There are a few dates in Louis’ head that he thinks he will remember for the rest of his life. The day he decided to get his act together and go to university, start a finance degree in London and get his life on track after two years bumming around Doncaster. The Thursday night he and Harry had been lying on the floor of their college dorm playing some crappy game on Harry’s old PS2 when, quite without warning, Harry had leant across and kissed him, calming the little flutter than had settled in Louis’ chest months before. The night he proposed to Harry rather disastrously in Spain. The day, seven months later, that they got married in Positano, Zayn by his side, Harry’s mother walking him down the aisle, the sea bright and blue. Two years later, when they’d met the biological mother of Mia and James; two weeks after that when they’d got that call from the agency, that she was their match.
Their birthday; sixty days when it became official that Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles were, officially, the overtired, over clucky, and entirely enraptured parents of these two beautiful children.
There are others; anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, Louis has so many dates in his head.
But then there is August 7, and it is something else altogether.
Louis is considering ducking down to Pie Minister – his very favourite pun-based pie shop – on his lunch break when there’s a knock on his door.
He spins in his chair with a lazy tilt of his head, pen hanging out of his mouth like a cigarette. He smiles, a little cockily, at the intern standing in his door. Cocky is his base level attitude at work; it’s kind of required, that air of I know exactly what I’m doing.
“Hey, George,” he says, smiling at the kid blinking at him nervously. As a general rule, he tries to be nice to the graduates he get given each year; he was one once and the guy he interned for was a twat. If he can make it a little easier for someone else, he likes to.
“Hi, Louis,” he says, a little unsure, “I’ve…I’ve found a thing? And I don’t know, it might be nothing. It’s probably nothing,” he says, swallowing, “but, like. I thought I should check?”
And fantastic, Louis’ going to have to spend the next twenty minutes teaching the kid about market irregularities and he really, really just wants a pie, but, well, this is his job, and he’s best off just shutting up and doing it.
“Sure, mate,” he says, standing up, “what’s it about?”
George doesn’t answer, just turns and walks out of Louis’ office, back to his desk in the open-plan part of the floor.
“Here,” he says, gesturing to his computer. A press release from BHP is on the screen, BHP Paribas to block hedge fund withdrawals. Louis furrows his brow, slightly, turns the computer to face him properly.
“It just seemed odd to me, is all,” George says nervously, “sorry if I’m wasting your time, or whatever, but—“
“No, no.” Louis cuts him off, scans the release. Complete evaporation of liquidity. Blocking withdrawals from three subprime mortgage hedge funds. Louis doesn’t like this. He glances up above them, takes a look up to the ticker tape of stock prices that runs through the office; they’re already dropping. Something about this feels rushed, unanticipated, and he doesn’t like it. He had a good gut instinct about the market; today it’s telling him something’s wrong.
He stands back, runs a hand across his face.
“Get Aiden on the phone right now, I think he’s in Bristol today,” he says quietly, thinking it all up as he speaks, “then get Greg and Eleanor. And then Simon, get Simon for me, call his PA and tell her it’s important.”
George just blinks up at him again.
“You mean….Simon Simon?”
Louis nods. “Yeah,” he says, “right now. Thank you, for letting me know.”
George smiles a little at the praise, before looking up at Louis again.
“What’s going on, Louis?” he asks, like he’s trying to wrap his head around it.
Louis just shakes his head. “I’ve no fucking idea,” he says, and that scares the absolute shit out of him.
Two days later, page 29 of the Guardian, and the big banks (HBSC included) have been pumping billions of pounds into the market to try and restore liquidity. Investors get a little restless.
Banks start to coordinate to inject cash back into the market; it’s not enough. This is no longer Louis’ terrain, not Aiden’s or Greg’s, not even Simon’s. It’s the whole fucking world.
And then down comes crashing the US housing market, and 3, 2, 1 Louis thinks; everything breaks down into one unholy, inextricably bonded, mess, barely a month after August 7, that one little press release on that one little PC.
Everything unfolds. Pull one card out, down comes the whole painstakingly crafted tower. There is no liquidity; there is an abundance of panic. Sheer fucking panic, and suddenly HSBC Investment, with it’s sleek offices and views of Canary Wharf, boozy lunches and sizeable bonuses, isn’t so much a tightly run bank as a house of chaos, shares being sold faster than Louis can blink. Clients run, share prices plummet, and then so too do currencies, commodity prices, the housing market all over the world. Retail’s dead, superannuation funds tank, and it feels a little bit like the whole world is crumbling around them all.
Louis tries so very hard not to blink.
It’s fine, he insists when his mother calls after watching a special on the BBC, really, Mum, everything’s fine.
What’s a subprime mortgage? friends will ask over dinner, and he rolls his eyes, charms his way out of the conversation with a wink and a laugh, fucking Americans, they’ll say, and that’s that.
You’d tell me if anything was wrong, wouldn’t you? Harry asks one night as they lie in bed, Louis tucked under his arm as they talk quietly, kids asleep across the hall, if your job was in trouble or anything?
Yeah, Louis says, always.
That one’s the worst. Harry will be fine, Harry works at a private bank managing high net worth clients who’ll need him should the whole universe collapse in on itself. He’s one of the lucky few who’ll always be required, regardless of the shape of the economy.
Louis isn’t. He doesn’t think about that.
He works hard. He puts on a brave face at home, really does. Still does everything he can to be around as much as possible, even when he’s tired and nervous sits down and reads a storybook with James, does a drawing with Mia, cooks dinner a few times a week. His little four-year-olds are the best thing in his life, them and Harry. He reminds himself to keep them close, to not let anything get in the way of cuddling his kids goodnight, talking to them about their days, packing them lunch, driving them to preschool.
Behind all of that, though, he’s scared. He’s really scared. He leaves home at five or six and comes back late on the nights he’s not picking the kids up, seven or eight. Because maybe if he works hard, he’ll be okay. He’s only thirty; he’s by no means a required employee, should everything get worse. So he needs to try, harder, because without this job his family suffer and that’s not an option for Louis. It’s not a fucking option.
So. He can be all smiles, he can be a good dad, a good husband, a good son, he can be a good raconteur and a good friend, an ear when Zayn’s having trouble with the partners at his law firm, when Liam’s having trouble figuring out Zayn, when Niall and Amy are going happily mental with three kids, demanding jobs a few blocks from Louis’ and Niall’s possibly even more mental extended family demanding his head for not bringing the grandkids back home more often.
But he can also have a few more drinks than usual to get him through a long night, can go down to the pub to blow off some steam before going home. He can take a deep breath or two in the shower to centre himself, get up at three in the morning to have a cuppa and try and relax for a moment, bring himself back from being completely engulfed by the panic all around him.
It’s all going to be okay.
The NASDAQ falls, the S&P 500, Nikkei, Euronext, Tokyo Stock Exchange, NYSE, London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, TMX, Deutsche Borse, the ASX, Bombay. Down, down, down, and Louis wonders how much lower everything falls before he does, too.
“Lou,” Harry says one night as they wash up. The kids are on the couch, watching with big wide eyes as Jerry escapes Tom’s clutches for the four millionth time. James shrieks and hides his head in Mia’s shoulder as the little mouse darts away, and Louis can’t help smiling over at them.
“Lou,” Harry says again, taking the cloth out from his hands, “hi.”
“Hey,” Louis says softly, leaning up and kissing him, “you alright?”
“Yeah, ‘course,” Harry says, eyebrows raised, “that’s what I was gonna ask you.”
“How’s work? Really, I mean, how’s work.”
“Fine,” Louis says, “seriously. It’s fine. I’m fine.”
Harry nods, looks at him with all this earnest and love and happiness in his eye.
“So I was thinking, right,” he starts with a little excited smile, and Louis’ stomach flips, still, after ten years, “you know how I got that bit of money from my granddad’s estate, right?”
Louis nods, doesn’t know where this is going.
“And like, our jobs are fine.”
Louis takes a second longer to nod this time. Harry’s too excited to notice.
“Well, I just. Have you ever thought about moving? I mean, I love this house,” he says, smiling over his shoulder at the kids on the couch, curled up around each other under a blanket and having what looks to be a very serious conversation entirely in whispers and giggles. They’ve grown up here, it’s Harry and Louis’ first house, it holds so many memories, but it is small. They’re outgrowing it, Louis thinks.
“I love it,” Harry continues, “but I’ve been having a bit of a look, nothing major. There’s some great stuff in South Kensington, y’know, stuff we can afford round there. I just thought, you know, it’s an option, right?”
Louis should say no, should tell him to hold off.
“I just, like. I saw this place, Lou. You’d love it.”
And in that moment, he can’t. He’s never been able to tell Harry no before, not when he looks like this, happy and hopeful and about to burst with this, with the feeling that they’re going to crack another milestone together.
“Dad,” says a small voice, and Louis looks down in surprise, Mia tugging on his trousers, “Dad, we’re hungry, can we have some ice cream?”
Louis laughs in spite of everything, bends down and hitches her onto his hip, brushes the hair off her face. She’s all warm and sleepy from her bath, although is doing her absolute best to seem awake and on point. He laughs again, kisses her on the cheek.
“No, princess, time for bed!” he says, “it’s late, you have preschool tomorrow.”
She pouts at him, brow furrowing but her little head nestling into his shoulder nonetheless.
“I think someone’s tired,” he says into her ear, smiling, “you reckon I’m right?”
“No,” she yawns.
“J,” Harry says with a smile, conversation put on hold for a moment, brushing a hand through her hair as he walks past them and over to the couch, “come and brush your teeth, yeah bud?”
James nods happily, always the slightly less contrary of the pair, and follows Harry down the hall, hand in hand.
Once they’ve finally put them to bed, Harry and Louis pour a glass of red each, and Louis settles himself across Harry’s lap on the couch rather lazily. He kisses him quickly, rough, needs this tonight, wants it.
“Hey,” Harry says, breaking away for a moment, hands underneath Louis’ crisp white shirt and digging into his waist, “hey, so about before. Like. Do you think it’s an option?”
“Sure,” he says, “yeah. Let’s give it a look.”
Which is how, he supposes, when he looks back on it, he winds up here.
“Lou,” Harry says, rolling his eyes (Louis’ isn’t even looking at him and he knows he’s rolling his eyes), “Lou, could you get off the phone and either fix the GPS or tell me where I’m going?”
He doesn’t move his eyes from the road, but Louis still feels oddly watched.
Just a head’s up – BHP looks set to fall sharply Monday. Boss wants you to give it a look and come in with some solid figures on their movement over the last five years for Monday staff at 9am.
PS – good luck with the house this weekend, mate!
“Yeah,” Louis says absently, “don’t you know the way yet?”
“Not from my mother’s house, no,” Harry says, “seriously, help me out here.”
“Give us a sec,” Louis murmurs, tapping back a reply, mind moving a thousand miles a minute, and Harry just sighs, readjusts the rearview mirror for a moment so he can see the kids.
“Hey,” he says, getting their attention, “reckon you can get Dad off the phone for me, hmm?”
Which is about the worst thing he possibly could’ve said, because Mia behind him gives an almighty kick to the back of his chair, so that his reply reads Sure, let me adrghtyjuk.
He raises an eyebrow, puts his phone down on the dashboard and turns around to look at her guilty face in the back.
“Hi,” she says, with a cheeky little smile, and God, she’s not even his biological daughter and the apple’s fallen remarkably close to the tree, “it worked, Daddy,” she chirps, “I got him off the phone.”
Harry can’t help but let out a snort, reaches back with his free hand and pinches her little leg.
“Thanks, baby,” he says, giving a shit eating little grin of his own, “remember how we talked about not kicking the seats, though?”
“I didn’t kick them,” James says proudly, poking his tongue out at his sister, and she scowls at him, crosses her arms.
“You said to get him off the phone,” she says to herself with a world-weary sigh, four going on eighteen, and it’s Louis’ turn to laugh, wink back at her till she gives him a little smile.
Harry has apparently found his way without Louis’ navigating prowess, because before they know it they’re turning into the very leafy street in South Kensington of the house Harry had seen almost two months ago now, pulls up right outside, number 57.
It’s the third time they’ve come to see it and the first with the kids in tow. The auction is in three weeks, and Louis is maybe just the tiniest bit nervous that they will actually buy it. It’s expensive, too, the mortgage is going to be substantially more than their current one and he just. Knows, or something, that this is a bad idea.
Still, he looks anyway, is enthusiastic and interested, allows himself this. He’s going to be okay. Three months in and he’s still gainfully employed. Thousands of people have already been made redundant, thousands, so maybe he’s going to be okay. Maybe he’ll hang on.
Maybe maybe maybe, he thinks, but for now, this.
They get the kids out of Harry’s Range Rover, watching on in mild disbelief as they go roaring up the driveway as soon as their feet touch the ground, giggling all over the place and tumbling onto the grass in the front yard.
Harry’s beaming, as if to say, it’s already like home. It makes Louis’ heart twist funnily in his chest, and he swallows as Harry wraps an arm round him, kisses him on the cheek quickly.
“C’mon,” he says, “before they uproot a tree, or something.”
