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as a memento from me

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1526

Harry remembers the first time he sees Louis; he knows this for sure, because he wrote the date in thick black paint in the corner of the canvas, February 12.

He's not long in the house, having only come the week earlier after his grandfather's health took a turn for the worse. It feels unfamiliar, although he remembers it all - the pantry, where his grandfather taught him how to sharpen knives, and the armchair in the sitting room where he told Harry stories he was too young to understand - but the corners are thick with cobwebs his grandfather would never have allowed, not the way Harry remembers him, and too much of the house is in disrepair.

He spends the first few days puttering around each room, wiping away dust and putting furniture to rights, speaking loud to fill the silence. His grandfather doesn't say much of anything, but nods along while Harry speaks - Harry's not sure if he's listening, but his eyes are on Harry the whole time.

Mrs Hubert comes by, and Harry remembers her face from when he was young. She pinches his cheeks a little too hard, presses a loaf of bread into his hands and tells him to come fetch her whenever he needs help. He agrees, letting her fuss over him, even though he knows he probably won't; it's his grandfather, after all.

He retreats to the attic on the fourth morning, carves a space out for himself amidst piles of old books and papers and furniture too broken to stay downstairs. He sets up his easel by the window, laying out his paints on the floor; it's not an ideal view, and all he can see is the street below, but it's something. He paints a three-legged dog curled up by the gutter, its head resting on its paws and eyes watchful, before he notices the boy in the window across the way.

He's beautiful, and he's blue-eyed, and it's February 12.

*

It's Wednesday before the boy is still long enough to paint. He sits at a desk just under the window, his chin in his hand, and Harry thinks he must be reading. Harry's painted nothing but quick impressions of him in the past few days, just smudges on the canvas, really, so he's got a palette of golden brown and rosy pink and bright blue waiting on the windowsill.

Harry starts with the shape of his jaw, the blunt tips of his small fingers. He gets his sharp cheekbones and curved eyebrows and the soft tip of his nose before the boy blinks and stretches back with a yawn, the bones of his ribs pressing through the thin material of his tunic. Harry's not quite sure how long he was painting, but it must have been a while, because the boy is cracking his knuckles and rolling his neck, shaking tension out of his shoulders. The boy stands up, and Harry notices the light has changed; it's close enough to dark that his grandfather will be getting hungry, is probably waiting wordlessly at the table for him. Harry dips his brush in black, writes the boy in the window in careful script.

Downstairs, his grandfather sits with his hands carefully folded in front of him, knuckles swollen with the cold. He doesn't speak as Harry moves through the kitchen, so Harry does, making too much noise with the pots and pans while he rambles about nothing. His grandfather smiles, though, when Harry places a bowl soup in front of him, and taps a stiff finger on Harry's paint streaked hand.

"I've been painting," Harry says, turning his hands over so the blue and pink patches show, and his grandfather nods, "Did you want to see?"

His grandfather doesn't respond, may not have heard him at all, so Harry sits with him while he finishes his soup and doesn't speak, can't seem to think of any more stories to tell.

*

The boy in the window appears the day after that, and the day after that. He's there more days than not, if Harry just waits for long enough, and sometimes he thinks the boy might know Harry's there, because he sits patiently at the window and the weak sunlight catches his skin just right. The boy has deep creases just below his eyes, like maybe he gets tired easily, takes on more than he can shoulder and loses sleep too often. His skin is smooth, though, tanned even though the sun is almost never out, and every so often there'll be light stubble across his jaw. He's small, but his body looks strong - Harry sees broad hips and thick thighs when the boy moves about the room, sometimes standing still long enough for Harry to sketch out an impression with quick brushstrokes.

It becomes a ritual, of sorts. Harry spends the morning with his grandfather, fixing breakfast and slipping strong, sickly medicines into his drinks. He writes letters to his parents back home in London most days, small updates on his grandfather's health, and gets a response occasionally, with a little money to help them along. He dusts the same corners every day, even though he never leaves them long enough for new dust to settle, and goes out to buy meat and milk and buttons to darn the old shirts his grandfather will likely never wear again. He doesn't leave the house for long.

It's usually afternoon when he slips up into the attic, shoulders tight and tired already, and by the time the boy appears, he only has a few more hours of sunlight left. There's something in him that loosens each time he sits by the sill and starts a fresh pallette. Harry paints the boy through the very end of winter and into spring, when the roses on the trellis by the window come back to life. It’s warm enough that the boy starts opening the window, leaning out to watch the people in the street below, and Harry gets to paint the hair falling into his eyes as he throws scraps for the three-legged dog.

It's that painting Harry takes downstairs in the evening for his grandfather to see, propping it up on the table while he eats his stew. His grandfather seems to like it, because he takes it with him when he's finished, slow and careful, and hangs it on the mantel. He's getting too sick to walk very far at all, now, but there's a chair just by the mantel, and he seems content to sit and look.

Harry knows the boy sees him somewhere near the middle of summer, because when Harry glances back from a particularly difficult furl of hair, the boy is looking straight at him.

Hi, he mouths, corners of his lips curling up, and Harry wants to paint his sharp teeth and the lines by his eyes. Harry raises a hand, a little wave, and immediately feels ridiculous - he probably looks like an absolute loon - but the boy doesn't seem to mind. He's grinning properly now, and gives Harry a gesture that seems to mean go on, so Harry dips his brush in white.

*

When the boy isn't there, Harry does different scenes. He paints the boy playing children's games - Harry's seen two different girls in the house, so he must have young sisters - on the streets outside. He paints him cooking in a warm kitchen, lip pulled between his teeth in frustration, and paints him sitting on the chair by his grandfather's mantel. He paints the boy planting flowers in Harry's garden back home. It's usually then that Harry lets himself daydream, of inviting the boy over for supper, him meeting Harry's grandfather and telling his own stories with that bright wide smile. On those days he thinks that he might knock on the boy's door, when he's feeling particularly bold, but he really doesn't know what he'd say, so he doesn't.

*

Harry's grandfather dies on August 29. It's not a surprise, exactly - he'd been too weak to leave bed for more than week, just barely sitting up enough for Harry to help him drink water and eat a little soup - but Harry's not ready, and it takes him all morning to figure out what to do. He straightens the furniture, and dusts all the corners that have already been dusted, and then walks to Mrs. Hubert's house and asks for help.

It's quicker than what Harry had imagined, and he doesn't see much of it. He waits quietly downstairs and writes to his parents while Mrs. Hubert and the vicar shroud his grandfather and prepare him for burial. There's a plot by the edge of town picked out for him - Harry's not sure how Mrs. Hubert knows, but she does - and they bury him before they lose the light, Harry and Mrs. Hubert and the town's Priest. They lay flowers at the grave and recite three prayers. The day goes faster than any day Harry can remember since arriving in town, and he walks back to an empty house.

Mrs. Hubert arranges for him to go back to his parents with the mail service leaving for London at the end of the week. The house is quiet and strange and Harry spends his time in the attic, waiting by the window for glimpses of the boy. On the last day, he wraps his paintings in cloths, the ones of the boy at his desk and leaning out the window to catch rain on his tongue and planting flowers in Harry's garden back home, and Harry is going to knock on the door. He's going to do it, and Harry still doesn't know what he'll say, but he doesn't care, even if all that comes out will be come away with me.

He drags his bag out the door with shaking hands, heart beating fast enough to make him feel sick and a little dizzy, but he walks across the way and knocks on the boy's door three times, hard enough that his knuckles sting. He waits, and he listens for the sound of footsteps over wood, but there's nothing, and no one comes to the door.

 

1605

Louis knows Harry before he ever meets him. He’s one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s most popular actors; he’s got an innocent face and cherubic curls, so they give him the dirtiest jokes to deliver as his cheeks dimple sweetly. Louis's watched him perform from the groundlings, pressed elbow to elbow with the crowd in summers so hot he was dizzy from it, and wondered what it would be like to stand on stage beside him.

He joins the troupe in early January, but he's dizzy like the middle of summer when he gets to shake Harry's hand. It's a little ridiculous, because he's just met William Shakespeare – the same man who writes the plays Louis sucks up like air – but he can't seem to blink the stars out of his eyes.

“We've been on the lookout for a new leading lady,” Harry drawls, and his voice sounds so different when he's not shouting loud enough to reach two thousand ears.

“Pretty enough for it,” says a small blonde boy, waggling his eyebrows suggestively, and Harry shoves at him good-naturedly.

He's taller than Louis expected, broad and a little coltish, his feet and hands too big. He's more handsome up close.

“Don't scare him away,” Harry says, and Louis sees Petruchio, Benedick and Caesar in his smile.

*

The first time Louis performs, he's so lit up with nerves he thinks he might be sick. The audience is baying and crowing like excited cattle, leering up at him on the hot stage. Louis can't seem to focus on anything more than the skirts scratching at his thighs and the crude make-up smeared over his cheeks. The prompter is hissing Louis' lines at him just offstage, but Louis' voice is too quiet to compete with the volume of the audience. It's overwhelming and a little terrifying until he looks up and Harry is there, centre stage, and when he catches Louis' eye he raises his thumb and grins, wide and goofy. It's like a second wind for Louis; he pitches his falsetto high enough that the audience pays attention, laughs along and catcalls when he bats his eyelashes and shimmies his hips for them.

