Louis fucking hates his job.
Well, he hates his summer job, his regular job is alright. Nine months out of the year, he gets to teach teenagers about Shakespeare and Arthur Miller and Andrew Lloyd Webber, but during the summer? During the summer, he has to play babysitter to - and run interference between - twenty prepubescent demons sent to earth to make his life a living hell.
To be fair, it’s only the first day of summer camp, so the kids are still high off of school letting out. It’s also Louis’ first year teaching sea camp, though, so it’s not off to an auspicious start. He used to teach swimming at the public pool near his flat during the summer, taught it very happily for four years since he’d graduated from uni. But due to budget cuts, they had let go of nearly half the staff, and that asshole Max had seniority - a fact he hadn’t hesitated before rubbing in Louis’ face. He really should have punched him.
Deep down, he knows camp won’t be a bad gig. His flatmate is a seal trainer at the aquarium, so Louis is already friends with the other trainer, Perrie. He’s also already gotten to know one of the ticket scanners and the guy who takes care of the penguins, so at least he’ll have people to talk him down off the ledge once camp ends for the day and he has to wait for Liam to get off work. At the current moment, though, he is standing right on the edge of the cliff.
“Hannah, get your hand off of Andrew’s face, he’s asked you three times already.”
Hannah sends him a petulant glare, but she drops her hand and sits back in her seat. The kids are supposed to be drawing the crustaceans they had learned about that morning, but it looks to Louis like more marker is getting on the tables than on the paper he’d handed out. He turns to look for Eleanor, his co-counselor, and finds her hunched over one of the tables, chatting happily with a few of the campers. Of course they love her.
Louis closes his eyes and counts backwards from ten. Two more hours. In two hours, the kids’ parents will come pick them up, and he’ll be able to go hang out in the aquarium, where it’s quiet and relaxing and there are no children pulling each others’ hair and shoving crayons up their noses. Two hours. He can do this.
“On a scale of one to ten, how unprofessional would it be to quit on the first day?”
Niall slides a look at Louis from his perch behind his ticketing podium. He’s busy scanning tickets and smiling at guests, wishing them a nice visit and a wonderful afternoon, but Louis needs someone to talk to and according to the barely legible text in his inbox, Liam is busy getting the seals’ dinner ready.
“I’d say a ten, probably. Have a lovely day, sir!”
Louis huffs out a frustrated sigh.
“The kids hate me. I had to take three paracetamol after the last parent left. Look, I have marker on my arm because one of the kids wouldn’t stop drawing on the table, so when I tried to take his marker away, he decided to attack me with it.”
Louis twists his arm around so Niall can see the green scribbles all over his elbow. Niall just snorts and leans back on his stool. There’s a lull in guests coming in, so he sneaks a quick look around, then tugs a bag of salt and vinegar crisps out of the cubby inside the podium and shoves a few into his mouth.
“It was the first day,” he says around a mouthful of crisps. “Let them settle into the routine, you know? Show them who’s boss, but don’t be a twat. And don’t make anyone cry.”
“Language, Niall,” comes a voice from behind them. Niall swivels around on his stool, smiles sheepishly at one of the supervisors as he walks past.
Niall salutes the man, illegal crisp bag in hand, but instead of telling Niall off, he just raises an eyebrow and looks down at it pointedly. Niall tucks the bag back into the cubby with the open side facing him, so he can still sneak one every now and then. Louis glares at the back of Niall’s head until he turns back around.
“What were we talking about again?”
“Ugh.” Louis pushes off the wall and walks around Niall and into the aquarium, tugging irritably at the hem of his polo. He hates polos, they never fit right over his stomach. “You’re useless, I’m going to find someone who will sympathize with me.”
He barely gets a few steps into the room before Niall calls out, “Bye Louis, I love you!”
Louis waves to the guy standing behind the upstairs touch tank. He thinks his name might be Sandy, but that also might just be because he and Eleanor had let the kids watch Sponge Bob after lunch and he’s projecting. He walks over to the window to the seal tank and presses his face to the glass, trying to see into the little cave that covers the entrance to the workroom. All he can see is a bit of the hallway though, and the seals are floating lazily across the top of the water, so Liam must still be stuffing vitamins into fish gills or something in the kitchen.
Louis wrinkles his nose at the thought. He knows Liam loves his job - he certainly talks about it often enough - but in Louis’ opinion, he does not get paid enough to touch dead fish. For a while, Louis had made Liam strip off in the hallway before coming into the apartment because the smell had absorbed into his clothes, but he’s so used to it now that he doesn’t even register the smell anymore. He’s not sure that’s a good thing.
It’s nearing six o’clock in the evening, and despite the fact that it’s summer, the aquarium has emptied out considerably and it’s quiet as Louis wanders the exhibits. It’s calming, being surrounded by water like this, and the exhibits are beautiful. He passes tanks filled with all sorts of bizarre creatures - tiny, jewel colored fish, the bright lights accentuating their fuchsia and turquoise scales as they flit around rocks; jellyfish pulsating gently as they float aimlessly through the water, tentacles trailing after them like ribbons; cuttlefish that change colors, blending in like chameleons as they move across the sand.
He stands in front of the tropical reef tank for a while, a couple hundred thousand gallons of water stocked with lionfish that hover like striped pincushions, eels that burrow under rocks, mouths opening and closing menacingly as they pump water across their gills, sea turtles that flap their flippers as they glide up to the surface for air. Louis stands with his hands in his pockets, elbows locked, as schools of giant silver lookdowns dart through the water in the wake of blacktip reef sharks, giant groupers pass through at a sluggish pace, and zebra sharks settle on the sand, their long tails swishing back and forth as they rest.
A few people try to ask him questions as he wanders, but Louis knows less about the creatures in the tanks than they do, so he keeps having to apologize and explain that he’s just a counselor, not a biologist.
“Excuse me, sir, do you know why that starfish has eight legs?”
Louis turns to look at a woman who’s standing in front of a tank full of bright purple and iridescent blue fish weaving through long, branching corals in tight-knit schools, the lights flashing off their shiny scales. Sure enough, stuck to the glass right at the front of the tank is a starfish with eight legs. Louis frowns and steps closer to the tank. It appears to be moving, so it’s probably not fake. Probably.
“I’m sorry ma’am, I’m just a camp counselor, I know next to nothing about sea life.” He points to his polo, baby blue with the aquarium’s logo over his heart. “If you see anyone walking around with a green polo on, though, they’ll be able to answer your question.”
The mystery of the eight-legged starfish nags at him as he wanders the bottom floor, and it’s not until he’s reached the ramp right before the big tunnel tank that he sees one of the biologists. He’s standing behind another touch tank, a long, low basin with a wide lip. Louis walks up to the tank and peers down into the water.
It’s stocked full of neon pink and green sea anemones and multi-colored starfish, even a few sea urchins and something that looks like a crab, but has a triangular shell and looks like it’s covered in green fuzz. It’s moving very slowly across the bottom of the tank, claws waving back and forth, and Louis promptly forgets about the starfish as he watches its creepy jointed legs as it scuttles over rocks.
“Would you like to touch a sea anemone?”
Louis jerks his head up to look at the guy standing behind the tank. He’s never seen him before - would definitely have remembered his face, if he had. He’s got a riot of curls and wide green eyes, and he’s offering Louis a bright, dimpled smile that takes up nearly half of his face. In fact, all of his features seem to be just this side of too big, but on this boy, they work. He’s beautiful.
“Do you want to touch a sea anemone?”
Louis frowns down at the water. “No, I.” He looks back up. The boy is still smiling at him. “Isn’t that...dangerous?”
“Nope,” the boy chirps. “These anemones don’t sting. Their tentacles are sticky, instead, see?”
He sticks a hand in the water and strokes one long finger across the top of one of the anemones. It waves its tentacles around and wraps them around his knuckle, but he pulls free easily and holds his dripping hand up for Louis to see.
“See? No sting.”
He beams at Louis, and Louis can’t really help but smile back. He drops his gaze to look for a name tag, finds it pinned to the bottom of the guy’s shirt, right above where he’s got his polo tucked into the waistband of his khakis. He’s pretty sure that’s not where the name tag is supposed to go, but this guy’s torso is so long that his thoughts scatter when he leans a hip against the edge of the tank, cotton pulling tight over his stomach. Louis clears his throat, jerks his gaze back up to the guy’s face.
“Er, right, Harry. I suppose I’ll have a go, then, shall I?”
Harry nods encouragingly, and Louis lowers his hand, brushes his fingers across the top of the water, then yanks them back and cradles his hand against his chest. Fuck, it’s cold.
“Oh,” Harry bites his lip around a grin. “Sorry about that, I forgot to warn you. These fellows come from the North Pacific, off the coast of Alaska and Canada. The water is quite cold there.”
“Really,” Louis says sarcastically, and Harry bites his lip, the light in his eyes dimming a bit. Louis sighs and shakes his head. “Sorry, that was rude. I’ve had a shitty day, don’t mind my sarcasm. It’s my way of coping.”
“Oh,” Harry hums, sympathy laced through his tone. “What made your day so bad?”
Louis drags his fingers across the water again, offers Harry a half-smile and says, “First day of camp.”
“Ah.” Harry sticks his own hand back into the water and pokes gently at the side of one of the anemones, drags the pad of his finger down a leg of one of the starfish. “I take it the first day didn’t go well?”
Louis snorts and inches his hand closer to one of the anemones. Its tentacle span is wider than his entire hand.
“They hate me.”
“It was just the first day, I’m sure it will be better tomorrow.”
Louis sighs, watches his hand get closer and closer to the green anemone. It looks innocent enough, but he’s seen Finding Nemo.
“I hope so, I don’t think I could take another day like today.”
“Don’t worry,” Harry says confidently. “They’re just excited for the start of summer, they’ll get over it. What age group do you have?”
Louis looks back up at Harry, thinks for a moment, then says, “The eight and nine year-olds.”
Louis squints at Harry.
“What’s brilliant? They’re demonspawn.”
Harry laughs delightedly, and Louis tries not to smile, he really does, but Harry’s smile is so bright, his laughter infectious.
“Your workshop tomorrow is with me.” He looks Louis up and down, and Louis tries not to shiver. “You’re definitely not Eleanor, so you must be Louis.”
“The one and only.”