So Louis follows, takes James’ hand as they say hello to the agent and walk inside.
It’s so, so fucking beautiful. Louis adores it almost as much as Harry; anyone would. It reminds him of the houses his mother would always look at longingly in the paper every Sunday, one of those houses that feels like the type of place you want your kids to grow up in. It’s full of natural light, playing off the crisp white walls of the foyer and up the staircase to the bedrooms, kitchen that Harry just about has a heart attack over every time they come here, sitting room and dining room big and well-finished, spacious and lovely.
“This is so cool,” Mia breathes, looking up at the high ceiling as they walk in, “Dad, this is so cool.”
Louis laughs, runs a hand through her hair as she spins around, all dropped jaw and wide eyes.
“I know,” he says, “not bad, is it?”
“Are we gonna live here?” she asks, and is answered by a little laugh from the agent, who recognizes Harry and Louis from the two previous showings.
“Nice to see you again,” she says with a smile, her name is Perrie and Mia gets all shy immediately, clinging to Louis’ leg. Perrie bends down to Mia’s eye height, smiles at her all bright and earnest.
“What’s your name, love?” she asks, and Mia just buries her head in Louis’ leg, clutches onto him sheepishly.
“She’s Mia,” James chimes in helpfully, reaching for her hand behind her back, and Louis’ heart clenches at that, still. They’re so, so incredibly sweet with each other, even at the tender age of four can fill in for each other when they’re shy or lost or scared. “I’m James,” he tacks on the end, “we’re four.”
Mia holds out four fingers for back up.
Perrie seems genuinely delighted by them – who isn’t, Louis thinks with a small sense of pride; he’s not one of those arseholes who thinks his kids are better than everyone else’s, but his kids are better than everyone else’s – and eventually draws Mia out of her little shell enough to get her to say that yes, she likes this house and yes, she’s excited to come and see it.
“Hey,” Harry says after a few minutes, “why don’t you come upstairs with me for a bit and Dad can stay down here and chat, hmm?”
They agree happily, running up the stairs like two little tornadoes as Harry takes the stairs two at a time to catch up.
“They’re quite a pair,” Perrie laughs, “how’re you doing, Louis?”
“Good,” he says automatically, smiling, “yeah, we’re well. Thought we’d pop in once more before the auction.”
“It’s a good idea to come with the kids,” she says, fossicking around for a brochure, “so basically, the asking price is—“
She’s cut off by the shrill ring of his BlackBerry, vibrating in his hand.
“Shit,” he mutters at the caller ID, it’s Greg, “sorry, it’s work. I’ve got to take this.”
“No problem,” she says, and walks over to another couple who’ve just come in.
He takes a deep breath and answers.
“Hey, Louis, how are you?”
Louis can’t help but smile, Greg’s so eternally good natured, even when he’s calling on a Sunday. He’s unofficially their senior, really, Louis and Aiden and Eleanor all report to him and him to Simon. Sunday, though, Sunday is an odd time to call.
Then again, Louis supposes, the twenty-first century is an odd time for the Great Depression to kick in again.
Shut up, he thinks, stop being a melodramatic arsehole.
“I’m good,” he says, “you alright?”
There’s a pause.
“I need you to come in,” he says, and Louis thinks he maybe detects the slightest gravity in his tone, “Simon wants to see you.”
Louis’ heart turns cold in his chest.
“Oh,” he says lightly, folding his arms in the middle of this ludicrous house. He tries to breathe slowly. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Greg says, and Louis thinks only one word, unconvincing, “d’you think you can make it by one?”
Louis checks the clock. It’s quarter to, Harry’s going to kill him for leaving, but there’s not really much choice.
“Sure,” he says, “see you then.”
Greg hangs up and Louis’ head bursts into overdrive. He doesn’t even think, just walks briskly out to the street and shoots Harry a text as he goes – Something’s come up, have to go into the office. See you ASAP x – and tries to calm down as he hails a cab. It’s going to be okay. It’s probably a client, a crash, a glitch that they need a heads up on before Monday.
It’s okay, he’s okay, it’s going to be okay.
He walks in the door and takes his ID from his wallet, scanning himself up to the thirty-second floor five minutes late. When he gets to Greg’s office, Eleanor and Aiden are already there, look uncomfortable and drawn.
“Hi?” he says, unsure, and they smile weakly, look exactly the way he feels. His stomach churns, but he returns the smile, albeit half-heartedly.
“Hey,” Aiden says, “d’you know what this is about?”
“No,” he says. They flick a look between each other for a moment.
No one wants to say it.
A text comes through from Harry – Oh. Okay then. The kids love it by the way, they’ve already picked rooms .x
Louis feels so, so sick. The office is eerily quiet, he can’t even remember the last time he was here on a Sunday. Tick, tick, tick, the clock up above them is loud and foreboding and Louis feels like he might faint. His thoughts are scattered, don’t rest for too long on the one idea just so it can’t hurt him, flit about in his head. He thinks he’s breathing harder than usual, and it’s not from the walk.
Greg’s voice makes them all jump and turn in unison; he doesn’t laugh at their almost comic timing. That’s what makes Louis baulk properly. Greg isn’t like this. All of this is irregular, and irregular worries Louis. It worries him a lot.
“Hi,” Aiden says, but that’s it. It’s resigned. Louis can’t deal with that.
“We on Sunday detention, or what?” he asks wryly, but Greg doesn’t respond; just looks pained.
“He’s ready for you upstairs,” he says, “I…good luck.”
And Louis just swallows, because God, does that feel like a loaded comment.
Simon’s office is one of those places that still feels distinctly like a principal’s office to Louis. He’s been up here five times in his life – the first day of his internship eight years ago, the day he’d been officially hired, after he’d gotten very drunk at the end of financial year party and apparently needed a stern talking to, the day he got his promotion, and August 10, three days after the beginning of the crash.
It’s not a number he particularly feels like increasing.
“Louis,” Simon says, walking in and flinching, just slightly, as he shakes his hand, before turning to the others, “Eleanor, Aiden, hi. Take a seat, please.”
For the first time in his life, Louis is directed over to the couches and chairs surrounding the coffee table in the corner. Simon joins them. He clears his throat, leans forward a little and looks around at them all, Eleanor in the chair to his left, Aiden and Louis on the couch opposite him.
“I’m sorry to drag you in on a Sunday,” he starts with, and Louis’ never seen him awkward before, “but I didn’t want to do this with a full office tomorrow morning.”
None of them say a word. He sighs, closes his eyes for a moment before he opens his mouth again.
“I want to start by saying that eight years ago, when you three came in on that internship, this company was graced with some of the best graduates it’s seen in a long time,” he says, “and some of the best we’ve seen since.”
And in that moment, Louis realizes, it’s happening. It’s really, actually, happening. The thing he’s been dreading for months now, the very same.
He’s sitting here, in his boss’s office, and if he’s not mistaken, he’s getting fired.
He feels very, very slightly nauseous, dizzy. Other than that, he doesn’t feel much at all. This is happening, he thinks, right now, in this moment. And for some reason, he can’t quite believe it.
“But you know what’s going on around here, you’re clever, I’m sure you know how serious this is,” Simon continues, and Louis tunes back in, “and changes need to be made if this bank is going to survive, unfortunately. I really, really am sorry I have to do this, I hope you know that, and how much we value everything you’ve given us over the years. But unfortunately, at this time, we have no other choice than to make you redundant.”
Pause, beat, while the world fractures around them, and then as the shards drop to the ground,
It’s not even Louis who says it. Louis feels a few steps behind right now, as though the words are entering his head slower than everyone else’s. Redundant, one syllable at a time. Re-dun-dant. No, he can’t really find any words to say right now. It’s Aiden.
Simon looks at him gravely. Louis wants to punch him in the face.
“I’m sorry, Aiden, really, we—“
“That’s bullshit. We’re the youngest people here. We’re the people you need once this all tides over.”
“Aiden,” he says quietly, “it’s not up for discussion. We feel that we need our most experienced people on hand, we need to be able to keep them around. We need people who’ve experience with this sort of thing.”
“The only people with experience here were around in 1929,” Eleanor says quietly. It’s not even mean, not harsh. It’s just sad.
“I’m sorry, there’s…there’s nothing any of us can do. You have three weeks left of your contracts, and then will receive a four week payout.”
Four weeks. Weeks. Louis thinks he really must’ve heard wrong there. Four weeks after eight whole years. That’s not a redundancy package, that’s fucking lunch money.
Now, Louis thinks, he’s caught up. His hands are shaking in his lap, and he clasps them together.
“You’re making us stick out contracts out?” he says in disbelief.
Simon shakes his head.
“No,” he says, “no, but the offer is there. To finish up with colleagues, clients, deal with any sensitive documents. To prepare yourselves to tell your families.”
And, well, oh.
Tell your families.
Up until now, he’s been taking it quite well. Calmer, maybe, than he’d expected to be. Maybe it’s the shock, but he’s been, somewhere, vaguely, proud that he’s not lost it. All he’s thought about for the last five minutes is getting out of here without, for once in his life, making a scene.
He’s really, truly not thought about what happens afterwards.
Tell your families.
And there it goes, Louis supposes, every last tendril of whatever restraint he was clinging onto.
He doesn’t mean to say it, not really. Doesn’t mean to clap a hand over his mouth like a gossipy teenager, tense up. But he does, and he sees the faces of the other three people in the room scrunch up in pity. He’s the only one here with kids. He’s the only one with people who depend on him. Even Simon, who he’s never really known, who no one really knows, seems to want to reach out to him, opens his mouth to speak.
Louis can’t hear it.
“I need to go,” he says quietly, stands up. It strikes him how weird it is, being at the office in a t-shirt and jeans. Go figure, he thinks, why that thought passes through his mind is beyond him.
No one stops him. No one says a word. Eleanor looks like she’s about to cry, and Louis feels much the same way.
“Bye,” he says, and doesn’t stick around to hear the rest.
His breath is shaky as he hits the button to go down; the lift comes and he looks out the reinforced glass as it descends down, down, down to the lobby. He distinctly remembers, in that moment, the day he’d come up here, a kid in a cheap M&S suit, feeling just about as shit hot as it was possible to feel.
And now, going down, he thinks he feels just about as small and out of his depth as he ever has been.
Redundant. It’s a dead weight, he thinks, sure. It sits heavily on his chest, crushes the breath out of him. But at the end of the day, it’s not the thing that will drown him.
Tell your families, though. That just might.
Dusk is settling when Louis gets in, shakily, an hour later. The cabbie had the radio on TalkSport and was whistling an ABBA song. The rain had started drizzling lazily at five past five and the M in the H&M sign on the way home had flickered a little.
He has no idea why he’s suddenly retaining all these little things. Perhaps, he thinks, as he turns the key in the door, it’s because he can’t quite deal with anything bigger right now.
The breath is almost knocked out of him as Mia belts into him, hands scrabbling at his t-shirt to be picked up.
“Hi!” she says, all wrapped up in her little bathrobe and slippers, arms held up expectantly. He pulls her up, presses a kiss to her cheek as she wraps around him like a little limpet, “Daddy says you shouldn’t work so hard on the weekend, you know,” she reports back, all little serious face.
Louis’ stomach lurches, guilt, he thinks, and he laughs.
“Cheers, Mia,” Harry calls dryly from upstairs.
“What! You said it!” she shouts back, right into Louis’ ear, before turning to him, appealing. “He did, I swear.”
“I’m sure you’re right, princess,” he says, putting his phone and keys on the sideboard and taking a breath, centering himself before carrying her upstairs, “did you have a good day?”
“Yeah,” she says, “we went to Uncle Niall and Aunty Amy’s, and Conor has a new truck and we played with it but then he was naughty so we had to leave.”
He whistles, impressed, at the story, and goes to turn into the little play room, but she shakes her head.
“No, they’re in our room,” she says, “they’re playing go fish, but I got bored.”
Louis doesn’t say anything, just smiles and hitches her up onto his hip a little more. His head is pounding, scared, he thinks, just maybe he’s scared.
He stops in the doorway of their room for a moment; Harry and James are engrossed in their game, they don’t see him. James’ brow is furrowed in concentration, blatantly flashing Harry all his cards, and Louis can’t help but smile at the grin on Harry’s face.
“C’mon, bud, what’d you wanna ask for?”
“Do you have any…” he trails off, cocking his head to the side, “do you have any fours?”
“Mate!” Harry cries, ruffling his hair, “you asked for them last time, remember?”
James open and closes his mouth, scowls up at Harry and gets a laugh out of him.
“Tell you what, I’ll give you another go.”
“Sixes?” James asks after a long moment, and Harry cries yaaay!, handing him the two in his deck.
James is halfway through rearranging all his cards when Harry looks up and sees Louis standing there.
It makes Louis’ heart drop in his chest; the expectant, familiar smile on Harry’s face. Oh God, he thinks, this is what it’s going to be like every time he looks at me.
“Hey,” Harry says, leaning up to catch Louis’ lips for a moment as he walks into the room, Mia still on his hip, “how was work?”