That's how it goes, for that first day and for the other days that come after. The thumbs become a signal for them; every time he feels himself falter, Harry's there with a secret thumb held up behind his back or pressed into Louis' side when he's close enough to touch. They're asked what it means, more than once, but Louis just shrugs – honestly, he doubts he could even explain it himself, and he'd rather let them wonder.

*

“How old were you?” Harry asks, passing Louis the bottle with sticky fingers, “When you knew, I mean.”

Louis takes a sip, the rum burning at his throat a little, but he won't let that show. They've found themselves a quiet – relatively speaking – corner, away from the card tables. Louis figured out early on that Harry is a godawful gambler; can't keep his face straight to save his life, his dimples sneaking out every time he gets a halfway decent hand.

“Seventeen. Watching the Globe being built from across the Thames,” he says, passing the bottle back. Harry shakes his head, though, biting his lip.

“No. It was before that,” he says, confident, but not cocky. Louis shrugs, although Harry is right – the first story sounds better, more romantic.

“My mother was furious,” Louis says, because Harry seems to be waiting for more, and tries to keep the bitterness out of his voice, “Said I'd broken her heart.”

They're both quiet, then, and Louis doesn't want to look at Harry's face, because he's not sure what Harry will see on his own. Harry nudges at Louis' side, gentle.

“You've got that look about you,” Harry says, and when Louis raises his eyebrows, he grins, “Heartbreaker.”

Louis rolls his eyes, pushing at Harry's shoulder – for such a sturdy boy, he's remarkably easy to unbalance – and reaches for the rum again, taking a long pull.

“Don't tell me your parents were pleased when they found out you were giving your life to the theatre,” Louis says, with a dramatic sweep of his hand.

“I think my father's exact words were, ‘No son of mine will ever amount to so little,’” Harry says, with a smile so sweet Louis almost believes there's no sting behind it.

“Did they disown you?” Louis asks, because he's had a little too much drink to be tactful, and Harry doesn't seem to mind.

“No. Plague,” he shrugs, fingers tight on the neck of the bottle, “Took them all. I joined the troupe not long after.”

His face is carefully still, a practised smile pinned there, and really, his poker face is dreadful.

"Got a new family now, isn't that right?" Louis asks, because he doesn't know what else to say. The idea of losing his parents and all his sisters makes the rum burn unpleasantly in his belly, so he tips over into Harry, tucking his head between Harry's shoulder and jaw.

"Right," Harry says, his big hand spreading warmly across Louis' back.

It's not long before the minstrel, whose name Louis can't quite remember, gambles away enough money that he has to earn it back, and starts playing lively songs with filthy lyrics. Harry seems to know all the words to them, and Louis' had enough rum that he lets Harry drag him out across the floor boards, dancing clumsily and spinning Louis in his arms.

They keep drinking until the music gets louder, and Harry's feet get clumsier, and Louis feels dizzy like that first day they met. They keep dancing after the minstrel returns to the card tables, he knows that for sure, and Louis recalls pressing his thumb against Harry's cheek, knuckles digging into the dimple.

Louis thinks they might have kissed, but in the morning he can't quite remember.

*

Louis falls in love with Harry a hundred times over on the stage. Has his heart broken a hundred more, betrays him countless times, and dies at his hand more than once while the audience bays for his blood.

It's a strange thing that Louis can't seem to touch; like a sliver of light, and every time he looks it dances away. Harry gets himself a girl, then a fiancée, and then a wife. There's something dark inside Louis that makes his lip curl when he sees her; a part of him that can't step off the stage, where Harry is his and only his. She's a sweet girl, really; small and sharp-witted, and when Harry tells him, she made me think of you, Louis thinks he understands.

In 1613 the theatre burns to the ground, ash and smoke choking London, and Louis thinks it might be enough. Enough of wanting what he can't ever have, when he's not even sure what he's asking for when he sits in Church every Sunday morning; all he knows is that he's wanting.

 

1758

They’ve been at sea less than one week before the first storm comes. The crew know it’s approaching hours before the sky darkens – Harry has no clue how, though he sniffs the air just like he sees them doing. He helps batten the ship down as best he can, keeping out from under the feet of the more senior crew members, tying versatackle knots and clearing the deck. Harry keeps his eyes on the sky, tracking it as the wind picks up and the clouds turn black.

The storm hits quicker than Harry’s ever seen on land, the rain sudden and freezing and hitting his skin like metal, and the ship groans with the force of each fresh wave. Harry can hear the crew shouting, but he can barely make it out over the scream of the wind, his eyelashes too thick with rain to see further than his feet. He hears it when a rope comes loose from the foremast, though – the crew howl as it whips out of its knot – and Harry is close enough to reach out and take hold of the fraying end. He wraps it around his arms, letting it cut into his skin, but it’s not enough to stop the wind dragging him like a doll. He throws his weight backwards, against the wind, and then there are hands just above his, tugging the rope the rest of the way. The hands fasten the rope’s end, and Harry’s heart is beating so fast he thinks he might be sick, but the foremast is secure and the boy who belongs to the hands is grinning recklessly through the rain. Harry’s soaked to the bone, but he feels hot all over where he should be cold, so he grins back.

*

The frigate doesn’t sustain any real damage; nothing that can’t be fixed within a few hours after the storm has washed away. Harry’s skin burns from the rope, but he doesn’t mind; he helps re-secure the deck and fights the dizziness trying to trip him up. The boy with the hands turns out to be Louis, a midshipman two years Harry’s senior, who claps him on the shoulder and tells him, “Looks like you’re finding your sea legs.”

Harry’s surprised to find those same hands that secured the masthead could easily be folded, small and tapered, into Harry’s own. He finds himself watching them the next night over supper, gesturing along with a story Louis is telling. He’s loud and animated and his voice seems to fill up the whole room, drawing people in like moths to a very bright flame. He catches Harry’s eye in the middle of his story, right when it gets particularly bawdy, and throws him a little wink. Harry knows his grin is probably too wide, dimpled and young and eager, but Louis doesn’t seem to mind.

Harry spends the majority of his first few weeks getting hopelessly underfoot. He can't seem to get used to the dizziness of the sea, and he never drops the anchor quite right - he ends up infuriating most of the crew so quickly he makes a name for himself. He feels ill from the steady diet of salt meat and hardtack and he misses home so desperately he finds himself unable to fall asleep, not even with the waves rocking him in his hammock. He pictures his mother's warm hands stroking his hair back from his face, and his sister's dry voice as she reads the newspaper aloud; it helps, but not enough to get him more than a few hours of sleep each night.

He can't seem to keep his eyes off Louis. It's just that he's effortless, he makes everything look so easy and the whole crew seem to love him. He holds court at supper every night, and Harry laughs along with Louis' jokes and overblown tales, wracking his brain for some funny anecdote he could drop in, maybe make Louis laugh too. He keeps quiet, though; there's never a good moment to break into the conversation and, really, his stories aren't as interesting.

*

"Motherfucker," James spits, holding up two loose ends of a rope, "Does this look like a bloody running bowline to you?"

"Erm," Harry says, unsure of what to do to keep James' temper at bay. He tied the knot just as he was shown, he's sure of it, and he can't understand why it came apart so easily when he's practiced it so many times. "I can fix it."

"Like hell you can," James says, a low growl, and then there's an arm slinging over his shoulder, giving a friendly squeeze.

"Easy, boys!" Louis says, grinning wide and slapping his hand over James' chest, "No need for that. I'll get young Harold sorted out."

James visibly deflates, despite the high spots of colour on his cheeks, and he hands the rope over to Louis. He grumbles something under his breath that Harry can't quite pick up on, but he moves off easily enough, disappearing into the lower decks for some rum and an anger nap. Louis is standing right underneath one of the lanterns and in the low light of the evening it gives him a sort of halo, which even Harry thinks is a little trite.

"I'm sorry. Thanks very much," Harry says, trying to remain as dignified as possible in the face of his never ending stream of fuck-ups in front of Louis.

Louis just shrugs and points at the deck with his foot, "Sit."

Harry sits, and can't explain his nerves when Louis gets down next to him, pressed up against his side.

"It's like this," Louis says, patient, his hands slowly twisting the rope and guiding frayed ends through precise loops. "You're thinking too hard, you've got to just let your hands learn it, see?"

Louis passes the rope over for him to try, and Harry thinks about how Louis smells different to every other salt-soaked thing on this ship, how warm his thigh is when it's resting against Harry's; he doesn't think about the rope at all. It must work, because suddenly Louis is quietly cheering and Harry's got a perfectly tied running bowline in his hands, secure as anything.

"You're a natural," Louis says, nudging at Harry with his shoulder. "What else are you hiding?"

"Nothing," Harry scoffs, absently unravelling the knot, but he's taken over by the urge to impress Louis, the same way Louis does every night with his wild stories. He lets the silence stretch on as he tries to think of something, anything, before coming up with, "Andromeda is out tonight."

He doesn't look, but he can still see Louis' smile in his periphery, and feel the way Louis turns his body towards him. "You know the stars," he says warmly, tilting his head back to see for himself, "Show me?"

Harry nudges at Louis' jaw with his thumb, turning his head just enough that he's looking up at the constellation as he points out each star. He tells Louis about Andromeda, and Perseus, and Cepheus, and it's not his story, but Louis listens all the same.

