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Learning to Breathe

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"Niall was right."

"Hmm?" Harry glances over, distracted from his sing-a-long to a song Louis doesn't recognize. It's from one of Harry's mixes though (he's got one in every slot of Louis' disc changer by now), so no surprise there. Louis thinks it maybe sounds like Gotye though.

They've been on the road for about a half hour now, headed home for the week to spend Christmas with their families.

"Your voice."

Harry snaps his mouth closed, blushing.

Louis smiles and brings his focus back to the road. "How come you never showed me that before?"

Harry shakes his head and laughs, clearly embarrassed. "Shut up."

Louis grows serious then and grabs Harry's hand across the console, "I'm serious. Keep singing?"

He's not really sure how he practically grew up with Harry and never knew he could sing like that.

It's never something he's had to wonder about before - that there might be things he doesn't know about his best friend - and he's not sure if the discovery of that unsettles or excites him.

Harry shuffles until he's leaning toward Louis, head knocking into his shoulder softly before settling there.

"You should just listen to this one, actually. It's quite good."

And so he does. And Harry's right.

//

About two more hours into their drive they hit an angry stretch of dark sky, heading straight into a thunderstorm. And Louis finds himself gnawing the inside of his cheek raw, muscles growing restless.

"Is it hurting?"

"Huh?" His eyes snap to Harry, "Oh."

Louis lets the inside of his cheek go, tonguing over the raw skin as he realizes what Harry's asking. He's a little surprised that he remembers; that conversation seems like a lifetime ago now. The familiar ache in his knee is there, a deep throb down in the mended muscle, as it always is when it rains, but Louis usually does his best to ignore it.

"Yeah," he answers softly, "Nothing I can't handle." He smiles at Harry to reassure him, but Harry still looks concerned. Louis watches him from the corner of his eye as he twists in his seat and starts rummaging through the the backseat.

"What are you doing?"

Harry returns a few seconds later with two paracetemol nestled in his palm. Louis eyes the two white pills and the corner of his lip turns up. Harry must've packed them, because he certainly hadn't.

"Thanks, babe," he murmurs softly, nicking Harry's water bottle and swallowing the pills gratefully. Harry is strangely silent in the passenger seat. When Louis looks over he sees him playing with the hem of his t-shirt, a small, private smile on his lips.

They stop at a petrol station thirty minutes later. Harry goes inside to pay and while Louis waits, Harry's phone goes off with a text from his mum asking if they're close.

'about an hour to go x' he types back for him, knowing he won't mind.

His heart skips a little when, after closing the messages out, he sees Harry's weather app opened for their route home. He hasn't touched his mobile once since they got on the road, so Louis figures he must have been checking it before they even left Essex.

Louis smiles to himself and when he looks up, he's greeted with the sight of Harry making his way back to the car with an armful of snacks and drinks.

Louis steps out of the car to meet him, feeling warm despite the subzero temperature.

Harry eyes him curiously when Louis reaches out to tug him by the wrist and pull him forward. Harry opens his mouth to speak, but stops when Louis leans in and kisses him twice; once on the cheek, and then on the lips, before letting him go.

Harry looks a little dazed, biting his lip, and Louis just ducks his head down and smiles, turning away to fuel up while Harry gets back in the car.

They sit in comfortable silence during the last hour. The rain is gone and the painkillers have done their job, which he tells Harry when he asks how he feels again for the thousandth time. It somehow segues into a conversation about football.

"What would you have done if you couldn't have played anymore? After your accident?" The question startles Louis a little, but it seems like something that Harry has been waiting to ask for a while, maybe.

He clears his throat and tries to think back to the days after his wreck, tries to remember. A lot of weird thoughts were going on in his head around that time, feelings he didn't understand. And though most of them make sense now, he still doesn't know if he could explain it properly. It all seems so distant, like it was a lifetime ago.

"I dont know really. I guess I never told myself that it was even an option."

He sees Harry nod. He doesn't push Louis for more than that, and Louis wonders if Harry thinks he's made him uncomfortable. He reaches a hand over the console to intertwine their fingers, to reassure him that he hasn't.

"How did you get so bloody good?" Louis laughs abruptly, cutting the mood.

It's something he's wondered since Harry showed up at school, but hasn't ever asked. When Louis left Holmes Chapel, Harry wasn't exactly a prominent player on the Priestly team. He hardly got any playtime at all, actually. If Louis had allowed himself to think about Harry during those two years they were estranged, he doesn't think he would have pictured him still playing football. He'd always had his suspicions that Harry only tried out because of him anyway, so when he saw Harry's name on that scout list so many months ago, it had surprised him.

Harry laughs at the question, un-offended. His voice grows a little soft then, like he's choosing his next words carefully.

"I just...needed something to throw myself into? You know?"

There's a lot of weight behind the words, a lot of blank spaces that Louis can easily fill in for himself. He nods, and squeezes Harry's fingers.

"But, uh, yeah. Never actually thought i'd be playing at uni, if i'm honest."

Louis shoots him a disbelieving look.

"Suppose I have you to thank for that, actually," Harry smirks.

The mood has somehow grown playful without Louis noticing. He grins. "Me? I'm sure I don't know what you're referring to, babe."

"I happen to have it on good authority, though, don't I."

Louis quirks a brow, voice teasing, "Do you now?"

Harry grins and nods, "Yeah. I believe the words highly recommended were spoken."

Louis laughs sharply, head tossed back on the seat, all the while silently cursing his head coach.

"Well, considering your name was the only one I circled, I can see how Cowell might have gotten that impression."

Harry's mouth hangs open a little bit. Louis continues, "And, as it turns out, I was completely right about you. So, I just look like a genius, really."

Harry rolls his eyes fondly and pinches Louis in the side, causing him to yelp, resulting in the car swerving a little.

Harry makes a show of screaming for his life, but he's laughing as Louis rolls his eyes and straightens them out.

"If you get us killed before Christmas, my mum will murder me."

Harry snorts. "If we're already dead, she can't murder you."

"Well, then, she'd resurrect me, yell at me, then kill me, then pass me off to your mum to do the same."

Harry cackles, "And what's my punishment then?"

Louis snorts, "Nothing too terrible, I imagine. With that face."

He reaches over to pet the underside of Harry's jaw. Harry laughs and swats his hand away.

"Shut it."

"Quite the charmer, as well."

Harry rolls his eyes. "Yeah, hopefully charming enough to convince my mum to let you sleep over a few nights, yeah?"

Louis makes an amused sound. "And you tell me I can't go a week without sex."

He expects Harry to maybe pinch him again, but instead he just makes a small whining sound. Louis glances over, mouth slack.

"Oh, you're serious then?"

Harry blinks, pouts a little, then nods.

Louis shakes his head, "Alright babe, just make sure i'm not there when you ask her."

Harry's brows come together. "Why?"

"Your mum is scarier than mine."

"She is not!" Harry laughs.

Louis shoots him the best bemused look he can while still driving, but it falls a little short. He doesn't say anything else.

The car goes quiet for a moment, and Harry must notice his thoughts.

"You know she's not angry with you, right?"

Louis shrugs, uncomfortable. They haven't really talked about this. Louis never brought it up because he was afraid to find out how Harry's mum felt about what happened with his ex-girlfriend. Harry had told her everything, he knew that much, but he never pressed Harry for her reaction. Because he doesn't want to ever know for sure how upset Anne must have been with him, especially after he'd given her that unspoken promise to keep Harry's heart safe this time. He's not sure why Harry never brought it up or tried to talk about it. Maybe it just wasn't a big deal, or worth mentioning. But with Louis' luck, he doesn't want to bet on that.

"She's not. Honest. Like..." Harry takes a breath, and Louis holds his.

"I don't know if you two talked, the last time we went home or something, but when I told her about, you know - she wasn't angry at you."

Louis looks at him thoughtfully, and exhales a bit.

"She loves you, Lou. You know, I think she knew. Maybe. This whole time. Sort of what happened between you and me."

Louis nods a little without meaning to. Because he remembers that morning with Anne at the kitchen table, remembers her careful observations - how they were right on point.

"But she was so happy when I told her, Lou."

"What?"

"You know," he struggles, "That we were gonna be okay."

Louis shuts his eyes for a second and smiles a little, feeling a bit lighter.

Harry curls up and rests his head on top of Louis' arm across the console, wild curls tickling his skin.

"Okay," Louis concedes. "But that doesn't mean she's going to let me stay the night with you on Christmas eve."

Harry laughs, "You know that's not the only night we're going to be home, right?"

Louis rolls his eyes. "Yes. I'm aware. But that's the most important night. It's my birthday."

Harry kisses his arm. "I know."

"Well."

Harry fucking giggles. "Well..."

"Birthday sex, Curly!"

Harry cackles and lifts his head.

"Don't laugh. It's a tradition I am tragically robbed of every year."

"Just how have you survived this great tragedy for twenty whole years?" Harry intones.

Louis lifts his hand and pushes Harry's face away, but Harry only laughs and nuzzles back into his arm, and Louis lets him.

"Well, maybe this year will be different then."

Louis snorts, "Not likely. What are we going to do? Do it behind the Christmas tree?"

He thinks Harry laughs for the next several minutes straight. Eventually Louis can't contain his own smile, little crinkles forming around his eyes. And maybe it's the open road, or all of his and Harry's things mixed and shoved together in the back seat, or maybe the vibration of Harry's laughter on his skin, the sound of it. He's not sure what it is. Maybe it's all of it.