Harry looks back down at the tank, smiles again and says, “Hey, you’re doing it. Good job!”
Louis drops his gaze to where Harry is pointing and realizes that he’s got about fifty tiny tentacles wrapped around his frozen fingers.
“Fuck,” he curses, and he jerks his hand back automatically, splashes water all over the ledge of the tank and his own shirt. Harry just laughs again, then turns to pull a paper towel out of the dispenser behind him and offers it to Louis.
“I know it didn’t sting you, Louis, so what’s your excuse?”
Louis scowls down at the offending anemone.
“I wasn’t ready.”
“Right,” Harry hums, eyes sparkling in the spotlights reflecting off the surface of the water. “Well, let me know when you are ready and I’ll make sure to find you the nicest anemone in the tank.”
Louis cocks his head at Harry as he takes a step back from the pool. He knows it’s Harry’s job to be nice to everyone, but this feels a lot like flirting.
“I’ll be sure to do that, Harry.” He’s just about to turn to go, when he remembers. “Oh, hey. Why does one of the starfish in that tank with all the purple and blue fish have eight legs?”
“They’re called arms,” Harry corrects cheerfully, “or rays. And not all sea stars have five of them, it depends on the species. Five is just an average, anyway, most of them can have between four and seven. Sunflower stars can even have up to twenty-four!”
Louis shudders at the thought of something crawling around with twenty-four legs. Arms. Rays. Whatever. He can hear a group of people coming down the ramp toward the touch tank, so he takes another step back toward the tunnel.
“Right. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
“Have a lovely day,” Harry says cheerfully, and with a final wave, Louis turns around and walks away.
Louis has been thinking about the workshop all day, and now that it’s two in the afternoon and he’s leading twenty jittery children down the hall, he’s still not really sure what to expect. The back of the aquarium is a maze of white painted brick and concrete floors, exposed pipes and odd humming noises that he assumes accompany all of the equipment required to keep hundreds of tanks running. It all looks exactly the same, stark white and clinical gray and closed doors that say ‘employees only,’ and he keeps having to consult a little map he’d been given by one of the supervisors, the one Niall had called Grimmy. He had introduced himself as Nick and told Louis to enjoy the workshop, because Harry is the best. Louis is pretty sure he already knew that.
So despite all of the possibilities he had come up with while thinking about the workshop, he had not even come close to what he’s faced with when he finally turns the corner into the meeting room. He had pictured hermit crabs, starfish, maybe even some clownfish to get the kids excited over Finding Nemo. What he had certainly not been expecting was to walk into a room filled with school desks, and to find Harry sitting on the floor in the center of the room with an actual, live penguin standing between his splayed legs.
“Hi,” Harry greets him happily, hands clasped around the penguin’s barrel-shaped chest so it won’t go wandering off. Greg, the guy in charge of all of the penguins, is hovering behind Harry in case it gets agitated.
“Uh,” Louis says eloquently. “That’s a penguin.”
Not his best work.
“Correct,” Harry agrees, and he winks at Louis, then turns to address the kids. “Hi everyone, can you please take seats at the desks?”
He waits for the kids to cooperate, then pushes to his feet and lets Greg take his place on the floor. They spend the first twenty minutes on introductions, though the kids are anxious, straining for a look at the penguin behind Harry. Finally, after introducing himself, Harry takes a step to the side so everyone can see the bird and smiles at the kids.
“Alright! So, who can tell me what kind of animal this is?”
A chorus goes up from the kids, and Harry laughs, eyes twinkling and dimples winking to life. Louis wants to bury his face in his hands, Harry is so bloody cute.
“That’s right, he’s a penguin! He’s an emperor penguin, to be exact, and his name is Little Foot. Does anyone know where he came from?”
“The north pole,” one of the boys yells, and one of the girls turns to him.
“Don’t be stupid, Joseph, Santa doesn’t have penguins, he has polar bears. Little Foot came from the south pole.”
“Don’t call people stupid, Hannah,” Louis chides. “It’s not nice.”
When Louis looks up, Harry is watching him and biting his lip around a smile, eyes bright with amusement, and Louis’ stomach actually flutters. Pathetic.
“Louis is right, Hannah, it’s not nice at all to call someone stupid. You were right, though, about the south pole. That was a very good guess, Joseph, but there are actually no penguins in the Northern Hemisphere, besides for in zoos. Little Foot is actually from Antarctica, which is all the way down south, as far as you can go when you’re looking at a map.”
He spends the next half hour telling the children about how penguins protect themselves against the cold and why they have wings, even though they can’t fly. He tells them about predators and what penguins eat and how they care for their eggs, and Louis finds himself hanging on every word, learning just as much as the kids. He’s almost disappointed when Harry stops talking because he’s so lovely to listen to, with his slow, deep voice and his obvious enjoyment in teaching the kids.
“Now, you’re all going to get to touch Little Foot, but I’m going to need you to come forward one at a time, and come round the side, so he doesn’t get scared. Greg is going to hold onto him so he doesn’t move away, alright?”
Louis hangs back and lets Harry and Greg direct the children, watches everyone go up and stroke a hand down the penguin’s back and ask Harry questions with wide eyes. Harry is absolutely wonderful with them. He crouches down and pets Little Foot’s chest soothingly and answers all of the questions he’s asked with utmost sincerity, even the silly ones, like when Kara asks if Little Foot can dance for them like in Happy Feet.
After all of the kids have pet the penguin, Harry looks over at Louis, says with a smile, “Louis? Eleanor? Care to have a turn?”
Louis approaches them slowly. He’s just watched twenty nine year-olds practically run over to the bird in their enthusiasm, but it has a very long, very pointy beak and it’s nearly as tall as some of the children, and he’s just a bit nervous.
“Aww, don’t be scared of the little birdie, Louis,” Greg teases, and Louis flips him off, hand shielded by his body so the kids can’t see.
“Don’t listen to Gregory here, Louis, it took him two weeks before he got up the courage to touch one of the penguins, and he was working with them exclusively. He’s a pro now, though, and if Little Foot tries to peck you, he’ll gladly take the hit for you, I’m sure.”
Greg scowls at Harry, but Harry just grins back at him, wide and dopey and irresistible, and Louis presses his lips together around his own smile when Greg sighs in acquiescence. He walks around Harry so he’s next to the penguin and crouches down. Little Foot cocks his head so he can look down at Louis, and Louis bites his lip, shoots a wide-eyed look at Greg.
“Do I need to like, stick my hand out so he can smell me first?”
“He’s not a dog, Lou,” Greg says with a snort. Louis sticks his tongue out at him and reaches out to touch the penguin. It feels weird.
“This feels weird,” Louis announces, and Harry makes an encouraging noise as he slides his hand down the penguin’s back. Up close, Louis can see all of the tiny, individual feathers that make up Little Foot’s coat. They’re densely packed and sheened with protective oil, so that he feels slick when Louis touches him, like wet fur or neoprene.
Louis glances over at Eleanor to make sure she doesn’t needs help with the kids, and Harry coos, “Oh, look Louis, he likes you.”
When he looks back over, Little Foot has his head resting on Louis’ arm and he’s blinking up at him with beady black eyes like marbles, and Louis’ heart melts. He strokes higher, up by what he thinks might be the penguin’s neck, but is too hard to really discern because he’s so blubbery. Little Foot makes a cute little chirruping noise, anyway, so Louis thinks he must like it.
“Hey, Lou, it’s time to go.”
Louis glances back over at Eleanor and sighs, then looks back down at the penguin. “Right, pal. I’ve got to go.” Little Foot blinks up at him, head still nestled in the crook of Louis’ elbow. “I’m sure Greg will let me come say hi sometime, though, okay?”
Greg snorts, but Little Foot makes what sounds suspiciously like a clucking noise that Louis takes for approval, so Louis ignores Greg and smiles at the penguin before pushing to his feet, hand on Harry’s shoulder to steady himself. He moves back so Eleanor can have a turn petting him, then turns to face the kids.
“Alright, guys, it’s time to head back to the classroom. Line up single-file at the door.” He turns to watch them, calls out, “In front of the door, Anthony, take one step back.”
Once Eleanor’s done, they thank Harry and Greg and take the kids back to the room to clean up and wait for their parents to pick them up. The end of the day is a bit mad, children excited to go home, shouting over each other as their parents show up, and by unspoken agreement, Louis and Eleanor try their hardest to shuttle everyone out of the classroom as quickly as possible. Room finally empty, Louis slumps back against the door and heaves a sigh.
“Well, at least that went better than yesterday,” Eleanor mutters as she straightens a few of the chairs.
“It can only get easier, right?” Louis looks at Eleanor, and she laughs when she sees his hopeful expression. “You’re not exactly filling me with confidence here, Eleanor.”
“It gets easier, don’t worry, Lou. Are you staying again?”
Louis nods. “Liam drove.”
“Go on ahead, then, I’ll lock up.”
“Thanks, babe.” Louis blows her a kiss, then squeezes out the door and heads back toward the entrance to the aquarium. As per usual, Niall is sitting behind the ticket scanner. He’s in the middle of checking in a group of people, so Louis leans back against the wall and lets his eyes slide shut while he waits.
“So? Was today better?”
Louis grunts in response.
“Liar,” Niall scoffs. “I know for a fact you had a session with Harry today.”
Louis squints one eye open, says suspiciously, “How do you know that?”
Niall shrugs, the picture of innocence.
“A little bird told me.”
Excitement bubbles up in his stomach, and Louis pushes off the wall and drapes himself over the podium. The scanner is digging into his stomach, but he doesn’t care, he just reaches out to grip Niall’s shoulder and says, “Did Harry say something?”
“Wow,” Niall laughs. “Haven’t you met him like, once?”
“Niall, do you believe in love at first sight?” Louis asks, tone completely serious.
“Um.” Niall gently removes Louis’ hand from his shoulder and pushes him off the podium so he can scan tickets. “I guess?”
Louis catches a flash of green out of the corner of his eye and, distracted, turns to look behind Niall. Of course, of course Harry is stationed at the front touch tank this afternoon, green polo like a beacon. It’s a sign, Louis knows it.
Louis pats Niall’s shoulder absently as he skirts the podium and makes his way over to Harry. He’s chatting to some guests when Louis walks up, but his eyes flick over to Louis, and Louis doesn’t miss the way the corners of his mouth turn up into a secretive smile. He waits patiently for Harry to finish talking and the guests to wander off before sidling up to the tank and splaying his hands on the lip of it.