 

*

They’re at sea a long time – six months at minimum for any given stretch – so it’s only natural. It’s not something that’s spoken about in daylight, of course; it’s kept to the darkest corners below decks. It’s always rushed by the time they get their hands on one another, Harry biting down on Louis’ shoulder to keep quiet and pressing his own hand over Louis’ mouth to catch his small sounds. It’s always dark, but not so dark that Harry can’t make out Louis’ narrow shoulders and sharp cheekbones, or the way Louis’ eyes are open too. Harry thinks sometimes, for one wild second, of leaning forward and pressing his lips to Louis’, kissing him like he might have kissed a pretty girl back home, like Louis’ not a midshipman with strong arms and calloused hands. He never does, though, and Louis never kisses him either, though he can see Louis' eyes on his lips.

Nothing changes above deck, really. It’s only natural, and everyone does it just the same as them. Sometimes, when Louis is telling a story or teaching the ship’s boy how to tie a proper taut-line hitch, he’ll give Harry a smile just for him, and only Harry knows why. It tugs at Harry's belly, makes him feel something strange, and he can't quite put his finger on it - he thinks it might be something to do with being out here at sea. He knows he'd risk his life for Louis, give his life for Louis; it's not the same as any friendship he had back home.

*

They have three years on the frigate. It ends when Louis is promoted to Lieutenant, and Harry is happy for him, he really is. He gets to see his best friend honoured, and one day he’ll be a Captain, and then an Admiral, Harry knows it. Besides, they’ll see each other again – they promise to write letters to each other every week, and they’re sure to cross ports.

Harry gets his first tattoo the day Louis leaves; a tiny L on the palm of his hand. His second and third are swallows on his chest, one big and one small, and his fourth is the frigate itself on his left bicep. He finds he doesn’t mind the sting of it, helps him think a little clearer. Louis seems amused when Harry tells him about it in letters – which could have something to do with the crudely done drawings Harry sends along as well – but not six months later he tells of a compass he’s gotten on his forearm, its arrow pointing to home just where two hands might meet.

The next summer, Harry hears of an ambush against Louis’ frigate; no known survivors, bodies lost to the sea. Some of the crew mourn for Louis, raise a glass for him that night, but it doesn’t feel right to Harry. If he mourns, that means it’s done, and it can’t be. Instead, he writes to the port nearest to where the ship was sunk, thinks maybe Louis’s washed ashore. That maybe he’s started a new life as a baker, or a cobbler, and maybe Harry could come find him there. It's not unheard of, and that's what he tells the crew when he inks his skin over and over. He keeps writing his letters, week after week, and year after year, until his fingers are too stiff and arthritic to form the words any longer.

 

1873

As a child, Louis is a runaway. He never gets far, but he’s a runaway nonetheless. He takes three apples and a spare shirt in his rucksack each time, kissing his sisters’ foreheads as he creeps out the door before the sun has a chance to rise. He never makes it a full day.

He starts to think of his mother, fixing breakfast for the girls, the apron Lottie sewed for her tied around her waist, and the kitchen filled with the warm scent of fresh bread. He’s always back by noon, tiptoeing sheepishly into the kitchen and curling into his mother’s side, his cheek resting on her shoulder.

“Back already, darling?” She’d always ask, brushing his hair behind his ear, and he’d talk to her about what he saw, and what he still wanted to see.

He runs away for the last time just after his eighteenth birthday. He kisses his sisters’ foreheads, and he leaves his favourite pin, so they know he’ll be back someday. This time, he scrawls a short note and leaves it on his mother’s pillow, “I’m off to seek my future, love always, your son Louis.”

He gets past the fence, and past the village, and he keeps going; till the trees grow thick and the path turns into unfamiliar roads. He picks up odd jobs here and there – he’s an eighteen year old boy, healthy as anything, so there’s no shortage of work – but he never stays in one place for long. It’s almost a year before he comes across a bill for the Edgar Brothers’ Travelling Circus, brightly coloured with a crudely drawn lion in the very centre, and Louis feels like he’s holding adventure in his hands.

He wants to train the elephants, or pick his way across a tightrope thirty feet off the ground, or make children laugh with magic tricks. Instead he gets taken on as a tentman, building and dismantling the big top at every city they pass through. It’s enough. He sees things he’s only heard of in stories, dromedaries and people who breathe fire, and he earns just enough money that he can send some back to his mother and the girls with a letter whenever he can manage.

 

*

There are a thousand roustabouts travelling with the circus, separated out through the hundreds of caravans that make up their train, and Louis is stuck up near the engine where it’s loud and smoky, far away from the performers.

It’s after a show, when the tents are all packed away and Louis should be making his way to his bunk. He’s buzzing though, his ears too full of the screams of delight from the crowd to go to sleep, so he slips past the acrobat’s caravans and creeps into the first menagerie car.

It’s dark inside, and so quiet – it presses in on his ears, so removed from sound of two thousand feet packing an entire circus away for the night. He can just make out the animals as shadows, tucked away resentfully in their cages, their huge feet shuffling through the straw, and Louis shivers when he feels their curious eyes on him.

“I like to keep it dark for them,” a boy says, and if his voice wasn’t so slow and gentling, Louis might have jumped right out of his skin, “Too many lights at the show. They need their peace, too.”

The boy’s kneeling in front of the lion’s cage, right at the back of the train car, and Louis can’t make out much of anything until the boy strikes a match.

“Want to watch me feed him?” he asks in that same voice, and the animals don’t even stir. His eyes are green, or at least they look that way in the light, and he’s got a dimple in his cheek that’s enough to make Louis sit right in front of a lion, with nothing but thin bars of metal separating them.

“Go on,” Louis whispers, and he can feel the lion’s breath on his face, could tangle his fingers in its mane if he only reached out to touch. The boy dips his hand into the bucket by his feet – the smell of it is so thick it almost makes Louis dizzy – and hooks a lump of meat onto the end of a long wooden pole. The lion is pacing now, big mouth snarling open as the boy slips the pole through the bars, sharp teeth sinking through the flesh the moment it gets close enough to pounce on.

“Scared?” the boy asks, and it’s a challenge, his cheeks creased with dimples now.

The lion is shredding the meat, cracking small bones with its strong jaw a foot away from where they sit, so Louis says, “Never.”

It must be the right answer, because the boy is laughing soft and lovely. He extends a hand for Louis to shake, big like a lion’s paw, although his teeth aren’t nearly so sharp.

“I’m Harry.”

*

Harry isn’t a runaway. His mother was an aerialist, world-famous, and now that she’s past her prime she trains the younger ones till they’re half as good as she once was. Louis doesn’t ask about a father, but Harry offers it anyway; he doesn’t hide a single thing. It’s as if Harry is a book, and Louis can flip him open to any page he likes and read out what he finds there.

He kisses Harry one night, tucked away behind one of the performer’s tents, and Louis can pretend that the cheer swelling up from the crowd is for them. It should feel strange, but Louis has learnt more about strange here than he thinks he ever could have back home, even if he’d read every book and talked with every traveller. He knows the half-man has a wife and children, and the lion-faced girl has a wicked sense of humour, and the boy who kissed a boy is just a boy all the same.

Harry goes pink-cheeked, his shoulders slouched so he can look Louis in the eye.

Louis feels a little like running, because Harry isn’t saying a word, but he’s fed lions now, so he squares his shoulders instead.

“Would you do that again?” Harry asks, so Louis does, again, and again.

*

Harry works the sideshows like he was born for it. It’s his smile, Louis thinks. He draws the girls in as they walk down the midway, pressing metal rings into their hands and promising free tosses, the chance for easy money. They’re never angry when they lose, they just giggle and blush when he gives them a wink, tells them to come back later when the odds are in their favour.

Louis’s never liked the idea of fortune telling. He doesn’t want to be told; wants to find his fortune for himself. Florence waves them over, though, after the crowds have made their way into the chapiteau. Her rings catch the light, and she says she needs some hands to practice with, so they crowd themselves onto the tiny stools in front of her stall.

“You both have a fate line,” she says, tracing down the centre of Louis’ palm from the base of his index finger all the way to the heel of his hand, and doing the same for Harry, “Not everyone does.”

Her voice is almost as low as Harry’s, and Louis thinks she could probably feed the big cats herself, get her hands all the way inside the cage, and the cats would wait patiently for their meal.

“What does it mean?” Harry asks, awed, his eyes as wide as saucers. Harry has been travelling with the circus for most of his life, seen hundreds of charlatans perform their trade – when he’s working the sideshows, he’s one of them – but he somehow still sees magic where Louis sees tricks.

“Yours are both deep, and long. Fate’s puppets. And look,” she says, guiding their hands together till they touch, “They meet.”

Louis’ sceptical, but Harry is so swept up in the idea of fates and tarots that Louis can’t help getting a little caught up in it too, secretly. It’s a comforting thought, anyway – the lines in their skin tying them together like a cord – even if he tells Harry it’s silly. When Harry presses their palms together, linking their fingers, Louis pretends he can feel Harry’s fate line matching up against his own.

