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Painting is a blind man's profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen. - Pablo Picasso

When he was nine, Louis' parents took him on a trip to Paris. He walked into the Orsay museum with three crayons in one hand – blue, red, green – and his father's palm in the other, big blue eyes full of wonder. The security guards almost made him cry.

Now the only thing he remembers about Paris is the Seine, a long, sinuous river with large arms that looked just about ready to swallow him whole and huge bridges of stone that weighed on its back, and this one painting.

It was of a girl. Louis didn't care much for girls when he saw her for the first time, but she wasn't like the others (didn’t cling, for one, or talk all shrill or insist that he kiss her lips, sticky with sugar). She seemed rebellious (it was her hair, red like a forest fire) and tired and just very beautiful. His father looked at him kind of wistfully when he stopped before the painting and asked, "Who is she?"

"She doesn't have a name, darling," his mother chirped, a warm hand at the back of his head.

"Doesn't everyone have a name?"

"She doesn't."

Louis saw the hesitance in her eyes - saw she could have said more, about how she was just a girl in a painting with red hair and a sheet pooling around her waist that someone has caught in this moment, that maybe the painter himself hadn't known anything about her but this, the vision of her spine and fair skin and braided hair, that it didn't really matter because the real person and the person in the painting weren't the same, that being immortal meant you could be nameless sometimes. She didn't.

She left Louis on a bench and said, "I'll come pick you up later," and when she did, Louis was still there, eyes softly tracing the basket chairs. She took his hand, and when they walked away he whispered goodbye and then Rousse , the syllables rolling on his tongue like a mix of sweets and soot, his first pigment.

That's how Louis got into painting – when he was nine, his parents took him to Paris, and he fell in love with a painting, thought, this is it .


Harry got into painting because he's pretty and gay and that's what pretty gay boys do. They do artsy stuff and flirt in coffee-shops and libraries and gossip between the thick wooden shelves. Harry didn't plan to fall in love with painting, but it happened anyway, because things never happen the way you want them to.

The first time he stepped into a class that smelled of turpentine and saw a blank canvas, his gut instinct was to run away. But he didn't - he never had that kind of self-preservation, anyway. He stepped forward and brushed his fingertips across the canvas and thought, this is not going to end well .

He started painting.  Liam told him not to - better to stick with music, stay safe - but Harry didn’t listen to him, signed up for a class and grabbed a brush and asked, “So how do you do that?” and he learned, he learned. It was like falling in love with the words in a textbook, slow and kind of painful but they say you learn by heart, and he did.

It's not a surprise when it doesn't, in fact, end well. He had been expecting it, but he'd like to think it was all worth-it, even though sometimes he isn't really sure.


Their first meeting – first everything, really – is pure feeling with the soft sweep of Louis's eyelashes against his cheek, a phantom, feathery sound. Louis is standing in front of his easel, brush in hand. Harry is on the other side of the room. He watches the curlicues of Louis's brush as he tries to guess what is appearing on the canvas. The day is fading behind them in pink-tinged orange, cut in squares like a Rothko painting. Harry takes a step forward.

"What are you painting?" Harry asks.

Louis startles; his head snaps up, and Harry thinks, color . Between layette blue and indigo, a few shards of gold and his own reflection.

"A copy of Rousse by Toulouse-Lautrec," Louis says. The French rolls easily off his tongue. "You know him?"

Harry nods. He's a bit disappointed – the boy didn't seem like the type to do copies.

"Can I see?" he asks. He's not sure he wants to - the impressionists were never really his thing, anyway - but he want to stand next to the boy, bask in the warmth Harry has a feeling he'll ooze.

"It isn't finished," Louis says as he angles his easel.

Harry steps in. Moving next to Louis feels like plunging into something, like grass drenched in sun or warm rain or the ocean. He looks at the painting. It’s still unfinished, as Louis said, but he’s done a lot of the background, basket chairs and the mess of a nineteenth century popular house. The colours are already there, too.

Harry doesn't really like these kinds of colours. They're too soft for him, too natural, too easy and grey and black and white and dull cream, golden, peach, half-colours. He sees the outline of a girl in the middle, her lithe body traced with a gentle hand and a caring pencil. He wonders what color she is – if it fits her, if she fits him.

Louis mistakes his silence for awe. "She's beautiful, isn't she?" he says, sounding entranced. He isn't asking for praise – Harry can see the girl in his eyes, as perfect as he undoubtedly thinks she is.

"She is," Harry lies.

He doesn't say, she isn't there , even though she isn't, not for him.

(It's their first meeting, feeling. The moon watches over them with motherly eyes, a bit disapproving because she knows the end of the story (she knows the end to all the stories). She looks like a dragon, stretched high and ivory in the coal black sky, and she knows destiny must play out, and she sings along, even though no one can hear.)


They walk out of the room together, flicking the light off, and they become friends, just like that. They touch without thinking twice about it, united as though they had been for years, and they laugh when everyone calls them a 'married couple', Harry's arm slung around Louis's shoulder, Louis's fingers tangled with his own. It feels like home.

(But even then, Harry sees them in splotches of colour, bright red and sunny yellow with electric blue dots, and Louis sees them with the tenderness of impressionist brushes, pastel clouds of anise and pale pink.)

Everything kind of fades away until it's just them, them, overwhelming, but they're blind, and they carry on with laughter spilling off their lips like waves, vomiting oceans. They look at each other with half-open eyes, trying not to rush anything but unable not too, because they're spontaneous and they're seventeen and there's a French poem that says that you aren't serious when you're seventeen.

They drive to the sea one week end. They don't really plan it – they're just out in the grass one afternoon, sprawled over each other, blissfully oblivious to what everyone else calls boundaries, and Harry says, "I want to paint the sea."

Louis looks at him and smiles, lightning-quick, before standing up. He holds out a hand to pull Harry up. "Let's go, then."

Harry laughs, a little puzzled. "What? To the sea?"

Louis shrugs. "Yeah. It's the weekend. We have two days. You can paint the sea."

There's a dangerous glint in his eye that says I want you to have everything , but his hand is outstretched and bears tiny marks, a scar between his middle and forefinger that he got when he was seven and tried to carve his initials into a tree, and spots of carmine on his palm.

Harry pulls himself up and tumbles against Louis's chest. Louis wraps his arms around him automatically. It's all heat, this day – the sun and their bodies and the sea calling them and their love, sugar and a false sense of eternity.

They laugh.

"Let's go," Louis repeats. Harry kisses the corner of his mouth, like he’s not asking for more.

They go.


They pack lightly. They wouldn't be good travellers, because they don't have any sense of how long and why , so they just throw things in their suitcases haphazardly: Harry's hair straightener that he used once and then vowed never to touch again, a few school books, a postcard with Gaudi's balconies, stray trousers and shirts and boxers. Louis lovingly piles the canvases in trunk of the car.

They take the longest way, and on the road they sing along to ABBA and Madonna and the Beatles and everything that comes on the radio, good or bad, pulling over to dance with their arms and burst into laughter. At noon they stop to eat, and it's all French fries and ketchup and silly smiles and 'look, this guy looks like a Matisse.'. At some point Louis reaches a hand to catch the nape of Harry's neck and licks the ketchup off his lips.

They kiss and it's no big deal; they don't care to know if they're friends or lovers. They're seventeen and it's enough, it really is, at least for them. They spend the rest of the trip with interlaced fingers on the car gear, and when they get to the sea they take their shirts off and they run. It's freezing but they love it anyway, kissing with chattering teeth.

Harry paints the sea at night, sneaking out of Louis's arms to set his easel in the sand, almost entirely naked. He feels free, more than he could have ever dreamed of being, and happy. He paints with ample gestures, like a maestro conducting a symphony, a quartet of reds and a solo of blue-green after a white silence. He smiles at the moon and adds her reflection in the middle, to thank her for her protection.

He knows Louis won't understand, won't get the beauty of what he paints, will frown at the colorcolorcolor , but it doesn't matter, not yet. He didn't know he would fall in love with painting, but he doesn't regret it, he thinks as he grazes the surface of the sea with his hand, reaching out to smudge the blue with precise fingers. There's precision in passion too, whatever Louis thinks.

When he slips back between the sheets, Louis stirs a bit, but Harry calms him with bird noises, gently cooing against his neck. "Go to sleep," he says, and the sand under his nails makes little creaking sounds. "I'll still be there in the morning." He shouldn’t make this kind of promise so easily, but he does.

They sleep like logs and wake up rested, full of this kind of peace that must be hoarded like a treasure and kept like a secret. They let the morning pass slowly; the lazy sun paints shapes that they don't understand on the naked skin of their backs. Louis complains about the sand in the bed and Harry laughs. They drag the sheets to the balcony and shake them out in the wind like a flimsy white sail.

It feels soft, intimate. They eat breakfast at noon, and it's good, jam on bread and their shiny greedy mouths, tea and toast and everything until they're too full to move. Louis kisses the orange pulp from Harry's lips; they hum a French song and mess up the lyrics, lips to lips, feeling young. They don't talk about painting.

Harry doesn't show the painting to Louis. He keeps the canvas near the bed, covered with a white sheet, and Louis doesn't ask to see it.


