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all my love was down in a frozen ground

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You’re in a relationship because you need help, but that’s not necessarily why you should be in a relationship. And that’s skinny. It doesn’t have weight. Skinny love doesn’t have a chance because it’s not nourished. - Justin Vernon


 

Louis didn’t tell anyone he was leaving, and he regrets it only once, just for a second, right before he starts up the Jeep. The only one who suspected a thing was the Zayn, but the only person he wanted to know was the same one he was escaping in the first place, and that was just sort of how his life had been going lately.

The only time Louis has ever imagined returning to Forksville is in moments when he considers what it would be like to win some prestigious award for producing the best pop record of the year and – he is embarrassed to think of it now, as he drives home with every single one of his belongings in the back seats and trunk of his Jeep Wrangler – the parade the small town would throw in his honor. It is a thought he wishes he never had because the sting of it is too harsh to ignore. He wishes to return unnoticed, to slip into his stepfather’s old hunting cabin and to be forgotten. There is no plan other than that: to completely and utterly disappear.

The drive takes six hours in good weather but the fog is so bad by the time he reaches Scranton that he pulls off into the first rest stop he sees. His phone is still off but he feels the weight of it in his pocket, the temptation to see if – maybe, maybe it’s not to soon, maybe he could turn around – but no. Solitude. That’s what this is about. A turnaround of his previous self because nothing less will work. He needs change, because the fucked up cycle he’s been living with for two years isn’t doing a thing for him.

He leans against the hood of his car in the parking lot and watches cars appear from the fog, and it’s only when his coffee cup stops warming his hands that Louis heads off again.

It is slow. Cars are practically crawling, and even music seems to agitate the situation, putting him on edge while he attempts to navigate through the thickest fog he’s ever seen. What a fucking omen, he thinks.

There’s not much to Forksville. The population, if he remembers correctly, is 245. The town itself contains a general store, a gas station, and a smattering of houses along a creek that is volatile in the winter and unspeakably gorgeous in the summer and autumn. He always felt too large for such a small town and no one was surprised when he moved away for college and didn’t come home. He missed it when he was living in Baltimore, but never enough to want to return. It would feel like giving up, he thought.

So, yeah. It makes sense that Louis is returning at a time in his life when he has, in every respect, given up. He graduated last year in an economy so terrible that it might be stupid to just leave his job answering phones at a recording studio, but he needs to get out, can’t stay because Ben used to work there and it reminds him of him and Ben is the reason for everything.

Ben would never call himself Louis’ boyfriend. Since they’ve known each other, he’s called himself lots of things: musician, poet, photographer, artist. Every pretentious title in the book of pretentious titles – he was right there, adopting it, trying on every hat for size and pulling them all off with a frustrating effortlessness. But no matter how many years they spent on each others’ radar, no matter how many nights alone and dinners out and fucks that felt so much more than meaningless, he still wouldn’t do it. He’d always been honest with Louis about that, too, but it has taken three years of it for Louis to see that he’s not worth saving. The only way he’ll get past it, he thinks, is to just leave.

He’s not even sure what changed. It has been six months since he’s seen Ben – he moved to New York City, living with a girl there. Louis thought he was making progress, was sure he was getting better, but after a bout of mono and a summer full of hookups he’d much rather forget, he woke up on a cold January morning and decided that, no, seeing Ben on Facebook every single day and receiving an occasional, unprompted miss u text from him was worse treatment than he deserved, and he just had to get out, leave Baltimore until he rid himself of a love that feels more like a fucking sickness.

--

The covered red bridge is stacked with several feet of snow and Louis wonders, not for the first time, how it’s held up all these years. His Jeep bounces as he drives through it, white-knuckled, imagining himself plunging through the rickety wood and straight into the rushing, freezing creek underneath him. 

But once he’s through it he is, at last, in Forksville. It is five in the morning, and everything is quiet and still except for the owner of the general store stacking wood on the porch. They both wave as he drives past and down the dirt road, toward the edge of the trees.

There’s a note on the door of his family’s cabin, stuck into the wood with a Swiss Army knife he assumes is a welcome home gift from his stepfather. It reads, “Key under mat – Dad” and Louis bends down, fingers frozen as he lifts up the mat to find a single brass key on a leather loop.

There’s not much inside. Louis puts down his guitar first, dropping it onto the floor with a thud as he looks around.

Bed, fireplace, fridge, sink, miniature stove. The only door besides the front is to a small room with a toilet and a shower inside of it, without a single doubt the smallest bathroom Louis has ever seen. Two outlets. A floor lamp with a cord so rusty Louis fears his life when he switches it on, but the glow it casts is all right, golden and warm in the midst of the dark wood that surrounds him, floor to walls to ceiling.

He opens the freezer and sees a slab of frozen venison, a bag of grapes, and a box of frozen macaroni and cheese.

It’s secluded, but if the day weren’t so foggy Louis would be able to see the General Store from the window at the front of the cabin. Aside from that, there’s not much besides a few houses and a road that may not even count as a road, seeing as there is no name and no pavement, just tire marks to differentiate it from the rest of the landscape.

He turns around from the window and looks around at his new home, even though it feels strange to think of it as that. He sees a stack of old newspapers by the fireplace and a few sticks, and thinks, kindling. He knows what he has to do. Nothing will feel better if he stands in the center of the room and looks at his belongings and reminds himself of why he’s there in the first place and so he claps his hands together, nodding to himself, saying the first word he’s spoken in hours. It doesn’t mean much, but it’s a start.

“Okay.”

-- 

Five hours and three failed attempts at a fire later, Louis can feel himself being judged as he places the Duraflame log onto the counter. The girl behind it looks up from her Us magazine and smiles curiously when she notices the log and then Louis.

“Find everything you need?”

Louis nods, reaches for his wallet. “Yeah, thanks.”

“Camping?”

Louis looks up, confused. “Oh, no. Just staying at my family’s cabin for a couple of weeks.” He pauses, swallows as he hands over a twenty and the register pops open with a jingle.  “Me and some friends.”

The girl nods politely as she counts the change for him, and when she looks up, her smile is wider and brighter than Louis expected. He grins back on instinct, accepting the change she dumps into his hand and it’s then he realizes she’s been smiling over his shoulder, clearly distracted by something.

“Hey, Harry,” she coos, and Louis turns to follow her gaze, but in her haste to hand him a dime, it falls onto the floor, tinging around by his feet.

“I’ll get that,” he mumbles, and bends over to pick it up. He can see it glistening beside a duck boot dripping ice onto the floor right behind him and pinches it between two fingers before he stands upright with a huff.

“—just back in town for a few days, visiting mom.” 

Louis almost drops the dime again before he shoves it into his pocket and turns around, too curious to keep himself from trying to play it cool. A boy – a man – is in front of him, arms folded over his chest, and he turns to look at Louis just as he spins himself around to face him.

Oh. Harry. Louis has a frantic moment where he can’t for the life of him remember his last name, but he looks so much like his mom, Anne, shit, what the fuck is it –

“Louis?” Harry grins, nodding and looking him over, starting to laugh as he holds out a hand for him to shake. “You remember me?”

Louis nods, switching the log to his other hand so he can shake Harry’s, eyes locked on his. “Styles. Yeah, Harry, right?” 

The school in Forksville is tiny, more of a classroom than anything proper, and most kids only attend until they’re seven before they’re bussed to another, larger school a couple of towns away. He remembers seeing Harry the way he remembers seeing other parts of the town, like undefined blurry parts of his memory that he shaped him in that romantic, artsy way he thought was so avante-garde and unique when he moved to Baltimore.

Harry is tall, wearing a Carhartt jacket and an orange hat that clashes with it, red on the tip of his nose from the cold and a pair of jeans skinny enough to tell Louis he no longer lives in Forksville. He looks like he’s stepped out of an Urban Outfitters catalogue, except more effortless. He’s gorgeous.

“Just visiting?” Harry asks.

“For a few days, yeah.”

“Said he’s staying with a few friends,” the counter girl pipes up, and Harry raises his eyebrows, like he’s pleased at that idea.

“Oh, that’s really cool, sounds like fun. Well, I’m at my parents’, just around the corner from your dad’s cabin. If you guys need anything.” Harry shrugs, slips his hands into the pockets of his coat like he’s pleased with himself for offering, and looks expectantly at Louis.

He’s obligated, then. He’s got to ask this Harry Styles for help at some point or he’s clearly going to take offense to it, and Louis can already tell he’s not the kind of person who would just say something to sound nice considering he’s been holding the door for 3 different customers now, all with a smile and a nod to each one who walks in and no apparent urge to just not hold the door open for them. Louis is so used to being surrounded by people too cool to be kind that the change has him staring at Harry like he’s the strangest thing he’s ever seen, and he has to blink a couple of times to stop himself, realizing it must be written all over his face.

Louis nods, and doesn’t want to lie to him, but he does. “Yeah, for sure, dude. I’ll come and knock on your door.”

He holds up his log, his excuse to get out of there before he has to watch Harry inevitably perform several good deeds for the old lady with the walker who’s just come into the store.

“Right, gotta go warm the place up. Good seeing you.”

Harry waves at him and the creaky door to the general store swings shut with a bang.