“Hi there,” Harry responds with a smile. They’re silent for a moment while Louis trails his fingers across the surface of the water - warm in this tank - and they just stare at each other. “Did you enjoy the session today?”
Louis cocks his head, pretends to think about it for a moment, then muses, “It was alright. I mean, it wasn’t a great white shark or anything... And you’re not exactly Jacques Cousteau.”
He shrugs nonchalantly, and Harry barks out a laugh, says, eyes twinkling madly in the beams of light shining down through the glass-domed ceiling, “I should hope not, Jacques Cousteau has been dead for twenty years.”
“Oh,” Louis laughs. “Right. Must have missed that memo.”
He chews on his bottom lip as he studies Harry. Harry studies him right back, eyes half-lidded and stance lazy as he leans against the wall, hands clasped behind his back. His torso is so, so long. Louis wants to run his hands all over it.
“You know,” Harry says with a glance over toward the entrance, “it might look better for both of us if you either changed into a regular shirt or stood behind the tank with me.”
Louis doesn’t have a change of clothing, so he skirts the edge of the tank, then looks out at the aquarium doubtfully.
“What if someone asks me a question? Everything I know about the ocean, I’ve learned from either Sponge Bob or Finding Nemo. Or you."
Harry giggles. Fucking giggles, and covers his mouth with his hands, and that’s it. Louis is in love.
“You work at a sea camp, Lou. Don’t you think you should know at least a little bit about the sea going into it?”
Louis scrunches up his nose and scrubs a hand through his hair.
“It’s not really... I used to be a swimming instructor during the summer? But they cut half the staff, and Liam said there was an opening here, so I just... I do teach, though? Theater. I’m a theater teacher, I know musicals and plays and how to take care of children.” He sighs, casts a mournful look down at the tank in front of him. He points at the corner, says, “That’s a starfish?”
“Sea star,” Harry corrects, and he moves in closer, so their arms are brushing. “They’re technically called sea stars, since they’re not actually fish.” Something catches Harry’s eye and he looks off toward the ramp next to the seal tank, then down at his wrist. There’s a person in a green polo walking toward them. “Oops, it’s time to switch with Sandy, he’s already here. Come on.”
Louis follows Harry out from behind the tank and down a ramp toward the lower level. He leads them through the aquarium efficiently, ducking around corners and weaving around enormous column tanks full of strange and beautiful creatures, before emerging out into a clearing with two long, low tanks flanking the pathway leading into the tunnel tank.
“Why doesn’t anyone stand by that tank,” Louis asks, pointing to the one on the right. It’s got mangroves growing out of it, and he can see the bright flash of scales as fish dart back and forth through the water.
“That one’s not a touch tank. There’s a sign that says not to touch, and I can see the tank from here to make sure no one does. Come on,” he waves Louis behind the tank on the left.
It’s quieter on the lower level, nearly deserted at this hour. Louis can hear murmurs coming from inside the tunnel, but other than that, there’s just the soft lapping of water as the powerheads disturb the surface of the tanks, pushing oxygen into them so the animals can breathe. The floor is cast in an unearthly blue glow emanating from the tunnel, wiggling white lines spidering across the concrete like lightning as the water in the enormous tank distorts the light emanating from the fixtures above it.
“It’s so peaceful down here,” Louis hums, and he can see Harry nod out of the corner of his eye.
“Sometimes it’s hard not to fall asleep.”
Louis bends at the waist so he can prop his elbows up on the lip of the tank and peer down into the water. He dips one finger in and lets it sit in the freezing water until it’s numb, tilts his head to the side so he can look up at Harry. Harry is watching him, expression unreadable.
Louis smiles and says, “So, are you going to teach me what’s in here, then?”
“Of course,” Harry murmurs, and he bends over and mimics Louis’ stance, but dips his entire hand into the pool so he can point to the different creatures. He starts with what looks like a clam, with long tendrils sticking straight out from the edge of its pink, ruffled shell. “This is a scallop.”
Louis turns to look at Harry, eyes wide.
“You mean like the kind we eat?”
Harry chuckles, says, “Close, but no. I mean, they’re...cousins? This one would be a bit small, it’s just ornamental. Very cleverly named the pink scallop,” he says with a smirk, then moves on, points to the fuzzy green crab-like thing Louis had noticed the previous day. “This is a rhinoceros crab.”
“So it is a crab. Can I touch it?”
“Sure,” Harry says, tone amused, so Louis dips his hand into the water and reaches for it slowly. The crab waves a claw menacingly, but it’s so tiny that Louis isn’t really worried. He’s not sure where his nerves have gone since yesterday, but he thinks it might have something to do with the way Harry is watching him, they way they’re pressed together from shoulder to elbow, hips bumping companionably as they shift their weight from foot to foot. Harry has such a calming presence, Louis feels like he’d be comfortable shoving his hand into a shark’s mouth, as long as Harry is there with him.
To be honest, he can’t really feel much, fingers too cold from the water, but the crab feels vaguely mossy, and Louis wrinkles his nose as he draws his hand back. “Weird.”
“Here,” Harry says, and he wraps his fingers around Louis’ wrist. His hands are huge, fingers long enough that they wrap entirely around Louis’ wrist and then some, and he is not going to think about that right now. Harry tugs his hand through the water toward a giant brown and pink starfish. “Try this one. It’s called a leather star.”
“Oh my god,” Louis giggles as he slides his fingers over the top of it. “It’s so slimy!”
“And this one...”
Harry shuffles them over a few steps so they’re at the center of the tank, lowers Louis’ hand so he’s touching a bright red starfish with long, spindly rays. It looks like it’s made of rubber, but feels like sandpaper.
“That’s a blood star,” Harry says, breath sliding over the skin of Louis’ forearm, and he shivers.
“Why’s it called that? Because of its color?”
“No,” Harry muses. “If you touch the underside, it’ll bite you and feed on your blood.”
Louis gasps and jerks his hand back so fast he splashes water in Harry’s face, and Harry bursts into laughter. Louis scowls, heart pounding in his throat, and wipes his hand deliberately on the back of Harry’s shirt.
“You’re a prick,” he declares, and Harry buries his face in the crook of his elbow, body shaking with the force of his laughter. “See if I touch another starfish,” Louis mutters as he straightens up. “I’m going to find Liam.”
“No, wait,” Harry gasps out, and he reaches out for Louis, manages to snag a belt loop and tug him back in. “I’m sorry, Lou, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. They’re just called that because they’re red, honestly.”
Louis scowls down at Harry and crosses his arms over his chest. He will not think about Harry’s finger in his belt loop, or the way the the side of his hand is resting on the curve of his bum. He will not.
“Come on, Louis,” Harry cajoles, but Louis rolls his eyes and takes a step back.
“I need to go anyway. I’ll see you tomorrow, Haz.”
He tells himself he’s not going to look back at Harry, but as he starts to round the corner, he finds himself twisting a glance over his shoulder anyway. Harry has his head ducked down as he towels off his hands, curls tumbling wildly over his ears and across his forehead, and Louis thinks he can hear him humming quietly to himself. He sighs, lets his eyes sweep the long lines of Harry’s body one last time, then continues around the corner and back toward the ramp.
To Louis’ dismay, he doesn’t see Harry again all week. Everyday after work, he goes and chats to Niall for a bit, then wanders the aquarium in search of Harry. He finds Sandy and Dan at each of the touch tanks, comes across a woman with light purple hair and a man with an astonishing number of tattoos fussing with one of the seahorse tanks, and watches Josh feed the creatures in the reef tank, decked out in his scuba gear and waving to guests as the fish swarm him in search of their dinner.
He catches Greg stumbling into the penguin enclosure with a giant tub of bubbles and some beach balls, watches, fascinated, as Greg blows the bubbles at the penguins and tosses the beach balls into the water. The penguins waddle around trying to poke the bubbles with their beaks, and Louis stands there and laughs along with a little girl with pigtail braids as the penguins shake their heads in surprise when the bubbles pop in their faces.
Louis watches Liam practice a few simple commands with the seals and sea lions for their dinner and catches sight of Nick leading a group of suit-clad men through the building on a tour, but he does not see Harry once.
By Friday afternoon, he’s grumpy.
“So,” Niall opens when Louis walks up to his podium. “You coming tonight?”
“What’s tonight,” Louis grumbles as he slumps back against the wall and glares at Dan. There’s nothing wrong with Dan, really. Dan is perfectly lovely, and he has the guests he’s chatting to laughing uproariously, but he’s not Harry.
“Didn’t Liam tell you?”
Louis drops his gaze to Niall and sighs.
“Stop being cryptic, Niall, and spit it out.”
“Jeez, who pissed in your cereal this morning,” Niall mutters, but Louis just glares at him and waits for him to tell him about tonight. “Karaoke?”
Louis wrinkles his nose. He likes singing just as much as the next person, but karaoke is so embarrassing, especially in public.
Niall blinks at him, says in an innocent tone, “Harry will be there.”
Louis ignores the way his stomach flips at the mention of Harry’s name, says as casually as he can manage, “What time?”
“How come you didn’t tell me about karaoke?”
Liam looks up from untying his trainers, brow furrowed. “What? Because in four years, you’ve never come to any of my work things when I invited you.”
“Yeah, but I work there now, too,” Louis says defensively.
Liam squints at him for a moment, then breaks into a smile. Louis doesn’t like the look of it.
“You mean you know Harry now. Who told you he’d be there? Was it Niall? I bet it was Niall.”
Louis scowls. “Hey, fuck you, I can want to go to a work function without ulterior motives.”
“It’s karaoke, Louis.”
“Will there be alcohol?”
Liam pauses, one shoe off and the other hanging off his toes, says slowly, “Yes...?”
“Then I’m in.” He turns toward his bedroom with the intention of completely gutting his closet in search of the perfect outfit. Before he’s even gotten halfway down the hall, he pauses, turns back to look at Liam. “You might want to shower first, you smell like a rubbish bin.”
It takes Louis three hours and a phone call to Niall, who hangs up on him within two minutes of answering, to decide on what to wear. Liam eyes him up and down as he walks out into the living room, eyebrows raised.