Louis' painting doesn't look like him. Louis is loud and brash, high raucous laughter and bright blue eyes. Harry sees all the colors from his own palette when he watches him, on his skin and in his heart, rooted deep in him. But he paints like he's faded and old, and as hard as he tries, Harry can't understand.

"Why do you paint like that?" he asks one morning as they're sitting on the wooden balcony, legs dangling in in the air, halfway between the sky and the sea. He doesn't want to wait for the question to turn dark and rotten, simmering in some nook underneath his skin like it's a secret, something to be ashamed of, something that could bring trouble.

"Like what?" Louis asks, his voice soft like smoke and white sunlight.

Harry searches the colors in the universe that surrounds them and points to the shutters of a house, remote in the horizon, pale lavender staining the gray wall. "Like that."

There's a protracted silence. Harry feels like Louis is a kite, string ready to bolt out of his hand and fly away.

"I don't know," he says. "I've always painted like that."

It's not really a reason, but it's better than nothing. Life goes on, and Harry holds on to Louis, closes his eyes and watches his laugh stretch in the silence, poignant red that he swears he'll never try to paint.


They’re sprawled on the floor, limbs entangled. Louis watches the curve of their necks, the full, rising flesh, the crescent black of Harry’s eyebrow and the soft roundness of his hip. Harry watches vague yellow and dark purple, swirling with black and red.

“You’re not soft,” Harry says, with the bravery only alcohol gives men.

I don’t know,” Louis answers. Harry knows how to read him sometimes, and catches the no flashing beneath his slanted eyelid.

“You’re not soft.”

Louis shrugs. Harry scrambles on his knees, and inches closer, closer . It shouldn’t be possible to get closer than they already are, but they manage somehow. Harry’s love crawls in Louis’s lap and worms its way inside, conspicuous and loud.

“I don’t understand,” Harry says, red blooming on his lips when he runs them over Louis’s stubble. Louis takes his head between his hands, fingers threaded at the base of his skull, and murmurs in his temple, “I know you don’t.”

He kisses the bridge of Harry’s nose, and Harry was wrong; he is soft, sometimes, when the night is low and full of fumes, bustling with klaxons. He glows dull amber like a Chinese lantern; his frame is ebony.

His lips slide across Harry’s as though by accident, and it’s the most wonderful thing how they slot together . There’s no other word for it: it’s the soft click of the pieces that fall together and reveal themselves in their hidden inevitability.

Harry has never felt so strongly how about his art is connected to every other before, but the night gives him this knowledge like a gift, to sweeten the taste of Louis's tongue against his: how, to painting, music can add itself, the soft click of their teeth and the rustling murmur of the night; how poems can ink half-said words in the undiscovered nooks of their jaws; how their entangled shadow can dangle at the frame of a window and draw back into the intimacy of a shared room next to the beach, sculpt itself in molded shades, disappearing with whooshes of air that sound like laughter; how an entire play can unravel itself in the silence; how castles can stand erect and regal in the sand next to their house and yield under the sea's siege.

Harry sighs, and he feels Louis's smile stretch against his lips, his eyelashes tickling his cheek. He draws back, chuckle ringing like pearls. They breathe, forehead to forehead. Louis's breath on Harry's skin draws soft paths.

"We should do something," Harry says, propping himself up with his hands.

Louis looks up at him, surprised. "What?"

Harry grins; in the half-darkness, he looks like one of these pagan deities from the time when there wasn't good or bad. He rummages through his suitcase for a few seconds, and when he comes back, he has a box in his hands. Louis recognizes it from the curvatures in the dark wood.

"Why do we need paint?" he asks.

"You'll see," Harry says, and he opens it almost reverently, fingers soft against the silver lock. Harry is as careful with his paint as he's careless with his paintings; it's a paradox that, like so many others that make Harry who he is, Louis will never be able to understand.

Harry looks up at him suddenly, and Louis catches his eyes, raw and full of unadulterated feeling , something that looks like love, unfiltered, brash and loud, with no secrets at all. He sucks in breath without really meaning to.

Harry opens a hand, and Louis leans into it without thinking, rests his cheek against Harry's palm, body open like a flower, almost lying on the floor. Harry looks down at him with heavy eyes full of darkness and want. Louis runs his tongue over the creases of Harry's palm and around his knuckles to taste the salt and the paint. He closes his eyes, wondering if he can taste colors that aren't his (he knows his by heart, he told Harry – he's been near them so much, licked them on his fingers, and there are specks of it on his cheeks and T-shirts, on the edge of his breakfast bowls and encrusted on his jewelry; painting and life aren't two separate things).

Harry feels a little regretful when he draws his hand back towards his chest. Louis lowers himself to the ground, cheek resting against the cool wooden floor, cold and familiar, almost like a home that smells of sea and youthful love.

Harry takes his shirt off. Louis watches as his torso emerges from under the cloth, pale and scrawny, ribs pushing a faint relief against the skin. He sighs, closes his eyes, smiles.

"Louis," Harry says, and it feels aimless, floating in the air like a vague blessing; and then, "Paint me."

Louis blinks.

Harry smiles. "Come on," he says and lays back on the floor, maneuvering a cushion under his head. Louis doesn't question the real meaning of it, the I want to understand and who are you ; his eyes are burning and blue, and Harry props himself on his elbows to pull him into a kiss, hand outstretched, balanced precariously. Louis cradles the back of his head and kisses him messily, with tongue and teeth.

"Paint me," Harry repeats, almost urgently, against the shell of Louis's ear, and what can Louis do but pick up a brush and breathe in the scent of his colors (because they're here, somewhere in this mess, and he knows that's what Harry wants).

"Yeah," he says, standing up. He comes back with his own box, messier, his regular brushes, pastel shades. "Yeah." He pushes the other one away with his foot, and Harry watches it slide away on the floor with something like fear.

With his eyes closed, Harry looks like a statue or a house, and Louis paints his eyelids first, paints the shutters closed, thick indigo sticking his eyelashes to his cheek. Dangerous , something says in his brain, but the paint fumes addle him, and he ignores it. Young love breathes fire , an old poem used to say.

Louis thinks about his perfect French girl that doesn't have a name. He found something of her in another, living girl, once. But she had a name, and her name was Eleanor, and she wasn't French and she wasn't silent and her hair wasn't red but she was beautiful. He loved her from afar, as much as you can love a dream (you can't).

Louis thinks about restraint, about not pushing his palm against Harry's heartbeat, fast and fluttering, but he can't find any reason not to. Harry's heartbeat spikes like a racecar.

"Shh," Louis whispers before he can help himself, a small murmur that falls out of his lips, unchecked. Harry falls limp under his palm. "Yeah."

He takes Harry's pants off, too, but leaves the underwear on. There's so much skin he can't really decide what to start with, and for a moment he just stares at the endless planes of white, white skin, unable to find a beginning. How hard it must be for writers, he thinks with the silly wonder of youth, to find the the first word, and the page to put it on?

The first stroke feels like heaven with an edge of hell, and Harry tenses up when the brush touches his skin, body going taut and tight, zinging. Louis chuckles a little, brushes his knuckles against Harry's flank. "Yeah," he says, even though this moment doesn't need words. "Yeah, me too."

Harry turns his head to hide a little smile against his shoulder, and their eyes catch, almost by chance. There should be a sound for the moment when their eyes meet, the identical black of their twin pupils melting together until they're one. The brush falls softly out of Louis's fingers, and maybe they notice but they don't say anything about it, Louis's palm sliding wetly over Harry's skin. Harry sucks in breath.

It's red, of course – they aren't original, and they aren't beautiful, except maybe like that, with colors smeared on their skins and the claroscuro tacking shadows where their bodies end. Harry drags his fingers through the paint, and it seeps into the lines of his skin, tracing those small scars that would hurt if they held blood. But it's a pale red; it looks ill and it looks soft, water-cut blood, paint softened with milk. It's from Louis's box.

And after that it's the storm: it's sugary purple bruises between the bones of Harry's shoulder, where the skin is tight and stretched; it's cold yellow tracing his ribs, lush green in the cut of his hips, dipping low; it's drops of pink hanging patiently from his eyelashes and blue on his lips, as though he were cold from having swam too much in this ambiguous sea. Louis paints until Harry doesn't look like himself but like one of his own paintings: silent, stern-mouthed and maybe swallowing a smile, with calm limbs verging on winter.

They don't know what time it is when Louis says, "Okay," and it means I'm finished – hours don't mean anything to them, even though they should, because far too much between the seconds they decide not to care for, arbitrary like only teenagers in love can be.

Harry sits up, unfolding his long torso. He doesn't look like himself, and he doesn't smile, maybe because he knows it wouldn't fit who Louis has made him. He piles his knees up, one over the other, bony beryl knees clanging. Closes his eyes. Breathes. The air is damp with a tang of acrylic and salt. The sound of the sea rolls on his tongue.

He smiles when he opens his eyes, pink falling in fat, round drops along his cheeks. His teeth are too white, stark against the paint. He moves closer, reaches careful fingertips to tangle them in the wisps of hair at Louis's nape, damp with sweat. He pulls him closer for a kiss, sealing their lips blue.