--

The thing about coming to Forksville was that Louis wasn’t supposed to see anyone he knew, and consequently after seeing Harry he spends his entire trek back to the cabin cycling through all of his Harry-related memories.

Louis does know he’s a few years younger than him; maybe two. One instance remembers in particular is his mom and Anne dropping clothespins into buckets as they took sheets off the line in midsummer. Louis must have been nine, then, and he remembers seeing Harry kicking a soccer ball at the side of his house until his mom stopped chatting with Louis’ and told him to knock it off. Louis had come out of his house, then, and didn’t say a word as he stood beside Harry and kicked the ball so hard that it broke a window, and the two of them had scattered in opposite directions, a shared moment of mischief Louis had laughed off for days having gotten away with it.

He hasn’t thought about that in years, maybe, but it pleases him to realize that his existence in this town is at least remembered by one other person, not including his family. He doesn’t think the same could be said for his friends in Baltimore, who are probably waking up in their dingy apartments, smoking cigarettes and ashing onto the wood floor, after 36 hours only just wondering where Louis went to in the middle of the night.

On his walk to the cabin he passes by homes of families whose names are all written in big letters on their mailboxes, names he’d recognize anywhere. The Horans, the Paynes, the Tomlinsons. His mom and Dan are visiting his aunt in Pittsburgh and offered the house to him when he told them he was coming up, but he decided on the cabin, instead. No phone lines. Less distraction. More dramatic.

--

The Duraflame log works, thank god, and the cabin is actually sort of cozy by the time it’s going. Louis’ laptop is plugged in and sitting on the bed and he thought he might want to listen to music, but the crack and pop of the firewood is nicer, more relaxing, abstract and natural and enough to make him zone out as he figures out the best way to heat the macaroni and cheese on a skillet.

The knock at the door scares the shit out of him. He mutters a string of swear words on his way over to it, embarrassed that his initial reaction was to spin around at the door wielding a spatula, and he’s still holding it in his hand as he unlocks the dead bolt.

It’s Harry, and he’s holding a 12 pack of beer.

“Hi,” he drawls, smiling at Louis like he’s arrived after having been invited.

“Hey…” Louis trails off, glancing down at the case and then at Harry, brow furrowed because he is genuinely confused and also embarrassed that he’s there by himself and not with that so-called group of friends. He clears his throat and opens the door wider, beckoning him to come through.

“Thought you and your friends might want some...” Harry looks around, frowns, and sees that they’re alone. “Or just us. Beers. Do you mind?”

Louis doesn’t really have a choice in the matter, but this is pretty much really fucking with his idea of solitude and salvation in the woods and the whole thing where he finds himself after hours of quiet soul searching in his dad’s empty cabin. He is trying to be cinematic about it, but there’s Harry, his head nearly reaching the ceiling of the room, holding a case of beer with his booted toes pointed together, the only awkward looking thing about him.

“Yeah, thanks,” he says, but Harry has already plopped himself onto the corner of the bed, beer on the floor, hunching over as he pulls out two cans.  

Harry takes off his hat, and Louis wishes he didn’t. He forces himself to turn away, not to stare hard as Harry stretches out his legs and crosses them at the ankle, looking more relaxed than he ought to considering he’s not in his own house. Cabin. Whatever.

“Is it okay for me to sit here?” he asks, patting the bed.

Louis nods. “Yeah, make yourself at home. Just…trying to heat up some food. Not quite enough to share, I don’t think. Sorry.”

Harry peers over, sees him attempting to heat up a block of frozen macaroni and cheese, and grins. “Can that really be considered food, though?”

Louis whips his head around, and catches the cheeky look on Harry’s face as he lifts the can to his lips.

“Oh, I see,” he nods, staring him down. He feels like he might laugh, and it’s unexpected. “Can that Miller Lite really be considered beer, though, is the question?”

Harry’s eyebrows shoot up, defensive, apparently surprised at Louis challenging him so quickly.

“It was all they had,” he protests in a whine, grinning and gesturing with the can. “You know how it is around here. It was this or, like, moonshine. The kind that old men make in their backyards, y’know, and sell in like…big jars, the glass ones, Mason jars.”

“Got it.” Louis tries his best not to sound as though he is attempting to shut Harry up from his unnecessary rambling definition of moonshine, but he settles on just staring at him, curiously endeared by his ability to drag on in a rather pointless matter while still remaining charming. He seems satisfied by Louis’ answer and takes a sip of beer, and he can feel him looking around them room when he gets back to hacking at his frozen block of dinner.

“Haven’t been back much over the last few years, have you?” he asks, and Louis looks over his shoulder to study his face, because he’s not sure if it’s accusatory or curious. Mostly the latter, he sees.

“Nah,” he turns back to the range. “Um. Been at school, and then working. Down in Baltimore.”

Louis shrugs his shoulders, clears his throat, and hopes Harry won’t ask more questions. He attempts to cut his food into pieces using the sharp edge of the spatula but he’s doing a shit job of it because what he really wants, and that’s the part that’s agitating him, is to turn around and inspect Harry’s face, figure out what abnormal shade of green those eyes are, ask him personal questions he has no right to know the answers to but he has a feeling Harry would answer without even blinking.

It shouldn’t be so easy for them to sit in a comfortable silence considering he hasn’t seen him for at least five years, but it is, and the company is unexpectedly nice and distracting.

But Louis doesn’t need distracting – he needs to focus, he needs to figure out what the fuck is wrong with him that he’s been latched onto the same idea of the same person for literal years, and staring mindlessly at the guy sitting on his bed – his bed, ugh – is not going to help him.

Eventually the food cooks down to an edible heat and Louis just uses the frying pan as a plate, flopping it onto the little table and placing his beer down beside it. Harry gets up and sits next to him, elbows on the table, staring. Louis holds his fork in his hand and levels Harry with a look.

“You’re going to ask for a bite, aren’t you?”

“Me?”

“You think it smells good.”

Harry wrinkles his nose. “Smells like shit, dude.”

“Yep.”

Harry licks his lips, mouth twitching, and breaks into a grin. “Please?”

“I fucking knew it.” Louis shakes his head and stabs a few noodles onto the end of the fork and hands it to Harry, handle out, and blinks and looks down when he takes a bite because it’s strangely intimate and he can’t just, like. Watch.

He sees the fork in his periphery and Harry is making a face, chewing as he hands it back to him.  “Disgusting.”

“What are you doing in town, anyway?”

Harry folds his arms over the table and taps an idle rhythm against it, shrugs. “Just visiting my family. I live in Philly now.” He clears his throat, and Louis is acutely aware that he is being watched as he stuffs another bite into his mouth. “I finished at U Penn last June.”

Louis nods, because of course he went to an Ivy League school.  “You’re not on Facebook,” he comments, and Harry shrugs, nonchalant.

“Been searching for me?” He raises an eyebrow and smirks and leans back into his chair, now a couple of feet away from Louis. The answer is that yes, once, last year when he saw him tagged in a picture with Niall, who he supposes Harry keeps in touch with.

“Yes,” Louis nods, his expression earnest. “Every single day.”

Harry seems satisfied at the level of sarcasm with which it was delivered, and Louis goes back to eating, not sure how to respond, having just been called out on Facebook stalking the person sitting next to him.

He’s glad Harry hasn’t yet asked why he’s not there with his friends, but he watches him look around the little room and can see the cogs turning in his head, helpless to stop it.

“So you’re here by yourself?”

Louis clears his throat. He can’t meet Harry’s eyes. “Yeah.”

“Sorry, man, I feel like I’m fucking up your…whatever.”

Louis does turn to look at him, because there’s such a genuine concern in his voice, an unspoken worry that he might be overstepping the line. And he is, like, completely and utterly fucking up the plan for aloneness that Louis was so insistent upon, but he doesn’t want to make him feel bad.

“I mean, that was sort of the whole – but it’s fine, really. Meant to get some beer tonight, anyway.”

It’s the closest he’s come to explaining to anyone why he’s actually there, and the feeling is terrible and it makes his palms sweat and the silence between them is, for the first time, awkward. It’s too early to give an explanation on something he can hardly articulate to himself.

Harry finishes his beer and places the empty can on the table beside Louis’ hand as he gets to his feet.

“I’m gonna get going, actually,” he says, like that wasn’t obvious. Louis feels like he ought to apologize, but he can’t figure out why.

“Come over if you need something, right?” Harry stands by the door, zipping up his Carhartt and pressing his lips together in something that resembles a hesitant smile. Louis feels like shit for being unbearable enough to drive someone like Harry away.

“Got it. Thanks for the beer,” he adds, nodding toward the remaining ten that are still in the case on the floor.

“Enjoy,” Harry says, and the gust of wind that follows after he opens and shuts the door blows out the last of the flames on Louis’ shitty little fire.

--

Louis is alone for five days in a row and he’s pretty sure that’s the longest stretch of time he’s spent by himself in years, possibly ever, and it’s doing things to him. He spent the first twenty-four hours pacing and chopping wood and woke up the next morning with aches in his arms in muscles he didn’t know existed. Every twinge felt satisfying, though, like he’d earned the right to that particular ache, like he’d done it to himself and thus didn’t resent them the way he held onto resentment for every other metaphorical strain in his life.

