?”

“Seven years.”

Louis’ eyes widened, his lips sucking on the end of his beer bottle.

“Holy shit. That’s…” He let out a breathy laugh, bulging his eyes once and shifting his bum. “That’s a long time.”

Harry itched the front of his throat, his fingers dropping lower to pop open the top button of his shirt.

“Yeah, I know. We met our last year of uni. We’re still friends. He’s a nice guy, though I wish he would have shared that little detail with me before I devoted most of my twenties to him.” He let out a gruff laugh, the sound more bitter than his usual chuckle. “So, if you’re in the market for an investment banker who doesn’t want kids, let me know and I’ll set you two up.”

Louis chuckled and placed his empty beer on the table.

“Hah. No thanks.”

“Yeah, I can’t really see you being the investment banker type.”

“Well, I was talking more about the no kids thing, but yeah, you’re right. I couldn’t deal with a banker, I reckon. Too stuffy.”

“Oh, you--” Harry blinked rapidly, his head tilting. “You want kids?”

Louis nodded.

“Yeah, definitely.”

“How old are you?”

“Um,” Louis laughed low in his throat, confusion wrinkling his brow, “thirty-one? Why?”

“Oh,” Harry said, his voice popping like a soap bubble. “Right. Okay. Nothing.” He shook his head. “No reason.”

“What? What were you going to say?”

“I just figured,” Harry’s mouth moved silently for a moment, his eyes scanning over Louis’ body, “like, you…” He moved his hand up and down, gesturing from Louis’ ripped black tank to his dark skinnies with holes in the knees to his scruffy, wild hair. “You were into the whole bachelor thing. Like, for life.”

Louis laughed, the sound splattering over Harry’s confused face. Harry’s lips pursed into a small pout, his brows inching together.

“What’s so funny?”

“So,” Louis said, lingering on the word, “you think because I have tattoos and pierced nips that I’m not looking for a partner? That I couldn’t want kids one day?” Any laughter present on Louis’ face was erased, his eyes settling into an icy, controlled stare. “Because I’m still single and in my thirties? What the fuck kind of fairy tales have you been reading, young Harold?”

Harry’s mouth fell open.

“No, I--”

“I didn’t know there was an age or appearance limit for when someone is worthy of having a family.”

“Oh my God, no, I didn’t mean it like that,” Harry said quickly over Louis’ venomous tone, clutching his empty beer with both hands against his chest. He scooted closer on the sofa, stains be damned. “Please, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it that way. Not at all. Who am I to talk? I’m twenty-nine and I thought I’d be married with kids by now, but I’m not, I’m just as alone as anyone else.”

Louis’ tongue flickered hard against his lip ring, his body facing forward but his face turned to the left, Harry talking to the back of his head.

After a pause, Harry softly said, “I’m really sorry to have insulted you, I truly meant no offense,” and stood up. He smoothed his hands over his bum. “You’ve been nothing but nice to me and I...I’ll let myself out.”

“Oh, you silly idiot,” Louis said suddenly, pulling Harry down to the sofa.

His empty beer bottle thudded on the carpet. Harry grunted in shock and then started to huff laughter, Louis giggling and wrestling him onto his back. Louis perched himself on Harry’s stomach, his fingers a warning on his heaving ribs.

“You take things too seriously,” Louis said, mischief lighting his eyes. “Thirty is the new twenty.”

“Is that so,” Harry started to giggle mid-sentence, “old man?” He pushed at Louis’ vibrating fingertips, arching his lower back and squirming. “Hey!”

“You’re a lot cheekier than you let on,” Louis said, biting his lip ring and grinning. Harry tried to turn over, resulting in his face being smushed into the crack of the sofa. “I like it.”

“Puh,” Harry spit fuzz out of his lips, “your couch smells like feet.”

“Oh, you’re asking for it.”

Harry started to laugh harder, his eyes scrunched shut as he wrestled with Louis.

If you would have told him three months ago that he’d be in a tickle fight with a punk on a smelly couch older than he was, he would have barely smiled over his glass of chardonnay and exchanged an amused look with Phillip before continuing to make the rounds at whatever cocktail party they were attending that weekend.

But it wasn’t three months ago, and his only friends were the kind, tattooed fellow sitting on his stomach and a ghost that left him CDs and socks.

“You’re such a shit,” Harry laughed, finally getting Louis onto his back.

He tried the same method of attack on him. Louis simply smirked and propped his hands behind his head. His tawny, inked sides stretched, the soft hair under his arms looking especially fluffy as his hollows deepened with the motion.

Harry prodded along his ribs and down to his hips, Louis’ smirk growing into a grin. Not a single giggle fell from his lips.

“Your methods won’t work on me, young one.”

Harry’s pout deepened, but his eyes zoned in on Louis’ chest. He brought his gaze to Louis’ face at the same time as he moved his fluttering fingertips to the material over Louis’ nipples.

Louis grunted what sounded suspiciously like a laugh, his body rolling upwards.

“Oi, oi,” he said, out of breath, a stifled smile causing his lip ring to twitch. “That’s enough for you.” He pushed Harry’s hands away, Harry smiling down at him and holding his hands up by his face. “You’ve had enough rebellion today.”

“You big baby,” Harry said on a giggle, sliding to his bum on the opposite end of the sofa. They glanced at each other, both adjusting their clothing and huffing shy smiles. Harry ran his hand over the back of his neck. “Ugh. You’ve made me all sweaty.”

Louis sprawled on his back and smiled at him, his eyes tender, his hands behind his head and his elbows folding in and out.

“I tend to have that effect on men.”

“Ha. Right. I meant,” he wiped his hand over his jeans, “it’s been a while since I had any human contact, that’s all.”

“Aw, babe, your hand ain’t doing it for you anymore?”

“Oh, shut up,” Harry groaned, grinning and rolling his eyes. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

Louis moved his bare foot on top of Harry’s thigh.

“Feet, then?” He prodded Harry’s stomach with his toes, Harry sucking his stomach in and gagging. “You are a kinky minx, aren’t you?” His toes brushed Harry’s crotch. “Your preppy thing is clearly all an act.”

“Ugh, get your cheesy appendages off me,” Harry laughed, pushing his foot off and standing. “I meant, like,” he shook his head, his eyes twitching closed, “nevermind.”

“Like, cuddles?”

Harry opened his eyes and opened his mouth, then shut it.

“Yeah, um...That.” He braved a glance to Louis, who was as calm and smiley as usual. “Yeah.” Harry tucked a curl behind his ear. “Sort of. That’s one thing I miss.”

Louis sat up, folding his legs underneath him.

“I get that. If you ever want a cuddle,” he clicked the back of his teeth and thumbed towards his closed bedroom door, “c’mon over. There’s always room in my schedule, and bed, for Just Harry.” He sucked on his lip ring, eyes darting from Harry’s curled, socked feet to the soft waves falling over his shoulders. “I don’t bite,” he released his lip ring from his teeth, “unless requested.”

“You’re serious?”

“About?”

“About hanging out to cuddle?”

“Sure, why not? We could have a sleepover. I’ll make us cocoa. Well, I’ll have to buy cocoa, then make it for us.”

Harry squinted at him, his hands deep in his pockets.

“I’ve just….Never met a guy before who offers to cuddle. To only cuddle.”

Louis stood from his sofa, his hand swinging low to pick up both of their empty beers.

“You’ve never met me before.” He smirked, his eyes soft, his hair falling to tangle in his long eyelashes. “Except for in your dreams, maybe.”

He padded around Harry to go into the kitchen. Harry stood stunned in the living room while Louis turned the faucet on, glass bottles clinking against the metal sink.

. . .

Harry decided it was time to catch his ghost in action, if only to say thank you for all the little presents he or she had left him. He made a CD of his own with only two songs, two songs that he hoped his ghost would appreciate.

One Sunday morning, he propped the CD against his door and placed a small bell beneath it, the bell hidden on the floor in the space between the CD and the door. His ghost made multiple deliveries on Sundays; maybe it was his ghost’s off day from work.

Harry settled in on the sofa with a mug of tea and a book. The book, a historical romance novel borrowed from his mother, did not hold his attention, nor did his mug of tea with too much milk. He dozed off, curling on his side and pulling a knit blanket off the top of the sofa to cover himself.

His eyes moved beneath his closed eyelids when he heard something scratching his door. The cheerful ping of the bell caused his eyes to pop open.

He shot off the sofa and ran to the door, able to hear a low, “The fook?” muttered in a strange voice. He reached for the doorknob and heard what sounded like trainers scrambling on the other side.

He pulled the door open and ran into the hallway in time to see the lift doors sliding shut, someone hitting the button rapidly.

“Wait!” he called, running at full speed down the hall.

He reached the lift as the doors shut, his fingers brushing the cool metal. He went to the stairwell and ran down the stairs, nearly tripping only three times before he reached ground level. He burst out of the stairwell and saw the lift doors open, revealing no one inside.

Harry’s face fell, his chest heaving under his half-buttoned plaid shirt. He put his hands on his thighs and let his head fall forward, his breath coming hard and fast.

A motorcycle’s engine roared outside their front door. Harry glanced out the lobby’s tall windows and saw someone climb off a sleek, gunmetal grey bike, walking it into a reserved spot for their building and locking it with a chain.

The biker pulled off his black helmet and shook his long hair out, sunlight shining on the slightly sweaty strands.

Louis ran his fingers through his hair, slicking it back off his forehead and itching the back of his neck. He peeled a leather jacket off and threw it over his arm, his black Skate Tough tank clinging to his abs.

Harry’s mouth fell open, the elevator door pinging in the background.

Louis looked through the window and noticed him staring, a wide smile spreading over his face. He ran into the building.

“Hi!” he shouted, swinging his rucksack around his body. He pulled out a box and offered it to Harry. “Look! I bought cocoa! It’s the instant kind, but, eh,” he shrugged, his biceps glistening with sweat and a touch of grime, “I’m not too picky.”

“You have a motorcycle?”

“What? Oh,” Louis looked behind himself, “yeah. I can’t be bothered with cars, too big for my taste. And it’s pretty good on gas, actually. My clients always give me shit for it because it’s not a Harley or something, but I love it.” He looked back to Harry, his eyes scanning from Harry’s bare feet to his stunned face. He smirked, a touch wicked. “I can give you a ride, if you’d like. Anytime you want. Even have an extra helmet.”

“No, thank you. That’s okay.”

Louis chuckled easily and took one step closer, the biting smell of oil and sweat slithering up Harry’s nostrils and hypnotizing him from inside his nose.

“I like, uh,” Louis brushed his fingers over Harry’s middle shirt button, “the more casual Harold. It’s nice.”