“So, just so we’re clear. This,” he waves his hand to indicate Louis’ black skinnies and the slouchy jumper that hugs his hips and drapes off his collarbones, “is not for Harry.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Louis says primly as he brushes past Liam to pull the front door open.
“We’re picking Perrie and Zayn up on the way,” Liam calls after him as Louis skips down the hall toward the stairs. Perrie works with Liam training the seals, and Zayn teaches at Louis’ school. He and Liam had introduced them at a New Years Eve party a few years ago and they had moved in together before the school year was out. They’re both so beautiful that Louis feels a bit like the ugly step-sister when he’s around the two of them together, but they’re so ridiculously sweet that he can’t bring himself to hate them even a little.
The bar is already packed by the time they get there, and the aquarium staff have commandeered one of the corners and spread themselves across two booths and three tables. Josh is wailing Aerosmith into the microphone when they walk in, and Louis shakes his head sadly. Such an unfortunate voice for such an attractive person.
He catches sight of Harry, sprawled across one of the booth benches as he talks to two of the supervisors, Nick and Leigh-Anne. He hasn’t seen Harry in three days, has certainly never seen him in anything but his aquarium uniform, so he is wholly unprepared for the way Harry’s jeans cling to what Louis can see of his legs, the smooth expanse of arm exposed by his rolled up sleeves, the hints of ink curling up over his exposed collarbones.
And then Harry throws his head back and laughs at something Nick has said, and Louis’ stomach clenches. He grabs Zayn’s arm in a deathgrip and hisses, “Please tell me I look okay.”
Zayn looks over at him, eyes wide and alarmed. He tries to prise Louis’ hand off his arm, but Louis is digging in deep. “Louis, what are you -”
Harry laughs again and Louis flinches when Zayn whips his head around. It’s clear that Louis’ line of vision leads directly to Harry, and when Zayn turns back around, the expression on his face is very, very smug.
“Please,” Louis begs, “just tell me I look good, Liam is useless and I just -”
“Relax, Lou, you look amazing.” Zayn manages to detach Louis from his arm, pats the back of his hand before dropping it. “Honestly, in those trousers? I’d fuck you.”
Louis breathes out a sigh of relief and wipes his palms on his jeans. Zayn wouldn’t lie to him, not when that is at stake. Harry sees him before he manages to take another step forward, and the smile that spreads across his face is making it hard for Louis to breathe properly. He unfolds himself from the booth, and Louis has to reach a hand out to steady himself on the back of a nearby chair.
Harry’s legs are endless and Louis is pretty sure he was actually sewn into his jeans. His shirt is several sizes too big and billows around him as he walks, and he should look kind of ridiculous, dressed like that, but Louis is pretty sure he’s actually drooling at the moment, so it must be working.
Louis stares dumbly up at Harry for a second before shaking himself out of his stupor. The dim lighting is making Harry’s skin look all golden brown, eyes dark and teeth blindingly white in his wide grin.
“Hi,” he breathes, and Harry’s smile widens, head tipped to the side. It looks like an invitation, and it takes nearly all of Louis’ willpower not to bounce up onto his toes and sink his teeth into the side of Harry’s neck. He shakes his head again, says, “I promise I’m usually more well-spoken than this. I think I need alcohol.”
“Well, then you’ve come to the right place.” Harry tucks a hand into the crook of Louis’ elbow and tugs him over toward the booth. “It’s nice to see you outside of your uniform.”
He says it so matter-of-factly that Louis can’t be completely sure if he’s flirting or not. He thinks he is, with the way Harry is looking at him, heavy-lidded and bright as he skims his gaze across Louis’ collarbones, but he’s just not sure.
“Uh, yeah, you too,” Louis stammers as he watches Harry knee his way across the booth bench. The hem of his t-shirt is runched up over the waistband of his jeans, so that Louis has a clear view of his ass. “Nice jeans,” he blurts out.
Very, very nice jeans.
Louis orders a long island iced tea and sits and chats with Nick and Leigh-Anne for a while, half his mind on the press of Harry’s leg against his own. Harry is radiating warmth, and he smells like a combination of apples and laundry detergent, and Louis is not drunk enough for all of this proximity. He’s startled out of his thoughts and the conversation, though, by someone grabbing his arm. When he turns around, he’s met with a faceful of candyfloss pink hair.
“Come on, Lou, we’re singing Hey Mickey.”
Louis starts to protest, “Oh, no, I don’t think -”
But he’s cut off by cheers going up from their whole group, and then Harry’s hands are pushing at his back and Perrie is dragging him across the bench by his wrist, so Louis gives up with an enormous, put-upon sigh. Liam starts up a chant of his name as he scrambles out of the booth, and Louis glares daggers at him as he lets Perrie lead him up to the little stage, but Liam just thumbs over his shoulder toward Harry and shoots him an exaggerated wink.
Louis lets Perrie take the opening verse and tries not to look over at Harry or psych himself out. He and Perrie have been singing this song together for three years, he can do this. He makes the mistake of catching Harry’s eye right before his turn to sing, but Harry is watching him so happily, clapping along and bouncing in his seat, that Louis feels his nerves slip away and he alternates between dancing goofily with Perrie and singing directly to Harry.
By the end of the song, his cheeks ache from smiling so much, and the whole pub is on its feet clapping. Before he can get off the stage, Perrie grabs him and kisses him right on the mouth.
“I love you,” she shouts into his ear, and Louis shouts it back, then they trip off the stage and back over to their group. Liam is shaking his head and calling out something about the two of them needing new material, but Harry looks positively ecstatic as Louis approaches him, hands clasped together in front of his chest.
“That was brilliant,” he enthuses, and Louis takes an exaggerated bow.
“Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all night!” He reaches out and pokes Harry in the side. “So? What are you singing, then?”
“Oh, I haven’t decided yet.”
“No need, Harold,” Nick shouts over the sound of one of the pub’s other patrons taking the stage for Teenage Dream. “I already put you down for one.”
“What?” Harry’s eyes go wide and he looks alarmed, but Nick is just grinning wickedly at him. Leigh-Anne reassures him that she kept Nick in check, but Harry isn’t buying it, and he leans across the table to poke Nick repeatedly, trying to get him to admit to the song choice.
Louis watches them bicker and slap at each other, the sense of euphoria slowly draining from his system as he watches the way Nick looks at Harry and clutches at his hands. He doesn’t get long to think about it, though, because as soon as Teenage Dream is over, the person in charge of the microphone is calling Harry up.
Louis moves to slide out of the booth, but Harry stills him with a hand on his arm, then climbs over him. His limbs are long and gangly, and it takes a bit of maneuvering that almost involves Harry kneeing Louis in the balls and does involve Harry’s crotch in Louis’ face. By the time Harry is stumbling to his feet, Louis is all flustered, cheeks flushed and hair a bit of a mess from Harry’s hands. Nick is watching him curiously, so Louis turns around all too eagerly to watch Harry jog up onto the stage and accept the mic.
He looks a bit apprehensive, and when he sees the name of the song flash onto the lyric prompter, he glares over at Nick, expression murderous. Nick cackles, actually cackles, so Louis waits for Harry’s gaze to slide over to him and offers Harry two encouraging thumbs up.
Harry smiles gratefully at Louis, then looks back at Nick as the opening music to Livin’ on a Prayer starts up, mouths ‘I hate you,’ before turning around to face the wall. Louis is confused, until he starts tapping his foot in time with the music. He swings around just as the first verse starts, grabs the mic and dips into it like an actual fucking rockstar, and Louis is so fucked.
Harry struts across the small stage as he sings, carrying the mic stand so that he can rut up against it filthily on the chorus, eyes on Louis, and Louis is positive that his face is burning now. The song itself is a bit of a mess, because no one can sing Bon Jovi except Bon Jovi, but Harry throws himself into it, swaying his hips and smirking every time he meets Louis’ eyes, and Louis isn’t sure whether he wants to melt into the floor or march up there and snog Harry until they’re both breathless.
Probably the second option. Harry wails the last repeat of the chorus into the microphone, out of breath and painfully off-key, but he yanks the mic away from his mouth once it’s over and winks at Louis, chest heaving with exertion and a beaming smile stretched across his face, and Louis buries his face in his hands with a groan.
Definitely the second option.
The next few weeks pass in a similar vein.
Mondays are hellish, Tuesdays are wonderful, and the rest of the week is a downhill slide. Harry’s workshops are the highlight of the week for everyone involved, but especially Louis. He spends the entire hour and a half watching Harry intently, pleased to note that Harry spends nearly as much time watching him right back, and trying hard not to smile as he teaches the children about sea creatures.
The second week of camp, Harry talks about marine communities, and he brings in a reef tank on wheels complete with sea anemones and tiny little clownfish, elegant regal tangs, bright blue damselfish, and spiny looking creatures called brittle stars that wiggle across the sand like stiff-armed octopuses.
For the third lesson, he sets up a huge basin where the kids can touch sea stars and anemones, and pick up little hermit crabs that spider-walk across their palms. He brings an actual sea turtle in one week, in a big tank with blue plastic walls, and feeds her while the kids crowd around the sides. The week after that, they walk in to find an enormous, low-profile basin full of bottom-feeding sharks that feel like sandpaper when touched and undulate like snakes when they swim, kicking up little plumes of sand in their wake.
Louis falls into a routine of work, bitch to Niall, relax with Harry. He manages to find Harry most days, when he’s not working behind the scenes, and he hangs out behind the touch tanks with him until Liam is off work. Harry has taught him enough about the sea stars and scallops, chitons, crabs, and urchins that he can answer guest’s questions now, and everytime he does, he feels a little curl of pride in his chest, catches a fond little smile from Harry out of the corner of his eye that makes his cheeks heat up with pleasure. Every day they’re together, they spend the hour between the end of Louis’ shift and the end of Liam’s talking and giggling and finding every excuse to touch each other, and more often than not, Louis skips out to Liam’s car with a water-soaked polo and a painfully wide smile on his face.
As the weeks progress, Louis finds himself spending part of each weekend with Harry. They watch football games at Louis and Liam’s place, go out drinking with Niall and Zayn, or play sports in the park behind Harry’s flat, and despite the fact that Louis hates being a camp counselor and misses his regular job, he sometimes finds himself wishing summer would never end.