"Do you love me better now?" he whispers against Louis's lips, teeth stained aquamarine.

Louis looks at him for a long moment, trailing spider fingers in the hollows between his ribs. The silence rings clear, speaking of old lovers who have sit there before them, elbows hard against the wooden floor.

"I need a cigarette," he says eventually and sits up, goes to open the window wider, get more air into his lungs that feel empty.

Harry sighs softly and lets himself fall back on the floor with a thud, arms spread; he looks like the lovechild of a French painter drunk with sun and oranges and Andy Warhol, Louis thinks, trying not to look at him, and he lets his laughter fizzle on his tongue.


They'll never paint together, that's for sure, but they don't think that it's all there is to them. Call them fools – and maybe that’s what they are, but they're young enough and there's a sea rumbling under the soles of their feet, and that calls for a little hope, for a little crazy optimism and wanting to shout at the wind that you're the master of the world. Others have done it before.

Hope is a fickle thing, anyway – it grows well here because the sand is golden, but in other places it's a little harder, and they don't have enough flesh to start their own plantation. Harry loses his faith twelve times a day, and recovers it almost as often. He slips into a shower with heavy shoulders and multicoloured sinews, only to be joined by Louis, bare, and watch him sink to his knees. There’s God , Harry thinks when he looks up, a little nonsensically.

There's as much hurting as there are apologies. Maybe it's the way they work, they tell themselves when the day is clement; maybe it's the way they don't, when it's not.

But they wanted to paint the sea, and here they are, and they painted. There were omelettes with herbs that they shared on the edge of the wooden counter and winced when stray grains of sand creaked between their teeth, even though they had been so careful. There were kisses snuck in-between dives in the sea, and quiet love, and loud love, and interlaced fingers that only disentangled when it was the time to harbor brushes and try to capture the waves, at this special time when someone decides to dip the sun into the water and set it on fire.

They're serene as they pile their suitcases back into the car, their skins darker and dirtier, clammy with sweat, but their canvases aren't blank anymore and their paintboxes are empty and their lips are swollen, and really, you'd have to be crazy to ask for more.


Louis comes back to Rousse two days after they’re back from the beach. He's still tanned, a black white man, his lips startlingly red; Harry would paint him if he wasn't too afraid and if he didn't know how sweet the crevices of his skin taste on his tongue.

"You can't let it rest a little?" he asks.

Louis turns sharply to look at him. The sea should have made him more mellow, like it has Harry, softened his contours and blurred his edges, but instead everything clashes on him, the electric blue of his eyes and the strands that fall on his forehead. They look like each other's paintings.

"Why would I do that?" he asks, sounding incredulous.

Harry feels stupid, like a scorned mistress. "I don't know." He shrugs to fill the void where it would be so tempting to say, I don't like her .

Louis smiles, an invisible string pulling the corners of his mouth and baring his teeth. "Don't be silly, Haz," he laughs, reaching over to ruffle Harry's hair, fingertips gray with graphite.

Harry goes to a party that night with Zayn and Liam. The feeling of the alcohol burning the back of his tongue is like an old friend, and he likes it, the grinding and the gyrating, always has. In the end, though, he can't take Zayn's fingers playing with the lobe of Liam's ear and Liam's quiet laugh that he can hear even through the pounding music. He doesn't tell them he's leaving, even though he should and Liam is probably going to send him a panicked text as soon as he realizes he's gone.

He goes back to his dorm and sets an easel mechanically, one he'd brought to the seaside and hasn't unfolded yet, dried sand still sticking to the legs. Slashing colors on the canvas feels strange, like he's earned something, like he's a real artist with an aching heart and hard-knuckled fingers. He isn't sure if he likes himself better.

The next week, he decides it isn't good, and he paints over it, once, twice, ten times, until there are no traces of red, tells himself that if someone finds it one day it will be like a tree, that you need to cut through to count the years in old heartaches.


Come the day of the harvest, all is well that ends well: they get their ribboned diplomas and a pat on the cheek, get sent on their merry ways, should they be what they should be – and if they shouldn't, well, they've done the best they can now, haven't they?

They sing with acoustic guitars on the school stairs and forget it as soon as they've left, sparing a last glance for the romanticism. They dive in the shallow fountain and hurt their heads and hug each other and scream, and Niall takes a girl by the waist and swings her towards him and kisses her and they whoop, and everything is wonderful. They're going to be painters in London and America and the world, the world is waiting for them. Of course it is.

The adrenalin falls back down, of course, but as they take internships and work shitty jobs they still believe, and their love is just as strong, if it ever was in the first place. Harry and Louis live together in that dingy little apartment in the West End; all their cutlery comes from their mothers, and they sleep on a mattress on the floor, curled around each other, as though the myth were true and the only things artists needed to live were love and water.

They don't argue a lot, mostly because they don't see each other much, only at night, and then there's only time to fall in each other's arms and sleep, so intertwined that even they themselves couldn't tell their limbs apart. They don't mind; there are nine lives lined up after this one, at least, and there'll be time then, no doubt.

They say things to each other sometimes in passing, when they meet in the kitchen at the crack of dawn and look at each other with blind eyes, meaningless things like 'I love you' and 'I'll see you tonight.' It's funny how they ended together, everyone says it. Even Liam and Zayn didn't expect them to stick with it. ("You’re not good together," Liam had said one night, after Zayn had sweet-talked him into drinking a shot that had devolved into five, his voice raw and raspy.)

Then there are other nights, when Louis fights the sleep and curls his fingers around Harry's forearms, backs him into the door and kisses the living daylights out of him, the nights when Harry bites his lip and laughs around his tongue, smirk sparking between their mouths.

Louis always paints in the afternoon, scrubbed clean and smelling of lavender shampoo, as the pastel shades invade the sky; Harry wakes up at three a.m. and paints for eight hours straight, the raw dawn bleeding colors on his canvases. They keep their paintings in separate rooms, don't ask for feedback from one or another – the few times they have served as a lesson.

There's a lazy Sunday in the middle of this, when they're sprawled over each other on the couch, limbs haphazard and mouths slack with smoke. Harry laughs at a joke Louis hasn't made and pushes his shoulders into Louis's collarbones the slightest bit to make him tip over and bend to kiss the Cupid's bow of Harry's mouth, and it's amazing how they work like that, like dominoes, one gesture bringing the other, like rhythmic gymnasts or synchronized swimmers. Harry's mouth tastes of acrylic and the hummus they had for lunch.

"You've been painting?"

"Yeah," Harry says, and because he can (that'll be the death of him, the things he can do but shouldn't): "This one's Cadmium yellow. You like it?"

"Not really," Louis says, making a face like even the word is sour in his mouth.

Harry sighs. He feels cold all of a sudden, even where he is, buried deep in Louis's body (and sometimes when they're sitting like this he's afraid that he won't be able to stand up again, that his heart has grown backwards through his spine and into Louis's stomach). He wraps his arms around himself.

They're silent for a moment. Louis takes a sip of his tea. It must be cold by now, Harry thinks.

"That's not going to be a problem, is it?" Louis asks. Even without looking at him, Harry can feel that he's looking by the window, where the horizon stretches and flees (they were lucky to get this apartment; they're artists, so it has a shitty everything and a great view over the London roofs, and every night is like a deleted scene from Mary Poppins, hopping on the chimneys with a black-faced chimney-sweeper). He doesn't look – he doesn't need more colors confusing him.

"What? The painting?"

"Yes," Louis says, rubbing an absent thumb over Harry's hipbone. Harry represses a shudder.

It is , Harry wants to say, and he suspects Louis wants to too. Of course it's going to be a problem.

"No, of course not," he says instead. "Why would it be?" Why not wait for it to blow in our faces?

"Yeah, you're right." Louis smiles sweetly (Louis doesn't smile sweetly).

He yawns, and it feels fake. It probably isn't, though - they work so much, the both of them. "I'm tired," he says, but he doesn't move. Harry doesn't either. He's comfortable here, as long as he doesn't think about how so much of his life is spent wishing that there wasn't a next , only a now .

He nudges Harry's waist, and Harry takes the hint, rolling over easily until he's straddling Louis's hips and Louis's still leaning half-against the arm of the couch, one of his hands sliding on Harry's waist, slipping over the bare skin. Harry chuckles, still a little high. Louis looks serious, the way he almost never does.

He cups Harry's cheek, fingers grazing his jaw, and Harry's laughter dies in his throat. He hates moments, and this, this ties his intestines into a knot, and he doesn't want that. Louis doesn't listen to Harry's eyes, though, keeps looking at him, and a smile crooks his mouth, half happy and half something else that isn't exactly sad, says, "You're kind of beautiful."

Harry buries his head in the crook of Louis's shoulder. "No," he groans, and bites the juicy skin lightly so that it'll mark just a little, just enough to make Louis remember him. "Don't say that. It sounds like you're breaking up with me."