Harry held his shirt closed and stepped back, his mouth gaping open.

“I, uh, tried to catch my ghost but missed him.” His voice was higher to add, “Or her,” and paste a smile on his face, ignoring just how badly he wanted the ghost to be the tattooed biker standing in front of him.

Louis remained motionless for three long seconds, their eyes locked.

“I see. And...You didn’t catch them?”

Harry shook his head, his hair fluffing around his ears.

“Nope. I thought I could, but I didn’t. They must have been too fast.”

“Huh.” Louis’ tongue traced his bottom lip, landing on his lip ring. Their eyes remained locked, Louis’ gaze narrowing and his teeth biting down on his piercing. “I see.”

“Yeah, so, that’s why I’m,” he gestured down his body, from his open plaid shirt to his baggy gray sweats, “yeah. Like this.”

Louis smiled and prodded Harry’s bare chest, dragging him to the lift by his collar.

“You’ve been holding out on us. You’re like a real life Clark Kent. All buttoned up with a hot bod hidden away under all those layers.”

Harry laughed and scrunched his nose, stepping into the lift.

“I don’t have a,” his voice went quiet, “hot bod.”

“Well, no.” Louis held his arms out, turning once. “Not compared to this sort of perfection. But you’re,” he shrugged one lazy shoulder, “alright, I suppose.”

Harry grinned and bumped their shoulders together, crossing his arms over his chest.

They reached their floor. There was a blond man sitting on the floor in front of Louis’ flat, his face buried in his iPhone. Harry’s heart sped up. Was this his admirer? Could this be--

“Hey, Nialler,” Louis said, the blond’s head snapping up. Harry’s chest sank a little, his heart rate slowing. “Sorry I’m late. Had to pop into Tesco’s.”

“No worries, just got here, myself,” the blond said, hopping up from the floor. He offered Harry a wide smile. “Hey, man, I’m Niall. I think you’ve met my husband?”

Harry looked at the human golden retriever grinning at him, not an inch of ink or pierced metal visible on his body.

“Oh, yes. Right. Zayn.” Harry shook Niall’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“You must be Harry from across the hall.”

“Yes,” Harry said, nodding, his eyes darting to Louis’ smirking face, Louis busying himself with his keys. “I’m Harry.”

Niall’s smile grew, his hand squeezing tighter.

“It’s a pleasure.”

“Niall and I are gonna do the books for the shop,” Louis said, unlocking his door. He pushed it open with his shoulder, tucking the box of cocoa back into his rucksack. “You’re welcome to join if you feel like learning how boring owning a business is.”

“Oi, numbers are cool,” Niall protested, giving Louis’ hair a gentle ruffle. He pulled his hand back, flicking his fingers in the air. “Ew, I hope you bought shampoo.”

“No shampoo, but I did buy snacks,” Louis said, producing a bag of Fritos from his rucksack. He smirked at Harry. “You’re welcome to join. Or,” his eyes dropped to Harry’s lips for a split second, “you could come by for cocoa later.”

Niall asked, “Why don’t I get cocoa?” as he stepped into the flat.

Harry’s face heated but he smiled.

“Maybe.”

“Ooh, a maybe,” Louis said, putting extra hoot into his voice. He flattened his hand over his heart and smiled brightly, backing into his flat. His eyelid quickly flickered closed. “I’ll take that. You’ve made my day and it has only just begun.”

Harry chuckled and shook his head, bending over to retrieve his bell.

“I’ll think about it.”

Louis watched him go into his flat, Harry’s door quietly closing. Louis shut the door and turned around, finding Niall to be directly in front of him, grinning from ear to ear.

“What?” Louis laughed. He tossed the Fritos on his messy kitchen table. “What’s with the look?”

Niall pulled a CD out from behind his back. Louis’ face lit up, his hand reaching out to grab it.

Niall cackled, “Looks like someone went ghost hunting,” and held it above his head, Louis hopping to reach for it.

“Oi! Gimme!”

He relented and lowered his arm, handing it to it to Louis. Louis turned it over in his hands like a squirrel with his favourite acorn, his eyes frantically scanning over the musical treasure. There was a heart drawn on the CD in pink marker with neatly handwritten lyrics tucked inside the clear case.

“You owe me, mate,” Niall said, flicking his fingers against the case. “I haven’t run like that in, like, ever.” Louis registered Niall’s words, but was focused on moving into the living room. “Luckily, your boy went to the ground level and I thought to hop off the lift a few floors down. I barely made it back up the stairs to your flat before you two were upstairs. Dunno if I can make any more secret deliveries for you when you’re at work. He might recognize the sound of my shoes, you know? He seems like the perceptive type.”

Louis lifted his sticker covered laptop from the floor to the coffee table, slapped the closed screen, and opened it. He pushed the CD into the disc drive and popped his oversized headphones on his ears. Niall plopped on his sofa, munching on Fritos. He kicked his trainers off.

“What songs did he pick?”

Louis curled into a ball and fell to the floor, his arms wrapped around himself and his Vans rubbing together, high pitched giggles tumbling from his lips. Niall snorted and leaned forward, plucking the headphones out of the laptop jack.

The voice of Sleeping Beauty sang into the room, Princess Aurora wondering if her singing heart would bring back a love song of her own. Niall’s brows furrowed.

“You two are so fucking weird. Zayn was right.”

In response, Louis laughed louder and rolled onto his back, his arms crossed over his flushed face.

. . .

After completing his lesson plans for the next two weeks, grocery shopping, ironing all of his work clothes, and preparing enough mason jar smoothies and salads to cover breakfast and lunch for the work week, Harry figured he would fall asleep immediately upon hitting the mattress.

Instead, he tossed and turned, mentally calculating how many hours remained before he had to get up and make himself presentable. He even lit his sleepytime candle, his ghost’s first gift, but the soothing scent could not lull him to sleep.

The longer he was awake and squirming, the more annoyed he became, huffing breaths as the sheets wound around his body. If his feet were cold, his torso was hot. When he took off his t-shirt and put on socks, his feet started to sweat and his body shivered.

Harry threw the covers off and sighed, staring up at his ceiling. He looked to the left. The body pillow he had propped against his back was wilted half off the bed. Harry prodded the pillow with two fingers, pushing it fully off the bed.

He pulled himself out of bed and redressed in gray joggers, an oversized white Manchester United tee, and thick black socks. He tucked his iPhone and keys into his pocket, shuffling out of his bedroom and across his flat. He opened his front door and steeled his expression, crossing the hall in two steps.

He knocked once, gnawing his bottom lip and swaying backwards away from Louis’ door. As he was about to retreat to his flat, the door slowly swung open.

“Nialler, you ate my only snacks,” Louis’ voice said, his words muffled by foam, his toothbrush hanging out the corner of his mouth. “You literally ate me out of house and--” His eyes opened, foam dribbling down his chin. “Oh. Hi,” he said, grinning, his brush crunching between his back teeth. He nodded his head backwards and sucked foam into his mouth. “You want cocoa?”

“Um, no, that’s alright.” Harry diverted his eyes from Louis’ crotch, Louis wearing only a tight pair of black boxer briefs. He could see the spelling quiz he’d prepared for his students flash in his head, except the basic vocabulary words about animals and nature were replaced with terms like thighs, fuck, thick, powerful, why god why?, belly ring, cock outline, and compact. “I, uh...Well…”

Louis stepped back, wiping his hand over his chin.

“C’mon in,” he said as best he could with a mouth full of toothpaste. “Lemme spit.”

He ran to the kitchen sink and bent over, spitting into the drain. He ducked his head under the faucet, running cold water into his mouth.

Harry closed the door, locking it behind himself. He studied the white ceiling, ignoring the extreme curve of Louis’ lower back, the tawny skin behind his knees, and his arse. His arse. That phrase could be added to his inappropriate vocabulary quiz, maybe even as the bonus question.

“Bedroom’s that way,” Louis said with water in his mouth, thumbing down a hallway. Harry’s flat was similar structurally to Louis’ flat, both of their bedrooms on the right side of their space. “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right in. You want water or anything?”

“Okay,” Harry breathed, walking further inside. He passed a bathroom that smelled heavily of cologne and hairspray. “No, thanks. I’m good.”

He expected Louis’ bedroom to be greasy snack-scented and covered with dirty socks. Instead, he was met by a cozy room with olive green walls, white window frames, a pale yellow duvet, and a spotless light wood floor. It smelled of washing powder and cotton, not a single sock or old take away container in sight.

Louis had either opted out of a bedframe or preferred to sleep on the floor for lumbar purposes, his mattress resting flat on the hardwood in the furthest corner of the room. Harry could see royal blue sheets peeking out from the top of the duvet, a pile of pillows with mismatched cases bunched in the top corner of the mattress.

“I think I changed the sheets, like,” Louis squinted one eye shut and walked around Harry to his bed, “a week ago?” He smiled through his wince, raising his eyebrows. He bit his lip ring. “They’re,” his nose wrinkled, “clean-ish?”

Harry yawned and stretched his right arm in the air, following him to bed.

“It’s fine. Sorry, I’m really tired, not the best at conversation right now.”

He sat down on the mattress, the smell of vanilla shampoo and a hint of tangy boy sweat wafting up from the sheets. He went to lie down, but paused, glancing over his shoulder.

“Oh, um…”

Louis blinked at him for a moment, then released his lip ring from his teeth.

“Oh! Uh,” he held one hand out, “guest’s choice. I’m fine with big or little, whatever you prefer.”

“Little,” Harry whispered, earning a sweet smile and, “Aww,” from Louis. Harry swallowed dryly. “Is that--”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Louis said, jutting his chin forward. “C’mon, then.” He flicked his hands at Harry. “Budge over. This is my bed, too, you know.”

Harry smiled down at the pillows and shuffled towards the wall, the bed dipping behind him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his mobile and keys. He held them over his shoulder, Louis taking them from him. Louis gently placed them on his bedside table, a repurposed milk crate, and turned off the small lamp sitting on top of the crate.

Harry took a black elastic off his wrist. He bundled his hair up into a bun, wrapping the elastic around it.

“Aw, a wee bun,” Louis said softly, squeezing his hair. “Cute.”

Harry snuffled a laugh and curled on his side.

“My hair would be in your mouth when you woke up, if I didn’t do that.”

“Don’t do it on my account.” Louis sidled up behind him, firm and warm and smooth skin, Harry’s eyes fluttering shut. Louis nudged his nose against the back of his head. “I like a hairy man.”

Harry smiled and shook his head, Louis’ arms looping over his middle.