It becomes a routine that probably isn’t necessary considering the sizable stack of logs outside of the cabin, but he can’t stop. With each crack of the wood splitting he feels as though something breaks inside of him and it hurts and it feels alright and he isn’t even thinking about Ben when they split neatly into two, he isn’t thinking about anything, he just sees his breath in front of his face and his hands working to hold tight against the heavy axe and his foot planted in front of him, sturdy, holding him upright. He starts becoming like those yoga instructors he’d always hated, the ones who told him to thank every individual muscle in his body for working so hard, because that’s what he does after he sees the pile full of wood – he feels proud, and grateful for his body, and grateful for the hot shower he takes after, and he passes out before he can even think twice about the orange beanie his only guest left on the chair, directly in his line of vision as he drifts off to sleep.

It’s noticeable when he wakes up, though, and he stares at it for a while before he moves an inch, because he knows that when he does his body is going to be introduced to a series of aches he isn’t exactly prepared to deal with, and not that he’s prepared to deal with that orange beanie, but there it is, and Louis considers it. He remembers the way Harry looks when he wears it, the way he looks when he rips it off of his curly hair, and he wonders if he’s responsible for it, now, or if he has to give it back. He thinks dimly about sniffing the fucking thing; wrinkles his nose, reprimands himself for being an idiot creep because who fucking smells other peoples’ hats and it’s with that thought that he tries to sit up out of bed and lets out a groan that would surely, most definitely scare off even the most ferocious black bear.

It’s for Ibuprofen that he breaks his solitude. There is a cat on the porch of the general store and he stops to stroke its fuzzy black head before he swings open the door. He’s greeted with a smile by the same girl from before and also by something cooking and it smells like heaven.

“Is that a cheesesteak?” he asks, dumbly.

“You know there’s a restaurant here now, right?” The girl laughs, and points to the back of the store, and no, he didn’t know that, but it sort of changes his whole live-on-nothing-but-frozen-deer-meat thing, and he’s not entirely sure he cares.

After he pays for the bottle of Advil he leans against the counter at the quote-restaurant-unquote, which is really more like a deli that serves hot food to go. There is one table, and Harry Styles is sitting at it, reading what appears to be Chekhov. Louis rolls his eyes and his heart flutters at the same time and it’s bothersome.

The guy behind the counter is wearing a t-shirt that says Big Sam and, below that, a drawing of who he assumes is Big Sam, who also happens to be the guy wearing the t-shirt. He raises an expectant eyebrow.

Louis clears his throat. “Yeah, hey, can I get a cheesesteak with fried onions? To go?”

Big Sam doesn’t write down the order or say anything, just turns around and Louis glances down because he can feel Harry looking up at him. His paper plate has grease stains on it from whatever he’s just finished and he’s sucking a red lollipop, which could be the reason his lips are hot pink, or it could just be that his lips are always so obscene, but Louis figures it’s probably some sickeningly unfair combination of the two. He sizes him up and folds his arms across his chest.

“You left your beanie.”

“Shit. Is it gone forever?”

“Yeah, I ran out of toilet paper, so…”

Harry laughs at that, big and loud, and Louis isn’t one to laugh at his own jokes but he has to twist his mouth to keep from grinning wide because it is infectious. There is no other word.

“’Kind of lollipop you got there?”

Harry pulls it out of his mouth with a rather obscene pop and stares at it, sticking out his bottom lip as he inspects. “Think it’s raspberry, maybe?” He replaces it between his lips, tucks it into his cheek, and looks at Louis. “Why?”

“You look like a chipmunk,” he points out.

“Thank you, Louis.”

“Cheesesteak,” Big Sam calls out, and Louis turns and reaches for the bag thrust over the counter, and as he pays he can hear Harry getting up to drag another chair over to his table, arranging it on the other side of his and Louis takes a minute as he waits for his change to figure out ways to leave and go be alone because Solitude, and everything, but he can’t think of any. He turns and sits across from Harry and unwraps his cheesesteak, which smells better than anything he’s ever smelled before.

Harry keeps reading, and there’s something wild and calm about his entire presence, like he’s drawing people to him but also radiating this weird, peaceful energy. Louis hasn’t always been twitchy, but for the past few years his anxiety kicked up and he’s adopted this foot bouncing habit. It’s not something he consciously does, and he doesn’t realize he’s not doing it as he takes his first few bites of the best hot meal he’s eaten in days.

Harry has the book laid out on the table and his hands are crossed below it as he looks down, reading, and Louis wonders if he’s actually reading or if he’s just waiting for Louis to finish. He can’t figure out why one option is even more endearing than the next, and not for the first time he wonders how someone like Harry is in places that aren’t Forksville. He has to be just about the brightest thing that’s ever sat in that plastic chair in front of him.

Louis looks around at the walls while he finishes up the last few bites, uncomfortably eyeing the photos of people with deer hanging from the back of their pick up trucks and fish as long as their arms. He crumples the wax paper from his steak and balls it up, scooting back from the table and clearing his throat as a means of excusing himself.

Harry looks up at him and slams the book shut, sliding it off of the table as he gets to his feet. “Feel like going on a walk?”

And Louis doesn’t really think about it before he nods, and he tosses the balled up paper into the garbage on their way out.

Their boots crunch through old snow as they leave the general store and walk over the covered bridge toward the road, and there’s a footpath that leads into the woods on an unmarked trail that Harry seems to remember well enough to navigate with ease. They don’t do much more than point out protruding roots to each other for the first ten minutes, and after that the trail levels out a little, making it possible for them to walk beside each other instead of in single file.

“Thought you were leaving,” Louis says, more of a question than an accusation.

Harry shrugs. “I don’t have a job right now and, I dunno. It’s like…hard to leave this place.”

It’s a simple, almost obvious statement, so true that Louis doesn’t even consider the profundity of it until he mulls it over. There’s something soul cleansing about the air, about the familiar views that never become less fantastic or less beautiful over time.

“I always struggle with coming back, actually,” Louis says, letting his fingertips run against the bark of a tree on his right. “And then once I’m here…”

“Yeah.” Harry huffs out a laugh. “I know.”

Louis can’t remember the last time he’s walked just for the sake of walking, but he stops thinking about every little detail and just does it, sort of how he feels when he chops wood; he just goes, taking bigger steps to climb over rocks. Harry stops and hunches over to look at animal’s paw print in icy mud, frozen there like a fossil. He reaches out to touch it with his fingertip, like he can’t help it, and Louis does the same, places his entire palm over it, smiling.

The unexpected warmth of Harry’s fingers covering his even for a split second is enough to make Louis jerk his hand away with embarrassing speed, and he clears his throat, straightening his legs again to his full height again. It was probably an accident, but Louis just – he can’t even think about it. There’s no part of him unbroken enough to even withstand a casual touch. It’s been a few months since he’s let anyone come that close to him, and even then he wasn’t sober.

“Isn’t there an outlook at the end of this trail?”

Harry fixes his hair underneath his hat, then coughs into his fist as they continue to walk. “Yeah. We’re almost there, actually. You ever see it in the winter?”

Louis shakes his head. “No. Not since I was little. My mom used to like to take us on New Year’s Day hikes, but there was usually too much snow to get this far.”

“That’s a nice tradition,” Harry says, sounding genuinely pleased in a way Louis hadn’t expected. He supposes it is nice, though, another thing he took advantage of when he was actually living through it but which seems romantic and sweet when he looks back.

“I guess so. I think I’d appreciate it more now, you know – oh.”

Louis halts as they reach the clearing at the top of the trail, which has such a steep drop that the park rangers have put a rickety wooden railing a few feet up from the ground. The view is misty, but there are mountains upon mountains stretching back so far that they look infinite.

“Endless Mountains, right?” Harry smiles, glancing over at Louis. It’s their proper name, and it’s obvious why.

Their beauty is overwhelming in the truest sense of the word, and Louis feels his throat swell with the purity of it, has to swallow down the most frustrating urge to let out some kind of noise or to just fucking cry, to lose it completely. He hasn’t done that yet, not since he’s been there, but he feels dangerously close.

He swallows once and then again, forcing himself to calm down. There’s nothing complicated about what’s in front of him – just nature doing its thing, a snowy landscape as familiar to him as his own palm, and then Harry to his left, watching him with so much emotion on his face and pink lips and flushed cheeks. Louis has to look away because that – for some reason that’s too much, too close, and he thinks he might just trip himself over the cliff if he looks hard enough.

Harry clears his throat, but his voice is still just as deep and raspy when he speaks. “Are you gonna go back to Baltimore, do you think?”

So he has a read on him, even if he’s been doing a decent job at hiding it. Louis looks down at his feet and shrugs. “I don’t know, man. It’s not really an option.”

“Did you get kicked out of your place, or something?”

Louis snorts, turns to look at Harry, and shakes his head. “No, nothing like that. That would probably be easier, actually.”

Harry doesn’t say anything, and Louis considers what it would mean to tell anyone when it seems so difficult to explain even to himself why he’s just so fucking stuck on these feelings that he’s lived with for years. Put into perspective, though, he realizes that standing up there and feeling overcome with emotion about a series of mountains is the best he’s felt in as long as he can remember. The most alive, and the least stuck up his own ass.