*

They have a year together. Louis knows something’s wrong as the weather first turns cold, but he doesn’t say anything to Harry; saying it out loud feels like a bad omen. By the end of winter, the circus goes bankrupt. The animals are sold off, the acrobats scramble for jobs in the nearest towns. The Big Top is dismantled for the last time.

Harry's mother is snatched up by the Yellowstone & Wright Circus almost straight away, and Louis finds work in a factory just outside of town. They find a tiny room to share, and they survive together for a while, but there's no work for Harry; nothing more than odd jobs, not enough for them to live off even when combined with Louis' meager wage. He uses the last of his money to get himself to Yellowstone & Wright, where his mother has managed to negotiate a place for him.

“It’s okay,” Harry says, pressing their hands together, “Our fate lines, remember? I’ll see you again.”

He seems so sure of it, even though he wraps his arms around Louis so tightly it’s close to painful. They’re both travellers, Louis supposes, so there’s every chance they’ll meet in some unfamiliar city. Even so, Louis tries to memorise the exact green of Harry’s eyes, the way his hair curls around his ears, because he’s not so sure he believes it.

Louis doesn’t stay in town long; he never intended to. He skips from town to town, never staying in one place for as long as he did with Harry. He misses the circus desperately, and writes letters back home more than ever. It’s another year before Yellowstone & Wright crosses his path, and Louis is almost sick with nerves when he makes his way down the midway. There are different boys reeling girls in with smiles, though, and when he asks, no one seems to recognise the name Harry. Louis watches the spot like that’s what he was there for all along; the lions look underfed, and Louis pretends he feels the same as he always has, even though he doesn’t.

 

1913

He hears the voice before he sees the boy – it’s high and raspy, unexpected, and Harry spills crème de menthe over his knuckles. The lighting is low and soft, but Harry’s eyes have long since adjusted to it, and the boy is practically glowing besides. He’s leant up against the piano, his back arched against the wood, and his hips are moving in gentle, slow circles – Harry’s not quite sure if it’s unconscious or calculated to drive the audience mad.

He’d seen the posters littering the front entrance earlier that week – Louis Tomlinson, one night only – and Harry tries to think if he’d ever heard that name before. Louis’ lips curl around Let Me Call You Sweetheart as he pushes away from the piano, slinking across the stage, and Harry tracks his face as he moves past the light. Harry’s sucking the spilt liquor off his knuckle when Louis locks eyes with him, eyes bright blue and laughing and Harry doesn’t want to blink. He can feel the double bass thrumming through the soles of his feet and it feels like the piano’s keys might be shaking his teeth; he’s unsettled, and he can’t seem to pull his eyes off the stage, not even when Louis looks away.

An insistent tapping on the bar draws him back, forces him to focus on the recipe for an Old-Fashioned, more careful with the measurements than he might have been before he caught Louis’ eye. The songs blur together, light and raw, and Harry won’t let himself look back to the stage, even when he’s sure he can feel Louis’ eyes on him.

When Harry was first hired at The Cave of the Golden Calf, he’d barely managed to get through one night. It was like nothing else – the music, the dancing and the drink, vulgar crowds and debauchery like Harry had only read about in stolen copies of Oscar Wilde stories. He’d mixed the drinks with shaking hands, trying to soak in every little detail at once, and grinned too wide at the flirtatious winks and innuendos that seemed to come with every order at the bar. He’d gotten used to it, of course; learnt to switch off his mind so the song and dance would fade into the background, so he could focus on adding the right portion of lime juice to rum. The cabaret still goes on beyond the bar, same as it always has, while the crowd laughs and moans and sighs with it. Harry doesn’t pay much mind, most nights.

There are beautiful boys here each night. Harry mixes drinks for them, listens to their maudlin stories if they stay long enough into the night, and gets kisses from them – more, from those willing to hover by the bar till the lights get shut off. There are beautiful boys here each night, so this boy should be no different.

*

Harry feels it when Louis’ performance is over, the small hairs on the nape of his neck prickling, and he twists a cloth into a dirty glass like he doesn’t know Louis is making his way over to the bar. Harry doesn’t look up, so Louis winds a finger into one of Harry’s curls, tugging sharply.

“Fix me a drink, Curly?” he asks, and his speaking voice is just as raspy as it is when he sings.

“What’ll it be?” Harry asks, trying not to stare at Louis’ collarbones. His shirt is so low, and Harry’s seen plenty more skin at the Cave on any given night, but there’s something about Louis’ skin that makes it seem more indecent.

“Surprise me,” Louis says, and he grins then, teeth sharp and nose crinkling up with mirth. His cheeks are pink and he’s still breathing a little hard from the performance, his skin glittering from the heat of the lights.

Harry starts mixing a martini – Louis doesn't seem the type for sweet drinks – showing off just a little as his spins the bottle in his hand.

“Impressive,” Louis teases, but it's not malicious, and when Harry looks up Louis' got his chin in his hand and his eyes on Harry's, “How old are you?”

Harry tilts his chin up, squaring his shoulders, because he knows just how young he looks when he slouches, “I'm eighteen.”

Louis hums thoughtfully, plucking the olive out of his drink as soon as Harry sets it down.

“You're young. I'm twenty-one,” Louis offers, licking the salt off his lips before taking a sip. “And you mix a good drink, Curly.”

“It's Harry,” he says, and gives Louis his most charming smile – the one that makes most men and women weak at the knees.

Louis laughs, and it's such a pretty sound, “Confident. I like that.”

Harry feels like a silly, young boy, standing in front of this gorgeous singer, but he can't stop thinking of the words one night only, so he says, “Come home with me tonight.”

Louis' mouth drops open, pink and wet from the martini, his eyebrows raised comically high, “Cheeky.”

“Is that a yes?” Harry asks, and hopes the dim lights save Louis from noticing his flushed skin.

“It's not a no,” Louis shrugs, then leans over the bar to press a kiss to the corner of Harry's mouth, “Come find me later.”

*

The brief surge of confidence Harry found at the bar is gone by the time he's locking his door behind him, replaced by a nervous energy. His room is nothing to be proud of – a tiny place, really, but it's close to the bar and the roof doesn't leak when it rains – and it probably pales in comparison to the kinds of places Louis usually stays. He doesn't appear to mind, though; he's peeking out the window, looking down at the drunks on the street, and somehow he doesn't seem out of place at all.

“Could I fix you a tea?” Harry says, and Louis throws a disbelieving look over his shoulder.

“Tea?” he asks with a grin, like Harry's offering him something strange and foreign, “Someone's remembered their manners.”

Louis pushes away from the windowsill, light on his feet as he crosses the room till they're toe to toe, and Harry's finding it hard to be embarrassed when Louis is standing right in front of him. He's much smaller than he looks on stage; he has to tilt his chin up to look Harry in the eye, and his shoulders look small and delicate when Harry raises a hand to smooth out his collar.

“Maybe save the tea for morning,” Harry says, going for flirtatious but hitting the mark somewhere near hopeful.

Louis laughs, running the tip of his finger from Harry's chin and down his throat, settling between his collarbones.

“Aren't you going to take me to bed, then?” Louis asks, voice quiet for the first time, and Harry hopes his hands aren't shaking too much when he cups Louis' jaw and kisses him.

Louis is not demure, despite the coy glances he can throw onstage. He strips off his clothes without ceremony, working his small fingers into Harry's buttons while he's too distracted with a kiss to do much else.

 

“Lie down,” Louis says against Harry's mouth, patting his cock through the fabric of his trousers, and Harry can feel his teeth when he grins. Louis seems to be enjoying himself as Harry lies back against the pillows, eyes lingering over his chest, stomach and hard cock, smearing his skin wet already. “What am I going to do with you?”

 

Harry's built a sort of shield around himself - he's met with streams of gorgeous flirts every night, so he has to have at least some resistance. He likes that he can be alluring now, quiet and slow-speaking, something unattainable to the drunk, lascivious patrons propped up on his bar. With Louis, Harry feels like that sixteen-year-old tripping over his own feet in the club for the first time, brash and stupid.

 

“Could I lick you?” he asks, because he hasn't stopped thinking about Louis' arse from the first moment he saw him on stage, back curved like an invitation. Louis' skin is even more golden when it's close enough to touch, body small and curved, and Harry wants to taste.

 

“Well, since you asked so nicely,” Louis says, but shakes his head when Harry moves to get up and reach for him, “No, stay.”

 

Louis hooks his fingers into the band of his underwear, letting them drop to his feet and stepping out of them, completely unselfconscious. His cock curves up towards his belly, pink and hard, and it bobs as he crawls up Harry's body, dropping down to his elbows for a kiss.

 

“Ready for me?” he asks, letting his teeth graze his bottom lip, and Harry nods, because he doesn't trust himself to speak.

 

Louis pushes himself up, twisting around till his thighs are at Harry's shoulders and his arse is there, big and round and Harry's hips buck for it. Louis wiggles, arching his back just enough that Harry can see his tight, pink hole, and Harry is done with the tease. He wraps his hands around Louis' hips, tugging him down till Harry can bury his face and lick over him.

 

Oh,” Louis breathes, bringing his hands down to Harry's chest for balance, his fingertips digging in. Harry lets his tongue trace around the rim, flickering against him just a little, and when Louis digs his fingers in harder, Harry dips his tongue inside. It's something Harry's only done once or twice, and it's nothing at all like using his tongue on a girl, but every time Louis makes quiet, involuntary noises it lets him know he's doing something right.