“I’m not that hairy, I meant--”

“Calm yourself, Harold,” Louis chuckled, nestling his face behind Harry’s ear. “I know what you meant.”

They were silent for a long moment, Louis rubbing his palm over Harry’s chest, Harry curling tighter. Louis followed his motion, his body clinging to Harry’s back. Harry gave off enough heat to keep Louis quite toasty in only his pants, but he pulled the duvet up to their chins, Harry cuddling down into the pillows.

Louis whispered, “Alright?”

Harry said nothing. His neck was limp, his body motionless, his nose exhaling small, calm breaths. Louis smiled and tightened his arm, Harry humming faintly in his sleep and arching back into him.

. . .

Harry registered sunlight beaming over his face and birds chirping in a nearby tree, but his eyes remained closed. His body was so heavy and comfortable he could not justify reaching for his phone to check the time.

Louis’ arm tightened around his middle, stubble brushing over the base of his neck. Harry smiled and took a slow breath in of vanilla and Louis’ salty scent, drifting back to sleep in no time.

. . .

When Harry next woke, it was to the feeling of something moving in his hair. His left eye popped open halfway, curiously peering around the olive hued bedroom. Before he could open his other eye, he felt his hair elastic removed from his bun with gentle fingers. Those same gentle fingers combed through his long strands, scratching over his scalp and sending tingles racing down his spine.

He felt Louis take a breath of his hair, the cool air sending more tingles through his entire body. The tip of Louis’ nose was even gentler than his fingertips as he placed quiet sniffs through Harry’s curls, his nose settling firmly behind his ear. Harry stifled a grin, his closed lips twitching into a tiny smile with his eyes squeezed shut.

. . .

The final time he woke, it was due to his alarm beeping persistently. Louis groaned and slid his hand up the front of Harry’s shirt, his light touch pulling breathy, sleepy laughs from Harry.

“No, you’re too comfy to work today,” Louis groaned, squeezing him tight. “The children can mind themselves today. Put on a film.” His lips slapped together, his leg flopping on top of Harry’s thighs. “They’ll be fine. Everyone hates Mondays anyway. No one will notice you’re gone.”

Harry turned over and flattened on top of Louis, Louis letting out an interested, high pitched hum. Harry chuckled into Louis’ hair, receiving a nose full of vanilla, his arm stretching to retrieve his phone. He silenced the alarm and rolled onto his back, stretching his fingers and toes as far away from each other as he could.

“You’re such an overgrown kitten. I fucking love it.”

Harry released his stretch and laughed, his limbs relaxing spread eagle. Louis’ fingers walked on the sheets beside his ribs.

“Aren’t we chipper this morning?” Louis murmured, tugging ever so gently on the hem of Harry’s tee. Harry smiled and turned his face away, Louis’ low laugh vibrating near his ear. “Did someone sleep well?”

“Yeah,” Harry whispered, smiling wider.

He turned his head on his pillow and was met by Louis’ smiling face, sunlight softening the blue of his crinkled eyes. Everything about him screamed, or whispered, soft. His smile. His sleep ruddy cheeks. The smoothness of his lips. Even his reddish-brown stubble looked downy soft.

“You give good cuddle,” Harry said, Louis exhaling a delighted laugh, his eyes crinkling fully shut. Harry giggled and rubbed his fists over his eyes. “Thank you. I...Needed that.”

Louis ruffled his hair before swinging his legs sideways, his bare feet sliding over the floor.

“Seems like it. You passed out, man.”

“I know.” Harry yawned and turned onto his stomach, landing face first in warm, Louis-scented sheets. His eyes fluttered shut, his cheek rubbing against the bed. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”

“Well, anytime you need a cuddle, you know where to find me.”

Harry hummed, climbing sideways off the bed. He watched Louis’ back muscles flex and flutter as he pushed his clasped hands to the ceiling, his ribs stretching beneath the skin of his sides. Harry ducked his head down, stepping around him.

Louis’ mouth stretched around his yawn to say, “I’d offer you breakfast,” he itched the hair beneath his navel, “but I don’t think I have anything in my fridge but mustard.”

“That’s alright,” Harry said, gripping his phone and keys. “I need to shower and stuff anyway.”

“You smell lovely to me.”

Harry flushed and huffed a laugh, stepping around Louis.

. . .

Louis yawned many, many hours later, his lower back aching from leaning over clients all day and night. He put his key into his lock, his fingers twitching to grip the key instead of the end of his tattoo gun. He heard a door unlock behind him.

Harry’s quiet voice said, “Hey,” before he could turn around.

“Hello there,” Louis said, spinning. “How are you?”

“Good, good.” Harry nodded as he spoke, his striped sock covered toes brushing over the tile in front of his flat. “So, um.” He glanced up at Louis, a wide smile breaking over his face without his control. He thumbed over his shoulder. “I, um, happen to have some cocoa ready.”

Louis’ eyebrows arched, his lower belly heating as if he’d swallowed a vat of boiling hot cocoa.

“Is that so, Sleeping Beauty?”

Harry nodded, chuckling, “Yeah,” and lifting his hand to the back of his hair. “Are you...Um…”

Louis slowly stepped closer, his arms crossed over his chest, his smirked lips twitching.

“Are you luring me into your flat with cocoa? What’s next, you asking to borrow a cup of sugar?”

Harry’s amused gaze landed on his face and Louis froze, his heart rabbiting inside his chest. He felt pinned in place by Harry’s eyes, the color jewel toned and shimmering, the shape of his eyes curved like a hand-drawn Disney princess.

Harry scoffed, “As if you have sugar in your flat,” leaning his shoulder in his doorframe and crossing a casual ankle.

Louis’ eyes narrowed.

“Good point.” He swung his rucksack in front of his body, letting the strap fall from his shoulder. “I’ll come over in five.” He wiggled five fingers at Harry. “Need to drop my stuff and wash up.”

“Okay,” Harry exhaled with a blazing smile. He stepped back into his flat. “I’ll leave the door unlocked.”

“Cool.”

Harry shut the door as Louis let himself into his flat. He dropped his rucksack to the side, slipping off his Vans.

He slapped his palms together and gave the ceiling a wide smile, his eyes blissfully shut. He started to hop from foot to foot, alternating which fist he tugged down from the sky, his arse bouncing as he whisper-screamed, “Yeeessssss! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

“Um.”

He stopped his motions with his right fist pumped in the air and his left foot kicked in front of himself, Harry’s amused voice freezing him in place.

Louis placed both feet on the ground and turned calmly, lowering his arms to his sides.

“Yes?”

“Um,” Harry bit his bottom lip, stifling a laugh, “I wanted to know if you like marshmallows in yours?”

Louis’ eyes blinked rapidly, his brows sky-high.

“I...Do,” he said, his voice higher than usual. “That sounds lovely.”

Harry grinned and knocked his fist on the open door frame.

“Cool.” His eyes did a quick once over of Louis’ body, his smile widening. He knocked once more. “See you soon.”

When Louis was cleaned up (and no longer flailing), he crossed the hall to Harry’s place. He knocked gently before opening the door, poking his head inside.

“C’mon in,” Harry said, his voice joined by the sound of ceramic mugs sliding on a granite countertop.

Louis had never been fully inside Harry’s flat before, only seen slivers of it when Harry would lean out the door. The overall theme seemed to be light fabrics to contrast the dark hardwood, leading to an airy, vintage feel. His overstuffed sofa was a cozy, golden tan colour, a collection of knit blankets in pale pinks and mint draped over the top.

For all of the Sleeping Beauty song trading going on, maybe he should have gone with Belle. There were books everywhere, varying from old, leather bound tomes to fresh paperbacks, all neatly stacked on his spotless countertops or organized on dark wood shelves.

Maybe Harry was more of a Cinderella or a Snow White, with his blown up sketches of hummingbirds and songbirds framed on his cream coloured walls. Harry’s colouring was Snow White-ish, and he seemed to favour slightly more exciting footwear than his drab Oxford collection, which could count as Cinderella-y.

“Well, well, well,” Louis finally said, his hands on his hips as he surveyed the space. “Someone in here loves their Pinterest.”

Harry scowled at him from the kitchen.

“You’re not getting any marshmallows now.”

“No?”

“No,” Harry said, his scowl wavering.

“Then maybe I’ll give you my second tier spoon. Maybe even third tier spoon. The bottom of the barrel.”

Harry handed him a mug of cocoa teeming with marshmallows, a smile spreading across his face.

“Third tier spoon?”

“Yeah, you know, like,” Louis sipped quickly, white fluff lingering on his top lip, “I’ll breathe too hot on your face, fart a lot, drool in your ear. That sort of thing.”

Harry laughed with cocoa in his mouth, his shoulders hunching up by his ears.

He gave Louis a tour of his flat as they drank their cocoa and ate almost all of the marshmallows straight out of the bag. Eventually, their drinks were done, Harry handwashing their mugs while Louis examined a shelf of books that seemed to all be in foreign languages.

“Wanna go to bed?”

Louis slid a book that he believed to be Japanese back into its slot.

“Sure,” Louis said, turning towards Harry’s voice. He peeked into Harry’s bleach scented bathroom, the white tile gleaming even with the lights off. “Your flat is so nice. The last guy who lived here never left. Like, ever. I think he sat around playing Halo in his pants and not showering the entire time he lived here.”

Harry said, “You two must have been good friends,” over his shoulder, laughing even before Louis jumped on him, fingers zoning in on his sides. “Hey!” They half fell onto the mattress, Harry squirming as he giggled. “We need to brush our teeth! Cocoa is full of sugar!”

“Yeah, yeah, can’t let your little teethies rot,” Louis grumbled, giving his ribs one more good prod. Harry’s laughter bubbled loudly out of his mouth and he arched sideways, Louis grinning and ruffling his hair. “The old toothbrush excuse. Works every time.”

They brushed their teeth together (Harry with brush, Louis with finger) until Harry turned to Louis with a mouth full of foam.

“Cuh you pwehse,” he tilted his head to the side, “whah ah,” his eyes widened towards the sink, “spih?”

Louis stifled his laughter with his palm and nodded, backing out of the bathroom to give Harry and his toothpaste their privacy.

He could not control a small giggle when Harry requested for him to turn around while he changed into sweats, his pajama request as polite as his toothpaste request. Louis obediently turned around, taking off everything but his navy blue boxer briefs. He kicked his clothes into a small pile before he crawled into bed.

He settled on his back on the centre of the mattress, starfishing his limbs as far as they could go. Where Louis’ bed was flat on the floor, Harry had a large, darkwood bed frame with four posts that almost touched the ceiling.

“It’s cool,” Harry said, black sweats covering his lower half.