“I didn’t actually tell anyone I was leaving,” he starts, scratching his stubbled cheek and sorting out his beanie before he continues. Harry turns and leans on the railing, facing Louis with a sort of expectant look that’s anything but pressuring.

“But I just…there was an guy…I guess an old relationship, but it was never even really that. Just a thing I can’t get over, or couldn’t get over. But coming here is like – it’s my attempt to…” Louis trails off, making gestures with his hands around his stomach, like he’s trying to empty out his insides.

“Excavate,” Harry offers, and Louis stops moving, eyes snapping up to meet his.

“Yeah. Excavate.” He swallows thickly, biting his lip before he continues. “All of it.”

“Is it working?”

Louis sighs. “It’s really fucking difficult.”

It’s weird, being asked about everything, because his friend group in Baltimore was so beyond sick of seeing him broken up over it that for the last year Louis just hasn’t said a word, and it’s been so pent up that he feels strangely, unbelievably grateful to Harry for even having the courage to ask Louis about something so obviously private and heavy.

“I didn’t meant to press, Louis. I’m sorry if I’m, you know. If it’s too much.”

Louis shakes his head. “I probably should talk about it more, anyway. No one really knows.”

But the part that’s fucked, the part that frustrates him more than anything, is that talking about it was never really the problem. There is nothing emotionally stunted about Louis, where he’s too afraid to give himself to someone – in fact it’s the fucking opposite, and his propensity to trust and his eagerness to love people he deems worthy always fucks him over. He doesn’t love easily, and it takes him so long to get to that point that when he does, it’s complete and encompassing and he allows it to consume him. For years at a time, apparently. He’s just disappointed in himself, to a certain extent, because he doesn’t know how it got so bad, and it’s really bad.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says again, the intensity of his gaze so honest that Louis is amazed he’s been able to hold it for longer than a few seconds.

“It’ll be alright.” Louis clears his throat and gives one last glance at the vista before he turns and starts back toward the trail.  He doesn’t want to talk about it anymore because no matter how nice Harry’s sympathy is, he can’t just sit there and take it – it’s not really helping him.

He can hear Harry at his back, taking a breath like he might say something else, but Louis speaks up first. “Did you ever get those paint stains off the wall?”

Harry laughs. “Paint stains?”

“Wasn’t that at your house?” Louis glances over at Harry, smiles when he sees him trying to jog his memory. “You and me and Liam had a paint fight when we were…I dunno, I guess I was probably 15?”

“Fuck, I totally forgot about that.” Harry grins and sounds delighted at the memory, laughing as he finishes the rest of the story on their descent down the trail. “We were supposed to be making sets for the play, weren’t we? What a fucking mess. My mom was ready to kill me. Or you.”

“It said it was water soluble!” Louis says, exasperated. “Fucking bullshit.”

“To answer your question, no, we had to paint over the splatters in the kitchen.”

“Shame.”

“But the ones in my bedroom are still there.”

Louis glances at Harry, unsure why that thought pleases him so much, but he laughs, and he doesn’t have to force it. It’s strange, how high school friendships work. Their school was so small that even though he considered Stan his first and best friend, it wasn’t unheard of for he and Harry to play video games together on a weeknight, even if it didn’t happen all that often. They were two years apart in school, after all, and the difference between a senior and a sophomore seemed colossal at the time.

The part that really puzzles him, though, is that he doesn’t remember ever feeling like he and Harry got along this easily. He’s sure he’d remember such a distinct sense of comfort just having him around, but being with him now feels like they’re picking up where they left off, even though that makes no sense, because he can’t even remember the last time they’ve spoken.

Louis just knows he would’ve sought him out years ago if he knew he could settle his mind this way without even trying.

The trek back is downhill so it’s easier to talk, and he lets Harry do most of it, which isn’t hard. He goes on for a long time at even the most basic prompt from Louis, but he’s somehow never boring even when it takes him a full five minutes to tell a story that is, essentially, ‘I saw our high school English teacher at a gas station one time.’

Louis’ cheeks and nose are so cold he can barely feel them once they’re back in the village. The sky is even thicker with clouds than it was when they left, a purplish hue that casts no shadows as they walk back over the covered bridge.

“Definitely gonna snow,” Harry says. “So much for driving home tonight.”

Louis turns to look at him. He’s not sure why it’s surprising that Harry was thinking of leaving that night – of course he would, he doesn’t live there anymore – but he feels a ridiculous sense of relief when he finds out that he’s staying. “Better get the fire going, then.”

They’re stopped at a point where they’ll need to split off to go their respective houses, and Harry pauses for a second. “See you around, okay?”

Louis feels an urge to thank him, though he’s not entirely sure what for. He lifts his hand and waves, instead, backing up a few steps before turning to crunch over the icy ground back to the cabin.

--

It does snow.

Louis forgets, sometimes, how heavily and steadily it falls in the mountains, how everything goes even more silent than usual as it just piles and piles until there’s nothing but shades of white and the purple sky at night, starless but still beautiful over the tops of the trees.

By the middle of the next day, the snowdrifts are up to his hip. Each time he goes outside to collect logs from under the tarp he thinks that maybe he’ll see someone else, someone to wave at so he can throw his hand up in the air and comment on the weather, but there is no one.

It’s what he imagined when he initially took the drive – pure snowy isolation, days on end without speaking to anyone – but now that it’s in practice he starts to second guess himself, wondering if he might not go completely insane by the time the weather breaks enough for him to get another cheesesteak from the general store.

It is what he needs, though. He has the first three seasons of Northern Exposure on DVD and he watches them almost obsessively on those first three days with his laptop balanced on his belly, pausing only to collect more wood and heat up frozen food or to make tea.

Mostly, though, he just wears every item of clothing he has and curls up under the blanket while he works his way through the last six beers from that twelve pack and invests himself emotionally in the lives of every resident of Cicely, Alaska.

He can relate to all of them, even Joel, who is relentlessly irritating and still, somehow, endearing. But it’s Chris Stevens he loves the most, the easygoing philosopher radio DJ who takes problems as they come and has a helpful anecdote for every situation.

Louis likes him so much that he writes out some of his lines in a notebook, ripping out the pages when he’s finished and letting them float down to the floor. Even seeing the words in his own handwriting feels healthy, almost like he’s written them himself, like such rational thoughts are his own.

Sometimes, Ed, sometimes you have to do something bad, just to know you're alive. He stares at it after it’s written on the yellowed notebook paper in front of him, considering. Louis hasn’t done anything bad, but sitting alone in that cabin with four feet of snow on the walls around him is more exhilarating and a better reminder of his own mortality than anything’s been in a long, long time. It started on the trail with Harry, the other day, he thinks, and it’s even more heightened each time he steps outside in his boots for more wood and each time he remembers that he has to rely on himself to do anything, that he can’t really rely on anyone else.

He thrusts his hand down to reach around on the floor and picks another scrap of paper, picking it up and reading it like a fortune despite it being in his own writing.

It's about what you do while you're there, and when you go, is that place any better for you having been there?

And that one sort of stuns him when he reads it again, not because it rings true of himself, but because, strangely, he can only think of Harry.

Louis takes a sip of beer and rereads it. Harry leaves such an impression no matter where he is, brightens every corner of every room in a way Louis can only dream of doing. He reached out to Louis when he clearly needed someone and Louis hopes that’s the sort of person that he is, too, that if he weren’t in such a fucked-up state for the last year that he would be a good listener, but he just doesn’t know. He used to be sure, but not anymore.

Louis holds onto the paper for another minute, reverent, then he lets it fall back down to the floor, to be picked up and considered again on a day when he can appreciate the weight of it.

On the fourth day, he’s watched all three seasons of Northern Exposure and he’s done forty push-ups and he’s tried to read a book but what Louis is really left with is what he’s been avoiding since he arrived: Ben.

The wound opens so easily that it is almost a comfort to examine it again. There is nothing he hasn’t thought of, no situation in his mind that he’s tried to fix or change only to come out with the same result every time, but he still tries, and he still fails.

There are things he hasn’t done, though. He plugs in his phone for the first time in the two weeks since he arrived and reads through their old texts. At first he finds them romantic, the way they argue about petty things before inevitably falling into the can I call u? trap, and after that the texts stop for a while, and Louis knows those are the times they’ve made up.

But after an hour spent reading and reminiscing, there’s a shift.  Louis starts to see the cracks in Ben’s words, starts to realize how fucking manipulative he was and how often cruel and dismissive he could be and it hurts like hell to realize it so many months after the fact. He pities himself when he sees how desperate he was, how needy and broken he must have been to think there was something worth fighting for.

It’s not until he deletes the messages altogether that Louis can feel the difference, the way he can separate the Louis in the past from his present self. He knows he’s not finished, he knows that he still has a lot to clear out, but it’s a small victory, he thinks.

What would Chris Stevens say? he wonders. What would Harry do? is the next question that follows, and at that he flops back onto the bed, sighs, and wishes he’d knock on his door and just sit beside him, if nothing else.

--

The sun comes out on the fifth day and it wakes Louis up, bright and surprising after several days of muted grey light. The weather seems to have gotten worse before it got better, though, because the snow covers half of the window to the cabin, and Louis panics.

The only food he has left is a browned banana, but he needs to eat something before he can even think about shoveling his way out. He forces it down and uses the bathroom and shivers uncontrollably because the fire’s gone out and he’s fucked, is the thing. He’ll have to go sit in the Jeep and warm himself up, if he can even get to it.