Louis, absurdly, wants to laugh at that. He doesn’t. He feels cold all over, or something.
“Fine,” he says, “yeah. Fine. ‘S’it tea time, then?” he asks, changing the subject, and before Harry can ask him anything else, the kids are squirming out of arms and jumping off beds, tumbling downstairs and into the kitchen. Harry just laughs a little, stands up with a yawn and presses another kiss to Louis’ lips.
“Seriously,” he asks lazily, hand on Louis’ shoulder “is it all okay?”
Tell him, Louis thinks, just get it over with. Just sit him down on this bed right now and tell him.
Tick, he thinks; hears the clock behind him echo in his head, tick, tick, tick. How’re you going to play this one?
And he knows he’s chosen the wrong option as soon as the words are out of his mouth.
“Yeah,” he says, “of course.”
Harry starts on about the auction in two weeks, the asking price, the number of other serious bidders already registered.
Louis just concentrates on putting one foot in front of the other, breathing normally, not letting his legs give out or a little, terrified, fuck, leave his lips. They have tea to cook and X Factor to watch and kids to get to sleep.
He has, in that moment, made his bed. He’s just not so sure he can lie in it.
Louis takes up the offer of staying an extra three weeks. He doesn’t give a shit about clients, or documents, most of his colleagues. He just has no idea how to wake up in the morning and have nowhere to go. He has no idea how to do this, so. He does what he’s good at. Paints on a smile and slaps two sandwiches together in record time, drops the kids at preschool before going to work.
Sure, it’s weird, uncomfortable. It’s also marginally better than the alternative, sitting Harry down and telling him the truth.
He has to do it. It’s been three days and Harry still thinks he’s gainfully employed and that they’re in a position to go and buy a house and the thing is, Louis can’t deal with that either way. Can’t deal with the excitement in Harry’s eyes as he takes the virtual tour of the place for the fifteen thousandth time, but equally can’t imagine having to tell him the truth.
He knows he’s not hiding it well, is the thing. Harry’s noticed something’s not right; you don’t know a person for ten-odd years without being able to recognise if something’s wrong. He catches Louis staring off into the distance, gnawing on his bottom lip, flinching slightly at the mention of work, patience wearing thin faster than usual. He asks, tentatively, not wanting to push but also wanting to know, if Louis’ okay. Over dinner, in the morning as he makes tea, when they’re tiptoeing out of the kids’ room after reading them a story and Louis trips over, not looking where he’s going. When they’re getting dressed in the morning and Louis accidentally puts on one of Harry’s ridiculously large shirts, as they’re falling asleep one night and Louis’ just sad, clingier than usual.
He wants to tell him, he really does, wants to get rid of the guilty pang in his chest, if only to replace it with another one. But he just can’t. He really has gone to say it a number of times, and he can’t.
Which is just about the most terrifying thing he’s ever had to deal with.
Louis snaps his head up, the TV’s still on in the background, it’s Friday night and Louis doesn’t even know what time it is, God, he’s so out of it.
“Hi,” Harry says. The house is quiet, they put the kids to bed a while ago. Louis stops chewing on his lip, looks up at him and smiles, hopes it sticks.
It doesn’t. Harry’s brow furrows almost immediately, he opens his mouth to say something but it’s like he can’t find the words. Ask me, Louis thinks, maybe if you asked me straight out I could say it.
“Bed?” Harry asks instead, and Louis’ heart drops and clenches all at the same time, adrenaline in his veins dissipating into something that feels distinctly disappointing.
He waits for Harry to pad over to him, tug him up off the couch. They don’t say anything else, and Louis has to bite his lip again to stop his breath coming out choked and panicked.
Harry collapses into bed in nothing but his boxers, as per usual; Louis takes his time in the bathroom, tries to pull himself into line, because night time is worse somehow, being in the dark with just Harry, no words, no distraction, nothing else but the two of them. Because it doesn’t seem like a time for lying and hiding, then, it’s the one part of the day that’s solely theirs, and Louis can’t help the panic that floods his chest when he realizes he’s ruining it.
“Babe,” Harry calls softly, “’m’gonna fall asleep, hurry up.”
Hurry up, Louis thinks, yeah.
He smiles, tiredly, as he walks back out and crawls into bed next to Harry, lets himself lie on his stomach and legs as Harry sits up against the headboard, runs a hand through Louis’ hair. His skin is warm underneath him, and for the first time in so, so long, Louis lets himself relax into it, tentatively. Lets himself have this five minutes, because maybe he deserves it.
Then Harry starts speaking, softly at first, low and relaxed. About how they could be moved by Christmas, if everything goes according to plan, about how the twins will finally have their own rooms, about how much closer it’s going to be to the school they want to send them to next year, and suddenly Louis can’t breathe. Suddenly he can’t hear all of this – futures he can’t give them and plans he can no longer stick to and this, all of this that he has to deal with, now – and suddenly he needs him to stop. Needs Harry quiet and his arms around him and to be close to him, telling him it’s going to be okay, coaxing him still like when they were kids.
“S’gonna be so good, babe, I was talking to this guy at work, and he was saying that in South Kensing—“
Quickly, and somewhat recklessly, Louis sits up, looks at him with a sort of frantic want in his eyes. Harry falls quiet, reaches out and runs a hand across Louis’ face.
“Lou,” he says, “Lou, is something—“
And he doesn’t get to finish, Louis won’t let him, and he leans forward and lays a kiss on him. It’s a proper kiss; not a hurried have a good day as he leaves the house or hi, you look nice tonight, but a real kiss, deep and strong and heavy-breathed. Harry groans into it, leant back against the headboard as Louis clambers into his lap, calves folded underneath him as he cups his hands round Harry’s face and presses up into it, breath laboured and fast.
“Hey,” Harry pants, pulling away for a moment. Louis can feel him half hard underneath him, grinds down and kisses him again, trying to distract him, distract himself, he doesn’t know anymore.
“Hey,” Harry says, breaking away again. He takes Louis’ wrists in his hands, holds them against his chest, “you alright?”
“Yeah,” Louis breathes, ducking back in to mouth at his jaw until Harry tilts his head up, “yeah. Miss you, y’know.”
Harry doesn’t answer, just drops his hands to the cinch of Louis’ waist instead, fingers firm around his back. He pulls Louis closer, grinds his hips up shallowly as Louis presses his lips to his again, charged this time, desperate, breath running together as Harry’s tongue licks into his mouth, suddenly as hungry for it as Louis.
They’re both hard now, rocking against each other almost subconsciously, and as nice as the messy kisses and lazy friction are, Louis isn’t going to get off like this, it’s not how this works. Harry knows that too, hands travelling down the curve of Louis’ hips and the warm skin of his stomach before settling on what he can get at of his bum, rolling his hips up and drawing Louis closer at the same time.
And maybe Harry doesn’t know what’s going through Louis’ head, maybe he doesn’t know what all this is about, but he always, always knows how Louis wants it, and as he does it again, pulls Louis into his body and grinds their cocks together through their clothes, Louis feels heat pooling through him at the thought; Harry always knows just what he wants.
“Shit,” he murmurs darkly into Harry’s ear; just the two of them, just the night, just this moment, “shit, hang on.”
He pulls at Harry’s underwear until Harry gets the idea, motions for Louis to sit up for a second so he can slide them off. He tosses them to the side with his left hand, right guiding Louis back down onto his lap, dick hard against the pale skin of his stomach.
Louis wants to suck him off for a bit, maybe, but Harry’s tired and probably won’t last; and he needs more than that tonight, more than a lazy blowjob before bed. So instead he strokes him lazily, until he’s fully hard, kisses him roughly as his stubble grazes across Harry’s face and makes him tip his head back again, eyes flutter shut underneath Louis’ gaze.
“Lou,” he murmurs, “d’you want—“
“Yeah,” Louis says, right in the shell of his ear, goosebumps spreading across his back as Harry holds his waist that bit tighter, hands moulding to Louis’ warm skin, “yeah, go on, then.”
And that’s all Harry needs, really all he’s ever needed to get going. He takes control at that, thrusting his hips up to shamelessly rub off against Louis once more before settling, peeling Louis’ briefs and pajama pants off and tossing them to the end of the bed. Louis inhales sharply at the sensation, cool air on his dick as Harry settles his hands on his hips and rolls up into him, cocks grinding together as Harry brings him closer, breathes hot onto his neck and bites at his collarbone sharply, groaning into it.
They settle into it for a moment, but Louis doesn’t want that tonight, doesn’t want to settle, he needs Harry fast and close and panting loud enough in his ear to make him white out, just for a few seconds. With Harry sucking a bruise low on his neck, Louis keens, right hand scrabbling at the sideboard for the lube they keep at the back of the drawer, clutching at Harry’s back with his left to keep him close, chests pressed together as Harry’s legs cradle his bum.
“Stop,” he pants, as Harry bites down over the mark he’s made, heat shooting to Louis’ crotch, “shit.”
Harry grins at him for a moment, Louis can see it in the dark, and no, no, no, he doesn’t want to see that, just needs Harry close. He presses the bottle into Harry’s hand, grinds down on him to wipe the smile off his face, and Harry doesn’t need much more encouragement than that. He slicks his fingers up quickly, gives a few rough tugs at Louis cock which have him whimpering, biting Harry’s shoulder as he presses his index finger to Louis’ hole, fluttering as he pushes inside.
Louis groans at that, properly, waits for Harry to push all the way in and out before he lets himself move, lower himself down onto Harry’s fingers, get his hips moving against him.
“More,” he says, kissing Harry roughly, breath shaky in his mouth. The angle’s a little off but Louis doesn’t care, doesn’t care about anything right now but this, Harry close and safe and unquestioning, pushing another finger into him, then another until he hits Louis just right, makes him shudder and his legs go liquid.
“Shit,” he whines, higher than he likes to sound but God, he can’t help it when Harry’s touching him like this, hand digging into the soft skin on his hips and back and arse, thrusting him fingers up into him. Louis pushes right back against him, steadies himself on Harry’s shoulders and rocks down, Harry’s fingers scissoring inside him until it’s almost too much.
“Babe,” Harry says roughly, a little desperate, and Louis’ been so caught up in this that he hasn’t even noticed Harry almost losing it just at the sight of him, hips rutting up to catch whatever friction he can find, “you good?”
“Yeah,” Louis pants, sweat clinging to his neck, his back, as Harry’s fingertips dig into his skin, “yeah, God, I’m ready.”
Harry wastes no time at that, pulls his fngers back gently and Louis can’t help but moan at the loss, nuzzles his head into Harry’s shoulder and nip at his neck, his earlobe, breathing hard. Harry slicks himself up with a few rough strokes and groans at the pressure of his fist, skin sweat slicked below Louis, limbs entwined and breath coming short together and Louis needs this, needs him close. He drops his right hand to guide Harry’s dick behind him, until it presses at his entrance, head falling back to expose the column of his throat. He can feel the flush fall over him, from his head right to his chest, hears the low, muttered fuck escape Harry’s lips, because he knows he looks good like this and he knows Harry loves it.
He lowers himself down onto Harry’s cock slowly; eyes fluttering closed at the sensation. He drops his head for a moment before lifting it back up and Harry’s in there at that, hands low on Louis’ hips as he kisses him, rough and quick.
“You ‘right?” he asks, voice impossibly dark and low and Louis gives a nod against him, grunts a yeah, and Harry pushes his hips up experimentally, Louis sat right in his lap. God, it’s good. Louis can’t help but give a breathy little ahh at that, and Harry takes that as encouragement, lifts Louis up a little before pushing up into him, slipping down the headboard a bit. Once he’s got his bearings – once he manages to open his eyes, fuck, it’s been a while since they’ve fucked like this and Louis misses it, he gets his hands on Harry’s shoulders, thumbs running across his neck and kissing him soundly before he pushes up, strain in his thighs, and back down, Harry’s eyes slipping closed at the pressure of Louis around him.
They fall into a rhythm, Louis riding Harry’s cock like he was born to do it and he’s good at this, is the thing, he knows it, knows it more than he feels he knows anything in his life right now. Harry’s hands sit firm on his waist, guiding him down again and again until Harry’s meeting his thrusts too, breath falling into punchy little gasps together on each movement.
“Shit, Lou,” Harry groans, hands kneading into Louis’ thighs for a second, sore and muscle stretched taut underneath his tan, “Louis, fuck, so good, babe.”
And God, Louis’ close at that, he’s so close and he can feel his climax coming, nearly, nearly, nearly, and as Harry curls a hand round his hip and pulls him down harder, relentlessly, it’s all too much. Louis groans, buries his head in Harry’s shoulder as he streaks white and hot between them, all over Harry’s stomach, blanking out for a few moments as it courses through him. And there it is, blanking out, wrapped up in Harry’s arms, and it’s almost like a drug, the way the relief and pleasure flow through him at the same time, just now, just this, just for a moment, everything else slipping away for these few precious seconds.