Louis’ eyes traced up and down the strong line of Harry’s spine, Harry pulling on a white tank in the corner of the bedroom. He stretched his toes to the end of Harry’s bed, fresh sheets rubbing deliciously over his skin.

“You shy guys drive me a bit wild,” Louis said, propping his hands behind his head. “It’s crazy, but I’m into it.”

“Be quiet,” Harry grumbled, his voice deep but trembling with laughter. “I’m not trying to drive you anything.”

Even with his back to him, Louis could practically see Harry’s smile, small but growing with his bottom lip tucked between his teeth.

Harry turned the lights off and shut the bedroom door. He blew out a candle on his chest of drawers, smoke curling into the moonlight. He climbed over Louis to get to the other side of the bed.

“That smells nice,” Louis commented, pushing the blankets down. “Vanilla-y.”

“Thanks.” He grinned, the tops of his cheeks flushed pink. He turned onto his side. Louis pulling the duvet over him. “That was my first ghost gift. It’s one of my favourites.” He yawned, the sound like a kitten’s first purr. “My ghost must be busy or something. Haven’t gotten any deliveries lately.”

Louis’ arm stiffened on top of Harry’s outer bicep, his eyes studying the back of Harry’s head.

“Yeah, maybe they’re busy,” Louis said, his voice sounding foreign to his own ears. He cuddled up to Harry, his left hand rubbing along Harry’s forearm. “I bet your ghost still is thinking of you, though.” He took a quiet breath in at the base of his neck. “Even if they haven’t given any surprises lately.”

“Oh, sorry,” Harry whispered, reaching back to finger-comb his own hair. Louis was more interested in the flutter of his bicep and the stretch of the underside of his arm, his gaze going a little foggy. “Do you want me to tie it up?”

Louis shook his head, his arm relaxing over Harry’s body. He pressed his face against Harry’s hair, using his nose to push Harry’s fingers away.

“Nah.” He twirled a longish curl around his index finger. “I like it down.”

“Oh. Okay.” Harry relaxed, sighing out a long breath. His eyes fluttered shut, Louis’ nimble fingers massaging the back of his head, minty breaths brushing behind his ear. Every so softly, Harry murmured, “Phillip never liked my hair long,” the words almost lost in his pillow.

Louis studied the shadows playing over Harry’s pale cheekbone, his eyelashes shivering with his eyes shut. He rubbed his palm over the top of Harry’s forearm, braving a squeeze to his bicep. He brought his lips to Harry’s ear.

“I’m not Phillip,” he whispered simply.

There was a pause, Louis’ lip ring still brushing the shell of Harry’s ear. He could see that Harry had opened his eyes from the dance of shadows over his cheekbone. Harry’s soft fingertips landed one by one on Louis’ forearm, pinky to thumb, his palm smoothing over his wrist.

“No, you’re not,” he whispered back, his cheekbone plumping and his eyes fluttering closed. He cuddled his face into his pillows, pushing his bum backwards against Louis’ groin. Their bare feet brushed together. “G’nite, Louis. Thank you again.”

“G’nite. And,” Louis chuckled, “you don’t have to keep thanking me. Having the opportunity to inhale these honeysuckle curls is thanks enough for me.”

Harry laughed, his stomach vibrating under Louis’ forearm.

“You’re so silly.”

“Too bad you’re not getting a tier one spoon tonight.” He patted Harry’s stomach. “Tier two doesn’t involve haircare.”

“Oh, no?”

“If you behave yourself, next time you’ll wake up with a head full of braids. I’m an excellent braider. I can even do fishtail.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Harry said, his voice growing heavy.

Harry seemed to be on the brink of passing out, but Louis did not feel sleepy, even with the warm coziness of Harry’s body pressed against his front. He peered around the dark bedroom, his eyes the only part of his body moving besides his nostrils, which continued to inhale breaths of Harry’s hair as if the oxygen in the room was being forcibly removed.

“This is some bed you’ve got,” he whispered, scanning up and down his bedposts. He shifted his hips. “Fancy pants.”

“Hmm.”

“Do you like getting tied up or something?” Louis chuckled to himself. He tightened his hold on Harry. “Secret kinky minx.”

“Mmhmm.”

His eyes stopped moving to bulge out of his head, his mouth stuck open. By the time he asked, “Come again?” Harry was already breathing evenly, his body limp in Louis’ arms.

. . .

From then on, there always seemed to be some reason that one of them required a cuddle at bedtime. Exchanging phone numbers made text requests for cuddles very easy:

it’s rainy and i’m cold…wanna you knowwww? i think you know what i mean ;)~

I saw a spider in the kitchen and I tried to put it in a cup to free it in my flower box, but I think I crushed it too much, because it isn’t moving in said flower box :( Can you come over? Can’t sleep :(((

drank too much tea. wired. need cuddles pleaseeeee?

The streetlights are too bright.

scary movie is giving me nightmares...i need your curls to protect me

Until eventually the requests turned into non-requests:

It’s Tuesday.

the sky is blue

Let’s get Indian tonight.

i want to smell your hair for like 12 hrs straight

I bought new pillows! :D

i showered!

And then there was no need for attempted requests at all, both moving easily between flats when bedtime rolled around.

Louis woke up with Harry’s hair in his mouth more often than not, and was slowly growing addicted to the thin t-shirts and pajama bottoms Harry wore to bed that melted into his warm skin overnight.

Harry grew used to the weight of Louis body sprawled over his torso, and could identify most parts of Louis’ body with his eyes closed based on scent alone.

After a couple of weeks of successful cuddle sessions, both were sleeping like babies, babies who had constant springs in their steps and smiles permanently attached to their faces.

Louis’ regular clients gave him more shit than usual for his cheery demeanor. Even Harry’s students noticed his extra happy mood and started bringing him shiny, red apples. Louis happily chopped them up and slathered them in peanut butter, though he was not allowed to eat that particular snack in Harry’s bed, thank you very much.

The third Saturday morning they woke up together was unseasonably warm, spring blooming outside Louis’ bedroom window. Louis, still asleep, rolled on top of Harry, burrowing his face into his sleep-sweaty neck. Harry arched his lower back and stretched his arms above his head, slapping his lips together, his feet dragging the duvet down to the middle of Louis’ back.

Louis’ hips moved first, a small, involuntary grind against Harry’s thigh. Harry squirmed with a breath of a moan, his cock tenting the front of his black pajama bottoms. His motion prompted Louis to rub against him again, his face pressing harder into Harry’s neck as he inhaled. Harry moaned, his hands sliding to Louis’ arse.

“Louis,” he rasped, deep and heady, his t-shirt stuck up near his nipples.

He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, his dreams full of blazing sunlight and pulsing heat. He clenched his legs, searching for the source of pleasant pressure pressing against his cock and drilling back to the base of his spine.

Their hips shifted to grind against each other. The bare skin of their bellies stuck together, Louis moaning and opening his mouth on Harry’s neck, his palms seeking more hot skin.

A surge of shivering pleasure raced through Harry’s body, tingles rising to meet Louis’ grinding hips and his wet tongue. Harry sucked a shaky breath into his lungs, his eyes blinking rapidly at the ceiling. He looked down at the messy head of brown hair tucked against his neck.

“L-Louis?”

Louis’ eyes popped open, his hips frozen mid-grind. He looked up Harry’s neck until he reached his flushed face, wide awake and bright eyed. Louis blanched, his lips moving silently for three long seconds. He rolled off of Harry and onto his back.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” he blurted out, his head landing in the crack between two pillows. His long hair flopped in his eyes, his feet scrambling against the bed. “Sorry. Sorry, babe. So sorry.” He held his hand over the crotch of his black boxer briefs, spitting pillowcase out of his mouth. “I didn’t mean to…”

Harry’s lips brushed over his bare shoulder, his eyes slowly landing on Louis’ face. Louis’ feet stopped sliding. He stared at the tiny patch of skin shining with saliva, then looked to Harry.

A smile plumped Harry’s lips, his mouth still touching Louis’ elk tattoo. He brushed another kiss, moving an inch closer to Louis’ collarbone to press his lips firmer, Louis remaining motionless. The small smack as he lifted his mouth brought a crooked smile to Harry’s face.

Louis’ eyes widened ever so slightly, his lips rounded.

“I didn’t mean,” Louis started to say in a strangled, drowning voice, Harry’s lips hot and firm against his collarbone. Harry pushed the pillows to the floor, the sheets shifting around them, his body clinging to Louis’ side. A smile stretched over Louis’ face, his lip ring tight between his teeth. “I…I didn’t...”

Harry kissed up his neck until he reached the ultra-sensitive patch beneath his ear, that spot always smelling like a potent mix of boyish sweat, vanilla shampoo and Old Spice aftershave.

Louis shivered and let out a confused giggle, his chest starting to heave.

“Just Harry,” he teased, his voice pitched low. “What in the world is going on? Are you,” he blinked at Harry’s smiling face, “seducing me?”

Harry chuckled, “Shut up,” and pressed their lips together.

Louis groaned against his lips and cupped his face with both hands, wrapping his legs around Harry’s hips, their tongues licking together. Harry panted out a moaned breath, pressing their lips harder, craving the pressure of Louis’ lip ring and the burn of his stubble.

He had never kissed anyone with piercings. He only felt Phillip’s stubble maybe once or twice on accident, Phillip always pushing his face away in the morning to get out of bed and shower. In seven years, he never knew what Phillip’s morning mouth tasted like. He never knew what his unbrushed teeth felt like beneath his tongue, or what the skin in the curves of his body smelled like if he hadn’t showered that day.

Louis seemed unbothered by sporting three days of whiskers or the sweet, masculine smell of his sweat or by the slightly sour taste of his mouth, Harry certain his own tongue was just as sour and his body just as musky. That didn’t stop Louis’ calloused hands from touching whatever skin they could. It didn’t stop him from holding Harry against him as if he needed to feel more of his skin just to survive. To touch another part of his body to hear whatever sound it prompted to fall from Harry’s panting lips. To learn another sensitive spot that sent Harry into uncontrollable shivers.

Harry opened his mouth to suggest he could shower and brush his teeth, but Louis just gripped him tighter and rolled him onto his back, grinding against him and moaning into his mouth. It sent an immediate shot of fierce arousal through Harry’s body, a weak groan whimpered out of the back of his throat.

“Fuck, you’re so sexy,” Louis whispered, sounding hurried, the heel of his hand cradling Harry’s jaw line. “So, so sexy.”

He thumbed Harry’s bottom lip, red irritation starting to bloom around his deep rose lips. Louis seared their lips together, Harry arching his hips up.