It's like lightning, the way Louis's hands crawl up his spine and curl at the nape of his neck, the way Louis sits up and kisses him, off-center, mumbles, "No, no. I don't – I'm not -"

It's half the pot talking, at least, but it's nice all the same, Louis pressed up all against him, tense and taut and saying that he's still there, that he won't leave, that he’s staying. They don't say it to each other often enough, Harry thinks as he kisses back, laughing, rocking slightly with Louis's franticness. "I know, Lou. Just – you know?"

Louis looks at him with big eyes that say he's not sure he does. It doesn't matter, not now – at least, Harry won't let it.

"I just love you so much," Louis says in the sweat-damp skin of Harry's neck, running his tongue over the sinews.

Harry sighs. He can feel the sunset behind him and its colors raining over them, drenching them in orange and soft pink. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I know."

He kisses Louis, then – it's the only thing he knows how to do, trace the seam of Louis's lips with his tongue and push his hips down and make love to him, isn't that what the romantics say, but Harry's not a romantic, never has been, didn't have the time before he fell head over heels in love with a boy too big for him. Some days it's like the Louis-shaped hole in his chest is bigger than his body, like his love eats him whole and only leaves crumbs, like nothing exists outside of it. It's kind of a terrible thing.


Harry gets a job as an assistant in an art gallery downtown. It's a nice gig – doesn't pay much, but they've lived on less, and Louis works part-time at a coffee-shop when he isn't taking new classes or volunteering as a nude model or whatever it is he does to help with his painting, so they manage. They eat ramen more often than not, but it's not like they're very picky food-wise, and they invite themselves over to Liam (who's already gotten himself a real job, the lucky bastard) and Zayn's when they’re too lazy or too broke to do the grocery shopping. Niall is there half the time, already eating. Zayn bats his hands away when he gets his fingers near what he's making, and Liam curls an arm around Zayn's waist and plasters himself against his back, still blushing a little when Zayn reclines against his chest and the boys rib them about it.

It's a nice dynamic, all in all, doesn't work too badly, Harry thinks. It's not like it can last forever, because at some point the ramen will grow boring, but until then it's pretty much heaven when Harry doesn't think about the things that Louis and him will have to talk about one day: family and painting and dealing with the canvases they don't want to look at, the still-unfinished Rousse Harry goes to check on sometimes. (He undrapes her like a shy, pale-skinned virgin, only to find the small of her back painted soft pink and the rest of her still white, etched in light pencil. It frustrates him, for some reason.)

The finances have been low this week, so they give the boys a call. Louis exaggerates when he says that 'they haven't seen each other in forever', since two weeks ago is hardly forever (though for them it kind of is), but Liam doesn't call him out on it, only pretend-sighs and says he'll make tandoori chicken (or at least promise Zayn sexual favors if he does it, but that he doesn't say; they just know by experience that Liam is much more devious than he seems).

"Cheers, good lad," Louis says and laughs uproariously at nothing. Harry can almost hear Liam's amused chuckle at the other end of the phone. Of course they've missed each other. Harry didn't think it was possible for friendship to be this deep, this tight , before he met them.

Niall is already sitting at the table when they get there, sipping a beer moodily. Liam laughingly explains that Zayn banned him from the kitchen because he wouldn't stop picking at the food.

"I was hungry!" Niall protests, and they laugh, because it's a well-known fact that Niall's always hungry.

Harry wraps him in a hug and Niall melts into it, smile shining hard against Harry's shoulder.

"Missed you, you twat," he whispers tightly into his neck, and Harry's heart feels a little bit like it's going to burst. He smiles at Louis over Niall's head, inviting him to join the cuddle.

He does, and eventually Liam does too, and that's when how Zayn finds them when he steps into the living-room, spatula in hand.

"I see we've moved into polyamory, then," he deadpans, and that makes laughter erupt out of them like lava, spilling joyfully and making them shake apart in a tangle of boyish limbs. Niall slings a hand around Zayn's shoulder as he staggers away, bending to lick at the spatula.

"God," Zayn groans, waving the spatula out of Niall’s reach and then slapping his cheek with it, leaving a streak of sauce there and ignoring Niall's affronted shriek. "You're unbearable." It would almost be convincing if there wasn't a tiny, fond smile curling at the edge of his mouth.

They eat the same way they always do: loudly, throwing bits of food at each other and ignoring Liam's desperate pleas for them to stop. They can all see the placating hand Zayn lays on Liam's knee and the way he goes quiet and pliant after that, even going as far as leaning over to peck Zayn's lips quickly (he must have had a little bit to drink, otherwise he wouldn't have done that), blushing when the others coo at him.

Niall tells them about Eleanor, the girl he kissed after graduation. They all knew he was infatuated with her because he wouldn't stop talking about her all their last year, but he was never bold enough to actually go up to her. For all of his bravado, Niall's actually kind of quiet when it comes to love, and let's face it, he's a total sap. Niall hits Harry on the arm when he says as much, but he doesn't deny it.

Anyway, apparently they're still dating and very happy with that. Niall tells him about how she's a prospective model, and Harry smirks at that but doesn't make the dirty joke they'd all been waiting for. The boys mock him for being tamed, looking sideways at Louis. Harry smiles and maybe blushes a little – but it's dark, you really couldn't tell.

Eleanor is also sweet and funny and seventeen kinds of wonderful, if Niall is anything to go by (which he really isn't, considering his previous dating choice was a hardcore stamp collector who wouldn't stop going on about how Niall needed to dye his hair blue). Needless to say, they need to meet this Eleanor before they decide to give their blessing.

"We need to meet her," Harry says sternly. "I can't believe we haven't yet, actually!"

Niall has the good grace to look a little sheepish – it's obvious that he wanted to keep her to himself for a little while, which doesn't make much sense since his four best friends are all in relationships, and with each other to boot, but then, love isn't known to be the most logical thing.

"Yeah, I know. We've all been busy since graduation, yeah?" he says, and Harry nods. He'll let him off the hook for this once. "Anyway, I'm throwing a party in a week or so, on Sunday, she'll be there. You guys'll come too, right?"

They all agree on that ("And bring booze. You can never have enough booze. Oh, and Harry, can ya make your special brownies, mate? The last ones were epic ."), and the dinner concludes with a few more tales of their jobs and everyday lives. It's a little sad they don't get to see each other as much as they used too, but Harry guesses it's part of becoming an adult, whatever that means. He isn't sure he's happy about it, but it's not something he needs to worry about tonight, sitting half on Louis's lap with his palm pressed hot against his side.

They say their goodbyes with bone-crushing hugs and fierce murmurs, promising to see each other again as soon as possible. Harry feels full, sated, like he hasn't in a long time.

"Thanks," he says against the side of Zayn's neck, and Zayn says, "Yeah, yeah," and opens his arms faux-reluctantly to let them all in, a five-headed hydra of love. Harry breathes deeply, as though he were making stock. Maybe he is. Probably.

Louis and he are walking back to the apartment, slightly buzzed from the cheap wine, Harry's arm wrapped around Louis's shoulder, when Louis asks, "Do you want to be famous?"

It's a city night, ripe with lights and whirring noises, loud and brash; it took them some time to get used to that, but they've learned to feel part of it, part of the life that’s there, swirling past. "I don't know," he says. "I haven't really thought about that. Have you?"

"Yeah," Louis says simply.

"You want that, then? Like, the money and all?"

"No," Louis says, brushing it aside with a careless hand. "I want – the rest, you know? The people . I want people listening to me – to my paintings. Does that make sense?"

Harry's going to answer, It does , because it does, kind of, and you gotta focus on what you understand, right? but Louis interrupts him. "Anyway, it's just a fantasy."

Harry reaches for his hand and squeezes it, feeling strangely brave. "No," he says, a little fervently, "it's not. I understand."

"I just don't want my paintings to stay there against the wall at the apartment, you know?" Louis goes on, and Harry wishes his face wasn't half-hidden in the dark, wishes he could see if he looks dreamy or wistful, what this all means .

"Yeah," he says, because it's the only thing he can say, but it just isn't the same thing for him. It's all – his painting is bursting and hurricanes and colors , and it's a little crazy and he loves it and it's fun. If it makes it out of the apartment he'll be happy, of course he will, but it'd be enough for him if Louis looks at one of his paintings one day and just gets it. Even if he doesn't ( don't pretend that it won't be a problem, Harold ), a handful of people, the people he loves, like what he does is already a treasure. The rest is superfluous.

"Yeah," he says anyway, "I get it."

He'll get it, someday. He will. They have their whole life to get to know each other, after all.


They go to Niall's party, because it's been too long since they've been to a real party that didn't involve talking about art and keeping their arms stuck against their sides, holding back the flailing gestures and the enthusiasm that usually makes their eyes shine a little too brightly. And there’ll be booze.

"It'll be great," Louis says as Harry complains that they could maybe take advantage of the time to sleep , like they haven't done in, oh, three months, "there'll be booze and all our friends from school are coming. Even Ed!" he adds in an attempt to wipe the exaggerated frown off Harry's face.

Harry laughs, leans on him, feeling a little giddy like he always does when he's this close to Louis, even after all this time, breathing him in, and says, "Yeah, yeah, okay."

Louis kisses him soundly on the cheek. "Yay!" he says a little too softly, and he pets Harry's hair, burying his fingers in the curls. "Good lad, Haz."