Harry thrusts up into him right through his orgasm and then beyond it, over and over, leaves him panting and absolutely wrecked as he chases his own end. When he does come, finally, Louis sore and spent and almost curling in on himself with him overwhelming it is, Louis buries his head back in Harry’s shoulder; tries his hardest to pretend that the tears streaming down his face are entirely because of this, now.
Harry falls asleep with a satisfied little smile on his face that night. Louis doesn’t.
“Mia!” Zayn cries on Wednesday, laughing as she bowls into him for a hug, “nice kit, darling!”
Louis can’t help but smile from where he’s sitting on the couch as she does a proud little twirl in her blue and green under-5s club strips. Seconds later James comes down the stairs too, stands next to her in his matching kit and beams up at Zayn and Liam from where they’re sitting.
“Look at my little stars, hm?” Harry says, ruffling both their hair at the same time, “you look so grown up. Go and get your bottles from the fridge, okay?”
They nod, trot off to the kitchen together and come back with water and game faces well and truly on. Their kneehighs just about reach the bottom of their slightly-too-big shorts, and James laughs as Liam pulls a funny face. Louis smiles from where he’s curled up on the couch at their determined little expressions, his number 7 and 8 ready for their training session down at the park, which is mostly just a glorified game of tips but they both love it.
“Say goodbye to Dad and Uncle Zayn and Uncle Liam, yeah?” Harry says, “we’ve got to get going.”
“Bye, Dad!” they say in unison, giggling at each other like they always do when they sync up like that. They climb up on either side of him and press kisses to his cheek and he wraps an arm round them both, looks right at James, then Mia and back.
“Have fun, yeah?” Louis says, “don’t eat too many oranges at half time either, okay, remember how sick they made you after?”
They nod happily at him and he’s quite sure they’re taking no notice of his advice, but what can he do. He watches at they give Liam and Zayn a hug goodbye, Mia managing to get Zayn to promise to do a drawing with her soon, and within a matter of moments Harry’s herding them out the door, Range Rover purring into action seconds later.
Louis looks at Liam and Zayn a little guiltily.
He knows why they’re here, of course, they’re Harry’s last resort. In college, when he’d thought that Louis was cheating on him when he was, in fact, taking French lessons to surprise Harry with a trip to Paris for his twenty-first, it’d been Liam and Zayn he’d sent in to coax the truth out of him. When Louis hadn’t wanted to tell him about needing to send a bit of money to his Mum back home when they were first married, it had been Liam and Zayn, his two-for-one counseling deal, made to make him spill.
So, he supposes, this is what it’s come down to. His two best friends at his house for an informal interrogation at half five on a Wednesday evening, and the guilt washes back over him in a wave.
He blinks at them, slowly.
“Tea?” Liam asks, a little loud, a little forced, and God bless him for trying, Louis thinks. He seems to know, somewhere in that eternally good heart of his, that while Louis would jump into fire for the both of them, he and Zayn have a special sort of understanding when it comes to times of stress. They know how to deal with each other almost instinctively, and all five of them know when they’re there to play therapist and there to play sidekick. Liam gets it today, just like any other, and goes off to find something to occupy himself in the kitchen.
“Yeah, babe, camomile’d be lovely,” Zayn says, tugging at Liam’s wrist till he leans down and kisses him, “thanks.”
And as Liam leaves the sitting room, tapping on his phone, it’s just Louis and Zayn.
They don’t say anything for a long moment, and when Louis chances a glance up at him, it’s to see that infuriating look on his face. Quietly expectant, waiting, waiting for Louis to tell him what’s wrong so that he can get it back to Harry through their various backchannels before he has a heart attack.
Except, of course, that’s not how it’s going to work this time. It can’t.
“So,” Zayn says dryly, eyebrow raised, “seen any good movies lately?”
Louis snorts, runs a hand over his face.
“Funny, really,” he says, and then fall back into a beat, a pause.
“Lou,” Zayn says gently, moving forward on the couch, “I don’t know what’s going on, but Harry’s so worried, mate. Just tell me you’re okay, that you’re gonna be fine.”
Louis doesn’t say a word, runs his fingertips over the hem of his trousers. Zayn sighs.
“Lou,” he tries again, “Louis are you—“
“I can’t tell you,” he says suddenly. He swallows, panic rising in his chest as Zayn pauses, works out what to do with that information.
“Why not?” he asks softly, “are you hurt? What’s happened, Louis, you’re scaring the shit out of us.”
Louis takes a long, almost shuddery breath, before looking up at him.
“I can’t tell you,” he says again, “because if I tell you before I tell him he’ll never forgive me.”
Zayn nods, defeated, worried. “Okay,” he says, “do you…c’mere, okay, give me a hug.”
Louis lets Zayn pull him closer and hug him tight, he doesn’t let himself find any comfort in it. He didn’t deserve it the other night, he doesn’t deserve it now, and he wonders if he’ll ever deserve it again.
It is the day of the auction.
Saturday, crisp November morning. Winter coats out for the kids, scarves and mittens, and Louis is sat in the car outside Harry’s mother’s place as they drop them round there for the day.
And oh, God.
Louis thinks he’s going to be sick.
He still hasn’t told him. Somehow, he’s let this get away from him, eternal promises of tomorrow and perpetual excuses; and now it’s come to this. It’s the day of the auction, in three hours they’ll be there and Harry’s going to expect them to be placing the winning bid and no no no, he’s really going to be sick.
He opens the car door to get some fresh air. He comes to the realization, rather circumspectly, that he’s never been more out of his depth than this before.
He’ll tell him when he gets back in the car. He has to. He has no choice.
Harry, wait. I have to tell you something.
Harry, we can’t go to the auction today.
Babe, hang on, there’s something I have to say.
“Hey,” Harry says, scaring Louis half out of his seat as he slams the car door behind him. He shivers slightly against the cold, and Louis pulls his own door shut wordlessly. “So I was thinking, you want to grab some food before we go?”
“Sure,” Louis says automatically, “yeah, sounds good.”
They get to a café. He still hasn’t told him.
Harry’s trying his hardest to be happy about this, excited and bubbly and little smile that Louis usually wants to kiss right off his face. He’s trying for the both of them, because Louis is fully aware he looks like he’s just seen death itself, and that only makes things a thousand times worse. He can’t even fucking pretend right anymore.
“Kids were so cute when I dropped them,” Harry’s saying with a smile, Louis is barely registering, just sips his water, “they were talking to my Mum and she was asking them about the new place, you know, and I…”
It’s only several seconds later than Louis even realizes he’s stopped talking altogether, Harry just looking at him, brow furrowed and disappointed and scared, maybe.
“Hmm?” Louis says, immediately guilty, “sorry, I—“
“Latte and a cappuccino?”
Harry closes his eyes for a moment, annoyance flitting across his face.
“Yeah,” he says finally, “thanks.”
The waitress tells them that their food will only be a moment before bustling off, and Louis suddenly wishes she’d stay because he doesn’t like the look in Harry’s eyes right now. It looks like his patience is wearing very, very thin, and Louis’ stomach flutters uncomfortably.
“Louis,” he says quietly, very obviously not Lou or babe, “were you even listening to a word I was saying?”
Louis focuses very hard on spooning the froth off his coffee.
“Yeah,” he says quietly, risking a glance up to Harry’s face. He looks so, so fucking disappointed. “No,” he amends.
And it’s interesting, because the café’s loud, clatter of cutlery and people shouting orders, the little ding of the bell in the kitchen. It’s a Saturday morning, it’s a full house, yet it feels so deathly quiet to Louis.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Harry says, biting his lip, “I really don’t and I haven’t for weeks now. But you’re not filling me with a load of confidence, you know. We’re about to go and buy a fucking house, Louis, and you’re not even listening to me.”
Shit. This is it, this is where he tells him, there’s no other choice. Oh, God. He feels it rising like bile, he has to get it out now, and his breath feels like it’s coming too short, like he’s going to see stars.
“Harry,” he says shakily, dizzy, “I—“
Both their heads flick up so fast that Louis thinks he should probably have whiplash.
It’s Greg, of all people.
“Hey, mate,” Greg says, smile small but sincere, “sorry, just popped in for a coffee and thought I saw you sitting here. How are you, Harry?”
“Great,” Harry says, smile big and wide; Louis’ the only one who can pick the general aura of please leave surrounding it, “yeah, we’re fine. How are you?”
“I’m good,” he says, before turning to Louis, “how’s…how’s everything going?”
When he looks back on it, Louis will wonder why the fuck it didn’t hit him earlier, why he didn’t think to get them out of there. But at this precise moment, two thoughts cross Louis’ mind. One, Greg knows. Two, Greg doesn’t know that Harry doesn’t know.
And oh, fuck, because it’s like watching two trains crash into each other. If train A departs Louis got fired at a speed of one hundred miler per hour, and train B leave two weeks later from Louis still hasn’t told me he got fired at two hundred, how much damage will their collision do, Louis thinks. And just as Harry kicks him under the table to fucking answer the question his boss is asking him, Greg starts speaking again.
“I mean, I guess you’ll have more time with the kids now, which is nice,” he says, eyes flicking concernedly between them, desperately tripping over his words to avoid the awkwardness that has descended, “I’m sure they’ll love having you around, you know, until you find something new.”
And at that, everything freezes for a moment, like God’s granting him a moment of complete and utter calm before it hits them both. Then Harry’s foot leaves Louis leg. Louis’ heart is beating so fast that he thinks it’s about to burst, Harry’s completely motionless, and Greg’s standing there like he’s maybe piecing this together.
“Oh God,” he says quietly, “Louis—“
“Yeah,” Louis says loudly, over the clamour of the café, “yeah, should be really nice.”
He shoots Greg a look that he hopes says please for the love of God leave now, and Greg seems to understand entirely and absolutely.
“I…” he says, ashen, “have a good day, guys.”
And with that he’s out of there fast, coffee forgotten, and Louis vaguely wonders if he’ll ever see him again.
Then he looks at Harry, and every other thought in his head dies on the spot. He thinks, in that moment, that you could show him a picture of his own mother and he’d have trouble placing her. Harry is quite literally the only thing he can see right now. And not in a romantic, wedding-day-esque way, but in a I’ve never seen a look like that on your face before-type way; terrified.
Because, oh, fuck.
Harry doesn’t say a word. He pushes his coffee back across the table, looks Louis right in the eye.
“Does he mean what I think he means?” he says quietly, so dangerously quiet, but Louis hears it like it’s the only sound in the world.
“Harry,” he croaks, “I was going to tell—“
Harry just holds up a hand.
“How long’ve you known?”
“How long, Louis?”
He swallows. “Three weeks,” he says quietly, and the snort of disbelief that Harry lets out that has his blood run cold, “Harry wait, okay—“
“No,” he says, scraping his chair back against the wooden floor and looking him right in the eye, “no, that’s all.”
And with that, he stands up, picks his coat up from the back of his chair and walks out of the café. He walks, hunched against the cold and flicking his hair from his eyes, across the street, gets into the car, and Louis watches until he’s roared away, exhaust fumes the only thing behind.
And oh, God, Louis thinks, hands shaking as he puts thirty quid on the table, oh God.
When Louis wakes up on Monday morning, Harry is not in bed next to him. Harry is downstairs, sleeping on the couch.
Harry is very quiet and very stone faced and so far from Louis that he feels like he can’t see him. For the sake of the kids, they still have dinner together, still put them to sleep together, still stand in the same room.
Louis’ pretty sure Harry wouldn’t be bothering otherwise.
After they put the kids to bed on Tuesday night, Harry turning to go downstairs, Louis grabs his arm, a little reckless, desperate.
“Harry,” he starts, but Harry shakes his head.
“Leave it, Lou,” he says, pulls away gently, like it’s hurting him, and pads down into the living room.
And so it continues.
It takes Louis a long, long time to get to sleep that night, every night.
They carry on in the odd silence that has descended over them for a week. Louis finishes up his last week of work, gets his payout. It’s a quiet, subdued end and Louis barely registers it. He, Aiden and Eleanor walk out of there at five o’clock like the most bedraggled, downtrodden Charlie’s Angels the world has ever seen. That’d make Harry laugh, usually; not today, today he doesn’t get to tell him things like that.
The three of them part ways and Louis knows he’ll probably never see them again, let alone his career.
And he can’t even be bothered to care, not right now, because he’s going home to a quiet, dangerous lull and it scares the absolute shit out of him.
When he gets home on Friday night, so fucking low that he feels like he might just curl in on himself right there in the hall, it’s to Niall in the kitchen with Harry, who’s tossing a stirfry.
They’re chatting amicably, and when Louis clicks the door shut, they quiet immediately.
“Hi,” he says, stopping just shy of the kitchen. Niall smiles at him, warm and a little sad, pulls him in for a hug.
“Hey, mate,” he says, and it’s a little awkward, forced, Louis wonders what Harry’s been telling him, “we just dropped in to say hi. ‘M’so sorry to hear, Lou.”
“It’s okay,” Louis says absently, watching Harry from over Niall’s shoulder, “you know. It is what is it.”
He doesn’t miss the way Harry’s lips press into a thin line at that, the way he turns his back, and when Niall beckons up the stairs for Conor to come down and put his shoes back on so they can leave, Louis finds himself wishing that they wouldn’t, just so there wouldn’t have to be another night of this.