Their lips opened to suck harder kisses, Harry’s hands bunching in the bottom of Louis’ Skate Tough tank. His fingernails dragged up Louis’ back, Louis groaning into a kiss and grinding against him.

“Can I--Can you,” Harry gasped out.

Louis sat up and peeled his tank over his head, Harry peering up at him. Louis’ head popped out of the neckline, his long hair standing up straight in the front. He smiled, mischief lighting his face, and tossed his shirt on the floor. Harry ran his palms up Louis’ stomach, Louis giggling lightly when a curious middle finger brushed over his navel ring.

“You can touch whatever you want,” Louis said, Harry’s fingers tracing up the black ink littering his forearms.

Harry pressed his palm to the bare, tattoo-free skin on the left side of Louis’ chest.

“Nothing here?”

Louis’ tongue flickered over his lip ring, his eyes glancing down at the spot as Harry drew soft circles with the pads of his fingers.

“Keeping that spot for my future spouse and kids.”

“Oh my fucking God,” Harry said, uncharacteristically gruff, pulling Louis’ face down. “Let’s kiss more, please. Lots more.”

Louis smiled against his lips, their kisses growing frantic, hot breaths panted between them. He laced his hand in Harry’s hair and tilted his head back. His hips gyrated against Harry’s crotch, his teeth biting down on Harry’s bottom lip. Harry ghosted his fingers over Louis’ pierced nipple.

Louis breathed, “Fuck,” as sharp, hot pleasure exploded from the small circle of skin, his hips bucking faster.

Harry pulled his hand back.

“Sorry, does that hurt?” he blurted out. “I didn’t mean to. I’ve never--”

“Fuck no. Feels fucking amazing.” Louis’ tongue snaked into Harry’s mouth, his hands pushing Harry’s tee up his chest. “What do you think I got it pierced for?”

“Can I...Uh...May I--”

Louis leveled him with a fond stare.

“Please suck my lip ring before you give yourself a coronary.”

Harry huffed a pout but obeyed, his pout melting into a smile. He cradled the back of Louis’ head and gave his lip ring a gentle suck, Louis’ lips tenderly moving against his own.

The kiss lasted all of a second. Harry started to laugh as he sucked, Louis’ lips attempting to follow his mouth.

“Feels so weird,” Harry giggled, licking it with the tip of his tongue. “It’s like...So funny. There’s a hole in your lip.”

Louis scoffed and took control of their slow, firm kisses, holding Harry’s face in his hands.

“Of all the guys for me to fall for, I fall for the one that laughs at my piercings, eats salads out of old jars, and looks like birds help him dress every morning.”

“Your piercings are hot,” Harry insisted, wrapping his arms around Louis’ upper back. His head tilted as Louis kissed him, the taste of their mouths melding into one neutral, warm flavour. “I love them. Your piercings and your tattoo--Ooh!” He gasped softly, fingers sliding underneath his shirt to flick at his nipples. “I never knew I liked them until I saw yours.”

Louis’ eyes flickered with heat, his lips smattering kisses down Harry’s neck.

“You’ll like my lip ring even more when my lips are wrapped around your cock.” He gave him an impish smile. “Too bad I got rid of my tongue ring.”

Harry whimpered and Louis nipped on the lowest point of Harry’s neck, muffling a laugh by sinking his teeth into the thick muscle on top of his shoulder. He tugged Harry’s hair again, prompting a breathy groan to vibrate in Harry’s throat, and seared their lips together, Harry’s fingernails digging between Louis’ shoulderblades.

“Ungh, Louis,” Harry moaned, his eyes clenching shut. “Louis, I--I--” His toes curled under the blankets, a quiet moan vibrating against Louis’ lips. “Louis--”

Louis drawled, “Yeah,” and sat up, his hands flat on Harry’s abs.

Harry peered up at him, his chest heaving, dark waves spread around his head on his pillow like tendrils of spilled coffee.

“Why’d you stop?”

Louis cleared his throat and swallowed, biting on his lip ring.

“We--” Louis’ voice cracked. He nodded as he spoke. “We should slow down.”

Harry squinted, his full lips rounding.

“Do you want to slow down?”

“Fuck no, I don’t want to slow down,” Louis laughed, grinding their cocks together. Harry’s face flushed, his eyelashes fluttering. “But…” He pulled his hands out from under Harry’s shirt, smoothing the material down to cover his stomach. “I kind of get the vibe you want to slow down.”

Harry said nothing, his eyes skirting away. After a beat, he reluctantly nodded, his mouth a tight, small frown.

“Hey,” Louis whispered, cradling his face with his right hand. “It’s alright, love. It’s alright. You were with one person for a long time. It makes sense you’d want to...We can take it slow. As slow as you want.”

Harry looked up at Louis, hope brightening his gaze.

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.” He tucked a curl behind Harry’s ear. He smirked softly, thumbing Harry’s cheekbone. “I’ve been flirting shamelessly with you for longer than any relationship I’ve ever had. I’ve learned that I can be patient. Very patient.”

“I don’t need too patient.” Harry held up his thumb and pointed finger, pinching the air. “Just a little patient. I...” A smile worked its way onto his face. “I liked your persistance. And the way you, um…” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Took control. I, uh, liked that. Just now, I mean.”

Louis smiled crookedly.

“That’s good to know. And, hey,” he bounced on top of him, “now we can work in lots of snogging with our sleepovers. Plus,” his fingers toyed with the bottom of Harry’s tee, “maybe a bit more skin?”

Air rushed out of Harry’s nose on a breathy laugh, his eyes directed at the ceiling.

“Yeah, maybe.”

Louis pushed his shirt up. The material bunched under his arms, Harry lifting his hands above his head. He ducked his head down, Louis easing his tee off. It was tossed to the floor.

“Fuck me,” Louis whispered, bewildered. His fingertips ghosted down the centre of Harry’s chest, dancing along the top of his abs. “Look at all this. Clark Kent as fuck.”

Harry’s brows furrowed, his hands clenching in the sheets.

“What? Are you plotting tattoos or something?”

“No, not that. S’just...You’re so fit. So beautiful.” Louis leaned down, planted his lips on the centre of Harry’s chest. “Such gorgeous skin. Perfect.”

“I’ve actually been thinking about getting a tattoo.”

“What?” Louis laughed, holding out the word. He grinned up at Harry, resting his chin on his stomach, Harry smiling shyly. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah. I don’t think I could handle a piercing.” He cradled his own nipples, his arms crossed over his chest. “They’re sensitive enough without any help.”

The left side of Louis’ mouth curved upwards.

“Is that so?”

“I thought a tattoo might be cool. Mark a new start in my life. Do something different, something totally for me because I want to do it.”

Louis kissed his belly button, nosing up his stomach.

“I love that idea. Sounds great.”

“You think so?”

“Of course. Whenever you want anything done,” he winked, “you know where to go. On the house. Whatever you want.”

“It would have to be really, really small. And somewhere that’s hidden by work clothes. I don’t think I can have anything visible, so nothing on my hands or arms.”

Louis pursed his lips forward, swaying his head side to side, his eyes scanning Harry’s torso.

“You could do here. It would be hidden by your work shirts,” he brushed his fingers below Harry’s collar bones, “but that might be a little painful for the first time. I don’t recommend anything near bones or on super sensitive skin for your first time. A lot of guys do up here,” he touched Harry’s outer biceps, “when they want to keep it hidden, and that’s fine. It’s not terribly painful there, but...I dunno. I’m not sold on that spot for you if it’s just one tattoo.”

“No?”

“Nope.”

Louis shimmied off of him and swirled his fingers in a circle, whistling through his teeth. Harry turned onto his stomach, propping his chin on his folded arms. The gentle slope of his back led to his small bum, his sweats pulled low enough to reveal the waistband of his black Calvin Kleins.

“Here.”

He touched the back of Harry’s left shoulder, drawing feather-light circles with his fingertips.

“Really?”

“No one would see it unless you wanted them to. You have the most beautiful back I’ve ever seen and this spot would be like a crown jewel.”

“Louis,” Harry giggled, pressing his face into a pillow. “My back’s just a back.”

Louis kissed the spot, heat tingling under his lips.

“Ohh, no, no, no,” Louis said, deeply drawling the words. Harry smiled against his forearm, his cheeks flushing. “You’ve got the most beautiful back I’ve ever seen.” He kissed the back of his neck. “Most beautiful hair.” He kissed behind his ear, grinning at Harry’s muffled laughter. “And, eh. Average face.”

“Hey!” Harry giggled, turning over.

Louis cupped his cheeks and pecked his lips, their bodies angling to face each other. Harry wrapped his arms around Louis’ upper back, Louis’ hands gripping Harry’s arse, their torsos pressing together and their lips joining.

One of Harry’s hands slid to Louis’ chest. He opened his eyes as they kissed, this thumb flicking over Louis’ nipple ring. Harry smiled into a kiss, Louis’ lips buzzing against his mouth with each flick to his nipple.

. . .

Louis washed his hands with hot soapy water, scrubbing under his fingernails. He dried his hands, turning off the faucet with a paper towel. He binned the towel and went to his work station, breaking down the equipment used for his last client and sterilizing the studio. He lost himself in cleaning, a mellow electronica mix playing through the whole shop.

The bell above the door jingled, Louis able to hear Zayn speaking in low tones to someone.

“You have a visitor,” Zayn called.

Louis looked up in time to see Harry walk through the door. He still had on his work clothes, perfectly pressed navy blue slacks and a crisp white Oxford, his leather messenger bag hanging off his shoulder. His hair swayed down around his neck, a dimpled smile lighting his face.

“Hi,” he said softly.

Louis ran up to him, standing on tiptoe to peck his lips, his arms looped over Harry’s shoulders.

“Hey, gorgeous!”

Harry smiled wider, his arms sliding around Louis’ lower back, his hand sneaking up the back of his tight, black tank. Louis pecked him again, both men chuckling quietly into another innocent kiss.

“You look so nice today,” Harry said, his voice a quiet murmur against Louis’ lips. He kissed his jaw line, nosing his temple. “I like your hair like this.”

“Aw, thanks, love! Yeah, you see,” he let out a dramatic sigh, rolling his eyes at Harry and shaking his head, “I’ve been spending so much time with this amazing guy lately. My boyfriend, you know?” Harry grinned at that particular term. “So, I’ve had to take regular showers and remember to use deodorant and try to wear socks that don’t stink.” He waved a dismissive hand. “All that nonsense.”

Harry giggled, fondness radiating from his smile, his hands resting a breath above Louis’ bum.

Louis gestured to his high quiff, fluttering his fingers in the air.