 

Louis' resting more of his weight on Harry now, leaning back into his face as he rolls his hips for it, and his whole body shivers when Harry slides his tongue out to suck over Louis' hole. Louis makes a high-pitched noise, close enough to a squeak that Harry knows he'd deny it later, and reaches back to fist his hands into Harry's curls, using them as leverage to push himself back for more. Everything tastes and smells and feels just like Louis, heady and overpowering, and Harry slides his hands up to cup over the curve of Louis' belly, pressing just a little to control the roll of Louis' hips. He's moving his tongue in a rhythm that Louis matches, fast and edging towards frantic, and Harry can feel Louis' thighs shaking against his shoulders.

 

Louis bends all the way down, then, till Harry is forced to crane his neck to lick at him, and Harry very nearly swallows his tongue when Louis sucks the head of his dick into his mouth. He jerks his hips up without thinking, feels himself bump against the back of Louis' throat, muscles fluttering, and Louis' hole clutches at his tongue. The way Louis sucks is smooth and well-practiced, his teeth tucked under his lips, and Harry wants to wreck him. He wants Louis trembling and speechless, wants to find scratches down his back the next morning, so he sinks his teeth into the thickest part of Louis' arse and reaches down to grip his own cock, guiding it out of Louis' mouth.

"Up," he says, voice scratching in his throat, and presses a hand to Louis' hip till he flips over onto his back. Louis' cock is hard and flat against his belly, neglected, so Harry spreads him open with two hands to the backs of his knees, licking one long stripe from his hole to the head of his dick.

"Jesus, Harry. You're a fast learner," Louis says, and he's going for teasing but it comes out a little weak, his hands clutching at Harry's shoulders. Harry hums, dipping his tongue into the slit just to see Louis bite his lip and try not to moan, before sucking him down as far as he can go. It's not as far as Louis took him, but it doesn't seem to matter all that much, not when Louis' back is arching and his eyes are squeezing shut. Harry hollows out his cheeks, sucking hard on the upstroke, and Louis' hips lift with his mouth, searching for more heat. Louis' gasping now, his noises just shy of proper moans, and Harry trails his fingers over the back of Louis' thighs until they're teasing over his hole. Louis chokes, heel drumming against Harry's back, so Harry slips his middle finger inside. It's tight, and Louis clenches up like a vise, but Harry works his finger in till his knuckle is pressing at Louis' rim and Louis moans for it, thighs falling open. Harry wants to press a second finger in, a third, and maybe his cock, wants to fill Louis up, but even though he's wet from Harry's tongue he's already stretched tight enough around one dry finger. He's close, anyway, making real noise now and squirming on the sheets, so Harry pumps his finger in and takes Louis down as far as he can, swallowing and humming and letting his teeth scrape just a little till Louis is seizing up and coming down his throat.

Louis' back is still arched up and his toes still curled tight by the time Harry's swallowed him down, so he rubs gently over Louis' belly, kissing at his thighs till he calms down and lets his spine relax, breath still coming in sharp little pants.

"Alright?" Harry asks, voice thick and heavy, holding himself tight around the base of his dick. It won't take much for him to come, just a few good strokes, and he wants to do it all over Louis' thighs, or maybe his stomach and chest.

"Up here," Louis says, tapping his fingers against his lips and letting his mouth drop open. Harry shuts his eyes to the image, doesn't want to come all over his hand instead, and crawls up Louis' body till he's close enough to dip in. Harry can see the dents in Louis' lips from where his teeth bit down and he passes the head of his dick over them, as if that might soothe them, before sliding in. Louis must be too weak for suction, but it doesn't matter; Harry uses shallow, lazy thrusts, content with watching Louis' face as he takes it. There's heat curling in his belly, but it's not as urgent as it was before, not even when his balls draw up and his muscles clench and he spills over Louis' lips, most of it catching on his tongue or trickling down his cheeks.

He lets his cock rest there on Louis' lips, because it paints such a fucking gorgeous picture. Louis' eyes are curious slits, waiting for Harry to make his next move.

“Stay the night?” Harry asks, which feels a little stupid given that he’s got his dick on Louis’ face right now. Louis doesn’t seem to mind, though; he pushes at Harry till he lies down beside Louis, kneading at him like a pillow.

They stay awake for a long time, because there's something in Harry that won't let him fall asleep. Harry learns about Louis' family, his mother and sisters he used to sing to sleep. He learns that the Cave was Louis' last show in London – he has a brand new manager, taking him to brand new places. He's going to be big in Germany.

The sun is up by the time Harry closes his eyes, just for a minute – he's sure it was only a minute – but when he opens them again, Louis is gone.

 

2010

They meet in a bathroom.

Louis doesn't remember much of that day, or that week really - when he thinks back on it, it all feels like the same moment, he can't pick apart what happened when. The one thing he does remember is hiding in one of the stalls - legs tucked up against his chest defensively - and the boy who flicks tap water all over him by accident when he goes out to wash his hands, a patch right over his fly. Louis can't bring himself to be annoyed when he mumbles oops and blinks his doe-eyes at the stain, his hands dripping water onto the tile.

The boy turns out to be Harry, and admits he came to hide in the bathroom like he's not embarrassed at all. He looks just about ready to cry, so Louis tugs him back into the stall and they sit on the cold floor, squashed in the small amount of space between the door and the toilet, their sides pressed tight together. Harry tells Louis how terrified he is of disappointing his family, or making an absolute tit of himself on television; forgetting his lines or hitting all the wrong notes while the cameras are on him. He takes Louis' hand, squeezing hard enough to hurt, and Louis just laces their fingers together and tells him he's scared too.

Later, he hears Harry sing and wonders how he was ever nervous. Louis gets a photo with him, so he can show it off to his friends back home when Harry's famous.

*

They get through, the both of them. They're put into a group with three other boys that feel like family within a week. They sing live shows in front of real audiences and people vote for them, week after week, until they don't. It feels so much like the end, and Harry does enough crying for all of them, twisting his fingers into Louis' shirt like he might disappear in a puff of smoke.

They get signed, and they record singles Louis is convinced only their mums will buy, and they go to number one. It goes faster than Louis can process it and even when it slows down, just for a little while after their first tour finishes, he still can't manage to fit everything that's happened into his brain. The boys are there to make him feel normal; he thinks he'd probably go mad without them there to wind him down. Liam to play stupid games with till his stomach hurts from laughing, and Zayn to have a quiet talk with when he's upset and so homesick he can't sleep, and Niall to relax and play Xbox with when everything feels too big.

Harry is more like an open wound. It's not that Harry isn't a comfort - really, Louis feels safest when he's with Harry - it's that he scrapes at Louis' nerves, leaving him raw and exposed. It scares Louis a little, how fast it happened. Louis loves people, generally, but he doesn't think he's ever felt so close to a person so soon after meeting them; Harry feels familiar, like he doesn't need to earn his trust, like it was already there to begin with. Louis wonders if maybe Harry reminds him of a childhood friend, although he can't think of who that might be.

Harry takes the whole thing in stride, though, in that way only he can. Most days, Louis does everything he can think of to get Harry to laugh, to get him to do embarrassing things just because Louis asked, to see if he will. There are days when it feels so huge and obvious and strange Louis is sure everyone is staring at them, wondering. He throws his guard up - hides his smiles and refuses to laugh at Harry's jokes, makes sure he's sat between Liam and Zayn when they're interviewed - because he doesn't want that kind of control, has no idea what to do with it when it's in his hands. Nothing he does seems to change the way Harry is, the way he reacts. He can avoid Harry's smiles for an entire day, and although he feels Harry's eyes on him more than ever, he can still curl up with him back at the hotel at the end of the day as if nothing's happened, as if the day has been entirely normal.

After a while, Louis learns to be more careful around Harry. He tells himself to let it alone, give it time to let the wound heal over.

*

"Wrong size shoe," Louis says, pressing against Harry on the couch. There's no space between them, but the crowd is so loud, and Louis has to duck in close, his lips just brushing the shell of Harry's ear.

He pulls back to see Harry's face, the huge grin he already knew would be there. Harry shakes his head, but he doesn't say no, and he covers his eyes with his hand.

"I'll look a complete twat, again," Harry says, or something close to it - christ, but the crowd can scream. Louis shrugs.

"Same as usual, then," he says, grinning at Harry's indignant squawk, and indicates at the audience with a tilt of his head. Harry's chorus is coming up, and Niall is eyeing them like he knows what they're planning.

"I won't do it," Harry says, but he's laughing, and Louis knows he will.

He tugs off his shoe, already smirking at his own addition to the joke, and they both push themselves up off the couch to make for the front of the stage.

Harry does sing it - of course he does - and Louis can feel Harry's eyes on him as he sings in harmony, smiling around the microphone. When he glances over, Harry's flushed and happy, proud of their stupid joke, and Louis can't help but grin back and roll his eyes theatrically.

*

The problem is that Harry keeps reopening that same wound, splitting the stitches over and over whenever Louis thinks he's gotten control over it.