He takes his turn on the couch that night, Harry could use a good night’s sleep. He’s the one who has to go to work on Monday, after all.
Like all droughts, it breaks one day without warning.
The kids are across the road at the neighbours’ place for a couple of hours; Caroline’s kids are six and eight and they adore the twins, so they go over there from time to time. Louis walks back inside from dropping them off to Harry sitting on the couch, reading listlessly.
And suddenly it’s so, so quiet. It’s deathly fucking quiet, palpable without the kids, the whole house thick with this tension, and Louis can’t do it anymore. His hands shake as he closes the front door and turns back to him for a second, walks inside and sits on the coffee table opposite the couch.
“Harry,” he says quietly, “Harry.”
He doesn’t look up, just closes his eyes for a moment and keeps reading.
“Harry,” he says again, more definitive, and then he looks up. Louis isn’t prepared for the look in his eyes. It’s angry, and Harry, fuck, he doesn’t get angry. Sad, or annoyed, or hurt, yes. But angry isn’t an expression he wears very often and it’s not one he wears with Louis.
He closes his book.
“What,” he says flatly.
Louis scrubs a hand across his face tiredly.
“I can’t do this,” he says weakly, “Harry. You need to talk to me.”
Harry sits up a little. He doesn’t know how to do this, Louis can tell. He doesn’t know how to be angry and disappointed in Louis. He believes in the world too much to feel like this very often. It’s such an odd look on him, it makes Louis’ heart clench.
“What do you want to talk about?” he says softly, but it’s not him getting brave, it’s a genuine question, etched all through the worry on his face. “Seriously, Lou. You obviously weren’t that keen on talking to me when it mattered, so. Whatever. We can talk. What do you want to talk about?”
Louis bites his lip, hard, drops his gaze so he doesn’t have to look at the hurt written all over him.
“I,” he starts, “I should’ve told you. Earlier. Before the house and the—“
“You think this is about the house?” Harry says incredulously, laugh bitter as he stands up, “for fuck’s sake, Louis, I can’t listen to this.”
He walks over to the stairs, hand running through his hair, but Louis stops him, catches his arm as he stands too.
“Harry,” he tries again, “what…what do you want me to say?”
Harry stops, freezes in Louis grip. He turns to look at him, and God, he looks so, so worn. So tired. Louis’ done that. He feels sick.
“What the fuck do you think I want?” he says quietly, voice building, “I…a week later and you’re apologizing for the fucking house. I can’t deal with that Louis, because I still don’t think you get it.”
“I don’t fucking care which house we do and don’t buy, Louis. You do know that, don’t you? That’s not what this is about, and it never will be.”
There’s a silence that Louis doesn’t know if he’s supposed to fill or not.
“Okay,” he settles on saying.
Harry’s voice is quieter when he talks this time, brushes a hand over his face before crossing his arms.
“I had to hear it from your boss,” he says finally, before rolling his eyes at Louis’ reaction, frustrated, “no. Don’t get all closed eyes and melodramatic fucking guilty face on me, Lou, it’s true. From your boss. In the middle of a café. You know I’m saying it now, again, and I still don’t believe that.”
Louis bites his lip, won’t let himself cry, not here, not now.
“I just,” Harry says, defeated, “I just really don’t understand that, you know. I don’t understand when the fuck you thought it was going to be the right time to tell me. What, were we going to go and bid on the house?” he asks, accusatory.
“Seriously, were we? “
“Because that’s what it felt like to me, Lou,” he says, and Louis shuts up, lets him speak because God knows he deserves it, “like you were going to let me go in there and, oh, I don’t know, buy us a house and pop a bottle of champagne because you didn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth.”
He stops, takes a breath, tries to centre himself, control whatever he’s feeling.
“We’re…we’re not kids. You can’t do that. We have a fucking responsibility to tell each other what’s going on so that we can look after our fucking children as best we can and Jesus, Louis, you—“
“Stop,” he says, choked, “stop it—”
“You fucking broke that.”
Louis inhales sharply, lets it go. It’s so quiet.
“Are you saying I’m a bad fucking father?” he asks, low and angry now, anger as a defence, he thinks, because he can’t deal with whatever this is, “because I deserve a lot of the shit you’re throwing at me, but I don’t deserve that.”
Harry shakes his head, throws his hands us as if to say, here we go again.
“Did I say that?” he asks loudly, “can you fucking listen to me Louis, Jesus, this actually isn’t about you being a fucking martyr, believe it or not. No, I’m not saying you’re a bad father. I’m saying you fucked up, you fucked me over, and I’m sorry that it’s making you feel bad but I’m upset about it.”
Those words fucking sting, Louis thinks, slap him hard. He’s blindsided by them, really, so he retaliates.
“You know what?” he says, suddenly white hot angry, because fuck Harry, for telling him he didn’t deal with this properly, like there’s a method, “there’s a thing or two I’ve been pretty fucking upset about this week too, and I could’ve used you there.”
Harry snorts, shakes his head. “Don’t pin this on me Louis, I’m not the one who’s fucked up here. You know, I might’ve thought you’d wanted me around if you’d bother to tell me your—”
“Please just stop it,” Louis interjects quietly, because this, this fucking attack Harry apparently feels like dishing out, is too much for him, “I’m asking you to fucking stop, because I can’t listen to this right now. Do you even—“
He cuts himself off, looks down and runs a hand over his eyes. He blinks back whatever’s threatening to spill over and glances up at Harry again. And at that, Harry’s face sort of drops, he sighs, tension easing out of his shoulders.
“Hey,” he says gently, he’s always so gentle and kind and Louis’ heart is breaking with that knowledge, “hey. C’mere, okay.”
And Louis’ so, so tired. He sort of collapses against him, lets himself be held for a long moment, Harry’s arms strong and safe around him.
When he looks up at Harry’s face, the words seem to stick in his throat.
“Are we okay?” he croaks, soft and vulnerable and it hits him, that after all this time Harry’s still the only person who sees this part of him.
Harry casts his gaze away for a moment, like he’s collecting himself, sifting through the thoughts in his head.
“I’m sorry you lost your job, Lou,” he says quietly, and Louis flinches, still hates hearing it out loud, “I really, really am. You don’t deserve that, no one does, and. I don’t know. I’m sorry. I hope you know that, I’m sorry and I should’ve been here on Friday.”
Louis nods into the silence. It doesn’t feel like what he wants to hear. Harry’s arms drop, he steps back a little.
“But you know what I’m even more sorry about?” he asks, “that you didn’t think you could tell me.”
“I love you,” he says, “but I don’t know if we’re okay.”
He turns to go upstairs, and Louis doesn’t stop him.
They sell Harry’s vintage Jag and Louis’ car and keep the Range Rover. They cancel the cable subscription and their trip to Australia to visit Harry’s sister and the week they were going to spend in New York, just the two of them. They stop sending Louis’ mum five hundred quid a week, make it five hundred a fortnight instead. Sell their stock options that are meant to be their superannuation, dip into their savings, put the kids’ names down at less expensive schools for next year.
Harry’s income is no longer their disposable; it’s what they live on. It’s substantially less than Louis’ was. They can make the mortgage payments each month and keep the kids in daycare, although might need to cut back when Louis’ insignificant payout runs out.
Harry bears it without complaint. It almost makes it worse.
It’s a very quiet Christmas. The kids don’t notice, Louis thinks, they’re happy and have fun at Harry’s Mum’s in the day and with Louis’ Mum that evening, at their place.
“That was the best day,” Mia murmurs into Louis’ shoulder as he carries her up the stairs, “I want it to be Christmas every day.”
He laughs into her hair as they walk into the twins’ room, Harry with James in tow behind him.
“Can’t be Christmas every day, darling, otherwise it wouldn’t be special.”
She’s already asleep in his arms, doesn’t hear him.
Harry drifts into their bedroom to call his Dad, and Louis wants to say Happy Christmas, but doesn’t want to be left without a response.
He goes and has another glass of wine, and when he goes up to bed, Harry’s already asleep.
When the fireworks go off over London a week later, it’s the first time in his life that Louis thinks the new year might be worse than the last. James is tucked into his side, gasps with big wide eyes as the last one goes off.
“It’s so loud,” he says, “Dad, it’s so big.”
And yeah, Louis thinks, yeah, it is. He’s just not sure he likes it anymore.
“I know, bud,” he says, “you like ‘em?”
James nods, snuggles into his side.
“Happy New Year,” he says happily, parroting the adults around him saying the same thing. He’s grinning, this big wide smile and Louis hugs him close, looks across Zayn and Liam’s living room to where Harry’s standing with Mia.
They lock eyes, and for the briefest of seconds the hurt in Harry’s eyes turns achingly fond.
It’s Louis’ first New Year in ten without a midnight kiss.
The thing about being involuntarily unemployed, Louis thinks, is that it’s very, very undignified. It becomes less of a melancholy abstract and more of a stark reality the third week he wakes up on a Monday morning with nothing to do.
Harry’s already in the shower when he comes to, light streaming in through the shutters, kids crashing around downstairs. He blinks the fuzziness in his head away and sits up with a yawn.
Another week, then.
He walks downstairs and pushes his hair from his eyes, flinches a little at the sun. When he turns into the kitchen, Mia and James are stood looking into the fridge, heads sort of nestled together.
“Morning,” Louis says with a smile as they turn to him, eyes wide and smiles cheeky, “what are we up to, hm?”
“Making breakfast,” Mia says, and James nods his agreement. They’ve got each other’s dressing gowns on – it happens from time to time, that they get a shirt or a pair of shorts confused – and Mia’s still got her bunny in hand.
“You want a hand?” Louis asks, “c’mon, come sit up on the bench.”
He lifts them both up and they smile sleepily at him, feet dangling over the edge as he puts two pieces of bread in the toaster and flicks the kettle on.
“How’d you sleep?” he asks, combing his fingers through Mia’s soft little fringe. She butts her head into his chest, and he laughs, presses a kiss to her head.
“Good,” they chirp together, before James chimes in, “Mia had a dream about a dragon.”
“Really?” Louis asks, eyebrows raised as, “was it a good dragon or a bad dragon?”
She ponders the question for a bit, brow furrowed.
“Good, I think,” she says, “it was purple.”
“Very cool,” he says, “did he breathe fire?"
“Yeah! Like this,” she says, opening her mouth and breathing heavily in his face. He scrunches up his nose, pushes her face away.
“Yuck!” he says, “that’s disgusting, you know.”
“Like this, Dad,” James says with a naughty little smile as Mia squeals, and copies her. Louis drops his jaw in mock horror, shakes his head as he slides them both across the bench until they bump together, right next to each other.
“Are you breathing fire at me?” he squawks, outraged, hands tickling their tummies quickly, to a cacophony of squeals, “are you?!”
“No!” they shriek, “stop it, Dad,” Mia giggles as he tickles her again, James trying to squirm out of him grip, “stop, Dad, you’re so silly.”
It’s as he’s mid tickle fight that Harry comes downstairs, laughs at he walks into the kitchen and grabs an apple. He holds it in his mouth, does his cufflinks up as he smiles at them.
“Hi, babies,” he sing-songs, planting a kiss on each of the kid’s heads, “how are you?”
“Good,” they say again.
“We’re not babies, Daddy,” James says sternly, “we’re four.”
Harry just laughs, takes a bite of his apple and chugs down a few sips of tea, bag still in.
“I have to run,” he says curtly, to Louis this time, throwing his mug in the sink, “sorry. Lunch is in the fridge for them, though.”
“Sure,” Louis says, turning to catch a kiss that Harry no longer throws his way as he grabs his jacket, “yeah, talk to you later, babe.”
Harry shrugs his suit on, smiles as he comes over to say bye to the kids. It’s that special smile that lights his whole face up as he looks at them, dimply and so happy, and it’s a look that hasn’t been Louis’ since November.
“Give me a kiss goodbye, c’mon,” Harry says, rolling his eyes at them. Mia holds her arms out expectantly to give him a hug and he squeezes her tight, kisses her on the cheek and taps her nose till her face scrunches up all flustered. James gives him a big cuddle goodbye too, blinks up at him adoringly as Harry tells them to be good for Louis and for their teachers, to have a nice day.
“Bye, Daddy!” they call, and with a click of the door, Harry’s gone.
He’s gone without anything more than a cursory good morning to Louis, and that stings.
Because this is it, really, that few minutes is a frighteningly good summation of where they’re at right now. They’re okay. They’re fine. Harry’s been brilliant through it all and Louis’ managed their good years well enough to make sure that this is more a downsizing of their world, rather than the end of it. Fiscally, they’re going to be fine, they can manage on one salary and it’s not forever.
But between the two of them, it’s different, and it’s becoming more and more painfully obvious, every single day.
They’ve fallen into a pattern. Neutrality, Louis thinks of it as. Neither good nor bad; nothing abjectly awful about it but nothing exhilarating either. It’s what Louis supposes comes of something like this, some sort of event that rocks two people so much. Something left unresolved and shoddily patched up with a few good Christmas presents and one thoroughly inconclusive discussion.