“I figured, hey, if I’m washing my hair this week, I might as well give the blow dryer a whirl.” He pointed at the ceiling. “The higher the hair, the closer to God, you know?”

Harry kissed his cheek, Louis’ skin flushing hot beneath his lips.

“I like it a lot,” he whispered, kissing him there again. Louis leaned into his touch, Harry whispering, “I like you a lot.”

Vomiting noises filtered in from the front of the shop.

“Oh, shut up,” Louis shouted, Harry grinning and pressing his face into Louis’ neck. “You and Niall are way barfier than we are, don’t even try it.”

“Not true,” Zayn called back.

The music changed from mellow electronica to punk, Rancid pounding through the shop’s sound system.

“Such dramatics,” Louis muttered, running his fingers through the back of Harry’s hair. He tilted his head back smiling brightly. “So, to what do I owe this honour? You’ve never visited the shop before.”

Harry bit his bottom lip and put some space between them.

“I think today is a good day to get my tattoo.”

“Today?” Louis asked excitedly.

“Yeah. The way I see it, if I’m in horrific pain afterwards, at least I have the weekend to recover.” Harry glanced around the studio. “Unless you’re busy and have clients waiting somewhere. If it’s a bad time I can make an appointment--”

“No, no, it’s a good time,” Louis assured him, smiling wide. “We haven’t gotten the night rush yet and I finished my last client earlier than I thought.” He squeezed Harry’s bicep. “It’s a great time. Are you,” his eyes narrowed ever so slightly, “sure you’re ready? There’s no rush at all.”

“I’m ready,” Harry said with a firm nod. “And I want you to pick what I get.”

Louis’ eyes returned to their normal shape, shock written all over his face.

“What? Me? Why me?”

“Because you’re special to me,” Harry whispered, dipping down to press their lips together. “You made me smile and laugh during a time when I felt like I’d never feel good again. Plus,” Harry smirked and thumbed over the small bump of Louis’ nipple stud, “you have good taste in body art. I love all your tattoos. I trust your eye.”

“Wow, um, well,” Louis said, genuinely caught off guard. He bit his lip ring. “What were you thinking? Like, any particular theme or style?”

Harry bumped his shoe against Louis’ bare outer ankle.

“I really like your little triangle. Maybe a shape like that? An outline in black. Something really simple.”

Louis rubbed his fingers over his chin, squinting at Harry.

“A shape, hm?” Louis’ eyes lit up. “How about a cock outline?”

Harry giggled and shook his head, Louis smoothing his hair off his face.

“No cocks, thanks.” Harry dropped his bag to the floor. “A star or a heart maybe? Even if it’s only a circle or a square. Whatever you think is me. Really small and simple, please.”

“Small and simple, please,” Louis said slowly, raising his eyebrows. “Alright, let’s see.”

He did a slow scan of Harry from bottom to top, his head nodding faster.

“Okay,” he exhaled, the sound shaky. He grinned, a fresh burst of heat colouring his cheeks. “I know what you’re getting.” He cracked his knuckles in front of him, jutting his chin upwards. “Top off, please.”

Harry unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off of his arms, hanging it over a chair near the sink. When Louis turned back to Harry, his body grew warm, Harry’s face equally flushed and his hand fussing with the back of his hair.

It was not the first time he’d seen Harry shirtless, but something about seeing him topless in his work trousers, his tapered waist leading up to his broad back, his slightly rounded out abs leading up to his his strong biceps, made Louis’ whole body tingle.

Louis guided Harry to a tattoo chair, an open headrest available for Harry to place his face in the hole. Harry’s long legs straddled the leather bench, his chest resting on the plush padding.

“Comfy?”

“Mmhmm.”

Louis brought over a quick form for Harry to sign while he set up, Harry scanning over the waiver.

“For something bigger, I’d draw up a pattern or something. But, since this is small, I’m going to freehand it. Is that alright?”

Harry held the clipboard out.

“Mmhmm. Sounds good.”

Louis accepted the form, plopping it on the sink countertop, and started to prep himself, washing his hands thoroughly.

“Have you eaten today?” Louis asked, Harry humming and nodding. “Drank a lot of water?”

“Yup.”

“Did you sleep well last night?”

Harry paused for a moment before quietly giggling, “You know I did,” prompting a soft laugh from Louis.

“That’s right. I do,” he cooed in a higher voice.

He tapped Harry’s shoulder, Harry turning his head to look at him. Louis held up a sealed package of metal items, the needle making Harry’s stomach flip.

“Whenever you get a tattoo or piercing or whatever--if it’s not me or Zayn doing it--please, please, please make sure they are super clean and use fresh, disposable supplies every time and sterilize the fuck out of every part of their shop. Cleanliness is key with any sort of body art.”

Harry nodded.

“Of course.”

Louis arched one eyebrow, popping on a clean surgical mask.

“You promise?”

“Yes,” Harry laughed. His answer satisfied Louis enough for his eyes to crinkle, a smile hidden under his mask. “I promise. Have you seen my flat? I love clean.”

“Very true.” He dropped the tools on a metal tray. “Alright. Let’s see here. Time to prep you.”

Louis settled on a stool beside Harry’s left shoulder and pulled his equipment closer. He swiped rubbing alcohol over Harry’s upper left side, dropping the sterile wipe on his tray. He lifted a brand new razor from the package of supplies.

Quietly, Louis said, “I’ll have to shave this hairy back of yours.”

Harry’s head popped up from the headrest.

“I do not have a hairy back.”

Louis snickered. He pulled down his mask and kissed his ear, easing Harry’s face back into the headrest. His mask sprung back over his lips.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding.” He wet Harry’s upper back, starting to make smooth, small motions with the razor. He heard Harry inhale sharply, a shudder racing up his spine. “We shave the skin we tattoo no matter what, even if there’s very little fuzz.” He tapped the razor on a metal bowl filled with warm water. “Don’t want you to get any ingrown hairs on this lovely back of yours.”

“Oh. I see.”

Harry’s voice sounded far away, as if he was in a tunnel, Louis smiling and finishing up the prep of his shoulder with practiced, confident ease.

“Do you want to watch me get the needle and ink cap ready?”

“No, thank you.”

Louis chuckled and patted the small of Harry’s back.

“Alright, just relax.”

The tattoo gun started to buzz much faster than Harry thought possible, visible goosebumps spreading over every inch of his skin.

“Now, you’re sure about this, yeah?” Louis flattened his hand between Harry’s shoulder blades, squirting ointment into a fresh paper towel on his work station. “Like, one-hundred percent sure?”

“I’m so ready. Two-hundred percent.”

Louis laughed and squeezed his right shoulder.

“I love your enthusiasm. Alright, then.” He snapped one glove on. “One cock coming up.”

“Louis,” Harry chuckled, groaning the sound, Louis’ other glove snapping against his skin. He tried to relax. “No cocks, please.”

Louis smoothed something creamy on Harry’s shoulder, spreading it over the area to be tattooed.

“It’ll probably sting or burn a bit until you get used to it. It’ll be more irritating than painful. If it hurts more than a minute, let me know. Just hold still, babe, alright?”

“Yeah,” Harry exhaled, the muscles of his lower back clenching. “I’ll be fine.”

“Relax and breathe,” Louis whispered, placing his hand on the small of Harry’s back. “Don’t want you passing out.”

His muscles relaxed beneath Louis’ palm, Harry exhaling a deep breath. Louis pressed his palm up Harry’s back in different spots, watching his muscles return to their normal shape.

“That’s it, love. No hunching or clenching. Don’t want you to hurt yourself. It’ll be over before you know it.”

Harry remained completely still, even when the needle started to bite against his skin. His whole body started to sweat, Louis swiping a paper towel over the throbbing line he drew. The needle stung him again, Harry sucking his bottom lip into his mouth.

“You’re doing so amazing, love,” Louis’ voice quietly soothed, his left hand flat on Harry’s shoulder while his right hand manned the tattoo gun. “Seriously, taking it like a champ.”

Harry’s hips stuttered a touch as he cleared his throat, his boots shuffling on the floor. Louis’ brows arched amusedly. He kept his hand steady and focused on the black ink being pushed into Harry’s perfect, pale skin. Harry took a loud breath, Louis able to hear him sucking even louder on his bottom lip.

“It’s alright, love,” Louis said, drawing a smooth curve. “That happens to me too. Happens to lots of people.”

“Does it?”

“The controlled pain kind of turns me on.”

“Now I get why you have so many tattoos.”

“Wait until you get a piercing. Nearly came in the chair when I got my nipple ring.”

“Stop turning me on or I’ll start squirming,” Harry whined, a smile ringing in his voice, Louis cackling. “Are you almost done?”

“Bossy, bossy,” Louis said, Harry chuckling softly. Louis swiped a paper towel over Harry’s fresh tattoo, his skin throbbing with heat. “But, yes. We’re nearly there.”

Harry waited patiently until the the gun stopped buzzing. He could hear Louis moving items around his metal tray, a soft cloth wiping over his stinging skin. Then came a smooth layer of cream, some of the pain subsiding.

“Now,” Louis rolled across the studio on his stool, “I’m going to give you some ointment and instructions for aftercare, which is very, very important.” A cabinet opened and closed. “I would be happy to volunteer to tend to your wounds until they’re all healed. For now, I’ll bandage you up.”

“Okay.”

“Do you have any questions?”

“Um, may I see it?”

Louis’ stool came to a halt, Harry’s polite question quietly murmured against the headrest. A long beat passed before Louis’ trainers tapped on the floor, something metallic sliding on the counter.

“Yeah, of course,” Louis said softly, pulling his mask off. “My bad, should have shown you right away.”

Harry waited until Louis gently held his shoulders, easing him to sit up on the leather chair. He sat up straight, his head swimming. Louis’ lip ring twitched as he smirked, his hands warm on Harry’s biceps.

“Alright, babe?”

Harry nodded, blinking rapidly, and shifted into a more comfortable seated position, his legs straddling the leather bench.

“Yeah, just a bit woozy for a second. I’m fine now.”

“Fuck me,” Louis whispered. He openly stared at Harry’s thighs bursting against his work trousers, his lower back arching to lead to his popped, pert arse. “You look so hot like that.” Harry gave him a confused smile and Louis snuffled, handing him a large mirror. “Alright, hold this in front of yourself, and,” he lifted another mirror, “I’ll hold one up so you can see it.”

“Cool,” Harry said as he grinned, excitement shaking in his voice. “I can’t believe I have a tattoo. This is so crazy!”

Louis giggled and dropped a kiss at the base of Harry’s neck.