But Louis thinks if he could bottle up a feeling and keep it, this would be one he'd like to keep.

000

Jay almost knocks Louis over when they finally get to his house. The girls are still at school, their last official day before they're out for winter hols, so it's just Jay when they get there, and she'd been expecting them, but you wouldn't know it with the way she reacts when they walk through the front door. She nearly tackles Louis to the ground like she hasn't just talked to him a few hours ago.

When she finally pulls back, her eyes only linger on him for a second before they fall to Harry, who's been trailing behind sheepishly. Louis swears he sees the wetness in her eyes.

"Hello, darling," she says, and wraps Harry in a hug just as tight as the one she gave Louis. That familiar warm feeling he gets when he sees Harry with his family overtakes him again. And he suddenly remembers his mother's shaky, tearful sigh of relief when he'd called her and told her the news about Eleanor. It still gives him goosebumps when he thinks about it.

"And Harry?" she'd asked, "Does he know? Is he with you? Is he okay?"

That's when Louis had finally understood how happy his mum really was for him. For both of them.

He suddenly feels really, really happy to be home again. Especially here with Harry.

"How long do I get you for this time?" She asks, looking at both of them. Louis smiles and looks at Harry.

"Erm," Harry starts, "Until the 29th, I think."

"Oh? Got plans for New Years at school then?"

"Yeah," Louis interjects, "All the boys are going back then as well."

"Oh, right. Did Zayn make it home alright, then?"

"Yeah, he did," Louis says. Zayn's parents had moved to Bradford last year, so this was his first Christmas away from Holmes Chapel.

"Good, good. Well get in here," she leads them to the living room, "Sit down a minute. I'll go make you something to eat. I'm sure you're knackered from driving."

Louis nods. "Alright, just give me a mo. M'gonna go put my stuff in my room."

"Well, see if you can wrestle it away from your sister, first."

"What?" Louis squawks, head snapping back to look at his mother in disbelief.

Harry has to hide a laugh behind his hand.

"You gave Lottie my room?"

"Louis, you've been at uni for three years now, love."

"Two and a half," he argues, and glares at Harry when the younger boy snickers from behind him.

Jay sighs, exasperated already. "Well, i've already given it to her and I can't very well take it away, can I?"

Louis scoffs, "Maybe you can't, but I can."

"Oh, would you calm down. The couch in the den is perfectly nice."

Louis sputters, and Harry really can't hide his amusement now.

"The couch? Mum! You didn't even ask me," he whines, "Are you trying to get rid of me?"

It's a cheap trick and Jay actually laughs.

"Harry," She looks past her son's shoulder, "Would you sort your boyfriend out, dear? I've got to get dinner on."

Louis' mouth drops open like a fish and Jay laughs louder than before. He turns to look at Harry with a pout, silently asking for help.

Harry is biting the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing or smiling or both. He reaches out to grip Louis' shoulder and squeezes once.

"Whinging isn't cute, babe," he says, and smacks a small kiss to Louis' forehead, which sort of leads Louis to believe that Harry does think it's a little bit cute, but so not the point right now.

Louis can see his mother smiling fondly out of the corner of his eye, but ignores her in favor of giving Harry his best betrayed look.

"Oh, I see. Two against one."

"Oh, honestly," Jay laughs, and turns heel to walk into the kitchen.

Louis ignores her again. "You're supposed to be on my side, Haz."

Harry's amusement wanes a little then, but it's still there, just softer around his eyes.

"Always on your side," he says softly, to where only Louis can hear, and kisses his temple.

Louis sighs. He's not really angry. He's a little put off that he no longer has a room in his own childhood home to call his, but he's pretty much known that this was a losing battle since the conversation started.

"If it's really that big of a deal to you," Jay calls from the kitchen, "I'm sure Lottie wouldn't mind bunking with Fliss this week. If you ask nicely."

Louis huffs, "I'm not going to ask my little sister to borrow my own room. This is unjust. I refuse to sleep under this roof. I'll go where i'm wanted, thanks."

"Alright, dear" Jay says, unbothered, "Harry, love, would you call your mum and ask her when she wants to go to the shops? My hands are bit covered."

Louis would like to say he's surprised to see Harry's shit-eating grin on when he turns around to face him, but he's really really not.

"Yes ma'am," he answers pleasantly, eyes never leaving Louis'.

"Hey, roomie."

"Fine," Louis concedes, lifting his eyebrows and crossing his arms, trying not to smile, "But I'm waiting in the car while you ask her."

Harry just beams harder.

000

So Harry might have over-sold it a little. Because Louis somehow ends up getting assigned to Gemma's room, at least until she comes home on Christmas Eve in two days.

"You never open with your highest offer, Harold. Have I taught you nothing?"

Harry's frowning adorably, annoyed with himself as he helps Louis bring his things upstairs.

Louis' just thankful that Anne and Robin were out and Harry had to call her to ask if Louis could stay. No matter what Harry says, Louis still doesn't feel ready to see her again quite yet. He's not afraid. He just feels weirdly sensitive about disappointing her, about her thinking that he'd been careless with Harry's feelings again. Even though she's been told the truth of the situation, the insecurity still gnaws at him.

"I didn't mean to. I just got over-excited." His voice is slow and almost child-like.

Louis laughs and straddles Harry's thighs where he sits on top of Gemma's made up bed.

"Yeah?"

Harry squeezes him around the hips and pulls him closer, humming into his neck and kissing him there. Louis cards his fingers through Harry's curls and pulls until he's got their mouths slotted together.

He and Harry have practically been in each other's back pockets for the last two months. Harry rarely sleeps at his own flat anymore. It's always just them. And the boys, sometimes. As much as they both wanted to come home, they're now realizing that it means leaving their bubble for the first time since things got good again.

He knows they're both being a little too clingy with each other, and that a week sleeping apart wouldn't have killed them. It probably would have been healthy, even. But fuck it, Louis thinks, grinding down into Harry's lap. They're still in the honeymoon phase, as his mother called it a few weeks ago over the phone, and Louis' going to keep enjoying it.

He pulls at the hem of Harry's jumper, desperately trying to get it off.

"Mmm," Harry separates their mouths. "Not in here."

Before Louis can protest, Harry has picked him up off the bed and is physically carrying him across the hall to his own room. It really shouldn't turn Louis on as much as it does.

They fall onto the bed and Louis' fingers go straight to the buttons on Harry's jeans.

"Ugh," Harry groans, going to do the same for Louis, quickly getting him undone and pulling his cock free.

"Think you can be quick?" he asks against Louis' mouth, hitching his breath when Louis gets a hand around him. "Can't remember when mum said she'd be back."

"Shouldn't be a problem," Louis breathes and pulls Harry's lips back to his.

//

When Anne comes home a half hour later, there's no more avoiding it. She hugs Harry first, long and tight, while Louis hovers in the background.

When they break away, he half expects for her to greet him politely and then busy herself with something, but instead she makes a beeline straight for him as soon as she's out of Harry's arms. She smiles warmly and pulls him in.

"Good to see you," she murmurs.

He lets a breath go, hugging her back.

He sees Harry smile at them over Anne's shoulder, and the insecurity - it ebbs a little.

000

At Jay's insistence, they all end up going back over to Louis' house for dinner that night.

As he, Harry, Anne and Robin make their way inside, Louis feels Harry tug back on his wrist, making him pause in the doorframe. Louis tilts his head back and his breath hitches a little when he realizes how close they are.

"Are you nervous?" Harry murmurs.

Louis glances inside then. He sees his mum talking with Anne by the fireplace, warm smiles on both their faces. There's Lottie on the sofa, texting a mile a minute as Fliss tries to peek over her shoulder. Then he spots flashes of blonde hair as the twins bounce around the christmas tree excitedly (it looks like they've convinced Robin to help them hang up yet another wave of paper craft ornaments they made at school). Louis smiles.

He turns back to Harry. "I think i'm good," he says, and reaches down to take his hand.

Jay and Anne have little private smiles on their faces as their sons walk into the house, but Louis is focused on the rest of his family, the ones he hasn't seen yet. He's not worried what his little sisters might think. He knows they love him no matter what. He's actually excited, if he's honest, to finally bring Harry home to his family as his boyfriend.

Lottie spots them first. And okay, maybe Louis' a fraction nervous about her reaction, and wonders if he should maybe sleep with one eye open just to be safe.

Jay had dropped the hint that all the girls pretty much knew now, at least about Louis - though he's still not too sure how much the twins understand. He's not sure any of them know about him and Harry though. But when he catalogues the expression on Lottie's face, he notices that she doesn't look all that surprised to see their intertwined fingers, though her cheeks do go a little pink. He can sympathize. Harry isn't the easiest person in the world to get over.

Fliss is looking at them now as well with a little smirk on her face.

"So. Do I get a hug, or am I yesterday's news already?"

Lottie cracks a smile then and rolls her eyes while Fliss laughs and bounds up from the sofa to wrap her arms around his waist. Lottie follows shortly after.

"Missed you guys," he mumbles against the top of their blonde heads.

"We missed you too, Lou," Felicite replies, "Lottie stole your room, by the way."

"Fizz!" Lottie huffs, looking at Louis a bit guiltily before plopping back down on the couch.