Harry tries to keep the smile on the tip of his tongue. Some of it peeks out, but if Louis notices, he doesn't tell. He curls an arm around Harry's waist and drags him to the bathroom, tells him to make himself "look nice for the ladies," and that makes Harry laugh, because everything Louis says makes Harry laugh when it doesn't make him choke, like his love is a big lump stuck somewhere in his throat.

The party doesn't disappoint. There is booze, as promised, rather a lot of it, and all of their friends are there, even Stan, who left for Australia the minute they graduated (Louis wraps him in a tight hug and mocks his tan). Ed is drinking in a corner, and Harry drifts towards him from habit, smiling when Ed sees him and hands him a beer. It feels good to be there. Harry doesn't regret coming, after all. He hadn't realized he needed it this much, this feeling of being grounded , surrounded by people he knows and loves, that he can act freely around, but it's as though the tension is bleeding out of him, his shoulders slumping slightly. Ed smiles obliquely at him. He's a musician; he knows. Because it's him, Harry allows himself to close his eyes for a few seconds, to imagine anise green dripping off his wrists and his shoulder-blades. His bones feel looser into his skin.

"Cheers," Ed says.

Harry glances down at the guitar resting against the wall behind him and back up at his sheepish-looking face. He smiles. "Cheers."

They bump bottles, and some of the beer spills over on Harry's hand. He wipes it on his jeans, and he laughs, he laughs. He feels so free, like he hasn’t in a long time. Ed tells him about music and Harry tells him about painting, and between the lines they talk about love, where it's led them and where it's still going. Ed is like a collector, and it's always a joy to hear him narrate his little anecdotes, things only he would notice about pebbles and birds, and Harry listens, raptured, lets himself drown in the careful beauty. They don't have the same eyes, he thinks, and yet it isn't a problem, it still works; and that gives him hope, and maybe it shouldn't, maybe he shouldn't make himself believe but he does, hope for Louis and him to get to that understanding of each other, confusion laced with acceptance and awe.

Harry leaves Ed to go mingle, finds Liam and Zayn half-dancing in the middle of the room, stumbling against a table, Zayn's lips pressed to the pulse point on Liam's neck. He basks in their warmth for a few seconds, brushes light fingers on the small of Liam's back in this way they've had since school, probably too close, to tell him, I'm here, I love you . He finds Louis too, holding court, Stan and Nick and Danielle and other people Harry remembers from school around him, laughing, and ducks in to place a quick kiss on Louis's lips. Louis's eyes are shining. The strength of Harry’s love for him strikes Harry like lightning, sharp electricity zinging through his body.

The kitchen is silent and cool when he walks in, and he lets out a little sigh. He hadn't realized how hot it was out there, and he grabs a beer in the fridge before hopping onto the counter and reclining against the cold tile, closing his eyes. God, parties are exhausting.

There is still a tray of Harry's special brownies on the table, and Harry smiles, pops one in his mouth. Niall is right – they're really good. Harry's never been bad at cooking – his mother taught him the basic stuff – but living with Louis has made him a hundred times more capable, given that the boy can't heat peas by himself without making the kitchen explode. Harry lets out a little chuckle at the thought – and there was that gas leak, too, even though that wasn't really funny, but–

"Hey," says someone, startling him.

He looks up sharply, only to find a girl he doesn't know washing her hands in the sink. She's pretty, in an average sort of way, but then, it's been a long time since Harry has really looked ; he can't really tell.

"Hi," he says.

She turns around, absently rubbing a wet sponge at the hem of her top. "Fucking beer," she says. “Shit is fucking sticky.”

"You need help there?" he asks, but he doesn't really want to move. He's good here, comfortable, and the pot is doing wonders to his mood – not that it was bad before, anyway.

"Nah, I’m okay," she answers, kind of absently.

He hmms his assent, and they fall back into a comfortable silence. She rubs at the cloth a little more before apparently deciding she's had enough. Harry decides he likes her – she's not really beautiful but he doesn't need that to like people, not like Louis does. He likes her round face and brown eyes and curvy glossy hair, her frayed jeans. She looks like a nice person, a person it would be easy to hang out with – Harry's type of people.

"Can I get one of those?" she asks, gesturing at the brownies.

He pushes the tray towards her. "Yeah, 'course." She takes one and bites into it, laughing a little when some of the crumbs fall into her cleavage and fishing them out haphazardly. "I made them," he says for no real reason.

That makes her look back up at him, looking interested. "Oh, you're Harry then?"

"The one and only," he answers easily, taking a swig of his beer, even though there are probably at least three other Harrys at the party.

"Niall told me all about you guys," she says, smiling a little like people tend to do when they talk about the five of them, like they're some sort of endearing wonder. It's still strange to be instantaneously tied to someone like that, but it's not really unpleasant.

"Oh, you're Eleanor, right?" he asks. He can get why Niall likes her. It actually makes perfect sense – they're different, but the easy type of different, the type that complement each other. He can see her laughing at his jokes and him closing warm palms on her hips, kissing with laughing mouths and sparkling eyes.

"Yeah," she says, smiling a little, and then: "Fuck, these brownies are good , man."

They laugh. She holds out a hand for him to shake, and he uses it to pull her towards him, wrap her in a hug. "Nice to meet you," she chuckles into his shoulder.

"Welcome to the family, babe," he says, stroking her hair a little. She has beautiful hair. Some of this is probably the pot talking, he thinks, because she looks like she's shining, but there's a lot of him there too, the physical closeness and the easy endearments. They are family, after all.

"We were supposed to meet before," he says as she hops up on the counter beside him, a glass of what looks like punch in her hand, "but we got a bit sidetracked. 'S'been a long time since we've seen everyone, I guess."

"No, I get it," she says. "Besides, I'm sure I would've met you guys one day or another – Niall won't shut up about you all."

"You met Liam and Zayn, then?"

"Kind of, introduced myself earlier, but we didn't get a chance to talk."

"Mm. You'll see, they're great lads," he says, and then, because he feels like he has to: "Niall's a great lad, too."

She smiles in her punch, soft and private. "Don't I know it."

There's a moment of silence, not really uneasy but a little too charged with emotion for this far into the night, in a kitchen smelling of chocolate and alcohol, until she adds, "And great in the sack, too."

Harry makes a faux-horrified face. "I did not need to know that. Urgh, mental images. I'll never look at him the same way again."

She snorts. "Yeah, well, don't look at him for too long, cowboy. He's mine."

He laughs but he can feel it in her voice, the real, genuine affection beneath the friendly ribbing, and it makes something swell near his breastbone. Love can do that to you. It's a great thing, all things considered, when it doesn't hurt too much.

"Don't worry, I'm all set."

It hits him as he says it, even laughing, that he is – and it happens sometimes, he realizes that he has someone standing with him, even if they don't see each other that much, even if it isn't perfect. He has someone who makes the kitchen smell like Yorkshire tea when he wakes up, someone who annoys him with the sound of typing in bed at two a.m., someone who kisses his neck and tells him, "I'm going to fuck you into the mattress tonight," like he’s talking about groceries. It makes a pleased flush rise up his neck.

"Yeah, me too," Eleanor says, and he doesn't know what she's answering anymore but it doesn't really matter, to be honest.

"When did you meet Niall, then?" he asks, because he hasn't heard much of that story, or at least, if he has, he has too much alcohol in his system to remember. Besides, he needs to change the subject, or there is a chance his heart will succeed in its attempts to leap out of his chest and that probably wouldn't be a good thing.

(And he likes love stories.)

She looks half-embarrassed and half-pleased, the way Harry liked girls to look like when that was still on the agenda, color high on her cheeks. "Well, I was in the same uni as you guys, right," she says, and she's looking down (she's pretty, isn't she?), "and I used to have that stupid crush on Louis."

Harry makes a little sound at that, half-surprised and half-amused. Back in school it feels like everything was them and there was nothing beyond their sheer togetherness. They were so young, so wrapped up in each other. The memories hit Harry in the chest like a moving kaleidoscope, Louis under one of the trees with his hand in Harry's hair, Harry pushing Louis down in the mattress in the dorm, all the breakfasts and the showers and the morning kisses and this spitfire love that burned, burned, burned.

"Really?" he says. He was going for laughing, but in the end it comes out more like a squeak, a little strangled. If she notices, she doesn't say anything. He's grateful. Yeah, she's a nice girl. She'll fit right in.

"Yeah. And then I saw the two of you – I don't know, I think it was around Christmas or something, and you were in the – you know, the big park behind the–"

"Yeah, I know."

"Right, and you were being silly and playing with snowballs or something – God, this is creepy, isn't it? - and anyway, I saw how you two looked at each other and I though 'There's no way I can get past that,' no way I can compete, you know?"

The silence falls back on them softly, like drapes. She's smiling a little wistfully, and she has gloss on her lips but it's half-gone. He wonders if someone kissed it off of her lips (Niall) or if it's on the rim of a beer bottle somewhere in the room, probably stuck between two cushions on the couch or something.

"And then–" she continues, "but it's not that simple, you know? It's not like I stopped seeing Louis and I started seeing Niall, because for a while I stuck to the idea of Louis and I'd already seen Niall for a while, but it's like, God. Let me use a really shitty metaphor, okay? Don't judge me."