They lifted their mirrors at the same time. Harry tried to find Louis’ mirror in his reflection, keeping his body still and swaying the mirror. The reflections lined up.

Louis watched Harry’s mouth drop in the mirror, his eyes two round, blazing green saucers. Harry didn’t move for what felt like decades, his stunned face glued to his reflection.

Louis spoke to the mirror, rambling, “Harry, I…”

Harry suddenly whipped his head around, his hair slapping Louis in the face.

“It’s...It’s you,” he gasped out. He blinked his dark lashes, tears prickling the corners of his eyes. “It was you! You’re my ghost!”

Louis brushed his fingertips beside the small, lopsided heart drawn on Harry’s upper back, mindful of avoiding the inked skin and smiling with uncharacteristic shyness. He nodded, swallowing thickly.

“I…”

Before he could fully respond, Harry stuttered out, “B-But--How--” He twisted himself around on the bench, wrapping his arms around Louis’ waist. “How did you do all that?” His hands flattened on Louis’ neck, then his face, as if he expected him to vanish into thin air. “I saw you in all different places after--How did you--”

Louis scratched the back of his neck, his bicep fluttering and a quiet, nervous laugh falling from his lips.

“Erm.” He sucked his lip ring, his smile widening. He squinted at Harry. “Sometimes, ghosts have generous friends who put up with their crushes on their dreamy neighbors and drop presents off when the ghost is at work.”

Zayn’s voice called, “Very generous,” over the booming punk music.

Harry laughed, his eyes curving and his hands clutching Louis’ gloved hands.

“The songs--You--Did you--You dreamed of me?”

Louis nodded, smiling shakily.

“Yeah, I...I dreamed a lot about you. A lot,” he said, his voice cracking. “Just from the one time we met. Even when I tried not to. And it all, um, worked.” He fluttered his fingers near his ear. “In my head. The songs, weird mix as they were. It was a weird mix of songs, wasn’t it? Not my best--”

“I wanted it to be you so badly,” Harry whispered, hushed words tumbling from his full lips. “And then I--I thought...” Sadness darkened his eyes for a moment. “I thought it wasn’t you, because when I ran after the ghost, you were already downstairs on your bike.”

“Yeah, that was the whole, um, ghost friend as a helper thing. Niall, that time.”

Harry guffawed and bumped his forehead into Louis’ chin.

“I can’t believe you did all that for me.”

Louis pulled back, his face clenched as if bracing for a punch.

“You’re really not mad?” Harry shook his head, his shining eyes wide and his smile beaming. “I didn’t mean to be creepy. You just...” He tucked a wave of Harry’s hair behind his ear. “You seemed sad and I wanted to make you happy again, even if you never knew it was me. Even if we never got to know each other. You seemed like a nice person who needed a little sunshine. That’s all.”

Harry’s lips curved higher, his cheeks bright pink.

“Sunshine in the form of candles and snow removal?”

“And chocolates and folded clothing. Yes, yes. I know I’m brilliant.” Harry giggled and Louis snorted, his pompadour swaying. “I don’t even fold my own clothes.” He prodded the centre of Harry’s chest. “You should be honoured.”

“I am. Honoured. Shocked. So honoured and…” Fondness crinkled his eyes. “You did make me happy.” Softer, he said, “You do make me happy. So, so happy. Every day.”

Louis blew air out of his lips, laughing at the end of his exhale and letting his head drop back. He propped his hands behind his head and barked a frantic laugh. Harry recognized the slight bite of his sweat mixed with the beachy scent of Old Spice Fiji.

“Fuck, that’s such a relief!” Louis cried, shimmying his upper body. “I’ve been meaning to tell you, but you always talked about your ghost like you liked him; you always looked so cute when you mentioned your ghost gifts.” He smiled crookedly. “I didn’t want to spoil your fun.”

“Can you bandage me up?”

“Oh, uh,” Louis nodded quickly, lowering his arms, “yeah, of course. Sorry. I’ll get you all finished in no time. Just,” he quirked one finger, “c’mere. Lean forward so I can get to your back.”

Harry bent forward, Louis switching into a fresh pair of gloves.

“I won’t be able to lie on my back, right?” Harry asked.

“Um,” Louis fastened a bandage over his tattoo, “it might be uncomfortable, but if you roll onto your back, it won’t be a huge thing. We can make sure it doesn’t get infected.”

“I’m not gonna be on my back.”

Louis’ brows pinched together as he pulled his gloves off, Harry sitting up straight.

“Yeah, you do tend to sleep on your side,” his eyes sparkled, “little spoon.”

“Oh, I’m not talking about that,” Harry said, standing from the bench. He shrugged his button up on, only fastening his buttons halfway up his chest. “Can you grab my bag, please?”

Louis binned his gloves.

“Of course.”

He lifted Harry’s bag and eased the strap over his un-tattooed shoulder. Harry’s arm looped around his lower back, pulling Louis flush to his body. Louis’ brows shot up as he was kissed firmly, Harry’s tongue stroking the seam of his mouth.

“Hello,” Louis gasped, chuckling, Harry kissing him again.

He could taste apple juice on Harry’s tongue, could feel vanilla Chapstick lingering on his lips. He squeezed Harry’s arse with both hands, his brows arched sky high, Harry’s mouth guiding his lips wide enough to tease their tongues together. Louis’ eyes rolled beneath his closed eyelids, his ankle winding around Harry’s calf.

“I guess you really do get turned on by the pain,” Louis murmured.

Harry’s lips suckled softly on his lip ring, their head tilting for another soft, sucked kiss.

“Tonight,” Harry barely pressed his lips to Louis’ mouth, “you’re going to be on your back. That’s what I meant.”

“Okay.” Louis shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”

“Not for cuddling, silly,” Harry sing-songed, innocence bright in his eyes. He cupped Louis’ face with both hands, keeping his deep voice casual and conversational. “I’m going to ride you all fucking night and then we’ll spoon, like usual.” His face lit up. “Oh! And you can tie me face down on the bed, too, if you’d like. I know I’d like that.” His eyelid flickered. “Might as well put my bedposts to their proper use. I quite like being tied up. But first I’m riding you.” He nodded firmly. “That’s first on the agenda.”

Louis’ mouth popped open, his head tilting without his control.

“Oh,” he said, the sound high and pure. “Well.” He nodded once. “Okay.”

“We can do the ointment stuff afterwards.”

“Good thinking,” Louis said quickly, nodding faster. “Very...Yes.” He flushed under Harry’s amused, smiley stare. “Good. Wow,” he exhaled, squinting as if he was baffled. “I was totally right. You kinky, perfect minx.”

Harry grinned and ducked his face down, his hair falling in his eyes.

If you lie down with wolves, you learn to howl.” Louis sputtered a laugh at the familiar lyric, his eyes popping open wider. “At least,” Harry softly pecked his lips, both grinning wider, “that’s what a very sweet ghost once wrote me in a letter.”

“Sounds like a smart ghost.” Louis laced his fingers in Harry’s hair, smoothing it off his forehead. “You’ve been howling quite a lot lately.”

Harry’s cheeks dimpled.

“Wait until tonight.”

+++++++++++++

+++++++++++++

Louis’ eyes rolled back in his head, his hips undulating upwards, Harry slowly screwing himself down onto his throbbing cock.

“You good, babe?”

“So good,” Harry exhaled, his hands clenching on Louis’ chest. “Oh God,” he whimpered softly through his nose, “so, so good.”

Their bodies worked in unison, wet breaths and panted moans muffled by each other’s lips and sweaty skin. Harry’s hands ghosted over Louis’ sweat-soaked torso, tickling over his abs and flattening on his pecs, the bed creaking under their joined weight.

“Fuck,” Louis swore, biting hard on his lip ring. Harry’s hot mouth sucked his lip ring from him, his fingers pinching both of Louis’ nipples, his bounces speeding up. Louis whimpered a moan into their tongue-heavy snog, his hips stuttering upwards. “F-Fuck, Harry.”

Harry’s clear tongue stud slid over the smooth top of Louis’ tongue, both pulling back slightly to let the tips of their tongues tangle together. Louis sealed their lips and moaned, tugging on the delicate barbell pierced through Harry’s right nipple, his other hand corkscrewing over his cock. Harry bounced even faster, Louis’ fingers twisting tighter, Harry’s arse clenching around Louis’ cock.

“That’s it, angel,” Louis panted deliriously, jerking him smoothly. “So fucking beautiful.” His abs tightened, their undulations speeding up. His hand squeezed hard enough to bruise as he grunted out, “Fucking perfect, fuck, Harry.”

He thrust up against Harry’s frantic bounces, his knees bending and his thighs moving to hug Harry’s body. Their hair was long and wild as it brushed together, sweat dripping off the bridge of Harry’s nose to land on Louis’ open lips.

Louis started wanking him faster and Harry’s head fell forward, his eyes clenched shut and his lips mouthed at Louis’ neck. Tiny, high whimpers released against Louis’ skin, popping like invisible bubbles in their eardrums.

“C’mon, love,” Louis rasped, sliding one hand over Harry’s arse. He squeezed with his full palm, all five fingers digging into Harry’s flesh. “Show me how fucking good you look when you come for me.” He rubbed his palm in a warm circle before he spanked him once, resuming his slow, open-palmed circles over his heated skin. “Come all over me.”

Harry sat up straight and braced himself with one hand on Louis chest, riding him properly, their bodies slaming together. His thighs flexed and bulged with each grind of his hips, his lower back aching and the backs of his legs burning.

He rolled his hips on a downwards screw and Louis cried out, his eyes slamming shut and his head pressing into his pillow. Harry grinned and repeated the action until Louis’ breath caught in his throat, his cock throbbing and spilling hot inside of him.

“Oh, fuck, Harry! Fuck me!”

Louis allowed himself one breathless second of selfish pleasure, light exploding on the backs of his eyes and his body rolling in heat, his sweaty thighs sliding against Harry’s skin.

“So fucking beautiful,” Harry’s voice echoed to him, his lips mouthing over Louis’ face, his own body still on edge and bouncing. Fat beads of precome glistened at the tip of his cock, dribbling onto Louis’ tight right fist. “Love you so much, Lou.”

Louis looked up to him, blinking away his daze. Harry’s full lips panted open, the muscles of his torso bulging and contracting as he ground his hips. A needy groan was muffled by their kisses. Louis wrapped his hand around Harry’s cock, jerking him relentless and quick, tightening his grip on his swollen, leaking head.

“You’re so hard, angel,” Louis said, his voice wrecked but his eyes completely focused on Harry’s face. He switched hands, lifting his right hand to suck precome from his fingertips, smearing it over his lip ring and flicking his tongue out to lick. “Fucking paint me, love. You taste so fucking sweet.”