Louis sighs mock-solemnly, "So i've heard. I guess I can never come home again, seeing as i've been pushed out of the nest," he raises his voice to make sure his mum hears the last part. He thinks she does, if the derisive eye roll he gets in response is anything to go by.

"No!" cries Phoebe, who's migrated over from hanging ornaments, flattening her tiny body against his legs and tilting her chin up until it rests on his hip and she's staring straight up at him. "You can share with me and Daisy, Lou."

"I can?" Louis asks, widening his eyes for effect.

She nods the best she can with her chin still plastered against him. "We will make room for you. You have to visit us or we will miss you too much."

Louis' heart melts, "Of course i'll visit you, silly head. I'm only joking. Did you ask Daisy if it's okay to share your room though?"

Phoebe's tiny eyebrows pull together. "She will not mind. But I will ask her."

Louis laughs softly, petting her head. When his eyes flick up to find Daisy, his heart stutters when he sees her being held by Harry over by the fireplace. She's got her tiny arms wrapped around his neck with her head resting on his shoulder, and he's gently swaying her from side to side as he makes small talk with Jay and his parents.

Something weird and warm twists in Louis' chest.

The same feeling hits him again when later that night Phoebe asks Harry to lift her up so she can put the star on the top of the tree, and he agrees excitedly even though she and Daisy have spent the last hour turning him into a human gift box - tape and ribbon wrapped around his body and tinsel stuck in his hair.

Years later, when he recalls the memory, he'll understand exactly what it meant, what it was. But for now, he just watches and lets himself feel.

000

Anne informs them at dinner that Harry's aunt, uncle and cousins are coming into town a day early and are staying until after Christmas. So Louis' time at Harry's is cut even more short from what it originally was. He'll most likely have to sleep on the den couch tomorrow night, and he's already dreading it.

'ill come sleep on it with you' Harry texts him.

Louis rolls his eyes and bites his lip, shifting down into the covers of Gemma's bed to get more comfortable. At first Louis had done it to be funny, going into Gemma's room instead of Harry's when they got back from dinner at his house earlier. He's sure that Anne and Robin don't really care about them sleeping in the same bed, but the look on Harry's face when Louis had kissed him goodnight and gone straight into Gemma's room was priceless. He'd been half-way out of her bed to go join Harry in his when his mobile had buzzed with a text message. Louis played along, because it's sort of fun to pretend to be sneaky. He wonders idly if this is what things would have been like if they'd gotten together when they were younger and still in college, but doesn't let the thought fester.

'yeah bc that will make it more comfortable'

'better than sleeping next to phillip. he snores.'

Louis snorts. He remembers Harry's younger cousin easily, though he's only met the kid once or twice. Very awkward. Very nasally.

'you snore x' he texts back, just to be a shit.

'i do not!'

'do so. quite terrible. we should probably take you to a specialist.'

':('

Louis laughs into the sheets, picturing Harry's face. His phone buzzes again.

'youre mean.'

Louis bites the inside of his cheek and bounds up from the bed, making his way across the hall to Harry's room. He thinks he vaguely hears his phone go off again from where he's left it buried in Gemma's covers, but doesn't go back for it.

He easily spots the shape of Harry underneath his duvet along with the dim glow of his mobile. He tiptoes over, pulls the covers back and climbs on top of him. Harry's little gasp of surprise turns into a moan when Louis leans down to kiss him.

"Am not," he says, once he's pulled back and pressed his forehead to Harry's.

Harry sighs and rests his hands on Louis' waist. They lay in silence for a minute, just breathing against each other. Louis' eyes grow heavy, and just as he's about to fall asleep, Harry says, "I think tonight went well."

"It did," Louis mumbles into his neck.

"Do you think I passed the parent test, then? Am I boyfriend material?"

Louis snorts.

"Hey, you don't know," he pouts, "I could be bad news."

Louis nuzzles his face into Harry's neck, and mumbles sleepily, "Sure you could, babe."

He's not trying to fall asleep, but Harry's fingertips are running down his sides unchecked and it's making his brain fuzzy.

"Do you think I got your mum's seal of approval, then?"

Louis snorts weakly. "If by seal of approval you mean 'clearly likes more than own son, probably wants to adopt' then yes."

"Oh, shut up."

"You're so mean to me. I don't know why I keep you."

Harry digs a long digit right beneath one of his ribs and he jerks, slipping off until he's laying flat against Harry's side.

"Don't. M'too tired to fight back."

Harry scoffs, and Louis notices that he sounds a bit tired too now.

"Shouldn't you be getting back to your assigned room? I snore, remember?"

"Hmm," he pets Harry's cheek blindly, eyelids too heavy to open again. "Love your snores."

Not entirely true. But he loves Harry, so, almost the same thing.

000

"That's quite enough, babe."

"But I like the way it tastes," Louis says.

"Yeah, but if you put anymore in there it won't set properly."

Louis huffs and Harry smiles, glancing at Louis' face from where he stands behind him, carefully monitoring the dessert Jay put him in charge of making. Or, well, the dessert Harry had been in charge of making. Jay won't exactly let Louis near an oven after a pretty bad cooking disaster the Christmas before, but Harry felt bad for him, so when Jay left to go get some more last minute ingredients from Tesco, he'd pulled Louis in front of him and instructed him on what to do.

"Okay. I'm going to add this in a little at a time and you stir counter-clockwise. No, other way," he giggles, reaching out to correct the motion of Louis' hand.

"This looks awful," Louis comments, lip curled in concentration.

"No it doesn't. S'how it's supposed to look."

He's only lying a little. Louis' actually doing a pretty good job. Harry pulls his hands back and places them on his own hips so Louis can really do it by himself. He keeps his head tucked over his shoulder though, watching.

"What if it's bad and no one wants to eat it?"

"I'll eat it," Harry says easily, and almost rolls his eyes at himself. But he really can't help it sometimes.

"You sap," Louis says, lifting the spoon covered in thick yellow cream to Harry's lips. Harry laughs and pushes it away, but not before some of the contents smear on his lips.

"You're supposed to cook it first."

Louis laughs, unabashed, "Oh. Oops. I was trying to be properly domestic."

Harry licks his lips and only wrinkles his nose a little, breathing a laugh against the side of Louis' head as the shorter boy starts stirring again.

He hears a soft clicking sound from beside him somewhere, and turns just in time to see Jay lowering her camera phone.

ltb xmas

"Aw, mum, really?" Louis complains. Harry just smiles and blushes a little, stepping back while Louis cleans his hands with a dishrag.

"Oh, shush, it's cute. You'll want to remember this stuff one day, you little nit."

Louis just shakes his head and smiles privately, but Harry catches it.

"We're done with the filling," Harry pipes up, "Should I pre-heat the oven?"

Jay's eyes snap away from her son and land on Harry. There's a small smile on her lips that Harry can't really read as she nods her head.

"Yeah, go on. I got enough to make another one tomorrow as well. Um, Lou, while Harry's doing that, can I talk to you for a moment, please?"

"Sure. It's all yours little chef," he quips, handing Harry the dishrag and following Jay out of the kitchen. Harry rolls his eyes and throws the rag over his shoulder.

He's just got the filling poured into the crust, waiting for the oven timer to go off when he hears Louis' raised voice from the living room. It's a bit muffled through the wall, but Harry can still make out little phrases as his voice grows louder and louder.

"-can't believe you, mum!..... -said you'd never let him come back here! and it's my birthday tomorrow. you said..... -no, this is bullshit!"

"Louis Tomlinson!"

Harry bites his lip and turns the oven off, dessert forgotten. He doesn't want to intrude or eavesdrop, but Louis sounds really upset. He drops the dishrag on the countertop and walks toward the mouth of the kitchen, but freezes when he hears his name, spoken tearfully.

"-can't expect me to stay here..... -but I don't want to see him, mum!.....Harry's! I'll stay at Harry's.....-I won't have to tell him anything! I don't care if he can hear me. He already knows everything..... -because I actually tell him things, mum! It's not some big secret!"

Harry doesn't hear much else then, just the sound of Jay tearfully telling Louis to come back and Louis stomping up the stairs. He takes off then. He knows how Louis gets when he gets upset like this. He takes it out on whoever gets in his way, even the people he loves.

Jay opens her mouth to speak when she sees him cross the living room.

"I've got him," he cuts her off gently, and waits for her to nod softly before following Louis upstairs. He finds him outside of his bedroom door, now Lottie's, knocking on it firmly.

"Piss off!" he hears Lottie yell through the wall.

"Lottie, open the door!"

"No!" she yells back, and then yells something else about their dad that Harry can't quite hear.

"Lottie!"

Harry bounds down the hall when Louis starts pounding on the door again.

"Lou, Lou, stop. Come here." He reaches his hand out to curl around his boyfriend's bicep but Louis pulls out of his grasp.

"No, this is bullshit, Harry! She's letting him come back here. For bloody Christmas Holiday. Like everything is just fucking forgiven now. Like what he did doesn't even matter."

Harry tries to reach out for him, voice low and soothing, "I know, it's okay. Look-"

"No, it's not okay."

And Harry pauses, heart breaking at the helplessness in Louis' voice. The rawness, the hurt. He suddenly remembers - how bad it was when Louis' step-dad left them a few years ago. It's one of the last big things he remembers before he and Louis fell out.