One of Liam’s seals is pregnant, something the aquarium is very excited about, as it will be the first pup born on the premises, and they’ve all been preparing for months now. By the last week in July, she’s nearing the end of her term, so Liam has started staying later to watch over her until whoever has the overnight shift gets in.
The first day of his extended shift, when he’d asked Louis if he minded waiting, Harry had been standing just a couple of feet away and had insisted on waiting with him. Louis had tried to convince Harry to go home, that he didn’t need to spend any more time at the aquarium than he already did, but Harry had refused, so that becomes part of the routine, as well.
After Harry has clocked out, he walks Louis through the aquarium while they wait for Liam to finish working. They stop at each tank as they wander, so that Harry can teach Louis about the creatures inside. He learns that, once they’ve matured, spiny lobsters migrate across the ocean floor in enormous groups, using the earth’s electromagnetic field as a guide; that the dense network of mangrove trees’ aerial roots form protective nursery habitats for juvenile fish, because larger predators can’t fit into the narrow spaces; and that octopuses have three hearts, two to feed each set of gills and one for the rest of the body.
It’s almost like being back in school, except that Louis loves these lessons. Having lived in landlocked cities his entire life, he’s never given all that much thought to the ocean, but with Harry as his teacher, he can’t get enough of it. Harry’s so passionate about the animals, so earnest as he tells Louis about them, that Louis can’t really help but love them as well, though most of the time, he ends up watching Harry more than whatever creature they’re talking about.
The way Harry’s mouth moves is fascinating, dimples winking in and out as he speaks. His eyes sparkle in the blue glow of the tanks, the ripple of the water reflecting on his skin and in his irises, and Louis thinks that, over the sharks and turtles and cuttlefish and jellies, Harry might be the most fascinating creature of them all.
Once they’ve walked through the entire aquarium, Harry takes Louis behind the scenes. He shows him all of the machinery that goes into keeping the tanks running - protein skimmers taller than Louis, sumps that make bizarre gurgling noises, ozone generators, and a purification system that cleans chlorides and heavy metals out of the water.
He meets Lou and Tom, who breed and take care of the seahorses and seem to have adopted Harry as their overgrown son. They hang out with Josh while he feeds the enormous loggerhead sea turtle they call Atlas, and help Greg prepare the penguins’ dinner. One night, Harry can’t take Louis through the aquarium because it’s his turn to clean to penguin enclosure, so Louis offers to help. He has time to kill, he likes the penguins, and he hasn’t been inside the tank yet, figures it can’t really be that hard, if Harry was going to do it by himself. Harry has him fill out a volunteer form and tells Liam he’ll drive Louis home after work, since it will take a couple of hours.
“This is so exciting,” Louis says as he rubs his hands together.
Harry snorts and slides him a sidelong glance. “Don’t get too excited, you don’t even know what cleaning the penguin exhibit entails.”
Louis waves a hand dismissively and watches Harry sort through the wetsuits in search of one that will fit him.
“Make sure you find one that will fit round my bum.”
Harry aims a smirk over his shoulder, rakes his eyes down Louis’ body and says, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m definitely keeping your bum in mind.”
The wetsuit is a bitch to pull on. Louis has to sit down on a bench and fight it over his feet, and by the time he’s managed to pull it up to his hips, he’s sweating and out of breath.
“Jesus fuck, it feels like I’m standing inside a vacuum. Why is it so bloody tight?”
“To create a seal,” Harry pants out as he pulls his own suit on. He’s got it up to his knees, and Louis takes the opportunity to watch him, study the broad expanse of his chest and the planes of his abs, the ink that swirls over his skin in a way that makes Louis’ mouth water.
After they’ve got the suits on, they tug on neoprene boots and Harry hands Louis a pair of squeegees, then takes a pressure washer out of the closet.
“Right,” Harry says. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Louis answers excitedly. It’s fucking hot in the wetsuit, and it’s so thick and tight that he can’t really take a full breath, but he’s about to go into the penguin enclosure. With actual penguins.
“I’m just warning you,” Harry pauses to say, “that it’s very loud and very smelly in there.”
Louis brandishes his squeegee like a sword and says, “Bring it on.”
Harry unlocks the door to the room and pushes it open, and Louis flinches back. Harry had not been lying. It sounds like several dozen car horns going off inside of a small room and smells like dead fish and rotten eggs. Louis sneaks a peek at Harry, who’s watching him apprehensively, like he thinks Louis is going to back out. Screw that, Louis thinks, and he braces himself. He grew up with four baby sisters. He can do this.
The first thing they do is herd the penguins into the water. Some of them are not too keen on the prospect, and he and Harry have to chase them across the slippery floor, squawking and giggling like idiots as they try to scare them in. He sincerely hopes that no one is watching them from inside the aquarium, because they must look absolutely mad.
Once they’ve managed to get the penguins into the water, Louis patrols the little bank while Harry pressure washes the floor, spraying a week’s worth of penguin poop and bits of fish toward a drain that he’s uncovered. It’s dreadfully dull work, and Louis can’t imagine having to do this by himself. He watches Harry slip across the floor, trying simultaneously to keep his hair out of his eyes, his balance on the slick floor, and the hose aimed at the muck. He nearly goes down a few times, and Louis has to fold his lips into his mouth to keep from laughing.
After he’s finished with the floor and some of the lower rocks the penguins like to perch on, Harry takes one of the squeegees and motions Louis into the water. Logically, Louis knows that wetsuits don’t actually keep the water out. He also knows that these penguins come from Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions, and therefore live in cold habitats. He still isn’t really prepared for the shock of jumping into the water, though.
“Fuck!” He comes up spluttering, teeth already chattering with cold. He lifts his hands to swipe his hair out of his face, surprised it hasn’t frozen yet, and lets his squeegee float away as he treads water. “Fuck fuck fuck, fuck, why didn’t you warn me?”
Harry bursts into laughter and paddles over to fetch the squeegee for him, trying not to swallow pool water as he goes.
“It’s kind of a given, Lou,” Harry giggles as he swims back over to him. “This is the penguin enclosure.”
“I know,” Louis whines as he tries to chafe some warmth into his arms through his wetsuit. “I wasn’t prepared, though, fuck, it’s fucking freezing.”
Harry grins and pats Louis’ on the shoulder, hard enough to send him back underwater, and Louis growls, wraps his arms around Harry’s legs while he’s down, and yanks him under. It’s bizarre, being underwater in the penguin tank. He completely forgets about Harry as he looks around, eyes burning with saltwater but too distracted to care. There are birds all around them, chasing each other through the water and hovering nearby, studying them through glassy black eyes.
One of them brushes up against Louis’ leg, and he jolts back up to the surface in surprise, wraps his arms around Harry without thinking and hisses, “The fuck was that?”
Harry pries his arms off and says, “It was a penguin, Louis.” He shakes his head, amusement written across his face, then hands Louis his squeegee. “Come on, the sooner we get this done, the sooner we can go home.”
The rest of cleaning involves standing on a narrow strip of metal grating that lines the glass front of the tank and swiping it clean. They start at opposite ends and work their way towards each other, but Louis keeps getting distracted by the penguins. They’re curious, and they keep swimming up to him to watch what he’s doing. He’s kind of afraid one of them is going to try and taste him with its wickedly long, pointy beak, but for the most part, they just cock their heads and stare up at him, and Louis really, really wants to cuddle one of them.
“Hey, Haz,” he calls across the room. “Which one is Little Foot?”
He hears Harry mutter something, then hears an almighty splash, and when he turns on the grate to look, Harry is spitting water out of his mouth and shoving his hair out of his eyes, treading water several feet from the window. Louis hears him mutter, “Damn,” before swimming back over to the grate and climbing up.
“You alright over there?”
Harry shakes his head so that beads of water go flying, then looks over at Louis, says, “Fine, fine. I turned around too quickly, lost my balance. Um. I can’t really tell without the code sheet, there are too many different penguins for me to have their bands memorized. We can find him after, if you’d like.”
They get back to work on the glass, then swim back over to the bank and haul themselves out onto the ground. Several of the penguins are already waddling around the floor, but they don’t pay Harry and Louis any mind as they flop around, trying to gain their footing. It’s really fucking hard, standing up when dressed in a ten millimeter wetsuit and dealing with a wet floor. Louis officially can’t feel his hands or feet, his nose feels like it’s made of rubber, and he’s pretty sure he smells horrific.
“I changed my mind, I don’t care about Little Foot, get me home. I’m going to have to shower for a week to get this smell off my body.”
Louis grabs the two squeegees and Harry takes the pressure washer, and they scramble out of the enclosure and back into the warmth of the changing room. As it turns out, taking a sopping wetsuit off is harder than getting it on. Louis yanks it down over his arms and nearly pulls his briefs off with it as he works it over his hips, but it gets stuck on his ankles and he’s too worn out to fight with it anymore.
“Haz,” he pants. “Hazza, I need help.”
Harry laughs wearily from where he’s sprawled out on the floor, arms and legs spread as he tries to catch his breath from taking his own wetsuit off. He’s a pro, Louis thinks to himself, that’s the only reason he’s managed to get it off faster. Right.
“Okay,” Harry mutters a moment later. Louis watches as he rolls onto his belly, tries desperately not to stare at his bum as he crawls across the floor on all fours. Not a visual he needs when he’s wearing only a pair of wet briefs. Harry plops down in front of Louis and braces his feet against the legs of the bench, then fists his hands in the slippery neoprene.
Louis swallows thickly and looks away from Harry. He’s got his legs spread so he can reach each side of the bench, tiny boxer-briefs riding high on his thighs, and his hair is curling madly from their saltwater dip. His cheeks are flushed with exertion, lips obscenely red from chewing on them, and his torso is covered in goosebumps, and Louis desperately wants to crawl on top of him and warm him up. With his mouth.
Instead, he braces his hands on the edge of the bench and nods at Harry. “I’m ready.”
It takes several minutes of tugging before they manage to work both of his feet free, and Harry flops back, arms spread wide, and heaves a sigh.
“Should’ve brought the towels over with me.”
“What?” Louis sits up straight and wraps his arms around himself to try and trap some heat. “There are no towels?”
“No, there are.” Harry lifts a hand and points toward the door, then drops it heavily to the floor again. “They’re all the way over there.”