It's always on days when Louis feels strongest - when he hasn't so much as glanced at Harry in interviews, and tucked his smile away into his cheeks every time Harry made a joke - that he has to go and ruin it all. Harry crawls into his bunk at one in the morning ten shows into their second world tour, cold fingers and a cold nose, his voice shaky because he misses home. He barely fits into the space any more, not like he did at the X-Factor house - his legs are bent in half, knees pressing against the wall, and he's a heavy weight against Louis' side. Louis stares at the slats of the bunk above and tries not to breathe too much while Harry tells him how lucky he feels to have this, his big hand warm on Louis' belly. Louis doesn't think about what this is, tries not to think at all. Harry falls asleep, easy and quiet, like Louis never can. Louis only knows because he's tracking the sound of Harry's breathing, waiting for the soft hitches to even out into something smooth and deep.

*

There's an itch, now, whenever he's near - Louis thinks maybe it was there the whole time, dulled a little by the manic screams of fans and the constant rush of adrenaline under his skin. It'll never feel normal, exactly, but after two world tours they're more settled into it now, and what once felt foreign now feels familiar. It means the itch rises to the surface. Louis can't decide what it means.

"FIFA?" Harry asks, shoving Louis' feet off the couch and settling in next to him, passing over one of the controllers. His hair is an absolute wreck - in desperate need of a trim - and he hasn't dressed in anything more than sleep pants since they got back.

"Winner makes dinner," Louis sing-songs, picking his legs back up to drape them over Harry's and propping his feet up on the arm rest. Harry pouts, as if he wasn't going to make dinner anyway, because he gets too excited by the game to be able to throw the match.

It's been two weeks since their tour finished. Louis loves touring, he really does, but being home after travelling the world for months on end feels like finally shedding your skin. For the first week it was nothing but relief - no more ear-piercing screams, no more packed schedules, no more interviews and promos and cameras in their faces. But now, it's like everything's gone quiet, and every tiny noise or movement is magnified a thousand times.

He loses the match, although he doesn't throw it. He does clumsy passes and doesn't block a single goal, and his eyes keep drifting to Harry. He looks halfway to insane when he's concentrating, his eyebrows furrowed so deeply Louis is sure he'll have permanent lines by his next birthday, and his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth. Louis knows when Harry makes a goal, not because he's looking at the screen, but because he watches the dimple form in Harry's cheek and hears his little whoop of victory like it's the only sound in the room.

"I win!" Harry crows, tossing the controller in the air and grinning goofily at Louis, "What d'you think? Chicken parma?"

Louis hums, shrugging, and tilts his head till it's resting on the back of the couch. He doesn't answer, and Harry doesn't seem all that put off, content to watch Louis while Louis watches him. His skin is edging towards pale, because it's winter, and Harry's gotten too used to warm tropical weather. Harry blinks, in that slow way of his that drives Louis mad. There's a leaf tangled up in his curls - he doesn't remember Harry even going outside - that he wants to pluck out, or maybe twist a few flowers in alongside it.

Louis knows every detail of Harry's face off by heart, could probably close his eyes and still pinpoint each of his freckles, but he likes to look anyway, like he might find something new. Harry's patient with it, sits still and silent, and he seems to like looking too, his eyes flicking over Louis' face. They're quiet for a long time, and Louis' skin itches.

"Right," Louis says, voice cracking through the silence, and he pushes himself off the couch, scooping up dirty plates so he has an excuse to escape to the kitchen, "Cuppa?"

Harry nods, already setting himself up for a solo match of FIFA, and Louis has to climb over his legs to get past him. He dumps the plates in the sink and flicks the kettle on, watches it shake and hiss and he grips the edge of the counter like he's unbalanced himself.

"Get a hold of yourself, Tomlinson," he says in his firmest whisper, busying himself with milk and a little sugar for Harry.

Harry's focussed on the screen, but he still smiles when Louis walks back into the living room and sets his tea down on the coffee table, tilting his head towards Louis just a little.

"Thanks, love you," Harry says absently, and Louis watches as he scores a particularly impressive goal.

"'S fine," Louis says, settling carefully back into his warm spot on the couch, "I'm in love with you."

His whole body seizes up as soon as it's out, fingers going stiff around his hot mug of tea, and oh fuck there's nothing he can do about it; Harry's heard it and he can't take it back. He won't look at Harry, but he knows Harry's looking at him - game completely forgotten - and Louis doesn't think he could bear to see his face.

He runs through a thousand ways he could brush it off, make it seem like a joke, and not one of them would work now. His fingertips are burning, stinging painfully, and Louis thinks that if he's gone and fucked this up, he might as well fuck it up properly.

"What would you do if I kissed you?" Louis asks, and it sounds so stupid coming out of his mouth that he wishes he could eat it back up and swallow it whole.

"I'd kiss you back," Harry says, reaching out to take the teacup gently from Louis' hands, setting it on the table beside his own.

"And what would happen then?" Louis asks, and he still won't look at Harry, even though the television's been switched to standby.

"Does it matter?" Harry says, with no teasing lilt to his voice, and really, leave it to Harry to make something so knotted up and strange seem so simple. Louis turns to look at Harry then, because he might as well, and Harry gives Louis his slowest smile; the one that starts off a tiny curl at the edges before spreading across his cheeks. He stretches his arm across the back of the couch, pressing his fingertips against Louis' jaw, and Louis can feel that he's shaking a little.

"Right," Louis says, and he's not sure that he agrees, but Harry's waiting and Louis really, really doesn't want to miss his chance. He tucks his finger under Harry's chin when he leans in, and Harry's own fingers drag across his jaw to bury themselves in Louis' hair.

It's really only when they kiss that Louis realises how much he's been thinking about it, or that he's been thinking about it at all. Because it's like he already knows the shape of Harry's lips under his, and the taste of Harry is already blended on his tongue. It's at least a comfort that Harry seems to be as desperate as he feels, his teeth pressing dents into Louis' lips and a hand on Louis' hip, tugging him till he's falling forward. Louis digs his fingers into Harry's shoulders and they're chest to chest; Louis can feel Harry's heartbeat hammering against his own ribs, and Louis wants.

"Can I touch you?" Harry asks, so quiet Louis might not have heard him if he weren't right there. It's a stupid fucking question, and Louis doesn't reply; he gets his hands under Harry's shirt and tugs so it's bunched under his armpits, till Harry gets the hint and raises his arms to get it all the way off.

There's a shift, then. Harry's grinning when his head pops out of the fabric, dopey and just this side of giddy, and Louis has to kiss him; it slices at the odd tension in the room.

"What're you smiling at?" he asks between kisses, pinching at Harry's side, "This is serious."

Harry makes a low noise, wrapping both arms around Louis' back and squeezing, his big hand spreading out on the small of Louis' back.

"I'm very serious," he says, but his voice is deep and slow and it makes Louis shiver. Harry's hands are crushing Louis into him, going back in for a kiss, and it's not careful anymore. Louis lets himself touch, over Harry's ribs and the muscles shifting in his stomach. Harry's still in his soft cotton sleep pants, and it's so easy to tuck his fingers in the waistband and tug, to slide his fingers inside and get Harry's cock in hand, warm and hard and curving into his palm. He has to look, even if it means breaking off from Harry's mouth and letting his kiss slide up his cheek; it's worth it to see Harry's cock, thick and long, flushed dark red, wet where Louis lets his fingertips trail over the head.

"Louis," Harry says, nosing at Louis' cheek. He shifts one of his hands, lets it slide over Louis' hip till he can dig his fingers into the thickest part of his thigh, "Please."

Louis lets his fingers wrap around Harry's cock properly, and his hand looks so fucking small there it makes his own dick jump and his mouth water. Harry seems to agree, if his staggered breath is anything to go by, and he rocks his hips up into Louis' grip, desperate.

"Yeah," Louis says, but he doesn't move his hand. He glances back up to Harry's face, his wide eyes and swollen lips, "Been waiting so long."

Harry groans, squeezing his eyes shut and yanking at Louis' trousers till he can get his cock free. He wraps one hand around Louis' dick and the other cups Louis' arse, pulling his hips in till their knuckles are pressed up against each other's bellies, and Louis doesn't want to take his time anymore.

Harry sets a steady pace, faster on the upstroke - the same rhythm Louis' heard a hundred times over on the tour bus, his own hand shoved down his pants and trying to think of something else, anything else - and Louis matches it, tilting his hand to catch under the head. Harry's making noise, just low little grunts, his breath puffing hot against Louis' cheek. His hand is huge and stupidly soft and Louis can't seem to think straight, his vision swimming when Harry does something clever with his thumb. His eyes don't leave Louis' face, but Louis can't resist, has to look down and see the swollen head of Harry's dick sliding out of the circle of his fingers, the muscles in Harry's stomach tightening every time he tugs.

"Wanna blow you," Harry says thickly, and Louis almost loses his rhythm, his own hips pushing up frantically, "And fuck you, too, I want to do that. Can I?"

Louis has to laugh, breathless as it is, because Harry is all manners even when Louis' dick is in his hand, "Yeah, yeah."

Louis wants it, wants to know what Harry tastes like, too, how good he is with his tongue and how his dick feels, but it's to good to think about peeling away from Harry's lap, slipping out of his tight grip. He squeezes Harry's hips with his thighs and works him over, rolling his wrist in the cramped space they have between them. Their hands are dry and it's just this close to too much; he can't help his gasp when he comes, spilling over Harry's knuckles and belly and going over sensitive fast. Harry's dick is jerking in his hand and he leans in for a kiss, tucking his tongue behind Louis' teeth as he comes between Louis' fingers.