He holds his hands out, hovering over Louis' shoulder and the side of his neck, gently coaxing him forward. "I didn't mean it like that," he breathes calmly, "Please, come here. I'm on your side. I just need you to calm down. Please."

Louis looks at him with red, watery eyes, and the moment Harry sees the assent in them, he surges forward and wraps Louis up.

Louis cries against his collarbone, hands fisting at the back of his jumper. Harry rubs his hands down Louis' back soothingly, and then brings one to rest against the back of his head, holding him there and pressing his lips to his temple.

He doesn't notice that Lottie's opened the bedroom door until he sees her out of the corner of his eye, watching them as he holds Louis in the hallway.

//

Louis sits curled up on the den couch, watching Harry through the porch door, pacing back and forth on his mobile. His face feels tight where tear tracks have dried and his throat is sore from crying. He apologized to his mum for yelling at her, but asked if he could be left alone for a while.

He's still angry and he can't pretend he's not. He'd thought that he and his mum were on the same page when it came to Mark, but apparently Lottie had finally worn her down. Now, Harry seems to be the only one left who really understands - the only one who won't look him in the eye and try to minimize what a fucked up situation this is; try to talk him into "being a good sport" and forgiving and forgetting. It's hard to forgive someone who hasn't even spoken to him in almost three years. It's hard to forgive someone that hasn't actually asked to be forgiven. Louis would sweep a lot of things under the rug for his family, but he doesn't think this can be one of them.

He knows that people make mistakes. His own still haunt him. But this - this isn't the same thing, is it? Maybe. Maybe their reasons for leaving were similar - because he couldn't handle it, because he was afraid of something, whatever - it doesn't matter, because Louis learned first hand that you can't just pop in to someone's life again and demand forgiveness so you can sleep better at night.

It doesn't work like that. He knows that now better than anybody.

His eyes don't leave Harry as he talks on his phone through the glass. Louis doesn't know who he's talking to. He just told him he'd be right back and to stay put. Louis doesn't really feel like being around anyone else at the moment anyway, so it wasn't a hard request to follow. He tries to get comfortable on the couch, but he really doesn't want to sleep here tonight.

His dad is supposedly showing up later that night, said he wanted to "spend a proper Christmas with his family". At least that's what his mum told him earlier when she blindsided him with the news out of nowhere.

Anger starts ballooning in his chest again just thinking about it, but luckily Harry walks back in the house then. He stands over Louis on the couch, and Louis suppresses the need to pull him down and burrow against his chest.

"Everything alright then?" Louis asks.

Harry frowns down at him, but he doesn't answer. Instead, he reaches down to grab Louis' hand and pull him up from the couch gently.

"Is there anything you need here?"

Louis' brows draw together. "What do you mean?"

"Like clothes, toothbrush. Overnight stuff?"

Louis looks around, "Um, yeah. I brought a few things over this morning. Why?"

"Go and grab them."

"What? Why?"

"Because you're not staying here tonight."

"Wait, but. What do you mean? What about your aunt and uncle, your cousins?"

He feels Harry's fingers on his neck then, thumb tracing along his jaw briefly.

"It's handled, alright? Just go get your stuff. I'll go talk to your mum." Harry steps back, but Louis grabs his wrist before he can get away.

"What's wrong?"

"Harry, do you- I mean," he struggles, swallowing hard, "Am I wrong about this? Am I being a hypocrite, or-"

"No," Harry cuts him off firmly, and Louis' heart catches at the sudden fierceness in his eyes. "He left a family of six, Lou. It's not the same thing. Don't you dare think it is."

Louis' chest fills with so much emotion then that a new wave of fresh tears start forming. It hits him - Harry is actually on his side, and not just out of loyalty or because he has to be.

Harry pulls his jumper down past his fingers and wipes at Louis' face before pulling him into a hug. Louis falls into it, and doesn't really understand how he can be this sad and yet content at the same time.

Harry pulls back first, then slots their fingers together, and Louis just loves him so, so much.

//

Harry drives them back to his house, which, yeah, Louis figured that much. He still doesn't understand where he's meant to sleep though with all these people now in Harry's house, so when Harry pushes him upstairs and pulls an empty overnight bag onto the bed, Louis is suddenly very confused.

"Erm," Harry hesitates a minute, checking his watch and then hauling his larger unpacked suitcase off the floor and onto the bed next to the smaller bag. "Just pack me a few things, would you? Something to sleep in and something to wear tomorrow?"

"Going somewhere, then?" Louis laughs.

Harry smiles at him, a mischievous glint in his eyes, "Just do it, babe? I'll be right back."

Louis bites his lip and starts going through Harry's clothes, pulling a few things out he thinks he'll like. He doesn't really know what to pack for him to sleep in, since he's never met a person more adverse to pajamas in his life. So he just throws some extra briefs in and a white tshirt even though he'll probably wind up wearing it instead of Harry.

Just as he's about to zip the bag up, Harry returns and tells him to hold up. Louis steps back and watches Harry rummage around in a hidden compartment of his suitcase. He pulls a box of condoms out and what looks like a new bottle of lube, tossing both items into the bag and zipping it up.

Louis' eyebrows raise, "So, we're going home then?"

Harry looks at him funny, small quirk to his lips. "We are home, babe."

Louis opens his mouth to retort, but then stops himself. Yes, technically Harry's right. They are home. But his drafty flat in Essex has never called his name quite like it's doing now. And Louis knows that it's because that flat has become his and Harry's place, their hideaway, their bubble. He thinks if Harry told him they were actually going to make the four hour drive there tonight, he'd go without a fuss.

"Right," Louis nods. "Well, what's this all about then?"

Harry smiles and suddenly he's holding up a pair of keys. One big, like it belongs to a car, and the other small.

"I, um, I talked to Robin. And, you know, he's had the bungalow for years now. We went that one summer, remember? Right before you started sixth form and-"

"Harry," Louis says lightly, a small smile playing on his lips, heart thumping in his chest.

Harry clears his throat, laughing a little, "Sorry. Um, so yeah, I was wondering if you'd like to maybe go there. Tonight. With me. You know, I don't want you to have to stay at home with him if you don't want to be there. And Robin said we can stay for as many nights as we want. Oh, and he's letting me take his car and we can be back in time tomorrow for your birthd-"

Louis steps forward to kiss him soundly, cutting him off.

"Thank you," he breathes against his mouth, and that's all Harry needs to hear.

000

They don't make it ten minutes inside the bungalow before Louis' got Harry flat on his back in a ridiculous king-sized bed. The entire ride up to the house Louis could feel the anxiety rippling underneath his skin. Harry hadn't pressured him to talk about what happened back at his house, or about what might happen next, but it didn't stop Louis from thinking about it.

As soon as Harry dropped their bags on the bedroom floor, he began massaging the tension out of Louis' shoulders, kissing him sweetly on the neck. Soft, comforting. But that's not really what Louis wants right now.

Harry goes easily when Louis turns around and strips him of his shirt before pushing him down on the mattress. Louis notes the appreciative groan that leaves his throat when Louis crawls over him and tugs roughly on the opening of his jeans.

"Yeah," Harry hisses, lifting his hips frantically so Louis can pull them all the way off, underwear included.

Harry's breathing heavily, now stark naked while Louis is still completely clothed and hovering over him. Louis takes in Harry's body, every inch of him, all laid out and all for him.

"Fuck."

Harry flushes and runs his hand over his own chest and stomach, but carefully skips over his hardening cock.

Louis edges off the bed and stands up, pulling Harry by the underside of his knees until his legs are on either side of Louis'. Harry sits up and while Louis peels his shirt off, Harry's hands go to the button on his trousers, opening them up deliberately slow.

He kisses across Louis' sternum.

"You know the good thing about this place?" he mutters, pushing the trousers down his hips.

Louis' eyelids flutter. "What's that?"

Harry grins wolfishly and lies back flat on the bed. "I can be as loud as I want."

Louis makes some sort of noise he's too turned on to be embarrassed about and crawls back over Harry's body, pushing him down into the bed and kissing him deep and frantic.

He tries to pace himself so he can draw this out, but his senses are on overdrive.

And sex, you know, it's always been a thing that Louis likes to do. But he's never craved it the way he does with Harry. It's overwhelming, sometimes, how much he always seems to want him.

While Harry keeps their tongues sliding together, Louis reaches down between their stomachs to get a hand around Harry's cock. Harry stops him as soon as he gets there.

"I want," Harry pants. "I want you to-" Harry brings his legs up and back against himself and cages Louis in.

Louis catches on quickly. "Yeah. Yeah. Where's the stuff?"

"In my bag. S'on the floor."

Louis retrieves it quickly, fingers shaking a little. It's not unusual for him to be keyed up when he and Harry have sex, but this feels different. Something about knowing that they're the only people around for miles does something to him. Knowing they can literally do whatever they want, wherever they want, however loud they please makes Louis feel...different.

When Harry grabs for the bottle of lube in Louis' hands, Louis pulls it back.

"Can I? I mean- Do you think I could do it, maybe?"

Harry's breath hitches then and he bites his lip so hard Louis can see white. Harry usually preps himself. Louis doesn't particularly know why. It's just always been that way.

"It's okay if you don't-"

"No. Fuck, please. Yes."

Louis' heart picks up, and he smiles even though his nerves are making his fingers shake.

Harry sits up a little. "How do you want me?"