Louis chews on the inside of his cheek as he contemplates the benefits of getting up to get the towels versus staying on the bench. In the end, cold wins out against jelly legs, and he stumbles over to the door and grabs two towels off the stack. He doesn’t make it back to the bench, just drops onto the floor beside Harry and hands him one of the towels before wrapping the second around himself like a cape.
His teeth are chattering, and when Harry struggles up into a sitting position, he grins goofily at Louis, then scoots closer, tugs Louis in with arms around his shoulders so that Louis has to either crawl into his lap, or end up face-first in his crotch. Louis’ actually not sure crawling into Harry’s lap is the better option here, but they’re at work, and there could be cameras. He’s also pretty sure he’s not working for the mafia, so cameras are probably unlikely, but you never know.
“You’re a champ,” Harry mutters into Louis’ hair, and Louis sighs, curls his arms around Harry’s waist and turns his face into his neck.
They sit huddled together on the floor of the changing room until they’ve regained feeling in their fingers and toes. Louis closes his eyes and rests his head on Harry’s shoulder, fingers digging into Harry’s sides as they just breathe quietly. Even though Harry is still shivering a bit, he’s radiating warmth like a furnace, and it feels heavenly on Louis’ icy skin. He can still hear the penguins honking at each other and the faint buzz of the air conditioner, but he manages to nearly fall asleep, the steadiness of Harry’s breathing and the trail of his fingers up and down the dip of Louis’ spine enough to lull him into an easy doze.
Louis feels Harry’s chest rumble with the word, and he cracks his eyes open, grunts in response.
“Lou, we should probably go. It’s nearly eight.”
“Shit,” Louis slurs, and he shuffles back off Harry’s lap, then pushes sluggishly to his feet. “I almost fell asleep there.” He reaches out, rubs a hand down Harry’s arm. “You’re very warm.”
The smile Harry gives him in response has heat curling in Louis’ belly, and he makes himself look away and walk over to his clothes before he does something rash. He doesn’t have clean pants, so he wraps the towel around his waist and tugs his wet briefs off, then steps into his trousers and pulls them up over his hips before letting the towel fall. He definitely does not let himself look when he hears Harry’s towel drop to the floor and the slide of wet cotton on skin, focuses instead on getting dressed and not on the fact that Harry is completely starkers a mere meter away.
Khakis are incredibly uncomfortable without pants on, Louis discovers as they walk through the aquarium and out to Harry’s car. “Next time I help, remind me to bring a change of pants, please.”
Harry grins at Louis as he unlocks the car and tosses his bag into the back seat.
“Not a fan of going without?”
Louis winces as he slides into the passenger seat, says, “Not in khakis, I’m not.”
They chat about random things as Harry drives to Louis’ flat - weekend plans, the next footie match, the plays Louis is considering having his kids put on for fall term. Harry slows to a stop outside Louis’ building, throws the car into park, and turns toward him in the seat.
“Thanks for helping me today. It would have taken a lot longer by myself.”
“Of course,” Louis murmurs. Harry’s hair has dried in a mess of curls, and the setting sun streaming in through the window is edging them in gold so he looks like he’s got a halo. He’s wearing a pair of skinny jeans and a vest, skin summer-tan and warm, eyes bright as he looks at Louis, and Louis has to physically restrain himself, hands clenched tight around the band of the seat belt, so he doesn’t do something stupid, like lean across the console and kiss him.
He’s reciting all of the reasons why he shouldn’t just go for it in his head, when Harry shifts forward very suddenly. Louis’ heart leaps into his throat, and he concentrates on holding himself very still as Harry leans over and presses a soft kiss against his cheek. When he speaks, his lips drag against Louis’ skin, and Louis shivers. “See you tomorrow?”
Louis swallows, the sound loud in the quiet car, and nods, waits for Harry to settle back in his seat before unbuckling his belt and climbing out of the car.
All in all, Louis feels a bit like an unpaid aquarium employee, with all of the work he does and all of the knowledge he’s amassed, but it’s fun work, and he gets to hang out with Harry while doing it.
Harry, who holds his hand while they walk through the labyrinth that is behind the scenes so he doesn’t get lost; Harry, who gave him a piggyback ride across the equipment room when one of the sumps was overflowing so he wouldn’t get his Chucks wet; Harry, who gives away kisses like it’s nothing; Harry, who always looks so bloody proud of Louis when he remembers something he’s been told about one of the creatures, or thinks to ask a clever question, or laughs at one of Harry’s god-awful jokes.
The attention Harry gives him is intoxicating. He’s gorgeous and brilliant and kind, dumb and clumsy and overly affectionate. He’s always there with his fingers sliding across the small of Louis’ back, trailing down his spine, stroking over his forearm and raising goosebumps in their wake. His eyes brighten when Louis walks up, and his dimples wink to life with loud, uncontrollable laughter when Louis says something silly for his benefit, and Louis kind of wants to keep him forever.
The first Friday in August, Jade, the education supervisor, asks Louis if he’d be willing to work a sleepover. He’s all set to say absolutely not when she tells him he gets time and a half, and Louis finds himself agreeing, despite how desperately he just wants to go home and get drunk and watch the Kardashians.
He has a couple of hours to run home, shower, and grab a change of clothes, then he has to be back at the aquarium at six to meet up with the biologist who’s staying with him and prepare for the party. It’s a small one, just eight kids, so Louis’ not too worried, and any lingering doubts he may have had vanish when he looks up from his phone as he tugs the front door to the building open and finds Harry standing in the entrance.
Surprised, Louis asks, “Are you working the party?”
Harry nods, grins at Louis and says, “I guess that means you are, as well?”
“Yeah,” Louis muses. “Funny, that.”
They take their time setting up under the tunnel tank, messing around with the fish-themed plates and shiny party streamers, and manage to set the last cup down just as Nick walks the group over.
“Hiya, lads. I’m on duty tonight, so I’ve brought you a radio in case you need anything.” He hands the walkie talkie to Harry with a wink and a grin that immediately sets Louis’ teeth on edge, then turns to tell the group to enjoy their evening and walks off.
The party goes well enough. They eat pizza and cake, and he and Harry take them to the upstairs touch tank so they can play with the hermit crabs and touch the starfish while their food digests. After they’ve washed their hands, Harry sends them off around the aquarium on an ocean-themed scavenger hunt while he and Louis wander around chatting and supervising the kids. Nick shows up halfway through the hunt and insists on walking with them. He keeps bringing up personal stories that involve Harry, and Louis knows it’s for his benefit, a way of marking his territory or something. Despite being able to see this for exactly what it is, Nick’s stories have him grinding his teeth and trying to tune them out so he won’t be tempted to say something sarcastic and rude to one of his supervisors.
Nick finally disappears once the last pair of kids has come back from the scavenger hunt, and they all settle down on the floor on the lower level to watch Finding Nemo, projected on the wall behind the downstairs touch tank. A few of the kids fall asleep halfway through the film, but the rest of them insist on finishing it. Afterward, they all crawl into the sleeping bags Louis had set up in the tunnel while the film was running and pass out, the sound of their soft snores mixing with the faint buzz of filters and the quiet lapping of water.
Louis waits until he’s sure they’re all sleeping before crawling out of his sleeping bag and dragging it over next to Harry. Despite the long day, he’s not at all tired and he likes the way the dim aquarium lights, meant to stimulate moonlight, turn the skin of Harry’s face pale, make him look like he’s glowing. He slips back into his bag and turns on his side so they’re facing each other, rests his head on his hands and whispers, “Hi.”
“Hi,” Harry murmurs, and he smiles sleepily, reaches a hand out to toy with the end of the rope bracelet Louis is wearing. “I don’t remember this.”
Louis shrugs one shoulder, whispers, “My sisters gave it to me last week, when I went home for a visit. We had a skype date last night, so I had to make sure I was wearing it. Forgot to take it off, I guess.”
“That’s sweet.” Louis watches Harry as he tugs on the frayed end. “How many sisters do you have?”
“Four. All younger.”
“Wow.” Harry looks up at Louis, eyes wide. “And you still wanted to become a teacher when you grew up?”
Louis laughs quietly, says, “What can I say? I’m a masochist.”
“Have you always wanted to be a teacher?”
Louis thinks about it for a moment, brow furrowed as he considers. A shadow falls over Harry’s face as he thinks, and when he looks up, he realizes that a stingray has settled on the glass over their heads, spiracles opening and closing as it pumps water over its gills, the halfmoon curve of its mouth like a smile.
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’ve always loved theater and kids, so I guess it was kind of a natural choice.” He studies Harry for a moment, gaze flicking back and forth between his eyes. He knows they’re green, but in the light from the tank above them, they look velvety blue. “What about you, have you always wanted to be a...touch tank specialist?”
Harry turns his face into his pillow to muffle his laugh, then groans, “I’m a biologist, Louis. Touch tank specialist is not a thing. And no, I didn’t. I grew up in a village in Cheshire, thought I was going to move here and go to culinary school or something.” At Louis’ puzzled look, Harry says, “I like baking. But I was looking for something to do with my free time my first semester at uni and found a flyer for the aquarium, looking for volunteers, and thought, why not?”
Louis smiles, slips his hand out from under his cheek so he can turn it over and tangle their fingers together. “And that was that?”
“Mostly,” Harry says with a grin. “I ended up switching my major to Biology and just...never left, I guess.”
“But you love it,” Louis says. It’s not a question, not really. He knows Harry loves his job, sees it every day in Harry’s enthusiasm and his ever-present smile, hears it in his voice when he talks to guests and to the campers.
“So much,” Harry agrees. “What about you? Are you warming up to camp?”
Louis snorts, says, “Hardly.” He shifts his gaze to watch a sand tiger shark swim up behind Harry with its mouth gaping, jagged teeth like daggers as it adjusts its trajectory to skim up over the curve of the tunnel. He remembers Harry telling him the other week that they’re docile sharks, and only swim with their mouths open to breathe easier. He turns his attention back to Harry and continues, “The rest of the time isn’t so bad, though. Turns out the ocean is pretty fascinating when you’ve got a good teacher. Who knew?”
They lie there smiling dopily at each other for a little while, hands clasped between them on the floor. They’ve only known each other for six weeks, but Harry is fascinating and smart and gorgeous, and Louis likes him so much it’s embarrassing. He’s lying on the floor, staring at Harry and thinking about how easy it would be to just lean in and kiss him, when the radio crackles and Nick’s voice comes through.