Louis wraps his arms around Harry's shoulders for balance, a little shaky and trying to catch his breath. His legs feel like jelly and they're both filthy - he's trailing come over Harry's back with his fingers, and Harry's dick is smearing come down Louis' thigh. There's a wet patch on the couch between their legs, the fabric stained dark, and Louis can't stop staring at it.

"We could get it dry cleaned," Harry offers, his voice unsteady, and Louis can't help but laugh, incredulous.

"I don't care about your upholstery, Harold," Louis says, and Harry has the decency to look a little bashful, at least. The strangest part about it is that it feels so normal, like it's any other day they've spent watching films and drinking beers and calling up Zayn just to piss him off.

They're quiet for a stretch, breathing hard and trying to steady themselves, and Louis lets himself trail sticky fingers over Harry's shoulders, feeling the breadth of them.

"Parma?" Harry asks, and he's evened out his voice, but it's still a little rough, deeper than it normally would be. Harry's always been this way; it's not something Louis should know, really, but after a wank on the bus or at a hotel he'd always be off straight away, hunting in the kitchen for a sandwich or some leftovers.

"Mmm," Louis hums, pushing himself gingerly off Harry's lap, his hips aching from the position, "Might nip in for a shower while you cook, yeah?"

Harry nods, and there's an odd little moment before they both lean in for a kiss, just a light, warm peck on the lips. Louis feels like he should be freaking out, but thinks maybe that part will come later, when he's not glowing from orgasm and heading for a warm shower and a hot meal.

He finds pink marks on his hips from where Harry was gripping him, and he stands under the spray until the hot water pinks the rest of his skin to match and they fade away.

Harry's gotten the chicken into the oven by the time Louis pads back downstairs in fresh track pants and slippers. He's wearing enormous oven mits and he's got a little parmesan cheese in his hair.

"Right, I'd better clean off properly," he says, clapping his mits together. He fixes Louis with the sternest look he can possibly manage. "It'll be ready in twelve minutes. No more than twelve minutes, okay?"

Louis rolls his eyes, pinching Harry's hip as he passes and hopping up onto the counter beside the oven. He unlocks and locks his phone a few times, tossing up on whether to start frantically texting someone about what in fuck's name he's doing or to save that for later. He ends up checking Liam's twitter - he's in the middle of an Ask Liam session and it's an absolute wreck of excess letters - and beating his high score on Temple Run before Harry comes back downstairs and fusses because Louis forgot to take the parmigiana out of the oven.

"I call this pleasantly charred," Louis offers over Harry's shoulder when he places the pan delicately onto the stove top. It's nothing bad, really - just a little crisp at the top and, okay, maybe slightly blackened at the edges.

"I'm giving you the burnt bits," Harry says, but he doesn't seem bothered, dropping kisses on Louis' cheek while he tries to plate the chicken up.

It's good despite everything - Harry's dinners always are. Louis waits till Harry's cheeks are stuffed full of chicken before he presses his toes against his calf, trailing up to tuck behind his knee, just so he can see Harry stretch a smile over his mouthful. Harry leans over to stab at Louis' peas, brushing their hands together when Louis defends his plate and sending the peas scattering all over the table.

"You're a bloody menace, babe," Harry says, feinting his fork at Louis' hands as he crushes the peas into the wood.

They do the dishes, Harry washing and Louis drying, knocking their hips together and treading on each other's feet. Harry's using every excuse to press their thighs together, or to squeeze Louis' biceps, and Louis can't really pretend he's above it when he finds himself running soapy fingers down Harry's cheek. It's just that he's had the chance to touch, now - properly touch - and he can't seem to stop; he wants more.

"Upstairs?" Louis asks, going for bold and not quite landing it.

Harry tosses his dish cloth at the sink, hunches his back and comes at Louis with his arms outstretched, like he's going to pick Louis up and sling him over his shoulder. Louis skips back, dancing out of Harry's reach, "No, no. I do have some dignity you know."

Harry laughs, sharp and sudden, and makes to grab for Louis again. Louis turns and bolts, feeling Harry's fingers swipe at the back of his shirt, and they're both laughing like twats as Louis takes the stairs two at a time. He trips on the last stair, toes catching on the edge, and Harry catches up, wrapping both arms around Louis' middle and hauling him up before he can fall.

"Off," Louis demands, breathless from laughing and running at the same time. He wriggles half heartedly, but Harry manages to get him into his room and dump him onto the bed before Louis can fight his way out of his grip. Louis bounces, aiming a kick at Harry who's breathing hard, his face a little flushed

"Could have hoped for a little more stamina, Styles."

"That was my nickname in secondary school," Harry says, grinning wide, proud of his joke. He puffs out his chest a little for show, "Stamina Styles."

Louis rolls his eyes and lets his legs fall open, just to see what Harry will do.

"Right," Harry says, and Louis watches his throat as he swallows. Harry's silent for a bit, letting his eyes wander over Louis' body, which Louis thinks is a little ridiculous given that no one is the slightest bit naked yet.

"Are you going to take your pants off, then?"

Harry's eyes snap back up to Louis', that slow smile reappearing. He shrugs, easy, and the bed dips when he crawls his way over to Louis. They end up on their sides, Harry's thigh pressed between Louis' and his hand, big and warm, pushing up under Louis' shirt. The kiss is a little slower than before, less frantic and rushed; Louis takes his time sucking on the dips and swells of Harry's lips.

He got to look earlier, but he wants to look now, take off Harry's clothes and count his freckles. Harry's not pleased when Louis breaks the kiss, steals a few more before Louis can pull away properly, but he doesn't protest when Louis sits up to tug at his trousers. Harry takes care of his own shirt, tossing it off the side of the bed, and then he's naked. It's not that Louis' never seen Harry naked before - he has, more times than he can count, because Harry is a complete exhibitionist - but he's never seen him like this, all laid out for Louis to have. He's all long limbs and pale skin, broad shoulders and narrow hips and a line of hair leading down from his navel into the thick patch above his cock. He's restless, but he lies still for Louis, letting him look.

His skin is warm where Louis touches, pressing his thumbs into the lines of Harry's hips, and his dick is hard and flushed dark against his belly.

"Your turn, now," Harry says, pushing up at the fabric of Louis' trousers, "Not fair."

Louis leans down first, drops a kiss on Harry's knee and wriggles his way out of his clothes. Louis' not shy, but he feels like he's on show now; he can feel Harry's eyes on him, and Louis avoids him by making a fuss of folding his clothes.

"You're beautiful," Harry says, his voice hoarse, and Louis has to huff a sigh instead of smiling like an idiot, has to climb on top of Harry and hide his pink cheeks against Harry's throat. Harry runs his hands up Louis' sides and smoothes them both down his spine, just feeling him out, testing the size and shape of him. He lets his hands drop down further, spreading over Louis' arse and giving him a proper squeeze. Louis sucks at the skin just below Harry's ear, makes him shift and moan and tilt his hips up just enough that his hard cock presses into Louis' belly.

"What do you wanna do?" Louis asks, kissing over the birds on Harry's collarbones.

"Suck you?" Harry asks, as if there's a single chance in fucking hell that Louis will say no, and when Louis grins he rolls him over, hands cradling his hips. It's surreal, watching Harry wrap his hand around Louis' cock and mouth at the head, his lips already red and swollen from kissing. Louis' not sure if Harry's done this before or not - he's a little clumsy, and he can't take Louis down very far, and it's so fucking good Louis has to dig his fingers into his sides to stop himself from bucking up.

"Fuck, Harry," Louis hisses, and Harry looks up at that, lets Louis' dick slip out of his mouth just to smirk at him, pleased with himself. He kisses his way down to the base, sucking wet marks into sensitive skin, getting it slick for his hand.

"Yeah?" he says, even though the answer is obviously fuck yeah, and sucks Louis back in, pumping his hand as he hollows out his cheeks. He's taking a little more in now, working his lips down, and he lets his hand slip off Louis' cock. His fingers trail just light enough over Louis' balls to make him jerk, push his dick into Harry's mouth a little further, and Harry looks up at him through his lashes when he dips the finger down, brushing between Louis' cheeks. Louis goes stiff, but he lets his legs fall spread again, tilting his hips to give Harry more space. Harry's fingertip is firm and wet and curious, just playing over Louis' hole, stroking in tiny circles, and Louis can't help the noise he makes.

"What d'you think?" Harry asks, pulling off Louis' dick again and letting his gaze flit down to where his finger is pushing gently, teasing. "Can I?"

Louis nods, letting out a breath and forcing himself to relax as Harry slides in it, all the way to the second knuckle and then some. Harry's watching his face carefully, maybe waiting for a sign of pain, so Louis pushes down till his finger presses all the way in.

"How's it feel?" Harry asks, breathless, torn between looking up at Louis' face and down to where his finger is buried inside. He moves his finger nice and slow, pulling out most of the way and working it back in. "Does it hurt?"

"No," Louis says, shaking his head, but he can't seem to put into words how it feels. "Fuck me."