Louis suddenly has a flashback to their first time, when Harry asked him that same question and he freaked out a little, needed Harry to tell him what to do.

"Like that. I want to see your face."

He's more confident now. He likes that. Being in control comes naturally to Louis. It always has. But this is still Harry's domain. It's not that he's had a lot of experience (they got that awkward conversation out of the way weeks ago), but sex with a boy is like a whole new world and Harry has a decent head start on him.

Harry smiles softly up at him. They've both become a little less frantic now, but Louis' still buzzing, in that weird place between wanting to get off and wanting to slow down time so he can just experience this. He shuffles up the bed until he's between Harry's parted thighs. He coats his fingers like he's seen Harry do a dozen times before, then pushes Harry's left thigh back until he can clearly see where he's supposed to touch, and brings his wet fingers down against him. He moves them slowly at first, barely at all, eyes flicking to Harry's every few seconds in case he does something wrong. But Harry's just sort of staring at him dazedly, mouth slack. So Louis applies more pressure with the tip of his middle finger and he thinks Harry almost whimpers.

Louis feels a surge of confidence then, and begins rubbing tight circles against Harry's entrance, feeling him tense and relax. And then he does that whimpering moan thing again, a noise he definitely doesn't make when he does this to himself (Louis would remember).

"That's good. Just keep doing that for a minute, yeah."

Louis bites his lip and nods. He can't explain it, but he secretly loves when Harry teaches him things. Growing up, it was always the other way around. It was always Louis instructing Harry, even when Louis clearly had no idea what he was talking about. But Harry telling him what to do here doesn't make him feel inept at all, and he can't explain it. Harry is always so responsive, that when Louis gets something right all on his own, he has a way of making Louis feel like the most important person in his world. So Louis sort of has this burning need to learn everything that he likes.

Harry's hand goes to his cock, stroking slowly. His eyes never leave Louis' face. Louis bites his lip in concentration and when he feels Harry relax around his fingers a little more on every drag, he dares to press his index in. They have sex frequently enough that Harry doesn't take as much prep as he did at first, so Louis' finger is able to slide in pretty easily. He works his way up to two within minutes and he's really surprised at how nice it feels. Obviously, he loves the way Harry feels around his cock, but he feels good around his fingers, too. He's smooth and tight, almost unyielding. And like, Louis' pretty well-versed with Harry's body by now, but somehow when he's not distracted by his own impending orgasm, he's able to appreciate it in a different way.

Harry's making a choked off noise on every slide of Louis' fingers. Louis keeps a steady pace in and out, and then experiments with curling his fingers.

"There," Harry gasps, hips bucking a little and hand stuttering on his cock.

Louis repeats the path of his fingers, curling them slightly until he feels the firm rounded shape from before. Harry keens brilliantly when he touches it, and yeah, okay, Louis is definitely going to do this again in the future.

"Do you want to come like this?" Louis rasps, his fingers moving fast and hard now.

Harry groans and almost laughs a little deliriously, like he desperately wants to say yes, but won't. His hand slows down on his cock.

"No. No, I want you in me. Please."

Louis' cock twitches with interst. He hadn't realized how hard he was until just now. He keeps his fingers moving as he tears a condom open and rolls it on. Harry pulls his legs back and almost as soon as Louis' fingers are out of him, his cock is pushing in.

They're both so wound up that Louis doesn't have to bother going slow, snapping his hips at a bruising pace almost immediately.

Harry wasn't lying when he said he could be as loud as he wanted. This whole thing feels surreal. Daylight is still streaming through the windows and Harry's making filthy, loud noises and the headboard is steadily hitting the wall and Louis' never felt this out of control before. He just wants to fuck Harry until he loses his voice, until he can't move. And so he digs his slick fingers into the underside of Harry's thighs and doesn't stop.

//

"Thank you. For bringing me here."

Louis says it into the silent room sometime later when they've both finally come down. He doesn't know if he really wants to talk about it, if he's ready to, but he feels the need to at least thank Harry again, and not just with what's probably the best sex they've ever had. He has no idea how much it means to Louis that he did this for him.

He's sure Harry's fallen asleep, but then he feels the palm of his hand move across his chest.

"It's nothing, babe."

Louis wriggles down until they're lying face to face. "It is. You got me out of there. You're the only one that..." He swallows over the growing lump in his throat.

Harry reaches a hand out to trace the line of his cheek bone. "I was there, Lou," he says, "I remember when he left. I remember what it did to you. It was hard to watch you go through that when there was nothing I could do to help."

"You did, though," Louis murmurs. Because, yeah, maybe when Harry was fifteen he couldn't whisk him away to a beautiful vacation house in the middle of nowhere, but he was there. He was the only one that knew about the chaos going on with Louis' family. And while Liam, Niall, and Zayn all know that his step-father isn't around anymore, Harry is still the only one that knows. Harry's always the one - the one that's been there for every hard thing.

"Hey, why are you crying?" Harry whispers, trying to pull Louis' face toward him.

"It's just. I had you, you know?" Louis sniffs, "I still have you."

"Yeah..." Harry says, still uncomprehending.

"But you didn't have me. And i'm sorry."

Harry looks stunned for a moment. But when Louis opens his mouth to speak again, he drives forward and pulls them chest to chest and hugs him so tightly there's not an inch of space between them.

"No more apologising, okay? Louis, I don't care about any of that stuff now. This is so much more important."

Louis starts to protest but Harry pulls back then just enough to level their faces. "Can you just do something for me?"

Louis pauses a beat, but eventually nods.

"Just. Here, now? That's all that matters." Harry keeps their eyes locked, doesn't let Louis look away.

"Here, now," Louis repeats, like he's tasting the words for the first time.

And while Harry curls back up on that spot right under his chin, Louis marvels at the fact that the boy he loves has never pushed him to keep apologising, has never harped on their past or brought it up again to make Louis feel bad. Not once. Not even when Louis probably deserved it. He doesn't understand how someone like Harry exists. And for someone like him. He doesnt understand why he gets a Harry. Why he got so lucky.

"I just hate that we lost those two years," he says, because he can't help it.

Harry traces along his ribs like he's mapping him out. "We were going to be separated for those two years anyway, Lou. Who knows, maybe more than that."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you were graduating and going off to uni."

"Yeah, so?"

"So if we had gotten together then - I mean, if things had worked out that way, you still would have had to leave."

"I-" Louis had never really thought of it that way, but still. "Yeah, but. We still would have been friends. We still would have been together. You never would have gotten hurt..."

Harry shrugs, "Maybe. But then I also probably wouldn't have worked as hard as I did. I probably wouldn't have even wound up at Essex with you. Or playing football at all. I think- I think things worked out the way they were supposed to."

Louis lets the words sink in. "Maybe," he assents, "But i'll never be okay with what I did to you."

Harry lifts up on his elbow then and looks at Louis directly. "Louis, you know I don't look back at that time and wish I could change it?"

Now it's Louis' turn to look stunned.

"How?" He shakes his head disbelievingly. Because he always thought that as much as he wished he could go back and change what happened two years ago, Harry would've wanted it ten times as badly.

"I mean, I don't know. Because without it I don't know if i'd be where I am right now?" Louis stays silent, eyeing him thoughtfully. "And I quite like where I am. Not just with you, but with myself too. That's why I wouldn't change anything. If we would've been easy, Louis, I don't know where we'd be right now honestly. But, like, you're the thing i'm most sure about now. You know?"

Louis mouth parts, and he can't take his eyes off of Harry.

"But I don't know if I would have known that if we hadn't gone through all this crap." Louis suddenly registers that he's not just talking about two years ago anymore, but now as well, everything up to two months ago. "I wouldn't want to do it again, but- i'm not entirely sorry it happened. I mean. Sorry, m'not explaining it right."

"No," Louis breathes, a little taken aback and awed. "No, I get it. Completely."

He does, weirdly enough. He's just never really thought about it like that. He takes for granted that he and Harry would have ended up happily together no matter how they got there. But he's never thought about how he appreciates it so much more because of how hard they had to fight for it. But he does.

Looking back, what he felt for Harry growing up ghosts in comparison to what he feels now. What he feels now is so much more intense and permanent and layered. And instead of wondering what else he might be missing out there, he just feels really lucky that Harry is his and no one else's, that he knows for sure that he's never going to want anything else as much as he wants this.

Harry's voice breaks him out of his head. "I still get scared though, sometimes."

"Scared of what?"

Harry shrugs, "That if I let myself get too happy, if things get too good, that something will happen to ruin it."

Louis frowns, "I think we've pretty much lived through the worst of the worst, though, haven't we?" He tries for a bit of humor, just to see a hint of a smile from Harry.

"Don't jinx us." Harry eyes flit down to the mattress.

"Hey." He waits for Harry's eyes to come back to his before continuing. "I don't think there's anything that could happen now that would ever keep me from you."

Harry does smile then.

"I jump, you jump, right?"

"Still not how it goes," Harry laughs, leaning down to kiss him once, "But- yeah."

Harry cuddles back into him, and Louis is content to let the conversation end here, but he knows he won't sleep with this thought still in his head.

"Is that something you're worried about - Mark?" he asks.

"I don't think I am," Harry says slowly, and then pauses for a beat. "I mean, are you? Are you, like, afraid of what he'll think? About you and me? I don't have to come back with you if you-"

"No," Louis says vehemently, and then softens when he feels Harry flinch. He moves his hand from Harry's back to his hair, carding his fingers through it. He wants Harry to know that he would never choose to hide their relationship from anyone now, least of all his step-father.