“Harold? How’s everything going down there? Need me to stop by?”
Harry flushes pink, turns the volume down and lifts the walkie talkie to his mouth so he can murmur, “No, thanks Nick, we’re good. Have a good night.”
“Right. You too, Haz, see you tomorrow.”
Harry turns the radio off and tucks it under his pillow with an embarrassed little cough. Louis frowns, something unpleasant curling in his chest that has less to do with the missed opportunity and more to do with the certainty in Nick’s voice about seeing Harry tomorrow. Tomorrow is a Saturday.
Louis says, hesitant and not entirely sure he wants to know the answer, “Are you two...?”
Harry lets out a startled laugh, then looks around to make sure he hasn’t woken any of the kids up before lying back down.
“No,” he says firmly. “Nick is a friend.” Louis doesn’t miss the way Harry’s eyes drop deliberately to his mouth before he reiterates, “Just a friend.”
Louis tries to ignore the way relief blooms in his chest and his stomach unknots at Harry’s insistent tone, but he can’t stop the smile from spreading across his face. He slides their palms together again, twines their fingers, and murmurs, “Okay.”
Harry nods, sleeping bag rustling against the carpet as he scoots a little closer so they’re only a few inches apart. Louis’ eyelids flutter when Harry swipes his thumb back and forth across the back of his hand, turns his face into the pillow to hide his smile when Harry nods and says, “Okay.”
The following Friday, Louis invites Harry, Niall, Zayn, and Perrie over for pizza, beer, and movies with him and Liam. Niall shows up with a paper bag full of hard liquor, and Perrie and Zayn bring weed and pot brownies. Liam cracks the windows open and they all get high, stuff themselves with pizza and booze, and watch most of Liam’s Disney collection.
Halfway through Monsters, Inc., Harry burrows into Louis’ side on the sofa and tips his head up so he can drag his nose along the line of Louis’ jaw. Over the past couple of months, Louis has learned that Harry is a naturally tactile person, but apparently, pot and alcohol turn him into an actual cat, because when Louis sweeps his hand down Harry’s back, he swears he hears Harry purr.
“Googly bear,” Harry murmurs against Louis’ cheek, and he giggles.
Louis lifts his hand and runs his fingers through Harry’s hair, tugs his head back so he can look down into his face. It’s dark in the room, the only light coming from the television, and bright colors are flickering across Harry’s skin and reflecting in his eyes, pupils blown wide and lips cherry red from his drink.
“You alright there, Hazza?”
Harry nods, movements jerky, so that Louis’ fingers pull at his hair, and his eyelids flutter with the tug on his scalp. Louis can feel Harry shift positions on the sofa, long legs draping over Louis’ thighs so he can scoot in closer, until Harry is practically in his lap.
“Schmoopsie,” he slurs, and then leans in and drags his teeth over the curve of Louis’ jaw. Louis gasps and tightens his fingers in Harry’s hair instinctually, doesn’t miss the little moan Harry presses into his skin as heat sparks up his spine.
No one seems to be paying them any mind, too absorbed in the flash of colors across the screen, but this is probably a bad idea. He can feel Harry’s fingers walking up his chest, the heat of Harry’s breath against his cheek, the way Harry is wiggling around like he’s trying to change position again, and Louis needs to put a stop to this. They work together, and Harry is both high and drunk, and Louis will die if he takes advantage of Harry in this state and then has to look him in the eye everyday for the rest of the summer knowing that.
“Haz,” he mutters, fits his hands around Harry’s hips to try and ease him back, but Harry won’t budge.
“Schmoopsie,” he insists, and Louis can’t really stop the stupid grin that curls his lips.
“Are you saying you’re the Cecilia in this relationship?”
“Googly bear,” Harry coos, and his eyes are so dark, lips so red as they curl around the words that Louis loses focus for a moment, and before he knows it, Harry is straddling him on the sofa and crowding in against him.
“Oh,” he breathes. He can feel the outline of Harry’s dick against his belly as Harry leans over him, hands clutching the back of the sofa for stability. Louis should probably stop him. Probably. He can’t remember why, exactly, but he knows this is a bad idea, and he’s going to remember why any minute now.
His hands are still wrapped around Harry’s hips, though he’s just clinging at this point, and his brain momentarily shuts down when Harry grinds up against him. His head falls back against the sofa, and Harry takes that as an invitation, fits his mouth over the side of his neck and starts sucking a bruise into his skin.
It’s - it’s too much, it’s overwhelming. Harry is so much bigger than him, on top of him and around him, and he smells tart like apples and sweet like pot, and he’s so, so warm. But this is a bad idea, Louis reminds himself hazily. It’s a bad idea, and he needs to put a stop to it.
It takes him a moment to work himself up to it, but he steels himself and uses his hands on Harry’s hips to push him back toward his knees. Harry looks incredibly confused when Louis opens his eyes, tongue darting out to wet his swollen lips, and Louis groans.
“Haz, we can’t.”
“Why not,” Harry asks, and he pushes his bottom lip out into a pout. Louis swallows around the lump in his throat. Harry looks a ridiculous combination of sweet, rumpled, and fucked out, and Louis wants.
He forces himself to push Harry back onto the sofa, though, says, “It’s not right, Haz. Not like this.”
Harry’s face falls, and Louis won’t give in. He won’t, no matter how tempting Harry is. He pushes to his feet and mumbles something about needing air, then slumps off toward the balcony. It’s cool out, despite the fact that it’s August, and he drapes his arms over the railing and hangs his head, closes his eyes and takes deep, calming breaths.
By the time he goes back inside, Harry is asleep, curled up in Louis’ spot on the sofa with his fists tucked under his chin. He looks oddly angelic, hair falling over his eyes, lashes casting sooty shadows over his cheekbones, his lips pulled down into a pout even in sleep, and Louis’ chest aches. He reaches down to smooth the hair back from Harry’s face, bends over to brush a kiss over his forehead, then trudges off to his room.
Louis doesn’t hear from Harry the rest of the weekend, despite having sent him several texts, and when he finishes work on Monday, he doesn’t find him behind either of the touch tanks. Perrie has taken the afternoon shift with the pregnant seal, so Liam shows up before Louis can work up the courage to go behind the scenes in search of Harry.
By the time the workshop rolls around on Tuesday, Louis is antsy, positively jittering with anticipation at seeing Harry after three days without. Disappointment blooms heavy in his belly when he leads the kids into the room to find Lou and Tom standing in the center and no Harry in sight. He holds out hope that Harry will show up before it starts, but when Lou and Tom introduce themselves and Harry doesn’t show, Louis sighs and slumps back in his seat, resigned to the fact that he won’t be seeing Harry today, either.
Wednesday and Thursday pass at a snail’s pace, and still Harry is ignoring his texts and is nowhere to be seen, and Louis is getting desperate. He feels a bit like an addict who’s run out of his drug of choice, and it’s getting ridiculous. He tries to broach the subject with Niall as subtly as possible on Friday, but Niall’s answer is noncommittal.
“Yeah, he’s around somewhere. We ate lunch together downstairs.”
Louis frowns at the double doors that lead to the back of the aquarium, willing them to open, but they don’t cooperate. He ends up hanging out with Niall the entire hour he waits for Liam, just in case Harry comes out from behind the scenes, but he never shows. Just as he’s walking across the aquarium lobby toward the parking lot to meet Liam by the car, Liam runs up to him, sweating and out of breath.
He hunches over and braces his hands on his knees, pants out, “Rosie’s in labor. Can’t go home. Can Harry take you?”
Louis doesn’t have the heart to tell Liam no, so he just nods and watches Liam jog off, back toward the door next to the toilets that leads directly to the seal exhibit.
“Shit,” he mutters. Not sure what to do now, he shoulders his way through the front door and drops onto a bench outside. It’s still light out, sun inching lower in the sky as it hits five o’clock, and it’s warm and breezy.
Louis is toying with his phone, trying to decide who to call, when the door swings open and someone strolls out, whistling quietly. The person stops before reaching the steps, though, and says, “Louis?”
Louis jerks his head up. Harry is standing, frozen, one foot dangling comically in midair. Louis ignores the sudden pounding of his heart, gives a half-hearted wave and says, “Hey, Haz.”
“What are you doing out here? Where’s Liam?”
Louis shrugs in a way that he hopes comes off as nonchalant, then mumbles, “Rosie went into labor, he has to stay.”
They’re quiet for a moment, silence stretching awkwardly between them as Louis stares at Harry, drinks him in after going a week without so much as a glimpse. He’s not in uniform anymore, jeans hugging his legs like a second skin and his t-shirt nearly sheer in the late afternoon sun so that his tattoos are just visible through the thin material. He looks amazing, and Louis wants to devour him. Finally, Harry says, voice oddly cautious, “Would you like a ride home?”
Louis hesitates. On the one hand, he’s not sure how long it takes a seal to give birth, and he’s not too keen on waiting all night. On the other, it’s pretty clear that Harry’s been avoiding him since Friday night, and he’s visibly uncomfortable with having made the offer. He doesn’t know why Harry is avoiding him, though, and he really fucking misses Harry, so he chooses awkwardness over sleeping on a bench and nods.
“Thanks,” he whispers as he follows Harry down to his car. They don’t talk as Harry pulls out of his parking spot and navigates the car park, and Louis waits until they’re halfway into the drive to breach the silence, so Harry won’t have the option of ordering him out of the car and leaving him on the side of the road. “So. Where have you been all week?”
Harry clears his throat and shrugs tightly, mutters, “Around. Behind the scenes, mostly.”
Louis turns in his seat so he’s facing Harry, seat belt pulling tight across his chest.
“They’ve never kept you back there this many days in a row.”
Harry shrugs again, face curiously blank as he keeps his eyes locked on the road. His hands are white-knuckled on the steering wheel, but his voice is deceptively casual when he says, “I like working back there.”
“You haven’t returned any of my texts.”
Harry chews on his bottom lip for a moment, then answers, “I’ve been busy.”
It’s a bullshit line, and they both know it.
Harry doesn’t answer, and Louis just stares at him, waiting for him to say something else, something that makes sense. He waits until they’re stopped at a red light, then leans across the console to grip Harry’s forearm. His arm is stiff, muscles bunched under Louis’ hand, and Louis squeezes lightly, trying to reassure him, though he’s not sure what he’s meant to be reassuring him of.