Harry shuddered, releasing a pained, sobbed sound over Louis’ words, his fingernails digging into Louis’ chest and his hips bucking backwards to ride out his own orgasm. Come shot up Louis’ stomach, dripping over his navel ring and roping up to his nipples.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Harry drawled, chanting in time with his slowing bounces. He clenched one final time around Louis’ cock for his last bounce, his head dropping back and his chest shuddering to breathe in. “Oh God,” he whispered, almost to quiet to be heard. He exhaled, “Fuck,” and shuddered again, his body swaying forward. “Louis.”

Louis pulling him down to his chest. His arms draped over Harry’s body, his hands rubbing up and down the sweat-slick skin of his broad back. Harry went limp on Louis’ chest, his face nestling deep in Louis’ neck.

“You’re amazing,” Louis whispered, cradling the back of his head. He scratched Harry’s scalp. “So fucking amazing, love. Love you so much.”

Harry could only make a quiet, wobbly sound come out of his throat, his mouth gulping breaths of Louis’ skin.

They came down together, both panting and breathing heavily for a few sweaty, sticky, blissful moments. Louis’ soft giggles bubbled into the room first, Harry’s lower, satisfied laughter joining in.

“Fuck. Yes. Spring. Break,” Louis groaned, giving a little thrust for each word, Harry giggling again and shutting his eyes. He dragged his fingers through the back of Harry’s damp, knotted hair. “My favourite holiday.”

Harry snuggled closer, thumbing Louis’ nipple.

“You always say that about Christmas. And summer break. And any bank holiday or other day that the school closes.”

Louis flattened his hand on Harry’s lower back, smoothing his palm up and down his spine. He stroked over the small heart on Harry’s left shoulder.

“Any time I get you alone, away from the kiddos, and with that fucking tongue ring in, it’s my absolute favourite holiday.”

Harry grinned, nosing along the front of Louis’ sweaty neck. He opened his lips on the small Harry scrawled in black script over Louis’ heart. He kissed sideways to a red lopsided heart to the right of his name, much like the heart on his own back. He pecked two other names tattooed below his own: Tegan and Charlie.

Harry murmured, “Your mum is a saint for taking the kids all weekend.”

“Let’s not talk about my mum right at this moment,” Louis said, flicking Harry’s nipple ring.

Harry let out a pained laugh, allowing Louis to roll him onto his back. The sheets bunched around them, Harry kicking the duvet off his feet. Louis placed his fingers at Harry’s opening and pulled out, muscles fluttering around his cock as it slid from Harry’s tight arse.

He kissed the centre of Harry’s chest, dipping sideways to reach the matching set of names tattooed over Harry’s heart. He opened his lips on the small ghost outline tattooed on Harry’s upper ribs, Harry’s finger’s carding through the back of his hair. Harry had warmed to the idea of some discrete piercings and tattoos through the years, but kept his body art very simple and sparse.

Louis’ lips moved lower, dipping his tongue into Harry’s navel, dropping kisses through the damp hair of his groin.

Harry asked, “Want me to get--”

His voice broke into a breathy moan, his neck arching backwards, pleasure throbbing through his veins. His body froze, his head arching further back into his pillow. He dug his heels into the mattress, Louis’ tongue delving between his cheeks.

“I love you so much,” Harry exhaled, his head lolling and a blazing smile on his face. “Oh God,” his hips stuttered, his legs hugging the sides of Louis’ head, “that feels so good.”

“And to think,” Louis murmured, licking firmer. His amused eyes flickered upwards, his thumb drawing soft circles on Harry’s balls. “You used to insist you’d hate this.”

Harry ran his fingers through Louis’ hair, a gold band around his ring finger glinting in the long brown strands.

Louis’ hand flattened on Harry’s lower belly, rubbing up and down as he cleaned him with his mouth. Harry saw an answering glimmer of silver wrapped around Louis’ ring finger, Louis humming deeply as he sucked.

“I was a fool before I met you, my--My--” Harry’s eyes fell shut. He whimpered and spread his legs wider, starting to touch himself. “My sweet, little,” his breath caught, “ghost husband.”

Louis guffawed with come in his mouth, blowing an unintentional raspberry on Harry’s arse. Harry spasmed with loud laughter, both of his feet kicking at Louis’ thighs.

There was a knock at their door.

Harry looked towards the sound, his giggles quieting. Louis sat up as he licked his lips, dabbing the back of his hand on his mouth.

“I wonder who that is,” Louis said, pulling the blankets up to their hips. He smiled mischievously and danced his fingers along Harry’s stomach, cuddling up to him. “Let’s ignore it and stay in bed the rest of the day. No phone calls, no emails, no visitors, no clothes.”

Harry smiled and held Louis’ face in his hands, their lips joining. His tongue picked up on the slightly bitter taste of come combined in with vanilla lube, a more metallic, masculine taste mixed in with the sweetness of Louis’ kiss. Louis pressed his inner thigh on Harry’s groin, his hand flat on Harry’s neck, both smiling into a firmer kiss.

The knock came again.

“Aww,” Harry drawled softly, his warm eyes sending beams of heat over Louis’ face. He smiled, hugging Louis tighter. “Did you make Niall or Zayn come over to bring something for me? Like old times?”

Louis snorted a laugh and shook his head.

“I wish I planned that far ahead. I was too focused on the alone time and sex to worry about surprise deliveries.”

The knock came again, louder this time. Louis leaned over to peck Harry’s lips. He bounced off the bed and bent over, rifling around their pile of discarded clothing.

“I’ll get it,” Louis said. He pulled a black tank over his head, stepping into a pair of Harry’s red plaid pajama bottoms. “You relax, babe.”

He grabbed an open water bottle from the bedside table and sucked down a gulp, wiping his hand over his mouth. He took a sip of cold, day-old peppermint tea, his personal contribution to their bedside table. He placed one knee on the bed and leaned over, kissing Harry’s forehead.

Harry smiled as he watched Louis putter around their bedroom, stretching his arms over his head.

“Hurry back,” he murmured, sticking his tongue out. He let his teeth bite down just before his tongue stud ring, the plastic clicking against his teeth. “I have plans for you.”

Louis groaned and went to lie down, his hands sliding up Harry’s chest.

“You know it’s bad for your teeth to play with your stud like that.”

Harry pointedly repeated the click, the tip of his tongue licking the corner of his mouth.

“Then we’ll have to figure out something else for my tongue to play with.”

That pulled a louder, groaned sound of frustration from Louis. There was another knock at the door, Harry snickering and pushing him up.

“I’ll be right back,” Louis said, jogging out of the bedroom and ignoring the soft, whining sounds of pleasure Harry had started to make, the sheets shifting under his body. He called, “You’re being very naughty, Harold,” over his shoulder.

Harry called back, “Maybe you should punish me?”

“Fucking minxy minx minx,” Louis muttered to himself, grinning.

He reached front door and opened it. A warm breeze rushed over his body, but no one was there.

“Hello?” he crooned, holding the vowels extra long.

He peered out at their vibrant green, neatly mowed front lawn and white picket fence. Colourful flowers, dutifully tended to by Harry and their children, lined the brick path to their door.

“Weird,” he whispered, stepping out onto the stone stoop.

His bare feet landed on a thick envelope left on the straw welcome mat. He blinked down at it and hopped off the envelope, bending over to pick it up.

“Who was it?” Harry asked, walking towards the door in a borrowed pair of Louis’ gray sweat shorts. His bare feet were near silent on the shiny hardwood. “Anyone we know?”

Louis pushed their red front door shut.

“Looks like we got something in the post.”

“Mysterious envelopes left on a doorstep? Where have I seen that technique before?” Harry wrapped his arms around Louis’ stomach. Louis grinned and leaned back into him, warm kisses pressed behind his ear. “What is it?”

Louis ripped the top off and reached inside. He pulled out a thick packet of paper.

“Let’s see here,” he said, holding the packet in front of himself, squinting. “You should have brought me my glasses.”

“Old man,” Harry murmured into his messy hair, rubbing his nose over the tiny patch of gray that had popped up at Louis’ left temple.

Louis scoffed, “You’re definitely getting punished,” through his smile.

They scanned the typed cover letter, reading for five seconds before both gasped.

“Oh my God,” Louis whispered, his hands shaking and his mouth fallen open. “We were approved!” He whipped his head around to wail, “They picked us!”

“There will be babies in the house again!” Harry cried out over him, jumping up and down with Louis still in his arms. “Babies! Twins! Twin babies!”

Louis tossed the packet to the floor and turned to face Harry. They threw their arms around each other, laughing and sputtering non-words, their feet moving them back into their bedroom while their lips kissed whatever skin they could reach. They needed to take advantage of their alone time, as they would have very little of it in the near future.

They bumped into their bedroom doorway.

Harry blurted out, “How do you feel about the name Casper?”

Louis bit his neck.

“Is that a joke?”

“It could be shortened to Cas. Casey.” Harry pushed Louis’ pajama bottoms off. “Or Perry!”

“Nope.” Louis pecked his lips. “Sorry, my love. Not naming our child Casper.”

The backs of Harry’s thighs hit the mattress, a pout settling on his face.

“But Casper was the Friendly Ghost,” he protested, Louis guiding him onto his back. He pointed at his own ribs. “It’s how we met! It would be, like,” he panted for a moment, his shorts pulled off in record time, “in honour of how you wooed me.”

“Wooed you!?” Louis burst out laughing, planting a kiss on Harry’s hip. His eyes sparkled up at Harry’s pouting face. “Then should we use the name Aurora, Sleeping Beauty?”

Harry gasped and nodded, releasing a high pitched sigh, his smile lighting the neighborhood.

“Aurora could be shortened to Rory! What a perfect name and nickname combination!”

Louis groaned through a laugh, pressing his face into Harry’s stomach. He shucked his tank off, kissing up the black ink scrawled over Harry’s heaving ribs.

“What happened to you wanting to use the name Darcy, hm? How quickly you discarded poor Darcy for Princess Aurora. You snob.”

Harry’s fingers brushed over the left side of Louis’ chest, both sharing soft smiles.

“We have plenty of room for more.”

Louis looked down at his chest, Harry’s fingertips delicately tracing the names of their children, his wedding band shimmering at the end of his long fingers.

“Yeah, yeah, I guess you’re right,” Louis relented with an exasperated sigh. He laced their fingers together, Harry thumbing his nipple stud with their hands joined, both smiling in the most love-sick, gushing way. “We have plenty of room for more.”

 

One more Roy song to end on ;)