"No, H," he says again, softer this time, "I don't care what he thinks."

Harry eyes him thoughtfully for a few seconds before he gives a soft nod. "Okay."

"Will you come back with me?"

"Of course."

"Good. 'Cause I need someone on my side."

Harry looks amused then. "Good thing i'm on your team them, yeah? Maybe i'll put your football uniform on before we go, just so there's no confusion."

It's obviously a joke, but instead of laughing, Louis' breath hitches a little.

Harry doesn't miss it and reaches up to tap Louis' face playfully. "Kinky."

Louis grabs his hand and rolls them until he's got Harry pinned beneath him, his wrists held above his head. Harry tilts his jaw up in mock defiance and Louis swoops down to bite at the front of his throat.

"You're lucky I didn't pack it," he growls, "'Cause if I did you wouldn't be allowed to take it off."

Harry whines low in his throat, and Louis can feel the younger boy's cock twitch against his naked hip.

He spends the next half hour taking Harry apart again, and while he does it, he idly wonders if they can break their single-night shag record.

Louis' already two for four, and it's still early.

//

"I really like it here," Louis murmurs into Harry's freshly washed skin. They're in the living room now after stopping to shower and eat some of the food that Harry's mum sent up with them. Harry tried to figure the heat out, but it's still a little too cold in the house. So they take the duvet from the bed and wrap themselves up in it on the rug by the fireplace.

"I do, too," Harry says. "I'm glad Robin kept it."

"He was going to get rid of it?"

Harry turns around so that they're lying face to face. "Yeah. He was thinking about selling it last year, you know, to help me pay for uni and all that."

"Really?"

Harry nods, "He didn't wind up having to, though, you know. So it all worked out."

"Yeah," Louis murmurs. "I'm glad."

Even though Louis' been here before, now that he has a chance to properly take it in, the bungalow seems like a brand new place. It's so quiet, clean, but looks lived in enough that Louis can tell Harry's family spends a decent amount of time here. From where he's laying he can see out the backdoor that's clear as a window. As dusk settles in, he can just barely make out the large field that stretches for miles. It's covered in fresh snow, and it looks like more is starting to fall. Louis breathes. He's glad Harry brought him here.

He's glad Harry's here.

//

The next morning, Harry wakes him up with a blowjob.

"Was'going on?" Louis mumbles, half-asleep and more than half-hard.

Harry comes up for air long enough to say "birthday sex" before taking Louis back down.

000

Going home isn't easy, but Harry convinces him that they can't miss his birthday.

Not Christmas Eve, but his birthday, like it was much more important.

It made Louis smile (and relent). Harry had already taken him out to dinner before they left Essex, knowing they probably wouldn't get a real chance to after coming to Holmes Chapel, but he still seems to think a huge celebration is in order. And that makes Louis feel good, secretly. It's been a while since anyone's actively tried to make the day just about him in a while. His family had always tried, but it's hard to share your birthday with a big holiday and still have it be about you. He'd grown okay with it over the years, still finding ways to celebrate around the hustle and bustle of Christmas. But since his dad left and he went off to school, it's been a relatively quiet occasion.

Harry doesn't try to give him a big pep talk, or tell him what he should and shouldn't do when he sees Mark again. He doesn't know any better than Louis does how to handle this, and Louis appreciates the honesty in that. Harry simply holds his hand and says, "Just say the word."

And Louis understands exactly what he means. Just say the word and i'm there. Just say the word and i'll do whatever you need me to do. I'll pull you out - no matter how bad things get, i'll always be there to pull you out.

Louis has to sit in the car for a few minutes when they get to his house. Just seeing Mark's car there in the driveway makes his stomach turn. But with Harry's silent encouragement, they make it inside. The only person inside the house is Jay, much to Louis' relief. And her eyes grow watery when she sees him and Harry standing in the mouth of the kitchen.

She hugs him tightly and tells him happy birthday.

He bites back the words 'I wish it was' and hugs her back.

"Where is he?"

Jay blows a deep breath out. "He's out back with the girls."

"Mum, i'm not trying to like, ruin Christmas, but I don't know if I can-"

"No, you're right. And you were right yesterday. It was too soon. I should have told him no."

"No, mum, it's okay."

She shakes her head. "No, it isn't. I shouldn't have sprung that on you."

He can't really argue with her on that one, so he doesn't say anything.

"He's leaving tomorrow," she continues. "I asked him to."

"Mum, you didn't have to-"

"It wasn't just for you," she says, reaching up to grip his shoulders. "I told him that, if they want, the girls can see him on weekends. But as far as him coming back here, that's. That's not going to happen."

He wishes he felt more relieved by that, but he doesn't. He nods and goes to stand by the window that overlooks the backyard. He doesn't have to turn and look to know that the person to come and stand beside him is Harry.

He watches Mark, his dad - fuck, he doesn't even know what to call him in his own head anymore - out there with his sisters, helping them roll snow so they can build a snowman. Like he's every other father on the block. Like he's every father that's been there every Christmas and every birthday and every day.

Mark is the only father Louis' ever known. But he left when Louis was almost eighteen. He still raised him. But Phoebe, Daisy, Fliss, and even Lottie - their loss was different than his. And he's not sure they even understand that yet.

Phoebe and Daisy are laughing and throwing snow into the air and Louis wonders if they even remember who he is.

And he's suddenly so, so angry he can't see straight.

"Lou. Louis, wait, come back."

He hears Harry, he does. But if he doesn't start yelling, he'll start crying and - fuck.

Harry is hot on his heels as Louis swings the back door open angrily. Mark's head snaps up and suddenly their eyes are locked. And Louis wants to say so much. He wants to say everything and yet nothing to this man he hasn't seen in almost three years. Mark's cheeks are pink from the cold, and his eyes are bright and he looks so happy. And Louis just wants to take it away from him so badly - take it away just like he took everything when he left.

But Lottie is looking at him with pleading eyes, and Fliss is biting her lip nervously. And the twins are smiling and bolting straight for him as soon as they see he's walked outside.

"Louis!" They squeal with delight, like every little girl on Christmas Eve should be. He picks Phoebe up out of the snow and he can see Daisy launch herself at Harry out of the corner of his eye (she's taken a liking to him).

"Happy Birthday!" They both say and Louis forces himself to smile for them.

"Where were you last night?" Daisy asks from Harry's arms. "We missed you."

"He was helping Santa get the rest of your presents in order," Harry lies smoothly, and Louis shoots him a grateful look.

"Okay, then," Phoebe says, "I want to play now. Come on Daisy. Come on Lou. Come on Harry."

Louis lets her down and watches them both take off in their little pink wellies. In the meantime, Mark has made his way up to the porch.

"Hey, Lou." He tries to smile a bit, but when Louis doesn't answer, he snaps his mouth shut. Louis can tell he's nervous.

"Hello, Harry," he smiles politely, tipping his head in Harry's direction, and Louis feels Harry move a little closer to him, like a guard dog.

"Hello," he answers.

Louis can see his step-father eyeing the almost non-existant space between his and Harry's bodies, a perplexed look on his face. Louis doesn't even think twice about it when he reaches out and takes Harry's hand in his, watching Mark's eyes carefully as he does. They widen a bit before going back to normal. It's so subtle Louis almost misses it. Mark clears his throat deliberately.

"I'm sorry I missed you last night."

Harry squeezes his fingers (i'm right here).

"Happy Birthday, Lou," he says eventually.

Louis gives him a quiet, forced "thanks".

"So, um, how have you been?" As if he can't help it, his eyes flit back down to his and Harry's interlocked hands. But only for a second. "How's um, how's uni? Your mum told me you're captain of your football team? That's really great."

Something breaks in Louis' brain. "Yeah," he intones, "Would have told you myself. But I guess your phone was broken."

A hint of hurt, guilt - Louis doesn't know or care - shines in Mark's eyes, and that's when Louis knows that his dad understands.

No hatchets are being buried today.

//

It's easier to get through the rest of the day after that, now that he and Mark have a mutual understanding that Louis isn't going to pretend to play the role of the merciful son in the 'Reunited Tomlinson Family Christmas Special'.

They sort of just stay out of each other's way. Louis plays with his sisters, hugs them when they bring out a giant birthday cake covered in all different colors of frosting (Daisy and Phoebe were in charge of decorating), and has a nice dinner with his family and his boyfriend.

That's the other thing he refuses to pretend about. He holds Harry's hand on top of the table, and doesn't hesitate to kiss him in thanks when he receives his birthday gift from him (tickets to the 2013 Football League Cup Final in February). And he absolutely does not care what Mark thinks about any of it.

He's thankful that Harry is here, in general and especially. Since Louis' not sure he would've been able to continue holding his tongue otherwise.

Harry stays as long as he possibly can before his own family starts calling him home. Gemma's just arrived, apparently.

Louis walks him to his car.

"You can stay with me tonight," Harry says, teeth chattering a little because of the cold. "Or we can go back to the bungalow. Whatever you want."

Louis picks imaginary lint off of Harry's jumper and tells him that he should really be here when his sisters wake up tomorrow morning, and that Harry should be with his family on Christmas Eve too.

"Okay," Harry concedes reluctantly. "But. Just. Call me? If anything happens."