It’s not bad. It’s just. Less, or something. Very suburban and mundane and careful, it very much feels like fading. Not like them, Louis thinks.
(But maybe it is now. Maybe he’s fucked it up to such an extent that they can’t go back, and what a thought that is, what a thing to have rattling round his brain at two in the morning; the first thing he thinks of when Harry’s asleep next to him and the dark hangs over them.)
When that door clicks shut, Harry on the other side, going to that financial heartland Louis knows – knew, he reminds himself, knew – so well, the best part of his day is over; the part where Harry is fresh faced and happy and excited for what lies ahead. The market is all but obliterated now, anyone who’s still got a job doesn’t exactly go to bed rearing to go again. When Harry gets home he’s tired and frustrated, his last reserves of energy for the kids. With Louis he lets his guard down, which is fine. He’s just not terribly communicative when he’s like that, and it makes Louis nervous, like he can’t read him anymore, doesn’t know how to, and when did it get like this? he thinks, when?
So. Morning is best.
Louis is settled into a very quiet little routine now. Terribly uncomfortable, involuntary unemployment, makes him feel very small. He drops the kids at preschool at nine, pops into Sainsbury’s if he needs to, and that’s. Well, that’s it. Until three o’clock – they’ve cut back on preschool hours for the time being, since Louis’ home anyway – when he picks them up, Louis’ days are very empty.
The first week was okay. In the first week he worked through the mountain of paperwork from the bank, shuffled their money round, worked out how to do this, live on less than half their usual income. The second week he got all the shit done they’ve been putting off for months simply because they’ve not had the time; called the electrician and the guy who can fix the hole in their wall and spends an hour on the phone with each of his far flung sisters.
But now it’s the third week, and it hits him, as he walks in the door at half ten, that this is his life now.
And God, he’s miserable.
The weeks tick on and he’s just sad, he’s bored and sad and in desperate want of someone, something to snap him out of it. But they can’t, is this thing, this isn’t college. His friends are busy. His friends are Niall, with a wife and three kids and a wildly successful private equity consultation business, or Zayn, working in one of Britain’s biggest law firms and planning to make partner in three years, or Liam, who’s left his job and is getting his PhD.
They’re busy and successful and as for Harry, well. Honestly, Louis wouldn’t know.
He’s so, so far away. When he’s at work, Louis’ sure he doesn’t even think of him. When he’s home, when they’re watching TV together and not quite sitting as close as they used to, tucking the kids into bed and Harry’s hand not falling low in his back to guide him out of the dark room like he usually would; sometimes he feels further.
“How was your day?” he asks one Wednesday, and the question shocks Louis. He looks up from where he’s reading a story with Mia perched on his lap.
“I,” he says, “fine. Quiet, you know.”
Harry nods. “You looking for a job, then?”
Like he’s a fucking stranger, like he’s asking as a casual acquaintance. Louis just blinks at him.
Harry doesn’t seem to need a response. He shoots Louis a small smile that doesn’t reach his eyes, and drops his eyes back to his paper.
“Dad,” Mia says, “Dad, what’s it say?”
“Sound it out, darling,” he says, absent, reeling, “what sound does an m make?”
Louis knows this happens to people. But it’s not meant to be them, it’s not what he’d ever envisioned for them, back in college when he’d curl into Harry’s side all drunkenly and let the thought of what if I’m still here, nose in his curls, in ten years time.
Harry carries a look in his eye now, a weight about with him. Like he doesn’t trust him, doesn’t know him. And in retrospect, that’s because Louis treated him much the same.
It’s a vicious and ugly circle that they can’t seem to find their way out of, a back and forward of implication and tone and hurt that wedges inch after inch between them. Sometimes, Louis thinks, he can almost pinpoint the moments Harry falls a little further from his grasp.
It clutches at his chest, makes it tight. The rise and fall, Louis thinks, he knows a peak and a trough better than anyone. Sometimes there’s one trough too many.
Sometimes a thought like that will make its way into his head and he can’t breathe, wants to reach out and grab Harry’s hand in the dark. He doesn’t, just walks downstairs to get a cup of tea instead, calm himself. When he goes back up, he pops his head into the kids’ room. They lie asleep, perfectly calm, quiet, content, so young, so precious, so breakable, Louis thinks. And what if they fall apart, Louis thinks, what if he and Harry fall apart, then what?
On nights like that, he can barely get back into bed, because the distance is so much worse when they’re close.
It is a Saturday when Louis feels his heart break in two.
“You ready for your big game?” he asks James, bending down to his eye height and grinning at him.
“Football!” James shouts in his face, in his prim little London accent, a world away from Harry and Louis’, and Louis just laughs, runs a hair through his hair.
“S’right,” Louis says, “c’mon, where’s your sister?”
“Here!” she shrieks, as she bounds down the stairs, nearly tripping half to death on her laces, “coming!"
“Football!” James yells again, for no apparent reason, and Mia giggles at him.
Harry jogs downstairs a moment later, grinning as he sees them waiting patiently.
“Let’s go!” he says, doing his watch up and running a hand through his hair, smiling as James latches himself onto his leg. He’s just in an old t-shirt, Louis’ sure he had it in college, jeans and sunglasses. He looks so painfully like himself, before all of this.
The kids race to the door and Louis follows, grabs his keys of the sideboard.
“Oh,” Harry says, looking at him, surprised, “oh, are you coming?”
Louis’ heart lurches, looks up at him.
“I,” he says, not understanding, they do this every single weekend, “yeah?”
“I just,” Harry says, “y’know, haven’t had a lot of time with them, or whatever. You’ve been all hands on deck. Take the morning off, Louis, s’okay. I can do it.”
And Louis just smiles down at the ground, closes his eyes for a moment. This feels so very much like it. Like the first time the divide’s stretched to the kids, like the first time Harry’s said, in not so many words, I don’t want you there.
“Sure,” Louis says, “yeah. ‘Course.”
Harry’s face almost looks like he’d expected a fight from Louis, expected more. It’s a look Louis’ used to, now.
By Friday, Harry a thousand miles away, his world growing ever smaller, that moment and the hundreds like it playing over in his head like a sad and dusty record, Louis just needs a friend.
Someone to tell him he’s going to be okay, that they’re going to be okay, because he doesn’t quite believe it when he tells himself anymore.
And for the thousandth time in his life, Zayn’s right there. Right time and right place with his leisurely Friday mornings working from home, pulling his door open and face falling in surprise as he sees Louis there at half nine.
“Lou!” he says, “mate, you…”
It only takes him three words, really, to realise this isn’t a happy visit. Maybe it’s the look on Louis’ face, the wavering belief written all over his face, the furrowed brow, the tear filled eyes, the slightly heavy breathing, the flustered and disheveled state of him right now.
Whatever is it, Zayn sees it, tugs Louis inside and into his arms without another word.
“Hey,” Zayn says quietly, “hey.”
“Hi,” Louis croaks, “you ‘right?”
“Sure,” Zayn says, “you, babe?”
And Louis takes a moment to answer. He wishes it would take him longer, but he already knows the answer, and shakes his head into Zayn’s shirt miserably, squeezing his eyes shut as though if he keeps it all locked up, it won’t quite be real.
“No,” he says, lifting his head, wiping roughly at his cheeks, “no, I…I don’t think so.”
“C’mon,” Zayn says gently, “kettle’s already on.”
Louis follows him inside, falls onto the couch and lets the cushions swallow him up.
“I just,” he says quietly an hour later, over the lip of his mug. He blinks, slowly, tear rolling down his cheek, Zayn sitting with him on the couch, legs crossed like they’re about to get high in a dorm room, “I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like he’s coming back this time.”
Louis expects a sympathetic oh, babe, maybe, a placating cuddle and platitude to go.
Instead, Zayn huffs out a little laugh, tugs at a thread on his rolled shirt sleeve.
“You know, the other night, Li and I were talking about when we first got together,” he says, “and you and Harry being absolute fucking wankers about it for months before, like you were sixteen year old high school kids.”
Louis smiles softly, lets his head drop into the couch cushion.
“Yeah,” he says, remembering it in a sort of lazy haze.
“And, you know. I thought he was great, and whatever. And we had fun and I was so, y’know, looking back on it, so in love with him. But before I said it the first time – we were at my place watching something, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this before – we were just sort of lying there, and just before I said it, I thought, d’you reckon this is how Lou feels when he looks at Harry?”
Louis swallows around the lump in his throat, takes a deep breath.
“That’s…that’s the only thought that went through my head. And I figured, well, if I’m feeling half of that, then it’s probably worth it, y’know? I mean, luckily for me, I reckon I was feeling it all,” Zayn says with a little smile, soft and sweet, “but. You two’ve always been it for me, Lou. For all of us, I think. I dunno, I guess, my parents were pretty fucked up and my sister married that fucking wanker and so I never really believed in, well, all of this, before. And then you two happened, you know. And…”
He trails off, closes his eyes for a second.
“What I’m trying to say,” he says, “in the most roundabout way I can, is that he’s come back before, Lou. And he’ll come back this time.”
Louis bites his lip. He wants to believe him, he does. But Zayn hasn’t seen the look in his eye that is dangerously close to just…empty. Closed. Done.
“Okay,” he says, small and tired. It’s all he can muster, he thinks. Zayn looks at his watch guiltily.
“I…I have to get going, Lou,” he says, “but you’re welcome to hang around, just lock up with the spare key on the bookshelf when you go, yeah?”
Louis’ so, so glad he’s said that, because he doesn’t think he could go home right now.
“Here,” Zayn says, throwing him a DVD case, “find something to watch, yeah?”
“Okay,” Louis says again, “thanks.”
Zayn pauses for a moment there, like he wants to do something, say something, to make it better.
“I’m okay,” Louis says, smile brave and voice thick, “I’m okay. Go, I don’t wanna make you late.”
“If you’re sure,” Zayn murmurs, “okay. Bye, Lou.”
When he goes, door closing gently, Louis’ got nothing better to do than flick through the DVDs in the case. He bypasses all the actual movies, goes to the back where he knows all the discs of the five of them are kept. He wants to remember something good today.
Graduation, one of them reads, Xmas with the boys, the year they’d all gotten together, ditched their families and spent Christmas at Harry and Louis’ flat, Harry’s 21st!, Family Reunion, a suspiciously blank disc with a little winky face on it, and Louis doesn’t even want to know, LA & NYC, disc after disc of Liam and his goddamned camcorder that’s followed them all around for a decade.
And Louis’ so mindlessly flicking around that he almost – almost – misses it.
Liam and Zayn have sworn off the whole faux-wedding thing, aren’t going to bother till they can do it for real. No, Louis knows this disc. Louis knows this disc because he’s watched the copy in his own DVD drawer about a thousand times.
It’s their fucking wedding.
And he doesn’t know what it is; desperation, loneliness, that fucking hole inside of him that just wants something to hold onto, but he doesn’t even think about what he’s doing, scrabbles around with the TV until the first flickery shot of he and Zayn standing at the alter flashes up, guests all filing in.
Louis’ not sure a memory’s ever hit him so hard in his life.
“You’re doing it again,” Zayn says absently from the room they’re getting ready in.
“What?” Louis snaps back, “I’m not doing anything.”
Zayn just smiles, stands up and flicks a quick text off somewhere, to Liam, Louis presumes.
“You’re looking in the mirror all poignantly and freaking yourself out.” Zayn looks at him a little disapprovingly in their reflection before his face softens, and he rubs Louis’ shoulders reassuringly. “It’s your day, mate. Let yourself enjoy it. It’s sunny, the beach is beautiful, everyone you love or were obliged to invite is here. Harry’s like, one block away and in half an hour he’s going to be all yours. So relax. It’s all going to be great.”
Louis loves Zayn.
“I love you,” he croaks. Zayn just laughs, slaps a kiss on his cheek and straightens his own tie before fixing at Louis’.
“Not sure I’m the person you’re meant to be saying that to today,” he says with a smile, “but love you too. Now let’s get going, because your mother will never forgive me for making you late.”
They’re right on time. Louis stands underneath the marquee looking out to the ocean, light playing off the waves as everyone settles in their seats, cool breeze raking through his hair. Zayn’s talking to Louis’ extended family in the front row – Louis’ far, far too on edge right now to handle them himself – and after a few minutes he settles back at Louis’ side.
“About to start,” he says quietly, squeezing Louis’ arm, “you ready, mate?”
Louis blinks, heart in his throat. “Guess so, yeah,” he laughs, “c’mon then.”
And as though on his cue, the music starts softly, and Louis’ whole mind blanks out, because he’s getting married.
His mother and Harry’s father come down the aisle first, then Louis’ two oldest sisters with Harry’s two other best friends from home. Then it’s Niall and Gemma, Louis remembers that, they’re next.
Then there’s only one lot left; Harry and his mum.
Louis hears Zayn’s sharp little intake of breath, his quiet laugh as Harry no doubt comes around the corner.