After tying on his boots and bundling himself in a hat and gloves and a scarf wrapped around his mouth, Louis reaches for the shovel leaning next to the door, preparing himself for the onslaught of snow that will inevitably rush in when he pulls it open.

It’s…not as bad as he thought, at least. The snow is packed so it’s not really going anywhere, but it definitely takes some work to make even a small pathway out of his front door. He’s an odd mix of sweaty and cold by the time he clears out a few feet.

He pauses, pushing up his beanie away from his eyebrows with a gloved hand, and hears the first signs of life he’s heard in days. There’s someone humming to themselves -- actually, no – they’re singing Stevie Wonder.

Louis gets on his tiptoes and looks to the right, around the side of the cabin, and there’s Harry. Shoveling.

“Just thought I’d help dig you out,” he says, beaming. “You alright on food?”

Louis is too surprised to answer right away and so he just nods, blinking and eventually smiling, still in disbelief. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, then frowns. “Actually I just ate my last banana, but.”

Harry starts to shovel again, and from the looks of it he’s only got a few more feet before his path and Louis’ connect. “Come over for lunch, then. You can sit on the radiator. Warm up.”

“Okay, well that’s…thank you for doing this,” Lois says, feeling somewhat useless as he starts to shovel again in an attempt to not be a total charity case. “You really didn’t have to.”

“Oh, c’mon. My guilty conscience wouldn’t be able to withstand a hypothermic Louis Tomlinson.”

A final shovel full of snow goes flying and then Harry’s in front of him, tall and pink-cheeked.

“Man, it’s good to see another person,” Louis says, surprising even himself with the rather blunt admission. “Forgot how isolating storms like that can be.”

“Did you keep busy, at least?” Harry beckons Louis toward him, and then shuts the cabin door before they head out through the carved path. “I beat my high Solitaire score on my mom’s computer. It runs Windows 98.”

Louis snorts. “I…uh. I watched some seasons of Northern Exposure on my laptop? Finished that beer, too.” He shrugs. “It was alright. Kind of what I needed.”

Harry nods, glancing over at him, and Louis can feel his gaze even though he hasn’t looked back. “Good, right?”

“Yeah,” Louis turns to look at him, squinting against the sun beaming off from the endless white around them. “Yeah, I think so.”

--

It might be because Louis is severely underfed, but the grilled cheese Harry makes for him definitely deserves a James Beard award.

“That,” he says, leaning back to chuck his napkin onto the table. “Was fucking delicious.”

Harry seems pleased, and Louis has the strongest urge to lean over and press his thumb into Harry’s dimple, but he keeps his hand wrapped around his own thigh, instead, squeezing like he needs to just do something with his hands. The heat is warm enough in their house for Louis to be in short sleeves for the first time in weeks, and after Harry finishes up his last bite, he pulls his hoodie off from over his head.

“Whoa,” Louis says.

Harry straightens out his t-shirt, mercifully covering up the four inches of his flat stomach that were revealed when he took of his sweatshirt. “What?”

“That’s a lot of tattoos,” Louis says, throat dry as he looks at them, and it’s terrible, is what it is, because Harry’s body is more appealing than Louis could’ve ever imagined. His chest is broad and his arms are lean and the low-cut white t-shirt he’s wearing is just Unfair. Louis does a quick survey, searching for a flaw, and can find none. Fuck.

Harry’s touching himself, running his long fingers over his biceps and across his collarbones, and he shrugs and nods like Louis’ pointed out a rather obvious fact. “Yeah, I guess you haven’t seen them, have you?”

“Well, you definitely didn’t have them when you were 17, so.” Louis takes a drink of water because he needs any excuse not to stare, but it’s hard when Harry seems to enjoy the attention, keeps running his thumb across the inside of his bicep, like he’s trying to draw Louis’ eyes there.

“These are cool,” Harry says, leaning over the corner of the table to grab hold of Louis’ wrist and tug out his forearm. “Sorry, should’ve asked,” he mumbles, but he doesn’t let go as he looks over the small smattering on the inside of Louis’ elbow. Louis wants to squirm away, but he’s watching Harry’s eyes as they take him in, and there’s something he likes there, a look he hasn’t seen before.

“I like this one,” he says, smiling and pointing to the bird on Louis’ forearm. “It’s a sparrow?”

“Yeah,” Louis nods, eyeing Harry’s chest, but he’s already answering.

“Mine are, too.” Harry lifts the corner of his mouth, obviously pleased, then drops his hand and settles back in his chair. Louis takes a deep breath, not entirely sure how to move on from the first casual touch he’s survived in months. It’s strange, because he used to be so, so touchy, with literally everyone, when he was on better terms with his friends back home. Zayn is the only one he still considers his best friend, and he’s the only one who still lets Louis fall asleep against his shoulder, but that’s different, and so is this. Harry’s something else.

Their conversation at the kitchen table goes on for two hours that seem to pass in minutes. The topics are safe, often turning humorous – people they’ve heard from, what Niall’s been doing lately, who’s married, who’s got kids, where they’ve lived, where they want to live. Harry is the easiest target in the world and seems to unfurl with joy when Louis teases him about his awful puns and when he reveals that his favorite movie is Love Actually.

Harry doesn’t ask about the ink stains all over Louis’ fingers and Louis doesn’t ask why Harry isn’t driving home yet and they definitely don’t talk about the way their knees keep touching accidentally on purpose underneath the table, or about their unspoken decision to move onto the couch and sink into the worn cushions. Harry picks up the remote like he might turn on the TV, but he just rests it on his chest as he presses his shoulders into the arm of the couch and kicks his feet out next to Louis, who mirrors him, doing the same on the other side.

Louis worries he’s bordering on overstaying his welcome as it starts to get dark outside, just a little after five. He wants to ask where Anne and Robin are and he wants to say he’s got something to go back to in his cabin, but he can’t think of one excuse that sounds believable. As he’s wracking his brain, Harry nudges him in the hip with his socked foot.

“We have a guest room,” he says, and it sounds more like a question than a statement.

Louis looks back at him, and Harry shrugs, hopeful, and Louis just says, “Okay.”

It feels like he’s betraying his own plans, but the idea of sleeping beside a space heater in Harry Styles’ mom’s house is just…nothing sounds more comforting. He’s been so regimented in his self-healing that it’s been more militant than self-indulgent and it’s okay, he thinks. It’s okay to do something nice, finally. It might be the isolation talking but Harry just makes him fucking happy, and he’s the most unexpected thing that’s happened to Louis in the last year and he can’t figure out why that doesn’t scare the shit out of him.

It’s been a while since Louis has walked toward something good instead of running in the opposite direction, and it’s like a gift he’s giving to himself when Harry smiles.

They do turn on the TV, eventually. Anne comes home, too, and doesn’t seem at all surprised by the sight of Louis on the couch; Harry must have told her, then. They chat with her for a few minutes before she excuses herself to bed.

“Harry?” Her voice carries from the top of the steps. “I changed the sheets in the guest room, too, alright?”

“Thanks,” he calls up, and turns his attention back to the TV.

“Have you been staying in there?” Louis asks.

“Yeah,” Harry laughs. “Believe that? I came home for Thanksgiving once and it was just like…your room is now an office.”

“But where are you gonna sleep tonight?”

Harry looks at Louis and lifts a shoulder, tilting his head. “The couch. It’s fine, I swear. You deserve a warm sleep.”

It’s maddening, his generosity, and Louis isn’t entirely sure he deserves it. He tries to protest, but what comes out is a pathetic noise, and he just slumps back into the couch, and Harry laughs at him from the other end.

“C’mon, I’ll show you up,” he says, tapping Louis on the calf and keeping his grip as he maneuvers each one of his gangly limbs off of the couch. They’ve spent one full day together and their touches seem casual already, but Harry’s fingers still send tiny sparks shooting across Louis’ skin; he’s just getting better at playing them off, even when he keeps his hands on Louis’ shoulders as he guides him through the hallway.

It’s a little room on the third floor with slanted ceilings low enough that Harry has to crouch down, reminding Louis of their height difference when he realizes he can stand comfortably in all corners of the room. The bed is made and the space heater is warm and Harry is standing in front of him with his shoes off and his t-shirt rumpled and his hair a mess and Louis can only think about asking him if the twin size bed is too small for them both, which is – he can’t even comprehend his own thought process. The most startling part is that Louis knows how good and nice it would be, sleeping next to someone else.

He can’t tell if Harry senses something, but he’s staring at Louis, like he’s waiting, maybe, but neither of them can seem to say much as Louis putters around the room and takes off his beanie and eventually sits on the edge of the bed.

Eventually, Harry speaks first

“And here’s the part where I tuck you in,” he deadpans.

“I really like to be swaddled, if you don’t mind.”

“Naturally. I love a good swaddle, myself.”

Harry’s composure breaks but Louis laughs, too, and then Harry backs up, his shoulder against the frame of the door. His fingers wrap around the edge of it like he’s trying to anchor himself there, and Louis swallows thickly, wants to ask him to just come back inside, but he doesn’t.

“Bathroom’s to your right, just down this hall.” Harry points. “And I’ll be on the sofa, if you want anything.”