“Come on, Haz, why are you avoiding me.”
Harry slides him a look, and Louis can see that his cheeks are tinged pink. Harry wets his lips nervously, then whispers, “‘M embarrassed.”
“What?” Whatever Louis had been expecting Harry to say, that had not been it. “Why?”
Harry shrugs, hard enough that he manages to shake Louis’ hand off, and continues quietly, “Friday.”
“What about Friday,” Louis asks cautiously, needing Harry to clarify just what it is he’s embarrassed about. The look Harry gives him is heart-rending, equal parts sad and hurt, and it makes Louis’ throat ache. Harry shifts the car back into gear, expression still despondent, and Louis has to stop himself from reaching out again.
“I tried to...” Harry swallows, loud enough that Louis can hear it on the other side of the car. “And you...”
“Haz,” Louis starts, but Harry cuts him off.
“You rejected me,” he whispers, and Louis’ mouth falls open in shock. “I couldn’t just.” He flicks another glance at Louis, eyes overbright, then repeats, “I couldn’t.”
They’re only a block from Louis’ flat, so he waits until Harry has pulled up to the front, then unbuckles his seat belt and reaches out for Harry again.
“Harry.” Harry stares resolutely down at the steering wheel, hands twisting over it nervously. Louis scoots closer, until his knees are digging into the console, then says, “Schmoopsie.”
He can see the corner of Harry’s mouth hitch up, counts it as a small victory, even though Harry still won’t look at him.
“Haz, I wasn’t rejecting you.” Harry goes stiff again, shoulders locked and tense, and Louis digs his thumb in under his collarbone to try and ease his nerves a bit. “You were drunk and high, I just didn’t want you to do something you would regret.”
He watches as Harry’s mouth turns down into a frown, presses his lips together when Harry turns his head slowly to look at him.
“Why would I regret it?”
Louis shrugs. He’s still not one hundred percent clear on everything that happened Friday night, and his reasoning is a bit fuzzy, but he knows he meant well, nobly, even, and he’s trying not to let Harry’s words get his hopes up too much just yet.
“We’re mates, and we were both a bit out of our minds, and I just didn’t want. Poor decisions, you know?”
Harry sighs and rolls his eyes, and something in Louis’ chest unknots. He eases back a bit as Harry turns in his seat, hands slipping off the steering wheel.
“Lou,” Harry murmurs, and his tone is ridiculously fond. “I’m fairly sure that nothing concerning you could ever be a poor decision. Except maybe not speaking to you.” He pauses, sucks his bottom lip into his mouth, then lets it go with a pop. “I’ve been an arse.”
Louis lets himself smile now, a wide grin that makes his eyes go all squinty and his cheeks ache.
“Maybe a little bit. God,” he laughs, and he reaches out to shove Harry’s shoulder, but ends up grabbing it again instead. “I can’t believe you thought I’d rejected you. Schmoopsie,” he says, and he can’t keep the affection out of his voice, wouldn’t want to anyway. He looks Harry straight in the eye, makes sure to school his tone into something completely serious so Harry knows he isn’t playing around, then says, “I would never.”
“Yeah, oh. You idiot.” Louis shakes Harry gently with the hand still clasping his shoulder, and Harry frowns, lifts his hand to circle Louis’ wrist.
“Hey. There’s no need for name calling, now.”
They fall into silence, the only sound that of cars passing on the street, and Louis tries not to shiver at the way Harry’s thumb is stroking over the inside of his wrist. When he speaks, his voice is thick.
“Do you want to come upstairs?”
Harry scrunches his face up in contemplation, but Louis is ninety percent sure it’s just for show. Okay, ninety-five.
“That depends,” Harry muses.
A wide grin spreads across Harry’s face, and he leans in close, says, “Can I call you Googly Bear in bed?”
“Oh my god.” Louis plants a hand on Harry’s face and pushes him away. “You are the worst.”
Harry giggles into Louis’ palm, then drags his hand away and leans in again. Louis sucks in a breath at the expression on Harry’s face, eyes dark with intent. “If I come upstairs, are you going to stop me again?”
Louis shakes his head quickly, whispers, “No. Definitely no. There is pretty much a zero percent chance of that happening.”
“Good,” Harry grunts, and then his mouth is on Louis’, and Louis’ blood is pounding through his veins as he buries his fingers in Harry’s hair and drags him closer.
To Louis’ surprise, he finds himself looking forward to work on Monday. The kids are still horrendous, but instead of eating with Niall, Harry sneaks into the education department on his lunch break and makes faces at Louis in the window of his classroom door until Louis excuses himself to the restroom. They make out against the wall in the hallway until Louis’ phone buzzes in his pocket with a text from Eleanor demanding that he come back, and Louis spends the rest of the afternoon in a happy daze that not even rotten Hannah can ruin.
After work, he slips off to the aquarium. He makes himself stick to his routine of talking to Niall first, because it’s only been four hours and he can handle a few hours away from Harry. He can.
“Mate, what has gotten into you?”
“Hmm?” Louis focuses back on Niall, who’s looking at him like he’s grown a second head. “What was that?”
“You’ve been standing here for twenty minutes and you’ve barely said a word. You haven’t even complained about camp today. I was just asking how your weekend went, and you just stared off into space.” Niall squints at him. “Are you high? Have the kids driven you to recreational drug use?”
Louis laughs in surprise.
“What? No! I’m just...distracted,” he ends with a helpless grin. Niall just shakes his head slowly, like he’s not sure what to make of Louis like this.
“You are so weird. Hey, what’s -” Niall leans forward on his stool so he can drape himself over the podium and reaches for Louis. Not sure what he’s doing, Louis just frowns at him as Niall grabs hold of his shirt and drags his collar aside. “What is that?”
He presses his thumb down over a bruise, and Louis jumps and shoves him off, cheeks flushing with embarrassment.
“Nothing,” he mutters, but Niall is having none of it.
“Nu-uh, Tomlinson, tell me.” He pokes Louis in the side, still hanging off the podium. Louis stares over at the double doors in hopes that Nick or Leigh-Anne will magically appear and tell Niall off. “Who was it? Did you go out? Is it someone I know?”
Louis stares resolutely down at the floor. He and Harry hadn’t really discussed this - what to tell their friends and co-workers, or even if they were going to tell anyone. He’s saved from having to say anything, though, by Sandy calling out, “See ya Niall, Louis!”
Louis watches him walk down the ramp, twin feelings of excitement and dismay bubbling up in his stomach as he realizes that means Harry is on his way upstairs. Sure enough, Harry walks up the ramp a moment later, eyes searching the floor, and when he catches Louis’ eye, the smile he gives him is blinding. Louis’ stomach erupts with nervous butterflies, and Niall bursts into laughter. He manages to tear his eyes off of Harry in order to glare at Niall, who’s hanging over the side of the podium as he laughs.
“What,” he grumbles, and Niall look up at him, cheeks flushed a hectic red and eyes squinted nearly shut from the force of his smile.
“I should have known! Surprised it took this long, honestly, you two have been dancing around each other since you started working here. You had me blushing at karaoke your first weekend. The two least subtle people on the planet, the pair of you.”
Louis scowls and reaches out to shove Niall’s shoulder.
“Aww, Lou, I think it’s cute! Just remember, no snogging while he’s on shift, yeah?”
“Fuck off,” Louis mumbles, and he turns away and walks over to the touch tank. He gets there just as a group of people walks off, and Harry watches him approach, eyes warm and smile wide.
“Hi,” he breathes as Louis comes to a stop in front of the tank. Louis bites his lip around a smile. Harry’s hair is still a little rumpled from their makeout session during lunch - though it’s never really neat to begin with, so the tangle of curls could just be its natural state - and part of his shirt is untucked, and Louis wants to crawl across the edge of the tank and kiss him breathless.
“Hi there,” Louis says instead, hands wrapped around the lip of the tank in restraint. They stare at each other for a moment, deliberately ignoring the kissing noises Niall is making from over by the ticket scanner.
“So,” Harry starts. “I get off work in ten minutes. What are you doing tonight?”
Louis shrugs casually, reaches up to brush his fringe out of his eyes.
“I don’t know, I was thinking about going home, getting drunk, and watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Why, did you have something different in mind?”
Harry mimics Louis’ shrug, trails his fingers across the surface of the water and says, “I might have a better offer.”
“And what’s that,” Louis murmurs.
“A home-cooked meal, a king sized bed, and no flatmate to worry about?”
A grin stretches across Louis’ face, so wide his cheeks ache.
Louis removes himself from temptation by spending the last ten minutes of Harry’s shift over by the penguins. He loses track of time as he watches them crowd around Greg and Jesy, dressed in oversized anoraks and enormous wellies as they haul buckets of fish into the exhibit and start handing them out.
He jumps when someone behind him murmurs, “Boo.” When he whirls around, Harry is grinning at him, polo untucked completely and his bag strapped across his chest, car keys in hand. “Ready to go? I already told Liam you’re coming home with me.”
“Oh, yeah okay.” They start across the room, and Louis has to look down at the floor to hide his smile when he feels Harry slide their palms together and lace their fingers.
“Hey Grimmy,” Harry says cheerfully, and Louis jerks his head up to see Nick walking toward them from the seal exhibit. His eyes fall on their locked hands, and Louis feels a curl of vindictive pleasure in his gut, doesn’t bother hiding his grin when Nick drags his gaze back up to their faces.
“Have a lovely day, Mr. Grimshaw,” Louis calls, wiggling the fingers of his free hand at Nick as they pass. It’s still bright and sunny outside, warm and breezy and heavy with humidity so that Louis’ polo is sticking to his skin by the time they get to the car.
Harry’s car is a piece of shit with cracked leather seats and a broken air conditioner, but Louis slides into the passenger seat eagerly, ignoring the way the leather is burning through his trousers as he rolls the window down. Harry waits until he’s maneuvered out of the car park before reaching across the console to grab his hand again, smile unbearably sweet as he keeps his eyes locked on the road. Louis’ heart stutters in his chest and he feels a giddy smile stretch across his face as Harry lifts their clasped hands to press a kiss to the back of Louis’.
Louis still really fucking hates his job, but he likes summer and he thinks he just might love this boy.