“Lou,” he murmurs, “you’re gonna die. He looks…” Zayn doesn’t even finish that sentence, like he can’t, or something, and at that moment Louis turns around and God. God. He wouldn’t know how to finish it either, because his heart absolutely surges in his chest.
It’s not the tux, not really, Louis’ seen Harry all dressed up a fair few times in almost three years and sure, he never looks any less goddamned gorgeous, but that’s not what makes Louis feel like his legs might give out on him right now. No, it’s not that at all. It’s the little look on Harry’s face, the way he doesn’t even seem to see anything else, the way that maybe he can’t hear the ocean or feel his mother’s arm around his, because every single part of him is focused on Louis.
And that’s how Louis feels every day of his life.
He can’t help but let out a little laugh as Harry steps up next to him, kisses his mother on the cheek and winds his fingers through Louis’ slowly. There are a hundred people looking at them right now. Louis doesn’t register any of them. All he can see is the smile in Harry’s eyes, playing across his lips, the way his hair waves in the wind, the little bite of his lip. Louis almost leans up and kisses him then, before remembering he’s not meant to do that quite yet.
It’s beautiful. The whole thing is warm and happy and sweet and beautiful, and it’s a thousand times better than Louis possibly imagined it would be. Harry smiles right through his vows, bites his tongue between reciting them, eyes trained on their hands, on Louis’ face, looking right in his eyes. Louis can’t help anything but the ocean as he says his right back, Harry’s grip a little tighter with every word he speaks, like he’s trying to hold onto all of these ideas, of forever, of them. It’s words and smiles and the people they love most and it’s Harry, and Louis realizes that they could’ve done this in their basement; it wouldn’t make it any less entirely wonderful.
At the end of the day, Louis’ standing here in this moment marrying the boy he loves, and if that’s not the most amazing thing to ever happen to him he has no idea what is.
And when his baby sisters (babies, they’re about thirteen; whatever) bring up the rings, just two simple sterling silver bands with an LT HS engraved on the inside, when Harry slips his on and when he finally leans down and kisses him, Louis is pretty sure he’d like to live in this moment forever.
Louis watches, tears rolling down his cheeks, as the disc skips from the ceremony to the reception, light lower and coast line dotted in fairy lights as he and Harry come into shot, so young, so bright, flushed and laughing quietly as Liam focuses in on them.
“Say something interesting,” Liam says, voice weird and disembodied, “when you’re old and grey you’re gonna like this.”
Louis rolls his eyes right at the camera, head dropping shyly as Harry presses a kiss to his cheek. They’re both cradling glasses of Presecco, top buttons undone and jackets thrown off, slung round each other lazily.
“Whad’you want to me to say, hm?” Louis asks, right down the barrel of the camera, “seriously, tell me what I’m meant to say.”
Harry nuzzles into his neck, grinning, laughs lazily and watching it now, six years later, Louis can still feel the goosebumps down his back.
Niall comes barreling into shot at that, sticks his tongue out and get right up close to the camera. Louis lets out a teary little laugh.
“Tell him you love him!” he says, looking out to the sea and laughing, “tell him this is the best fuckin’ day of your life, tell him you’d share the door with him if your boat was sinking, tell him that love, actually, is all around,” he says, voice dropping into his best Hugh Grant, turning back to them with a grin and slapping a kiss on Louis’ left cheek. “C’mon!” he yells like a coach, outraged by their lack of enthusiasm at the whole video camera idea, “you’re his boy! Get it together!”
“You’re awfully excitable tonight, aren’t you?” Louis says with a grin, looping an arm round him too, “having a good time?”
“Mate,” Niall says, “there’s a girl in there called Amy, she’s fuckin’ beautiful.”
“Well off you go,” Liam says, “go get her, I have a moment to create here.”
Niall just snorts, clinks his beer with each of their champagne glasses before shooting the camera a ridiculous pout and walking out of shot.
A wave can vaguely be heard crashing into shore as Harry giggles into Louis’ hair.
“You’re my boy,” Harry sing-songs, and he’s either drunk too much or is just that happy that he’s forgotten the camera, nipping at Louis’ neck, “Italy and Niall say so, Lou, you’re mine now.”
Louis looks up, smiling into Harry’s neck as he turns in his grip.
“You’re so dumb,” he murmurs, laughing as Harry’s jaw drops.
“You have to say it back!” he yells, outraged and appealing to the camera, Liam laughing behind it, “don’t leave me hanging!”
“I’m not saying it back,” Louis says rolling his eyes, but smiling anyway, so obviously about to relinquish, “we’re gonna watch this and cringe if I say it back.”
“Say it back say it back say it back,” Harry yells, putting his glass down and wrapping his arms round Louis, lifting him a few inches off the floor until Louis squeals a little drunkenly in protest. “You have to say it back!” he shouts into Louis’ ear.
“Okay!” Louis says, batting his away, “okay, God, you’re my boy,” he mumbles, rolling his eyes.
“Louder,” Harry says, shaking his head disapprovingly, butting his forehead into Louis’ temple, arm round his shoulders.
“You’re my boy,” Louis says again, begrudgingly.
“Louder,” Harry commands, and Louis sighs, looks right at him and God, he can see it so clearly, the way he tries to stifle his little smile at Harry’s big happy expression, love drunk eyes.
“You’re my boy,” he says, loud and definitive, and Harry cheers, lays a proper kiss on him and shoves a hand at the lens until the video cuts out, and Louis is left looking at a blank screen.
Until he’s not, that his, because his brain lights up like it’s on fire. That’s them.
That’s…it’s every single thing that they are, that before all of this used to cross Louis’ brain as us. It’s Harry laughing in his hair and it’s Louis fucking bursting sometimes, with how much Harry means to him, how much of his world is just Harry Harry Harry. And it’s the stupid games and the posturing and their friends on the periphery and the ridiculous plans and let’s get married in Italy and let’s adopt twins in our twenties that really, Louis knows, only they have been able to pull off. It’s the look on Harry’s face when he says you’re my boy and the way Louis thinks he always masks it well, the way Harry makes his chest tight, but now, watching this, knows he doesn’t. It’s them and everything that they do, share, have together.
And suddenly, Louis gets it. They’re not doing this together anymore. There are boundaries and barriers and stares and meaningful, loaded little biting sentences thrown both ways, building up until there’s that seemingly insurmountable distance between them that Louis doesn’t know how to break.
Except he does, of course, he knows exactly what he has to do. He has to do what they’ve always done, loud and reckless and stupid but without a shadow of a doubt that they’ll be okay. Because they’re always okay, they’re more than okay, and they have to be this time too.
So, Louis realises, as though he’s come to the end of a three-page GSCE maths question, so. He’s got to go and get his boy.
And he supposes he could do it tonight, talk to him on the weekend, be an adult and calm down before he barrels his way back into Harry’s head in that entirely ridiculous way they do everything, fast and bright and without much thought except for the one that matters; I love you. He supposes that really, he should do this rationally, because it’s big and important and all those things he doesn’t really like to think about.
Or he could just go now.
He goes, now.
When Louis used to duck up a few blocks to Harry’s office, it was always in an impeccably dry-cleaned suit, with a half hour to kill between meetings on a lazy Friday. He’d stride in, all up and coming Canary Wharf banker, brimming with authority, flicking a wink at whoever was on the desk and walking straight into Harry’s office before whisking him off into the street.
Today’s a little different, mainly because he’s in a t-shirt and jeans and damp from the rain, and also because he just so happens to be doing something more important than popping down to the deli near the river and getting a sandwich.
“Hello there, Sir,” the security guard at the lobby desk says, “we’ll just need to place a call to the company you’re here to see—“
“Don’t have time!” he calls cheerfully, hitting the lift button repeatedly with his thumb until it comes, stepping inside and jamming the button to close the doors, “sorry!”
He pops out of the lift on the seventeenth floor, a little out of breath and looking straight at the perplexed face of a temp receptionist.
“Good afternoon, Sir, welcome to Cater Allen, can I—“
“I’m just here to see Harry Styles,” he says, walking past her and signing in quickly, his signature scrawled and funny looking, before heading down the corridor.
“Sir,” she calls, “do you have an appointment?”
He smiles at that, pops his head back round the corner to see her somewhat terrified face.
“Don’t need one, relax,” he says, pointing to a piece of paper on her desk, “I’m on the list.”
He doesn’t wait for her confirmation, just walks quickly down the corridor, and before he can stop himself, talk himself out of it, bursts into Harry’s office.
“Jesus Christ,” Harry yells, spinning round wildly from where he’s standing at his second desk and sifting through papers, “can you kno—oh.”
“Oh,” Louis replies breathlessly, raking a hand through his hair, “yeah. Hi.”
“Lou, what’re you doing here?” Harry asks, face concerned, “is something wrong?”
Yeah, Louis thinks, yeah, a bit. Don’t worry though, it’ll be okay.
The silence beats around them, different now, charged.
“Louis,” Harry says, exasperated at Louis’ silence, because his brain’s moving a million miles an hour, “I’m busy, okay, I’ve got—“
“Bullshit,” Louis says.
Harry just blinks.
“S’Bullshit.” He closes the door behind him, leans back against it for a second, hands behind his back. “Nothing happens on Friday afternoons. Half the markets are already closed, everything else is too far gone for you to do much anyway.”
Harry puts down the papers in his hands, walks out from behind the desk and leans against the front, arms folded.
“Okay,” he says slowly, “so.”
And Louis doesn’t say anything, for a moment, because his head feels so, so busy. He looks at him, face breaking into a smile for a moment because, well, he’s here. He’s here and he’s got Harry’s full attention, sincerely, for the first time in months. And that’s—
“Louis,” Harry says tiredly, frustrated, “I don’t know why you’re, or whatever, but if this is just—“
He’s not sure why it’s the first thing that he says, but it works in quietening them both. Harry’s breath seems to catch in his chest, the words hanging over them.
“I’m sorry,” Louis says again, stepping forward into the room. He feels very bare, vulnerable, and he hates it, but that’s okay. He swallows, stands there in front of him. “I’m so sorry, for all of it. For, for not fucking telling you, and letting you walk into the day of the auction blind, and not listening—“
“Louis!” Harry just about shouts, standing up straight, “how many fucking times do we have to go through this? It’s not about the hou—“
“No, no, I know,” Louis says quietly, a little desperate, and it seems to calm Harry. Which is strange, he thinks, because so often it’s the other way round, “I know that. But. For me it is about that, a bit. It’s something I need to apologise for.”
Harry’s breathing hard, like he wants to start pacing, but he doesn’t. He takes a deep breath, leans back against the desk. His arms aren’t folded this time.
“You’ve never said that before,” he says quietly.
“So why now?” He sounds tired and suspicious, not ready to pull his hopes up just yet, “what are you doing, Lou? Why are you in my office at half one on a Friday saying all this and looking like you’ve just run here?”
It’s not exactly the reaction Louis’d been hoping for, but that’s okay. He can bring him round.
“Because it’s been months,” Harry says, voice heavy with emotion, “months, and you’ve not done any of this.”
Louis closes his eyes for a second, takes a moment.
“I know,” he says, “I know. And I’m sorry for that, too. But. I realised, today, you know. I don’t want to do this without you anymore.”
Harry’s brow creases, he bites his lip. The door is shut and the blinds are drawn; it is, suddenly, just the two of them. It hasn’t felt this way for a long time, and it hits Louis now, how fucking close to the precipice they’re standing.
“Don’t you see what’s happening here?” he says, taking a few steps forward, grabbing Harry’s hands a little recklessly. He flinches, but doesn’t pull back, watery eyes trained on Louis’ face, “don’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Harry says quietly, like he’s scared of the words falling out of his mouth, “I don’t…I don’t know what we’re doing. Louis—“
“No, that’s okay. I don’t – didn’t – either. But…we’re,” he takes a breath, holds Harry’s hands tighter, “we’re fading, Haz. We’re falling into this weird, shitty good enough, close enough routine and I hate it. Because I think…”
He trails off, wants nothing more than to be able to do this without all these words but realises, then, that he can’t. That it all has to be said because otherwise, otherwise, well, there’s this, and it only gets worse.
“I think if we let ourselves start to fade then it doesn’t stop,” he says quietly, “and it just gets less and less until there’s nothing left, you know, and then it goes bad, Harry, it gets so bad that…well, we know. It happened to my parents and it happened to yours and…” he pauses, bites his lip and tugs Harry’s hands closer, voice dropping a little quieter, “I don’t want that to be our kids in twenty years saying, y’know, they faded. I don’t want that to be us.”
With Harry half-sitting on his desk they’re at eye level, and Louis’ not sure Harry’s ever looked at him like he’s looking at him now. It’s sad, scared, he thinks, but there’s more there, too. It’s that little light that’s been missing since November, and it makes the thoughts in Louis’ head die on the spot.
“I don’t want that either,” Harry croaks, words falling out all in a rush, “I just…I don’t know how to do this, you know, and then. And then we just stopped, and I didn’t know how to pull you back, so I just, I just left it. It’s, this is so big, Lou.”