“Thanks,” Louis says, “For letting me stay.”

Harry shrugs. “You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?”

Louis nods. He doesn’t want him to leave. After days spent alone, he’s not ready for it again – not ready for alone again – but Harry’s backing up and mumbling a goodnight because Louis can’t speak up.

--

When he wakes up, Louis descends the creaking wooden steps to the living room and finds Harry putting on his boots by the front door, a brown overnight bag on the floor next to him. He glances up at Louis and flicks away hair from his eyebrows, smiling.

“Morning. Sleep okay?”

Louis eyes the bag as Harry gets to his feet. “Yeah, good. You leaving?”

“Yeah, I was just gonna come up and say goodbye, actually. My buddy Ed needs someone to watch his cat for him while he’s away, so.”

The sinking feeling is unpleasant, but Louis lets it slide. “Is that the musician guy you mentioned?”

Harry grins and nods his head. “He’s touring for a few weeks. I’m staying at his place in Brooklyn, if you feel like getting out of here.”

It’s been almost a month since Louis arrived, but he knows he’s not quite ready to go because the thought of leaving makes his chest tight.

“Maybe,” he says, tying up his bootlaces. “Think I need to stay here for a while, though.”

 

Harry hands him his coat and then opens the door, letting Louis step out first onto the sunny front step. The sun is gleaming off of the snow and Louis takes a deep breath, watches it puff out from between his lips when he exhales.

“Hey, so,” Harry starts, covering his eyebrows with his palm to block the glare. “Can I email you, or something? I know cell service is kind of shitty up here, so…”

“Yeah,” Louis says, relieved that Harry asked first, because he wasn’t sure how to say it. “It’s just Louis-dot-Tomlinson at gmail. Used to be stone-cold-louis-austin, but I figured it was time for a change.”

Harry laughs and says, “Okay, well,” and then just walks into Louis until their chests brush together and hooks an arm around his shoulders, drawing him close. He must be crouching because Louis can feel the way he drops his chin onto Louis’ neck, can feel his big hand on his shoulder, and he sighs into it.

It’s when Louis normally would’ve gone for a few hesitant pats on the back that Harry just squeezes tighter, like he’s trying to prove something. Louis shuts his eyes and accepts it, for once, pressing his hand into the middle of Harry’s back and digging in his fingers. He wonders why he’s been rejecting comfort for so long when it’s like he’s being put back together just from the warmth of someone else’s body pressed against his, even through layers of Carhartt jackets and flannels.

“Talk to you soon, alright?” Harry says, his words sounding just against Louis’ ear. He backs up and looks right at him, and his eyes are so pale and green that they look translucent in the bright sunlight. Louis swallows around the inexplicable lump in his throat, and wills himself not to look away. He wants to memorize the way Harry is looking at him, wants to reassure himself it isn’t something he’s just imagined.

“Yeah,” Louis says. “Glad you were here, you know? It’s been really…I just needed it, I think. So thanks.”

Louis scratches the back of his neck, and he’s someone bashful about his own honesty, but he wants Harry to know. He’s had it in his head that being aloof will keep him safe, or something, but he’s through with that. It feels better, having told him. There’s more he could say, too, but he can’t find the words yet, can’t imagine just saying flat-out that Harry helped him more than he could even realize.

“I’m glad I was, too,” Harry says, squeezing his shoulder once more before he reaches for his pocket. He fiddles with his keys, and then opens the door to the old Range Rover. “Good luck with the excavation, okay?”

Louis huffs out a quiet laugh. “I’m working on it.”

--

The only place Louis can use the internet in a five mile radius is at a gas station on the side of the road, just outside of town. He spends a couple of hours in the parking lot one week after Harry leaves, sitting in his Jeep with his laptop on his thighs and the heat on blast as he checks his email for the first time in a month.

It’s strange – there are so many meaningless messages, Facebook notifications and Groupon offers and things that just seem so unnecessary after his time in the cabin, where he gets by on so little. He doesn’t realize until he deletes his spam folder that the novelty of his trip there has worn off and that he is, to a certain extent, living simply enough that he’s repulsed rather than attracted by the idea of a friend request.

He does reply to Zayn’s email, though, letting him know he’s okay and alive and in northeastern Pennsylvania indefinitely. He says he misses him, and he does. Zayn is good – he’s one of the best, and Louis hopes he can be the sort of friend that he deserves whenever he decides to head home, even though he’s sure that Baltimore won’t ever be his home again.

Near the top of his inbox there’s a message from Harry, sent the day after he left. Louis saves it for last.

He gets up to stretch his legs and to buy a cup of watery coffee from the gas station, and when he walks out there’s a buck crossing the road, right in front of his car.

Louis freezes in place and watches it move, silent and ethereal and big and breathtaking in every sense of the word. It disappears into the woods on the opposite side of the road, breaking the spell, and Louis gets back into the Jeep.

There’s a folder in his inbox labeled ‘Ben,’ and Louis opens it, because he’s not sure when else is a good time and he’s got the internet and he’s got a heartache. Most of the messages are stupid, just chat transcripts or attachments of photos they’ve sent each other, some of them sweet, some of them dirty. Louis doesn’t open anything – seeing the subject line is enough. Some make him smile, even.

Louis knows now. He fucking knows that Ben is a form of paralysis for him and that he’s getting nothing out of holding onto so many pieces of their relationship, but it’s such a big part of him that he’s not sure what to fill that empty space with once it’s gone.

There are a few hints, though; a few options and glimmers of hope. Sun peeking over the trees at six in the morning. The cat on the porch of the general store. A buck crossing the road. A pair of green eyes.

Louis selects every message in his Ben folder. He moves them to the trash, and then he deletes them forever, and then he presses his forehead against the steering wheel.

When he can, he reads Harry’s email.


Hiii Louis

I’m in Brooklyn in Ed’s apartment…it’s small. Picture the size of your cabin, and then picture half of that. He has a big TV though and the cat and I are watching Grease...you were a better Zuko ;)

Are you staying busy? You can use my mom’s wifi if you need it and don’t want to sit in the gas station. I think her password is gemmaharry.

I’m attaching some pictures I took. Most are of Lego the cat, but I take requests if you want to see anything else.

Keep in touch and be careful xx

- Harry

It’s not even much, but Louis reads it once and then again, smiling wider each time. Lego the cat is cute and curled up asleep on Harry’s lap in the photo he sent him, and even a fifth of his Instagram-filtered thigh underneath white fur is enough to make Louis’ head spin.

He writes back. The photo he requests is of what he eats for breakfast and lunch and dinner in one day, and for a picture of the view from Ed’s apartment. What he wants to ask for is ten pictures of Harry’s face from every angle because he still doesn’t have Facebook and he just wants to see him again for comfort reasons and because he needs to prove that the image of Harry that he has in his head can’t be accurate, even though he’s uncomfortably sure that it is.

Louis doesn’t wait to reread anything he writes, he just sends it and shuts his laptop and drives back to the cabin, trying hard not to overthink it all.

He splits some wood before he goes inside and he feels propelled by something to attack the task with even more vigor than usual, and he carries armfuls of freezing cold logs into the cabin and thinks, maybe, he’s made some progress.

--

Louis’ daily routine changes a lot over the following week. He fills pages and pages of his notebook with words everyday and fucks around on the guitar and sometimes it’s nothing more than doodles and sometimes they’re nothing more than chord progressions but it still fills up hours of his time and makes him feel productive and gives him a task, even if it’s simple.

And simplification is still his main focus, really. Stripping down and cleaning out and figuring out what’s necessary and what’s good and what’s toxic. It helps him to think of it in those terms because he hasn’t been thinking at all in the last year, of anything but himself and his own sad feelings and Ben and his job and never, ever of his own personal happiness. It didn’t occur to him that trying to make his living situation work was sucking so much out of him, that being constantly amidst memories of his shitty relationship and of his half-assed friends was making it difficult to move on in any capacity.

He goes to his Mom’s house and helps her paint the kitchen, and finds that using his hands is what makes him feel the most at ease, lately. All he really wants to do is to use her desktop to check his email because he hasn’t done it since that time in the gas station parking lot, but he doesn’t.

Louis has a feeling that allowing Harry to infiltrate his mind is an irreversible move, and he thinks he ought to wait.  It’s already started, thoughts of his hands and his laugh trickling in invasively and at inopportune times, but he resists – or he tries, at least. He isn’t sure how long or when or what he’s waiting for, but in the following week he lives with the thought of what it means to feel so strongly about someone and what it would mean if it wasn’t reciprocated. He wonders if this is what a normal crush feels like, if he can even call it that. It feels bigger. It feels weightier, but it makes him feel weightless.

There isn’t much to report, otherwise; he gets a bloody nose, he goes grocery shopping, he listens to Johnny Cash exclusively.

The most notable change finally happens one night when he takes a drive to the nearby town to see a movie. There’s cell service there, and during the previews, he gets a text.

There’s no name, just a hey you from a number he doesn’t recognize. He considers asking who it is – thinks possibly it’s even Harry, though they’ve never exchanged numbers – when it dawns on him. It is Ben’s birthday, and Ben is texting him.