He chuckles, makes quick work of a cross over his chest. "Cross my heart and hope to die."

"Louis was like a really shiny star–"

Harry barks a quick laugh. "Sorry, sorry," he says, and he gestures for her to go on.

She smiles back. "I told you it was lame. Anyway, so Niall was the sun, and I'm so fucking glad I found him, yadda yadda, end of story." She downs the other half of her glass, cheeks flaming.

"Hm." He smiles, amused. "And that kiss by the fountain was pretty epic, right?"

She snorts. "You're one to talk about epic. You and Louis are like star-crossed lovers, like Rimbaud and Verlaine or something..."

Harry laughs – he's never thought about them like that, never thought of them at all beyond the specifics of what he lives everyday, the raspy stubble on Louis's skin when he hasn't shaved in a few days, their fights, their private jokes. It's strange to see their relationship through someone else's eyes, someone who was there during the whole story, a step back, in periphery.

"I'd rather not be too much like them," he says, because he knows how epic love stories end. They end , for one: always too soon, always tragically, and maybe it's selfish and childish and whatever else people decide to say about them, but he never wants his love let go.

"Going well, then?" she asks, probably because she's polite (hasn't hung out with Niall for too long, he thinks), and he goes to answer, "Yes, I–" and then can't get another word out, can't say, "We're perfect," because he keeps thinking about Cadmium yellow and the fucking painting in the office next to their bedroom, painted up to the small of her back.

"I–" He rubs his eyes. He feels exhausted all of a sudden, probably because they've been here all night and his ass is sore from sitting too long, and it must be the comedown, too. "I just wish I got it."

"What?" she asks gently, and he startles – he'd forgotten there were people you had to explain things to, people who didn't get what you wanted to say half a sentence before you said it.

"Painting. His painting. I wish I got it. It's such – it’s something so important, so fucking huge, and we just don't get each other – how does that happen? You've seen us, right?"

She nods. There's a chocolate crumb at the edge of her mouth, and he wants to brush it, but he's afraid she'll take it as a come-on. There's music filtering from under the door, too, like a reminder that they're not alone, that there's still a party going on outside. Louis is probably doing his stupid 'pat the dog, screw the lightbulb' dance, and for a second Harry wants to leave and plaster himself against his back and everything else, but he doesn't.

"The rest is so perfect – we're great for each other, he completes me and I love him, I do, but – just, I. Yeah. Fuck."

He keeps his head down for a bleary second, metal heat weighing on the back of his neck until it's replaced by a warm hand, damp with condensation. "You're fine, darling," Eleanor says in his ear, and that's when he realizes he's crying. It's a little bit humiliating.

"God," he rasps, still reeling. "Don't know why I'm spouting my life story at you, sorry."

She smiles softly, hair falling on her forehead, still rubbing soothing circles on his back with her thumb/her thumb rubbing soothing circles on his back, "I don't mind," she says a little absently, before she hops off the counter to go dig two more beers in the fridge.

"You know what we should do?" she asks, laughing a little. Niall really did score with her, Harry tells himself. They've all been kind of lucky in love, so far. She hands him a beer. "We should get drunk."

He takes it from her hand, knocks it against hers and laughs. "Cheers to that," he says.

After that it's easier, the heartache soothed, still red-raw and tender but put to rest for a little while. They laugh together, and Harry learns things about Eleanor, how she loves music and modeling is not her passion but she likes it, likes being loved and appreciated and has no qualms about it, how Niall is a terrible person because he's always tempting her with food, even during sex ("I don't want to hear about that." "No, but seriously. We were in the middle of fucking, and he goes, ‘And a burger with that?’ This guy is unbelievable . Lucky I like him so much."), how she thinks he's going to ask her to move in soon and she'll probably say yes.

In return, he tells her about Louis, about his painting and about the shapes he likes, the circles and the squares and the multiples ways they can fit together, about cerise red and sea green and Picasso. He tells her that before he met Louis he was nothing, a baby with no future and no plans, and it's funny (except for how it's really not) how it's Louis that got him into painting and still they can't paint together, they're so dysfunctional about it. He tells her that Louis is the most beautiful person he's ever seen and laughs at the silliest things and abhors carrots for a strange reason ("Which is stupid. Carrots are really good, and they could help with his language, he swears all the time.").

It's like a four-person conversation, like Niall and Louis are watching over their shoulders, silent like the both of them never are, smiling fondly in their hair. When they step through the door, laughing uproariously, their arms slung around each other, it feels less like a surprise than like the final pieces of the puzzle, the last cogs falling into place.

Eleanor and Harry have the same gesture – reaching out to say, "Come on, kiss me," and they laugh at each other, ducking their heads.

"I see you've met El, then," Niall says, and Harry watches as Eleanor looks up at him as though he's eaten the freaking sun and it radiated through him, golden beams drenching them all. He wonders if he looks at Louis the same way. Probably.

"Yeah, we had a bit of a chat, 't'was nice."

Niall swells with pride. He laughs; his eyes crinkle at the corners. "Yeah, she's pretty great, right?" he says softly. He's always been the romantic, the one who stayed behind and swung the girl over to kiss her with clanging teeth on graduation day, shyness be damned.

"Stop it ," Eleanor chides, hitting his forearm lightly. They're so in love it's probably nauseating; between the six of them, they make a good group of lovelorn fools – but it's the best kind of people there are.

Louis wraps his arms around Harry from behind, presses a tiny kiss on the tip of his ear. "You're pretty," he says to Eleanor with something in his eyes Harry decides to ignore.

She grins sideways at Harry, chuckles. "Thanks. You're not so bad yourself."

"Oi, Tomlinson, no moves on my girlfriend, stick with your own," Niall jumps in, proprietary as always. Eleanor just reclines back into his arms.

They make conversation for a while, this easy banter that seems to come naturally when they're together. Eleanor fits in seamlessly, even gets Louis's weird sense of humor and his and Harry's instinctive relationship. Liam and Zayn join them for a bit, but it's one of those nights where they can't see anything but each other, and unlike Harry and Louis who have no qualms about exhibiting their love, they prefer to spend those moments in private. They say goodbye and promise to get lunch together as soon as possible, "with the missus." Niall smiles at Eleanor's protests.

It's a good night, all in all – it ends with them all cleaning the apartment at five a.m., commenting on who was there and who wasn't, who's changed, whose baby made her look more beautiful and who kind of rocks at radio shows. Harry and Louis are too tired and still too tipsy to go back to their place, so they sleep on Niall's couch, tangled in each other.

"Lucky I've brought an overnight bag," Harry mumbles into Louis's neck as they lay in the dark, limbs entangled.

"Mm," Louis says. "You were never too good at those. Remember the beach?" he asks, his chest rumbling with soft laughter.

"Oh, shut up," Harry answers, hitting his chest feebly and smiling as Louis makes an over-the-top noise of outrage, as always. "You were just as bad."

"Yeah," Louis answers against Harry's hair, and then they're gone, drifting together into the restful darkness, "yeah, just as bad."


It's only one or two weeks after when Louis comes back from one of his numerous jobs (yeah, so Harry can't always keep track, sue him) positively beaming . No sooner is he in the living-room door that he's on Harry, kissing him like his life depends on it. Harry kisses back, laughing a little when their teeth collide and slipping his tongue into Louis' mouth with the ease that only practice can give. They've both breathing heavily when Harry finally breaks the kiss, hanging onto Louis by his forearms.

"Not that I mind," he laughs, "but what exactly brought this on?"

Louis laughs in the crook of his neck, then pulls away. "I found this amazing painter," he explains avidly, hands flying. "I was talking with this girl from the class, and she told me about him, so I looked him up on the train, and his work is amazing, you're going to love it."

He drags Harry to the computer by the hand, and Harry follows, laughing a little at Louis's enthusiasm. It turns out the painter, Daniel Richter, has been around for a while, even exhibited once in London. Harry vaguely remembers hearing his name once or twice, dropped in a conversation where too many come up, and he doesn't remember forgetting it as he tends to forget these kinds of things, letting it slip easily into the void. He can't reconcile that with the tiny, precisely drawn silhouettes, vivid emerald green and coral against the stark snow.

"Fuck, Lou," he whispers, and bends, wishes he could see it for real, smell the oil and the wood.

Louis and he rarely agree on art. Their taste isn't the same for music either (Louis tends to like popular pop music, whereas Harry prefers his obscure indie bands and old rock legends), but they manage to reconcile them. Painting is the exception, as always. Louis can't get past the old masters, the blooming water lilies, the shiny knights standing in fields of flowers, and most of the time he has trouble accepting that there other things out there, other types of beauty. Harry finds the old ones a little boring – he prefers the sharpness of the new designs, the outlandishness, the squares and cubes and strings and mirrors and lights.

And he won't lie, it's kind of a moment, being here together, bent over the computer, looking in awe at this tiny picture of two people they don't know, kneeling in the snow, embracing. There's something beautiful and heart-wrenching about it, and because beauty makes Harry an optimist, he finds himself hoping that there won't be any more bumps (not that there have been many so far, but you never know), that they're set for life, together and counting.