“Yeah,” Louis smiles, blinking quickly so he doesn’t cry, he can see Harry trying to do the same, untangling his fingers from Louis’ to wipe at his eyes with his shirt sleeve before coming right back, “I know. It’s, it’s a lot, and I fucked up, or we both did, I don’t know. And I’m sorry. But we’ve done big things before, you know. Getting married was a big thing, and spending a year and a half knocking on the door of the fucking agency was a big thing, and the kids. Every single day we spend with them is a big thing. But it only works if it’s both of us, y’know.”
Harry nods, swallows quickly. He’s shaking a bit, Louis is too, the tension of the last few months leaving them slowly, being replaced with something new.
“You’re, like, it for me, Harry,” he says, the last reserves of this energy slowly leaving him, he needs Harry to take over soon but he’s pretty sure he knows that, somewhat wonderfully, “you were it when I was twenty and you’ve been it ever since. And I know things have been shitty and hard and…well, you know. All the rest of it. But you’re it for me, and that’s not gonna change. So I don’t want us to either.”
And with that, he thinks, he’s done. He’s said what he wants to say and now he just needs Harry to say something, because there’s still a thread of nervousness winding through him, a what if he says no.
He needn’t worry, really.
“Yeah,” Harry says, eyes trained entirely on Louis, before scrunching up his face and laughing a little dazedly, “no, I just mean. You know. Yeah, yes, to, to all of that. I’m sorry too. I, fuck, I love you, Lou.”
He smiles at that, unclasps his hands from Louis’ and winds them round his waist instead, stands up a bit straighter and tugs Louis in so he’s standing between his legs.
“I love you so much,” he says, buried into Louis’ neck, planting a soft little kiss there, and Louis can’t help but press right up into him, because he’s missed this, “and, and you’re so amazing, Lou, and—“
“Harry, your two o’clock’s in the boardroom if you’re—“ Louis turns his head to see the receptionist from before, eyes wide open, looking like she’s rather the floor swallowed her up right about now. He feels briefly sorry for making her day hell, but it fades. He’s so fucking happy right now that there’s nothing else to hang onto; he buries his head in Harry’s chest with a half-groan, half-laugh.
“Give us a sec, yeah?” Harry says, laughing into Louis’ hair, “sorry, Emily, thank you,” he calls after her, waiting till the door closes quietly before butting foreheads with Louis gently.
“You should’ve locked it, you idiot,” Harry says with a grin, “she’ll never take anything I say seriously again.”
Louis doesn’t respond, just smiles and looks him right in the eye.
“I watched our wedding video today,” he says, caught off guard as Harry leans down to cut him off with a kiss. His lips are warm and soft and it almost surprises Louis how much he revels in it, kisses him back lazily, like they’ve got all the time in the world.
“Oh yeah?” Harry says after a moment, slow and relaxed, pressing another kiss to Louis’ lips quickly, “and?”
And I love you, he thinks, and we’re going to be okay, and I hope I still look at you like I do in that video every single day.
“And funnily enough,” Louis says instead, smile wicked and glint in his eye, because this will probably say it all, “you’re still my boy.”
When the twins were born in May, nearly five years ago, Louis remembers it as the best possible bomb being dropped right in the middle of their young-and-wealthy-and-high-flying lives. Chaos is the only word there really is to describe it. The sleep deprivation and near constant crying – the pitfalls of two newborns at once – the feeding cycles and doctor’s appointments and check ups from the agency and paperwork, mountains of paperwork to scrawl their way through over dinner. They’d bother taken two months off, had saved up enough to afford to do it, but still. Louis doesn’t even remember most of it, it was so exhausting, so fucking bone shatteringly difficult to suddenly have two small, defenceless people relying on them. Louis’d kind of assumed up until that point that parenting would be easier than it was made out to be – he’d half raised his sisters back home as a teenager, and sure it had it’s moments, but it was never a struggle like this had been.
Turns out, his mother hadn’t been lying, because when their official paperwork came through after sixty days, they’d both sworn and cried more, drank and slept less, than at any other point in their lives.
Fortunately, it had also been the most intense and wonderful and testing, sure, but rewarding month and a half of their lives. Watching these tiny people grow and eat and sleep and exist, right in front of them, because of them. Profound, Louis thinks; he’s not the most sentimental of people but those first months of raising their children had changed that. They’d changed a lot. And so he’s learnt, now, five years later, that things inevitably continue to change, and there’s really no choice but to let them.
There is, however, a choice to do it together, and from that Friday afternoon on, it’s the choice they make.
They start changing things.
For a start, Harry tells him in no uncertain terms to stop feeling sorry for himself and find something to do with his days. Which, you know. Tough love, Louis supposes, but it’s true. If he were happy doing nothing, figuring himself out for a while, Harry would have no qualms with that, but he’s so obviously not. He pouts all childishly at Harry every time he leaves in the morning and while it’s a joke, mostly, Harry can pick the undercurrent of I need something to do that lies beneath it.
“What about teaching?” Harry asks one Sunday afternoon. The sun’s starting to set that little bit later now they’ve hit April, there’s a roast in the oven and they’re sat on the floor of the living room, drawing with the kids. Mia is lying on the floor, feet kicked up in the air as she concentrates remarkably hard on the smoke coming out of the chimney of her castle. Louis has no idea what James is doing, but it’s big and green and he assumes it’s a dinosaur. “You always wanted to teach, remember? You could lecture, or something. All the girls’d be swooning everywhere,” he says with a wink.
Louis just snorts, shakes his head and does a quick save before the red marker hits the white carpet, capping it as he speaks.
“Maybe,” he says, “yeah. Not a bad idea.”
Mia just giggles and looks up, drawing momentarily forgotten.
“Dad couldn’t be a teacher,” she says with a cheeky grin, burying her head in her arm and smiling wickedly at them both, “he burns our toast too much. Our teachers never burn toast.”
“Alright!” Louis protests, “enough from you, or I won’t read you Magic Faraway Tree tonight.”
Mia’s eyes widen like she’s just been told a beloved family pet has died, scrambles over to him and plonks herself in his lap, gives him a cuddle.
“But it’s my favourite,” she says pleadingly, “I’m only joking, I promise. You make nice toast,” she says, smiling all angelic and innocently up at him and he just snorts, pushes her face away gently before cuddling her right back.
“You’re a little menace, y’know that?” he asks, giving her a kiss on the cheek before she squirms out of his arms, and the conversation drifts on, but the idea doesn’t.
He has, actually, always wanted to teach. And sure, it was more of a retirement goal, a very in-the-distance sort of idea, but there’s nothing stopping him now. The pay would be a fraction of his old salary and the work less insanely and brilliantly unpredictable, but he really does think he would like it, get something out of it. His good lecturers were the reason he stayed in school for three whole years, he likes people, connecting with them, and he knows a lot about what he does.
It’s a possibility that he lets churn around for a few weeks, and when he gets a coffee with Niall and Liam one day, Liam finishing up his thesis and Niall talking about his cousin applying for London schools for September, it feels a little bit like a sign that he should do the same.
He does it. As someone extensively overqualified for a one year Diploma of Education, gets an early round offer from almost every school he applies to, and takes up his post at his old school, UCL. He is officially going back to study in September, and that’s so entirely terrifying but also really fucking exciting. It feels like he’s on the move again, not stagnantly waiting for something to come to him. It’s just really nice, to he feel like he’s in control and doing something, and he lets himself enjoy it.
They go out for dinner, just the two of them, to celebrate, and Harry makes him promise not to sleep with any of his distinction-seeking students. Harry’s an idiot.
“So Dad’s going to school in September, too, just like you guys,” Harry says at breakfast one day. The kids are sleepy, whispering at each other across the table and laughing, but look up at that.
“With us?” James asks, “At our school?”
Louis laughs, butters his toast for him and cuts it into squares.
“No, bud, I’m going to big school,” he says, “d’you want jam?”
James nods, and Mia cocks her head, confused.
“But we’re going to big school,” she says, “are you coming with us?”
Louis smiles at her, watches as Harry pulls her in for an impromptu cuddle.
“Hm,” he says, “that’s right, you are going to big school. I’m going to bigger school, though, for grown ups.”
“Oh,” Mia says, “well that’s cool too. Can I have some milk?”
“How do you ask?” Harry reprimands, and she rolls her eyes, sighs tiredly.
“Please,” she says, and that’s just about that.
So it’s going to take a year. It’ll be a year until he gets to begin the next chapter of his career, but he can wait, he’s more than happy to. This feels right, somehow, exactly where he wants to be. He thinks back, fleetingly, to the older men and women he worked with at HSBC, forever organizing people to pick up their kids last minute, shafting them off to their partner who they barely saw save for the odd night here and there, complaining that they didn’t have five minutes to breathe, let alone sit down with their children. And looking across at them now, Louis doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want to look back in ten years and think, I missed out.
He’s going to be fine. He’s got his family and his home and his education and all those things will, he’s sure, work in his favour.
He smiles, and stands up to go and get the milk.
For the first time in more than a year, Louis is palpably, excitably nervous.
He has a swig of water, checks the time on his phone; it’s five to ten. The doors at the back of the lecture theatre open almost on the second, people trickling in slowly at first, until it builds and builds, the cacophony of awkward first years sitting next to each other and making introductory chit chat. It is the first day of semester, and he, Louis Tomlinson, is about to give his first lecture.
And his hands are shaking a little, his mouth is dry, heart pounding, and there’s nothing he revels in more.
He grabs a marker, writes ECON101, his name, and his staff email up on the board, and flicks the mic on.
Here we go, he thinks, here we go again.
“Good morning,” he says, voice booming through the room, students settling down. He notices, in that moment, that despite having sat in here himself ten odd years ago, it looks much, much bigger than he remembers.
“It’s ten o’clock, let’s get started. Welcome to macroeconomics 101, my name’s Louis, and I’m your lecturer for this semester. If you’re actually enrolled in micro, please go and sneak in the back of the theatre next door,” he says wryly, and elicits a small laugh, a bigger one when five or ten red faced students get up and leave as discreetly as possible.
A general murmur of consent goes up at that, a distinct, you’re not half bad vibe.
“Right,” he says, “now for your own benefit, take down the email on the board, if you have any questions—“
His phone buzzes on the lectern, quietly. He cuts himself off, unlocks it, and smiles at the text he sees there.
Harry Styles (1): Good luck babe! You’ll smash it – thinking of you xxx
A photo of the three of them is attached, the kids sat on Harry’s lap in their school uniforms, smiling at the camera and Mia blowing him a kiss.
He smiles, looks back up at the group of expectant students and tries not to blush.
“If you have any questions this semester, that’s where you’ll need to send them. Now as for your assessment schedule,” he says, scanning the room and rolling his eyes at the groan that goes up, “yeah, yeah, settle down; as for your assessment schedule—“
His phone buzzes again.
Gotta say the text on his screen says, I’m in an econ lecture, and there’s a pretty cute professor who should turn his phone off up front….
He looks up straight away, flicks his eyes to the back of the room and there, right in his line of sight, is Harry. He’s leaning on a pillar, arms folded and looking very smug, giving Louis a little nod to keep going.
“As for your assessment schedule,” he says, trying to stop himself smiling like an idiot, “your first analysis is due in Week 4, so get thinking about it soon. For today, we’re just going to go through the unit handbook, so if you can all get that out or order it online as I talk, that’d be great.”
The three hundred students in the room bend down to fossick through their bags at that, and Louis takes the opportunity to shoot off a text of his own.
Why are you here?! Go to work
He waits barely thirty seconds for a reply, natters on about the guest lecturer in week five.
Wanted to see you in action…glad you weren’t my macro lecturer Lou, would’ve failed even more miserably than I did.
“If you turn to page ninety one you’ll see the university’s plagiarism policy, I need you to go online and agree to the electronic copy by the end of this week,” he says.
In the flurry of page turning and the keener students getting their laptops out now, he looks up at Harry, who laughs at the expression on his face.
You’re an idiot, he mouths. Harry just laughs again, winks at him, and raises his eyebrows expectantly.
Keep going, he mouths back.
And he does.
There are a few dates in Louis’ head that he thinks he will remember for the rest of his life, sure. There are wedding and birthdays and the kids starting this and finishing that, firsts and lasts and friends and family. There are days full of happiness that the memory makes him smile and there are days so dreadfully low that they’re a black mark in his mind. There are so many momentous, important occasions that yes, he will, he is sure, remember for the rest of his life.
But then there are so many countless others. Days like this, at his job, with his family, with the boy he married when he was twenty-four and young and stupid but so sure, with the twins, who came into their lives and changed them so beautifully, forever. There’s James on Harry’s hip and Mia holding his hand, his family back home, his friends, this now, this path that’s a little out of his comfort zone but so incredibly interesting. And yeah, Louis thinks, maybe these aren’t the days he’ll remember forever. That the lecture halls full of students, Harry’s smiles and texts, pictures of his kids, will all eventually roll into one. That days like these days will blend together and fade from his mind, blur at the edges into a soft, gentle memory.
But at the end of it all, these are the days that make up his life. And he’s pretty happy with that.