Louis comes pretty close to throwing up.  He follows the glowing exit sign and stands outside of the door, reading the text again. For the first time he feels genuine anger toward Ben and he considers, for several minutes, how to respond.

His hands are shaking, and he taps out so many responses and deletes every single one of them, but eventually he just deletes it. There’s nothing for him in that exchange. There’s no closure to be had and there’s nothing he can say that he hasn’t said before and he doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction of a response, even if it is his birthday.

It’s only then that he checks his email. It’s been a week and there are sixty unread messages, and twenty three – twenty three – are from Harry Styles.

He can hear the score of the movie starting, but Louis stays with his back up against the wall outside of the theater, waiting impatiently for every message to load. At first it’s the photo he requested, and then it’s more pictures; there are some of the cat, some of Harry’s reflection in a shop window. There’s a picture of Harry smiling wide and posing with a barista in Starbucks, pointing to his nametag, which reads Louis.

There are longer e-mails, too, asking how he’s doing, apologizing for sending so many messages to him and for being “needy,” telling him he hopes he’s alright, asking him to get back to him when he can. In one he recounts a story about a time when they spent the night camping beside the creek with Stan and woke up and saw that baby black bear, and does Louis remember?

Most of the emails are a couple of days apart, but he has to know how happy it’ll make him because he doesn’t stop; his most recent one is from that morning.

Louis replies to it in a rush, his heart racing. There is so much he could say, but his fingers are too shaky to type out more than a few words.

Hey . Miss you xx

He goes back inside to watch the movie, but he doesn’t really watch it. He smiles at the screen.

--

It feels somewhat backward that the bulk of his catharsis happened in the hallway of a one-screen movie theater outside of town, but when he gets back to the cabin, Louis feels renewed.

There is sun on the snow the following morning and Louis walks over to the general store for breakfast. He pets the cat inside and he orders two eggs over medium and he sits in the same place he sat with Harry before they took that walk together.

It’s ridiculous, he thinks. It’s ridiculous that he misses him, but missing Harry is just about the best thing he can think of, and he’s glad he exists to miss, and it doesn’t scare him because he’s seen Louis at his worst and he still sent him twenty three emails and he still sent him a picture of that barista named Louis just because it would make him laugh.

What feels best, though, is that he did it himself. It wasn’t Harry who convinced him to cut Ben out of his life completely, and it wasn’t because of Harry that he did it. Louis is very aware of that because he knows how unhealthy it would be. Even if Hrary is nothing more than a friend – and Louis could deal with that, he thinks, he just wants him around in some capacity – using him as a reason to move on from Ben would label him a rebound, which is a title he doesn’t deserve.

Louis can’t just transfer all of his feelings about Ben onto someone else, and that’s not what he wants. What he wants is something fresh with Harry, something completely different from what he’s had with anyone else, and the best part is that he has it already. He’s never met anyone like him. He’s never been seen so clearly.

The weather is zero degrees Fahrenheit. Louis chops wood and, for the first time, he wonders if it’s time to leave.

--

It’s probably better that he doesn’t. Not yet.

He goes to the gas station the next day for gas and mostly to use their wi-fi, and there’s another email from Harry.

Ed’s home from tour. Can I come see you? x

There’s no other explanation. Louis writes Yes and hits send and drives back to the cabin, completely neglecting his gas tank.

--

Louis eats his breakfast the next morning with clarity of mind he hasn’t felt in years. He goes to see his mom after he eats and she holds his face in her hands and smiles at him and kisses his cheeks and tells him she’s happy he’s feeling better.

It means a lot. He never said to her, explicitly, that he was feeling lonely and smothered and stuck, but he knows it must have been difficult to see him come to her looking so terrible when he arrived almost two months ago.

By no means is the work over – he doesn’t expect to feel like his old self overnight, but he’s not really working toward becoming his old self, anyway. He is somewhat battered from the fight, and he’s been through something, and he already feels so much more confident and at ease and comfortable than he did living in Baltimore.

He keeps busy enough during the day. At his mother’s urging, he spends an hour in the crawlspace underneath the cabin to make sure one of the pipes hasn’t burst – apparently it happens every winter – and it’s when he’s on his way back up that he hears a crunch in the snow and a knock at the door.

Louis throws his gloves onto the counter and holds his breath, because if it’s not Harry he’s going to be so stupidly disappointed – but he opens it, and it’s him, and he’s smiling wide. 

“Hiii,” he says, and crushes Louis in a hug before the door’s even completely shut.

“Doing okay?” Louis asks, pulling back to sort out his beanie and to fidget with his clothes, suddenly hyperaware of himself because Harry looks and smells and feels good in front of him.  

“I’m good, yeah,” Harry says, tugging off his beanie and throwing it onto the table. “Fuck, that was a long drive.”

He looks no worse for the wear, though, and Louis can see that he’s happy. There was a nagging worry that in spite of all of his emails he wouldn’t show up or that he’d be weird when he did, but it’s obvious Louis has nothing to worry about – there’s no awkwardness, only that same inexplicable feeling he gets whenever he’s in the room. He makes his cabin feel more like home just by existing within its walls, and Louis’ latent fears die off, one by one.

The cabin feels less like his place of mourning and more like a place of renewal with Harry’s lanky frame lowering to sit on the edge of the bed. Louis tears his eyes away with some difficulty and walks toward the fridge.

“Can I get you a drink, or something?” Louis peeks his head inside without much enthusiasm because he’s pretty sure all he has is a half finished carton of orange juice.

“No, thank you,” Harry says. Louis turns around, and Harry jerks his head back, a silent beckon. “Come here.”

Louis shuts the fridge and narrows his eyebrows, a combination of skeptical and amused. “What for?”

“I want to see something.”

Louis walks over to him and folds his arms across his chest, expectant. Harry gives him a once over from his perch on the end of the bed, and it’s so blatant that Louis actually snorts. “Subtle.”

“Shh,” Harry says, a slow smile spreading across his lips. “Just a tiny bit closer.” He opens his legs and Louis gets the hint and walks in between them until his shins hit the bed.

Harry looks up at him and grasps the backs of his knees, then tugs him in until his arms are locked around Louis’ thighs. He squeezes tight and presses his forehead into Louis’ stomach and just breathes, and Louis winds his fingers into Harry’s hair like he’s done it before, but it’s only something he’s imagined a thousand times over. Harry’s fingers knead the backs of Louis’ thighs and Louis feels like he might crumple if he keeps it up, but that would be alright.

“What d’you want to see?”

Harry laughs and blinks slow, looking at Louis steadily when he opens his eyes wide again. “You,” he says, squeezing the outside of his hips. “Up close.”

His eyes flit lazily across Louis’ face in a pattern, from his eyes and down to his mouth and then back up again. He looks like he wants something, and it dawns on Louis that it’s him, it’s him he wants. Louis draws a breath and traces his thumb over Harry’s bottom lip, and his hand only shakes a little bit. He’s so happy he’s there. He’s so happy he exists.

“Harry.”

He’s not sure what he’s asking or what he’s trying to say, but Harry draws a breath at the sound of his name and falls onto his back, urging Louis to follow him down. He does, wedging a knee between Harry’s legs on the bed and folding himself over his body until they’re close enough for Louis to press his forehead against Harry’s.

He clutches Louis’ jaw and looks at him once more before he brushes their lips together, tentative, unsure if it’s right yet, but as Louis goes in for another, it becomes very, very apparent that it’s very, very right.

They’re breathless within minutes. Harry kisses him like he’s trying to tease something out of him, like he’s trying to get Louis to unfurl as they shift further back up the bed. It works, because Louis’ mind is clear when he feels Harry’s tongue alongside his and Harry’s insistent fingers pressing into his sides and around his waist. Louis explores, too, feeling for himself if Harry’s arms are as solid as they look and nipping at the vulnerable skin of his throat. There’s so much he wants from him, days’ worth of kisses and touches and questions answered, but they kiss almost leisurely because they have all the time in the world.

And that’s the beautiful thing: they’ve got nothing but time to spend on each other, and the thought sends a thrill down to Louis’ toes.

They roll onto their sides to face each other. It’s been dark for hours, but the floor lamp next to the bed is bright enough for Louis to make out Harry’s eyelashes and the punch color of his lips. Louis’ heart is racing but he just feels so fucking relaxed and at home and so content that he thinks something, surely something must go wrong.

It’s an unfounded thought that passes just as quickly as it comes because Harry starts to laugh and brushes his thumb over Louis’ cheekbone and leans in until their foreheads are pressed together.

For a moment they’re silent and Louis tries to catch his breath. There is a delightful lack of thought in his head, like he’s overdone it all over the last month and now his mind is just empty and lovely and full of Harry, who is sliding his big hand up the side of Louis’ flannel and dragging his nails lightly over his skin, making him shiver.

“I almost left last night,” Harry murmurs. “As soon as I got your email I wanted to go.”

“What stopped you?” Louis squeezes his hand around the back of his neck, watching Harry’s lips move when he speaks, trying to memorize the way they curl around the words, slow and deliberate.

“Didn’t want to seem too desperate.”

Louis snorts. “Harry, I’ve been going to the fucking gas station with my laptop.” He pauses to let Harry’s laugh envelop him before he continues. “I don’t think you’re at my level yet.”