"It's beautiful, right?" Louis says, squeezing Harry's hand.

"Yeah," Harry says, and if his voice breaks, they don't mention it. "How's it called?"

" Strangers of Comfort ," Louis answers, a little dreamily. "It's a nice title," he says, smiling when Harry nods wordlessly. "I hope he's going to exhibit again in London soon. I would die to see him."

Harry turns Louis around to press a kiss against his mouth, another, and then says, "Show me more," and Louis says yes, and there's no more Rousse , no more clouds, nothing but them and beauty, soft and bruising at the same time, and blood running in their veins like paint, a Eurostar whizzing against their fragile bones. Harry doesn't think he could ask for more. He couldn't. He couldn't.

And that night as they lie with dew-damp shiny skin, lips red from having sunk their teeth into the fruits the reaping of love has gifted them with, Harry feels something let loose in his chest, a rising sea or an avalanche, and he says, “I love you.” It's not the first time he’s said it, and it won’t be the last, but he feels Louis's heartbeat flutter under his palm and this painting is still burning the inside of his eyelids like a promise. This means something, Harry thinks – we mean something.

He forgets about it, of course. He's young and he's like that, and the next morning he makes an omelette and coffee for Louis and him and stashes Daniel Richter in the 'beautiful things' drawer in his brain. That's when you know a moment is really special, he thinks – when you can let it go, watch it drift away with fond eyes and keep the memory of it like a jewel, shiny and flawed. He kisses Louis with yolk on his teeth, and it's a morning like any other, their special brand of perfect.

He actually doesn't think about it until later, much later, when Simon, his boss at the gallery, tells him that they're going to exhibit a German artist called Daniel Richter and could he please not plan anything that evening, they're going to need him.

"Oh, that's great! I love him!" he says, probably sounding too young. He feels giddy, excited like he always is when art comes to him, crosses the barriers and steps into the physical. He wants to share with everyone – the world – Louis.

"Glad to hear that," Simon says, sounding thoroughly uninterested. Harry doesn't mind – he's had time to get used to Simon's special brand of caring. He quite likes him, actually, and he's almost certain Simon likes him back.

"Can I bring someone?" Harry asks, almost bouncing at the thought of bringing Louis to see his new favorite artist. Louis hasn't shut up about him since he's discovered him, and it's been driving Harry a little mad.

"No," Simon says sternly, and it's like a bucket of ice-cold water being dumped on Harry, because when Simon says no, he means it. "It's a private party, and I don't need you to be distracted. No plus one this time, sorry," he says, not sounding sorry at all.

Harry does try everything. He asks to be removed from the event, but Simon tells him it's not gonna happen unless a) his mother dies or b) he quits, and he loves his mother and he needs the money kind of desperately, so those two are kind of no-gos. He tries to tell Louis too. When he comes home that night he kisses him and opens his mouth but nothing comes out, and it's the stupidest thing. Saying he doesn't want to hurt him would be so cowardly. He doesn’t tell him. Maybe Louis won't notice, he thinks to himself. Maybe he won't make the connection, and it'll all go away.

Harry's used to this, used to pretending things don't exist until they're right in front of his nose, good at pretending they aren't rotten until the damage spreads. It's not the best method. It's lazy and it isn’t not noble, but fuck, he's human. He would try to mend himself but there are other things to mend for now, and he always tells himself later, later, it'll be fine until then.

But of course it doesn't go away. The minute the posters go up Louis won't stop talking about it, and sometimes Harry snaps at him without meaning to, and his heart breaks as he watches Louis look back at him startled and hurt. He goes to him, kisses him and soothes him, strokes patient fingers on the side of his neck, but it's not enough.

He invents excuses for himself –  going together wouldn't have been a good thing, anyway. They're better when their painting doesn't overlap (but he can't ignore the way they fight more these days, about who gets the office to paint, which colors are whose, silly things that cut and sting), and besides, besides, it's just another of Louis's silly dreams. He'll have forgotten about it until then; he'll have moved on.

He doesn't.

Come the days when Harry has to bring his work home, and he feels so guilty for working on the exhibition with Louis in the next room, reading a book, his cup of tea precariously balanced on the arm of the sofa. But he sucks it up, bites over the guilt and the unease and goes on with his life, because it's not like he can do anything, anyway. It's not like he can find a way around it.

Louis shows him new works by Richter, and Harry doesn't dare say he already knows them by heart, has even seen some of them in person. There's an untitled with a white woman lost in greenery, her hair drawn in careful lines; there's Winterreise 3 , a rough-sounding name for other mountains sprinkled with snow, unable to put out the fire of lava creatures that run beneath the skies (and wasn't Louis saying something about that the other day? "I didn't think there were so many ways to paint mountains," with stars in his eyes, looking like a fucking kid); there's The Entertainus , this strange fantasy of red and white, again, rock and prehistory melting into each other in the white darkness. When Harry can't take the guilt, he drowns himself in this, in the colors, and when he comes out he feels guiltier still. It's a vicious circle. (Their love is, too, sometimes.)

Because Harry's life sometimes is like a television series, Louis finds out the night of the exhibition. Harry goes, feeling jittery; he doesn't enjoy it as much as he should but tries to anyway, gets addresses and cards and everything he's supposed to get, smiles pretty for the ladies, even slips his arm around one or two faceless waists snug in shiny sequined dresses getting steadily drunker on champagne.

The paintings are beautiful, of course, and Daniel is nothing short of fascinating (but then, Harry always thinks painters are fascinating. He told Louis once, cross-legged on a dirty mattress in a temporary apartment with a bowl of Cheetos on his knees and Louis's taste still pregnant on his tongue. "It's just – they have all these paintings in their heads, you know? All the colors and the smells and the canvases and the titles, right there, and you can't see it. It's like opera singers. When you see them in the street you think they're the next-door middle-aged woman who loves her cats a little bit too much, and then she's belting out Madame Butterfly and you can't breathe and nothing in the world exists but her. It's like a transformation. It's amazing," he said, waving his hands in the air, and Louis laughed and kissed his knuckles, one by one, and then he licked Harry's fingers into his mouth and he ate him whole), but all Harry can think is I wish Louis were here . It's sappy but it's true, so fucking true.

He feels sour when he comes home, worn-out and anonymous and defeated. It's three in the morning and the sun is peeking red over the buildings, crashing against the concrete and the asphalt, meshing diluted crimson into their threads. He's a little drunk, and he's cold, and he's got a stomachache floating in his belly, hitting his bowels every now and then.

And then there's Louis, standing behind the door when he comes in, looking incensed, and none of that matters, because if this isn't a trainwreck Harry doesn't know what is. Even looking at Louis, red-eyed and bleary, breaks Harry's heart.

He tries to get a word in before it all breaks down, explain, maybe, do something, "I–"

"I can't believe you would do that to me," Louis says, and there are so many things there, betrayal and anger and hurt and disappointment, Harry's head hurts. He wants to weep.

"I don't–"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I thought–" What did he think? "I thought you were going to be mad," he finishes lamely, but that isn't it. That's not why he didn't tell Louis. Fuck, he doesn't even remember why he didn't; it all sounds so stupid now.

"You knew how much I wanted to go," Louis plows on, and he's right, Harry would do the same thing, but fuck if it doesn't rip out the muscles in Harry's chest, leaves his ribcage a battlefield, a bloody mess –

"I know, I know , I just -"

"You just what, Harry? Fuck, I thought you knew me," he says, and there's disbelief now, shining frozen in his eyes. They've been together for so long and friends for more time still; they know everything there is to know about each other. Harry can't let him say that.

"I know you," he says. It comes out defensive, like he's the one picking the fight. Harry wants to curse someone for this, all of this, but he only finds himself to blame.

"Then what?" Louis says, tears shining at the corner of his eyes, throwing his hands in the air, voice verging on hysterical. "Then what, Harry? You wanted to hurt me, is that it?"

Harry can't help the nervous, frantic laugh that bubbles out of his lips. "Why would I want that?"

"I don't fucking know, that's the problem."

"Look, just let me – Simon said there was going to be an exhibit, right, and that I couldn't bring anyone, and I didn't tell you because you know, you know how we are with painting, I didn't want–"

Louis wrenches his arm out of Harry's grip. "I don’t know. How are we, Harry?"

Harry wants to say, I can't be the only one who saw it , and he's certain that Louis knows it too until he isn't, because lots of things are being shaken right now and why not certitudes, after all, why not.

There's silence hanging over them, like a Damocles's sword. Nonsensically, Harry feels like it might fall and break the bound between them, set them free of each other. Harry doesn't think he's ever been afraid of freedom before.

"You know ," he says. (That's something he hates about Louis [he doesn't have any feelings about Louis that aren't love or hate. They've always been too extreme, maybe that's what Liam meant,] the way his eyes get when he's angry, black taking over and only leaving a thin ribbon of small cerulean behind.)

"I don't," Louis says, lips barely moving through his poker face. He should have been an actor, not a painter. "Do explain, Harry."