They're both kind of shocked; Harry's gaping up at him, his finger stilled, and Louis would be embarrassed if he hadn't seen Harry's cock twitch against the sheets.

"Wait right here," Harry says, tugging his finger out gently and dropping a kiss on Louis' cock before he climbs off the bed and scampers off into the bathroom. Louis can hear Harry clattering about, evidently hunting through drawers. He closes his eyes and counts to ten, holding his breath, because he's just asked for Harry's cock up his arse and he's maybe a little freaked out.

"Right, okay," Harry says, padding back into the room. He's got a strip of condoms and a travel-sized bottle of lube in hand, looking like a proper boy scout, if slightly lost. "Have you ever done this before?"

"Fingers. I've had fingers," Louis says quickly, and Harry's face shifts at that. Louis thinks he sees a little jealousy in his expression. "Have you done this?"

"Yeah," Harry says, and that's definitely a spike of jealousy Louis' feeling, "Should be the same basic principle as with a girl, I should say."

Harry's hesitating at the foot of the bed, just looking - Louis can track his gaze over his body.

"What are you waiting for?" Louis snips impatiently to cover up how exposed he feels. He pushes at Harry's bare leg with his foot.

"I just feel like I should light some candles, or something," Harry mumbles, glancing around the room. Louis knows he's looking at his dirty socks on the floor and countless tea-stained mugs and he feels so incredibly fond it's almost like it's swelling up in his chest.

"I don't need fucking candles," he says, exasperated, holding his arms out, "Just get down here."

Harry drops the condoms and the bottle onto the mattress and kneels down, his long body covering Louis' completely as he leans in for a kiss. He's heavy, but Louis likes the weight pressing him down as Harry licks his way into his mouth.

Harry makes his way back down Louis' body with kisses, stopping to suck at a pebbled nipple, lick over a rib. He smears lube over his fingers - too much, really, Louis' going to be sloppy and the sheets will be soaked, but Louis finds it hard to care when Harry's sliding the finger in deep, straight to the last knuckle. Harry's sucking marks into his thighs, working the finger with a little twist, and he's lolling his tongue over the underside of Louis' cock when he presses a second finger in alongside the first.

"Oh," Louis huffs, rolling his hips for it. Harry's fingers are bigger than his, bigger than any girl he's been with before, but it doesn't hurt like Louis was bracing for. There's a sting, but it's good, feels more like Harry is properly fucking him now that he's twisting two fingers in as deep as he can get them. Harry presses his face into Louis' belly, breathing hot against his skin.

"Hook your fingers," Louis says, trying to keep his voice steady, and Harry does, fingers blindly searching for something he doesn't know is there.

"Like that?" he asks, tilting his wrist, and the angle is completely wrong.

"No, no," Louis mumbles, then gasps, shocky, as Harry gets it right, brushes his fingers over Louis' prostate. Louis fists one hand into Harry's curls and arches his back up off the bed, "There."

Harry's looking up now, watching Louis' face as he rubs his fingers over that spot again, and again, gets a third finger in as well while Louis' too distracted to notice the stretch. He's rutting up against the sheets, Louis can see his hips moving, and he will be so bloody furious if Harry wastes himself on the mattress.

"Hey," Louis says, nudging at Harry's hip, "Stop that. I want it in me."

Harry makes a wounded sound against Louis' belly, grinding his fingers in deep before letting them slip out all the way, petting gently over Louis' hole. He fumbles for the condoms, trying and utterly failing to rip one out of its packet with hands too slippery from lube and eyes that won't look away from where Louis' cock is lying heavy between his thighs. Louis plucks the condom from his hands and sheds the packet, fingers circling the base of Harry's cock to roll the condom down. He smiles up at Harry when his teeth bite into his bottom lip, like he's trying to stop himself from thrusting up into Louis' hand, and lies down when he's finished, arching his back prettily for Harry.

"Fucking hell, Lou," Harry groans, gripping his own cock and rubbing the head over Louis' hole, "Grab the headboard, yeah?"

Louis does, tight enough that he knows he won't let go, and then Harry is pressing in. It fucking hurts, but in a way that makes Louis want more, tight pressure and raw nerves. Harry's mouth is hanging open, his eyes glazed over as he blinks down at Louis, like he can't quite believe what's happening. Louis knows the feeling, because right now he's got Harry wedging his cock inside with sharp little rocks of his hips, sinking in inch by inch till Louis can feel his hipbones pressed up against his arse. Louis' panting, these little whimpers coming out with each breath, and he'd be embarrassed if Harry didn't look an absolute wreck.

"Relax, try to breathe as slow and deep as you can," Harry says, watching Louis with serious eyes, "I've googled this."

Louis can't laugh - he doesn't have enough breath - but he gasps a little and folds in on himself, linking his ankles behind Harry's back.

"Idiot," he manages, tilting his chin up so Harry knows to give him a kiss. It still feels fucking strange, but it's good; he feels split open in the best way. Harry tucks his face into Louis' neck and rolls his hips, careful and slow, so tightly controlled that Louis can feel his legs shaking. Louis buries his face into Harry's hair, breathes him in and digs his heels into Harry's back, forcing him deeper. "Do it properly."

Harry huffs, his breath tickling Louis' neck, but he spreads his knees a little wider and slams in. He knocks Louis up the bed once, twice, and Louis lets go of the headboard to grab onto Harry's shoulders as he fucks in. Louis squirms with it, jerking his hips up to meet Harry's and clinging each time Harry slides his dick out. His heels slip off Harry's back and he can't seem to keep quiet, these little whines getting fucked out of him, and Harry is everywhere. He's pulled his head up just enough that they can watch each other, so Louis can see the look in Harry's eyes before he has to squeeze his own shut, and they're pressed together from their shoulders to their bellies and Harry is in him. He hasn't touched Louis' cock, but it's slippery between them, getting just enough friction to set Louis on edge.

"Won't last if you keep - " Harry chokes as Louis goes tight, squeezing around his cock as he wriggles, "Doing that."

Harry's losing his rhythm, jolting in hard and pressing his mouth to Louis' jaw without kissing, moaning into the skin, and it's too much. Louis locks his thighs around Harry's waist and comes, his whole body stretching taut and cock jerking between them.

Louis' legs are shaking too much to hold up any longer, so he lets them flop uselessly down onto the mattress. His vision is blurred - Louis realises it's because he's teared up a little, and fuck if that isn't embarrassing - and he thinks Harry must have come too, because he's a heavy, boneless weight on Louis' chest. He can't quite breathe, but he doesn't want Harry to move just yet; he tugs at the curls on the nape of Harry's neck and passes a hand down his broad back.

They stay like that until Louis can catch his breath, as well as he can with Harry lying on top of him, and Harry is mumbling something into his neck.

"If you fall asleep on top of me, Harold, I will never forgive you," Louis says, feebly trying to roll them over. Harry does it for the both of them, pulling Louis along with him till they're side by side with their arms and legs caught up under each other.

"Sleep?" Harry asks, kissing lazily at Louis' face, his eyes already half-closed.

"Mmhm," Louis replies, although Harry is already mostly gone. Louis' never been one to fall asleep right after sex - he still can't turn his mind off, although his thoughts turn slow and fuzzy.

He's sore all over - he knows he's going to feel it in his arse and legs tomorrow - and Louis thinks he might wear that like a badge of honour.

*

The next morning feels a lot like any other.

Harry is still there when Louis wakes up, breathing slow with his face pressed into the pillows and his hair an absolute mess. He's pretending to be asleep, but he's got a godawful poker face, and Louis can see the tiny hidden smile twisting at the corner of his mouth.

"How long have you been awake, then?" Louis drawls, flicking gently at Harry's nose. Harry grins, cracking his eyes open to peek at Louis.

"Not long. You talk in your sleep, you know."

"I do not," Louis scoffs, although he's pretty sure he does.

"You do," Harry says, drawing out the o with a big smile, "You were saying something about the best you've ever had."

Louis squawks, tugging the pillow out from under his head to beat Harry with it. Harry laughs, wrestling for the pillow and throwing it over the side of the bed, managing to pin Louis with embarrassing ease. His dips his face down till their noses are almost touching, his hair tickling at Louis' face and his breath on Louis' skin.

"Pancakes?" he asks, and springs up off the bed without waiting for an answer, kissing Louis' ankle on his way to the door.

"I'll make yours blueberry," Harry says, mostly to himself, trotting off down the hall completely naked.

Louis laughs, even though Harry's too far off to hear it, and curls himself over onto Harry's side of the bed. Harry's clattering pots and pans in the kitchen, singing something about maple syrup. It's stupid, it's really so so stupid, but Louis is so happy, and he just wants to remember this morning. He reaches into the bed side table and takes out the day planner Harry likes to keep, because he's the exact type of idiot who refuses to use his expensive phone to keep himself organised, and he tears out the day's page, February 12. Harry's drawn all over it, a surprisingly intricate boat - he must have done it while having a long phone conversation, or waiting for something good to come on television - with waves curling to the edge of the page. Louis wouldn't ever tell Harry, does his best to hide his unbearable sentimentality, but he's a bowerbird at heart. He folds the paper over carefully and tucks it under his pillow to collect later. He thinks maybe he'll sneak it into his room while Harry’s distracted and lock it away somewhere secret, as a memento of the start.

 

*