Harry sighs and pulls Louis even closer, kissing him again with less urgency this time. It’s almost because it feels so casual that Louis’ heart races, like it’s normal, like there’s no rush because everything between them is suddenly, wonderfully limitless.

They kiss until Louis’ lips feel numb, and he’s not entirely sure who decided to shuck his shirt first, but it happens, at some point. Louis stops kissing Harry long enough to get a good look at him, to admire every inch of skin available to him and to touch over the tattoos on his collarbones and to kiss each one reverently until Harry’s skin scatters with goosebumps.

Their shoes come off next, and then their jeans, and then they’re wedged together underneath the pile of down blankets, holding tight and squeezing and laughing intermittently and purring at how good it feels to be wrapped up in each other.

Harry yawns and insists he’s not tired and Louis does the same, but Louis rolls onto his side and Harry presses his back up against his chest and they doze off like that, warm and buried under a mountain of blankets and their clothes that haven’t made their way onto the floor just yet. Louis sleeps the whole night through.

--

It’s the best way to be woken up, really.

Harry’s fingers trace a slow line down the center of Louis’ spine to the top of his boxers and then back up again, waking Louis in increments rather than all at once with a call of his name or a rough shake. It’s when he gets goosebumps that he feels Harry roll him over and he’s right there, very suddenly, his eyes bleary and clear and his hair a complete wreck. There’s sunlight on the pillow they’re sharing, and Louis smiles because it looks like Harry’s grin is the source of it.

“Hey,” Harry says, and Louis melts, utterly unprepared for his morning voice.

Harry goes in for a kiss, apparently oblivious to or unconcerned with morning breath, and Louis molds into it, wedging a leg between Harry’s thighs.

Last night felt so relaxing, like finally, almost leisurely, but this morning is…it’s still so early, but Harry grips hard at Louis’ waist and when they pull back from the kiss his eyes are wide and darker and Louis’ feels the effects of his gaze down through his toes, making them curl under the blankets.

“You look good,” Harry mumbles, tipping Louis’ chin back with his thumb so he can suck a kiss to the side of his throat. “You always look like this in the morning?”

“Mhm,” Louis counters, scratching up the back of Harry’s neck and into his curls. “I have that on my resume, actually.”

“Oh,” Harry says, like he’s just remembered something important, but he still kisses down the center of Louis’ chest, obviously not deterred. “Remind me to tell you about a thing later.”

Louis frowns and rolls onto his back at Harry’s urging, shivering when he pulls the blankets off so he can palm over his ribcage, his fingers long enough to cover almost all of it.

“Can’t you tell me now?”

“Uh-uh,” Harry shakes his head, and his curls tickle Louis’ belly just below his navel, making his stomach go taut. “I’m a little busy.”

If Harry’s finger trailing down the middle of his spine was enough to wake Louis up with a half-hard cock, he’s not entirely sure what he’s in for when Harry throws the blanket off of him and splays his fingers out across the front of his boxers, but Louis has a feeling he’s going to be wrecked in a matter of seconds.

Harry rolls down the waistband of his boxers and sighs, crouching down between Louis’ legs and angling himself so that his hot breath hits just above the cotton fabric and he presses a kiss right through it, damp and agonizing. Any inquiries Louis had about whatever Harry was going to tell him are gone completely by the time he tugs his boxers down the rest of the way and grabs hold of Louis’ cock.

Louis feels utterly on display, but the look on Harry’s face is so desirous that it’s a waste to feel self conscious on the receiving end of it. He glances at Louis, asking for a go-ahead, and all Louis can do is nod once before Harry strokes upward and he lowers his freshly licked lips around the head of his cock, and it’s at that point that Louis throws his head back and mumbles an embarrassing, too-loud, “Fuck.”

It’s so cold in the cabin but Harry’s mouth is hot over him and he’s hot, the way his broad shoulders scrunch up as he angles his head and the muscles in his forearm flex to hold down Louis’ hip with the flat of his hand.

Louis won’t last long – he can’t, it’s been forever, and Harry is good, he’s really good, on top of being hot and eager and kind and apparently very interested in making Louis the happiest person in the world. The view is better than the fucking Endless Mountains, he’d argue, the way Harry’s pink lips shine when he pulls away and licks over them, smirking lopsidedly before he goes down again, even deeper this time.

Louis tries not to, but he bucks up against Harry’s mouth, making him cough before he goes back for more, the head of Louis’ cock nudging the back of his throat until the slick tight sensation is way, way too much for Louis to bear.

“Harry,” he warns, his voice nothing more than a raspy whisper. “I’m, fuck--”

Harry looks up at him, still stroking him even when he speaks. “My mouth, yeah?”

“Jesus Christ, where did you come from?” Louis breathes, head spinning because he doesn’t understand how he is real, genuinely thinks he might still be dreaming. “Yeah, just—“  

He reaches down to touch himself but Harry laces their fingers together and uses his other hand dig into Louis’ hip, hard, pushing his ass into the bed so he can’t wriggle at all. It makes Louis powerless to anything other than Harry’s mouth fitting over his cock again and Louis is going to lose his fucking mind, Harry is going to make him explode, and he has to shut his eyes when he finally does, bucking against Harry’s hold on him and into his mouth as he comes.

There’s nothing refined about the way his thighs shake and he whines high in his throat, making noises he’s sure the walls of that cabin have never heard. It’s so intense he actually starts to laugh when Harry eventually pulls back and wipes at his mouth with his thumb and forefinger. Louis can see his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows the last of it and then gets on his hands and knees over top of Louis, who beckons him with two fingers, lying back and angling his mouth up for a kiss.

Harry licks into his mouth and lowers his body onto Louis’, and Louis reaches for his cock, pushing down his boxers so he can wrap his fingers around him. He looks down between them – he wants to see – and Harry’s hard and actually leaking already, and the thought that he was clearly getting off on getting Louis off is stupidly, inexplicably hot.

Louis starts stroking him, desperate just to see him come apart even if it’s just from his hand, and Harry mumbles an encouraging “yeah” against his lips, clearly already too close to the edge for much more than that. Louis uses Harry’s own come as lube and it’s all it takes for Harry to give way to his orgasm – he nearly collapses when he comes, spilling out across Louis’ stomach and fingers and gasping against his throat.

“Fucking hell.” Harry’s voice is even more hoarse than it was before and Louis feels like he’s to blame, but he doesn’t feel particularly guilty. He lifts his head up and blinks his puffy eyes at Louis, smirking crookedly and pressing a kiss to his lips before he presses up over him. “You’re a dream come true.”

Louis doesn’t know what to say and Harry’s honesty makes him blush, and it’s embarrassing, so he just smiles and flings his arm over his eyes, hiding his face behind his bicep. “I’m not.”

“You are,” he whines, dragging out the last word until they’re both grinning. Harry pries his arm away and kisses Louis underneath the eye and it’s all very tender, the way they look at each other, the way Louis’ smile becomes less reluctant and more endeared, and Harry brushes his thumbs over Louis’ cheeks, and they’re too close to see details but Louis is sure Harry is counting his eyelashes, or something. He’s never felt so exposed or wanted or adored.

They kiss, and it’s slow, both of them so clearly in awe of each other, of the Harry-and-Louis thing they create. It feels important, and Louis thinks it probably is.

Louis reaches for a box of tissues on the floor next to the bed and they take turns wiping off, getting bits of tissue stuck on their hands and on Louis’ belly.

“So what I was gonna tell you,” Harry begins, flicking his tissue onto the floor. “Is that Ed needs a tour manager this summer.”

Louis frowns and reaches for the duvet again, waiting for Harry to nestle down against him before he pulls it up around their shoulders. “Okay?”

“Didn’t you used to work for, like, a recording studio? Or something?”

“Well, yeah, but it’s not really…that’s not the same thing at all, really.”

Harry swallows and looks steadily at Louis, but his mouth twitches. “I sorta told him you could do it.”

“You already told him?”

“Yeah, well, I mean, we were hanging out with his agent, and he seemed pretty open to just having someone do it like, almost like an internship, and I just said you were interested, so like. I thought you could do it. And you could stay, like. With Ed. And also I’d be there.”

It takes a great deal of self control not to interrupt Harry when he says more than five words in a row, because he speaks so fucking slowly it’s almost comical, but Louis keeps his lips pressed together and waits for him to finish and lets it dawn on him, everything, what he’s asking and what it means.

There are a million reasons he should say no, but he can’t.

“Alright.”

Harry raises his eyebrows. “Alright? You’ll do it?”

“You didn’t give me much of a choice, did you?” Louis grins and Harry kisses him on the forehead and the temple.

“It’s just for the summer, you know. Kind of a freelance thing, but like, it’ll be good.”

Louis is just – he’s emotional, suddenly, thinking about how things can change just like that, how he’s changed. A year ago he wouldn’t believe anyone who told him he’d fall hard enough for someone to turn his entire life around in the span of two months. He kind of can’t believe it, even with Harry right in front of him, but the part of him that usually asks questions has given way to something else that just says fuck it.

“And in the meantime?”

“Ed’s got an extra room,” Harry offers. “Says I can stay there. We.”

Louis grins. “Us.”

“D’you want that?” Harry asks, and his face is so vulnerable, genuinely curious.

“Yeah,” Louis says. “That’s exactly what I want.”