"You paint faces," Harry says, mouth running wild all the things never said, '"you paint things and silhouettes and fucking faces and I don't. That's the problem. I paint colors and I know you don't like that, and I – I just–"

"You think you can tell me what to paint?" Louis almost yells, and he's livid, angry and untamable. "You think because you work in a fancy gallery and because you've sold a few more paintings than I have, because you've met fucking Daniel Richter, you're better than me?"

This is so ugly. This is so, so ugly. Harry feels like spitting on the ground and giving up, and he has to remind himself that life doesn't happen like that, that he loves Louis too much, too deeply and with too much fucking faith to let him go. (Louis is the kid he would've met at four, laughing tiny kittenish laughs with dried tears on his cheeks and scraped knees, his pockets full of pebbles. He's the kid with the bike that would've invited him – curly-haired, blue-eyed Harry Styles, the pride and joy of his mother – to the river to make ricochets. He's the kid in the story, if there was a story, but there is, even if it's not the same one. Harry still thinks they missed each other by nothing, a second, that they could've been best friends from the crib, growing into lovers, as you do.)

"No, you got it all wrong, that's not what I meant, I–"

"Oh, really ," Louis snarls (he's too good at this, being angry. Harry wonders what – who – taught him, and he wants to kill them, overcome with an irrational hatred). "Then fucking tell me , Harry!" he yells, and Harry startles – if they were in a movie the windows would probably shake but it's real life; the neighbors will come over and complain. Love is such a fucking bitch, Harry thinks, and here it is, the promised anger, slipping onto his shoulders like an old coat, unfolding over his chest.

"Are you fucking blind? All you care about is your stupid redhead, and I care about painting, it's my fucking life, and I can't go on with you not understanding, don't you get that?" he screams like his lungs are made of plastic, like he's not hurting, red and swollen and raw. His heart scrambles for a silver lining.

"Fuck you, Harry. I love you, but you're making it so fucking difficult," he rasps, and again, music hasn't done it better, heartache, "so fucking difficult–"

"I just – I want to paint you, but –"

And there's the stumbling over his feet, the falling into Louis only to bounce off his chest, the scraping his nails over Louis's chest. There's the tears, there's the crying, all that happens too, of course. (Nothing could ever go wrong with them, until it did.)

but you're never going to see what I see, you're never going to see how beautiful I find you, and I can't

Words. He's never been good with words. He has brushes, and even those he's not too good with.

"If I draw your face into a cube, you're going to hate me," he says, instead of all the other things he could've said that would probably have made more sense. "And I find you so beautiful, you have no idea, but I don't get your lavender and Delacroix bores me, fuck, fuck, fuck–"

There are kisses lost there, lost on the edge of a jaw and against the corner of a mouth, there's fury and there's Louis's face that Harry can't read, all these haunting things that are here still.

Harry doesn't know when they've walked, but they're in the office, white sheets on easels like ghosts behind them, and Harry's anger is a supernova, and Louis's is a tsunami, and they're catastrophes, natural disasters running into each other at the speed of lights, they're magnificent –

"What do you want, then? You want to break up, that's it?"

Louis may have whispered the words or he may have yelled them, but it sounds like breaking crystal, like breaking a teenage heart.

"Why don't you try to find a solution, instead of fucking jumping on me like I'm guilty?"

"You are guilty."

"It's back to that, then?"

"You fucking knew and you lied to me; sorry if it's a bit of a hard pill to swallow," Louis sneers (all of them are aimless blows, but they find a target. They're vicious like that, imprint blue-purple-yellow-red bruises in the soft flesh, drawing pink from beneath).

Harry could probably pinpoint it – the moment when he feels the sheet slide onto the floor, sees it in Louis's eyes, immediately drawn to her like she's his lover, like she's more important than everything else, like he can't take his eyes off of her, can't bear to not look at her for a second when she's unraveled. He can't control the anger, the jealousy (he'll take all the excuses, later: I was drunk and I didn't know and do you know how much I love him, how fucking much I wish he looked at me this way? And he always ignores it when people tell him he does, he does look at you this way. That's the hardest for painters, not being able to see themselves through other people's eyes).

He doesn't hold back when he turns around and slashes her throat with the cutting edge of the keys that he dug out of his pocket, white-knuckled, enraged. When he'll think about it, after, he'll feel guilty for killing her from behind, and he’ll say that it was her fault for never turning around, even if he knows.

Silence, no screams.

Louis turns to Harry; behind him, a strip of canvas is hanging. Harry's fingers itch to fix it (fix it, fix it, fucking fix it), but he doesn't. Maybe if he doesn't move this'll all have been a dream, he thinks hazily, through the blur of his unshed tears, a migraine buzzing at the back of his head.

(But that only happens in dreams, wouldn't someone say that, wishful thinking, baby boy?)

"Get out," Louis says ( killed my sister and let her out cold and you said you loved me , couldn't that be a song, one of those tragic love songs that make you hear in the musicals you watch fondly on New Year's eve?).


"Get out. Get out, get the fuck out or I'll kill you."

He won't, of course, he won't kill anyone tonight, but Harry leaves anyway. It's one battle lost, but it feels like losing all the battles, and the armor and the sword too, even the shield.

Harry goes out, goes as far as the doormat before the cold bites his neck, hard, and he falls, hitting his back against the door.

Get out, get out, get out – the words are still ringing in his ears, and all he can think is, okay, stop yelling, I'm gone.

I'm gone.


Of course it doesn't end like that.

There's angry sex, Louis's hands slipping on Harry's body and ripping him apart; there is Harry kissing Louis like he wants to hurt (and he wants to, sometimes). There are the grueling talks that edge far into the night with a desperate edge of 'How can we fix it,' because they don't want to let go, they won't, they won't. There are more fights, about colors and about dishes and groceries and love. There is Rousse still injured in the office they never go into anymore, an old wound turning gangrenous without them doing anything about it.

There are voices breaking; vodka with Liam and telling all their problems like it's going to fix them; Harry talking to Eleanor and Louis getting irrationally jealous. There is Louis asking that Harry quit and Harry not quitting. More kisses. More tears.

It's nothing that everyone hasn't lived before them, the famous emotional roller-coaster, but they would've done without it. It seems like now the cat is out of the bag, there is no way to force it back in, and they scramble to make things right but never succeed.

Then there's the yielding. There's a moment one morning at breakfast when Louis's breath hitches, and Harry knows what he's going to say before he says it, he knows , but he doesn't stop him. "I think we should break up."

Harry doesn't say anything. Louis is brave, has always been brave, braver, but Harry isn't. He can't say yes or he feels like he'll shatter into tiny pieces and roll onto the ground like a broken glass.

Louis is the one to move out, because Harry can't, won't, couldn't. He takes all his stuff, takes all that held him in the tiny apartment, and maybe Harry should've moved out because this is like being robbed of your vital organs and not being able to do anything about it. It's horrible and painful and nothing will ever be right again. Louis takes his CDs and Rousse and half of the cutlery and some of the things they bought together. He says meaningless things: "See you later," and "We're still friends," and "Don't listen to what the others say" (because of course they say things, but the worst is really the looks , the way they look at you, I'm sorrysorrysorry and Poor baby and I told you so ).

The day he takes his key and leaves for good, Harry makes himself tea (not Yorkshire), sits down on the couch, and sets to healing.

Epilogue – eight years later

It's a nice exhibit to be stopped mid-laughter into.

There's something to bite down into when you get your breath back, the blooming colors and the light that reverberates on the golden wood panelling. There are crystals, too – Daniel has always been an original, but it's nice anyway, a little onirical. He says it tells a story about immortality, something Harry's probably too young to understand. Harry doesn't feel young anymore.

"I saw light, so I came in," he hears someone say, laughing. It’s a given that he recognizes the voice.

Of course you came in, he thinks, and then – you saw light, huh? His arms ache for a familiar figure to wrap themselves around, so he goes, keeps his hands to himself but doesn't resist leaning his head against Louis's shoulder. It won't mean anything if Louis doesn't want it to, nothing more than this body is an old friend of mine . It is. It really is.

"You like it?" he asks.

"It's beautiful," Louis answers. Harry doesn't need to open his eyes to see his smile, soft and intimate, the one he only smiles when the situation deserves it, when he's alone with someone.

"Yeah, I think so too. The mountains."

"And all this snow..."

They could probably pretend to talk about expressionism, about technique and brush work and what particular oil Daniel used, but they don't. It's too early or too late for that; they know each other too much, they're still strangers.

I like the title, too,” Harry says, pushing a little. “Strangers Of Comfort.

“It’s nice,” Louis smiles.

Harry grabs a glass of something with an olive in it on a passing tray. He hands it to Louis, watches him take a sip, does the same thing and sets it down on the floor. He probably shouldn't. The wood will probably stain, but it's made for that, wood, for the burns and the scars, so it's not really a big deal.

They've always been good at not saying anything, at talking with their bodies and their eyes, with painting. They look serene, Harry thinks, and laces their fingers before he can think better of it.

"Hi," he says, voice a little high (it could be a joke it Louis wanted it to be, could be funny), squeezing Louis's fingers a little, "I'm Harry Styles."

Louis hides a smile in Harry's curls. "Yeah," he says, and squeezes back.