"I will," he says, and kisses Harry goodbye, letting him turn away to get in his car.

"I love you," he calls, a little fiercely, like it's something he absolutely needs Harry to know before he drives away. Harry swings back around, hand on the open car door.

"I love you, too."

It's like they're saying it for the first time or something, even though it's definitely not the first time, not even close.

Harry pulls him back into a tight hug and with Louis' mouth buried somewhere in his curls, he adds "so, so fucking much."

//

Louis does his best to spend the majority of Christmas Day with his mum and sisters, but caves around noon when Mark suggests they all go ice skating. Because just - no. So he calls Harry and sheepishly asks if it's okay for him to maybe come over.

"Is that Louis?" he hears someone call his name in the background over the phone, he's not sure who. "Tell him to get his arse over here. I haven't seen his ugly mug in years."

That'd be Gemma, then.

Louis laughs and says he'll be right over then, and Harry tells him he'll put the tea on.

//

He and Harry wind up slipping off into the the smaller, abandoned second den towards the back of the house after eating way too much of Anne's Christmas cooking and needing a place to crash.

"I think. I'm in a food coma." Louis moans.

Harry giggles lazily where he's laying partially on top of Louis. The couch is just big enough to fit them both if Harry overlaps him a little, which is usually how they sleep anyway, now that he thinks about it.

Louis rubs Harry's back mindlessly, his skin warming under his touch. He thinks he hears Harry start to breathe deep and even, signaling that he's about to fall asleep when he suddenly remembers. He jolts Harry awake.

"Ugh, wha'is it?"

"I almost forgot. I have your Christmas present."

Harry looks up at him all sleepy-eyed, but he's smiling. "Oh, yeah. I have yours too. It's in my room though. I'll go get it."

While Harry goes upstairs, Louis jogs out to his car and grabs the small box from the floor under the driver's seat, quickly running back inside so he doesn't freeze to death. Harry's already back on the couch when he gets back to the den.

"You first," Harry says, placing his own wrapped present behind him on the sofa.

"Okay." Louis sits down opposite him and hands him the small box wrapped in Christmas paper that has little gnomes all over it and 'To: Hazza xx' scribbled over the top of it in biro marker.

Harry's eyes flick up to his and he smiles as he opens it. There, nestled in some tissue paper are two tickets, and beneath them, a little booklet with The Definitive Guide To Your First Leeds Festival! printed on the front.

Harry's eyes go wide and he's beaming when he looks up at Louis.

"Lou..."

"It's not for like, seven months, but. Yeah. I got the tickets a few weeks ago. I know you always wanted to go, and- And I know we always talked about going, so-"

Harry startles him when he leans forward suddenly to press their lips together firmly, his hand coming up to rest on Louis' face.

"These are fantastic," he smiles against Louis' mouth. "Thank you so much. We're going to camp and everything?"

Louis nods, "Yep. Three whole days of sleeping on the ground and beer and greasy food. Just like you've always wanted."

Harry is beaming softly at him. "I can't wait."

Louis grins back at him and lets Harry kiss him once more before he separates them.

"Okay," he pries the box from Harry's fingers and places it on the side table, "My turn now."

Harry smiles and goes a little red then, pulling Louis' gift from behind his back.

"Um, this was actually your birthday present," Harry admits.

Louis brows furrow, "But... the tickets?"

"They were your Christmas present. I, um, switched at the last minute, because I wanted to give you this when it was just you and me, so. Yeah. Here."

"Oh, kinky, Hazza."

Harry laughs while Louis takes the wrapping paper off, "No. No it's nothing like that. It's..."

When Louis opens the box, he finds another box inside. A shoebox. He glances briefly at Harry, but he's watching Louis' hands. So Louis pulls the lid off the box and inside there's a stack of notebook paper. It only takes Louis a second once he's picked the first one up and seen the writing on it to know what these are. His mouth drops open a little.

"You know how, on the first day of school every year, you'd write me those notes?"

Of course he remembers. He's the one that started it when he saw how nervous Harry had been when he was eleven and about to start Year 7. Louis, of course, being the wiser and more experienced of the two, had secretly stuffed the note in Harry's backpack the night before fall term. It was stupid really - just little chicken scratch notes that Louis compiled on a piece of wide rule notebook paper, notes that detailed things like: which teachers were the hardest markers in that year, which classes Harry could get away with sleeping in, which teachers gave a lot of pop quizzes, and most importantly, where his old desk was in each class so Harry could sit in it (he'd marked his initials on the underside of every one so Harry was always sure to find it). He'd also write him a stupid little note at the end of each one. He doesn't even remember what most of them said.

When Harry had come home almost beaming that first day after school, they both knew why, but they never talked about it. It simply became an unspoken tradition after that. Even when Harry was clearly past his first-day jitters phase, Louis still sat down the night before the start of each fall term and wrote out everything he could remember about the year Harry was about to start. Sometimes the information probably wasn't even relevant anymore, but Louis wrote them out every year anyway and stuffed them in Harry's backpack when he pretended he wasn't paying attention.

Louis' a little awestruck. "You kept them?"

Harry shrugs. "Well, yeah. I mean. Of course I did."

Louis' eyes flit to his.

"And I know you might be thinking it's sort of weird that i'm giving you notes that you wrote back to you, but," Louis shakes his head, but Harry keeps going, "Um, I sort of wrote you back?"

"What do you mean?"

Harry reaches out to take Louis' hand and prompts him to flip the page over. The opposite side is filled with notes in a different color pen and handwriting. He picks a few of the other papers up and turns them all over. Each one has a letter from Harry to him on them. And they're all in different colored pens, and the handwriting gets a bit more clean with each one. Harry wrote him back each year.

Louis feels his chest expand a little.

"How come you never showed me these?"

Harry shrugs again. "I'm showing you now. You can read them if you want. But, maybe when i'm not around? Some of them are sort of embarrassing."

"Oh, then I am definitely reading them when you're around. Through a megaphone. So Niall, Li and Zayn can hear too. And them i'm going to make- Hey, what are you doing?"

Harry has snatched the notes out of Louis' hands and put them back in the box, setting it on the table with the Leeds tickets, before pushing Louis onto his back and crawling over him.

"Snogging you. It's the only certifiable way to shut you up."

"Oi!" Louis starts, but Harry's tongue is pushing into his mouth then and Louis goes pliant underneath him.

"S'not the only way," he says against Harry's mouth.

Harry detaches their lips, raises an eyebrow and Louis takes it as a green light to push his hand down between Harry's legs and squeeze him gently.

Harry groans and takes Louis by the wrist and pulls his hand back up to his chest, caging it there.

"If Phillip wanders in here, the sight of you with your hand around my cock might scar him for life."

Louis licks his lips, "Wasn't really talking about my hand, sweetheart."

Harry closes his eyes and drops his head to Louis' chest.

"Definitely scarred for life, then."

Louis laughs but lets Harry settle between the back of the couch and curl up beneath his chin.

"We wouldn't have lasted a week," Harry suddenly laughs.

"What are you talking about?"

Harry doesn't raise his head, "If we'dve been together in college, you would have gotten us into so much trouble we would've had to break up after a week."

Louis scoffs, "Are you quite finished? I am stealth."

Harry snorts. "And I'm not?"

Louis pretends to think about it. "Hmm. Up for debate."

"I'm stealthy," Harry argues, "Remember when I..." He whispers the rest against Louis' ear. Something about the back of Liam's truck a few weeks ago and Louis goes red in the face.

"You know this really isn't helping me keep my hands to myself, babe."

Harry chuckles low in his ear and pulls back to look at him fondly. "Merry Christmas, Lou."

Louis smiles, "Merry Christmas, Hazza."

Harry settles back against his chest and Louis' hands automatically curl into his hair.

"Thank you," he breathes against the crown of his head, and Harry's fingers simply flex against his chest in silent recognition. He's fast asleep a minute later.

Louis continues to scratch lightly through Harry's curls, just thinking. He doesn't notice that Anne has appeared in the entryway until she clears her throat gently. His eyes snap to hers. His fingers still in Harry's hair but Anne's got a warm smile on her face.

"He's finally asleep?"

"Yeah," Louis whispers.

"About time. Don't think he slept a wink last night."

Louis' fingers start moving in Harry's hair again, thumb tracing that spot right behind his ear that always relaxes him. Not that it matters since he's already out for the count.

"I hate to interrupt," she continues softly, "but can I steal you for a moment?"

Louis nods and tries to sit up as delicately as he can without waking Harry up. Harry grumbles as Louis slips out from underneath him and sets the pillow he was using under Harry's head.

"Wher'you going?" Harry murmurs, barely audible.

Louis kisses the side of his head. "I'll be right back. Promise."

He's not even sure if Harry's heard him, and thinks he might already be fast asleep again.

Anne just watches on silently as Louis covers Harry with the quilt from the back of the couch before following her out. She leads him to a small foyer near the front of the house, away from the rest of Harry's family still convened in the living room watching a film.

It's not until they're in there that Louis realizes she's been holding something in her hand the entire time.

"I found this in some of Harry's old things a few weeks ago."

Louis watches Anne turn over a slightly weathered photograph and hand it to him.

The neon time-stamp on the bottom reads 31/08/2007. He was fifteen then, Harry thirteen. It's a photo of just them, both decked out in their football kits. If he remembers correctly, it was taken after one of Harry's first games as a member of the team. They're grinning at the camera, arms around each others' necks and their heads pushed together. Louis' a little bit taller than Harry, whose hair looks just as untamed as it does now.

He remembers when they were that age that they were always moving - never had the time of day to stop and take a picture, even though his mother would always beg him to slow down and let her remember.

Most of the photos that exist of him as a teenager are exactly like this one - worn out, and likely from a disposable camera.

He suddenly wishes he would have let his mum take more.

Anne clears her throat and Louis' eyes shoot up from the photograph. He blushes a little.

She's got a small, knowing smile on her lips and Louis thinks she looks rather lovely like that.

"Thank you," he breathes.

She smiles wider then, pulling him into a quick hug. "Thank you for being here."

"I should be thanking you for that, actually," He tries to laugh lightly, but it comes out forced and tinged with sadness. She frowns gently and keeps her hands on his shoulders.

"I don't know what i'd do without him," Louis admits to her. "He does so much for me and I just. I don't know."

"Louis," her mouth quirks gently, "You make him so happy. I've never seen him happier than when he's with you, before and now. But now especially. If he stays this way the rest of his life I can die a happy woman," she laughs.

He feels like crying then, thinking about how it went so wrong a few months ago, how close he came to completely screwing everything up and losing Harry for good.

"I'm just. So sorry, about what happened..." he starts.

"Hey, none of that," she cuts him off, "Everything turned out alright, didn't it?"

Louis nods, "Yeah. But," he looks at her seriously, "Even if it hadn't. I still would've-"

"I know," she says, cupping his face briefly and running the pad of her thumb along his cheek. "I know you would've."

She closes his fingers around the photo of him and Harry, and Louis feels the last piece snap into place.

(Before they leave to go back to Essex, Louis asks Jay to take a picture of him and Harry on her nice camera. And she's so excited that she runs to grab it before he changes his mind.)

000

Once Mark leaves, Louis can breathe again. The last few days that he and Harry spend in Holmes Chapel are actually amazing. Lottie lets him sleep in his old room (though he sneaks over to Harry's a few nights), Harry helps Jay cook, Louis helps Anne take their Christmas tree down, Gemma takes the Mickey out of them the entire time, Daisy sticks to Harry like glue and everything is just really, really good. He almost doesn't want to leave.

But they do on the 30th when Zayn calls and reminds him about Brewer's huge New Years party the next night, and he and Harry decide they both still really want to go.

Louis gets huffy when Harry falls asleep for the first three hours of their drive back to school. But he more than makes up for it when he spends the last half hour giving Louis his apology in the form of road head.

000

Brewer's is packed by the time they get there. Like, beyond packed. Louis doesn't recognize half the people there. He, Harry and the boys stick close together through the night. Niall gets pissed, as expected. The rest of them just sort of get comfortably buzzed.

About five minutes to midnight, Louis sees Brewer's older brother Jake flick the tv on in the corner and turns it to one of those New Year's countdown specials. Louis' a little buzzed and loose-limbed and busy dancing with his friends, but he doesn't miss Jake grabbing another boy's hand after he flicks the tv to mute. They kiss briefly and sway close together to the bass.

Louis watches them for a minute and then turns back to Harry, sees him smiling widely at something Zayn's just said, all white teeth in a dark room.

He doesn't realize how much time has passed until people start counting down. He doesn't join in, because looking at Harry right now - the only thought racing through his brain is 'fuck it'.

He grips Harry's shoulders and turns him so they're standing face to face, and his eyes flicker back and forth between Harry's eyes and mouth, his bottom lip in his teeth.

5

4

"Is this okay?" Louis asks, and for a second Harry looks like he's not sure what he's asking. But then recognition flashes over his glassy eyes.

3

2

Harry doesn't speak, just curls his fingers into the front of Louis' jumper.

1

Louis leans in, presses his mouth to Harry's.

And when he pulls back, he's not listening for gasps or looking for eyes wide with shock. The clench in his stomach isn't from fear of being judged.

It's just Harry. Everything is just Harry.

"Happy New Year."

//

Liam is the most sober of them by the time they leave the party, so he drives them back to the school. Zayn takes the front, while Louis, Harry and Niall sit in the back. Louis keeps having the push Niall toward the window every time he migrates over to try and pass out on Louis' shoulder. Harry is tucked in on his right, knees up and laid over the tops of Louis' thighs (Louis will never understand how he can be so long and still curl up like a cat). He's awake though, tracing small circles on the inside of Louis' wrist.

Louis can see Zayn's eyes flit over to Liam every few minutes, but the car is comfortably silent.

"I love you guys," Louis blurts suddenly, his own voice startling him.

It's silent for a moment, and then,

"We love you too Tommo s'just the best you are the best friend," Niall slurs.

They all laugh and Zayn catches his eye from the front seat, giving him a small nod, like he understands.

Because Louis wants them to. To understand how much he means that. How much he appreciates all three of them for just being them, for loving him, and Harry too, still. And giving them a safe place to just be happy. He's knows a lot of other people aren't so lucky.

They all clamor into Niall and Louis' flat when they get to the complex. He's not really sure why, but somehow, separating right now just doesn't really feel right.

Harry goes straight for his room when they get inside, Zayn goes to the kitchen and Liam navigates Niall to his bedroom before he falls face-first into the carpet.

Louis follows Harry after a minute. The lights are off when he gets inside his room and Harry is a solid form beneath his duvet.

"C'mere," he says, holding his long arm out like it could somehow reach Louis all the way by the door and pull him over to the bed. Louis smirks and turns to close his bedroom door, but stops when he sees Liam walk into the kitchen through the sliver that's still open.

Zayn sets his glass of water down on the counter and suddenly they're standing an inch apart and Louis doesn't even think about breathing. Zayn looks like he isn't either, from what Louis can tell. Because it doesn't stop there. They hover in each other's space for a few seconds and then Liam - Liam - is surging forward and kissing Zayn. Louis' mouth drops open and Zayn is just as slack-jawed when Liam draws back and stares at him unsurely.

"Kiss him, you idiot," Louis whispers and just like that, Zayn is pulling Liam back in.

Louis has to stop himself from pumping his fist into the air.

"Babe," Harry whines, "What are you doing? If you're not over here in three seconds, i'm going to get really angry."

Louis covers his snort in the palm of his hand. He decides that now is probably a good time to give Liam and Zayn their privacy, though, so he doesn't argue.

"That's hardly an incentive, darling," he teases, closing the door on his friends and walking over to get in the bed.

"Why not?" Harry pouts.

Louis smirks and leans down to kiss him, "Because I happen to think you're really sexy when you're pissed off."

Harry smacks him in the chest, but Louis grabs his hand and pulls them together, kissing him long and deep. When they break apart, Harry just stares at him for several drawn out seconds.

"What?"

Harry shakes his head, dimple appearing even though he's trying not to smile too wide. "M'just happy."

Louis bites his lip, and he can feel his own heart, and Harry fills him a little bit more with something he still spends every day trying to understand, to put a name to. He thinks it's okay though, if he's never able to. Because it doesn't scare him anymore.

"Me, too," he says.

Harry smiles sleepily and turns so Louis can slide up behind him. He's asleep in minutes, snoring soft and even.

Louis tries to fall asleep for several minutes, but can't seem to. He checks to see that Harry is still out and then turns over to rummage beneath his bed. He finds the shoebox that he'd placed there when they got back yesterday and pulls it out.

He sits up and uses his phone as a light as he opens it and pulls out the first letter. He has to re-read what he's written, because he can only imagine what some of it says. A lot of it is funny. Some of Harry's responses on the back are even funnier. Especially the one where he writes in all capital letters that 'YOU CANNOT SLEEP IN MRS. BRAVERMAN'S CLASS YOU LIAR'.

Louis spends the next half hour reading them. He re-reads Harry's responding letters twice over, trying to picture him on those exact days. He's still not sure why Harry never gave these to him. These notes were never something they talked about, but they weren't something they couldn't talk about, either. He stops wondering when he gets to the last letter, the one for when Harry was starting Year 11, the last one Louis ever wrote him.

There's not a whole lot on the back. All of Harry's other notes filled the back page, sometimes into the margins even. But this one has only three sentences on it, in blue ink and a neat hand. The first two are scratched through.

There's something I want to tell you, but i'm scared to. So i'm going to write it here instead. It's not like i'm ever going to show you these, so I don't suppose it matters. But. Yeah. I don't really know when it started

Last week, at yours, when we were watching the telly, I think I wanted to kiss you

I asked Robin last night how you know that you love someone. He said "it's just something you know."

P.S. I hope you don't mind. But I put my initials under the desks too.

H x


Louis' eyes well with tears, and he pulls his tshirt up and shuts his eyes tight into the fabric for a minute. He places the letter back into the box so he can put them back under the bed. Before he does, he spots the photo of him and Harry that Anne gave him at the bottom of the box, and plucks it out. He stares at it for a minute, smile lighting up his face.

He leans over to put it on his night table, propping it up against the base of his lamp, their smiling faces the last thing he sees before he closes his eyes and turns back to Harry, wrapping his arms around his middle from behind and nuzzling into his neck.

As Louis falls asleep, he takes quiet comfort in the fact that he doesn't have to ever wonder if they'll be okay.

It's just something you know.


 

 

 

-fin